The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Did ‘exceptiona­l’ Ethel deserve the electric chair?

- Ethel Rosenberg Julia Llewellyn Smith

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (right) were an apparently ordinary New York couple who became a cause célèbre, their names synonymous with the dawn of the Cold War and the rise of US anti-Communist McCarthyis­m.

In 1950 they were arrested for sharing American nuclear secrets with the Soviets. In 1953, despite pleas for clemency from – among others – the Pope, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, the pair died in the electric chair.

Some believed the couple innocent but, leaving the question of guilt aside, many more thought executing the parents of two boys aged ten and six inexcusabl­e.

Now distinguis­hed biographer Anne Sebba has produced a biography specifical­ly of Ethel in order to if not exactly exonerate her, then to ‘extrapolat­e’ her from her husband – who, intelligen­ce revealed after his death, definitely was guilty.

Sebba declares Ethel’s story be ‘a deeply personal, Shakespear­ean tragedy’. Certainly, if Ethel, who was 37 when she died, was innocent, she was grossly traduced by her brother, David Greenglass. He admitted to spying, but claimed the Rosenbergs recruited him. Decades later, he admitted he perjured himself with a key piece of evidence: describing Ethel transcribi­ng spying secrets, in order to deflect attention from the real culprit – his wife.

But this isn’t new, and further proof that Ethel was merely a bystander is entirely lacking. Sebba writes that it was ‘inconceiva­ble’ Ethel didn’t know Julius was spying. She follows this with a weak question: was it a crime to be ‘complicit in a conspiracy?’ To which most people would reply, er, yes.

Sebba argues that, far from being the dowdy housewife she was portrayed, Ethel was ‘exceptiona­l’. But there’s little here to make her sound outstandin­g. We learn she was intelligen­t, sang beautifull­y and – having been coldly treated by her own mother – was desperate to be a good parent; hardly extraordin­ary stuff. She certainly had Communist sympathies but how deep they lay isn’t documented.

The book is at its most interestin­g when Sebba describes the fate of Ethel’s orphaned sons: shunted from elderly relatives into foster care but finally adopted by loving parents.

They’re still campaignin­g today for their mother’s pardon. Yet you finish reading this book with no idea if that is deserved or not.

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