‘Indië verloren, rampspoed geboren.’ [If the Indies are lost, we’re done for’.]
Dutch saying, widely cited in 1940S
‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we
like it or not, this growth of [African] consciousness is a political fact’.
Harold Macmillan, speech at Cape Town, February 3rd 1960
‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role’.
Dean Acheson, speech at West Point, December 5th 1962
‘This is Imre Nagy, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian
People’s Republic, speaking. In the early hours of this morning, the Soviet
troops launched an attack against our capital city with the obvious
intention of overthrowing the lawful, democratic, Hungarian Government.
Our troops are fighting. The Government is in its place. I inform the
people of the country and world public opinion of this’.
Imre Nagy on Hungarian radio, 5.20 a.m. on November 4th 1956
‘It is a grave error to call upon foreign troops to teach one’s people
Josip Broz Tito, November 11th 1956
At the close of the Second World War, the peoples of Western Europe—who were hard put to govern or even feed themselves—continued to rule much of the non-European world. This unseemly paradox, whose implications were not lost on indigenous elites in the European colonies, had perverse consequences. To many in Britain, France or the Netherlands, their countries’ colonies and imperial holdings in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas were balm for the suffering and humiliations of the war in Europe; they had demonstrated their material value in that war as vital national resources. Without access to the far-flung territory, supplies and men that came with colonies, the British and French especially would have been at an even greater disadvantage in their struggle with Germany and Japan than they already were.
This appeared particularly obvious to the British. To anyone raised (like the present author) in post-war Britain, ‘England’, ‘Britain’ and ‘British Empire’ were near-synonymous terms. Elementary school maps showed a world heavily daubed in imperial red; history textbooks paid close attention to the history of British conquests in India and Africa especially; cinema newsreels, radio news bulletins, newspapers, illustrated magazines, children’s stories, comics, sporting contests, biscuit tins, canned fruit labels, butcher shop windows: everything was a reminder of England’s pivotal presence at the historical and geographical heart of an international sea-borne empire. The names of colonial and dominion cities, rivers and political figures were as familiar as those of Great Britain itself.
The British had lost their ‘first’ empire in North America; its successor, if not exactly acquired in ‘a fit of absent-mindedness’, was anything but the product of design. It cost a lot to police, service and administer; and—like the French imperium in North Africa—it was most fervently appreciated and defended by a small settler class of farmers and ranchers, in places like Kenya or Rhodesia. The ‘white’ dominions—Canada, Australia, New Zealand—and South Africa were independent; but their formal allegiance to the Crown, their affective ties to Britain, the food and raw materials they could supply and their armed forces were regarded as national assets in all but name. The material value of the rest of Britain’s Empire was less immediately obvious than its strategic uses: British holdings in East Africa—like the various British-controlled territories and ports in the Middle East and around the Arabian peninsula and the Indian Ocean—were esteemed above all as adjuncts to Britain’s main imperial asset: India, which at the time included what would later become Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka and Burma.
All the European empires had been acquired sporadically, episodically and (with the exception of the land and sea routes servicing British India) with little sustained attention to logistic consistency or economic gain. The Spanish had already lost most of their empire, first to the British, later to demands for independence from their own settlers, most recently to the rising power of the United States—a source of lingering anti-American sentiment in Spain, then and now. What remained were mere enclaves in Morocco and Equatorial Guinea, to be abandoned by Franco (ever the realist) between 1956 and 1968.
But much of Africa and Asia was still in European hands: governed either directly from the imperial capitals, through a locally recruited governing caste of European-educated intellectuals, or else via indigenous rulers in subservient alliance with European masters. Politicians in post-war Europe who knew only such people were thus largely unaware of the rapid growth of nationalist sentiment among a coming generation of activists throughout the empires (except perhaps in India, but even there they long underestimated its scale and determination).
Thus neither the British, nor any of the other remaining European colonial powers, anticipated the imminent collapse of their holdings or influence overseas. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm has attested, the end of the European colonial empires seemed very far off in 1939 even to students at a seminar for young Communists from Britain and her colonies. Six years later, the world was still divided between rulers and ruled, powerful and powerless, wealthy and poor, to an extent that seemed unlikely to be bridged in the near future. Even in 1960, well after the worldwide movement towards independence had gathered steam, 70 percent of the world’s gross output and 80 percent of the economic value added in manufacturing industry came from Western Europe and North America.
Tiny Portugal—smallest and poorest of the European colonial powers—extracted raw materials at highly favorable prices from its colonies in Angola and Mozambique; these also offered a captive market for Portuguese exports, otherwise internationally uncompetitive. Thus Mozambique grew cotton for the Portuguese commodity market rather than food for its people, a distortion that issued in sizeable profits and regular local famines. In these circumstances and despite unsuccessful revolts in the colonies and military coups at home, Portugese decolonization was postponed as long as possible.99
Even if the European states could manage without their empires, few at the time could conceive of the colonies themselves surviving alone, unsupported by foreign rule. Even liberals and socialists who favored autonomy and eventual independence for Europe’s overseas subjects expected it to be many years before such goals would be realized. It is salutary to be reminded that as recently as 1951 the British foreign secretary, Labour’s Herbert Morrison, regarded independence for African colonies as comparable to ‘giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun.’
The world war, however, had wrought greater changes in the colonies than most Europeans yet understood. Britain had lost its East Asian territories to Japanese occupation during the war, and although these territories were recovered after the defeat of Japan the standing of the old colonial power had been radically undermined. The British surrender in Singapore in February 1942 was a humiliation from which the British Empire in Asia never recovered. Even though British forces were able to prevent Burma and thence India falling to the Japanese, the myth of European invincibility was shattered for good. After 1945 the colonial powers in Asia would face growing pressure to relinquish their traditional claims.
For the Netherlands, the oldest colonial power in the region, the consequences were particularly traumatic. The Dutch East Indies, and the trading company that had developed them, were part of the national myth, a direct link to the Golden Age and a symbol of Dutch commercial and seafaring glory. It was also widely assumed, especially in the gloomy, impoverished post-war years, that the raw materialsof the Indies—rubber especially—would be the Netherlands’ economic salvation. Yet within two years of the Japanese defeat, the Dutch were once again at war: the Dutch-held territories of South-East Asia (today’s Indonesia) were tying down 140,000 Dutch soldiers (professionals, conscripts and volunteers) and the revolution for Indonesian independence was generating admiration and imitation throughout the remaining Dutch imperium in the Pacific, the Caribbean and South America.
The ensuing guerilla war lasted for four years and cost the Netherlands more than 3,000 military and civilian casualties. Indonesian independence, unilaterally asserted by the nationalist leader Sukarno on November 17th 1945, was finally conceded by the Dutch authorities (and a tearful Queen Juliana) at a conference in The Hague, in December 1949. A steady stream of Europeans (actually many of them were born in the Indies and had never seen the Netherlands) made their way ‘home.’ By the end of 1957, when President Sukarno closed Indonesia to Dutch businessmen, Dutch ‘repatriates’ numbered many tens of thousands.
The experience of decolonization had an embittering effect on Dutch public life, already hard hit by the war and its sufferings. Many ex-colonials and their friends pressed what became known as ‘the Myth of Good Rule’, blaming the Left for the Dutch failure to reassert colonial authority following the interregnum of Japanese occupation. On the other hand conscripted soldiers (the overwhelming majority) were just glad to be home in one piece, after a colonial war of which no-one was proud, in which many felt that military success had been impeded by UN insistence on a negotiated transfer of power, and that was very quickly consigned to a national memory hole.
In the longer run the enforced Dutch retreat from the colonies facilitated a growing national sentiment for ‘Europe’. World War Two had demonstrated that the Netherlands could not stand aside from international affairs, particularly those of its large neighbors, and the loss of Indonesia was a timely reminder of the country’s real standing as a small and vulnerable European state. Making a virtue of necessity, the Dutch retooled as ultra-enthusiastic proponents of European economic and later political integration. But the process did not just happen painlessly, nor was it an overnight switch in the collective sensibilities of the nation. Until the spring of 1951, the military calculations and expenditures of post-war Dutch governments were targeted not for European defense (despite Dutch participation in the Brussels Pact and NATO) but to hold on to the colonies. Only slowly, and with some suppressed regret, did Dutch politicians pay undivided attention to European affairs and abandon their ancient priorities.
The same was true, in varying degrees, of all the colonial and ex-colonial powers of Western Europe. American scholars, projecting the experience and preoccupations of Washington onto the rest of the West, sometimes miss this distinctive feature of post-World War Two Europe. In the United States, the Cold War was what mattered and foreign and domestic priorities and rhetoric reflected this. But in The Hague, in London or in Paris, these same years were much taken up with costly guerrilla wars in far-flung and increasingly ungovernable colonies. National independence movements were the strategic headache for much of the 1950s, not Moscow and its ambitions—though in some cases the two overlapped.
The French Empire, like the British, had benefited from the re-distribution after 1919 of Asian and African holdings seized from the defeated Central Powers. Thus in 1945 liberated France ruled once again over Syria and Lebanon, as well as substantial swaths of sub-Saharan Africa and some island holdings in the Caribbean and the Pacific. But the ‘jewels’ in France’s imperial crown were her territories in Indo-China and, especially, the old-established French settlements along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa: Tunisia, Morocco and most of all Algeria. In French history texts, however, the place of colonies was perhaps more ambiguous than across the English Channel—in part because France was a Republic in which imperial dominion had no natural place, in part because so many of France’s early conquests had long since been taken over by English-speaking rulers. In 1950 there were still millions of French men and women who remembered the ‘Fashoda Incident’ of 1898, when France backed down from a confrontation with Britain over control of Egypt, Sudan and the Upper Nile. To speak of Empire in France was to be reminded of defeat as well as victory.
On the other hand French schoolchildren were insistently presented with the image of ‘France’ itself as a trans-oceanic continuum, a place in which the civic and cultural attributes of Frenchness were open to all; where elementary schools from Saigon to Dakar taught about ‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois’ (‘our ancestors the Gauls’) and proclaimed—if only in principle—the virtues of a seamless cultural assimilation that would have been quite unthinkable to the administrators of British, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish or Portugese colonies.100 Only in France could the metropolitan authorities seriously treat their most valued colonial possessions not as foreign soil but as administrative extensions of France itself. Thus ‘Algeria’ was but a geographical expression; the area it denoted was administered as three departments of France (in which, however, only its European residents enjoyed full civil rights).
During the war, the French, like the British and Dutch, had lost their prized South-East Asian colonies to the Japanese. But in the French case the Japanese occupation came late—until March 1945 French Indo-China remained under the tutelage of the Vichy authorities—and was anyway incomparably less traumatic than France’s own defeat at home in 1940. France’s humiliation in Europe accentuated the symbolic significance of its overseas empire: if the French were not, in their own eyes, quite reduced to a ‘helpless, hopeless mass of protoplasm’ (Eisenhower’s description of them in 1954) this was in large measure due to their continuedcredibility as a leading colonial power, which was thus a matter of some importance.
In Africa, De Gaulle had re-established France’s presence at the Brazzaville Conference of early February 1944. There, in the capital of French Equatorial Africa across the river from the Belgian Congo, the leader of the Free French had given characteristic expression to his vision of France’s colonial future:
‘In French Africa, as in every land where men live under our flag, there can be no true progress unless men are able to benefit from it morally and materially on their native soil, unless they can raise themselves little by little to a level where they can partake in the management of their own affairs. It is the duty of France to bring this about.’
What exactly De Gaulle meant is—as so often—unclear, perhaps deliberately so. But he was certainly understood to be referring to colonial emancipation and eventual autonomy. The circumstances were propitious. French public opinion was not inhospitable to colonial reforms—André Gide’s excoriation of forced labor practices in his Voyage au Congo (1927) had raised pre-war public awareness of European crimes in central Africa—while the Americans were making ominously anti-colonial noises. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull had recently spoken approvingly of the prospect of international control for the less advanced European colonies and early self-government for the rest.101
Reformist talk in impoverished, isolated francophone Africa was cheap, especially before metropolitan France itself was even liberated. South-East Asia was another matter. On September 2nd 1945 Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese nationalist leader (and a founder member of the French Communist Party, thanks to his youthful presence at its December 1920 Congress in Tours), proclaimed the independence of his nation. Within two weeks British forces began to arrive in the southern city of Saigon, followed a month later by the French. Meanwhile the northern districts of Vietnam, hitherto under Chinese control, were restored to the French in February 1946.
At this point there was a serious prospect of negotiated autonomy or independence, as the authorities in Paris opened talks with nationalist representatives. But on June 1st 1946 the French admiral and local plenipotentiary Thierry d’Argenlieu unilaterally proclaimed the separation of Cochin China (the southern part of the country) from the nationalist-dominated north, sabotaging his own government’s tentative efforts to reach a compromise and breaking off government conversations with Ho. By the autumn of that same year the French had bombed Haiphong harbor, the nationalist Vietminh had attacked the French in Hanoi and the first Vietnam War had begun.
France’s post-war struggle to re-establish its authority in Indo-China was a politicaland military catastrophe. Ho Chi Minh received double credit among the French domestic Left, as a fighter for national independence and as a Communist revolutionary—two identities as inextricably intertwined in his own thinking as they were in his burnished international image.102 Sending young men to fight and die in a ‘dirty war’ in Indo-China made little sense to most French voters; and letting Hanoi take over was not obviously more ill-advised than supporting the palpably inadequate Bao Dai, whom the French established as the country’s new ‘emperor’ in March 1949.
The French officer corps, on the other hand, was certainly keen to pursue the struggle in Vietnam; there, as later in Algeria, France’s martial heritage (or what remained of it) seemed at stake and the French High Command had a point to prove. But the French economy could never have sustained a long drawn out war in a far-flung colony without significant external aid. France’s war in Indo-China was funded by the Americans. At first, Washington’s contribution was indirect: thanks to US loans and aid, the French were able to divert considerable resources to an increasingly expensive and unsuccessful struggle to defeat the Vietminh. In effect, the USA underwrote post-war French economic modernization while France dedicated its own scarce resources to the war.
From 1950, American aid took a more direct form. Starting in July of that year (one month after the outbreak of war in nearby Korea) the US sharply increased its military assistance to French forces in South-East Asia. The French bargained hard before consenting to support the doomed European defense project and conceding West German membership in NATO: what they got in return (for allowing the US to protect them, as it seemed to aggrieved Washington insiders) was very substantial American military aid. Of all the European states France, by 1953, was by far the most dependent on US support, in cash and kind alike.
Only in 1954 did Washington call a halt, rejecting increasingly desperate French pleas for airborne help to save the doomed French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. After nearly eight years of fruitless and bloody struggle, it was clear to Washington not merely that the French could not re-establish their former authority in Indo-China, but that they were no match for Ho Chi Minh’s regular and guerilla forces. In America’s view the French had frittered their money away and were an increasingly risky investment. When Dien Bien Phu surrendered on May 7th 1954 and the French requested a cease-fire, no-one was surprised.
The fall of French Indo-China precipitated the collapse of the last of the French coalition governments that had tried to hold it, and the succession to the premiership of Pierre Mendès-France. Led by ‘PMF’ the French negotiated an agreement, signed at Geneva on July 21st 1954, under whose terms France withdrew from the region, leaving two separate entities—‘North’ and ‘South’ Vietnam—whose political relationship and institutions were to be determined by future elections. Those elections were never held, and the burden of sustaining the southern half of France’s former colony now fell to the Americans alone.
Few in France were sorry to see Indo-China go. Unlike the Dutch, the French had not been in the region very long; and even though America paid for the first Vietnam War (something of which very few Frenchmen were aware at the time), it was French soldiers who fought and died there. French politicians of the Right in particular castigated Mendès-France and his predecessors for their failure to prosecute the war more effectively, but no-one had anything better to propose and almost all were secretly pleased to put Vietnam behind them. Only the French Army—or more precisely the professional officer corps—harbored continuing grievances. Some younger officers, notably those who had first served in the Resistance or with the Free French and acquired there the habit of independent political judgment, began to nourish inchoate but dangerous resentments. Once again, they murmured, French troops in the field had been ill served by their political masters in Paris.
With the loss of Indo-China, French attention turned to North Africa. In one respect this was almost literally true—the Algerian insurrection began on November 1st 1954, just fourteen weeks after the signing of the Geneva accords. But North Africa had been at the center of Parisian concerns long since. Ever since the French first arrived in present-day Algeria in 1830, the colony there had been part of a larger French ambition, dating back further still, to dominate Saharan Africa from the Atlantic to Suez. Thwarted in the east by the British, the French had settled instead for primacy in the western Mediterranean and across the Sahara into west-central Africa.
Outside of the far older settlement in Quebec, and some islands of the Caribbean, Northern Africa (Algeria in particular) was the only French colony in which Europeans had established themselves permanently in large numbers. But many of the Europeans were not French in origin but rather Spanish, Italian, Greek or something else. Even an emblematically French Algerian like Albert Camus was part-Spanish, part-French; and his French forebears were very recent arrivals. It was a long time since France had had an excess of people; and unlike Russia, Poland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, Scotland (and even England), France had not been a land of emigrants for many generations. The French were not natural colonizers.
Nevertheless, if there was a France-outside-France it was in Algeria—confirmed, as we have seen, by Algeria’s technical presence inside France as part of the metropolitan administrative structure. The closest analogy elsewhere was Ulster, another overseas enclave in a former colony, institutionally incorporated into the ‘mainland’ and with a long-established settler community for whom the attachment to the imperial heartland mattered far more than it did to the metropolitan majority. The idea that Algeria might one day become independent (and thus Arab-ruled, given the overwhelming numerical predominance of Arabs and Berbers in its population) was unthinkable to its European minority.
Accordingly, French politicians had long avoided thinking about it. No French government except Léon Blum’s short-lived Popular Front of 1936 paid serious attention to the grievous mis-rule practiced by colonial administrators in French North Africa. Moderate Algerian nationalists like Ferhat Abbas were well known to French politicians and intellectuals before and after World War Two, but no-one really expected Paris to concede their modest goals of self-government or ‘home rule’ any time soon. Nevertheless, the Arab leadership was initially optimistic that the defeat of Hitler would usher in long-awaited reforms, and when they issued a manifesto on February 10th 1943, in the wake of the Allied landings in North Africa, they took great care to emphasize their loyalty to the ideals of 1789 and their affection for the ‘culture of France and the West that they had received and cherished’.
Their appeals went unheard. The government of liberated France showed little concern for Arab sentiment, and when this indifference resulted in an uprising in the Kabylia region east of Algiers in May 1945, the insurgents were uncompromisingly crushed. For the following decade Parisian attention was turned elsewhere. By the time these years of pent-up anger and thwarted expectations culminated in the outbreak of organized insurrection, on November 1st 1954, compromise was no longer on the agenda. The Algerian FLN—Front de Libération Nationale—was led by a younger generation of Arab nationalists who scorned the moderate, Francophile strategies of their elders. Their objective was not ‘home rule’ or reform but independence, a goal that successive French governments could not contemplate. The result was eight murderous years of civil war.
Belatedly, the French authorities proposed reforms. The new Socialist government of Guy Mollet granted independence in March 1956 to the neighboring French colonies of Tunisia and Morocco—the first surrender of colonial power on the African continent. But when Mollet visited Algiers, a crowd of European settlers pelted him with rotten fruit. Paris was caught between the implacable demands of the clandestine FLN and the refusal of Algeria’s European residents, now led by a Committee for the Defense of French Algeria (l’Algérie française), to accept any compromise with their Arab neighbors. The French strategy, if it merits the name, was now to defeat the FLN by force before putting pressure on the settlers to accept political reforms and some power-sharing measures.
The French army duly undertook a bitter war of attrition against the guerrillas of the FLN. Both sides regularly resorted to intimidation, torture, murder and outright terrorism. After a particularly gruesome series of Arab assassinations and European reprisals in December 1956, Mollet’s political representative Robert Lacoste gave French paratroop colonel Jacques Massu a free hand to destroy the nationalist insurgents in Algiers by whatever means necessary. By September 1957 Massu was victorious, having broken a general strike and crushed the insurgents in the Battle of Algiers. The Arab population paid a terrible price, but the reputation of France was irrevocably sullied. And the European settlers remained as suspicious as ever of Paris’s long-term intentions.103
In February 1958 the newly installed government of Felix Gaillard was embarrassed by the French air force’s bombing of Sakhiet, a town across the border in Tunisia suspected of serving as a base for Algerian nationalists. The resulting international outcry, and offers of Anglo-American ‘good offices’ to help solve the Algerian imbroglio, led to growing fears among the Europeans of Algeria that Paris was planning to abandon them. Policemen and soldiers in Paris and Algiers began openly to demonstrate their sympathy for the settlers’ cause. The Gaillard government, France’s third in eleven months, resigned on April 15th. Ten days later there was a huge demonstration in Algiers demanding the preservation in perpetuity of French Algeria and the return to power of De Gaulle; the organizers of the gathering formed themselves into a Committee of Public Safety, provocatively echoing the French Revolutionary institution of the same name.
On May 15th, forty-eight hours after yet another French government, led by Pierre Pfimlin, had been inaugurated in Paris, General Raoul Salan—the French military commander in Algeria—shouted out De Gaulle’s name to a cheering crowd in the Forum in Algiers. De Gaulle himself, who had been conspicuously silent since retreating from public life to his home village of Colombey in eastern France, reappeared in public to address a press conference on May 19th. Armed rebels seized control of the island of Corsica and Paris was gripped by rumours of imminent paratroop landings. On May 28th Pfimlin resigned and President René Coty called upon De Gaulle to form a government. Without even pretending to demur, De Gaulle took office on June 1st and was voted full powers by the National Assembly the following day. His first act was to fly to Algiers, where on June 4th he announced delphically to an enthusiastic crowd of cheering soldiers and grateful Europeans: ‘Je vous ai compris’ (‘I have understood you’).
The new French Prime Minister had indeed understood his Algerian supporters, better than they knew. He was immensely popular among the Europeans of Algeria, who saw him as their saviour: in the referendum of September 1958 De Gaulle secured 80 percent of the vote in France, but 96 percent of the vote in Algeria.104 But among De Gaulle’s many distinctive traits was an unwavering appreciation for order and legitimacy. The hero of the Free French, the implacable critic of Vichy, the man who had restored the credibility of the French state after August 1944 was no friend of the Algerian rebels (many of them former Pétainists), much less the free-thinking insurrectionary young officers who had taken their part. His first task, as he understood it, was to restore the authority of government in France. His second and related objective was to resolve the Algerian conflict that had so dramatically undermined it.
Within a year it was clear that Paris and Algiers were on a collision course. International opinion was increasingly favorable to the FLN and its demand for independence. The British were granting independence to their African colonies. Even the Belgians finally released the Congo in June 1960 (albeit in an irresponsible manner and with disastrous results).105 Colonial Algeria was fast becoming an anachronism, as De Gaulle fully understood. He had already established a ‘Communauté Française’ as the first step towards a ‘commonwealth’ of France’s former colonies. South of the Sahara, formal independence would be granted rapidly to French-educated elites of countries that were far too weak to stand alone and would thus be utterly dependent on France for decades to come. In September 1959, just one year after coming to power, the French President proposed ‘self-determination’ for Algeria.
Infuriated by what they regarded as evidence of a coming sell-out, officers and settlers in Algeria began planning a full-scale revolt. There were plots, coups and talk of revolution. In January 1960 barricades went up in Algiers and ‘ultra-patriots’ shot at French gendarmes. But the revolt collapsed in the face of De Gaulle’s intransigence and unreliable senior officers (including Massu and his superior, General Maurice Challe) were carefully re-assigned away from Algeria. The disturbances continued, however, culminating in an unsuccessful military putsch in April 1961, inspired by the newly formed OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète). But the conspirators failed to shift De Gaulle, who went on French national radio to denounce the ‘military pronunciamento by a handful of retired generals’. The chief victim of the coup was the morale and the international image (what remained of it) of the French Army. An overwhelming majority of Frenchmen and women, many of them with sons serving in Algeria, drew the conclusion that Algerian independence was not just inevitable but desirable—and for the sake of France, the sooner the better.106
De Gaulle, ever the realist, began negotiations with the FLN at the spa town of Evian on Lake Geneva. Initial talks, conducted in June 1960 and again during June and July 1961, had failed to find common ground. A renewed attempt, in March 1962, was more successful, after just ten days of discussion the two sides reached agreement and on March 19th, after nearly eight years of unbroken fighting, the FLN declared a cease-fire. On the basis of the terms agreed at Evian De Gaulle called a referendum on Sunday July 1st and the French people voted overwhelmingly to free themselves of the Algerian shackle. Two days later Algeria became an independent state.
The Algerian tragedy did not end there. The OAS grew into a fully fledged underground organization, committed first to preserving French Algeria and then, after that failed, to punishing those who had ‘betrayed’ their cause. In February 1962 alone, OAS operatives and bombs killed 553 people. Spectacular assassination attempts on French Culture Minister André Malraux and on De Gaulle himself were unsuccessful, though at least one plan to ambush the President’s car as he drove through the Parisian suburb of Petit Clamart came perilously close to succeeding. For a few years in the early sixties France was in the grip of a determined and increasingly desperate terrorist threat. The French intelligence services ultimately broke the OAS, but the memory lingered.
Meanwhile, millions of Algerians were forced into French exile against their will. The European pieds-noirs settled for the most part in southern France; the first generation harbored longstanding grievances against the French authorities for betraying their cause and forcing them off their property and out of their jobs. Algeria’s Jews also abandoned the country, some for Israel, many—like the Moroccan Jews before them—for France, where they would come in time to constitute the largest (and predominantly Sephardic) Jewish community in Western Europe. Many Arabs, too, quit independent Algeria. Some left in anticipation of the repressive, dogmatic rule of the FLN. Others, notably those who had worked with the French or served as auxiliaries with French police and military authorities—the so-called harkis—fled the predictable wrath of the victorious nationalists. Many were caught and suffered horrible retribution; but even those who made it safely to France got no thanks from the French and scant acknowledgement or recompense for their sacrifices.
France was in a hurry to forget its Algerian trauma. The Evian Agreements of 1962 put an end to nearly five decades of war or fear of war in French life. The population was weary—weary of crises, weary of fighting, weary of threats and rumours and plots. The Fourth Republic had lasted just twelve years. Unloved and unlamented, it was cruelly weakened from the outset by the absence of an effective executive—a legacy of the Vichy experience, which had made post-war legislators reluctant to establish a strong presidency. It was handicapped by its parliamentary and electoral systems, which favored multiple parties and produced unstable coalition governments. It oversaw unprecedented social changes but these generated a divisive political backlash. Pierre Poujade, a bookseller from St Céré in the deep south-west of France, formed Europe’s first single-issue protest party to defend ‘des petits, des matraqués, des spoliés, des laminés, des humiliés’: the ripped-off, lied-to, humiliated little men and women left behind by history. Fifty-two anti-system, ‘poujadist’ deputies won parliamentary seats in the national elections of 1956.
But above all, the first post-war French republic was brought low by its colonial struggles. Like the Ancien Régime, the Fourth Republic was crippled by the costs of war. Between December 1955 and December 1957 France lost two-thirds of its currency reserves, despite the steady growth of the economy. Exchange controls, multiple exchange rates (comparable to those operated by the Soviet bloc in later decades), foreign debt, budget deficits and chronic inflation were all attributable to the uncontrolled expenses of unsuccessful colonial wars, from 1947 to 1954 and again from 1955 onwards. Governments of every hue divided and fell when faced with these hurdles. Even without a disaffected army, the Fourth Republic would have been hard pressed to face down such challenges just a decade after the worst military defeat in the nation’s history and a humiliating four-year occupation. The wonder is that it lasted as long as it did.
The institutions of Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic were designed to avoid precisely the defects of its predecessor. The Assembly and the political parties were reduced in significance, the executive was dramatically strengthened: the constitution gave the President considerable control and initiative in the making of policy, and absolute sway over prime ministers whom he could appoint and dismiss virtually at will. In the aftermath of his success in ending the Algerian conflict, De Gaulle proposed that the President of the Republic be henceforth elected by direct universal suffrage (rather than indirectly, by the Assembly, as hitherto); this amendment to the constitution was duly approved in a referendum of October 28th 1962. Sustained by his institutions, his record and his personality—and French memories of the alternative—the French President now had more power than any other freely elected head of state or government in the world.
In domestic affairs, De Gaulle was for the most part content to leave daily business to his prime ministers. The radical economic reform program that began with the issuing of a new franc on December 27th 1958 was in line with earlier recommendations from the International Monetary Fund, and it contributed directly to the stabilization of France’s troubled finances. For all his mandarin allure De Gaulle was a natural radical, unafraid of change: as he had written in Vers l’armée de métier (‘The Army of the Future’), a youthful treatise on military reform: ‘Nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed.’ It is thus not surprising that many of the most significant transformations in French transportation infrastructure, town planning and state-directed industrial investment were conceived and begun under his authority.
But like much else in De Gaulle’s pursuit of domestic modernization, notably Malraux’s ambitious plans to restore and clean all of France’s stock of historic public buildings, these changes were always part of a larger, political objective: the restoration of Frenchgrandeur. Like Spain’s General Franco (with whom he otherwise had nothing in common), De Gaulle understood economic stabilization and modernization largely as weapons in the struggle to restore national glory. France had been in steady decline at least since 1871, a grim trajectory marked by military defeat, diplomatic humiliation, colonial retreat, economic deterioration and domestic instability. De Gaulle’s goal was to close out the era of French decay. ‘All my life’, he wrote in his war memoirs, ‘I have had a certain idea of France’. Now he was to put it into effect.
The French President’s chosen arena was foreign policy, an emphasis dictated by personal taste and raison d’état alike. De Gaulle had long been sensitive to France’s serial humiliation—less by its German foe in 1940 than at the hands of its Anglo-American allies ever since. De Gaulle never forgot his own embarrassing isolation as France’s impoverished and largely ignored spokesman in wartime London. His grasp of military reality kept him from expressing the pain that he shared with other Frenchmen at the British sinking of France’s proud Mediterranean fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940; but the symbolism of the act rankled nonetheless.
De Gaulle had particular cause to feel ambivalent towards Washington, where Franklin Roosevelt never took him seriously. The United States maintained good relations with the wartime Vichy regime far longer than was decent or prudent. France was absent from the wartime Allied negotiations; and even though this allowed De Gaulle in later years cynically to disclaim responsibility for a Yalta agreement of which he privately approved, the memory rankled. But the worst humiliations came after the war was won. France was effectively shut out of all major decisions over Germany. Intelligence-sharing between Britain and the US was never extended to France (which was rightly assumed to be dangerously leaky). The nuclear ‘club’ did not include France, reduced thereby to unprecedented irrelevance in international military calculations.
Worse still, France had been utterly dependent on the USA in its colonial war in Asia. In October 1956, when Britain, France and Israel conspired to attack Nasser’s Egypt, it was President Eisenhower who pressured the British into withdrawing, to France’s impotent fury. A year later, in November 1957, French diplomats fumed helplessly when British and American arms were delivered to Tunisia, despite French fears that these would end up in Algerian rebel hands. Shortly after taking office in 1958, De Gaulle himself was bluntly informed by General Norstad, the American commander of NATO, that he was not entitled to learn details of the American deployment of nuclear weapons on French soil.
This is the background to De Gaulle’s foreign policy once he assumed full presidential powers. Of the Americans he expected little. From nuclear weapons to the dollar’s privileged international status as a reserve currency, the US was in a position to impose its interests on the rest of the Western alliance and could be expected to do so. The US could not be trusted, but it was at least predictable; the important thing was not to be dependent on Washington, as French policy had been in Indo-China and again at Suez. France must stand its ground as best it could—for example, by acquiring its own nuclear weapon. De Gaulle’s attitude to Britain, however, was more complicated.
Like most observers, the French President reasonably and correctly assumed that Great Britain would strive to maintain its position halfway between Europe and America—and that, if forced to chose, London would opt for its Atlantic ally over its European neighbors. This was brought home very forcibly in December 1962, when the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan met President Kennedy at Nassau, in the Bahamas, and accepted an arrangement whereby the US would furnish Britain with Polaris submarine-based nuclear missiles (as part of a multilateral force that effectively subsumed Britain’s nuclear arms under US control).
De Gaulle was furious. Before traveling to Nassau, Macmillan had held talks with De Gaulle at Rambouillet; but he had given the French President no indication of what was to come. Nassau, then, was yet another ‘Anglo-American’ arrangement cooked up behind France’s back. To this injury was added further insult when Paris was itself offered the same Polaris missiles, on similar conditions, without even having been party to the discussions. It was against this background that President De Gaulle announced, at his press conference on January 14th 1963 that France was vetoing Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community. If Britain wished to be a US satellite, so be it. But it could not be ‘European’ as well. Meanwhile—as we have seen—De Gaulle turned towards Bonn and signed the highly symbolic if utterly insubstantial Treaty with the Federal Republic.
The idea that France could compensate for its vulnerability to Anglo-American pressure by aligning with its old enemy across the Rhine was hardly new. Back in June 1926 the French diplomat Jacques Seydoux had minuted in a confidential note to his political bosses that ‘it is better to work with the Germans to dominate Europe than to find ourselves against them . . . a Franco-German rapprochement will allow us to get out all the quicker from the Anglo-American grip’.107 Similar thinking had lain behind the calculations of conservative diplomats who backed Pétain in 1940. But in the circumstances of 1963 the Treaty with Germany made little practical difference. The French had no plans to leave the Western alliance, and De Gaulle had not the least intention of being dragged into any German schemes to revise the post-war settlement in the East.
What the Treaty of 1963 and the new Franco-German condominium really confirmed was France’s decisive turn towards Europe. For Charles de Gaulle, the lesson of the twentieth century was that France could only hope to recover its lost glories by investing in the European project and shaping it into the service of French goals. Algeria was gone. The colonies were going. The Anglo-Americans were as unsympathetic as ever. The serial defeats and losses of the past decades left France with no other option, if it hoped to recover some of its past influence: as Adenauer had reassured French Prime Minister Guy Mollet on the day that the French were forced by US pressure and British compliance to halt their operations at Suez, ‘Europe will be your revenge.’
With one important exception, the British retreat from empire was very different from that of the French. Britain’s colonial inheritance was larger and more complicated.The British Empire, like the Soviet one, survived the war intact, if battered. Great Britain depended heavily on imperial growers for basic foodstuffs (unlike France, which was self-sufficient in foodstuffs and whose overwhelmingly tropical imperial territories produced very different commodities); and in certain theatres of the war—North Africa in particular—Commonwealth troops had outnumbered British soldiers. The residents of Britain itself were, as we have seen, far more conscious of Empire than their French counterparts—one reason why London was so much bigger than Paris was that it had thrived on its imperial role as port, commercial entrepôt, manufacturing center and financial capital. The BBC guidelines in 1948 advised broadcasters to be mindful of their predominantly non-Christian overseas audience: ‘Disrespectful, let alone derogatory, references to Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems and so on . . . may cause deep offense and are to be avoided altogether.’
But the British after 1945 had no realistic hope of holding on to their imperial heritage. The country’s resources were hopelessly overstretched, and the costs of maintaining even the Indian empire were no longer balanced by economic or strategic advantage: whereas exports to the Indian sub-continent in 1913 were nearly one-eighth of the British total, after World War Two they were just 8.3 percent and falling. In any case it was obvious to almost everyone that the pressure for independence was now irresistible. The Commonwealth, created by the 1931 Statute of Westminster, had been intended by its framers to obviate the need for rapid moves to colonial independence, offering instead a framework for autonomous and semi-autonomous territories to remain bound by allegiance and obedience to the British Crown, while relieving them of the objectionable trappings of Imperial domination. But it was now to become instead a holding club for former colonies, independent states whose membership in the British Commonwealth constrained them only to the extent of their own interests and sentiments.
India, Pakistan and Burma were granted independence in 1947, Ceylon the following year. The process was hardly bloodless—millions of Hindus and Muslims were massacred in ethnic cleansing and population exchanges that followed—but the colonial power itself withdrew relatively unscathed. A Communist insurgency in neighboring Malaya, however, led the British government in June 1948 to declare a State of Emergency that would only be lifted twelve years later with the rebels’ decisive defeat. But on the whole, and in spite of the accompanying retreat from India and its neighbors of thousands of colonial residents and administrators, Britain’s departure from South Asia was both more orderly and less traumatic than might have been expected.
In the Middle East, matters were more complicated. In the British Mandate territory of Palestine, Great Britain abandoned its responsibilities in 1948 under humiliating but (again, from the British point of view) relatively bloodless circumstances—it was only after the British had quit the scene that Arabs and Jews set upon one another in force. In Iraq, where Britain and America had common oil interests, the US progressively displaced the UK as the dominant imperial influence. But it was in Egypt, paradoxically a country that had never been a British colony in the conventional sense, that Britain experienced the ironies and drama of de-colonization and suffered a defeat of historic proportions. In the Suez Crisis of 1956 Britain underwent for the first time the sort of international humiliation—illustrating and accelerating the country’s decline—that had become so familiar to the French.
The British interest in Egypt stemmed directly from the importance of India, to which was added in later years the need for oil. British troops first seized Cairo in 1882, thirteen years after the opening of the Suez Canal, administered from Paris by the Suez Canal Company. Until World War One Egypt was ruled in fact if not in name by a British Resident (for much of this period the redoubtable Lord Cromer). From 1914 to 1922 Egypt was a British Protectorate, after which it became independent. Relations between the two countries remained stable for a while, formalized in a 1936 Treaty. But in October 1952 the new government in Cairo, led by army officers who had overthrown the Egyptian King Farouk, abrogated the Treaty. In response the British, fearful for the loss of their privileged access to a strategically crucial waterway, re-occupied the Canal Zone.
Within two years one of the revolutionary officers, Gamal Abdul Nasser, had become head of the government and was pressing for the departure of British soldiers from Egyptian soil. The British were disposed to compromise—they needed Egyptian cooperation. The UK was increasingly reliant on cheap oil, imported via the Suez Canal and paid for in sterling. If this supply was disrupted, or the Arabs rejected payment in sterling, Britain would have to use her precious currency reserves to buy dollars and get the oil elsewhere. Moreover, as Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, had advised the British Cabinet in February 1953: ‘Military occupation could be maintained by force, but in the case of Egypt the base upon which it depends is of little use if there is no local labour to man it.’
Accordingly, London signed an agreement in October 1954 to evacuate the Suez base by 1956—but on the understanding that the British military presence in Egypt could be ‘re-activated’ if British interests were threatened by attacks on or by states in the region. The agreement held and the last British soldiers were duly evacuated from Suez on June 13th 1956. But by then Colonel Nasser—who had declared himself President of Egypt in November 1954—was becoming a problem in his own right. He was a prominent player in the newly formed movement of independent states from Asia and Africa, which met at a conference in Bandung (Indonesia) in April 1955 and condemned ‘colonialism in all of its manifestations.’ He was a charismatic beacon for Arab radicals across the region. And he was beginning to attract Soviet interest: in September 1955 Egypt announced a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia.
By 1956, then, the British were coming increasingly to regard Nasser as a threat—both in his own right as a radical despot sitting athwart a vital waterway, and by the example he was setting to others. Eden and his advisers regularly compared him to Hitler; a threat to be addressed, not appeased. Paris shared this view, though French dislike of Nasser had to do less with his threat to Suez or even his growing friendship with the Soviet bloc, than with his disruptive influence on France’s North African subjects. The United States, too, was not well pleased with Egypt’s President. At a meeting with Tito in Yugoslavia on July 18th 1956, Nasser—together with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru—issued a joint statement of ‘Non-Alignment’, explicitly disassociating Egypt from any dependence on the West. The Americans took offense: despite having initiated talks in November 1955 on American financing for Egypt’s Aswan High Dam on the Nile, US Secretary of State Dulles now broke these off, on July 19th. A week later, on July 26th, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company.108
The initial reaction of the Western powers was a united front: Britain, the US and France convened a conference in London to decide on their response. The conference duly met, and on August 23rd drew up a ‘plan’ that the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies was to present to Nasser. But Nasser rejected it. The London conferees then met again, from September 19th to the 21st, this time agreeing to form a Suez Canal Users Association. Meanwhile the British and French announced that they would refer the dispute over Suez to the United Nations.
Up to this point the British especially had taken care to align their own response to Nasser’s acts with that of Washington. Britain was still heavily indebted to the US, paying interest on outstanding loans; pressure on sterling in 1955 had even led London to consider seeking a temporary waiver of these payments. London was always more than a little skeptical of American motives in the region: Washington, it was believed, harbored plans to supplant Britain in the Middle East, which was why American spokesmen indulged in occasional anti-colonialist rhetoric, the better to seduce local elites. But relations between the two countries were generally good. Korea—and the dynamic of the Cold War—had papered over the mutual resentments of the 1940s, and the British felt they could rely on American sympathy for Britain’s international interests and commitments. And so, even though they had been told by Eisenhower himself that they were worrying altogether too much about Nasser and the threat he posed, British leaders took it for granted that the US would always support them if matters came to a head.
It was in this context that the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (who had succeeded the ageing Churchill the previous year) set out to deal once and for all with the troublesome Egyptian. Whatever their public posture, the British and French were impatient with the UN and its cumbersome procedures. They didn’t want a diplomatic solution. Even as the various conferences and international plans provoked by Nasser’s actions were being convened and discussed, the British governmentbegan secret negotiations with France, planning a joint military invasion of Egypt. On October 21st these plans were extended to include the Israelis, who joined the French and British in top-secret negotiations at Sèvres. The Israeli interest was quite straightforward: the border separating Egypt and Israel had been secured by armistice in February 1949, but both sides regarded it as impermanent and there were frequent raids, notably across the frontier at Gaza. The Egyptians had blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba as early as July 1951, a restriction on Israeli trade and freedom of movement that Jerusalem was determined to remove. Israel was out to reduce Nasser and secure its territorial and security interests in and around Sinai.
At Sèvres the plotters reached agreement. Israel would attack the Egyptian army in Sinai, pressing forward to occupy the whole peninsula, including the Suez Canal on its western edge. The French and British would issue an ultimatum requiring that both sides withdraw and then, ostensibly as disinterested third parties acting on behalf of the international community, France and Britain would attack Egypt: first by air and then by sea. They would seize control of the Canal, assert that Egypt was incompetent to run so important a resource fairly and efficiently, restore the status quo ante and fatally undermine Nasser. The plan was kept very secret indeed—in Britain only Eden and four senior cabinet ministers were aware of the protocol signed at Sèvres after three days of discussion, October 21st-24th.
At first everything proceeded according to schedule. On October 29th, two weeks after the UN Security Council failed to agree on a solution for Suez (thanks to a Soviet veto), and just one week after the Sèvres meeting, Israeli forces crossed into Sinai. Simultaneously, British vessels sailed east from their base in Malta. The following day, October 30th, Britain and France vetoed a UN motion calling for Israel to withdraw, and issued an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, disingenuously calling on both sides to cease fighting and accept an Anglo-French military occupation of the Canal Zone. The next day British and French planes attacked Egyptian airfields. Within forty-eight hours the Israelis completed their occupation of Sinai and Gaza, ignoring a UN General Assembly call for a cease-fire; the Egyptians for their part sank boats in the Suez Canal, effectively closing it to shipping. Two days later, on November 5th, the first Anglo-French ground troops landed in Egypt.
And then the plot began to unravel. On November 6th Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected President of the United States. The Administration in Washington was furious at the Anglo-French deception and deeply resentful at the lies it had been told about its allies’ real intentions: London and Paris had patently ignored both the letter and the spirit of the 1950 Tripartite Declaration, which committed Britain, France and the US to acting against the aggressor in the event of any Israel-Arab conflict. The US began to place considerable public and private pressure on Britain in particular to put a stop to its invasion of Egypt, even threatening to ‘pull the plug’ on the British pound. Shocked at such direct American opposition, but unable to withstand the accelerating run on sterling, Eden hesitated briefly but then capitulated. On November 7th, just two days after the first British paratroopers landed at Port Said, the British and French forces ceased fire. That same day the UN authorized the dispatch to Egypt of a Peacekeeping Force, which Nasser accepted on November 12th, provided that Egyptian sovereignty was not infringed. Three days later the UN Peacekeeping Force arrived in Egypt and on December 4th it moved into Sinai.
Meanwhile the British and French announced their own withdrawal from Suez, a retreat that was completed on December 22nd. Britain, whose sterling and dollar reserves had fallen by $279 million in the course of the crisis, was promised American financial aid (and received it in the form of a $500 million line of credit from the US Export-Import Bank); on December 10th the IMF announced that it had approved a $561.47 million loan for Britain, and a stand-by commitment for a further $738 million. Israel, having secured a public US commitment to its right of passage through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, withdrew its own troops from Gaza in the first week of March 1957. Clearance of the Suez Canal began a week after the completion of the Anglo-French withdrawal and the Canal was reopened on April 10th 1957. It remained in Egyptian hands.
Each country took its own lesson away from the Suez débâcle. The Israelis, despite their dependence on French military hardware, saw very clearly that their future lay in aligning their interests as closely as possible with those of Washington—the more so following the US President’s announcement of the ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’ in January 1957, stating that the US would use armed force in the event of ‘International Communist’ aggression in the Middle East. Nasser’s standing in the non-aligned world was greatly enhanced by his apparent success in facing down the old colonial powers—as the French had feared, his moral influence and example upon Arab nationalists and their supporters now reached new heights. The failure in Egypt presaged more trouble for the French in Algeria.
For the United States, the Suez adventure was a reminder of its own responsibilities, as well as an opportunity to flex its muscles. Eisenhower and Dulles resented the way Mollet and Eden had taken American support for granted. They were annoyed with the French and British: not just for secretly undertaking so ill-conceived and poorly executed an expedition, but also for their timing. The Suez crisis coincided almost to the hour with the Soviet occupation of Hungary. By indulging in so patently imperialist a plot against a single Arab state, ostensibly in retribution for the exercise of its territorial sovereignty, London and Paris had drawn the world’s attention away from the Soviet Union’s invasion of an independent state and destruction of its government. They had placed their own—as it seemed to Washington, anachronistic—interests above those of the Western alliance as a whole.
Worse, they had given Moscow an unprecedented propaganda gift. The USSR exercised almost no role in the Suez crisis itself—a Soviet note of November 5th, threatening military action against France, Britain and Israel unless they accepted a cease-fire, played little part in the proceedings, and Khrushchev and his colleagues had no plans to follow through on the threat. But by allowing Moscow to perform, even if only symbolically, the role of protector to the injured party, France and Britain had initiated the Soviet Union into a role that it would improvise with gusto in the coming decades. Thanks to the Suez crisis, the divisions and rhetoric of the Cold War were to be imported deep into the Middle East and Africa.
It was on Britain that the impact of the Suez miscalculation was felt most acutely. It would be many years before the full extent of the conspiracy against Nasser was made public, though many suspected it. But within weeks, Anthony Eden was forced to resign, humiliated by the incompetence of the military strategy he had approved and by the very public American refusal to back it. Although the ruling Conservative Party itself did not especially suffer at the polls—under the leadership of Harold Macmillan, who had somewhat reluctantly taken part in the planning of the Suez expedition, the Conservatives won the general elections of 1959 quite comfortably—the British government was forced into a radical re-appraisal of its foreign policy.
The first lesson of Suez was that Britain could no longer maintain a global colonial presence. The country lacked the military and economic resources, as Suez had only too plainly shown, and in the wake of so palpable a demonstration of British limitations the country was likely now to be facing increased demands for independence. After a pause of nearly a decade, during which only the Sudan (in 1956) and Malaya (in 1957) had severed their ties with Britain, the country thus entered upon an accelerated phase of de-colonization, in Africa above all. The Gold Coast was granted its freedom in 1957 as the independent state of Ghana, the first of many. Between 1960 and 1964, seventeen more British colonies held ceremonies of independence as British dignitaries traveled the world, hauling down the Union Jack and setting up new governments. The Commonwealth, which had just eight members in 1950, would have twenty-one by 1965, with more to come.
When compared to the trauma of Algeria or the catastrophic consequences of Belgium’s abandonment of the Congo in 1960, the dismantling of the British Empire was relatively peaceful. But there were exceptions. In eastern and, especially, southern Africa, the unraveling of empire proved more controversial than it had in West Africa. When Harold Macmillan informed South Africans, in a famous speech at Cape Town in 1960, that ‘the wind of change is blowing through this continent, and, whether we like it or not, this growth of [African] consciousness is a political fact,’ he did not expect a friendly reception and he did not get one. To preserve the system of apartheid rule in force since 1948, the white settlers of South Africa declared themselves a republic in 1961 and left the Commonwealth. Four years later, in neighboring Southern Rhodesia, the white colonists unilaterally pronounced themselves independent and self-governing. In both countries the ruling minority succeeded for a few years longer in ruthlessly suppressing opposition to their rule.
But southern Africa was unusual. Elsewhere—in East Africa for example— comparably privileged white settler communities accepted their fate. Once it became clear that London had neither the resources nor the appetite for enforcing colonial rule against majority opposition—something that had not been self-evident as recently as the early fifties, when British forces conducted a brutal and secretive dirty war of their own against the Mau-Mau revolts in Kenya—the European colonists accepted the inevitable and went quietly.
In 1968 the Labour government of Harold Wilson drew the final, ineluctable conclusion from the events of November 1956 and announced that British forces would henceforth be withdrawn permanently from the various bases, harbors, entrepôts, fuelling ports and other imperial-era establishments that the country had maintained ‘East of Suez’—notably at the fabulous natural harbor of Aden on the Arabian peninsula. The country could no longer afford to pretend to power and influence across the oceans. By and large this outcome was met with relief in Britain itself: as Adam Smith had foreseen, in the twilight of Britain’s first empire in 1776, forsaking the ‘splendid and showy equipage of empire’ was the best way to contain debt and allow the country to ‘accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.’
The second lesson of Suez, as it seemed to the overwhelming majority of the British establishment, was that the UK must never again find itself on the wrong side of an argument with Washington. This didn’t mean that the two countries would always agree—over Berlin and Germany, for example, London was far more disposed to make concessions to Moscow, and this produced some coolness in Anglo-American relations between 1957 and 1961. But the demonstration that Washington could not be counted on to back its friends in all circumstances led Harold Macmillan to precisely the opposite conclusion to that drawn by his French contemporary De Gaulle. Whatever their hesitations, however ambivalent they might feel about particular US actions, British governments would henceforth cleave loyally to US positions. Only that way could they hope to influence American choices and guarantee American support for British concerns when it mattered. This strategic re-alignment was to have momentous implications, for Britain and for Europe.
The lasting consequences of the Suez crisis were felt in British society. Great Britain, and England especially, was distinctly optimistic in the early 1950s. The election of a Conservative government in 1951, and the first intimations of an economic boom, had dispersed the egalitarian gloom of the early post-war years. In the first years of the reign of the new Queen, the English basked in a cozy Indian summer of self-satisfied well-being. Englishmen were the first to conquer Everest (1953)—with the help of an appropriately colonial guide—and to run the mile in under four minutes (in 1954). Moreover it was Britons, the country was frequently reminded, who had split the atom, invented radar, discovered penicillin, designed the turbo-jet engine and more besides.
The tone of those years—somewhat over-enthusiastically dubbed a ‘new Elizabethan age’—is well caught in the cinema of the time. The most popular British films of the first half of the Fifties—comedies like Genevieve (1953) or Doctor in the House (1954)—depict a rather perky, youthful, affluent and self-confident southern England. The settings and characters are no longer grey or downtrodden, but in other respects all remains firmly traditional: everyone is bright, young, educated, middle-class, well-spoken, respectful and deferential. This was an England in which debutantes were still received at Court (an anachronistic and increasingly absurd ritual that the Queen finally abandoned in 1958); where one in five Conservative parliamentarians had gone to Eton; and where the percentage of students of working-class origin attending university in 1955 was no higher than it had been in 1925.
In addition to benign social comedy, English cinema in these years flourished on a steady diet of war films: The Wooden Horse (1952), The Cruel Sea (1953), The Dam Busters (1954), Cockleshell Heroes (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956). All based more or less faithfully on episodes of British heroism from World War Two (with a particular emphasis upon naval warfare), these films were a comforting reminder of the reasons the British had for feeling proud of themselves—and self-sufficient. Without glorifying combat, they cultivated the myth of Britain’s war, paying special attention to the importance of comradeship across class and occupation. When social tensions or class distinctions were hinted at, the tone was usually one of street-wise wit and skepticism rather than conflict or anger. Only in Charles Crichton’s Lavender Hill Mob (1951), the sharpest of the Ealing Comedies, does more than a hint of social commentary come across—and here it is an English variant of poujadism: the resentment and dreams of the meek little men in the middle.
From 1956, however, the tone began to darken discernibly. War films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Dunkirk (1958) carried undertones of questioning and doubt, as though the confident heritage of 1940 was starting to crack. By 1960, Sink the Bismarck, a war film firmly set in the older mould, appeared curiously anachronistic and quite at odds with the prevailing temper. The new mood was set by John Osborne’s path-breaking play Look Back in Anger, first produced in London in 1956 and made into an impressively faithful film two years later. In this drama of frustration and disillusion the protagonist, Jimmy Porter, stifles in a society and marriage that he can neither abandon nor change. He abuses his wife Alison for her bourgeois background. She, in turn, is trapped between her angry working-class husband and her aging ex-colonial father, confused and wounded by a world he no longer understands. As Alison admonishes him, ‘You’re hurt because everything’s changed. Jimmy’s hurt because everything’s the same. And neither of you can face it.’
This diagnosis of Britain’s unstable mood at the moment of Suez was not perhaps terribly nuanced, but it rang true. By the time Look Back in Anger arrived in the cinemas it was accompanied by a shoal of similarly minded films, most of them drawn from novels or plays written in the second half of the 1950s: Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), A Kind of Loving (1962), This Sporting Life (1963). The films of the early fifties had all starred either well-groomed middle-class actors with BBC accents—Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde, John Gregson, Rex Harrison, Geoffrey Keene—or else lovable London ‘types’ usually portrayed by Jewish character actors (Sidney James, Alfie Bass, Sidney Tafler or Peter Sellers). The later films, dubbed ‘kitchen-sink dramas’ for their gritty depiction of everyday life, starred a new cohort of younger actors—Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Alan Bates. They were typically set in northern working-class communities, with accents and language to match. And they represented England as a divided, embittered, cynical, jaundiced and hard-faced world, its illusions shattered. About the only thing that the cinema of the early fifties and early sixties had in common was that women almost always played a secondary role, and everyone was white.
If the illusions of Empire died at Suez, the insular confidence of middle England had been under siege for some time. The disaster of 1956 merely accelerated its collapse. The symbolism of the English national cricket team’s first defeat by a team from the West Indies (in 1950 and on the ‘hallowed soil’ of the home of the game at the Lord’s cricket ground in London) was driven home three years later when England’s soccer team was thrashed in 1953 at its national stadium—by a team from lowly Hungary and by the unprecedented margin of six goals to three. In the two international games that Englishmen had spread across the world, England itself was no longer supreme.
These non-political measures of national decline had all the more impact because Britain in these years was a largely apolitical society. The British Labour Party, in opposition at the time of Suez, was unable to turn Eden’s failure to its advantage because the electorate no longer filtered experience through a primarily party-political grid. Like the rest of Western Europe, the British were increasingly interested in consuming and being entertained. Their interest in religion was waning, and with it their taste for collective mobilization of any kind. Harold Macmillan, a conservative politician with liberal instincts—a middle-class political trimmer masquerading as an Edwardian country gentleman—was very much the appropriate leader for this transitional moment, selling colonial retreat abroad and prosperous tranquility at home. Older voters were well enough pleased with this outcome; only the young were increasingly disenchanted.
The retreat from Empire contributed directly to a growing British anxiety about the loss of national direction. Absent imperial glory, the Commonwealth served Britain largely as a source of food. Thanks to Commonwealth preferences (i.e. tariffs favoring imports from Commonwealth member states), food from the Commonwealth was cheap, and constituted nearly one-third by value of all imports to the UK at the start of the 1960s. But Britain’s own exports to Commonwealth countries represented a steadily falling share of national exports, more of which were now heading to Europe (in 1965, for the first time, British trade with Europe would overtake its trade with the Commonwealth). After the Suez débâcle Canada, Australia, South Africa and India had all taken the measure of British decline and were re-orienting their trade and their policies accordingly: towards the US, towards Asia, to what would soon be dubbed the ‘third’ world.
As for Britain itself: America might be the indispensable ally, but it could hardly furnish the British with a renewed sense of purpose, much less an updated national identity. On the contrary, Britain’s very dependence on America illustrated the nation’s fundamental weakness and isolation. And so, even though little in their instincts, their culture or their education pointed them toward continental Europe, it was becoming obvious to many British politicians and others—not least Macmillan himself—that one way or another, the country’s future lay across the Channel. Where else but to Europe could Great Britain now look to recover its international standing?
The ‘European project’, in so far as it ever existed outside the heads of a few idealists, had stalled by the mid-nineteen-fifties. The French National Assembly had vetoed the proposed European army, and with it any talk of enhanced European coordination. Various regional accords on the Benelux model had been reached—notably the Scandinavian ‘Common Nordic Labor Market’ in 1954—but nothing more ambitious was on the agenda. Advocates of European cooperation could point only to the new European Atomic Energy Community, announced in the spring of 1955; but this—like the Coal and Steel Community—was a French initiative and its success lay, symptomatically, in its narrow and largely technical mandate. If the British were still as skeptical as ever about the prospects for European unity, theirs was not an altogether unreasonable view.
The push for a fresh start came, appropriately enough, from the Benelux countries, who had the most experience of cross-border union and the least to lose from diluted national identities. It was now clear to leading European statesmen—notably Paul-Henri Spaak, foreign minister of Belgium—that political or military integration was not feasible, at least for the present. In any event, by the mid-fifties European concerns had shifted markedly away from the military preoccupations of the previous decade. The emphasis, it seemed clear, should be placed on European economicintegration, an arena in which national self-interest and cooperation could be pursued in concert without offending traditional sensibilities. Spaak, together with his Dutch counterpart, convened a meeting at Messina, in June 1955, to consider this strategy.
The participants at the Messina conference were the ECSC six, together with a (low-ranking) British ‘observer’. Spaak and his collaborators put forward a range of suggestions for customs union, trading agreements and other quite conventional projects of trans-national coordination, all of them carefully packaged to avoid offending the sensibilities of Britain or France. The French were cautiously enthusiastic; the British decidedly doubtful. After Messina the negotiations continued in an international planning committee chaired by Spaak himself, with the task of making firm recommendations for a more integrated European economy, a ‘common market’. But by November 1955 the British had dropped out, alarmed at the prospect of just the sort of pre-federal Europe they had always suspected.
The French, however, decided to take the plunge. When the Spaak Committee reported back in March 1956 with a formal recommendation in favor of a Common Market, Paris concurred. British observers remained doubtful. They were certainly aware of the risks of being left out—as a British government committee confidentially observed just a few weeks before Spaak’s recommendations were made public, ‘should the Messina powers achieve economic integration without the United Kingdom, this would mean German hegemony in Europe’.109 But in spite of this, the urgings of the Anglophile Spaak, and the fragility of the international sterling area as revealed a few months later at Suez, London could not bring itself to throw in its lot with the ‘Europeans’. When the Treaty establishing a European Economic Community (and Euratom, the atomic energy authority) was signed at Rome on March 25th 1957, and became effective on January 1st 1958, the new EEC—its headquarters in Brussels—comprised the same six countries that had joined the Coal and Steel Community seven years before.
It is important not to overstate the importance of the Rome Treaty. It represented for the most part a declaration of future good intentions. Its signatories laid out a schedule for tariff reductions and harmonization, offered up the prospect of eventual currency alignments, and agreed to work towards the free movement of goods, currencies and labor. Most of the text constituted a framework for instituting procedures designed to establish and enforce future regulations. The only truly significant innovation—the setting up under Article 177 of a European Court of Justice to which national courts would submit cases for final adjudication—would prove immensely important in later decades but passed largely unnoticed at the time.
The EEC was grounded in weakness, not strength. As Spaak’s 1956 report emphasized, ‘Europe, which once had the monopoly of manufacturing industries and obtained important resources from its overseas possessions, today sees its external position weakened, its influence declining and its capacity to progress lost in its divisions. ’ It was precisely because the British did not—yet—understand their situation in this light that they declined to join the EEC. The idea that the European Common Market was part of some calculated strategy to challenge the growing power of the United States—a notion that would acquire a certain currency in Washington policy circles in later decades—is thus quite absurd: the new-formed EEC depended utterly upon the American security guarantee, without which its members would never have been able to afford to indulge in economic integration to the exclusion of all concern with common defense.
Not everyone even in the member states was entirely pleased with the new proposals. In France many conservative (including Gaullist) deputies voted against ratification of the Rome Treaty on ‘national’ grounds’, while some socialists and left radicals (including Pierre Mendès-France) opposed the formation of a ‘little Europe’ without the reassuring presence of Great Britain. In Germany, Adenauer’s own Economics Minister, the enthusiastic free-trader Ludwig Erhard, remained critical of a neo-mercantilist ‘customs union’ that might damage Germany’s links with Britain, restrict trade flows and distort prices. In Erhard’s view, the EEC was a ‘macro-economic nonsense’. As one scholar has perceptively observed, things could well have turned out differently: ‘If Erhard had ruled Germany, the likely result would have been an Anglo-German Free Trade Association with no agricultural component, and the effects of economic exclusion would eventually have forced France to join’.110
But it didn’t happen that way. And the final shape of the EEC did have a certain logic to it. In the course of the 1950s the countries of continental Western Europe traded increasingly with one another. And they each traded above all with West Germany, on whose markets and products the European economic recovery had thus come increasingly to depend. Moreover, every post-war European state was now deeply involved in economic affairs: through planning, regulation, growth targeting and subsidies of all sorts. But the promotion of exports; the redirection of resources from old industries to new ones; the encouragement of favored sectors like agriculture or transport: all these required cross-border cooperation. None of the West European economies was self-sufficient.
This trend towards mutually advantageous coordination was thus driven by national self-interest, not the objectives of Schuman’s Coal and Steel Authority, which was irrelevant to economic policy making in these years. The same concern to protect and nourish local interests that had turned Europe’s states inwards before 1939 now brought them closer together. The removal of impediments and the lessons of the recent past were perhaps the most important factors in facilitating this change. The Dutch, for example, were not altogether happy at the prospect of high EEC external tariffs that would inflate local prices, and like their Belgian neighbors they worried about the absence of the British. But they could not risk being cut off from their major trading partners.
German interests were mixed. As Europe’s main exporting nation Germany had a growing interest in free trade within Western Europe—the more so because German manufacturers had lost their important markets in eastern Europe and had no former colonial territories to exploit. But a tariff-protected European customs union confined to six countries was not necessarily a rational German policy objective, as Erhard understood. Like the British, he and many other Germans might have preferred a broader, looser European free trade area. But as a principle of foreign policy, Adenauer would never break with France, however divergent their interests. And then there was the question of agriculture.
In the first half of the twentieth century, too many inefficient European peasants produced only just sufficient food for a market that could not pay them enough to live on. The result had been poverty, emigration and rural fascism. In the hungry years immediately after World War Two all sorts of programs were put in place to encourage and assist arable farmers in particular to produce more. To reduce dependence on dollar-denominated food imports from Canada and the US, the emphasis was placed upon encouraging output rather than efficiency. Farmers did not need to fear a return of the pre-war price deflation: until 1951 agricultural output in Europe did not recover to pre-war levels, and between protection and government price-supports farmers’ income was anyway effectively guaranteed. In a manner of speaking, the Forties were thus a golden age for Europe’s farmers. In the course of the 1950s, output continued to increase even as surplus rural labor was drained off into new jobs in the cities: Europe’s peasants were becoming increasingly efficient farmers. But they continued to benefit from what amounted to permanent public welfare.
The paradox was particularly acute in France. In 1950 the country was still a net food importer. But in the years that followed the country’s agricultural output soared. French production of butter increased by 76 percent in the years 1949-56; cheese output by 116 percent between 1949 and 1957. Beet sugar production in France rose 201 percent from 1950 to 1957. The barley and maize crops grew by an astonishing 348 percent and 815 percent respectively in the same period. France now was not merely self-sufficient; it had food surpluses. The third Modernization Plan, covering the years 1957-61, favored still more investment in meat, milk, cheese, sugar and wheat (the staple products of northern France and the Paris basin, where the influence of France’s powerful farming syndicates was greatest). Meanwhile the French government, always conscious of the symbolic significance of the land in French public life—and the very real importance of the rural vote—sought to maintain price supports and find export markets for all this food.
This issue played a vital role in the French decision to join the EEC. France’s chief economic interest in a European common market was the preferential access it would afford to foreign—especially German (or British)—markets for meat, dairy and grain products. This, together with the promise of continued price supports and a commitment by its European partners to buy up superfluous French farm output, was what convinced the National Assembly to vote for the Rome Treaty. In exchange for an undertaking to open their home market to German non-agricultural exports, the French effectively shifted their domestic system of rural guarantees onto the backs of fellow EEC members, thereby relieving Paris of an intolerably expensive (and politically explosive) long-term burden.
This is the background to the EEC’s notorious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), inaugurated in 1962 and formalized in 1970 after a decade of negotiations. As fixed European prices rose, all of Europe’s food production became too expensive to compete on the world market. Efficient Dutch dairy combines were no better off than small and unproductive German farms, since all were now subject to a common pricing structure. In the course of the 1960s the EEC devoted its energies to forging a set of practices and regulations designed to address this problem. Target prices would be established for all food items. EEC external tariffs would then bring the cost of imported agricultural products up to these levels—which were typically keyed to the highest priced and least efficient producers in the Community.
Each year, the EEC would henceforth buy up all its members’ surplus agricultural output, at figures 5-7 percent below the ‘target’ prices. It would then clear the surplus by subsidizing its re-sale outside the Common Market at below-EU prices. This manifestly inefficient proceeding was the result of some very old-fashioned horse-trading. Germany’s small farms needed heavy subsidies to remain in business. French and Italian farmers were not especially high-priced, but no-one dared instruct them to restrict production, much less require that they take a market price for their goods. Instead each country gave its farmers what they wanted, passing the cost along in part to urban consumers but above all to taxpayers.
The CAP was not wholly unprecedented. The grain tariffs of late-nineteenth-century Europe, directed against cheap imports from North America, were partly analogous. There were various attempts at the depths of the Slump of the early 1930s to shore up farm prices by buying surpluses or paying farmers to produce less. In a never-implemented 1938 agreement between Germany and France, Germany would have promised to take French agricultural exports in return for France opening its domestic market to German chemical and engineering products (a wartime exhibition in occupied Paris devoted to ‘La France européenne’ emphasized France’s agrarian wealth, and the benefits that would accrue to it from participation in Hitler’s New Europe).
Modern agriculture has never been free of politically motivated protections of one kind or another. Even the US, whose external tariffs fell by 90 percent between 1947 and 1967, took care (and still does) to exclude agriculture from this liberalization of trade. And farm products were from an early stage excluded from the deliberations of GATT. The EEC, then, was hardly unique. But the perverse consequences of the Common Agricultural Policy were perhaps distinctive all the same. As European producers became ever more efficient (their guaranteed high incomes allowing them to invest in the best equipment and fertilizer), output vastly exceeded demand, especially in those commodities favored by the policy: the latter was markedly skewed in favor of the cereal and livestock in which big French agri-businesses tended to specialize, while doing little for the fruit, olive and vegetable farmers of southern Italy.
As world food prices fell in the late 1960s, EEC prices were thus stranded at absurdly high levels. Within a few years of the inauguration of the Common Agricultural Policy, European maize and beef would be selling at 200 percent of world prices, European butter at 400 percent. By 1970 the CAP employed four out of five of the Common Market’s administrators, and agriculture was costing 70 percent of the budget, a bizarre situation for some of the world’s most industrialized states. No single country could have sustained so absurd a set of policies, but by transferring the burden to the Community at large, and tying it to the broader objectives of the Common Market, each national government stood to gain, at least in the short run. Only the urban poor (and non-EEC farmers) lost out from the CAP, and the former at least were typically compensated in other ways.
At this stage most West European countries were of course not members of the EEC. A year after the Common Market was inaugurated, the British—still trying to head off the emergence of a super-national European bloc—suggested that the EEC be expanded into an industrial free-trade zone including the EEC member-states, other European countries and the British Commonwealth. De Gaulle, predictably, rejected the idea. In response, and at the initiative of the UK, a number of countries then met in Stockholm in November 1959 and formed themselves into the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The member states—Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and the UK, later joined by Ireland, Iceland and Finland—were mostly prosperous, peripheral, and enthusiastic proponents of free trade. Their agriculture, with the exception of Portugal, was small-scale but highly efficient and oriented to the world market.
For these reasons, and because of their close links to London (especially in the case of the Scandinavian countries), they had little use for the EEC. But EFTA was (and remains) a minimalist organization, a reaction to the defects of Brussels rather than a genuine alternative. It was only ever a free-trade zone for manufactured goods; farm products were left to find their own price level. Some of the smaller member-states, like Austria, Switzerland or Sweden, could thrive in a niche market for their high-value-added industrial goods and their attraction for tourists. Others, like Denmark, depended heavily on Britain as a market for their meat and dairy products.
But Britain itself needed a vastly larger industrial export market than its tiny Scandinavian and Alpine allies could provide. Recognizing the inevitable—though still hoping to influence the shape of EEC policy—Harold Macmillan’s government formally applied to join the European Economic Community in July 1961, six years after London’s disdainful disengagement from the Messina talks. Ireland and Denmark, their economies umbilically linked to that of the UK, applied alongside it. Whether the British application would have been successful is uncertain—most of the EEC member states still wanted Britain in, but they were also justifiably skeptical of London’s commitment to the core goals of the Rome Treaty. But the issue was moot—De Gaulle, as we have seen, publicly vetoed Britain’s entry in January 1963. It is an indication of the speed with which events had unfolded since the Suez crisis that Britain’s rejection from the hitherto disparaged European community prompted the following despairing entry in Macmillan’s private diary: ‘It is the end . . . to everything for which I have worked for many years. All our policies at home and abroad are in ruins.’
The British had little recourse but to try again, which they did in May 1967—only to be vetoed once more, six months later, by a calmly vengeful French President. Finally, in 1970, following De Gaulle’s resignation and subsequent death, negotiations between Britain and Europe were opened for a third time, culminating this time in a successful application (in part because British trade with the Commonwealth had fallen so far that London was no longer pressing a reluctant Brussels to guarantee third-party trading preferences to non-EEC nations). But by the time Britain, Denmark and Ireland finally joined, in 1973, the European Economic Community had taken shape and they were in no position to influence it as British leaders had once fondly hoped.
The EEC was a Franco-German condominium, in which Bonn underwrote the Community’s finances and Paris dictated its policies. The West German desire to be part of the European Community was thus bought at a high price, but for many decades Adenauer and his successors would pay that price without complaining, cleaving closely to the French alliance—rather to British surprise. The French, meanwhile, ‘Europeanized’ their farm subsidies and transfers, without paying the price of a loss of sovereignty. The latter concern had always been uppermost in French diplomatic strategy—back at Messina in 1955 the French foreign minister Antoine Pinay had made France’s objectives perfectly clear: supra-national administrative institutions were fine, but only if subordinated to decisions taken unanimously at the inter-government level.
It was with this goal in mind that De Gaulle browbeat the other member-states of the European Economic Community in the course of its first decade. Under the original Rome Treaty all major decisions (except for the admission of new members) were to be taken by majority vote in the inter-governmental Council of Ministers. But by withdrawing from inter-governmental talks in June 1965 until his fellow leaders agreed to adapt its agricultural funding to French demands, the French President hobbled the workings of the Community. After holding out for six months the other countries gave in; in January 1966 they reluctantly conceded that in future the Council of Ministers would no longer be able to pass measures by a majority vote. It was the first breach of the original Treaty and a remarkable demonstration of raw French power.
The early achievements of the EEC were nonetheless impressive. Intra-Community tariffs were removed by 1968, well ahead of schedule. Trade between the six member-states quadrupled in the same period. The farming workforce fell steadily, by some 4 percent each year, while agricultural production per worker rose in the Sixties at an annual rate of 8.1 percent. By the end of its first decade, and notwithstanding the shadow of De Gaulle, the European Economic Community had acquired an aura of inevitability, which is why other European states began lining up to join it.
But there were problems, too. A high-priced, self-serving customs union, directed from Brussels by a centralized administration and an unelected executive, was not an unalloyed gain for Europe or the rest of the world. Indeed, the network of protective agreements and indirect subsidies put into place at France’s bidding was altogether out of keeping with the spirit and institutions of the international trading system that had emerged in the decades following Bretton Woods. To the (considerable) extent that the EEC’s system of governance was modeled on that of France, its Napoleonic heritage was not a good omen.
Lastly, France’s influence in the European Community’s early years helped forge a new ‘Europe’ that was vulnerable to the charge that it had reproduced all the worst features of the nation-state on a sub-continental scale: there was always more than a little risk that the price to be paid for the recovery of Western Europe would be a certain Euro-centric provincialism. For all its growing wealth the world of the EEC was quite petty. In certain respects it was actually a lot smaller than the world that the French, or Dutch, had known when their nation-states opened on to people and places flung far across the seas. In the circumstances of the time this hardly mattered to most West Europeans, who in any case had little option. But it would lead in time to a distinctly parochial vision of ‘Europe’, with troubling implications for the future.
Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953 had precipitated a power struggle among his nervous heirs. At first the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, appeared likely to emerge as the dictator’s sole heir. But for just that reason, his colleagues conspired to assassinate him in July of that same year and after a brief detour via Georgy Malenkov it was Nikita Khrushchev—by no means the best-known of Stalin’s inner circle—who was confirmed two months later as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was somewhat ironic: for all his psychotic disposition, Beria was an advocate of reforms and even of what was not yet called ‘de-Stalinization’. In the brief period of time separating Stalin’s death from his own arrest, he repudiated the Doctors’ Plot, released some prisoners from the Gulag and even proposed reforms in the satellite states, to the confusion of the local Party leaders there.
The new leadership, collective in name but with Khrushchev increasingly primus inter pares, had little choice but to follow the path that Beria had advocated. Stalin’s death, following many years of repression and impoverishment, had precipitated widespread protests and demand for change. In the course of 1953 and 1954 there were revolts in Siberian labor camps at Norilsk, Vorkuta and Kengir; it took tanks, planes and a considerable deployment of troops for the Kremlin to bring these under control. But once ‘order’ had been restored, Khrushchev reverted to Beria’s strategy. In the course of the years 1953-56 some five million prisoners were released from the Gulag.
In the people’s democracies the post-Stalin era was marked not just by the 1953 Berlin revolt (see Chapter Six) but by opposition even in such obscure and typically cowed imperial outposts as provincial Bulgaria, where workers in tobacco factories rioted in May and June of that same year. Nowhere was Soviet rule seriously threatened, but the authorities in Moscow took very seriously the scale of public discontent. The task now facing Khrushchev and his colleagues was to bury Stalin and his excesses without putting at risk the system that Stalinist terror had built and the advantages that accrued to the Party from its monopoly of power.
Khrushchev’s strategy, as it emerged in the following years, was fourfold. First, as we have seen, he needed to stabilize relations with the West, following the rearmament of West Germany, its incorporation into NATO and the establishment of the Warsaw Pact. At the same time Moscow began building bridges to the ‘non-Aligned’ world—starting with Yugoslavia, which Khrushchev and Marshal Bulganin visited in May 1955 (just one month after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty) in order to rekindle Soviet-Yugoslav relations after seven years of very cold storage. Thirdly, Moscow started to encourage Party reformers in the satellite states, allowing circumspect criticism of the ‘mistakes’ of the Stalinist old guard and rehabilitation of some of their victims, and bringing to an end the cycle of show trials and mass arrests and Party purges.
It was in this context that Khrushchev gingerly advanced to the fourth (and in his understanding, final) stage of controlled reform: the break with Stalin himself. The setting for this was the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU, in February 1956, at which Khrushchev delivered his now-famous ‘secret speech’, denouncing the crimes, errors and ‘cult’ of the General Secretary. In retrospect this speech has taken on a mythical aura, but its epochal significance should not be overstated. Nikita Khrushchev was a Communist, a Leninist and at least as much a true believer as his contemporaries in the Party leadership. He had set himself the tricky objective of acknowledging and detailing Stalin’s deeds, while confining responsibility for them to the man himself. His task, as he saw it, was to confirm the legitimacy of the Communist project by heaping obloquy and responsibility upon the corpse of Uncle Joe.
The speech, delivered on February 25th, was entirely conventional in length and language. It was addressed to the Party élite and confined itself to describing the ‘perversions’ of Communist doctrine of which Stalin was guilty. The dictator was accused of ‘ignoring the norms of Party life and trampling upon the Leninist principles of collective Party leadership’: which is to say that he made his own decisions. His junior colleagues (of whom Khrushchev had been one since the early 1930s) were thus absolved of responsibility both for his criminal excesses and, more importantly, for the failure of his policies. Khrushchev took the calculated risk of detailing the scale of Stalin’s personal failings (and thus shocking and offending the sensibilities of the obedient cadres in his audience), in order to preserve and even enhance the unsullied standing of Lenin, the Leninist system of government and Stalin’s own successors.
The secret speech achieved its purpose, at least within the CPSU. It drew a firm line under the Stalinist era, acknowledging its monstrosities and disasters while preserving the fiction that the present Communist leadership bore no responsibility. Khrushchev was thus secure in power and had won a relatively free hand to reform the Soviet economy and liberalize the apparatus of terror. Old Stalinists were now marginalized—Molotov was removed from the post of foreign minister on the eve of Tito’s return visit to Moscow in June. As for Khrushchev’s contemporaries, and younger apparatchiks like Leonid Brezhnev, these men were just as guilty as Khrushchev of collaborating in Stalin’s crimes and they were thus in no position either to deny his assertions or attack his credibility. Controlled de-Stalinization suited nearly everyone.
But Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin could not be kept a secret, and therein lay the seeds of its failure. The speech would not be officially published in the Soviet Union until 1988, but Western intelligence agencies had wind of it within days. So did Western Communist parties, even though they had not been made privy to Khrushchev’s intentions. As a consequence, within a few weeks rumours of Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin were everywhere. The effect was intoxicating. For Communists, the denunciation of Stalin and his works was confusing and troubling; but it was also a relief. Henceforth, as it seemed to many, Communists would no longer have to excuse or deny the more outrageous charges of their critics. Some Western Party members and sympathizers dropped away, but others remained, their faith renewed.
In Eastern Europe, the impact of Khrushchev’s reported abjuration of Stalin was even more dramatic. Read in the context of the Soviet leader’s recent reconciliation with Tito, and his dissolution of the moribund Cominform on April 18th, Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin seemed to suggest that Moscow would now look favorably upon different ‘roads to socialism’, and had rejected terror and repression as a tool of Communist control. Now, or so it was believed, it would be possible to speak openly for the first time. As the Czech author Jaroslav Seifert explained to a Writers’ Congress in Prague in April 1956, ‘Again and again, we hear it said at this Congress that it is necessary for writers to tell the truth. This means that in recent years they did not write the truth . . . All that is now over. The nightmare has been exorcised.’
In Czechoslovakia—whose Communist leaders maintained a tight-lipped silence about their own Stalinist past—the memory of terror was still too fresh for rumours from Moscow to translate into political action.111 The impact of the shock wave of de-Stalinization in neighboring Poland was very different. In June the Polish army was called out to put down demonstrations in the western city of Poznan, sparked (like those of East Berlin three years before) by disputes over wages and work-rates. But this only fanned widespread discontent throughout the autumn, in a country where Sovietization had never been carried through as thoroughly as elsewhere and whose Party leaders had survived the post-war purges largely unscathed.
In October 1956, worried at the prospect of losing control over the popular mood, the Polish United Workers Party decided to remove Soviet Marshal Konstanty Rokossowski from his post as Poland’s defense minister and expel him from the Politburo. At the same time the Party elected Władisław Gomułka to the position of First Secretary, replacing the Stalinist Boleslaw Bierut. This was a dramatic symbolic move: Gomułka had been in prison just a few years before and narrowly escaped trial. He represented, for the Polish public, the ‘national’ face of Polish Communism and his promotion was widely understood as an act of implicit defiance by a Party forced to choose between its national constituency and the higher authority in Moscow.
That, certainly, is how Soviet leaders saw the matter. Khrushchev, Mikoyan, Molotov and three other senior figures flew to Warsaw on October 19th, intending to block Gomułka’s appointment, forbid the ouster of Rokossowski and restore order in Poland. To ensure that their intentions were clear, Khrushchev simultaneously instructed a brigade of Soviet tanks to move towards Warsaw. But in heated discussions with Gomułka himself, conducted in part on the airport tarmac, Khrushchev concluded that Soviet interests in Poland might be best served by accepting the new situation in the Polish Party, rather than forcing matters to a head and almost certainly provoking violent confrontations. Gomułka, in return, assured the Russians that he could restore control and had no intention of abandoning power, taking Poland out of the Warsaw Pact, or demanding that Soviet troops leave his country.
Considering the disproportion in power between Khrushchev and Gomułka, the new Polish leader’s success in averting a catastrophe for his country was remarkable. But Khrushchev had read his interlocutor well—as he explained to the Soviet Politburo upon his return to Moscow the following day, the Soviet Ambassador in Warsaw, Ponomarenko, had been ‘grossly mistaken in his assessment of Gomułka’. The price of Communist control in Poland might be some personnel changes and liberalization of public life, but Gomułka was a sound Party man and had no intention of abandoning power to the streets or to the Party’s opponents. He was also a realist: if he could not calm Poland’s turbulence, the alternative was the Red Army. De-Stalinization, as Gomułka appreciated, did not mean that Khrushchev planned to relinquish any of the Soviet Union’s territorial influence or political monopoly.
The ‘Polish October’, then, had a fortuitously benign outcome—few at the time knew just how close Warsaw had come to a second Soviet occupation. In Hungary, however, things were to take a different turn. This was not immediately obvious. As early as July 1953 the Hungarian Stalinist leadership had been replaced (at Moscow’s initiative) with a reform-minded Communist, Imre Nagy. Nagy, like Gomułka, had been purged and imprisoned in earlier days and thus carried little responsibility for the season of terror and misgovernment through which his country had just passed; indeed, his first act as Party leader was to present, with Beria’s backing, a programme of liberalizations. Internment and labor camps were to be closed, peasants were to be permitted to leave kolkhozes if they wished. In general agriculture was to get more encouragement, and unrealistic industrial targets were abandoned: in the characteristically veiled language of a confidential Hungarian Party resolution of June 28th 1953, ‘[t]he false economic policy revealed a certain boastfulness as well as risk-taking, in so far as the forced development of heavy industry presupposed resources and raw materials that were in part just not available.’
Nagy was certainly not a conventional option, from Moscow’s point of view. In September 1949 he had been critical of the ultra-Stalinist line of Mátyás Rákosi and was one of only two Hungarian Politburo members who had opposed the execution of László Rajk. This, together with his criticisms of rural collectivization, had led to his expulsion from the Party leadership and a public ‘self-criticism’, in which Nagy conceded his ‘opportunist attitude’ and his failure to stay close to the Party line. But he was nonetheless a logical choice, once the time came to make changes in a country whose political elite, like its economy, had been ravaged by Stalinist excesses. Under Rákosi some 480 public figures had been executed between 1948 and 1953—not including Rajk and other Communist victims; and over 150,000 people (in a population of less than 9 million) had been imprisoned in those same years.
Nagy remained in office until the spring of 1955. At that time Rákosi and other Hungarian Party stalwarts, who had been working to undermine their troublesome colleague ever since his return to office, succeeded in convincing Moscow that he could not be counted on to maintain firm control, at a moment when the Soviet Union was facing the threat of an expanded NATO and neighboring Austria was about to become an independent, neutral state. The Soviet Central Committee duly condemned Nagy’s ‘rightist deviations’, he was removed from office (and later expelled from the Party), and Rákosi and his friends returned to power in Budapest. This retreat from reform, just eight months before Khrushchev’s speech, illustrates in anticipation how little the Soviet leader planned, when dismantling Stalin’s reputation, to disrupt the smooth exercise of Communist power.
For a year or so the unofficial ‘Nagy group’ in the Hungarian Party functioned as a sort of informal ‘reform’ opposition, the first such in post-war Communism. Meanwhile, it was Rákosi’s turn to attract the unfavorable attention of Moscow. Khrushchev, as we have seen, was keen to rebuild Soviet links to Yugoslavia. But in the course of the anti-Tito hysteria of earlier days Rákosi had played a particularly prominent role. It was not by chance that the accusation of ‘Tito-ism’ had figured so prominently in the Hungarian show trials, above all in the trial of Rajk himself—the Hungarian Party had been assigned the role of prosecutor in these developments and the Party’s leadership had carried out their task with enthusiasm.
Rákosi, then, was becoming an embarrassment, an anachronistic impediment to Soviet projects. With high-level Soviet-Yugoslav negotiations taking place in Moscow in June 1956, it seemed unnecessarily provocative to maintain in power in Budapest an unreconstructed Stalinist so closely associated with the bad old days—the more so as his past record and present intransigence were beginning to provoke public protests in Hungary. Despite Rákosi’s best efforts—in March 1956 he contributed to the Hungarian newspaper Szabad Nép an enthusiastic denunciation of Beria and his Hungarian police lieutenant Gábor Péter, closely echoing Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘personality cult’ and celebrating the ‘unmasking’ of such men for their criminal persecution of the innocent—his time was past. On July 17th 1956 Anastas Mikoyan flew into Budapest and unceremoniously removed Rákosi from office, for the last time.
In Rákosi’s place the Soviets promoted Ernö Gerö, another Hungarian of impeccably Stalinist pedigree. This proved a mistake; Gerö could neither lead change nor suppress it. On October 6th, as a gesture to Belgrade especially, the authorities in Budapest permitted the public reburial of László Rajk and his fellow show-trial victims. Béla Szász, one of the survivors of the Rajk trial, spoke at the graveside:
Executed as a result of trumped up charges, László Rajk’s remains rested for seven years in an unmarked grave. Yet his death has become a warning signal for the Hungarian people and for the whole world. For the hundreds of thouands who pass by this coffin desire to honor not only the dead man; it is their passionate hope and their firm resolve to bury an entire epoch. The lawlessness, arbitrariness and moral decay of those shameless years must be buried forever; and the danger posed by Hungarian practitioners of rule by force and of the personality cult must be banned forever.
There was a certain irony in the sympathy now aroused by the fate of Rajk, a man who had himself sent so many innocent (non-Communist) victims to the gallows. But ironic or not, the reburial of Rajk provided the spark that was to ignite the Hungarian revolution.
On October 16th 1956, university students in the provincial city of Szeged organized themselves into a ‘League of Hungarian Students’, independent of the official Communist student organizations. Within a week, student organizations had sprung up all across the country, culminating on October 22nd with a ‘Sixteen Point’ manifesto formulated by the students of the Technical University in Budapest itself. The student demands encompassed industrial and agrarian reforms, greater democracy and the right to free speech, and an end to the manifold petty restrictions and regulations of life under Communist rule. But they also included, more ominously, the desire to see Imre Nagy installed as prime minister, Rákosi and his colleagues tried for their crimes, and Soviet troops withdrawn from their country.
The following day, October 23rd, students began to assemble in Budapest’s Parliament Square to demonstrate in support of their demands. The regime was at a loss how to respond: Gerö first prohibited and then permitted the demonstration. After it went ahead that same afternoon, Gerö proceeded to denounce the meeting and its organizers in a speech broadcast by Hungarian radio that evening. An hour later enraged demonstrators tore down the statue of Stalin in the center of the city, Soviet troops entered Budapest to attack the crowds, and the Hungarian Central Committee met through the night. The following morning, at 8.13 a.m., it was announced that Imre Nagy had been installed as Prime Minister of Hungary.
If the Party leaders hoped that the return of Nagy would put an end to the revolution, they miscalculated badly. Nagy himself was certainly keen enough to restore order: he declared martial law within an hour of assuming power. In talks with Suslov and Mikoyan (who arrived by plane from Moscow that same day), he and the other members of the new Hungarian leadership insisted on the need to negotiate with the demonstrators. As the Russians reported back to a special meeting of the Soviet Party Presidium on October 26th, János Kádár112 had explained to them that it was possible and important to distinguish between the loyal masses, who had been alienated from the Party by its past mistakes, and the armed counter-revolutionaries whom the Nagy government hoped to isolate.
Kádár’s distinction may have convinced some of the Soviet leaders, but it did not reflect Hungarian reality. Student organizations, workers’ councils and revolutionary ‘national committees’ were spontaneously forming all over the country. Clashes between police and demonstrators provoked counter-attacks and lynchings. Against the advice of some of its members, the Hungarian Party leadership initially refused to recognize the uprising as a democratic revolution, insisting instead on regarding it as a ‘counterrevolution’, and thereby missing the occasion to co-opt it. Only on October 28th, nearly a week after the initial demonstrations, did Nagy go on the radio to propose a truce in the armed clashes, acknowledge the legitimacy and revolutionary character of recent protests, promise to abolish the despisedSecret Police, and announce the impending departure of Soviet troops from Budapest.
The Soviet leadership, whatever their doubts, had decided to endorse the new approach of the Hungarian leader. Suslov, reporting back on the day of Nagy’s radio address, presented the new concessions as the price to be paid for bringing the mass movement under Party control. But events in Hungary were outpacing Moscow’s calculations. Two days later, on October 30th, following attacks on the Communist Party’s Budapest headquarters and the death of twenty-four of the building’s defenders, Imre Nagy again went on Hungarian radio. This time he announced that his government would henceforth be based ‘on democratic cooperation between the coalition parties, reborn in 1945.’ In other words, Nagy was forming a multi-party government. Far from confronting the opposition, Nagy was now basing his authority increasingly on the popular movement itself. In his final sentence, celebrating a ‘free, democratic and independent’ Hungary, he even omitted, for the first time, the discredited adjective ‘socialist’. And he appealed publicly to Moscow ‘to begin the withdrawal of Soviet troops’, from Budapest and the rest of Hungary as well.
Nagy’s gamble—his sincere belief that he could restore order in Hungary, and thus stave off the unspoken threat of Soviet intervention—was supported by the other Communists in his Cabinet. But he had relinquished the initiative. Popular insurrectionary committees, political parties and newspapers had sprung up all over the country. Anti-Russian sentiment was everywhere, with frequent references to the Imperial Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolt of 1848-49. And, most important of all, the Soviet leaders were losing confidence in him. By the time Nagy announced, on the afternoon of October 31st, that he was beginning negotiations to secure Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, his fate was probably sealed.
Khrushchev and his colleagues had always taken the view that, in Hungary—as earlier in Poland—they would have to intervene if the ‘counterrevolution’ got out of control. But they appear to have been initially reluctant to pursue this option. As late as October 31st the Presidium of the Central Committee put out a statement declaring its willingness ‘to enter into the appropriate negotiations’ with the Hungarian leadership regarding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungarian territory. But even as they made this concession they were getting reports of student demonstrations in Timişoara (Romania) and of ‘hostile sentiments’ among Bulgarian intellectuals sympathetic to the Hungarian revolutionaries. This was beginning to sound like the start of the contamination effect that the Soviet leaders had long feared, and it prompted them to adopt a new approach.
Accordingly, the day after it had promised to negotiate troop withdrawals, the Soviet Presidium was advised by Khrushchev that this was now out of the question. ‘The imperialists’ would interpret such a withdrawal as evidence of Soviet weakness. On the contrary, the USSR would now have ‘to take the initiative in restoring order in Hungary’. Soviet army divisions in Romania and Ukraine were duly ordered to move towards the Hungarian border. On learning of this, the Hungarian Prime Minister summoned the Soviet Ambassador (Yuri Andropov) and informed him that in protest against the renewed Soviet troop movements, Hungary was unilaterally renouncing its membership in the Warsaw Pact. That evening, at 7.50 p.m. on November 1st, Nagy announced on the radio that Hungary was henceforth a neutral country and asked that the UN recognize its new status. This declaration was widely approved in the country; the Workers’ Councils of Budapest, who had been on strike since the revolt began, responded by calling for a return to work. Nagy had finally won over most of those in Hungary who had been suspicious of his intentions.
The same evening that Nagy made his historic announcement, János Kádár was secretly spirited away to Moscow, where Khrushchev convinced him of the need to form a new government in Budapest, with Soviet backing. The Red Army would come in and restore order in any case; the only question was which Hungarians would have the honour of collaborating with them. Any reluctance that Kádár may have felt about betraying Nagy and his fellow Hungarians was overcome by Khrushchev’s insistence that the Soviets now knew they had made a mistake when they installed Gerö in July. That error would not be repeated once order was restored in Budapest. Khrushchev then set off for Bucharest to meet Romanian, Bulgarian and Czech leaders and coordinate plans for intervention in Hungary (a lower-level delegation had met Polish leaders the previous day). Meanwhile Nagy continued to protest against the increased Soviet military activity; and on November 2nd he asked UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld to mediate between Hungary and the USSR, and seek Western recognition of Hungary’s neutrality.
The following day, November 3rd, the Nagy government opened (or thought it was opening) negotiations with the Soviet military authorities about the withdrawal of troops. But when the Hungarian negotiating team returned that evening to Soviet army headquarters at Tököl, in Hungary, they were immediately arrested. Shortly afterwards, at 4 a.m. on the morning of November 4th, Soviet tanks attacked Budapest, followed an hour later by a broadcast from Soviet-occupied eastern Hungary announcing the replacement of Imre Nagy by a new government. In response, Nagy himself made a final radio address to the Hungarian people, calling for resistance against the invader. Then he and his closest colleagues took refuge in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest, where they were granted asylum.
The military outcome was never in question: despite intense resistance, Soviet forces took Budapest within seventy-two hours, and the government of János Kádár was sworn in on November 7th. Some Workers’ Councils survived for another month—Kádár preferring not to attack them directly—and sporadic strikes lasted into 1957: according to a confidential report submitted to the Soviet Central Committee on November 22nd 1956, Hungary’s coalmines had been reduced to working at 10 percent of capacity. But within a month the new authorities felt confident enough to take the initiative. On January 5th, the death penalty was established for ‘provocation to strike’ and repression began in earnest. In addition to around 2,700 Hungarians who died in the course of the fighting a further 341 were tried and executed in the years that followed (the last death sentence was carried out in 1961). Altogether, some 22,000 Hungarians were sentenced to prison (many for five years or more) for their role in the ‘counter revolution’. A further 13,000 were sent to internment camps and many more were dismissed from their jobs or placed under close surveillance until a general amnesty was declared in March 1963.
An estimated 200,000 people—over 2 percent of the population—fled Hungary in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation, most of them young and many from the educated professional élite of Budapest and the urbanized west of the country. They settled in the US (which took in some 80,000 Hungarian refugees), Austria, Britain, West Germany, Switzerland, France and many other places. For a while the fate of Nagy and his colleagues remained uncertain. After spending nearly three weeks in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest they were tricked into leaving on November 22nd, immediately arrested by the Soviet authorities, and abducted to prison in Romania.
It took Kádár many months to decide what to do with his erstwhile friends and comrades. Most of the reprisals against young workers and soldiers who had taken part in street fighting were kept as quiet as possible, to avoid arousing international protest; even so there were international demands for clemency in the case of a number of prominent figures, such as the writers József Gáli and Gyula Obersovszky. The fate of Nagy himself was an especially sensitive issue. In April 1957 Kádár and his colleagues decided to return Nagy and his ‘accomplices’ to Hungary to face trial, but the proceedings themselves were delayed until June 1958, and even then they were held in strict secrecy. On June 15th 1958, the accused were all found guilty of fomenting counter-revolution, and variously sentenced to death or long prison terms. The writers István Bibó and Árpád Göncz (future president of post-Communist Hungary) received life sentences. Two others—József Szilágyi and Géza Lozonczy—were killed in prison before their trial began. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and Miklós Gimes were executed at dawn on June 16th 1958.
The Hungarian uprising, a brief and hopeless revolt in a small outpost of the Soviet empire, had a shattering impact on the shape of world affairs. In the first place, it was an object lesson for Western diplomats. Until then the United States, while officially acknowledging the impossibility of detaching Eastern European satellites from Soviet control, continued to encourage the ‘spirit of resistance’ there. Covert actions and diplomatic support were directed, in the words of National Security Council Policy paper No. 174 (December 1953) to ‘fostering conditions which would make possible the liberation of the satellites at a favorable moment in the future.’
But, as a later confidential policy document, drawn up in July 1956 to take account of that year’s upheavals, was to emphasize, ‘the United States is not prepared to resort to war to eliminate Soviet domination of the satellites’ (NSC5608/1 ‘U.S. Policy toward the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe’).
Indeed, ever since the repression of the Berlin revolt in 1953, the State Department had concluded that the Soviet Union was, for the foreseeable future, in unshakeable control of its ‘zone’. ‘Non-intervention’ was the West’s only strategy for Eastern Europe. But the Hungarian rebels could not know this. Many of them sincerely hoped for Western assistance, encouraged by the uncompromising tone of American public rhetoric and by emissions from Radio Free Europe, whose émigré broadcasters encouraged Hungarians to take up arms and promised imminent foreign support. When no such backing was forthcoming, the defeated rebels were understandably embittered and disillusioned.
Even if Western governments had wished to do more, the circumstances of the moment were highly unpropitious. On the very day that the Hungarian revolt broke out, representatives of France and Britain were at Sèvres, in secret talks with the Israelis. France in particular was pre-occupied with its North African problems: as Christian Pineau, the Foreign Minister, explained on October 27th in a highly confidential memo to France’s representative on the UN Security Council, ‘It is essential that the draft resolution which will be put to the Security Council on the Hungarian question should not contain any disposition which may disturb our action in Algeria . . . We are particularly against the formation of a committee of inquiry. ’ The British Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd wrote to Prime Minister Anthony Eden in a similar vein four days later, in response to a suggestion from the British Ambassador to Moscow that London appeal directly to the Soviet leadership to desist from intervention in Hungary: ‘I do not myself think that this is a moment for such a message.’
As Khrushchev had explained to his Central Committee Presidium colleagues on October 28th, ‘the English and French are in a real mess in Egypt’.113 As for Eisenhower, he was in the final week of an election campaign—the day of his re-election saw some of the heaviest fighting in Budapest. His National Security Council did not even discuss Hungary until three days after the Soviet invasion; they had been slow to take the full measure of Nagy’s actions, notably his abandonment of one-party rule, in a country of little significance for US grand strategy (the recent crisis in Poland had received far more attention in Washington). And when Hungary did appear on the NSC agenda, at a meeting on November 8th, the general consensus—from Eisenhower down—was that it was all the fault of the French and British. If they hadn’t invaded Egypt, the Soviet Union would not have had the cover to move against Hungary. The Eisenhower Administration had a clean conscience.
Soviet leaders, then, saw their advantage and seized it. In Communist eyes the real threat posed by Nagy was neither his liberalization of the economy nor the relaxation of censorship. Even the Hungarian declaration of neutrality, though it was regarded in Moscow as ‘provocative’, was not the occasion for Nagy’s downfall. What the Kremlin could not condone was the Hungarian Party’s abandonment of a monopoly of power, the ‘leading role of the Party’ (something Gomułka, in Poland, had taken care never to allow). Such a departure from Soviet practice was the thin edge of a democratic wedge that would spell doom for Communist parties everywhere. That is why the Communist leaders in every other satellite state went along so readily with Khrushchev’s decision to depose Nagy. When the Czechoslovak Politburo met on November 2nd and expressed its willingness to make an active contribution to ‘maintaining with every necessary measure the people’s democracy in Hungary’, the sentiment was unquestionably genuine and heartfelt.114
Even Tito eventually conceded that the breakdown of Party control in Hungary, and the collapse of the state security apparatus, set a dangerous example. The Yugoslav leader had initially welcomed the changes in Hungary as further evidence of de-Stalinization. But by the end of October the course of events in Budapest was changing his mind—Hungary’s proximity to Yugoslavia, the presence of a large Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina region of his country, and the consequent risks of contagion were very much on his mind. When Khrushchev and Malenkov took the trouble, on November 2nd, to fly to Tito’s Adriatic island retreat and brief him on the coming invasion, Tito proved anxious but understanding. His main concern was that the puppet government to be installed in Hungary not include Rákosi and other unreconstructed Stalinists. On this score Khrushchev was happy to reassure him.
Khrushchev was distinctly less pleased when, just two days later, Tito granted asylum to Nagy, fifteen members of his government, and their families. The Yugoslav decision appears to have been made in the heat of the Hungarian crisis, and on the assumption that the Russians had no interest in making martyrs. But when the Soviet leaders expressed their displeasure, and especially following the abduction of Nagy and the others upon their departure from the Yugoslav Embassy with a promise of safe conduct from Kádár himself, Tito was placed in an uncomfortable position. In public the Yugoslav leader continued to express approval of Kádár’s new government; but unofficially he made no effort to hide his displeasure at the course of events.
The precedent of unconstrained Soviet interference in the affairs of a fraternal Communist state was not calculated to endear the Soviet leadership to the Yugoslavs. Relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated once more, and the Yugoslav regime initiated overtures to the West and the non-aligned countries of Asia. Tito’s response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary was thus mixed. Like the Soviet leaders he was relieved at the restoration of Communist order; but the way in which it had been accomplished set a dangerous precedent and left a bad taste.
Elsewhere the response was altogether less ambivalent. Khrushchev’s secret speech, once it leaked out in the West, had marked the end of a certain Communist faith. But it also allowed for the possibility of post-Stalinist reform and renewal, and by sacrificing Stalin himself in order to preserve the illusion of Leninist revolutionary purity, Khrushchev had offered Party members and fellow-traveling progressives a myth to which they could cling. But the desperate street fighting in Budapest dispelled any illusions about this new, ‘reformed’ Soviet model. Once again, Communist authority had been unambiguously revealed to rest on nothing more than the barrel of a tank. The rest was dialectics. Western Communist parties started to hemorrhage. By the Italian Communist Party’s own count, some 400,000 members left between 1955 and 1957. As Togliatti had explained to the Soviet leaders at the height of the Hungarian crisis, ‘Hungarian events have developed in a way that renders our clarifying action in the party very difficult, it also makes it difficult to obtain consensus in favor of the leadership.’
In Italy, as in France, Britain and elsewhere, it was younger, educated Party members who left in droves.115 Like non-Communist intellectuals of the Left, they had been attracted both to the promise of post-Stalin reforms in the USSR and to the Hungarian revolution itself, with its workers’ councils, student initiatives and the suggestion that even a ruling Soviet-bloc Party could adapt and welcome new directions. Hannah Arendt, for one, thought it was the rise of the councils (rather than Nagy’s restoration of political parties) that signified a genuine upsurge of democracy against dictatorship, of freedom against tyranny. Finally, as it seemed, it might be possible to speak of Communism and freedom in the same breath. As Jorge Semprun, then a young Spanish Communist working clandestinely in Paris, would later express it, ‘The secret speech released us; it gave us at least the chance to be freed from . . . the sleep of reason.’ After the invasion of Hungary, that moment of hope was gone.
A few Western observers tried to justify Soviet intervention, or at least explain it, by accepting the official Communist claim that Imre Nagy had led—or been swept up in—a counter-revolution: Sartre characteristically insisted that the Hungarianuprising had been marked by a ‘rightist spirit’. But whatever the motives of the insurgents in Budapest and elsewhere—and these were far more varied than was clear at the time—it was not the Hungarians’ revolt but rather the Soviet repression which made the greater impression on foreign observers. Communism was now forever to be associated with oppression, not revolution. For forty years the Western Left had looked to Russia, forgiving and even admiring Bolshevik violence as the price of revolutionary self-confidence and the march of History. Moscow was the flattering mirror of their political illusions. In November 1956, the mirror shattered.
In a memorandum dated September 8th 1957, the Hungarian writer István Bibo observed that ‘in crushing the Hungarian revolution, the USSR has struck a severe, maybe mortal blow at “fellow-traveler” movements (Peace, Women, Youth, Students, Intellectuals, etc) that contributed to Communism’s strength.’ His insight proved perceptive. Shorn of the curious magnetism of Stalinist terror, and revealed in Budapest in all its armored mediocrity, Soviet Communism lost its charm for most Western sympathizers and admirers. Seeking to escape the ‘stink of Stalinism’, ex-Communists like the French poet Claude Roy turned ‘our nostrils towards other horizons’. After 1956, the secrets of History were no longer to be found in the grim factories and dysfunctional kolkhozes of the People’s Democracies but in other, more exotic realms. A shrinking minority of unreconstructed apologists for Leninism clung to the past; but from Berlin to Paris a new generation of Western progressives sought solace and example outside of Europe altogether, in the aspirations and upheavals of what was not yet called the ‘Third World’.
Illusions were shattered in Eastern Europe too. As a British diplomat in Budapest reported on October 31st, at the height of the first round of fighting: ‘It is nothing short of a miracle that the Hungarian people should have withstood and turned back this diabolical onslaught. They will never forget nor forgive.’ But it was not only the Hungarians who would take to heart the message of the Soviet tanks. Romanian students demonstrated in support of their Hungarian neighbors; East German intellectuals were arrested and put on trial for criticizing Soviet actions; in the USSR it was the events of 1956 that tore the veil from the eyes of hitherto committed Communists like the young Leonid Pliushch. A new generation of intellectual dissidents, men like Paul Goma in Romania or Wolfgang Harich in the GDR, was born in the rubble of Budapest.
The difference in Eastern Europe, of course, was that the disillusioned subjects of a discredited regime could hardly turn their faces to distant lands, or rekindle their revolutionary faith in the glow of far-off peasant revolts. They were perforce obliged to live in and with the Communist regimes whose promises they no longer believed. East Europeans experienced the events of 1956 as a distillation of cumulative disappointments. Their expectations of Communism, briefly renewed with the promise of de-Stalinization, were extinguished; but so were their hopes of Western succor. Whereas Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, or the hesitant moves to rehabilitate show-trial victims, had suggested up until then that Communism might yet contain within itself the seeds of renewal and liberation, after Hungary the dominant sentiment was one of cynical resignation.
This was not without its benefits. Precisely because the populations of Communist Eastern Europe were now quiescent, and the order of things restored, the Khrushchev-era Soviet leadership came in time to allow a limited degree of local liberalization—ironically enough, in Hungary above all. There, in the wake of his punitive retaliation against the insurgents of 1956 and their sympathizers, Kádár established the model ‘post-political’ Communist state. In return for their unquestioning acceptance of the Party’s monopoly of power and authority, Hungarians were allowed a strictly limited but genuine degree of freedom to produce and consume. It was not asked of anyone that they believe in the Communist Party, much less its leaders; merely that they abstain from the least manifestation of opposition. Their silence would be read as tacit consent.
The resulting ‘goulash Communism’ secured the stability of Hungary; and the memory of Hungary ensured the stability of the rest of the Bloc, at least for the next decade. But this came at a cost. For most people living under Communism, the ‘Socialist’ system had lost whatever radical, forward-looking, utopian promise once attached to it, and which had been part of its appeal—especially to the young—as recently as the early fifties. It was now just a way of life to be endured. That did not mean it could not last a very long time—few after 1956 anticipated an early end to the Soviet system of rule. Indeed, there had been rather more optimism on that score before the events of that year. But after November 1956 the Communist states of Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union itself, began their descent into a decades-long twilight of stagnation, corruption and cynicism.
The Soviets too would pay a price for this—in many ways, 1956 represented the defeat and collapse of the revolutionary myth so successfully cultivated by Lenin and his heirs. As Boris Yeltsin was to acknowledge many years later, in a speech to the Hungarian Parliament on November 11th 1992, ‘The tragedy of 1956 . . . will forever remain an indelible spot on the Soviet regime.’ But that was nothing when compared with the cost the Soviets had imposed on their victims. Thirty-three years later, on June 16th 1989, in a Budapest celebrating its transition to freedom, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians took part in another ceremonial reburial: this time of Imre Nagy and his colleagues. One of the speakers over Nagy’s grave was the young Viktor Orbán, future Prime Minister of his country. ‘It is a direct consequence of the bloody repression of the Revolution,’ he told the assembled crowds, ‘that we have had to assume the burden of insolvency and reach for a way out of the Asiatic dead end into which we were pushed. Truly, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party robbed today’s youth of its future in 1956.’