Communists in Government

On the afternoon of Monday, 7 May 1945, word spread across Paris that the war was over. Germany had surrendered. Everyone waited for the bells to ring out, but only the newspapers, rushed off the presses, confirmed the news.

After dinner, Jean Galtier-Boissière expected the streets to be full of people, but the only sign of celebration was the occasional jeep rushing past, driven by a GI and piled with young Frenchwomen frantically waving Allied flags. He went with some friends to the old Boeuf sur le Toit nightclub, where Moyses, the patron, offered them a free bottle of wine – ‘une bouteille de la Victoire’ – in celebration. The painter Jean Oberlé joined them and together they listened to the orchestra playing ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Madelon’, the words sung lustily by American, British and French officers.

Everyone was in good spirits, but at about three in the morning a curious incident took place. Oberlé refused to shake the hand of a man who came up to him. The man, red in the face with anger, demanded why. Oberlé replied that he would not shake the hand of anyone who had broadcast on the German-controlled Radio-Paris. The man blustered, claiming he had been a prisoner and that someone else had spoken under his name. People at neighbouring tables joined in the argument. Suddenly, a waiter stuck out an accusing finger and shouted: ‘I’ve seen this man have dinner with German officers!’ This produced an uproar. But then a long-haired character, looking like ‘une sorte de zazou’, spoke up to defend the accused.

‘Who are you?’ several people demanded at once.

‘I’m a detective inspector!’ he replied, drawing himself up proudly.

This provoked a roar of laughter. Then René Lefèvre, one of Galtier-Boissière’s friends, started an argument with the plain-clothes policeman and knocked him down. When the policeman stood up, Lefèvre hauled him to the door and kicked him all the way down the street. The sky was already light above eastern Paris. It was the dawn of VE Day.

The long-awaited morning turned out sunny, yet the streets remained curiously empty until the afternoon. Around three, the Place de l’Étoile (where huge tricolours flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe), the Champs-Élysées and the Place de la Concorde began to fill with people. Almost every house and vehicle seemed to be decorated with flags. The jeeps full of soldiers and young women were brought to a halt by Parisian youth – the middle-aged and old mostly stayed at home. The afternoon was noisy, with klaxons hooting, Flying Fortresses crossing low overhead, artillery salutes, church bells and air-raid sirens sounding a final all-clear.

General de Gaulle broadcast to the nation, making much of the fact that France had been represented at the surrender ceremony and was one of the victors. Once it was over, the Place de la Concorde became even more closely packed. The crowds were so thick that white-helmeted US military police had to force a way through to let people in and out of the American Embassy. When a man in khaki uniform came out on to the balcony and gave the victory salute, the crowd, thinking it was Eisenhower, yelled its acclaim. It was in fact William Bullitt, the pre-war American ambassador to France.

As darkness fell, the most famous monuments in the centre of Paris – the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde, the Madeleine and the Opéra – were illuminated for the first time since the beginning of the war, the Opéra in red, white and blue lights. The fountains were also reconnected and lit up.

The Paris police struggled to push back the crowds in the rue Royale to make way for a ceremonial appearance of the Garde Républicaine on horseback, as they came trotting down from the Madeleine; but their arrival was as chaotic as the scenes around them. Their full-dress uniform, the shining cuirasses and dragoon helmets with long horsehair plumes, was dramatically offset by the fact that almost every soldier had ‘at least one girl riding behind him on the horse, clinging to his Napoleonic uniform and screaming’.

As evening advanced, a strong breeze arose and the flags flying from the tops of public buildings cracked in the wind. The crowds below continued to sing the Marseillaise, ‘Madelon’, the ‘Chant du départ’ and the songs of the Resistance. Red Army officers, easily recognizable by their thick shoulder-boards, were congratulated; but when a White Russian friend of Simone de Beauvoir began to chat with a group of Soviet soldiers in their own language, they demanded severely what she was doing in Paris and why she was not in the Motherland.

Castor and a couple of friends went up to Montmartre to finish the evening at the Cabane Cubaine. Afterwards they were given a lift home in a jeep. They felt slightly flat. ‘This victory had been far away from us; we had not been waiting for it, as we had the Liberation, in a feverish anguish of anticipation.’ At midnight a fanfare of trumpeters from the Paris fire brigade sounded the ceasefire. Others also felt that, unlike the Liberation, there was an artificial side to the celebration, partly because they were ‘too exhausted to applaud a finale for which we had waited too long’, but also because General de Gaulle’s emphasis on France’s glorious role did not ring true. They did not feel like victors.

The only people likely to feel triumphant were the Communists, basking in the reflected glory of the Red Army and the conviction that the party would be in power in the near future.

In 1945, the French Communist Party was the most powerful political organization in the country, controlling a number of front organizations – the National Front, the Union of French Women, the Union of French Republican Youth, a veterans’ association and most of the largest unions within the CGT, the Confédération Générale du Travail. But there were some striking weaknesses, especially in Paris and its suburbs, where membership had not even climbed back to the level of 1938. Benoît Frachon, the Communist head of the CGT trades union movement, reported to Moscow: ‘the principal reason… is due to a certain temporary disappointment among workers. The workers were counting on a fundamental revolution in France and on social liberation immediately after the Germans were chased out.’ But what Frachon does not mention is that the loss of workers in the ceinture rouge suburbs was greater than acknowledged. Their loss was partly camouflaged by the number of intellectuals joining the party in central Paris.

Many workers had indeed become Communists during the Resistance in the belief that victory would lead to revolution. The astonishment and disgust of many could hardly be contained when Maurice Thorez, on his return to France, called for increased production and – from the most famous deserter of 1939 – the creation of a powerful French army.

None of this, of course, meant that the French Communist Party had become a bourgeois party, even if some of its leaders, especially Thorez, may have been lulled into a certain embourgeoisement by the trappings of power. But their policy, until they received different instructions from Moscow, remained a dual-track one. On one side, the party consolidated its position within the system of parliamentary democracy in order to install as many of its members as possible in positions of influence. And with the party’s vote rising to close to a third of the total, the possibility of reaching power through constitutional means was not to be ruled out. Meanwhile, on the other side, revolutionary morale was kept up by attacks on collaborators and ‘the fascist fifth column of Vichy’.

The continuing obsession with the fifth column was partly inspired by the campaign to remove more of the opposition – it was also the classic Stalinist method of accounting for setbacks due to incompetence – but the belief in a fifth column of Vichyist saboteurs was quite genuine.

Despite growing tensions between the party and General de Gaulle, Communist ministers stayed in the government, and Thorez proved himself a highly useful ally. At Waziers on 21 July 1945, he shocked his audience by telling them that the hunt for collaborators must come to an end, and that there were far too many strikes. On 1 September, Duclos proclaimed that Thorez’s speech at Waziers had raised coal production: ‘It’s thanks to the Communist Party that the population will have coal this winter.’

The government and its officials could hardly believe their luck at Thorez’s responsible line, although they had no illusions about the party’s simultaneous efforts at infiltration. A very senior official in the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for its intelligence network in the country – he claimed to have 5,000 agents throughout France keeping a close eye on Communist activities – reported to the American Embassy that the party was devoting its efforts to planting members wherever they could wield influence. They were having much less success than they had hoped in the armed forces, but were managing to take effective control of the CGT trades union movement. On the other hand, ‘Every week they continue to support us is time gained and strengthens our position.’

For a materialist party, totally cynical in matters of Realpolitik, the Communists devoted an astonishing amount of effort – and ruthless politicking – to the cultivation of myths and heroic symbols. In January 1945, the party had launched a campaign to have their star writer of the pre-war years, Romain Rolland, buried in the Panthéon. They lobbied, too, to get party members into the Académie Française. But nowhere had they been quicker off the mark than to have streets and métro stations renamed after their Resistance heroes.

Following the Stalinist model, a personality cult was developed around Maurice Thorez. Thorez, whatever one may think of his politics, was a man of impressive talents. His enemies may have seen his muscular, rubbery face as a mask of deceit, but as a devout Stalinist he believed in the necessity of lies. A miner by birth and by trade, he overcame his lack of education by sheer force of will, developing a formidable concentration.

He was acclaimed by the French Communist Party as ‘the son of the people’, also the title of his official autobiography – almost making him sound like the Christ of the proletariat. Yet, to demonstrate his place in the Communist universe, this was the same man whose request in Moscow to Dimitrov for permission to be interviewed by a journalist was dismissed as curtly as if he had been a clerk asking for an extra holiday.

On his fiftieth birthday, schoolchildren came to sing: ‘Our Maurice is fifty years old – happy, happy birthday – for Jeannette, for their children – for his mother!’ Jeannette Vermeersch, his companion and the mother of his children, was portrayed as a model of proletarian courage. The poverty of her childhood was recounted as the Stalinist equivalent of a Bible story. She too cultivated the legend, and her fiery oratory was modelled on that of La Pasionaria, whom she greatly admired.

The other, perhaps unsurprising, paradox came with the Communist Party’s commercial empire. The opportunities for expansion had been greatly increased at the Liberation, when buildings belonging to collaborationist organizations were expropriated. The party’s daily newspaper L’Humanité, for example, took over the building in the rue d’Enghien which had belonged to the populist newspaper Le Petit Parisien.

The party owned a bank, the Banque du Nord, and a shipping line, France Navigation, which had been taken over during the Spanish Civil War, and was almost certainly bought with part of the gold reserves of the Spanish Republic, used to purchase Soviet military supplies.

The party’s publishing empire was huge, both in Paris and in the provinces. It had twelve daily newspapers and forty-seven weeklies. In addition, the Communist-run coalition, the National Front, had seventeen weeklies, all tightly controlled. Instructions for ‘political orientation’ were issued each day to all provincial newspapers controlled by their front organization.

The flagship of the party’s property empire was ‘le 44’, the great brick headquarters in the rue Le Peletier. It was well defended by at least half a dozen security guards, all picked members ready against a surprise attack by fifth columnists.

Party leaders also expected assassination attempts. Thorez was driven each day to ‘le 44’ in a heavily armoured limousine accompanied by bodyguards. The moment they arrived outside, the bodyguards and the security members from inside the building would form a human screen so that Thorez could hurry inside safely. At Thorez’s house, a small château at Choisy, the bodyguards served at table, then took their meals in the kitchen. One visitor described the place as ‘tristement petit-bourgeois’. It had a private cinema because Communist leaders (with the exception of Laurent Casanova) did not dare venture out to public places. The house also had a very uneven art collection. All the works had been donated and dedicated to le camarade Maurice by painters who were party members.

In 1945 the French Communist Party, then at the height of its influence, decided to push forward its most ambitious strategy: taking over the Socialist Party through amalgamation. The theme of working-class unity held a tremendous appeal at that time for the majority, especially the young, who had no experience of Communist ruthlessness in the pursuit of power.

Jacques Duclos declared that only enemies of the people were opposed to the unity of the working class: Socialists who resisted it were ‘scissionists’. But veterans, such as the Socialist leader Léon Blum, remembered only too well the Spanish Communist Party’s attempts to swallow the Spanish Socialist Party in 1936, early in the Civil War. They also remembered the Communist takeover of the CGT trades union federation in the name of working-class unity.

The American Embassy kept a watch on these developments. Captain David Rockefeller, the assistant military attaché, maintained close touch with members of the Renseignements Généraux, one of the Ministry of the Interior’s police intelligence networks. These officers persuaded him that the best bulwark for the Socialists to resist the Communists was the recently reformed Union Démocratique Socialiste de la Résistance. Although left-wing, it had proved its staunchly anti-Communist position by expelling Pierre Villon, a party member. Rockefeller predicted that if the Socialists and their allies stood firm, the Communists would have little alternative but to pull out of the government and sabotage ‘efforts to bring about economic recovery’.

Blum and his colleagues at the head of the Socialist Party felt uneasy. The Communists looked as though they would win either way. If a majority of Socialists agreed to unification, the Communists would be able, through unscrupulous use of their superior organization, to take over every important post and win control. On the other hand, if Blum and his supporters managed to win the vote against unification, the issue might well split the Socialist Party, as had happened in Spain nine years before. The Communists would then win over the Socialist left wing and most of their young members. Their only hope was to play for time.

Communist attempts to establish a monopoly of working-class leadership were damaged from an unexpected direction. The centrepiece of their propaganda in 1945 was the heroism of the Red Army. But when the party strove to win over the recently returned prisoners of war and deportees, it discovered that many had returned to France horrified by the rape, looting and murder they had witnessed in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. Their stories spread. Communist leaders in Paris were beside themselves with rage. ‘No word against the Red Army must be permitted!’ thundered André Marty at a mass meeting. Posters appeared attacking those ‘cynical Hitlerian scoundrels’ who had infiltrated themselves ‘to spread anti-Soviet calumnies’ against ‘the soldiers of the glorious Red Army who have saved the civilized world’.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, demonstrated little concern. Stalin’s lack of interest in France continued beyond the end of the war. After the red flag was raised over the ruins of Berlin, his main preoccupation was the establishment of a cordon sanitaire of satellite states controlled by the Red Army. Never again would he be vulnerable to a surprise attack from Germany.

One of the best indications of how loose the relationship between the Kremlin and the French Communist Party had become appears in the stenographic account of a meeting of the international section on 15 June 1945. Stepanov, the official dealing with the French Communist Party, felt that its leaders were losing their way. ‘For the whole period of the Liberation,’ he told Ponomarev and his committee, ‘one can say that the Communist Party acted in a very intelligent and very clever way. The party did not allow itself to be isolated from the rest of the resistance movement and the other parties…[Yet] one gets the impression that the Communist Party, although it is acting correctly from a tactical point of view, has no strategic perspective and no strategic objectives.’

Ponomarev disagreed. Thorez was right to ‘avoid premature actions and anything which risked provoking conflicts which will play into the hands of internal forces of reaction allied with external forces in the form of the English and Americans. The French Communist Party’s situation therefore is much more complicated than that for each Communist Party where our Red Army is present and where we have been able to bring about democratic changes. The proximity of the Soviet Union plays a role which is not small, and other circumstances play their parts too, but the decisive fact is the presence of the Red Army.’ Like Stalin, Ponomarev focused primarily on the cordon sanitaire imposed at gunpoint. But in 1947, Stepanov’s analysis would turn out to be the more accurate, with the French Communist Party caught on the wrong tack.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!