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News > History & Politics > Prof R C Zaehner: academic, eccentric, spy

Prof R C Zaehner: academic, eccentric, spy

Danby Bloch (FH 59-64) looks at the life and career of one of Tonbridge’s most remarkable former pupils – Intelligence Officer and academic, Professor Robert Charles Zaehner (MH 27-31)
Many academics became spies during the Second World War, but few were as extraordinary in either capacities as Prof. Professor R C Zaehner (1913-1974). Known as ‘Prof’ to most of those who knew him, (even before he achieved this status), Robin Zaehner was one of the most remarkable characters to have been educated at Tonbridge School. He was, in his way, a great person. 

Prof was a frequent visitor to our home during my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. In appearance he was short, neat and birdlike. The photograph is characteristic – suspicious, grumpy-looking, with exceedingly thick-lensed glasses and always a mildly anxious and distracted. 

He smoked French cigarettes more or less continuously, and like many of his generation who’d been through the war, he was a dedicated drinker - notably of gin. He was homosexual – which for virtually all his life was both quietly tolerated but also illegal. His enthusiasms were intense and ranged from the singer Tommy Steele to the bleak Catholic novels of Georges Bernanos.

Prof’s linguistic and other intellectual talents were apparent early in his life. His parents, who lived in Sevenoaks were both Swiss and he was trilingual in French, German and English. At Tonbridge and then at Christchurch Oxford he studied classics, before going onto specialise in Persian and later Sanskrit.

Prof’s controversial role in the intelligence service did not emerge into the public arena until well after his death and much of it is still scantily documented*. What we do know is that he was responsible for temporarily deposing the Iranian prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh in 1951 and he set up many of the arrangements for the CIA to do it permanently in 1953 – after Prof had left British intelligence.

Prof was an exceptionally gifted linguist, admitting to proficiency in over 20 languages. He learnt Albanian in three months so he could act as interpreter in Malta between British intelligence officers and a large group of émigré Albanian trainee agents prior to their being dropped back into Albania. 

The Albanian authorities were waiting and most of the agents were summarily shot. Clearly there had been a leak. Prof subsequently fell under suspicion and was investigated in the 60s by Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame, who completely cleared him of this and other rumoured disloyalties. Eventually it emerged that the culprit was Kim Philby. 

It was not long after the start of the second world war that Prof was whisked off to the middle east. Peter Wright described Prof’s role:

”He was responsible for MI6 counter-intelligence in Persia during the war. It was difficult and dangerous work. The railway lines into Russia, carrying vital military supplies, were key targets for German sabotage. Zaehner was perfectly equipped for the job, speaking the local dialects fluently, and much of his time was spent undercover, operating in the murky and cutthroat world of counter-sabotage. By the end of the war his task was even more fraught. The Russians themselves were trying to gain control of the railway, and Zaehner had to work behind Russian lines, continuously at risk of betrayal and murder by pro-German or pro-Russian...." 

Back in Tehran, during and after the war, Prof became one of the best-connected people in political circles, with allies in the court, the parliament and the media. Much of his energy was devoted to reducing the influence of the Soviets and installing the generally pro-British and very Machiavellian Ghavam os-Sultana as prime minister. Prof relied heavily on the services of the Rashidian brothers, owners of a business empire that included cinemas and newspapers, who were adept at bribery and paying mobs to riot at politically useful moments.

This activity culminated for Prof in 1951 after an aristocratic nationalist prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, came to power intent on nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) and taking over the giant refinery at Abadan. A major crisis ensued and the Royal Navy blockaded the Persian Gulf. By this time Prof had returned to Oxford but he was again recruited by the British Government – on this occasion to depose Mossadegh. He swung into action dispensing impressive quantities of sovereigns from a biscuit tin via the Rashidian brothers to politicians and rioters to such effect that Ghavam was appointed prime minister. 

But the genuine ensuing popular reaction to the now elderly Ghavam meant that he lasted little more than a week – with Mossadegh returning to power in triumph. The British – including Prof - were expelled. And it was left to the Americans to take over the British plan and the Rashiadian brothers. They executed the plot in 1953 with the assistance of much rioting and some even less savory politicians than Ghavam. Memories of this episode linger on and it continues to poison relations between Iran, the US and Britain. 

Academic life was at Oxford again – specifically in the all-graduate college All Souls, where he lived – as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics. The appointment was controversial from the start. In the inaugural lecture he courteously but firmly attacked the universalist views of his distinguished predecessor in the chair. Three strands of his writing were mysticism, comparative religion and Roman Catholicism, to which he had converted during the war. 

It was a mystical experience that had initially drawn him to Catholicism and that formed a running theme throughout much of his writing. In his best-known book, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, Prof challenged Aldous Huxley’s view set out in The Doors of Perception that the effects of taking the drug mescaline were the same as a religious mystical experience. In Prof’s view, there were indeed similarities between some types of mystical experience and drug-induced episodes – but there were many different types of both experiences. He could draw on his own memories of enthusiastic wartime use of opium. In a hilarious experiment with mescaline he went around Oxford with a small group of academic observers and giggled uncontrollably at virtually everything he was invited to look at.

Prof wrote books at the rate of about one a year until his sudden death in Oxford on the way to Mass in 1974. He returned to his earliest interest in Zoroastrianism also wrote extensively on Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

Prof’s Catholicism was at the heart of his life. As a student, he had been an atheist, “since, along with Aleister Crowley” (the soi-disant ‘wickedest man in the world’ about whom Prof wrote at some length)“ and E M Forster, I had been brought up in Tonbridge School, a most undistinguished Anglican establishment at the time.” It was a mystical experience induced by reading a poem by Rimbaud that brought him to Catholicism at the start of the war.

In one of his last books, Our Savage God, his starting point was the sinister figure of Charles Manson who was responsible for the Sharon Tate murders now figuring prominently in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time.

Prof was deeply uneasy with much of his intelligence work in Iran – especially with the plot against Mossadegh – and he said so privately at the time and later. He wrote that in government service abroad, "truth is seen as the last of the virtues and to lie comes to be a second nature. It was, then, with relief that I returned to academic life because, it seemed to me, if ever there was a profession concerned with a single-minded search for truth, it was the profession of the scholar.” It was indeed as a scholar that he achieved real success and fulfilment.

*Readers who want to understand more about the astonishing Mossadegh episode should read Patriot of Persia – Muhammad Mossadegh and a very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue or All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinz

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