In Review

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy

Anne Sebba’s powerful, if partial, account of the execution of Ethel Rosenberg

The execution of Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 must rank “among the most horribly botched in human history”, said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph: sentenced to die with her husband Julius for spying for the Soviet Union, she took four-and-a-half minutes to die in the electric chair.

It was also, Anne Sebba argues with “exemplary clarity”, a miscarriage of justice fuelled by anti-communist hysteria and male chauvinism. The crucial evidence against her was supplied by her estranged brother David Greenglass – also implicated in the passing of atomic secrets to the Russians – in return for a reduced sentence; and even he testified that she had done little more than type up the information. Yet because she refused to play the part of a weak and helpless woman in court, she was branded a termagant who had masterminded the operation.

Sebba has taken a well-known story and skilfully breathed fresh life into it, said Andrew Lownie in The Oldie. This is a “powerful” biography of a woman caught in a system determined to make an example of her. The FBI knew its case against her was weak, but brought it to put pressure on her husband. Sebba persuasively argues that Ethel’s punishment was disproportionate, though her attempt to downplay Ethel’s guilt altogether “will strain credulity in some quarters”.

You can say that again, said Oliver Kamm in The Times. This book is “an intellectual disgrace”. Julius Rosenberg was of great value to Soviet intelligence: he passed on a series of important military secrets. And the evidence is clear that Ethel conspired with him. The trial was certainly tainted, and the punishment was “barbarous”, but the Rosenbergs were willing servants of an appalling regime. “Theirs was no equivalent of the Dreyfus case.”

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 304pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

A Cold War Tragedy book cover
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