He ate all the chocolate for Churchill – and so saved him from death. And Margaret Thatcher advised to destroy coca plantations. At the same time, Victor Rothschild knew nothing about family banking – and most likely worked for the KGB.
Hearing the name Rothschild, we all imagine a born financial tycoon. In this sense, Victor Rothschild, although he was a direct descendant of the founder of the famous dynasty, still broke patterns. The famous biologist – and Ph.D. in zoology at Cambridge – was a bad banker, but he was the head of counter-sabotage at MI5. He also headed the development department of the oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, served as chairman of the British Agricultural Research Council and was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. And Victor Rothschild was considered one of the members of the Cambridge Five, the most important network of Soviet agents in the UK.
Victor’s parents also looked little like typical Rothschilds. His father combined the management of the family bank with a career as a professional entomologist – he described about 500 new species of fleas, collected a collection of 260,000 insects and founded the first nature reserve in the United Kingdom. Charles met his future wife on an expedition to study butterflies in the Carpathians.
Rosika von Wertheimstein was a Hungarian tennis champion and was very interested in politics. In addition, she turned out to be more noble than Rothschild – her ancestors were the first of the Jews of Europe to be honored with the nobility, without requiring conversion to Christianity. Charles could answer by saying that his dad at one time became the first Jew in the House of Lords and from a young age made friends with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.
Victor grew up in such a family until he went to the Harrow boarding school, among whose graduates are seven British prime ministers, five monarchs and many offspring of royal families. After Harrow, the young man studied physiology at Trinity College, Cambridge, where 33 Nobel Prize winners once gnawed at the granite of science.
Here Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild became a first-class cricketer, led the life of a playboy, drove a Bugatti and joined the Cambridge Apostles, a closed society of socialist intellectuals. And so there was a rapprochement with future Soviet agents and members of the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. With the last two, Rothschild even rented an apartment in London after graduating from college.
In 1937, 26-year-old Victor inherited the title of Baron Rothschild and began to sit in the House of Lords from the Labor Party. However, he spoke there only twice: on the issue of milk pasteurization and on the situation in Palestine. After Kristallnacht, the young peer, through The Times, urged the British to take seriously the threat posed by Nazi Germany to the values of Western democracy. And in early 1939, he visited the White House in the United States, discussing the issue of accepting Jewish refugees from Germany.
In the same year, he was accepted into the service of MI5, seconded to the counterintelligence department. In 1942, Victor headed the anti-sabotage department and brilliantly carried out Operation Fifth Column. As part of this operation, agent Eric Roberts, who was embedded by MI5 in the British Union of Fascists, identified hundreds of Britons ready to assist the Nazis in the event of an invasion.
In May 1943, Rothschild saved British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from death. He learned that the Nazis wanted to blow up Churchill with a bomb hidden in a bar of expensive chocolate. Operation Death by Chocolate involved a German agent in London bringing a bomb hidden under a Peters Chocolate tile into Churchill’s dining room. However, Rothschild warned the head of Britain in advance that the Nazi plan had been thwarted. In addition, Rothschild personally – and reportedly with the help of Cartier screwdrivers – defused German booby traps and time bombs, for which he was awarded the King George Medal in 1944.
After the war, Rothschild worked in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, where he received his doctorate in 1950. In 1953 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research on the physiology of the spermatozoa. From 1948 to 1958, Lord presided over the Agricultural Research Council, and in 1963 he headed the development department at the oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell.
In 1963, Rothschild’s acquaintance from Trinity College, Soviet agent Kim Philby, fled to Moscow. A year later, another friend of the Baron’s youth, Anthony Blunt, confessed to collaborating with Soviet intelligence. Victor also fell under suspicion. From 1964 to 1968, the Lord was interrogated 11 times by MI5, but no evidence of his involvement in the spy network was found. Edward Heath, who became prime minister in 1970, appointed the baron head of the Central Policy Review Staff, an organization that was called the think tank of British politics. At this time, he often visited Checkers, the prime minister’s country residence.
The fact is that Margaret Thatcher made Rothschild her unofficial security adviser. The Iron Lady once spoke about the baron’s non-trivial idea to combat drug trafficking. The biologist Rothschild suggested using pests and aerosol sprays to destroy crops in “producing countries” of heroin.
In 1981 Victor founded Biotechnology Investments Limited, an investment fund that quickly became one of the European leaders in biotechnology. The only thing the baron did not succeed in was running the family bank. In the mid-1970s, he briefly served as chairman of NM Rothschild & Sons Limited, but then relinquished this post to his cousin Evelyn.
Meanwhile, rumors about Viktor’s work for Soviet intelligence are stirring up society. In 1986, a number of deputies called for an investigation into the possible involvement of the former MI5 agent Rothschild in spying for the USSR. In response, Viktor published an open letter in which he stated that he “is not and never was a Soviet agent.” Prime Minister Thatcher commented succinctly along the lines of “we have no proof that he was ever a Soviet agent.”
Her calm reaction to Rothschild’s subsequent accusations of espionage is partly due to an interview Kim Philby gave in Moscow to a British journalist in 1988. The defector said that before his dismissal from MI5 in 1947, Rothschild copied all the file cabinets containing the names of Soviet agents and handed them over to the Israelis. Thatcher did not suspect the baron of working for the Lubyanka, and perhaps she considered helping the Mossad quite excusable. Victor really sympathized with Israel, he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute. Weizmann and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in 1971 he was awarded an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University, and in 1975 from the Hebrew University.
In 1990, KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, who secretly worked for British intelligence, revealed that the fifth member of the Cambridge Five was officer John Cairncross. Despite this, rumors about Rothschild’s work for the Soviet Union did not stop. The Australian historian and writer Roland Perry, in his book The Fifth Man, tried to prove that it was Rothschild who was part of the core of Soviet agents in Britain and “leaked” all the secrets of Foggy Albion to Moscow. Later, references to Rothschild were found in the diaries of the first chairman of the KGB, Ivan Serov. In his notes, the authenticity of which has not been established, it is said that Rothschild “knew very well that these people (that is, the Cambridge Five. – Approx. ed.) were connected to us, he used them to pass information to Moscow, including false information.” The author of these lines emphasized that “useful connections with him ended with the formation of Israel.”
Victor Rothschild died in 1990 and was, according to his will, buried next to the remains of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the English branch of the family. It was not easy to bury him there: the Jewish cemetery in the East End was closed back in 1858 – but the last will of the deceased was nevertheless fulfilled exactly. The Iron Lady visited his grave, paying tribute to the memory of a comrade-in-arms.
The baron had seven children from two marriages, of which the most famous son Jacob and daughter Emma, who at the age of 15 became the youngest student in the history of Oxford University. Subsequently, Emma taught at MIT, Harvard and Cambridge. In 1999, she founded the Rothschild Archive and to this day runs this institution – they study the history of the famous clan, interest in which does not fade away today.