Colditz, Hitler's most secure Prisoner of War camp, never knew what it was harbouring when Micky Burn, a captured British Army commando, lectured his fellow captives on communism, an act punishable by death outside the walls of the prison.
As told in Peter Stanley's biography of Burn, his life was marked by the unconventional. Born in London to a middle class, Tory family, Burn's tastes in the thirties veered towards poetry, parties, cars and bisexual affairs (he was a one-time lover of Cambridge University communist and spy, Guy Burgess). Naïvely impressed at first with Hitler's `curing' of unemployment, Burn visited Germany in 1935 where he sat with the Nazi hierarchy at `absolutely wonderful' fascist rallies and was personally presented by Hitler with an inscribed copy of Mein Kampf.
Burn's Nazi sympathies collapsed, however, when his desire to `do something' about the Depression saw him lodge with an unemployed Yorkshire miner under a Quaker scheme to expose students and middle class Britons to the realities of life in depressed areas. This experience changed his life profoundly and ever after Burn "counted himself on the side of the powerless", writes Stanley.
Hitler was now in Burn's sights as a British commando captain. In 1942, Burn took part in a raid which destroyed the port of St Nazaire in Normandie in France, making it unusable to the German Navy for its attacks on the Atlantic convoys supplying aid from the US to Britain. In the frenzied, animal aggression of battle, the sensitive Burn became `someone I had not met before and never wish to meet again'.
Captured, Burn wound up in Colditz, where he continued his own education, reading books sent from home (a right of prisoners under the Geneva Convention) on political economy and moving `well on the way to Marxism'. He also continued the Education Program he had begun for other soldiers back in England, tapping into the "reforming spirit" that emerged from the twin threats of capitalist economic crisis and fascism.
His lectures had a strong Marxist flavour, their popularity enhanced by a widespread sympathy for the Soviet Union resulting from the Red Army victories which were monitored via a secret wireless operated by Burn in Colditz. His classes opened up an ideological schism amongst the prisoners with conservative officers boycotting them, forbidding their subordinates from attending (Douglas Bader, the fighter ace, ordered RAF members to stay away) or wanting Burn charged with treason.
After liberation, Burn campaigned for the Communist Party of Great Britain during the 1945 general election which dumped wartime Tory Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, as part of the leftwards shift by the British population. Soon after, however, Burn's illusions in Stalinist Russia as the standard-bearer of socialism were knocked out of him by the show trials in stalinist Hungary which he covered in 1946 on assignment as a reporter with The Times.
Returning to Wales to write poetry and novels, Burn retained his core left wing principles - when Peter Stanley, an Australian, interviewed him in 2004 for his biography, Burn denounced both the war in Iraq and one of its chief instigators, the then Australian Prime Minister (`John Howard, dreadful man!', he told Stanley).
Stanley is a military not a socialist historian, so the political dimension of Burn is no more than a spicy side dish in the often stodgy military fare in his book in which he honours Burn as Commando rather than Communist. But, whether as soldier or socialist, Micky Burn is worth commemorating as one of the unsung many who have fought, and risked all, for a better world.