The Curious Triangle

The year 1948 was the most dramatically dangerous of the Cold War. Today, after the sudden collapse of Soviet power, it is increasingly hard to imagine the fear people felt of a new world war and another occupation, this time by the Red Army. Events had accelerated in such a way that, for many, the Marxist-Leninist claim of historical inevitability began to appear invincible.

Nancy Mitford might have laughed at the Windsors in 1946 for advising people to put their jewels in a safe place and get out of France, but in March 1948 she wrote to Evelyn Waugh in a very different mood. She was convinced that the Russians would invade at any moment. ‘Unable to be angry with them, I am quite simply frightened. I wake up in the night sometimes in a cold sweat. Thank goodness for having no children, I can take a pill and say goodbye.’

After the collapse of the strikes, the French Communist Party prepared to go underground again. Auguste Lecoeur, the miners’ young leader who had directed Communist security with such effective ruthlessness during the Resistance, had not wasted time since receiving his instructions after the Cominform meeting at Sklarska Poreba in Poland.

Communist dockers in major ports were delegated to block work on ships bringing military supplies to the US forces in Europe. Intelligence was the key to clandestine warfare on both sides, so networks of informers were re-established, many from wartime groups. Party members in the postal workers’ unions organized the interception of mail to important figures. The most useful moles were unidentified party members in the security services, especially the Renseignements Généraux, and junior officials in the Ministry of the Interior.

The Prague coup on 20 February acted as the clearest signal in the West that the Cold War had really started. The diplomat Hervé Alphand saw the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia as similar to that of Hitler in March 1939, only rather less crude. The democrats in the Czech government played what was probably an impossible hand very badly. They tendered their resignations in protest at the action of the Communist Minister of the Interior; they assumed that this would force President Beneš to dismiss him along with the Communist premier, Klement Gottwald. But the Communists, under Soviet direction, simply seized the opportunity. A Communist mass rally threatened civil war, and Beneš gave in, allowing Gottwald to form a new government composed of Communists and fellow-travellers. Jan Masaryk, the non-Communist Foreign Minister, fell from a window of the Czernin Palace to his death shortly afterwards. Although this tragedy was probably suicide from despair and the intolerable pressure put on him by the Communists, many people in Paris were struck by the coincidence that Jean-Louis Barrault’s production of Kafka’s The Trial was playing at the Théâtre de Marigny.

On 23 February, three days after the Prague coup, the London conference on the future of Germany assembled. Hervé Alphand and Couve de Murville took the Golden Arrow boat train from Paris. The Siberian weather – a cutting wind and flurries of snow – seemed symbolic of the times. Their relief at reaching Claridge’s dwindled on finding that coal was as short in Britain as it was in France.

The Prague coup had one positive effect for Western Europe. It had shocked Washington and saved the implementation of the Marshall Plan from any further prevarication. Congress approved the bill with uncharacteristic rapidity. The coup also concentrated the minds of European governments. On 17 March, the Brussels Treaty was signed between France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Truman announced his full support to Congress that very day. A year later this developed into the Atlantic Pact, the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Most European leaders now accepted that, for their own survival, ‘they had to engage the United States in Europe’.


In France, the Communists faced a problem of strategy. They did not know whether to concentrate their attacks on the government or on de Gaulle. They followed the Kremlin’s instructions and depicted the government as a second Vichy with the Americans as the new occupying power, yet a gut instinct made them fear de Gaulle more. Jacques Duclos called for ‘the dissolution of de Gaulle’s illegal and fascist paramilitary organization aimed at the establishment of a dictatorship’.

Large groups of Communists turned up to disrupt meetings of the RPF. After Raymond Aron was shouted down by students, Malraux organized a much bigger meeting, but this time with a large contingent of the Rassemblement’s service d’ordre of volunteer security guards to demonstrate ‘that we had the strength to impose respect, and to hold our meetings when and wherever we wanted’.

De Gaulle behaved as though the Rassemblement was the only force which could prevent the Communists from seizing power. He still could not acknowledge the role that Schuman and Moch had played in holding the pass against them in November. The United States Embassy, however, continued to be impressed by the government’s firmness. Caffery reported that Schuman and Moch ‘have given very careful thought, in the event of a new Communist offensive, to outlawing the Communist Party and arresting all of its leaders who can be apprehended’.

Alarmist rumours continued to circulate in April, with stories of arms parachuted into the Lyons area: some thought for Communists, others thought for the right, others suspected Zionist agents. But the Americans were now confident that France would not collapse. Marshall Aid should start to have an effect within the next year.

The Gaullists offered prefects their ‘shock troops’ for any action against Communists. The prefects, however, knew that they would be in trouble from the Minister of the Interior if they accepted. The government even asked Jefferson Caffery not to have any meetings with de Gaulle. The ambassador sympathized and, after consultation with Washington, passed a message via General de Bénouville. General de Gaulle was warned that any attempt by him to unseat the Schuman government would be seen ‘as proof of placing personal ambition before the vital interest of his country’.

The message was received and digested. Ridgway Knight, Caffery’s political adviser, had a private meeting with Colonel Passy, who assured him that de Gaulle would take power illegally only in the event of a Soviet invasion, or of the failure of the government of the day to resist a Soviet ultimatum.

Passy also tried to assure Knight that the hotheads in the RPF were leaving the movement to join paramilitary groups on the far right. Knight, however, was much better informed than Passy realized. Although there was a basis of truth in the claim that some of these elements had started to drift away, Knight knew the White Russian chief of staff of the Gaullist service d’ordre in Paris, Colonel Tchenkeli, who had told him about all the extreme right-wing groups the Gaullists could call upon.

De Gaulle’s speeches became increasingly concerned with foreign policy, and in the spring of 1948 that meant Germany. His address on 7 March to a Rassemblement gathering at Compiègne had demanded once again that Germany should be split into separate states. The Reich must not be re-created. But within two weeks, events in Germany began to overtake him.

On 19 March, forty-eight hours after France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgiumand Luxembourg had signed the Treaty of Brussels, Marshal Sokolovski, the Soviet commander in Germany, walked out of the Allied Control Commission in Berlin. The gesture signalled the end of wartime cooperation.

Robert Schuman, meanwhile, was uneasy at the speed with which his Foreign Minister was coming round to American and British views on Germany. Bidault had been encouraged by Churchill the previous October to accept the inevitability of reconciliation.

Within the French government, Georges Bidault was indeed the driving force for change, even if a number of his colleagues saw him more as a wagon hitched to an Anglo-American express. The London Accords on Germany were ratified in the National Assembly by a majority of only fourteen votes after the debate on 16 June. The most implacable opposition came from the Communists on one side and from de Gaulle and his followers on the other. De Gaulle, in a radio broadcast on 10 June, claimed that the London Accords involved ‘the formation of a Reich at Frankfurt’ and that nothing could ‘prevent the growth of a totalitarian state in these circumstances’.

Many senior officials were certain that de Gaulle’s view would prevail in the end. The Schuman government was clearly about to fall, and the head of the European Department at the Quai d’Orsay predicted that, within a month or two, the General would be in power.

One part of the prediction was correct. Bidault’s signature in London led to the downfall of the Schuman government, an event which took place on 19 July. But even the ensuing political crisis did not bring de Gaulle to power. One administration after another staggered to its feet, then collapsed again. France was to be left without a stable government until 11 September. Robert Schuman was appalled at the bickering – the worst offenders were in the Socialist Party – when Europe was on the brink of war.

In Berlin, the introduction of a new currency – the Deutschmark – in the American and British sectors on 23 June had been answered immediately with a blockade of the city by the Red Army. Marshal Sokolovski announced that Allied military government had ceased to exist. General Lucius D. Clay, the autocratic and excitable American commander, known as ‘the Kaiser’ to the State Department, wanted to fight through the Soviet zone to Berlin to reopen the city’s land corridors. Fortunately Truman rejected his pleas and decided on an airlift instead. On 29 June, the US Air Force and the RAF began their air-bridge into Tempelhof airport, with a cargo plane landing on average every eight minutes.

Rumours of war intensified again. American diplomats and officers who had been in Berlin talked of ‘Custer’s last stand’ during visits to Paris. Bogomolov, the Russian ambassador, did not disguise the menace. ‘You’re following a very bad policy,’ he said to a journalist. ‘You’ll repent of it before long, before the end of the year.’

France was returning to a state of turmoil reminiscent of the previous autumn. On 25 June, the day after the blockade of Berlin started, fighting broke out in Clermont-Ferrand. The Communists, according to Moch, tried to drive government forces out of the town. No fewer than 140 policemen were wounded, a number of them with acid burns.

In August, French forces became involved in the air-bridge by constructing a new airport at Tegel in their zone of Berlin. The Communist Party launched a poster campaign and a wave of demonstrations with such slogans as ‘Down with the anti-Soviet War’, ‘The French people will never fight the Soviet Union’. Dockers in the Communist stronghold of Le Havre, following Lecoeur’s instructions, refused to unload military supplies for the US army. The renewal of political strife at home and events in Berlin provoked even greater fears and a flight of capital.

That summer, leaders of the Rassemblement were even more conscious of a threat to them than they had been the previous November. General de Bénouville had an unexpected and anonymous visitor one night. It turned out to be Colonel Marcel Degliame, a Communist leader whomhe had known in the Resistance. ‘Don’t ask why I’ve come to see you,’ said Degliame. ‘But are you able to defend yourself?’

The Communists at this time went beyond minor acts of sabotage to disrupt Rassemblement meetings. Groups of militants attacked whenever the opportunity presented itself. The Gaullist service d’ordre did not hesitate to respond. After Communist attacks round Nancy and Metz, members of the Rassemblement were proud to have sent ‘some forty Communists to hospital’.

One of Malraux’s aides told an American Embassy official that the RPF had decided ‘to schedule meetings for other regions of France where Communists might attempt serious obstructions’. Caffery reported to Washington that the Communists appeared to be trying to bait the Gaullists into a false move.

De Gaulle’s whistle-stop tour of south-eastern France in September was the Rassemblement’s answer to the Communist challenge. After a well-ordered start on the Côte d’Azur, the Rassemblement’s organization fell apart disastrously in Grenoble. On the evening of 17 September, de Gaulle reached the outskirts of Grenoble, where, in a brief ceremony, he placed a wreath on the war memorial. Next morning, as he drove into the town, his entourage found that nails had been scattered all over the road. When they entered Grenoble, a large and noisy Communist demonstration greeted them. Virtually no Rassemblement escort was in place and few police were to be seen. Soon de Gaulle’s car came under attack as missiles of every sort were hurled from windows. The mayor of Grenoble, a member of the RPF, was hit at de Gaulle’s side.

That afternoon, de Gaulle made his speech as planned. But afterwards, as he was leaving the town, the RPF marshals were attacked by Communists with such violence that they sought refuge in a gymnasium. The police are said to have stood back while the Communists attempted to set the gymnasium ablaze. A group of RPF stewards arrived to help the besieged group and opened fire, as did some of the Gaullists inside the building. Several people were wounded in the firing and one Communist was killed.

There was no apparent link between incidents such as those in Grenoble and the state of international tension over Germany. Yet in Moscow, Foy Kohler, one of the State Department’s most highly regarded Kremlinologists, had been watching events in France with growing suspicion.

Kohler knew that Stalin’s fear of Germany was entirely visceral. His declaration in 1943 at the Teheran conference that it would be necessary to execute between 50,000 and 100,000 senior German officers was not merely a turn of phrase to impress his audience. And the Soviet leadership’s paranoia, caused by the Americans’ haste to change the Statute of Occupation, was entirely in character. Stalin had been traumatized by the German invasion of Russia mainly because he had so disastrously underestimated the threat of invasion.

It is worth transcribing Kohler’s telegramin full.

To: Secretary of State No: 2325, October 14, 5 p.m.
As seen from Moscow, current Communist-directed disturbances in France seemlikely to be deliberately calculated to hasten the advent to power of de Gaulle, with primary objective of thus bringing about the destruction of the London decisions and disrupting the dangerous (to Kremlin) unity of Western Powers. Soviet leaders clearly demonstrated during the Moscow talks that restoration of western Germany is their main present concern and at same time learned there was no chance of preventing such restoration by negotiation, even at the price of concessions with respect to Berlin. In view his clearly-expressed views, de Gaulle would apparently be second-best only to a Communist government in France in bringing about these Soviet objectives and French Communists who suffer at his hands are clearly ‘expendable’.

In Moscow, two days before the events in Grenoble, Georges Soria of the French Communist Party had told Kamenov that ‘in the present situation, the tasks of the French Communist Party are very complicated and difficult. At one meeting Thorez warned that a tenacious struggle will take place and that this conflict could even be armed.’ The statement can, of course, be read in different ways. But the general content, and the complicated and difficult tasks unspecified by Thorez, are compatible with the Kohler analysis.

The French Communist Party may have been the ‘eldest son of the Stalinist church’, but Stalin was hardly the man to shrink from playing Abraham. He knew that if the Gaullists had come to power – a prospect which seemed more likely at the time than it does in hindsight – they would have suppressed the Communist Party. Their plans for the rounding up of Communists were an open secret. Colonel Rémy later confirmed to Ridgway Knight that ‘the arrest of 500 Communists would decapitate and paralyze the movement, and the RPF knew exactly where these 500 men were’. Colonel Passy told American diplomats that the General should start by shooting several hundred people, but ‘unhappily he hasn’t got the stomach for it’.

The Kohler hypothesis, if true, prompts a number of thoughts. Stalin had almost certainly misjudged de Gaulle. However much de Gaulle loathed the deal on Germany or despised politicians, he would have considered seizing power illegally only if the government had looked like caving in to the Communists or to a Soviet ultimatum. Civil unrest, even with attacks on the Rassemblement, was not enough.

The political crisis in Paris, which had lasted most of the summer, with one politician after another failing to form a government, only came to an end on 11 September. Dr Henri Queuille of the Radicals, a country doctor famous for his lack of panache, finally succeeded. Queuille immediately reinstated Moch as Minister of the Interior.

The Communist Party’s efforts that autumn were directed once again through the CGT, and once again genuine grievances were exploited for political ends. Moch and other members of the government desperately wanted to reduce food prices, but the economic situation did not yet permit it. On 17 October, the franc had to be devalued by 17 per cent.

From 8 October, railway strikes spread. Other industries followed. The Communist Party was, however, wary about throwing its weight behind the strike at Renault, having had its hands burned there the year before. Paris was less affected by strikes than the previous year; most of the city’s population continued to work as usual. For Samuel Beckett, it was probably his most fertile period. He started to write Waiting for Godot on 9 October 1948, as an escape from his unsuccessful novels. He finished it less than four months later, on 29 January 1949.

Once more, the main centres of unrest were the coal-mining districts in the north of France. On 20 October the region was placed under a state of siege. Hundreds were arrested, including the Communist deputy René Camphin. Miners occupied the shafts and winding gear, having barricaded the entrances to the pits. They claimed that they were maintaining the mines, but after the sabotage of machinery the previous year Moch refused to take their word for it. Troops and armoured vehicles were brought back from the army in Germany to break down the barricades.

The war of attrition, which spread to the heavy industry of Lorraine and elsewhere, continued into November. The new British ambassador reported to London, ‘France is the present front line in the Cold War.’ Moch was as resolute as the year before: only unconditional surrender would be accepted. ‘The government has decided to maintain order with the greatest energy and re-establish the authority of the state,’ the Minister of the Interior reminded one of his colleagues. The new Prime Minister, Henri Queuille, formally instructed Jules Moch to forbid all prefects and inspectors-general ‘any sort of negotiation with the unions’ without his authority.

Moch received enough reports to convince him that he was dealing with a foreign-controlled operation directed against the Republic. He was determined to track down the source of Communist Party funds used to prolong the strikes. In a message marked ‘Très Secret’ to the Secretary of State for Finance, he asked him to investigate all ‘import licences without payment’. He was convinced that the Soviet Union was exporting goods via roundabout routes, which French Communist commercial fronts then sold off, never having paid for them.

Predictions of civil war and the return of de Gaulle produced a strong sense of déjà vu. Raymond Aron, at a curiously mixed dinner party – it included Bevin’s deputy, Hector MacNeill (who had brought his protégé Guy Burgess with him to Paris), Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, and Esmond and Ann Rothermere – predicted ‘six months of strikes and misery, then the return of de Gaulle’. Gaullists, both by belief and by self-interest, tended to talk up the degree of disorder.

Although the General’s personal popularity was waning, the elections of 7 November proved a surprise success for the Rassemblement. General Leclerc’s widow, Madame de Hauteclocque, ‘accepted a place on an RPF ticket because she was assured that she would not be elected and was much astonished to find herself in office’. Yet the Rassemblement was doomed to decline, because the autumn of 1948 marked the last frenzy of civil war paranoia. Despite all de Gaulle’s predictions, the Fourth Republic had not crumbled.

Meanwhile, the Communists no longer stood a chance of achieving power by constitutional means. After the Prague coup and the threats over Berlin, the majority of France’s population, whether they liked the idea or not, knew that their only place now was within the Western camp. Right into the 1960s, however, France remained the KGB’s ‘main target’ in ‘its policy of working for an internal split in NATO’. The man given the responsibility for forcing France to leave NATO was none other than Boris Ponomarev.

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