She might as well have been burnt at the stake

Review: Beverley Roos-Muller

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy, by Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Jonathan Ball)

Ethel Rosenberg’s story was a cruel, cold war tragedy. She remains the only American woman ever to be executed for a crime other than murder, yet she was innocent; and that continues, rightly, to haunt us.

She was sacrificed in the era of the 1950s anti-Communist and anti-Semitic reign of terror by McCarthyism, not very different to the fear-mongering mob mentality that dominates parts of that country even today.

This powerful book by Anna Sebba covers the Rosenberg story with efficient, chilling clarity. Ethel was born in 1915 in an America full of new immigrants from Europe, many of them Jewish, many of them fleeing pogroms and dictatorships, and yearning for a new world of equality and opportunity. It was not at all unusual, in a world struggling to make sense of World War 1, to look towards a different way of living: to support Communist ideals, whether in Oxford or New York, was neither unusual at the time nor – importantly – was it illegal.

Ethel was born into a poor home, full of ambition to better herself. She had an unkind mother who doted on her younger brother David, a favourite son who later perjured himself against Ethel to save his own wife from arrest after he had passed on classified documents to the Soviets. 

Ethel adored her husband Julius and shared his idealism, but as a housewife consumed with caring for her two little sons, she was not a participant in his underground activities. Julius did in fact pass classified military material on to the Soviets, along with David, and in fact hundreds of other like-minded Americans. Why? Their actions happened during WWII, when Russia was an ally, fighting the Nazis. Many believed that such information should be shared among nations as a way of ensuring peace. Whether right or wrong, what they did was not in fact treason, for that is a crime only when secrets are passed on to an enemy nation. Let me ask you this question – if Julius had passed on secrets to a different ally, England for example, do you think he would have been executed? 

The Rosenberg couple were known to be passionately in love. Ethel’s devotion to Julius meant that, despite her long imprisonment designed to put pressure on Julius, she would not betray him as she deeply believed he was innocent of treason, and knowing herself to be innocent, she utterly believed that she too, would be freed. 

Much of the world was horrified at the sentence and execution of the two Rosenbergs in 1953; Julius first and then immediately after, Ethel. She was 37. Countries such as France protested; unusual allies such as the Pope, Picasso and Einstein lobbied for her exoneration. 

Ethel Rosenberg was more than just a cold war tragedy. She was taken from two grieving, much-loved sons aged ten and six years old, who were then abandoned by family members who were afraid of guilt by association, and sent to an orphanage. When it became clear that not even the highest offices in the United States, including the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover, thought she was guilty, but nevertheless thought her conviction would be a “deterrent”, it was too late to save her and restore her to her orphaned sons; you can pardon a prisoner, but no-one can resurrect the innocent dead.

She was victim of a government terrified of showing weakness in the face of a frantic fear of Communism at the height of the Cold War, and which knowingly allowed this miscarriage of justice. She might as well have been burned at the stake. 

I highly recommend this book.

  • This review was first broadcast by FMR101.3


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