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Refugee Physicist from Nazi Germany Accused of Being a Spy for the Soviets

July 7, 1999
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A German physicist who fled to Britain in 1933 to escape the Nazis is being accused of having passed vital atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the 1940s.

Former British lawmaker Rupert Allason, who writes on intelligence affairs under the name Nigel West, based his allegations against Sir Rudolph Peierls on some 2,000 recently released Soviet messages.

The cables between Moscow and intelligence agents at its embassies and consulates in Washington, New York and London were intercepted between 1940 and 1948.

The cables are contained in the Venona file and were decoded over many years by the US National Security Agency and GCHQ, its British counterpart.

Sir Rudolph — who was born in Berlin 1907, knighted by the queen in 1968 and died in 1995 — is regarded as being one of Britian’s most eminent, and highly decorated, physicists of the century.

In 1931, he married Genia Kannegisser, a Russian student he met during a conference in the Soviet Union.

Inexplicably, he managed to secure her emigration — a formidable task in Stalinist times — and they both settled in Britain, where he was appointed professor of physics at Birmingham University.

With the equally distinguished physicist Otto Frisch, he submitted what is now regarded as a historic top-secret memorandum to the British government on the potential for developing a uranium bomb.

The evidence against Peierls is largely circumstantial, but nevertheless compelling.

According to Allason, the agents in the Venona cables — referred to as “Pers” (the Persian) and Tina — bear a striking resemblance to Peierls and his wife.

“Pers,” which Allason believes is a partial anagram for Peierls, was in the right place at the right time to leak key atomic information to the Soviets.

Allason is also suspicious of the relative ease with which Kannegisser was permitted to emigrate.

Moreover, it now emerges, the authorities were also deeply suspicious of Peierls.

After resuming his post at Birmingham University in 1945, Peierls was appointed consultant at Britain’s Atomic Energy Establishment.

But his security clearance was withdrawn in 1957 after the U.S. authorities asked their British counterparts to bar his access to secret American nuclear papers.

Peierls resigned the consultancy, but his academic career continued to flourish until his retirement in 1974, when he held the prestigious Wykeham chair in physics at Oxford University.

Former colleagues and descendants of Peierls are defending his reputation. His daughter, Jo Hookway, points out that in 1979 her father had won an out-of- court libel settlement against writer Richard Deacon, who suggested he might have worked for the Soviets.

Hans Berthe, a 93-year-old Nobel laureate and emeritus professor at Cornell University in New York, insists that “being a spy was completely out of character” for Peierls.

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