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laus Fuchs (1911-1988), a child prodigy and one of Britain’s finest atomic scientists of the 1940s, who worked on the Manhattan Project, the secret US atomic bomb program, was a socialist all his adventurous, passionate, and intense life. 

Like his father in 1921, he joined the student branch of the German Social Democratic Party in 1930. Still, after offering his support to a candidate of the German Communist Party in the 1932 elections, he was expelled from the party and joined the Communist Party the same year. The party was to remain important throughout his life, providing him with an intellectual community of like-minded people and helping him to hide, travel and settle in highly chaotic circumstances. 

Of course, as a highly intelligent physics student, Fuchs was also very important to the party, especially since he was no stranger to demonstrations and had taken his share of beating from the Nazis in the name of freedom. However, as a community outsider and victim of bullying at school due to his father’s unpopular socialist political views, Fuchs suffered from loneliness and a lack of authentic relationships throughout his early life, which led him to first find like-minded people among young city communists and later confess his relationship with the Soviets to an undercover MI5 agent after only a few meetings.

Fuchs works under Max Born at the University of Edinburgh but is then sent to the Isle of Man

Fuchs experienced the inhumanity and cruelty of the Nazi regime first-hand and when Hitler came to power in 1933, he first moved to Berlin, where he enrolled at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics, but just four weeks later, after reading about the Reichstag on the train, he went into hiding with his communist friends. Four months later, he traveled to Paris for an anti-fascist conference, where he met his future wife, who helped him move to London, but he wouldn’t see her again until he served his time in Britain for espionage and landed at East Berlin airport in 1959.

And while Fuchs spent the last 26 years working on atomic energy in top-secret British and US government projects, collaborated with the Soviets for seven years, and then spent nine years in prison, Grete Fuchs-Keilson spent the war years in Moscow, working in the Commissariat, and returned to Soviet-ruled East Germany in 1945, where she became a prominent socialist politician and later received many life awards. One can imagine what their apocalyptic walk through desperate and destroyed Berlin must’ve felt like and what the world must’ve looked like to them after their intense experiences. 

But they were reunited and life just gave them a second chance. And although Fuchs was politically confused in his time, as entire generations have been, he deserved a second chance more than anything because his life has been a true rollercoaster ride, driven by his highly sought-after brain and unique abilities.

Fuchs came to England in the autumn of 1933 and enrolled at Bristol University as a research assistant, where he received his Ph.D. in 1937. He was subsequently offered a research position at Edinburgh University with Max Born, who was also a German refugee. Fuchs published some papers with Born and received a doctorate in natural sciences at Edinburgh University. In August 1939, just a month before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, he applied for British citizenship. 

As his application wasn’t processed before Germans became state enemies, Born obtained a document for him stating that Fuchs had been a member of the SPD and an anti-Nazi from 1930 to 1932. Nevertheless, a year later Fuchs is arrested as a German and sent first to an internment camp on the Isle of Man and then to Quebec, Canada.

Fuchs becomes a British citizen in 1942 and joins the Manhattan Project a year later

Fuchs really only wanted to work on his research and so he used the time to publish four papers with Born while Born campaigned for his release and return to England, which he succeeded in doing at Christmas 1940 when Fuchs returned to Edinburgh, but not as the same man. While in Canada, he met the German communist Hans Kahle, who put him in touch with British communists who were working as Soviet agents. When he read some of their books, his revolutionary spirit was rekindled and he decided to return to his political roots and help the great cause.

Upon returning to England, Fuchs stayed briefly with Born, and then in the summer of 1941, he accepted the offer to work on the Tube Alloys program, the British-Canadian atomic bomb research project. It was at this time that Fuchs first met with communist agents, who introduced him to his first courier, the famous agent Sonya, whom Fuchs met regularly from then on, telling her about the technology he was developing during their long walks in the English countryside.

In 1942 he was granted British citizenship, in 1943 he was transferred to Columbia University in New York to work on the Manhattan Project, and in 1944 he came to Los Alamos, New Mexico. In the US, Fuchs was contacted by agent Harry Gold who served as a courier for a number of other spies at Los Alamos. For the next five years, Fuchs passed secrets on the American atomic bomb development as well as the hydrogen bomb which helped the Soviets to develop and test their own atomic bomb one to two years earlier than if they didn’t receive the information. But Fuchs was convinced that the Soviets should know about the atomic bomb.

in 1946 he returned to England and continued his work on the British atomic bomb project as head of the physics department of the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Fuchs continued to provide the Soviets with more information about the hydrogen, plutonium, and uranium bomb until he was finally exposed in 1949.

Source: The National Archives UK

MI5 manipulated Fuchs to confess

Fuchs was eventually discovered through a breach in Soviet security, but due to the extreme secrecy of the joint British and USA VENONA project to crack Soviet secret codes that exposed Fuchs, the material couldn’t be presented in court, and the British security service MI5, having found nothing incriminating by monitoring his mail and telephone, decided to send an undercover agent to befriend Fuchs and elicit the information from him.

Undercover agent William Skardon was given an opportunity when Fuchs’ father took a job at the University of Leipzig in East Germany, posing a potential security problem for Fuchs, who’d already been asked to make a statement to the authorities. Skardon used the situation to arrange meetings with Fuchs to discuss his private life. After a few months, Skardon gained Fuchs’ trust and revealed to him that MI5 knew about his collaboration with the Soviets. Fuchs initially denied it, but only a month later he came clean.

Fuchs admitted that he’d been spying for the Soviets since 1942 and had given them important secrets about the atomic bomb project. However, he wouldn’t go into detail and his confession was considered incomplete. After a super-short trial in which he pleaded guilty to breaching the Official Secrets Act, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty of fourteen years in prison. 

Fuchs served only nine years in Wakefield Prison in England, where he allegedly befriended IRA prisoner Seamus Murphy and helped him escape. When he was allowed to return to East Germany, after 26 years, he met the woman of his life as soon as he landed at East Berlin airport. Another amazing life and career followed, which earned him the Patriot Order of Merit, the Karl Marx Order, and the National Award of the GDR. He died in East Berlin on 28 January 1988.

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