John Barnes, Historian


Nick Bethell was a long-serving and influential Member of the European Parliament and a freelance historian of considerable distinction. But he will be remembered principally for his passionate belief in human rights and for the campaigns he waged on behalf of dissidents everywhere, but chiefly in the Soviet Union. A brilliant linguist, fluent in both Russian and Polish, he made many journeys to Communist Russia, often it is believed at some personal risk, and made friends with the leading dissidents, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Alexander Ginsburg. He interviewed them and campaigned for the release of those in prison. He was credited with the release of Sakharov from internal exile in 1986. A year earlier he had played a major part in creating the Sakharov Prize, which is awarded annually by the European Parliament.

Bethell was to translate several of their works, including Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1968) and The Love Girl and the Innocent (1969). The first of these publications led to a blazing row with the author.

A Czech dissident, Pavel Licko, had passed the manuscript of Cancer Ward to Bethell, and after vain efforts to contact Solzhenitsyn, he collaborated in the translation that was published by Bodley Head. After he left the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn insisted that Licko was a Soviet stooge and that he had no right to do what he did. The affair almost reached the courts, but was only to surface in public when Solzhenitsyn renewed the attack in his memoirs. Bethell hit back hard, insisting that Licko, who had died a year earlier, was being unfairly maligned and that Solzhenitsyn had subsequently ratified the agreement with Bodley Head and benefited from the royalties. He was particularly wounded by the unfairness of the attack on a dead man, and irritated by Solzhenitsyn’s quite unjustified attack on the quality of the translation. Bethell ruefully concluded that Solzhenitsyn was “a stubborn, ruthless man who has never been grateful to those who have tried to help him.” Later in his memoir Spies and Other Secrets (1994) he recounted the consequences for his own political career, a veto on his nomination for the European Parliament on the advice of MI5 and MI6, while at the same time he was under attack in the Czech press as an agent of MI6. “It was a sad state to be in”, he wrote, “accused by both sides in the Cold War of working for the secret intelligence of the other.” However, a change in the leadership of the Conservative party repaired his political fortunes.

Bethell was a fine wordsmith. He published several historical works and at least three have lasting value. Perhaps the most notable was The Last Secret: forcible repatriation to Russia 1944-7 (1974), which opened up the study of what to many people remains a lasting stain on Britain’s war record, the forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union of those Russians who had fought with the German army. Amongst them were many who had never been Soviet citizens and Bethell concluded that this must have been a deliberate decision. Subsequent controversy has centred on the elaboration of that charge by Count Tolstoy and its rebuttal by the Cowgill report, but it is notable that the bulk of Bethell’s findings have stood the test of time and subsequent research..

The Palestine Triangle- the struggle between the British, the Jews and the Arabs 1935-48 (1979) remains a considerable contribution to the study of the history and politics of the Middle East, while Betrayed (1984), which dealt with Anglo-American efforts to extract Albania from the Soviet sphere, provided a fascinating insight into the activities of MI5 and the results of Kim Philby’s betrayal of them. It is possible to think that he exaggerated Philby’s role in this major intelligence fiasco, while still appreciating the importance of his study.

Nicholas William Bethell was born on 19 July 1938, the son of the Hon. William Bethell, the third son of the first Lord Bethell, and his wife Ann. He was educated at Harrow and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He had learnt Russian during National Service and at Cambridge read Oriental Languages. He mastered Arabic and Persian and was subsequently to marry the daughter of a distinguished Arabist, Professor Honeyman of St Andrews. However, it was his friendship with Polish undergraduates at Cambridge that largely determined his later life. On leaving Cambridge, he spent two years writing for the Times Literary Supplement and in 1964 joined the BBC’s radio drama department as a script editor specialising in east European drama. His earliest translations were SixPlays by Slawomir Mrosek and Brodsky’s Elegy to John Donne and other Poems (1967). He left the BBC in 1967.

Bethell succeeded his cousin as the fourth Baron in December 1967 and took the Conservative whip. He was immediately preoccupied with the Czechoslovak crisis, blaming the Soviet invasion on their fear that “the germ of freedom” would spread across the Soviet bloc. Briefly he was a whip himself in the Heath Government but stood down in 1971 to fight a libel action against Private Eye. Auberon Waugh had suggested that the unauthorised publication of Cancer Ward had been done deliberately to make it possible for Solzhenitsyn to be prosecuted and that Bethell was a KGB agent. Bethell won but was not recalled to government. The Government minister in charge of security accepted that he was a security risk, although believing him only an inadvertent agent of the KGB. Subsequently Heath vetoed his inclusion on the list of Conservatives nominated to the European Parliament and refused to meet him when Bethell sought to clear his name. In fact he was staunchly anti Communist and was subsequently identified by some on the left as a member of the intelligence services. A strong supporter of British membership of the European Economic Community, he was nominated to the European Parliament in 1975 and when the first direct elections took place he was elected MEP for London North-West, holding that seat until he was defeated in 1994. After five year’s absence he returned to Strasbourg as one of London’s MEPs in 1999, but was finally compelled by his increasing ill health to stand down in September 2003.

He had played a major part in securing entry by the Conservative group into the European Peoples Party grouping and had written a short but convincing philosophic study of the moral basis of Conservatism and the values it shared with Christian Democracy. His first major campaign was for lower air fares in Europe and he used both the European Court of Justice and the British Courts in pursuit of “Freedom of the Skies” and consumer choice in the air. Low cost air carriers owe much to Nick’s pioneering work.

But the campaigns for which he will be most remembered were for human rights, at first in the Soviet Union, but the more widely. When Bethell was awarded the Schuman medal in October 2003, Hans-Gert Poettering, the Chairman of the EPP-ED Group, said: “this was extraordinary work. Nicholas kept a flame burning at a time when the future seemed dark for so many. He opened our Parliament to their suffering – and he gave them hope through us.” One of the most significant moments in his life was when, on his initiative, Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, was awarded the Schuman medal, he was there to see her receive it. He had visted Mandela in prison in 1985 and became his friend . Latterly he campaigned against human rights abuse in the new Russia, in China and in Hong Kong.

But these were not his only campaigns. He had put down an amendment in the Lords to give Gibraltarians the vote in European elections in 1998. That move was defeated by a coalition of Labour and liberal Democratic peers. But when the issue was taken to the ECJ, the Court ruled in favour of the Gibraltarian cause and the Blair Government was forced to legislate to give them a vote in a British Euro-constituency in time for the 2004 elections. Bethell chaired the Friends of Cyprus and worked to promote an internal settlement within the island and to secure Cyprus’s entry to the EU.

In 1995 he first noticed the symptoms of Parkinsons, but took them to be a nervous reaction to his defeat in 1994 and his need to find employment. Once the illness was diagnosed, it was brought under control with drugs and Bethell did not let it affect his activities in the House of Lords and in the European Parliament, once he had secured re-election to the latter body. But even his courage was not proof against the debilitating course of the disease when it progressed after a lengthy period in which his condition was stable. Throughout he was supported by his wife, Bryony, who had always played a key part in his political career.

In addition to the books listed above, Bethell completed a translation of Chingiz Aitmatov’s Ascent of Mount Fuji in 1975. His first historical wok, published in 1969, had been a biography of Gomulka, He had then completed an account of the The War Hitler Won, September 1939 (1972) and he also published Russia Besieged (1977).

Bethell was a congenial companion, a member of the Garrick and Pratts and he listed the playing of poker amongst his hobbies. Hugely talented, he made rather more difference during his life than many who achieved greater fame, and he will long be remembered by all who knew him.