• Bloomberg


Britain’s Security Service, known as MI5, worked with the Boy Scout movement to help it avoid infiltration by both communists and fascists between the world wars, previously secret papers show.

The files were published online for the first time Thursday by the National Archives in London as part of its commemorations of World War I, which began 100 years ago.

They also include a transcript of an interrogation of the Dutch-born German spy Mata Hari and reports on Arthur Ransome, author of the “Swallows and Amazons” children’s books, and labeled “an ardent Bolshevist.”

The documents show how seriously Boy Scouting, established in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell, was taken by intelligence agencies. By 1922 the Scout movement claimed a worldwide membership of more than 1 million.

“What do we know about the ‘Red’ Boy Scout movement in this country?” a typed memo from 1920 asked. “We have no record of any such movement here,” came the reply.

A year earlier, MI5 had cleared a visit to Britain by a group of German Scouts. By 1922, it was looking at rumors that German boys whose fathers were killed in World War I “are being formed into an association with a program which the Germans feel is bound to bring ‘big results.’ “

In 1924, the Scouts Association sought MI5’s advice about whether to accept an invitation to a peace conference.

The Foreign Office also suggested the Security Service send an officer to the world jamboree in Copenhagen that year. “You might find it both useful and interesting,” a diplomat’s note said. “We could quite well account for your presence by making you appear in some secretarial capacity.”

MI5 checked out suspicious names on the guest list.

One, a Milos Seifert, was described as “a Czecho-Slovak who appears to be aiming at the creation of a Communist Boy Scout movement throughout Europe.” Of another, the report said, “in 1918 this man was reported to be pro-German. He was reported as speaking disparagingly of the British Army and Navy.”

In 1926, the Scouts in the U.K. were said to be aware of communist infiltration attempts. A group in Liverpool was reported to have invited a communist speaker in 1931. But by 1934, the concern had shifted back to Germany and links with the Hitler Youth.

Margreet Zelle MacLeod, an exotic dancer better known by her stage name of Mata Hari, was stopped by border authorities in the U.K. in 1916, in the middle of the war.

She was interrogated and allowed to leave the country after a reply was received about her from French intelligence: “Madame MacLeod is considered extremely suspect by Captain Ladoux, but he has not been able, so far, to obtain definite evidence against her. Therefore in order to obtain, if possible, evidence, he has pretended to make use of her.”

The following year she was arrested by the French, court-martialed, and shot. A report back to MI5 from Paris betrayed a hint of admiration: “She never made a full confession nor can I find, either from the dossier, or from my conversations with Lafenestre, that she ever gave anyone (up) as her ‘complice.’ She was a ‘femme forte’ and she worked alone.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.