Harold Nicolson had been elected as a Member of Parliament, representing the National Labour Party, in the general election of November 1935. Arthur Koestler, in Spain supposedly covering the Civil War for the leftist British national newspaper, the News Chronicle, was arrested on charges of espionage and imprisoned in February 1937 by General Franco. In 1935, Koestler had married Dorothy Asher, a fellow Communist activist. It was an “open marriage”. Sir Robert Vansittart, an old colleague of Nicolson’s from his diplomatic service days, was at this point Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. The following is an extract from Harold Nicolson’s diary.
21st April, 1937
Mrs Koestler, whose husband has disappeared in Spain, came to see me and sat upon the bench with tears pouring down her cheeks. The Consul at Seville has been assured that Mr Koestler is “alive and well”. If that were so, he would certainly have communicated with his wife, and I very much fear that he has been shot. I talked to Vansittart about it, and he promised to take the matter up tomorrow and insist on a reply.
Koestler was imprisoned on “death row,” facing a daily prospect of execution, until June – he was then freed as part of an exchange of prisoners. On leaving Spain he headed not for London but for Paris, where he soon landed a commission to write an explicit sex manual. He and Dorothy separated later in 1937. As war loomed, Koestler was again imprisoned, this time by the Surete, who (presumably on the basis of his German-sounding name) suspected him of being a Nazi fifth columnist. Nicolson again intervened on his behalf and Koestler was released just before the Fall of France. He made his way to London where he agreed, much against his better judgement, to become a British secret intelligence services asset.