Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba’s Critique – A Notorious Cold War Tragedy | Biography books

The case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the young American Jewish couple executed in June 1953 at the height of the Cold War for allegedly passing on atomic secrets to the Russians, has weighed heavily on American political and cultural consciousness for 70 years. They were the first civilians to be charged and put to death for conspiring to commit peacetime espionage, and the case has long been tried, including by many on the political right, such as the ugliest mistake of the United States during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, fiction has enriched the game with the eerie truths and metaphors of the stories swirling around this “stubbornly mundane” couple. Sylvia Plath The bell famous opens with the line: “It was a weird, sweltering summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs …” But it’s EL Doctorow’s The book of Daniel, published in 1971, told from the perspective of the intelligent and restless eldest son of the slain couple (the Isaacsons in the novel) which remains the most inventive evocation of political meanings and deeper human consequences in history. Anne Sebba was introduced to tragedy by the “highly fictionalized but hopelessly dramatic version of events” of Doctorow, a “paperback paperback book” she devoured as a young mother living in New York City. the 1970s. She became fascinated by “what can happen when fear, a powerful and blunt weapon in the hands of authority, turns into hysteria and justice is willfully ignored”.

The case continues to polarize opinion to this day, and reading this book it is all too easy to see why. There are striking similarities between the poisonous atmosphere of the Cold War and that of contemporary politics, and in particular Trump’s America: official lies, raw misogyny, stalking the radical left and racial and ethnic minorities. , the contempt and twist of the judicial process, the cowardice of so many moderate mainstream politicians. (Neither Truman nor Eisenhower found the courage to challenge the press and public hysteria around the case and commute the death sentences of the Rosenbergs.) The case is littered with reprehensible figures, from J Edgar Hoover to Roy Cohn, who at 23 was the junior attorney on the prosecution team, becoming chief attorney at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and later attorney and general fixer for young Donald Trump. Cohn, who died in 1986, is now widely vilified as a corrupt tyrant, a man who, despite being gay and Jewish, has persecuted both gays and Jews throughout his career. During a first crisis of his presidency, Trump reportedly yelled, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

At the time of the case, many believed that both Rosenbergs were innocent of all the charges against them. Then, the publication in 1995 of decoded transcripts of messages between Soviet healers and their American recruits – Project Venona – confirmed that Julius, an engineer in an army strategic laboratory, had passed on secrets during the war, although arguments still rage on the importance of the material. he got it for the Russians. The case against Ethel remains, in Sebba’s words, “ambiguous”. Venona did not provide any conclusive evidence that she worked for the KGB; she did not have a code name, for example, although, as Sebba acknowledges, she may have known aspects of her husband’s work and approved of his motives. Nor is it a capital crime in a democracy where action alone is legally punishable and freedom of thought is protected. Instead, Ethel was mainly convicted on the false testimony of her younger brother David Greenglass, a spy working in Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was made, who spared the death penalty by going after his sister. and his brother-in-law. Greenglass, who served nine and a half years while his wife was never charged, later confessed he lied at trial when he said he saw his sister typing up secret information for Julius to pass on . In 2016, the Rosenbergs’ middle-aged sons – to no avail – asked incumbent President Obama to exonerate their mother.

Those who choose to judge this biography as the product of a writer who indulged in totalitarianism or espionage fail to capture its true heart. Sebba clearly expresses his own distaste for communism, and his explicit mission is human rather than political: it is to “extrapolate” Ethel the woman of all notorious and sordid history. In doing so, she brings us a woman, much like the heroine of Plath, suffocated by the “madness that incarcerated so many women in different ways in the early 1950s.”

Ethel Greenglass was born in 1915, the only daughter of a poor Jewish family on the Lower East Side. Her mother, Tessie, was “a bitter woman with such affection for the boys of the family,” and her father too weak in character to defend his intelligent and artistic daughter. The determined young Ethel did well in school despite many obstacles – at age 13, she was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) – and resolutely developed her passion for singing and opera theater . Working as a clerk in a shipping company, a still shy young Ethel led a 1935 strike against poor wages and working conditions, and became increasingly drawn to the small but growing world of American Communism. . His politics deepened after meeting the handsome young Julius Rosenberg, three years his junior, with whom there was an immediate and powerful sexual bond.

President Eisenhower’s Rosenberg Family Appeal for Clemency, 1953. Photograph: Hank Walker / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Communism was a whole social and ideological world to its adherents, but Sebba usefully reminds us of how official U.S. attitudes toward the Soviet Union fluctuated considerably over a relatively short period of time. Violated for the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939-1941, Stalin’s Russia was adopted as a heroic and sacrificial partner from 1941 to 1945, only to make the United States become paranoid about the possibility of the Soviet Union expanding its own atomic weapons, especially after the start of the Korean War in 1950. It was the political context that led to the Rosenberg case hysteria.

Ethel’s real concerns during the war years were not political but personal. Motherhood has triggered a parallel and intense psychic life in her. She dreamed of being a good mother to her sons – Michael, born in 1943, and Robbie, born in 1947 – enrolling in parenting classes at the avant-garde New School in New York. Still seriously strapped for cash, the couple reunited enough for Ethel to see a child psychotherapist and then a psychiatrist, Saul Miller, who visited her in prison, and with whom she fell in deep love and hopelessly addicted. Until the last weeks of her life, Ethel struggled to internally free herself from the consequences of the corrosive neglect of her biological family and to uphold a sense of her own intrinsic human worth.

Ethel’s backstory makes her apparent strength in the face of intense official and public pressure all the more striking. The Rosenbergs’ trial in 1950 for conspiracy to commit acts of espionage was a travesty of justice. The judge colluded with a malicious prosecution to portray her as a “full partner” in acts of espionage and to undermine her legitimate use of the Fifth Amendment. She refused to inform about her husband or to renounce his political beliefs. It didn’t help either, Sebba observes, that she remained impassive and shabby dressed throughout the trial.

After their conviction, public pressure increased to commute the Rosenbergs’ death sentences, but this was not enough to save them. While Julius retained a naive belief in official mercy until the end, Ethel was convinced that they would die and worked to protect her children as much as she could in the face of their parents’ impending and terrible fate. Her last letters to her children and the accounts of others about their last visits to prison are heartbreaking. “Showing her sons dignity, confidence and courage in the face of adversity was Ethel’s mantra and the source of what little strength she retained in the end.”

Sebba has dug deep into this famous and archetypically masculine story of espionage, weapons and international tensions to give us an intelligent, sensitive and absorbing account of the short and tragic life of a woman made remarkable by the circumstances. Betrayed by so many people in her own life – from her mother, to her brother, to her country – the most important thing was that she remained true to the things she believed in and to the people she loved, whoever they were. the results. Clinging to this fateful path, she emerges as a stubbornly courageous figure, a woman who dominates the parade of morally dirty, selfish and misogynistic figures who conspired to destroy her.

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£ 20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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