The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Context


The Cold War

After the end of World War II, two superpowers emerged that dominated world politics for almost the next 50 years—the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States. The rivalry between these two powers came to be called the Cold War because direct armed conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States never took place. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States each viewed its respective ideology, or system of ideas, as being superior and believed it needed to prevent its rival from achieving world domination. In addition, the Soviet Union and the United States each had allies that supported them. The allies of the Soviet Union were called the Eastern bloc and included most of the countries in eastern Europe, including East Germany. The allies of the United States were called the Western bloc and included most of the countries in western Europe, including the United Kingdom and West Germany.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union gradually increased, as each side stockpiled nuclear weapons. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold takes place in the early 1960s, when tension between the Western bloc and Eastern bloc reached its apex. In an attempt to gain an advantage, each side used espionage, or the practice of spying, to gather classified information about their opponent. In this regard, the United Kingdom proved to be an invaluable ally to the United States because of its closer proximity to the Eastern bloc.

Indeed, some view this rivalry as continuing from the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with World War II being only an interruption. The standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union may be said to have its roots in the Russian Revolution that began in 1917. During this revolution, a communist regime gained control of Russia and the surrounding region and later established a nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union.

The United States and its allies felt threatened by these actions of the Soviet Union. During World War II, the United States and the United Kingdom formed an uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union with the goal of defeating a common enemy, namely fascist Germany and its allies. However, after the end of the war in 1945, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union resumed and escalated. The Soviet Union established the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, a political, military, and ideological barrier that separated the eastern bloc communist nations from the western bloc democratic ones. The United States and the Soviet Union positioned themselves as opponents, with the development of nuclear weapons raising the stakes on both sides.

By the 1970s, however, tensions had begun to ease between the United States and the Soviet Union, and both countries reached an agreement to limit their nuclear weapons. By the 1980s the Soviet Union and other countries in the Eastern bloc experienced a collapse of autocratic regimes due to popular uprisings, and the Cold War grew increasingly obsolete. The Soviet Union fell in 1991, effectively putting an end to the Cold War.

The Berlin Wall

After World War II, the four big Allied powers, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four zones, with each nation controlling a zone. The Soviet Union soon began to set up communist governments in the Eastern European countries it invaded during World War II, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the eastern zone of Germany. Hostility and distrust grew between the democratic allies and the communist Soviet Union. The eastern zone of Germany developed into the communist nation of East Germany in 1949, supported by the Soviets as a barrier against the west. The western zones united to form the democratic nation of West Germany. Berlin (itself located in East Germany and totally surrounded by it) was divided into democratic West Berlin, where the Americans, French, and British had a strong presence, and communist East Berlin, dominated by the Soviets.

As part of their plans for conquest and control, the Soviets created trade and communication barriers that came to be part of the Iron Curtain between the communist-controlled countries in Eastern Europe and the democratic countries in Western Europe. These barriers served to further divide East Berlin from West Berlin. However, the government of East Germany witnessed that great numbers of its citizens were crossing from East Berlin into West Berlin in search of better lives. In fact, from 1949 to 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans escaped to West Germany. If this trend continued, the economy of East Germany would collapse. To solve the problem, the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961, an up-to-15-foot-high barrier to divide East from West Berlin. The wall was 28 miles long and ran throughout the city. It was topped first by barbed wire and later by a smooth surface that reveals footprints and guarded by soldiers, guard dogs, electric alarms, and land mines. Even so, during the 30 years of the wall's existence, about 5,000 East Germans were able to cross it to West Berlin. Another 5,000 who attempted the crossing were captured and at least 139 were killed. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré describes the Berlin Wall in some detail in the last two chapters. Also, the author vividly conveys the danger involved in attempting to cross this wall, even with inside help.

In 1989 many communist governments in Eastern Europe experienced a collapse of autocratic regimes due to popular uprisings, including the East Germans. As a result, the government opened its borders with West Germany in 1990, which eventually allowed for East Germans to pass through the Berlin Wall and into West Berlin. A few sections remain as memorials to be seen by tourists and others.

MI6, the KGB, and the Stasi

The Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 is a British government agency that gathers information or intelligence about other nations. The initials MI stand for military intelligence and the number 6 refers to a section of the British War Office. During World War II, MI6 managed espionage operations in Europe and parts of Asia. During the Cold War, MI6 agents infiltrated the Soviet Union, where they gathered vital information. Also, MI6 convinced some Soviet officials to secretly act as their agents. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the main character, Alec Leamas, is a spy who works for MI6, which is referred to in the novel as the Circus.

During the Cold War as MI6 conducted their covert operations, the Soviet Union and East Germany had their own spy organizations called respectively the KGB and the Stasi. Their goals were similar to those of MI6, namely to gather information about other nations, especially those they considered enemies. Like MI6, the KGB and the Stasi used double agents, or spies that supposedly served one side but really were giving information to the other. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré refers to the Stasi as the Abteilung, a German term for "department." The characters Mundt and Fiedler work for this agency. MI6 agents became involved in a deadly metaphorical chess game with agents from both the KGB and the Stasi as each side tried to outmaneuver the other to obtain helpful classified information.

Literary Legacy

At the time of its publication in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was heralded by critics as the antidote to the genre of fantasy spy fiction, epitomized by Ian Fleming's famous and glamorous James Bond with his fancy spy gadgets, exotic locales, and endless parade of women. Critics viewed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as being more realistic and making a strong commentary on Cold War politics. Indeed, some critics assumed le Carré used his experiences as a spy for the novel. The author, though, takes exception to this view. He does not see The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as an authentic spy novel based on events that actually happened. Instead, using his experiences with the British Foreign Service in Germany during the Cold War, le Carré says he created a credible story—a story that could have happened but didn't. Today, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold remains highly regarded as a literary thriller. The critic David Cranner states that the shocking end of the novel will "stick with you like no other spy novel you'll ever read." In 2010 Time magazine listed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels written since 1923.
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