Hitler, Stalin, and Mr. Jones

July 8, 2012

By Jim Treadway 

George Carey brought his Storyville documentary Hitler, Stalin and Mr. Jones to the Frontline Club on Friday night, exploring the life and tragic murder of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (1905-1935).

Jones grew up in Barry, south Wales, attended Cambridge University on a scholarship, became fluent in Russian and German, and showed a flair for networking into circles of power.

In early 1933, he found himself invited to fly with Hitler and Goebbels across Germany. Carey’s narration:

"Gareth’s diary that day makes for real reading:  ‘The Leader is coming […]  out steps a very ordinary looking man […]  surprised me by his smile: quite intelligent, natural.’"

In mid-air Jones jotted:

"If this aeroplane should crash, the whole history of Germany would change."

But it was Jones’ reporting from the USSR that defined his legacy, and which may have resulted in his death.

Stalin had launched his First Five Year Plan, breaking the back of the Soviet peasantry by enforcing collective farms that required all grain to be given to the State.  Massive famine resulted, but few in the West were aware of such events.

Jones sidestepped Soviet officials, wandering into the Ukrainian countryside himself.  In his diary he noted:  

"Everyone with whom I’ve talked, they all have the same story:  ‘there’s no bread.’"

Upon returning, he issued a press release detailing grisly experiences, of bloated stomachs, lying officials, and death on a scale of millions. His writing fell on deaf ears.  

In the midst of the Great Depression, Communism and Fascism competed with war-weary democracies to provide the most compelling vision of the future.  Many Western intellectuals sided with Communism, and Jones’ report threatened to shatter their dream.

Foreign correspondents at The New York Times and other outlets published denials of Jones’ accounts, thus preserving their ties to Moscow.  The Kremlin banned Jones and wrote scathingly to his major benefactor, former UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had launched Jones’ career but then promptly cut ties.

Two years later, Jones was captured and killed by bandits while reporting in Inner Mongolia.  Carey’s film hints that a German double-agent for the Kremlin had befriended and subsequently betrayed Jones.

After Jones’ death, Lloyd George remembered his former protegé:

"I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many.  Nothing escaped his observation […]  he had an almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered."

George’s words haunt in relief against the memory of Jones’ death shared by his niece in the film, and of a letter Jones had written his mother years before.  Jones wrote:

"I should consider myself a flabby little coward if ever I gave up the chance of a good, interesting career, for the mere thought of safety."

Yet his niece remembered the family reacting to the news of Jones’ killing:

"We were all miserable.  It was such a sad thing to have happened.  I don’t suppose that any of us could have expressed how we felt, really and truly.  We were just devastated."