‘Imagine the Austrian Empire fragmented into a multitude of greater and
lesser republics. What a nice basis for universal Russian monarchy’.
František Palacký (April, 1848)
‘The Yugoslavs want to take Greek Macedonia. They want Albania, too,
and even parts of Austria and Hungary. This is unreasonable. I do not like
the way they are acting’.
Josef Stalin, 1945
‘All that the Red Army needed in order to reach the North Sea was boots’.
‘The idea of a European order is not an artificial creation of Germany
but a necessity’.
Paul-Henri Spaak (April, 1942)
‘This is something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do’.
Anthony Eden (January, 1952)
‘This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes upon it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.’ Josef Stalin’s famous aphorism—reported by Milovan Djilas in hisConversations with Stalin—was not quite as original as it appeared. World War Two was by no means the first European war in which military outcomes determined social systems: the religious wars of the sixteenth century ended in 1555 at the Peace of Augsburg, where the principle of cuius regio eius religio authorised rulers to establish in their own territory the religion of their choice; and in the initial stages of the Napoleonic conquests in early nineteenth-century Europe, military success translated very quickly into social and institutional revolution on the French model.
Nevertheless, Stalin’s point was clear—and put to Djilas well in advance of the Communist take-over of eastern Europe. From the Soviet side the war had been fought to defeat Germany and restore Russian power and security on its western frontiers. Whatever was to become of Germany itself, the region separating Germany and Russia could not be left in uncertainty. The territories running in a north-south arc from Finland to Yugoslavia comprised small, vulnerable states whose inter-war governments (with the partial exception of Czechoslovakia) had been uniformly hostile to the Soviet Union. Poland, Hungary and Romania in particular had been consistently unfriendly to Moscow and suspicious of Soviet intentions towards them. The only acceptable outcome for Stalin was the establishment—in those parts of the region not preemptively absorbed into the USSR itself—of governments that could be relied upon never to pose a threat to Soviet security.
But the only way to guarantee such an outcome was to align the political system of the states of eastern Europe with that of the Soviet Union and this, from the start, was what Stalin wanted and intended. On the one hand it might seem that this goal was straightforward enough: the old elites in countries like Romania or Hungary had been discredited and it would not be difficult to remove them and begin afresh. In many places the Soviet occupiers were at first welcomed as liberators and harbingers of change and reform.
On the other hand, however, the Soviet Union had almost no leverage in the domestic affairs of its western neighbours beyond the authority of its overwhelming military presence. Communists in much of the region had been banned from public life and legal political activity for most of the previous quarter century. Even where Communist parties were legal, their identification with Russia and the rigid, sectarian tactics imposed from Moscow for most of the period after 1927 had reduced them to a marginal irrelevance in East European politics. The Soviet Union had further contributed to their weakness by imprisoning and purging many of the Polish, Hungarian, Yugoslav and other Communists who had taken refuge in Moscow: in the Polish case the leadership of the inter-war Polish Communist Party was almost completely wiped out.
Thus when Mátyás Rákosi, the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, was returned from Moscow to Budapest in February 1945, he could count on the support of perhaps 4,000 Communists in Hungary. In Romania, according to the Romanian Communist leader Ana Pauker herself, the Party had less than 1,000 members in a population of nearly 20 million. The situation in Bulgaria was not much better: in September 1944 the Communists numbered about 8,000. Only in the industrial regions of Bohemia and in Yugoslavia, where the Party was identified with the victorious partisan resistance, did Communism have anything resembling a mass base.
Characteristically cautious, and in any case still maintaining working relations with the Western powers, Stalin thus initially pursued a tactic already familiar from the Popular Front years of the thirties and from Communist practice during the Spanish Civil War: favouring the formation of ‘Front’ governments, coalitions of Communists, Socialists and other ‘anti-Fascist’ parties, which would exclude and punish the old regime and its supporters but would be cautious and ‘democratic’, reformist rather than revolutionary. By the end of the war, or very shortly thereafter, every country in eastern Europe had such a coalition government.
In view of continuing scholarly disagreement over responsibility for the division of Europe, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that neither Stalin nor his local representatives were in any doubt as to their long-term goal. Coalitions were the route to power for Communist parties in a region where they were historically weak; they were only ever a means to this end. As Walter Ulbricht, leader of the East German Communists, explained privately to his followers when they expressed bemusement at Party policy in 1945: ‘It’s quite clear—it’s got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control.’
Control, in fact, mattered much more than policies. It was not by chance that in every coalition government—‘Fatherland Front’, ‘Unity Government’ or ‘bloc of anti-Fascist parties’—in eastern Europe, Communists sought control of certain key ministries: the Ministry of the Interior, which gave the Party authority over the police and security forces as well as the power to grant or withhold licenses to print newspapers; the Ministry of Justice, with control over purges, tribunals and judges; the Ministry of Agriculture, which administered land reforms and redistribution and was thus in a position to confer favours and buy the loyalty of millions of peasants. Communists also put themselves in key positions on ‘denazification’ committees, district commissions and in the trade unions.
Conversely, Communists in eastern Europe were in no hurry to claim the offices of President, Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, often preferring to leave these to their coalition allies in Socialist, Agrarian or Liberal Parties. This reflected the initial post-war disposition of government places—with the Communists in a minority—and reassured Western observers. The local population was not fooled and took its own precautions—Romanian Communist Party membership rose to 800,000 by the end of 1945—but in many respects Communist strategy really was reassuringly moderate. Far from collectivizing land, the Party was urging its distribution among the landless. Beyond the confiscation of ‘Fascist’ property, the Party was not pressing for nationalization or state ownership—certainly no more and usually rather less than some of its coalition partners. And there was very little talk of ‘Socialism’ as a goal.
The Communists’ stated objective in 1945 and 1946 was to ‘complete’ the unfinished bourgeois revolutions of 1848, to re-distribute property, guarantee equality and affirm democratic rights in a part of Europe where all three had always been in short supply. These were plausible goals, at least on the surface, and they appealed to many in the region and in western Europe who wanted to think well of Stalin and his purposes. Their appeal to Communists themselves, however, was sharply diminished in a series of local and national elections in eastern Germany, Austria and Hungary. There it became clear very early (in the Hungarian case at the Budapest municipal elections of November 1945) that however successfully they had inserted themselves into positions of local influence, Communists were never going to achieve public power through the ballot box. Despite every advantage of military occupation and economic patronage, Communist candidates were consistently defeated by representatives of the old Liberal, Social Democratic and Agrarian/Smallholder parties.
The result was that Communist parties adopted instead a strategy of covert pressure, followed by open terror and repression. In the course of 1946 and into 1947 electoral opponents were maligned, threatened, beaten up, arrested, tried as ‘Fascists’ or ‘collaborators’ and imprisoned or even shot. ‘Popular’ militias helped create a climate of fear and insecurity which Communist spokesmen then blamed on their political critics. Vulnerable or unpopular politicians from non-Communist parties were targeted for public opprobrium, while their colleagues consented to this mistreatment in the hope it would not be applied to them. Thus in Bulgaria, as early as the summer of 1946, seven out of twenty-two members of the ‘Praesidium’ of the Agrarian Union and thirty-five out of the eighty members of its governing Council were in prison. Typical of the charges was one against the Agrarian journalist Kunev, accusing him of having, in an article, ‘in a truly criminal manner called the Bulgarian government political and economic dreamers’.
Agrarians, Liberals and other mainstream parties proved an easy target, tarred with the brush of Fascism or anti-national sentiment and picked off in stages. The more complicated impediment to Communist ambitions were the local Socialist and Social-Democratic parties who shared the Communists’ own reforming ambitions. It was not easy to charge Social Democrats in central or eastern Europe with ‘Fascism’ or collaboration—they had usually been as much the victim of repression as Communists. And in so far as there was an industrial working-class constituency in overwhelmingly rural eastern Europe, its allegiance was traditionally Socialist, not Communist. Thus since the Socialists could not easily be beaten, the Communists chose instead to join them.
Or, rather, to make the Socialists join them. This was a venerable Communist device. Lenin’s initial tactic from 1918 to 1921 had been to split Europe’s Socialist Parties, hive off the radical left element into new-formed Communist movements, and condemn the rump as reactionary and overtaken by history. But when Communist parties found themselves in the minority during the course of the next two decades, Moscow’s approach altered and the Communists instead held out to the (mostly larger) Socialist Parties the prospect of Left ‘unity’—but under Communist auspices. In the circumstances of post-liberation eastern Europe this seemed to many socialists a sensible proposition.
Even in western Europe some left-leaning members of the French and Italian Socialist Parties were seduced by Communist invitations to merge into a single political force. In eastern Europe the pressure proved, literally, irresistible. The process began in the Soviet Zone of Germany where (at a secret meeting in Moscow in February 1946) the Communists determined upon a merger with their much larger Socialist ‘allies’. This merger was consummated two months later with the birth of the Socialist Unity Party (it was characteristic of these mergers that the term ‘Communist’ was deliberately eschewed by the freshly united party). Quite a few former leaders of the Social Democrats in eastern Germany proved amenable to the merger and were given honorific posts in the new Party and subsequent East German government. Socialists who protested or opposed the new Party were denounced, expelled and at the very least forced out of public life or into exile.
In the rest of the Soviet bloc these Communist-Socialist ‘unions’, similarly structured, came a little later, in the course of 1948: in Romania in February 1948; in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in June; in Bulgaria in August; and in Poland in December. By then the Socialist parties had been split and split again over the issue of fusion, so that long before they disappeared they had ceased to be an effective political force in their country. And, as in Germany, former Social-Democrats who threw in their lot with the Communists were duly rewarded with empty titles: the first Head of State in Communist Hungary—appointed on July 30th 1948—was Árpád Szakasits, a former Socialist.
The Social Democrats in eastern Europe were in an impossible position. Western Socialists often encouraged them to merge with the Communists, either in the innocent belief that everyone would benefit, or else in the hope of moderating Communist behaviour. As late as 1947 independent Socialist Parties in eastern Europe (i.e. Socialists who refused to cooperate with their Communist comrades) were barred from joining international Socialist organizations on the grounds that they were an impediment to the alliance of ‘progressive’ forces. Meanwhile, at home, they were subject to humiliation and violence. Even when they accepted the Communist embrace their situation hardly improved—at the February 1948 ‘fusion’ Congress of the two parties in Romania, the Communist leader Ana Pauker accused her erstwhile Socialist colleagues of systematic sabotage, servility to reactionary governments and anti-Soviet ‘calumnies’.
Following the decimation, imprisonment or absorption of their main opponents, Communists did indeed do rather better at elections in 1947 and thereafter, with some help from violent assaults on their remaining opponents, intimidation at polling stations and blatantly abusive vote counts. There then, typically, followed the formation of governments in which the Communist, or newly-united ‘Worker’ or ‘Unity’ Party was now blatantly dominant: coalition partners, if any, were reduced to nominal and empty roles. In keeping with this transition from united front coalitions to a Communist monopoly of power, Soviet strategy in the course of 1948 and 1949 reverted to a radical policy of state control, collectivization, destruction of the middle-class and purges and punishment of real and imagined opponents.
This account of the initial Soviet take-over in eastern Europe describes a process common to all the countries of the region. Stalin’s calculations were typically indifferent to national variety. Where Communists could reasonably hope to secure power by legal or ostensibly legal means this appears to have been Stalin’s preference, at least through the autumn of 1947. But the point was power, not legality, which is why Communists’ tactics became more confrontational and less embarrassed by judicial or political constraints, even at the cost of alienating foreign sympathy, once it was clear that electoral success would elude them.
Nonetheless, there were significant local variations. In Bulgaria and Romania the Soviet hand was heaviest—in part because both countries had been at war with the USSR, in part because of local Communist weakness, but mostly just because they were so obviously consigned by geography to the Soviet sphere from the outset. In Bulgaria the Communist leader (and former Comintern Secretary) Georgy Dimitrov declared bluntly as early as October 1946 that anyone who voted for the antiCommunist opposition would be regarded as a traitor. Even so, the Communists’ opponents won 101 out of 465 parliamentary seats in the ensuing general election. But the opposition was fore-doomed—the only thing preventing the occupying Red Army and its local allies from openly destroying all dissent right away was the need to work with the Western Allies on a Peace Treaty for Bulgaria and to secure Anglo-American recognition of a Communist-led government as Bulgaria’s legitimate authority.
Once the peace treaties were signed, the Communists had nothing to gain by waiting and the chronology of events is thus revealing. On June 5th 1947 the US Senate ratified the Paris Peace Treaties with Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Finland and Italy, despite the misgivings of American diplomats in Sofia and Bucharest. The very next day the leading anti-Communist politician in Bulgaria, the Agrarian leader Nikola Petkov (who had refused to follow more accommodating Agrarians into the Communists’ Fatherland Front), was arrested. His trial lasted from August 5th to 15th. On September 15th the Bulgarian Peace Treaty officially came into force and four days later the USA offered to extend diplomatic recognition to the government in Sofia. Within 96 hours Petkov was executed, his sentence having been delayed until the official American announcement. With Petkov judicially murdered, the Bulgarian Communists need fear no further impediments. As the Soviet general Biryuzov observed in retrospect, discussing Red Army support for the Bulgarian Communists against the ‘bourgeois’ parties: ‘We did not have the right to withhold assistance to the efforts of the Bulgarian people to crush this reptile.’
In Romania, the Communists’ position was even weaker than Bulgaria, where at least there was a history of philo-Russian sentiment on which the Party could try to draw.33 Although the Soviets guaranteed the return to Romania of northern Translyvania (assigned to Hungary under duress in 1940), Stalin had no intention of returning Bessarabia or the Bukovina, both incorporated into the USSR, nor the Southern Dobrudja region of south-east Romania now attached to Bulgaria: as a consequence, the Romanian Communists were forced to justify a significant territorial loss, much as, during the inter-war years, they had been hobbled by the Soviet claim on Bessarabia, then Romanian territory.
Worse, the Romanian Communist leaders were frequently not even Romanian, at least by traditional Romanian criteria. Ana Pauker was Jewish, Emil Bodnaras was Ukrainian, Vasile Luca was of Transylvanian German background. Others were Hungarian or Bulgarian. Perceived as an alien presence, the Romanian Communists were utterly dependent on the Soviet forces. Their domestic survival rested not upon winning the popular vote—never remotely considered as a practical objective—but upon the speed and efficiency with which they could occupy the state and divide and destroy their opponents in the ‘historic’ parties of the Liberal center, a task at which they proved decidedly adept—as early as March 1948 the government list won 405 out of 414 seats in national elections. In Romania as in Bulgaria (or Albania, where Enver Hodxa mobilized the southern Tosk communities against tribal resistance from the northern Ghegs), subversion and violence were not one option among others—they were the only road to power.
The Poles, too, were fore-doomed to the Soviet sphere after World War Two. This was because of their location, on the route from Berlin to Moscow; their history, as longstanding impediments to Russian imperial ambitions in the west; and because in Poland, too, the prospects of a Soviet-friendly government emerging spontaneously by popular choice were minimal. The difference between Poland and the Balkan states, however, was that Poland had been a victim of Hitler, not his ally; hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers had fought with the Allied armies on Eastern and Western fronts; and the Poles nursed expectations about their postwar prospects.
As it transpired, those prospects were not so very bad. The Polish Communists in the so-called ‘Lublin Committee’—set up in July 1944 by the Soviet authorities so that they would have a ready-made government to put in office when they reached Warsaw—could hardly claim a mass base, but they had a degree of local support, especially among the young, and they could point to some real benefits of Soviet ‘friendship’: an effective guarantee against German territorial revanchism (a genuine consideration at the time) and a policy of national exchanges whereby Poland was ‘cleansed’ of its remaining Ukrainian minority and ethnic Poles from the east were resettled within the new national frontiers. These considerations allowed Polish Communists, for all their marginality (many of them, too, were of Jewish origin), to claim a place in Polish national and even nationalist political traditions.
Nevertheless, Poland’s Communists too would always have been an insignificant minority in electoral terms. The Polish Peasant Party of Stanislaw Mikołajczyk counted some 600,000 members in December 1945, ten times the number of activists in the Communists’ Polish Workers’ Party (the Polish United Workers’ Party after its absorption of the Socialists in December 1948). But Mikołajczyk, prime minister of the wartime government-in-exile, was fatally handicapped by his party’s characteristically Polish insistence on being both anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet.
Stalin was more or less indifferent to the success of ‘Socialism’ in Poland, as later events would reveal. But he was far from indifferent to the general tenor of Polish policy, especially Polish foreign policy. Indeed, together with the outcome of the German standoff, it was more important to him than anything else, at least in Europe. Accordingly the Peasant Party was steadily edged aside, its supporters threatened, its leaders attacked, its credibility impugned. In the blatantly rigged Polish parliamentary elections of January 1947, the Communist-led ‘Democratic bloc’ obtained 80 percent of the votes, the Peasant Party just 10 percent.34 Nine months later, in fear of his life, Mikołajczyk fled the country. Remnants of the wartime Home Army continued to fight a guerilla war with the Communist authorities for a few more years, but theirs, too, was a hopeless cause.
In Poland, the Soviet Union had so obvious an interest in the political complexion of the country that the Poles’ wartime illusions—before and after Yalta—can seem quixotic. In Hungary, however, notions of a ‘Hungarian road to Socialism’ were not altogether fanciful. Hungary’s chief post-war interest for Moscow was as a safe conduit for Red Army troops, should these need to move west into Austria (or—later—south into Yugoslavia). Had there been widespread public support for the local Communists their Soviet advisers might have been willing to play out the ‘democratic’ tactic longer than they did.
But in Hungary, too, the Communists proved consistently unpopular, even in Budapest. Despite being targeted as reactionary and even Fascist, the Smallholders Party (Hungary’s equivalent of Agrarian parties elsewhere) secured an absolute majority in the national elections of November 1945. With the backing of the Socialists (whose leader Anna Kéthly refused to believe that the Communists would stoop to election-rigging), the Communists succeeded in expelling some of the Smallholder deputies from parliament and charged them in February 1947 with conspiracy and, in the case of their leader Béla Kovács, espionage against the Red Army (Kovács was sent to Siberia, whence he returned in 1956). In new elections in August 1947, shamelessly falsified by the Communist Interior Minister László Rajk, the Communists still managed to secure only 22 percent of the vote, although the Smallholders were duly reduced to a 15 percent share. In these circumstances Hungary’s road to Socialism converged rapidly with that of its eastern neighbours. By the next elections, in May 1949, the ‘People’s Front’ was credited with 95.6 percent of the vote.
It is easy, in retrospect, to see that hopes for a democratic Eastern Europe after 1945 were always forlorn. Central and Eastern Europe had few indigenous democratic or liberal traditions. The inter-war regimes in this part of Europe had been corrupt, authoritarian and in some cases murderous. The old ruling castes were frequently venal. The real governing class in inter-war Eastern Europe was the bureaucracy, recruited from the same social groups who would furnish the administrative cadre of the Communist states. For all the rhetoric of ‘Socialism’, the transition from authoritarian backwardness to Communist ‘popular democracy’ was a short move and an easy one. It is not so very surprising that history took the turn it did.
Moreover the alternative of a return to the politicians and policies of pre-1939 Romania or Poland or Hungary significantly weakened the anti-Communist case, at least until the full force of Soviet terror was felt after 1949. After all, as the French Communist leader Jacques Duclos slyly asked in the Communist daily l’Humanité on July 1st 1948, was not the Soviet Union these countries’ best guarantee not just against a return to the bad old days but of their very national independence? That was indeed the way it seemed to many at the time. As Churchill observed: ‘One day the Germans would want their territory back and the Poles would not be able to stop them.’ The Soviet Union was now the self-appointed protector of the new borders of Romania and Poland, not to speak of the redistributed land of expelled Germans and others all across the region.
This was a reminder, as though it were needed, of the omnipresence of the Red Army. The 37th Army of the 3rd Ukrainian Front was detached from the forces occupying Romania in September 1944 and stationed in Bulgaria, where it remained until the Peace Treaties were signed in 1947. Soviet forces remained in Hungary until the mid-Fifties (and again after 1956), in Romania until 1958. The German Democratic Republic was under Soviet military occupation throughout its forty-year life and Soviet troops transited regularly across Poland. The Soviet Union was not about to leave this part of Europe, whose future was thus intimately bound up with the fate of its giant neighbour, as events were to show.
The apparent exception was of course Czechoslovakia. Many Czechs welcomed the Russians as liberators. Thanks to Munich they had few illusions about the Western powers and Edvard Beneš’s London-based government-in-exile was the only one that made unambivalent overtures to Moscow well before 1945. As Beneš himself expressed his position to Molotov in December 1943, ‘in regard to issues of major importance, [we] . . . would always speak and act in a fashion agreeable to the representatives of the Soviet government.’ Beneš may not have been as alert as his mentor, the late President Tomáš Masaryk, to the risks of a Russian or Soviet embrace, but he was not a fool either. Prague was going to be friendly with Moscow for the same reason it had sought close links to Paris before 1938: because Czechoslovakia was a small, vulnerable country in central Europe and needed a protector.
Thus despite being in many ways the most western of ‘eastern’ European countries—with a historically pluralist political culture, a significant urban and industrial sector, a flourishing capitalist economy before the war and a Western-oriented social-democratic policy after it—Czechoslovakia was also the Soviet Union’s closest ally in the region after 1945, in spite of losing its easternmost district of sub-Carpathian Ruthenia to Soviet territorial ‘adjustments’. That is why Beneš, alone of the east- and south-east European wartime prime-ministers-in-exile, was able to bring his government home—where, in April 1945, he reconfigured it with seven Communists and eleven ministers from the other four parties.
The Czech Communists under their leader Klement Gottwald genuinely believed that their chances of coming to power through the ballot box were good. They had made a respectable showing at the last pre-war Czechoslovak elections, obtaining 849,000 votes (10 percent of the total) in 1935. They were not dependent on the Red Army, which withdrew from Czechoslovakia in November 1945 (though in Prague as elsewhere the Soviet Union maintained a significant intelligence and secret police presence through its diplomatic establishment). In the genuinely free, albeit psychologically fraught Czechoslovak elections of May 1946, the Communist Party won 40.2 percent of the vote in the Czech districts of Bohemia and Moravia, 31 percent in largely rural and Catholic Slovakia. Only the Slovak Democrat Party did better, and its appeal was by definition confined to the Slovak third of the population. 35
The Czech Communists anticipated continuing success, which is why they initially welcomed the prospect of Marshall Aid and undertook recruitment drives to bolster their prospects at future polls—party membership of some 50,000 in May 1945 rose to 1,220,000 in April 1946 and reached 1,310,000 in January 1948 (in a national population of just 12 million). The Communists were certainly not beyond using patronage and pressure to secure support. And, as elsewhere, they had taken the precaution of obtaining the vital ministries and placing their men in crucial positions within the police and elsewhere. But in anticipation of the elections of 1948 the homegrown Communists of Czechoslovakia were preparing to come to full power by a ‘Czech road’ that still looked quite different from those to the east.
Whether the Soviet leadership believed Gottwald’s assurances that the Czechoslovak Communist Party would triumph unaided is unclear. But at least until the autumn of 1947 Stalin left Czechoslovakia alone. The Czechs had expelled the Sudeten Germans (which exposed them to German hostility and thus made their country even more dependent on Soviet protection) and the emphasis in Beneš’s post-war governments on economic planning, state ownership and hard work reminded at least one French journalist in May 1947 of the rhetoric and mood of early Soviet stakhanovism. Prague billboards carried portraits of Stalin alongside those of President Benes himself, long before the Communists had even established a government of their own, much less secured a monopoly of power. We have seen that Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk and his colleagues did not hesitate, in the summer of 1947, to decline Marshall Aid at Moscow’s behest. Stalin, in short, had nothing to complain of in Czechoslovak behaviour.
Nevertheless, in February 1948 the Communists engineered a political coup in Prague, taking advantage of the imprudent resignation of non-Communist ministers (over an important but obscure issue of Communist infiltration of the police) to seize control of the country. The Prague coup was of enormous significance, precisely because it came in a more or less democratic country that had seemed so friendly to Moscow. It galvanized the Western allies, who inferred from it that Communism was on the march westwards.36It probably saved the Finns: thanks to the problems that the Czech coup caused him in Germany and elsewhere, Stalin was forced in April 1948 to compromise with Helsinki and sign a Friendship Treaty (having initially tried to impose on Finland an eastern-European solution by splitting the Social Democrats, forcing them to merge with the Communists in a ‘Finnish People’s Defense League’—and thus bringing the latter to power).
In the West, Prague awoke Socialists to the realities of political life in eastern Europe. On February 29th 1948 the ageing Léon Blum published in the French Socialist paper Le Populaire a hugely influential article, criticizing western Socialists’ failure to speak out about the fate of their comrades in eastern Europe. Thanks to Prague, a significant part of the non-Communist Left in France, Italy and elsewhere would now firmly situate itself in the Western camp, a development that consigned Communist parties in countries beyond Soviet reach to isolation and growing impotence.
If Stalin engineered the Prague coup without fully anticipating these consequences, it was not just because he had always planned to enforce his writ in a certain way throughout the bloc. Nor was it because Czechoslovakia mattered much in the grand scheme of things. What happened in Prague—and what was happening at the same time in Germany, where Soviet policy was moving swiftly from stonewalling and disagreement to open confrontation with her former allies—was a return by Stalin to the style and strategy of an earlier era. This shift was driven in general terms by Stalin’s anxiety at his inability to shape European and German affairs as he wished; but also and above all by his growing irritation with Yugoslavia.
. . .
In 1947, the Communist government in Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito had a unique status. Alone of the Communist parties in Europe, the Yugoslavs had come to power by their own efforts, depending neither on local allies nor foreign help. To be sure, the British in December 1943 had stopped sending aid to the rival Chetnik partisans and had swung their support behind Tito, and in the immediate postwar years the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) spent more money (US$415 million) in aid to Yugoslavia than anywhere else in Europe, 72 percent of that money coming from the United States. But for contemporaries what mattered was that the Yugoslav Communist partisans had fought the only successful resistance war against the German and Italian occupiers.
Buoyed by their victory, Tito’s Communists had no truck with coalitions of the kind being set up elsewhere in liberated eastern Europe and set about immediately destroying all their opponents. In the first post-war elections, in November 1945, voters were presented with an unambiguous choice: Tito’s ‘People’s Front’ . . . or an urn publicly labeled ‘opposition’. In January 1946 the Communist Party of Yugoslavia introduced a constitution directly modeled on that of the USSR. Tito pressed forward with mass arrests, imprisonment and execution of his opponents, together with forced collectivization of the land, at a time when Communists in neighbouring Hungary and Romania were still carefully calibrating a more accommodating image. Yugoslavia, it seemed, was on the hard, cutting edge of European Communism.
On the surface, Yugoslav radicalism and the success of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in taking firm control of a strategically crucial region appeared to Soviet advantage and relations between Moscow and Belgrade were warm. Moscow lavished unstinting praise on Tito and his party, evinced great enthusiasm for their revolutionary achievements and held Yugoslavia up as a model for others to emulate. The Yugoslav leaders in return took every occasion to insist on their respect for the Soviet Union; they saw themselves as introducing the Bolshevik model of revolution and government into the Balkans. As Milovan Djilas recalled, ‘all of us were pre-disposed towards [the USSR] in spirit. And all of us would have remained devoted to it, but for its own Great Power standards of loyalty’.
But Yugoslav devotion to Bolshevism was, from Stalin’s point of view, always a little too enthusiastic. Stalin, as we have already seen, was interested less in revolution than in power. It was for Moscow to determine the strategy of Communist parties, for Moscow to decide when a moderate approach was called for and when a radical line should be adopted. As the origin and fountainhead of world revolution, the Soviet Union was not a model for revolution but the model. Under the appropriate circumstances lesser Communist parties might follow suit, but they were ill advised to trump the Soviet hand. And this was Tito’s besetting weakness in Stalin’s eyes. In his ambition to plant the Communist standard in south-east Europe, the former partisan general was running ahead of Soviet calculations. Revolutionary successes were going to his head: he was becoming more royalist than the king.
Stalin did not come to these conclusions all at once, although his frustration with the ‘inexperienced’ Tito is recorded as early as January 1945. Beyond the growing sense in Moscow that Tito was getting above himself and setting up the indigenous Yugoslav revolution as a counter-model to that of the Soviets, the disagreements between Stalin and Tito arose over practical issues of regional policy. The Yugoslavs under Tito nursed ambitions, rooted in earlier Balkan history, to absorb Albania, Bulgaria and parts of Greece into an expanded Yugoslavia under a new ‘Balkan Federation’. This idea had a certain appeal beyond Yugoslavia’s borders—it made economic sense for Bulgaria, in the view of Traicho Kostov, one of the Communist leaders in Sofia, and would represent a further break with the small-state nationalism that had so hampered these countries’ prospects before the war.
Stalin himself was not initially averse to talk of a Balkan federation, and Dimitrov, Stalin’s confidante in the Comintern and the first Communist leader of Bulgaria, spoke openly of the prospect as late as January 1948. But there were two problems with the otherwise appealing plan to embrace all of south-eastern Europe into a common federal arrangement under Communist rule. What began as a basis for mutual co-operation among local Communists soon came, in Stalin’s suspicious eyes, to appear more like a bid for regional hegemony by one of them. This alone would probably, in time, have led Stalin to cap Tito’s ambitions. But in addition, and crucially, Tito was making problems for Stalin in the West.
The Yugoslavs openly backed and encouraged the Greek insurgency, both in 1944 and, more significantly, when the Greek civil war flared up again three years later. This support was consistent with Tito’s own rather narcissistic activism—helping the Greek Communists to emulate his own successes—and it was coloured, too, by Yugoslav interests in the disputed ‘Slav’ regions of Greek Macedonia. But Greece was in the Western sphere of interest, as Churchill and subsequently Truman had made very clear. Stalin had no interest in provoking a quarrel with the West over Greece, a secondary issue for him. The Greek Communists naively supposed that their uprising would trigger Soviet help, perhaps even the intervention of Soviet forces, but this was never in the cards. On the contrary, Stalin regarded them as undisciplined adventurers pursuing a lost cause and likely to provoke an American intervention.
Tito’s provocative encouragement to the Greek insurgents thus annoyed Stalin—who rightly reasoned that without Yugoslav assistance the Greek imbroglio would long since have resolved itself peacefully37—and alienated him still further from his Balkan acolyte. But it wasn’t just in the south Balkans that Tito was embarrassing Stalin and fuelling Anglo-American irritation. In Trieste and the Istrian peninsula, Yugoslav territorial ambitions were an impediment to Allied agreement on an Italian Peace Treaty: when the Treaty was finally signed, in September 1947, it left the future of the Trieste region uncertain, with Allied troops still garrisoned there to block a Yugoslav takeover. In neighbouring Carinthia, the southernmost district of Austria, Tito was demanding a territorial settlement in Yugoslavia’s favour, while Stalin preferred the unresolved status quo (which had the salient advantage for the Soviets of allowing them to keep an army in eastern Austria, and thus in Hungary too).
Tito’s combination of Yugoslav irridentism and partisan revolutionary fervour was thus a growing embarrassment to Stalin. According to the Official British History of the Second World War, it was widely believed in Western military circles after May 1945 that if a Third World War were to break out soon, it would be in the Trieste region. But Stalin was not interested in provoking a Third World War, and surely not over an obscure corner of north-east Italy. He was also not well pleased to see the Italian Communist Party embarrassed by the unpopular territorial ambitions of Italy’s Communist neighbour.
For all these reasons, Stalin was already privately exasperated over Yugoslavia by the summer of 1947. It cannot have pleased him that the railway station in the Bulgarian capital was covered with posters of Tito as well as Stalin and Dimitrov, nor that Hungarian Communists were beginning to speak of emulating the Yugoslav model of Communist rule—even the slavishly loyal Rákosi reportedly sung Tito’s praises to Stalin himself, at a Moscow meeting in late 1947. Tito was not just a diplomatic embarrassment for the Soviet Union in its relations with the Western Allies; he was causing trouble within the international Communist movement itself.
To outside observers, Communism was a single political entity, shaped and run from the Moscow ‘Centre’. But from Stalin’s perspective matters were more complicated. From the late Twenties through to the outbreak of war, Moscow had indeed succeeded in imposing its control over the world Communist movement, except in China. But the war had changed everything. In its resistance against the Germans the Soviet Union had been forced to invoke patriotism, liberty, democracy and many other ‘bourgeois’ goals. Communism had lost its revolutionary edge and become, deliberately, part of a broad anti-Fascist coalition. This had been the tactic of the pre-war Popular Fronts too, of course, but in the Thirties Moscow had been able to keep tight control of its foreign parties—through financial aid, personal intervention and terror.
In wartime that control had been lost—symbolized by the shutting down of the Comintern in 1943. And it was not fully recovered in the immediate post-war years: the Yugoslav Party was the only one in Europe that actually came to power without Soviet intervention, but in Italy and France the Communist parties, while professing continued loyalty to Moscow, functioned on a day to day basis without advice or instruction from abroad. The Party leaders there were not privy to Stalin’s intentions. Like the Czechs, but with even less guidance from the USSR, they pursued what they described as the French or Italian ‘road to Socialism’. working within governing coalitions and treating national and Communist objectives as unproblematically compatible.
All that began to change in the summer of 1947. Communist ministers were ejected from the governments of France and Italy in May 1947. This came as something of a surprise to them and Maurice Thorez, the French Communist leader, continued for some time to expect that his Party would soon be able to rejoin the governing coalition; at his Party’s June 1947 Congress in Strasbourg he described those who advocated all-out opposition as ‘adventurers’. Communists in Western Europe were unsure how to respond to the Marshall Plan, only belatedly taking their cue from Stalin’s rejection of it. In general, communications between Moscow and its Western parties were poor. Following the French Communists’ departure from office, Andrei Zdanov sent a confidential letter to Thorez (copied, significantly, to the Czech Communist leader Gottwald): ‘Many think that the French Communists’ actions were concerted with [us]. You know this is untrue and that the steps you took were a perfect surprise for the Central Committee.’
Clearly, the Western Communists were falling behind the curve. Within weeks of the dispatch of the letter to Thorez, on June 2nd, Moscow was establishing commercial treaties with its eastern European neighbours and satellites, part of a concerted reaction against the Marshall Plan and the threat it posed to Soviet influence in the region. The policy of cooperation, pursued in Prague, Paris and Rome and hitherto tacitly approved by Stalin, was swiftly being replaced by a retreat to the strategy of confrontation represented by Zdanov’s promulgation of the theory of two irreconcilable ‘camps’.
To implement the new approach, Stalin called a meeting in Szklarska Poręba, in Poland, for late September 1947. Invited to take part were the Communist parties of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, France, Italy and of course the Soviet Union. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to establish the ‘Cominform’—the Communist Information Bureau: a successor to the Communist International whose task would be to ‘coordinate’ international Communist activity and improve communication between Moscow and the satellite parties. But the real goal of both the meeting and the Cominform (which only ever met three times and was disbanded in 1956) was to re-establish Soviet dominion within the international movement
Just as he had done within the Bolshevik Party itself twenty years before, Stalin set out to penalize and discredit the ‘rightist’ deviation. At Szklarska Poręba the French and Italian representatives were subjected to patronizing lectures on revolutionary strategy from the Yugoslav delegates Edvard Kardelj and Milovan Djilas, whose exemplary ‘leftism’ was singled out for praise by Zdanov and Malenkov, the Soviet delegates. The Western Communists (along with the representatives of the Czech and Slovak Parties for whom the criticism was clearly intended as well) were taken quite by surprise. Peaceful co-existence, of the kind they had been pursuing in domestic politics, was at an end. An ‘anti-imperialist democratic camp’ (in Zdanov’s words) was forming and a new line was to be followed. Henceforth Moscow expected Communists to pay closer attention and subordinate local considerations to Soviet interests.
Following Szklarska Poręba, Communists everywhere switched to confrontational tactics: strikes, demonstrations, campaigns against the Marshall Plan and—in eastern Europe—acceleration of the take-over of power. The Central Committee of the French Communist Party met in Paris on October 29th-30th 1947 and officially inaugurated a campaign of denigration directed at their erstwhile Socialist allies. The Italian Communists took a little longer to make the switch, but at its January 1948 Congress the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) too adopted a ‘new course’, whose focus was to be ‘the struggle for peace’. The western European Communists certainly suffered as a consequence—they were marginalized in domestic affairs and in the Italian case lost heavily in the April 1948 general elections, in which the Vatican and the US Embassy intervened massively on the antiCommunist side.38 But it didn’t matter. In Zdanov’s ‘two camps’ theory, Communists in the Western camp were now consigned to a secondary, spoiler role.
It might be thought that the Yugoslavs’ hyper-revolutionism, hitherto an impediment to Stalin’s diplomacy, would now be an asset—and so it had seemed at Szklarska Poręba, where the Yugoslav Party had been given the starring role. Certainly the French, Italian and other delegates never forgave the Yugoslavs for their condescending air of superiority and privilege at Szklarska Poręba: following the Soviet-Yugoslav split Communists everywhere were only too pleased to condemn the ‘Tito-ist deviation’ and needed little Soviet encouragement to pour obloquy and scorn upon the disgraced Balkan comrades.
Instead, however, the Tito-Stalin rift was publicly initiated by Stalin’s condemnation of the Balkan Federation idea in February 1948 and the Soviet cancellation of trade negotiations, followed by the recall from Belgrade of Soviet military and civilian advisers the following month. It was pursued through a series of formal communications and accusations in which both sides claimed the best of intentions, and culminated in Tito’s refusal to attend the forthcoming second Cominform conference. The split was then consummated at that conference, on June 28th 1948, with a formal resolution expelling Yugoslavia from the organization for its failure to acknowledge the leading role of the Red Army and the USSR in the country’s liberation and socialist transformation. Officially, Belgrade was charged with conducting a nationalist foreign policy and pursuing incorrect domestic policies. In fact, Yugoslavia represented the international equivalent of a ‘left opposition’ to Stalin’s monopoly of power and a conflict was inevitable: Stalin needed to break Tito in order to make very clear to Tito’s fellow Communists that Moscow would brook no dissent.
Tito, of course, was not broken. But both he and his country were more vulnerable than they seemed at the time, and without growing Western backing Tito would have been hard put to survive the Soviet economic boycott—in 1948 46 percent of Yugoslav trade was with the Soviet bloc, a figure that was reduced to 14 percent one year later—and credible threats of Soviet intervention. The Yugoslavs certainly paid a high rhetorical price for their opinionated actions. In the course of the next two years Cominform attacks were steadily ratcheted up. In the well-oiled lexicon of Leninist abuse, Tito became ‘Judas Tito and his abettors’, ‘the new Czar of the Pan-Serbs and of the entire Yugoslav bourgeoisie’. His followers were ‘despicable traitors and imperialist hirelings’, ‘sinister heralds of the camp of war and death, treacherous warmongers and worthy heirs of Hitler’. The Yugoslav Communist Party was condemned as a ‘gang of spies, provocateurs and murderers’, ‘dogs tied to American leashes, gnawing imperialist bones and barking for American capital’.
It is significant that the attacks on Tito and his followers coincided with the full flowering of the Stalinist personality cult and the purges and show trials of the coming years. For there is little doubt that Stalin truly did see in Tito a threat and a challenge, and feared his corrosive effect on the fealty and obedience of other Communist regimes and parties. The Cominform’s insistence, in its journals and publications, on the ‘aggravation of the class struggle in the transition from capitalism to socialism’ and on the ‘leading role’ of the Party risked reminding people that these had been precisely the policies of the Yugoslav Party since 1945. Hence the accompanying emphasis on loyalty to the Soviet Union and Stalin, the rejection of all ‘national’ or ‘particular’ roads to Socialism and the demand for a ‘redoubling of vigilance’. The second Stalinist ice age was beginning.
If Stalin went to such trouble to assert and re-assert his authority in eastern Europe, it was in large measure because he was losing the initiative in Germany.39 On June 1st 1948 the Western Allies, meeting in London, announced plans to establish a separate West German state. On June 18th a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, was announced; three days later it was placed in circulation (the banknotes had been printed in great secrecy in the US and transported to Frankfurt under US Army escort). The old Reichsmark was withdrawn, with every German resident entitled to exchange just forty of them for the new marks at a 1:1 ratio, thereafter at a ratio of 10:1. Initially unpopular (because it destroyed savings, pushed up real prices and put goods beyond most people’s reach) the currency was quickly accepted, as stores filled up with goods that farmers and traders were now willing to sell at fixed prices for a reliable medium of exchange.
On June 23rd, the Soviet authorities responded by issuing a new, East German Mark and cutting the rail lines linking Berlin to western Germany (three weeks later they would close the canals as well). The following day the Western military government in Berlin blocked Soviet efforts to extend the new Eastern zone currency to West Berlin—an important point of principle, since the city of Berlin was under four-power rule and the Western zone had not hitherto been treated as part of Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. As the Soviet troops tightened their control over surface connections into the city, the American and British governments decided upon an airlift to provision their own zones and on June 26th the first transport plane landed at Tempelhof airfield in (West) Berlin.
The Berlin airlift lasted until May 12th 1949. Over those eleven months the Western allies shipped some 2.3 million tons of food on 277,500 flights, at the cost of the lives of 73 Allied airmen. Stalin’s purpose in blockading Berlin was to force the West to choose between quitting the city (taking advantage of the absence in the Potsdam protocols of any written guarantee of Allied surface access to it), or else abandoning their plans for a separate West German state. This was what Stalin really wanted—Berlin for him was always a negotiating chip—but in the end he secured neither objective.
Not only did the Western allies hang on to their share of Berlin (somewhat to their own surprise, and to the amazed gratitude of the—West—Berliners themselves), but the Soviet blockade, following hard on the Prague coup, only made them more determined to move ahead with plans for West Germany, just as it made a division of the country more acceptable to Germans themselves. France joined the Bizone in April 1949, creating a single West German economic unit of 49 million inhabitants (against just 17 million in the Soviet Zone)
Like most of Stalin’s diplomatic adventures the Berlin blockade was an improvisation, not part of any calculated aggressive design (though the West could hardly be blamed for not knowing this at the time). Stalin was not about to go to war for Berlin.40Accordingly, when the blockade failed, the Soviet leader changed tack. On January 31st 1949 he publicly proposed lifting the blockade in exchange for a postponement of plans for a West German state. The Western allies had no intention of making any such concession, but it was agreed to convene a meeting to discuss the matter and on May 12th the Soviet Union ended the blockade in exchange for nothing more than a conference of Foreign Ministers scheduled for May 23rd.
The conference duly took place and lasted for a month, but predictably found no common ground. Indeed it had only just begun when the West German parliamentary council in Bonn formally passed into effect the ‘Basic Law’ establishing a West German government; a week later Stalin responded by announcing plans for a complementary East German state, formally created on October 7th.41 By the time the conference broke up, on June 20th, the military government in West Germany had been replaced by High Commissioners from the US, Britain and France. The Federal Republic of Germany had come into being, though the Allies reserved certain powers of intervention and even the right to resume direct rule if they judged it necessary. On September 15th 1949, following his Christian Democratic Party’s success at the elections a month earlier, Konrad Adenauer became the Republic’s first Chancellor.
The Berlin crisis had three significant outcomes. In the first place, it led directly to the creation of two German states, an outcome none of the Allies had sought four years earlier. For the Western powers this had become an attractive and attainable objective; indeed, for all the lip service thenceforth paid to the desirability of German unification, no-one would be in any hurry to see it happen. As the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied to President Charles De Gaulle nine years later, when De Gaulle asked how he felt about a united Germany: ‘In theory. In theory we must always support reunification. There is no danger in that.’ For Stalin, once he appreciated that he could neither compete with the Allies for the allegiance of the Germans nor force them to abandon their plans, a separate East German Communist state was the least bad outcome.
Secondly, the Berlin crisis committed the United States for the first time to a significant military presence in Europe for the indefinite future. This was the achievement of Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister—it was Bevin who successfully urged the Americans to lead the airlift to Berlin, once Truman had been assured by Marshall and General Clay (the US commander in Berlin) that the risk was worth taking. The French were all the less involved in the Berlin crisis because from July 18th to September 10th 1948 the country was in the midst of a political crisis with no clear governing majority in the Assemblée Nationale.
But thirdly, and this followed from the first two, the Berlin crisis led directly to a reappraisal of Western military calculations. If the West was going to protect its German clients from Soviet aggression then it would need to give itself the means to do so. The Americans had stationed strategic bombers in Britain at the start of the Berlin crisis and these were equipped to carry atomic bombs, of which the US had 56 at the time. But Washington had no established policy on the use of atomic bombs (Truman himself was especially reluctant to consider using them) and in the event of a Soviet advance US strategy in Europe still presumed a retreat from the continent.
Central and Eastern Europe after World War Two
The military rethinking began with the Czech coup. In its aftermath Europe entered a period of heightened insecurity, with much talk of war. Even General Clay, not typically given to hyperbole, shared the prevailing fear: ‘For many months, based on logical analysis, I have felt and held that war was unlikely for at least ten years. Within the last few weeks I have felt a subtle change in Soviet attitude which I cannot define, but which now gives me a feeling it may come with dramatic suddenness. ’ It was in this atmosphere that the US Congress passed the Marshall Plan legislation and the European allies signed the Brussels Pact, on March 17th 1948. The Brussels Pact, however, was a conventional 50-Year Treaty binding Britain, France and the Benelux countries to ‘collaborate in measures of mutual assistance in the event of a renewal of German aggression’, whereas European politicians were becoming markedly more aware of their helpless exposure to Soviet pressure. In this respect they were as vulnerable as ever: as Dirk Stikker, the Dutch Foreign Minister, would note in retrospect, ‘We in Europe had only a verbal pledge from President Truman of American support.’
It was the British who initiated a new approach to Washington. In a speech to Parliament on January 22nd 1948, Bevin had committed Britain to engagement with her continental neighbours in a common defense strategy, a ‘Western European Union’, on the grounds that British security needs were no longer separable from those of the continent—a significant break with past British thinking. This western European Union was officially inaugurated with the Brussels Pact, but as Bevin explained to Marshall in a message of March 11th, such an arrangement would be incomplete unless extended to the concept of North Atlantic security as a whole—a point to which Marshall was all the more sympathetic because Stalin was just then applying considerable pressure on Norway to get it to sign a ‘nonaggression’ pact with the Soviet Union.
At Bevin’s urging, then, secret discussions took place in Washington between British, US and Canadian representatives to draft a treaty for Atlantic defense. On July 6th 1948, ten days after the start of the Berlin airlift and immediately following Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform, these talks were opened to other members of the Brussels Pact, among whom the French were not well pleased to discover that once again the ‘Anglo-Americans’ had been arranging the world behind their back. By April of the following year the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had been agreed and signed by the US, Canada, and ten European states.
NATO was a remarkable development. As late as 1947 few would have predicted that the United States would commit itself to a European military alliance. Indeed, there were many in the US Congress who were notably reluctant to approve Article V of the Treaty (which bound NATO members to come to one another’s aid if attacked), and the Treaty only secured Congressional approval, after three months of discussion, because it was represented as an Atlantic defense pact, rather than a Euro-American alliance. Indeed, when Dean Acheson presented the Administration’s case before the Senate, he took care to insist that America would not be deploying substantial ground forces in Europe.
And this was indeed the American intention. If the United States was committing itself to an entangling European alliance for the first time, it was because many people in Washington saw NATO much as they saw the Marshall Plan: as a device to help Europeans feel better about themselves and manage their own affairs—in this case, their own defense. In itself, NATO changed nothing in the European military balance: of the fourteen divisions stationed in Western Europe, only two were American. The Western allies were still outnumbered on the ground 12:1. The US Chiefs of Staff in 1949 calculated that it would be 1957 at the earliest before an effective defense on the Rhine could be mounted. It was by no means inappropriate that at the NATO Treaty-signing ceremony in Constitutional Hall, Washington, on April 9th 1949, the band played ‘I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing . . . ’.
Nevertheless, things looked rather different from the European side. The Americans did not ascribe much significance to military alliances; but Europeans, as Walter Bedell Smith advised his colleagues on the State Department Policy Planning Staff, ‘do attach far more importance to the scrap of paper pledging support than we ever have.’ This was not perhaps altogether surprising—they had nothing else. The British, at least, were still an island. But the French, like everyone else, were as vulnerable as ever: to the Germansand now to the Russians as well.
NATO thus had a double attraction for Paris especially: it would place the line of defense against Soviet forces further east than hitherto—as Charles Bohlen had observed, some months before the Treaty was signed, ‘the one faint element of confidence which [the French] cling to is the fact that American troops, however strong in number, stand between them and the Red Army.’ And perhaps more important, it would serve as a reinsurance policy against German revanchism. Indeed it was only because of the promise of NATO protection that the French government, with the outcome of World War One still firmly in mind, conceded its approval for a West German state.
The French thus welcomed NATO as the guarantee against a revived Germany that they had been unable to obtain by diplomatic means in the previous three years. The Dutch and Belgians also saw in NATO an impediment to future German revanchism. The Italians were included to help shore up Alcide De Gasperi’s domestic support against Communist critics. The British regarded the NATO Treaty as a signal achievement in their struggle to keep the US engaged in Europe’s defense. And the Truman Administration sold the agreement to Congress and the American people as a barrier to Soviet aggression in the North Atlantic. Hence the famous bon mot of Lord Ismay, who took up his post as NATO’s first Secretary General in 1952: the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.’
NATO was a bluff. As Denis Healey, a future British defense minister, observed in his memoirs, ‘for most of the Europeans, NATO was worthless unless it could prevent another war; they were not interested in fighting one’. The originality of the Treaty lay not so much in what it could achieve but in what it represented: like the Marshall Plan—and the Brussels Treaty from which it sprang—NATO illustrated the most significant change that had come over Europe (and the US) as a result of the war—a willingness to share information and cooperate in defense, security, trade, currency regulations and much else. An integrated Allied command in peacetime, after all, was an unheard of departure from practice.
But NATO did not leap fully formed from the agreements of 1949. In the spring of 1950 Washington was still worrying about how to explain to the French and other Europeans that the only realistic hope for West European defense was to rearm Germany, a subject that made everyone uneasy and was thought likely to provoke an unpredictable response from Stalin. In any case, no-one wanted to spend precious resources on rearmament. The appeal of neutrality—as an alternative to defenseless confrontation—was growing, in Germany and France alike. If the Korean War had not broken out just at this moment (a reasonable counter-factual, since it nearly didn’t) the contours of recent European history might look very different indeed.
Stalin’s support for Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea on June 25th 1950 was his most serious miscalculation of all. The Americans and West Europeans immediately drew the (erroneous) conclusion that Korea was a diversion or prelude, and that Germany would be next—an inference encouraged by Walter Ulbricht’s imprudent boast that the Federal Republic would be next to fall. The Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb just eight months earlier, leading American military experts to exaggerate Soviet preparedness for war; but even so, the budget increases requested in National Security Council paper #68 (presented on April 7th 1950) would almost certainly not have been approved but for the Korean attack.
The risk of a European war was greatly exaggerated, but not completely absent. Stalin was contemplating a possible assault—on Yugoslavia, not West Germany—but abandoned the idea in the face of Western rearmament. And just as the West misread the Soviet purpose in Korea, so Stalin—accurately advised by his intelligence services of the rapid US military build-up that followed—mistakenly assumed that the Americans had aggressive designs of their own on his sphere of control in eastern Europe. But none of these assumptions and miscalculations was clear at the time, and politicians and generals proceeded as best they could on the basis of limited information and past precedent.
The scale of Western rearmament was dramatic indeed. The US defense budget rose from $15.5 billion in August 1950 to $70 billion by December of the following year, following President Truman’s declaration of a National Emergency. By 1952-53 defense expenditure consumed 17.8 percent of the US GNP, compared with just 4.7 percent in 1949. In response to Washington’s request, America’s allies in NATO also increased their defense spending: after falling steadily since 1946, British defense costs rose to nearly 10 percent of GNP in 1951-52, growing even faster than in the hectic rearmament of the immediate pre-war years. France, too, increased defense spending to comparable levels. In every NATO member state, defense spending increased to a post-war peak in the years 1951-53.
The economic impact of this sudden leap in military investment was equally unprecedented. Germany especially was flooded with orders for machinery, tools, vehicles and other products that the Federal Republic was uniquely well-placed to supply, all the more so because the West Germans were forbidden to manufacture arms and could thus concentrate on everything else. West German steel output alone, 2.5 million tonnes in 1946 and 9 million tonnes in 1949, grew to nearly 15 million tonnes by 1953. The dollar deficit with Europe and the rest of the world fell by 65 percent in the course of a single year, as the United States spent huge sums overseas on arms, equipment stockpiles, military emplacements and troops. FIAT in Turin got its first American contracts, for ground-support jet aircraft (a contract urged upon Washington for political reasons by its Rome embassy).
But the economic news was not all good. The British government was forced to divert public expenditure away from welfare services to meet its defense commitments, a choice that split the governing Labour Party and helped bring about its defeat at the elections of 1951. The cost of living in West Europe went up as government spending fuelled inflation—in France consumer prices rose 40 percent in the two years following the outbreak of war in Korea. The West Europeans, who had only just begun to reap the benefits of Marshall Aid, were clearly in no condition to sustain for very long what amounted to a war economy and the 1951 US Mutual Security Act recognized this, effectively closing out the Marshall Plan and transforming it into a programme of military assistance. By the end of 1951 the US was transferring nearly $5 billion of military support to Western Europe.
From a psychological boost to European confidence, NATO thus became a major military commitment, drawing on the seemingly limitless resources of the US economy and committing the Americans and their allies to an unprecedented peacetime build up of men and matériel. General Eisenhower returned to Europe as Supreme Allied Commander and Allied military headquarters and administrative facilities were established in Belgium and France. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was now, unambiguously, analliance. Its primary task was what military planners called the ‘forward defense’ of Europe: i.e. confrontation with the Red Army in the middle of Germany. To perform this role, it was agreed at the NATO Council meeting in Lisbon in February 1952 that the alliance would need to raise at least ninety-six new divisions within two years.
But even with a significant and ever-growing American military presence there was only one way in which NATO could meet its targets: by rearming the West Germans. Thanks to Korea the Americans had felt obliged to bring up this sensitive matter (Dean Acheson first raised it formally at a Foreign Ministers’ meeting in September 1950), even though President Truman himself was initially reluctant. On the one hand no-one wanted to put weapons in the hands of Germans just five years after the liberation of Europe; on the other hand, and on the analogy of the economic difficulties of the Bizone just three years previous, there was something perverse about spending billions of dollars to defend the West Germans from Russian attack without asking them to make a contribution of their own. And if Germany was to become, as some anticipated, a sort of buffer zone and future battlefield, then the risk of alienating German sympathies and encouraging neutralist sentiments could not be ignored.
Moscow, of course, would not take kindly to West German rearmament. But after June 1950 Soviet sensibilities were no longer a prime consideration. The British, however reluctantly, saw no option but to find some device for arming Germany while keeping it firmly under Allied control. It was the French who had always been most firmly opposed to putting weapons in German hands, and France had certainly not joined NATO just to see it become an umbrella for German remilitarisation. France managed to block and postpone the rearmament of Germany until 1954. But long before then French policy had been undergoing a signal transformation, allowing Paris to accept with some equanimity a limited restoration of Germany. Unhappy and frustrated at being reduced to the least of the great powers, France had embarked upon a novel vocation as the initiator of a new Europe.
The idea of European union, in one form or another, was not new. The nineteenth century had seen a variety of more or less unsuccessful customs unions in central and western Europe and even before World War One there had been occasional idealistic talk, drawing on the idea that Europe’s future lay in a coming together of its disparate parts. World War One itself, far from dissipating such optimistic visions, seems to have given them greater force: as Aristide Briand—the French statesman and himself an enthusiastic author of European pacts and proposals—insisted, the time had come to overcome past rivalries and think European, speak European, feel European. In 1924 the French economist Charles Gide joined other signatories across Europe in launching an International Committee for a European Customs Union. Three years later a junior minister in the British Foreign Office would profess himself ‘astonished’ at the extent of continental interest in the ‘pan-European’ idea.
More prosaically, the Great War had brought French and Germans, in a curious way, to a better appreciation of their mutual dependence. Once the post-war disruption had subsided and Paris had abandoned its fruitless efforts to extract German reparations by force, an international Steel Pact was signed, in September 1926, by France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the (then autonomous) region of the Saar, to regulate steel production and prevent excess capacity. Although the Pact was joined the following year by Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, it was only ever a cartel of the traditional kind; but the German Prime Minister Gustav Stresemann certainly saw in it the embryonic shape of future trans-national accords. He was not alone.
Like other ambitious projects of the 1920s, the Steel Pact barely survived the 1929 crisis and ensuing depression. But it recognized what was already clear to French ironmasters in 1919: that France’s steel industry, once it had doubled in size as a result of the return of Alsace-Lorraine, would be utterly dependent on coke and coal from Germany and would therefore need to find a basis for long-term collaboration. The situation was equally obvious to Germans, and when the Nazis occupied France in 1940 and reached agreement with Pétain on a system of payments and deliveries amounting to the forced application of French resources to the German war effort, there were nevertheless many on both sides who saw in this latest Franco-German ‘collaboration’ the germ of a new ‘European’ economic order.
Thus Pierre Pucheu, a senior Vichy administrator later to be executed by the Free French, envisaged a post-war European order where customs barriers would be eliminated and a single European economy would encompass the whole continent, with a single currency. Pucheu’s vision—which was shared by Albert Speer and many others—represented a sort of updating of Napoleon’s Continental System under Hitlerian auspices, and it appealed to a younger generation of continental bureaucrats and technicians who had experienced the frustrations of economic policy making in the 1930s.
What made such projects especially seductive was that they were typically presented in terms of a shared, pan-European interest, rather than as self-interested projections of separate national agendas. They were ‘European’ rather than German or French, and they were much admired during the war by those who wanted desperately to believe that some good might come out of the Nazi occupation. The fact that the Nazis themselves had apparently unified much of Europe in a technical sense—removing frontiers, expropriating property, integrating transportation networks and so forth—made the idea even more plausible. And the attraction of a Europe liberated from its past and its mutual antagonisms was not lost abroad, either. Four years after Nazism’s defeat, in October 1949, George Kennan would confess to Dean Acheson that while he could understand apprehension at Germany’s growing importance in Western European affairs, ‘it often seemed to me, during the war living over there, that what was wrong with Hitler’s new order was that it was Hitler’s.’
Kennan’s remark was made in private. In public, after 1945, few were willing to say a good word about the wartime New Order—whose inefficiency and bad faith Kennan rather underestimated. The case for intra-European economic cooperation was of course undiminished—Jean Monnet, for example, continued to believe after the war as he had in 1943 that to enjoy ‘prosperity and social progress . . . the states of Europe must form . . . a ‘European entity’, which will make them a single unit’. And there were enthusiasts for the ‘Movement for European Unity’ formed in January 1947 at Churchill’s instigation.
Winston Churchill had been an early and influential advocate of a European assembly of some kind. On October 21st 1942 he wrote to Anthony Eden: ‘I must admit that my thoughts rest primarily in Europe, in the revival of the glory of Europe . . . it would be a measureless disaster if Russian bolshevism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient states of Europe. Hard as it is to say now, I trust that the European family may act unitedly as one, under a Council of Europe.’ But the post-war political circumstances seemed unpropitious for such ideals. The best that might be expected was the creation of a sort of forum for European conversation, which is what a May 1948 Congress of the European Unity Movement in The Hague proposed. The ‘Council of Europe’ which grew out of this suggestion was inaugurated in Strasbourg in May 1949 and held its first meeting there in August of that year; delegates from Britain, Ireland, France, the Benelux countries, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Norway took part.
The Council had no power and no authority; no legal, legislative or executive status. Its ‘delegates’ represented no-one. Its most important asset was the mere fact of its existence, though in November 1950 it issued a ‘European Convention on Human Rights’ that would assume greater significance in decades to come. As Churchill himself had recognized, in a speech given in Zurich on September 19th 1946, ‘The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany.’ But in those first post-war years the French, as we have seen, were in no mood to envisage such a partnership.
Their small neighbours to the north were moving rather faster, however. Even before the war ended the exiled governments of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the ‘Benelux Agreement’, eliminating tariff barriers and looking forward to the eventual free movement of labour, capital and services between their countries. The Benelux Customs Union came into effect on January 1st 1948, and there followed desultory conversations between the Benelux countries, France and Italy over projects to extend such cooperation across a larger space. But these half-formed projects for a ‘Little Europe’ all came to grief on the shoals of the German problem.
Everyone agreed, as the Marshall Plan negotiators in Paris in July 1947 concluded, that the ‘German economy should be integrated into the economy of Europe in such a way as to contribute to a raising of the general standard of life.’ The question was how? Western Germany, even after it became a state in 1949, had no organic links to the rest of the continent except via the mechanisms of the Marshall Plan and the Allied occupation—both of them temporary. Most Western Europeans still thought of Germany as a threat, not a partner. The Dutch had always been economically dependent on Germany—48 percent of Dutch ‘invisible’ earnings before 1939 came from German trade passing through the harbours and waterways of the Netherlands—and Germany’s economic revival was vital for them. But in 1947 only 29 percent of the Dutch population had a ‘friendly’ view of Germans and for the Netherlands it was important that an economically revived Germany be politically and militarily weak. This view was heartily endorsed in Belgium. Neither country could envisage an accommodation with Germany unless it was balanced by the reassuring involvement of Great Britain.
The deadlock was broken by the international events of 1948-49. With the Prague coup, the agreement on a West German state, the Berlin blockade and the plans for NATO it became clear to French statesmen like Georges Bidault and Robert Schuman that France must re-think its approach to Germany. There was now to be a West German political entity including the Ruhr and the Rhineland—only the tiny Saarland had been temporarily separated from the main body of Germany, and the coal of the Saar region was not suitable for coking. How were the resources of this new Federal Republic to be both contained and yet mobilized to French advantage?
On October 30th 1949, Dean Acheson appealed to Schuman for France to take the initiative in incorporating the new West German state into European affairs. The French were well aware of the need to do something—as Jean Monnet would later remind Georges Bidault, the US would surely encourage a newly-independent West Germany to increase its steel production, at which point it might well flood the market, force France to protect its own steel industry and thus trigger a retreat to trade wars. As we saw in Chapter Three, Monnet’s own plan—and with it the revival of France—depended upon a successful resolution of this dilemma.
It was in these circumstances that Jean Monnet proposed to France’s Foreign Minister what became known to history as the ‘Schuman Plan’. This constituted a genuine diplomatic revolution, albeit one that had been five years in the making. In essence it was very simple. In Schuman’s words, ‘The French government proposes that the entire French-German coal and steel production be placed under a joint High Authority within the framework of an organization which would also be open to the participation of the other countries of Europe.’ More than a coal and steel cartel, but far, far less than a blueprint for European integration, Schuman’s proposal represented a practical solution to the problem that had vexed France since 1945. In Schuman’s scheme the High Authority would have the power to encourage competition, set pricing policy, direct investment and buy and sell on behalf of participating countries. But above all it would take control of the Ruhr and other vital German resources out of purely German hands. It represented a European solution to a—the—French problem.
Robert Schuman announced his Plan on May 9th 1950, informing Dean Acheson the day before. The British received no advance notice. The Quai d’Orsay took a certain sweet pleasure in this: the first of many small retaliations for Anglo-American decisions taken without consulting Paris. The most recent of these had been Britain’s unilateral devaluation of the pound sterling by 30 percent just eight months before, when only the Americans had been pre-advised and the rest of Europe had been obliged to follow suit.42Ironically, it was this reminder of the risks of renewed economic self-interest and non-communication among European states that had prompted Monnet and others to think their way forward to the solution they were now proposing
The German government immediately welcomed Schuman’s proposal, as well they might: in Konrad Adenauer’s delighted reply to Schuman he declared that ‘this plan of the French government has given the relations between our two countries, which threatened to be paralysed by mistrust and reserve, a fresh impetus towards constructive cooperation.’ Or, as he put it more bluntly to his aides: ‘Das ist unser Durchbruch’—this is our breakthrough. For the first time the Federal Republic of Germany was entering an international organization on equal terms with other independent states—and would now be bound to the Western alliance, as Adenauer wished.
The Germans were the first to ratify the Schuman Plan. Italy and the Benelux countries followed suit, though the Dutch were at first reluctant to commit themselves without the British. But the British declined Schuman’s invitation and without Britain there was no question of the Scandinavians signing on. So it was just six West European states that signed the April 1951 Paris Treaty founding the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).
It is perhaps worth pausing to remark on a feature of the Community which did not escape notice at the time. All six foreign ministers who signed the Treaty in 1951 were members of their respective Christian Democratic parties. The three dominant statesmen in the main member states—Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman—were all from the margins of their countries: De Gasperi from the Trentino, in north-east Italy; Adenauer from the Rhineland; Schuman from Lorraine. When De Gasperi was born—and well into his adult life—the Trentino was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and he studied in Vienna. Schuman grew up in a Lorraine that had been incorporated into the German Empire. As a young man, like Adenauer, he joined Catholic associations—indeed the same ones that the Rhinelander had belonged to ten years earlier. When they met, the three men conversed in German, their common language.
For all three, as for their Christian Democrat colleagues from bi-lingual Luxembourg, bi-lingual and bi-cultural Belgium, and the Netherlands, a project for European cooperation made cultural as well as economic sense: they could reasonably see it as a contribution to overcoming the crisis of civilization that had shattered the cosmopolitan Europe of their youth. Hailing from the fringes of their own countries, where identities had long been multiple and boundaries fungible, Schumanand his colleagues were not especially troubled at the prospect of some merging of national sovereignty. All six member countries of the new ECSC had only recently seen their sovereignty ignored and trampled on, in war and occupation: they had little enough sovereignty left to lose. And their common Christian Democratic concern for social cohesion and collective responsibility disposed all of them to feel comfortable with the notion of a trans-national ‘High Authority’ exercising executive power for the common good.
But further north, the prospect was rather different. In the Protestant lands of Scandinavia and Britain (or to the Protestant perspective of a North German like Schumacher), the European Coal and Steel Community carried a certain whiff of authoritarian incense. Tage Erlander, the Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister from 1948-68, actually ascribed his own ambivalence about joining to the overwhelming Catholic majority in the new Community. Kenneth Younger, a senior adviser to Bevin, noted in his diary entry for May 14th 1950—five days after learning of the Schuman Plan—that while he generally favoured European economic integration the new proposals might ‘on the other hand, . . . be just a step in the consolidation of the Catholic ‘black international’ which I have always thought to be a big driving force behind the Council of Europe.’ At the time this was not an extreme point of view, nor was it uncommon.
The ECSC was not a ‘black international’. It was not really even a particularly effective economic lever, since the High Authority never did exercise the kind of power Monnet intended. Instead, like so many of the other international institutional innovations of these years, it provided the psychological space for Europe to move forward with a renewed self-confidence. As Adenauer explained to Macmillan ten years later, the ECSC was not really even an economic organization at all (and Britain, in his view, had thus been right to stand aside from it). It was not a project for European integration, Monnet’s flights of fantasy notwithstanding, but rather the lowest common denominator of West European mutual interest at the time of its signing. It was a political vehicle in economic disguise, a device for overcoming Franco-German hostility.
Meanwhile, the problems that the European Coal and Steel Community was designed to address began to resolve themselves. In the last quarter of 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany regained the industrial output levels of 1936; by the end of 1950 it had surpassed them by one-third. In 1949 West Germany’s trade balance with Europe was based on the export of raw materials (essentially coal). A year later, in 1950, that trade balance was negative, as Germany was consuming its own raw materials to fuel local industry. By 1951 the balance was once again positive and would stay so for many years to come, thanks to the German export of manufactured goods. By the end of 1951 German exports had grown to over six times the level of 1948 and German coal, finished goods and trade were fuelling a European economic renaissance—indeed by the late Fifties western Europe was suffering the effects of a glut of coal. How much of this can be attributed to the ECSC is a matter of some doubt—it was Korea, not Schuman, that sent the West German industrial machine into high gear. But in the end it did not much matter.
If the European Coal and Steel Community was so much less than was claimed for it—if the French commitment to supranational organisms was simply a device to control a Germany that they continued to distrust, and if the European economic boom owed little to the actions of a High Authority whose impact on competition, employment and prices was minimal—why, then, did the British refuse to join it? And why did it seem to matter so much that they stood apart?
The British had nothing against a European customs union—they were quite in favour of one, at least for other Europeans. What made them uncomfortable was the idea of a supernational executive implied in the institution of a High Authority, even if it only directed the production and pricing of two commodities. London had been clear about this for some time—in 1948, when Bevin discussed with the Labour Cabinet American proposals for a future Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, his main concern was that ‘effective control should be in the hands of the national delegations . . . to prevent the secretariat (or an ‘independent’ chairman) from taking action on its own . . . There should be no question of instructions being given by the organization to individual members.’
This British reluctance to relinquish any national control was obviously incompatible with Monnet’s purpose in the ECSC. But the British saw the ECSC as the thin edge of a continental wedge in British affairs, whose implications were the more dangerous for being unclear. As Bevin explained to Acheson when justifying Britain’s refusal to join, ‘Where matters of such vital importance are at stake we cannot buy a pig in a poke, and [I am] pretty sure that if the Americans had been placed in a similar position they would have thought the same.’ Or, as he put it more colourfully to his aides when expressing his misgivings over the Council of Europe: ‘If you open that Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out’.
Some of the British reasoning was economic. The British economy—particularly that part of it which relied on trade—appeared in far healthier condition than that of its continental neighbours. In 1947 British exports represented, by value, the sum of the exports of France, Italy, western Germany, the Benelux countries, Norway and Denmark combined. Whereas western European states at that time traded chiefly with one another, Britain had extensive commerce with the whole world—indeed, Britain’s trade with Europe in 1950 was much less than it had been in 1913.
In the eyes of British officials, therefore, the country had more to lose than to gain by committing itself to participation in binding economic arrangements with countries whose prospects looked very uncertain. A year before Schuman’s proposal, the UK position, expressed in private by senior civil servants, was that ‘there is no attraction for us in long-term economic cooperation with Europe. At best it will be a drain on our resources. At worst it can seriously damage our economy.’ To which should be added the Labour Party’s particular anxiety at joining continental arrangements of a kind that might limit its freedom to pursue ‘socialist’ policies at home, policies closely tied to the corporate interests of the old industrial unions who had founded the Labour Party fifty years earlier: as acting Prime Minister Herbert Morrison explained to the Cabinet in 1950, when Schuman’s invitation was (briefly) considered: ‘It’s no good, we can’t do it, the Durham Miners won’t wear it.’
And then there was the Commonwealth. In 1950 the British Commonwealth covered large tracts of Africa, South Asia, Australasia and the Americas, much of it still in British hands. Colonial territories from Malaya to the Gold Coast (Ghana) were net dollar earners and kept significant sums in London—the notorious ‘sterling balances’. The Commonwealth was a major source of raw materials and food, and the Commonwealth (or Empire as most people still referred to it) was integral to British national identity, or so it seemed at the time. To most policymakers it was obviously imprudent—as well as practically impossible—to make Britain part of any continental European system that would cut the country off from this other dimension of its very existence.
Britain, then, was part of Europe but also part of a world-wide Anglophone imperial community. And it had a very particular relationship with the United States. The British people tended to be ambivalent about America—perceiving it from afar as a ‘paradise of consumer splendours’ (Malcolm Bradbury) in contrast to their own constricted lives, but resenting it for just that reason. Their governments, however, continued to profess faith in what would later be called the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries. In some degree this derived from Britain’s presence at the wartime ‘top table’, as one of the three Great Powers at Yalta and Potsdam, and as the third nuclear Power following the successful test of a British bomb in 1952. It drew, too, on the close collaboration between the two countries during the war itself. And it rested, a little, on the peculiarly English sense of superiority towards the country that had displaced them at the imperial apex.43
The Americans were frustrated by the UK’s reluctance to merge its fate with Europe and irritated by Britain’s insistence upon preserving its imperial standing. However, there was more to London’s stance in 1950 than imperial self-delusion or bloody-mindedness. Britain, as Jean Monnet would later acknowledge in his memoirs, had not been invaded or occupied: ‘she felt no need to exorcise history.’ The British experienced World War Two as a moment of national reconciliation and rallying together, rather than as a corrosive rent in the fabric of the state and nation, which was how it was remembered across the Channel. In France the war had revealed everything that was wrong with the nation’s political culture; in Britain, it had seemed to confirm everything that was right and good about national institutions and habits. World War Two, for most Britons, had been fought between Germany and Great Britain and the British had emerged triumphant and vindicated.44
This sense of quiet pride at the country’s capacity to suffer, endure and win through had marked Britain off from the continent. It also shaped the political culture of the post-war years. In the elections of 1945 Labour won a clear parliamentary majority for the first time in its history and, as we have seen, pressed through a broad range of nationalizations and social reforms culminating in the constitution of the world’s first universal welfare state. The government’s reforms were mostly popular—in spite of prompting remarkably little change in the deepest habits and affinities of the nation. In the words of J.B. Priestley, writing in the New Statesman in July 1949, ‘We are a Socialist Monarchy that is really the last monument of Liberalism.’
Domestic politics in post-war Britain were taken up with matters of social justice and the institutional reforms it required. This was to a considerable degree the result of a cumulative failure on the part of previous governments to address social inequalities; the belated re-centering of debate around urgently needed public expenditure—on health, education, transport, housing, pensions and the like—seemed to many to constitute a well-earned reward for the country’s recent sacrifices. But it also meant that most British voters (and many British Members of Parliament) had absolutely no idea of how poor their country was and what it had cost them to win their epic struggle with Germany.
In 1945 Britain was insolvent. The British mobilized more completely, and for longer than any other country: in 1945 10 million men and women were under arms or making them, in an employed population of 21.5 million adults. Rather than tailor the British war effort to the country’s limited means, Winston Churchill had gone for broke: borrowing from the Americans and selling British overseas assets to keep money and matériel flowing. As one wartime Chancellor of the Exchequer put it, these years saw ‘England’s transition from a position of the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation.’ The cost of World War Two to Britain was twice that of World War One; the country lost one quarter of its national wealth.
This accounts for Britain’s recurrent post-war currency crises, as the country struggled to pay off huge dollar-denominated debts from a drastically reduced income. That is one reason why the Marshall Plan in Britain had almost no impact upon investment or modernization in industry: 97 percent of the counterpart funds (more than anywhere else) were used to pay off the country’s massive debt. These problems would have been bad enough for any medium-sized European country in Britain’s straitened post-war circumstances; they were hugely exacerbated in this case by the global scale of British imperial responsibilities.
The cost to Britain of remaining a Great Power had greatly increased since 1939. The country’s expenditure on all military and diplomatic activity in the years 1934-38 was £6 million per annum. In 1947, on military expenditure alone, the government budgeted £209 million. In July 1950, on the eve of the Korean War—i.e. before the increase in defense spending that followed the outbreak of war—Britain had a full naval fleet in the Atlantic, another in the Mediterranean and a third in the Indian Ocean, as well as a permanent ‘China station’. The country maintained 120 Royal Air Force squadrons worldwide and had armies or parts of armies permanently based in: Hong Kong, Malaya, the Persian Gulf and North Africa, Trieste and Austria, West Germany and the United Kingdom itself. In addition there was a large and expensive diplomatic, consular and intelligence establishment spread worldwide, together with the colonial civil service, a significant bureaucratic and administrative burden in its own right even though it had recently been reduced by Britain’s departure from India.
The only way for the country to pay its way in these overstretched circumstances was for the British to impose on themselves unprecedented conditions of restraint and voluntary penury—which accounts for the much remarked upon feature of these years: that proud, victorious Great Britain seemed somehow tighter, poorer, grayer and grimmer than any of the erstwhile defeated, occupied and ravished lands across the water. Everything was rationed, restricted, controlled. The editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, admittedly a pessimistic soul at the best of times, nonetheless captured the mood of the times all too well in a comparison between America and Britain in April 1947:
‘Here the ego is at half-pressure; most of us are not men and women but members of a vast, seedy, overworked, over-legislated neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, strict, old-world apathies—a care-worn people. And the symbol of this mood is London, now the largest, saddest and dirtiest of great cities, with its miles of unpainted, half-inhabited houses, its chopless chop-houses, its beerless pubs, its once vivid quarters losing all personality, its squares bereft of elegance . . . its crowds mooning around the stained green wicker of the cafeterias in their shabby raincoats, under a sky permanently dull and lowering like a metal dish-cover.’
This was the age of austerity. In order to increase the country’s exports (and thus earn vital foreign currency) almost anything was either rationed or simply unavailable: meat, sugar, clothes, cars, gasoline, foreign travel, even sweets. Bread rationing, never imposed during the war, was introduced in 1946 and not abandoned until July 1948. The government ostentatiously celebrated a ‘bonfire of controls’ on November 5th 1949; but many of those same controls had to be re-imposed with the belt-tightening of the Korean War, and basic food rationing in Britain only ended in 1954—long after the rest of western Europe. Street scenes in post-war Britain would have been familiar to citizens in the Soviet bloc—in the words of one English housewife, recalling these years, ‘It was queues for everything, you know, even if you didn’t know what you were queuing for . . . you joined it because you knew there was something at the end of it.’
The British proved remarkably tolerant of their deprivations—in part because of a belief that these were, at least, shared fairly across the community—although the accumulated frustration with rations and regulations, and a certain air of puritanical paternalism that clung to some Labour ministers (notably the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps), contributed to Conservative electoral recovery in the 1950s. The sense that there was no choice and that the government knew best made the first generation of post-war England, in novelist David Lodge’s recollections of his youth, ‘cautious, unassertive, grateful for small mercies and modest in our ambition,’ in marked contrast to the generation that would succeed them. And the mercies did not seem so very small. As Sam Watson, the veteran leader of the Durham miners union, reminded the Labour Party’s annual conference in 1950: ‘Poverty has been abolished. Hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folks are cherished, our children are growing up in a land of opportunity.’
Britain remained a deferential, class-divided society—and the welfare state, as we have seen, benefited the ‘middling sort’ above all. But income and wealth really were redistributed as a result of post-war legislation—the share of the national wealth held by the richest 1 percent of the population fell from 56 percent in 1938 to 43 percent in 1954; and the effective disappearance of unemployment pointed an optimistic contrast with the grim pre-war decade. Between 1946 and 1948 150,000 Britons migrated to Canada, Australia and New Zealand and many more contemplated following in their footsteps; but beginning in 1951 it seemed as though the worst of the austerity years were over and the country offered itself the optimistic spectacle of a ‘Festival of Britain’, marking the centennial of Prince Albert’s great Exhibition of 1851.
The feelings of the moment are nicely captured in Humphrey Jennings’ contemporary film documentary of England in 1951, ‘Family Portrait’. The title itself points to something distinctive about the country—no documentary film-maker in France or Italy or Germany or Belgium would have thought to use it. The film is a celebration of Englishness, strongly coloured by shared recollections of suffering and glory in the recent war, and it is suffused with an only partly self-conscious pride in the peculiarities of the place. There is much emphasis upon science and progress, design and work. And there is no reference whatsoever to England’s (sic) neighbours or allies. The country is presented in 1951 as it truly stood in 1940: alone.
In 1828, the German poet Heinrich Heine made the already familiar observation that ‘it is rarely possible for the English, in their parliamentary debates, to give utterance to a principle. They discuss only the utility or disutility of a thing, and produce facts, for and against.’ The British rejected Robert Schuman’s invitation in 1950 because of what they took to be the disutility of joining a European economic project, and because of their longstanding discomfort with continental entanglements. But the British decision to stand aside from the ECSC was above all an instinctive, psychological and even emotional one, a product of the utter peculiarity of recent British experience. In Anthony Eden’s summary of the British decision, to a New York audience in January 1952, ‘This is something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do.’
The decision was not final; but, taken when it was, it proved fateful. In the absence of Britain (and, in Britain’s wake, the Scandinavians) power within the ‘little Europe’ of the West fell by default to France. The French duly did what the British might have done in other circumstances and made ‘Europe’ in their own image, eventually casting its institutions and policies in a mould familiar from French precedent. At the time it was the continental Europeans, not the British, who expressed regret at the course of events. Many prominent European leaders deeply wanted Britain to join them. As Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian and European statesman, noted in regretful retrospect: ‘This moral leadership—it was yours for the asking. ’ Monnet, too, would later look back and wonder how different things might have been had Britain chosen to take the initiative at a moment when her authority was still unrivalled. Ten years later, it is true, the British would think again. But in post-war Europe ten years was a very long time and by then the die was cast.