‘We all rejected the preceding era. I knew it chiefly through literature, and
it seemed to me to have been an era of stupidity and barbarity’.
‘Every action, in the middle of the twentieth century, presupposes and
involves the adoption of an attitude with regard to the Soviet enterprise’.
‘I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right’.
Pierre Courtade (to Edgar Morin)
‘Like it or not, the construction of socialism is privileged in that to
understand it one must espouse its movement and adopt its goals’.
‘You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons . . . This fear of
finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it
is an expression of a lack of self-confidence’.
With an alacrity that would perplex future generations, the struggle in Europe between Fascism and Democracy was hardly over before it was displaced by a new breach: that separating Communists from anti-Communists. The staking out of political and intellectual positions for and against the Soviet Union did not begin with the post-World War Two division of Europe. But it was in these post-war years, between 1947 and 1953, that the line dividing East from West, Left from Right, was carved deep into European cultural and intellectual life.
The circumstances were unusually propitious. Between the wars the far Right had been better supported than it suited most people to recall. From Brussels to Bucharest the polemical journalism and literature of the 1930s abounded in racism, anti-Semitism, ultra-nationalism, clericalism and political reaction. Intellectuals, journalists and teachers who before and during the war had espoused Fascist or ultra-reactionary sentiments had good reason after 1945 vociferously to affirm their new-found credentials as progressives or radicals (or else retreat into temporary or lasting obscurity). Since most parties and journals of a Fascist or even ultra-conservative persuasion were in any case now banned (except in the Iberian Peninsula, where the opposite was true), public expressions of political allegiance were confined to the center and left of the spectrum. Right-wing thought and opinion in Europe had been eclipsed.
But although the content of public writing and performance was spectacularly metamorphosed by the fall of Hitler, Mussolini and their followers, the tone stayed much the same. The apocalyptic urgency of the Fascists; their call for violent, ‘definitive’ solutions, as though genuine changenecessarily led through root-and-branch destruction; the distaste for the compromise and ‘hypocrisy’ of liberal democracy and the enthusiasm for Manichean choices (all or nothing, revolution or decadence): these impulses could serve the far Left equally well and after 1945 they did so.
In their preoccupation with nation, degeneration, sacrifice and death, inter-war Fascist writers had looked to the First World War. The intellectual Left after 1945 was also shaped by the experience of war, but this time as a clash of incompatible moral alternatives, excluding all possibility of compromise: Good versus Evil, Freedom against Enslavement, Resistance against Collaboration. Liberation from Nazi or Fascist occupation was widely welcomed as an occasion for radical political and social change; an opportunity to turn wartime devastation to revolutionary effect and make a new beginning. And when, as we have seen, that opportunity was seemingly thwarted and ‘normal’ life was summarily restored, frustrated expectations turned readily enough to cynicism—or else to the far Left, in a world once more polarized into irreconcilable political camps.
Post-war European intellectuals were in a hurry and impatient with compromise. They were young. In World War One a generation of young men was killed. But after the Second World War it was largely an older, discredited cohort that disappeared from the scene. In its place emerged writers, artists, journalists and political activists who were too young to have known the war of 1914-18, but who were impatient to make up the years lost in its successor. Their political education had come in the era of the Popular Fronts and anti-Fascist movements; and when they achieved public acclaim and influence, often as a result of their wartime activities, it was at an unusually early age by traditional European standards.
In France, Jean-Paul Sartre was 40 when the war ended; Simone de Beauvoir was 37; Albert Camus, the most influential of them all, just 32. Of the older generation only Francois Mauriac (born in 1885) could match them in influence, precisely because he was not tainted by any Vichyite past. In Italy only the Neapolitan philosopher Benedetto Croce (born in 1866) remained from an earlier generation of Italian public figures. In post-Fascist Italy Ignazio Silone, born in 1900, was among the more senior of the influential intellectual figures; the novelist and political commentator Alberto Moravia was 38, the Communist editor and writer Elio Vittorini a year younger. In Germany, where Nazi sympathies and the war had taken the heaviest toll on public intellectuals and writers, Heinrich Böll—the most talented of a self-consciously new generation of writers who came together two years after Hitler’s defeat to form the ‘Group 47’—was only 28 when the war ended.
In eastern Europe, where the intellectual elites of the pre-war years were tainted with ultra-conservatism, mystical nationalism or worse, the social promotion of youth was even more marked. Czesław Miłosz, whose influential essay The Captive Mind was published in 1951 when he was just 40 and already in political exile, was not at all atypical. Jerzy Andrzejewski (who appears in Miłosz’s book in a less than flattering light) published Ashes and Diamonds, his acclaimed novel of postwar Poland, while in his thirties. Tadeusz Borowski, born in 1922, was still in his mid-twenties when he published his memoir of Auschwitz: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
The leaders of the East European Communist parties were, typically, slightly older men who had survived the inter-war years as political prisoners or else in Moscow exile, or both. But just below them was a cohort of very young men and women whose idealistic commitment to the Soviet-backed takeovers played an important part in their success. In Hungary, Géza Losonczy, who would fall victim to the Soviet repression after the 1956 Hungarian revolt, was still in his twenties when he and hundreds like him schemed to bring the Hungarian Communist Party to power. Heda Kovaly’s husband, Rudolf Margolius, one of the defendants at the Slánský trial in December 1952, was 35 when he was appointed minister in the Communist government of Czechoslovakia; Artur London, another of the accused at that trial, was younger still, 33 years old when the Communists seized power. London had received his political education in the French resistance; like many in the Communist underground, he learned how to exercise political and military responsibilities at a very young age.
Youthful enthusiasm for a Communist future was widespread among middle-class intellectuals, in East and West alike. And it was accompanied by a distinctive complex of inferiority towards the proletariat, the blue-collar working class. In the immediate post-war years, skilled manual workers were at a premium—a marked contrast with the Depression years still fresh in collective memory. There was coal to be mined; roads, railways, buildings, power lines to be rebuilt or replaced; tools to be manufactured and then applied to the manufacture of other goods. For all these jobs there was a shortage of trained labor; as we have seen, young, able-bodied men in the Displaced Persons camps had little difficulty finding work and asylum, in contrast to women with families—or ‘intellectuals’ of any sort.
One consequence of this was the universal exaltation of industrial work and workers—a distinct political asset for parties claiming to represent them. Left-leaning, educated, middle-class men and women embarrassed by their social origin could assuage their discomfort by abandoning themselves to Communism. But even if they didn’t go so far as to join the Party, many artists and writers in France and Italy especially ‘prostrated themselves before the proletariat’ (Arthur Koestler) and elevated the ‘revolutionary working class’ (typically imagined in a rather Socialist-Realist/Fascist light as stern, male and muscular) to near iconic status.
Although the phenomenon was pan-European in scope and transcended Communist politics (the best-known intellectual exponent of ‘workerism’ in Europe was Jean-Paul Sartre, who never joined the French Communist Party), it was in eastern Europe that such sentiments had real consequences. Students, teachers, writers and artists from Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere flocked to (pre-schismatic) Yugoslavia to help rebuild railways with their bare hands. In August 1947 Italo Calvino wrote enthusiastically about young volunteers from Italy similarly engaged in Czechoslovakia. Devotion to a new beginning, the worship of a real or imagined community of workers, and admiration for the Soviets (and their all-conquering Red Army) separated a young post-war generation from its social roots and the national past.
The decision to become a Communist (or a ‘Marxist’, which in the circumstances of the time usually meant Communist) was typically made at a young age. Thus Ludek Pachman, a Czech: ‘I became a Marxist in the year 1943. I was 19 years old and the idea that suddenly I understood everything and could explain everything enchanted me, as well as the idea that I would march with proletarians of the whole world, first against Hitler and then against the international bourgeoisie.’ Even those, like Czesław Miłosz, who were not swept off their feet by the charms of its dogma, unambiguously welcomed Communism’s social reforms: ‘I was delighted to see the semi-feudal structure of Poland finally smashed, the universities opened to young workers and peasants, agrarian reform undertaken and the country finally set on the road to industrialization.’ As Milovan Djilas observed, recalling his own experience as Tito’s close adjunct: ‘Totalitarianism at the outset is enthusiasm and conviction; only later does it become organizations, authority, careerism. ’
Communist parties initially flattered intellectuals, for whom Communism’s ambitions stood in appealing contrast to the small-state parochialism of their home-lands as well as the violent anti-intellectualism of the Nazis. For many young intellectuals, Communism was less a matter of conviction than an affair of faith—as Alexander Wat (another subsequently ex-Communist Pole) would observe, the secular intelligentsia of Poland hungered after a ‘refined catechism’. Although it was only ever a minority of East European students, poets, playwrights, novelists, journalist or professors who became active Communists, these were often the most talented men and women of their generation.
Thus Pavel Kohout, who in later decades would achieve international renown as a dissident and post-Communist essayist and playwright, first came to the public eye in his native Czechoslovakia as an ultra-enthusiast for his country’s new regime. Looking back in 1969 he described his ‘sensation of certainty’ upon watching Party Leader Klement Gottwald in Prague’s crowded Old Town Square on the day of the February 1948 Czech coup. Here, ‘in that human mass which set out to search for justice and in this man [Gottwald] who is leading them into the decisive battle’, the 20-year-old Kohout found ‘the Centrum Securitatis that Comenius tried to find in vain.’ Four years later, embraced in the faith, Kohout wrote ‘A Cantata to our very own Communist Party’:
Let us sing greetings to the party!
Her youth is marked by young shock workers
She has the reason of a million heads
And the strength of millions of human hands
And her battalion is the
words of Stalin and Gottwald.
In the midst of blooming May
Into far-away confines
Above the old Castle the flag swaying
With the words ‘The truth prevails!’
The words gloriously fulfilled themselves:
Workers truth has prevailed!
Towards a glorious future our country rises.
Glory to Gottwald’s party!
This sort of faith was widespread in Kohout’s generation. As Milosz would observe, Communism operated on the principle that writers need not think, they need only understand. And even understanding required little more than commitment, which was precisely what young intellectuals in the region were looking for. ‘We were children of the war,’ wrote Zdeněk Mlynář (who joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1946, at the age of fifteen), ‘who, having not actually fought against anyone, brought our wartime mentality with us into these first postwar years, when the opportunity to fight for something presented itself at last.’ Mlynář’s generation knew only the years of war and Nazi occupation, during which ‘it was either one side or the other—there was no middle ground. Thus our unique experience drummed into us the notion that the victory of the correct conception meant quite simply the liquidation, the destruction, of the other.’61
The innocent enthusiasm with which some young East Europeans plunged into Communism (‘I’m in that revolutionary mood . . . ’, as the writer Ludvík Vaculík would exclaim to his girlfriend upon joining the Czech Party) does not diminish the responsibility of Moscow for what was, in the end, a Soviet take-over of their countries. But it helps account for the scale of disenchantment and disillusion that followed. Slightly older Communists, like Djilas (born in 1911), probably always understood, in his words, that ‘the manipulation of fervor is the germ of bondage.’ But younger converts, particularly intellectuals, were stunned to discover the rigors of Communist discipline and the reality of Stalinist power.
Thus the imposition of Zdanov’s ‘two cultures’ dogma after 1948, with its insistence upon the adoption of ‘correct’ positions on everything from botany to poetry, came as a particular shock in the popular democracies of eastern Europe. Slavish intellectual adherence to a party line, long-established in the Soviet Union where there was in any case a pre-Soviet heritage of repression and orthodoxy, came harder to countries that had only recently emerged from the rather benign regimen of the Habsburgs. In nineteenth-century central Europe, intellectuals and poets had acquired the habit and responsibility of speaking on behalf of the nation. Under Communism their role was different. Where once they had represented an abstract ‘people’ they were now little more than cultural mouthpieces for (real) tyrants. Worse, they would soon be the victim of choice—as cosmopolitans, ‘parasites’ or Jews—for those same tyrants in search of scapegoats for their errors.
Thus most of the Eastern European intellectuals’ enthusiasm for Communism—even in Czechoslovakia, where it was strongest—had evaporated by Stalin’s death, though it would linger on for some years in the form of projects for ‘revision’, or for ‘reform Communism’. The division within Communist states was no longer between Communism and its opponents. The important distinction was once again between those in authority—the Party-State, with its police, its bureaucracy and its house intelligentsia—and everyone else.
In this sense the Cold War fault-line fell not so much between East and West as within Eastern and Western Europe alike. In Eastern Europe, as we have seen, the Communist Party and its apparatus were in a state of undeclared war with the rest of society, and closer acquaintance with Communism had drawn up new battle-lines: between those for whom Communism brought practical social advantage in one form or another, and those for whom it meant discrimination, disappointment and repression. In Western Europe the same fault-line found many intellectuals on both sides; but enthusiasm for Communism in theory was characteristically present in inverse proportion to direct experience of it in practice.
This widespread ignorance of the fate of contemporary Eastern Europe, coupled with growing Western indifference, was a source of bewilderment and frustration to many in the East. The problem for East European intellectuals and others was not their peripheral situation—this was a fate to which they had long been resigned. What pained them after 1948 was their double exclusion: from their own history, thanks to the Soviet presence, and from the consciousness of the West, whose best-known intellectuals took no account of their experience or example. In East European writings about West Europe in the early fifties there is a reiterated tone of injury and bewildered surprise: of ‘disappointed love’ as Miłosz described it in The Captive Mind. Does Europe not realize, wrote the exiled Romanian Mircea Eliade in April 1952, that she has been amputated of a part of her very flesh? ‘For . . . all these countries are in Europe, all these peoples belong to the European community. ’
But they did not belong to it anymore, and that was the point. Stalin’s success in gouging his defensive perimeter deep into the center of Europe had removed Eastern Europe from the equation. European intellectual and cultural life after the Second World War took place on a drastically reduced stage, from which the Poles, Czechs and others had been summarily removed. And despite the fact that the challenge of Communism lay at the heart of Western European debates and disputes, the practical experience of ‘real existing Communism’ a few score miles to the east was paid very little attention: and by Communism’s most ardent admirers, none at all.
The intellectual condition of post-war Western Europe would have been unrecognizable to a visitor from even the quite recent past. German-speaking central Europe—the engine room of European culture for the first third of the twentieth century—had ceased to exist. Vienna, already a shadow of its former self after the overthrow of the Habsburgs in 1918, was divided like Berlin among the four allied powers. It could hardly feed or clothe its citizens, much less contribute to the intellectual life of the continent. Austrian philosophers, economists, mathematicians and scientists, like their contemporaries in Hungary and the rest of the former Dual Monarchy, had either escaped into exile (to France, Britain, the British Dominions or the US), collaborated with the authorities or else been killed.
Germany itself lay in ruins. The German intellectual emigration after 1933 had left behind almost no-one of standing not compromised by his dealings with the regime. Martin Heidegger’s notorious flirtation with the Nazis was atypical only in its controversial implications for his influential philosophical writings; tens of thousands of lesser Heideggers in schools, universities, local and national bureaucracies, newspapers and cultural institutions were similarly compromised by the enthusiasm with which they had adapted their writings and actions to Nazi demands.
The post-war German scene was further complicated by the existence of two Germanies, one of them claiming a monopolistic inheritance of the ‘good’ German past: anti-Fascist, progressive, enlightened. Many intellectuals and artists were tempted to throw in their lot with the Soviet Zone and its successor, the German Democratic Republic. Unlike the Federal Republic of Bonn, incompletely deNazified and reluctant to stare the recent German past in the face, East Germany proudly insisted upon its anti-Nazi credentials. Communist authorities welcomed historians or playwrights or film-makers who wanted to remind their audiences of the crimes of the ‘other’ Germany—so long as they respected certain taboos. Some of the best talent that had survived from Weimar Republic days migrated east.
One reason for this was that because Soviet-occupied East Germany was the only state in the eastern bloc with a Western doppelganger, its intellectuals had access to a Western audience in a way not open to Romanian or Polish writers. And if censorship and pressure became intolerable, there remained the option of returning west, through the Berlin crossing points, at least until 1961 and the building of the Wall. Thus Berthold Brecht opted to live in the GDR; young writers like Christa Wolf chose to remain there; and younger writers still, like the future dissident Wolf Biermann, actually migrated east to study and write (in Biermann’s case at the age of 17, in 1953).62
What appealed to radical intellectuals from the ‘materialist’ West was the GDR’s self-presentation as progressive, egalitarian and anti-Nazi, a lean and sober alternative to the Federal Republic. The latter seemed at once heavy with a history it preferred not to discuss, and yet at the same time curiously weightless, lacking political roots and culturally dependent on the Western Allies, the US above all, who had invented it. Intellectual life in the early Federal Republic lacked political direction. Radical options at either political extreme were expressly excluded from public life, and young writers like Böll were reluctant to engage in party politics (in sharp contrast to the generation that would follow).
There was certainly no lack of cultural outlets: by 1948, once shortages of paper and newsprint had been overcome and distribution networks rebuilt, over two hundred literary and political journals were circulating in the Western Zone of Germany (though many of these disappeared following the currency reform), and the new Federal Republic could boast an unusual range of quality newspapers, notably the new weekly Die Zeit, published in Hamburg. And yet West Germany was, and would for many years remain, peripheral to the mainstream of European intellectual life. Melvin Lasky, a Western journalist and editor based in Berlin, wrote of the German intellectual condition in 1950 that ‘Never in modern history, I think, has a nation and a people revealed itself to be so exhausted, so bereft of inspiration or even talent.’
The contrast with Germany’s earlier cultural pre-eminence accounts in part for the disappointment many domestic and foreign observers felt when contemplating the new Republic: Raymond Aron was not the only person to recall that in earlier years this had looked to be Germany’s century. With so much of Germany’s cultural heritage polluted and disqualified by its appropriation for Nazi purposes, it was no longer clear just what Germans could now contribute to Europe. German writers and thinkers were obsessed, understandably enough, with peculiarly Germandilemmas. It is significant that Karl Jaspers, the only major figure from the pre-Nazi intellectual world who took an active part in post-1945 debates, is best known for a singular contribution to an internal German debate: his 1946 essay on The Question of German Guilt. But it was West German intellectuals’ studious avoidance of ideological politics that did most to marginalize them in the first post-war decade, at a time when public conversation in western Europe was intensely and divisively politicized.
The British, too, were mostly peripheral to European intellectual life in these years, though for very different reasons. The political arguments that were splitting Europe were not unknown in Britain—inter-war confrontations over pacifism, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War had divided the Labor Party and the intellectual Left, and these divisions were not forgotten in later years. But in inter-war Britain neither Fascists nor Communists had succeeded in translating social dissent into political revolution. The Fascists were largely confined to the poorer quarters of London, where they traded for a while in the 1930s on popular anti-Semitism; the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) never gathered much support outside its early strongholds in the Scottish shipbuilding industry, some mining communities and a handful of factories in the West Midlands of England. Even at its brief electoral peak, in 1945, the Party won just 102,000 votes (0.4 percent of the national vote) and elected two members to Parliament—both of whom lost their seats at the 1950 elections. By the election of 1951 the CPGB attracted just 21,000 voters in a population of some 49 million.
Communism in the UK, then, was a political abstraction. This in no way inhibited intellectual sympathy for Marxism, among the London intelligentsia and in the universities. Bolshevism had from the outset held a certain appeal to British Fabian Socialists like H. G. Wells, who recognized in the policies of Lenin and even Stalin something familiar and sympathetic: social engineering from above by those who know best. And the British mandarin Left, like their contemporaries in the Foreign Office, had little time for the travails of the small countries between Germany and Russia, whom they had always regarded as something of a nuisance.
But whereas these matters would stir heated debate across the English Channel, Communism did not mobilize or divide intellectuals in Britain to anything like the same extent. As George Orwell observed in 1947, ‘the English are not sufficiently interested in intellectual matters to be intolerant about them.’ Intellectual and cultural debate in England (and to a lesser extent in the rest of Britain) was focused instead upon a domestic concern: the first intimations of a decades-long anxiety about national ‘decline’. It is symptomatic of the ambivalent mood of post-war England that the country had just fought and won a six-year war against its mortal enemy and was embarked upon an unprecedented experiment in welfare capitalism—yet cultural commentators were absorbed by intimations of failure and deterioration.
Thus T. S. Eliot, in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), asserted ‘with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.’ Motivated by comparable concerns, the British Broadcasting Corporation began its Third Programme on the radio in 1946: a high-minded, high-cultural product explicitly intended for the encouragement and dissemination of ‘quality’, and directed at what in continental Europe would be thought of as the ‘intelligentsia’; but whose mix of classical music, topical lectures and serious discussion was unmistakably English in its studious avoidance of divisive or politically sensitive topics.
The British were not uninterested in European affairs. European politics and letters were regularly covered in weekly and periodical magazines, and British readers could be well-informed if they wished. Nor were the British unaware of the scale of the trauma that Europe had just passed through. Cyril Connolly, writing in his own journal, Horizon, in September 1945, had this to say about the contemporary European condition: ‘Morally and economically Europe has lost the war. The great marquee of European civilization in whose yellow light we all grew up, and read, or wrote, or loved, or traveled has fallen down; the side-ropes are frayed, the centre pole is broken, the chairs and tables are all in pieces, the tent is empty, the roses are withered on their stands . . . ’
But notwithstanding this concern for the state of the Continent, British (and especially English) commentators stood a little aside; as though the problems of Europe and of Britain, while recognizably related, were nevertheless different in crucial respects. With certain notable exceptions,63British intellectuals did not play an influential part in the great debates of continental Europe, but observed them from the sidelines. Broadly speaking, affairs that were urgently political in Europe aroused only intellectual interest in Britain; while topics of intellectual concern on the Continent were usually confined to academic circles in the UK, if indeed they were noticed at all.
The situation in Italy was almost exactly the opposite. Of all the countries of western Europe, it was Italy that had most directly experienced the plagues of the age. The country had been governed for twenty years by the world’s first Fascist regime. It had been occupied by the Germans, then liberated by the Western Allies, in a snail-paced war of attrition and destruction that had lasted nearly two years, covered three quarters of the country, and reduced much of the land and its people to near-destitution. Moreover, from September 1943 to April 1945 the north of Italy was convulsed in what amounted in all but name to a full-scale civil war.
As a former Axis state Italy was an object of suspicion to West and East alike. Until Tito’s split with Stalin, Italy’s unresolved border with Yugoslavia was the most unstable and potentially explosive frontier of the Cold War, and the country’s uneasy relationship to its Communist neighbor was complicated by the presence in Italy of the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet bloc: 4,350,000 votes (19 percent of the total) in 1946, rising to 6,122,000 (23 percent of the total) in 1953. In that same year the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) boasted a paid-up membership of 2,145,000. The Party’s local influence was further strengthened by its near-monopoly of power in certain regions (notably the Emilia-Romagna, around the city of Bologna); the support it could rely on from Pietro Nenni’s Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI);64 and the widespread popularity of its subtle and thoughtful leader, Palmiro Togliatti.
For all these reasons, intellectual life in post-war Italy was highly politicized and intimately tied to the problem of Communism. The overwhelming majority of young Italian intellectuals, including even some of those tempted by Fascism, had been formed in the shadow of Benedetto Croce. Croce’s distinctive blend of Hegelian idealism in philosophy and nineteenth-century liberalism in politics had provided an ethical reference for a generation of intellectual anti-Fascists; but in the post-war circumstances it seemed manifestly insufficient. The real choice facing Italians appeared as a stark alternative: politicized clericalism—the alliance of a conservative Vatican (under Pius XII) and the US-backed Christian Democrats—or else political Marxism.
The PCI had a special quality that distinguished it from other Communist parties, East and West. From the outset, it had been led by intellectuals. Togliatti, like Antonio Gramsci and the Party’s other youthful founders of twenty years earlier, was markedly more intelligent—and respectful of intelligence—than the leaders of most of the other Communist parties of Europe. In the decade following World War Two, moreover, the Party openly welcomed intellectuals—as members and as allies—and took care to tone down those elements in Party rhetoric likely to put them off. Indeed, Togliatti consciously tailored Communism’s appeal to Italian intellectuals with a formula of his own devising: ‘half Croce and half Stalin.’
The formula was uniquely successful. The path from Croce’s liberal anti-Fascism to political Marxism was taken by some of the Italian Communist Party’s most talented younger leaders: men like Giorgio Amendola, Lucio Lombardo Radice, Pietro Ingrao, Carlo Cassola and Emilio Sereni, all of whom came to Communist politics from the world of philosophy and literature. They were joined after 1946 by men and women disillusioned by the Action Party’s failure to put into practice the aspirations of the wartime Resistance, signaling the end of hopes for a secular, radical and non-Marxist alternative in Italian public life. ‘Shamefaced Crocians’, one writer called them at the time.
Presented as the voice of progress and modernity in a stagnant land, and as the best hope for practical social and political reform, the PCI gathered around itself a court of like-minded scholars and writers, who gave to the Party and its politics an aura of respectability, intelligence and even ecumenicalism. But with the division of Europe, Togliatti’s strategy came under growing pressure. The criticism addressed by the Soviets to the PCI at the first Cominform meeting in September 1947 revealed Stalin’s determination to bring the Italian Communists (like the French) under tighter control; their political tactics were to be more closely coordinated with Moscow and their latitudinarian approach to cultural affairs was to be replaced by Zdanov’s uncompromising thesis of the ‘two cultures’. Meanwhile, with America’s brazen but successful intervention on behalf of the Christian Democrats in the elections of 1948, Togliatti’s post-war policy of working within the institutions of liberal democracy began to seem naïve.
Whatever his doubts, then, Togliatti had no option but to exercise tighter control and impose Stalinist norms. This provoked public dissent among some Party intellectuals, who had hitherto felt at liberty to distinguish between the Party’s political authority, which they did not question, and the terrain of ‘culture’ where they prized their autonomy. As Vittorini, the editor of the Communist cultural journal Il Politechnico, had reminded Togliatti in an Open Letter back in January 1947, ‘culture’ cannot be subordinated to politics, except at its own expense and at the price of truth.
Togliatti, who had spent the 1930s in Moscow and had played a leading role in the Comintern’s Spanish operations in 1937-38, knew otherwise. In a Communist Party everyone took their instructions from above, everything was subordinate to politics. ‘Culture’ was not a protected zone in which the Soviet writ need not run. Vittorini and his companions would have to accept the Party line in literature, art and ideas, or else leave. Over the course of the next few years the Italian Party cleaved more closely to Soviet authority and Vittorini and many other intellectuals duly drifted away. But despite Togliatti’s unswerving loyalty to Moscow, the PCI never altogether lost a certain un-dogmatic ‘aura’, as the only major Communist Party that tolerated and even embraced intelligent dissent and autonomy of thought; this reputation would serve it well in later decades.
Indeed, Togliatti’s critics on the non-Communist Left were consistently wrong-footed by the widespread perception at home and (especially) abroad that the PCI was not like other Communist parties. As Ignazio Silone would later acknowledge, Italian Socialists and others had only themselves to blame. The close relations between Communists and Socialists in Italy, at least until 1948, and the consequent reluctance of non-Communist Marxists to criticize the Soviet Union, inhibited the emergence in Italian politics of a clear left-leaning alternative to Communism.
But if Italy was unusual in Western Europe for the relatively simpatico quality of its Communists, it was also of course atypical for another reason. The overthrow of Mussolini in 1943 could not obscure the complicity of many Italian intellectuals in his twenty-year rule. Mussolini’s ultra-nationalism had been directed, among other things, against foreign culture and influence; and Fascism had blatantly favored ‘national’ intellectuals by applying to literature and the arts autarkic policies of protection and substitution similar to those imposed against more commonplace foreign products.
Inevitably, many Italian intellectuals (especially younger ones) had accepted support and subsidies from the Fascist state: the alternative was exile or silence. Elio Vittorini himself had won prizes in Fascist literary competitions. Vittorio de Sica was a well-known actor in Fascist-era films before becoming the leading exponent of post-war Neo-Realism. His fellow Neo-Realist director Roberto Rossellini, whose post-war films were distinctly Communist in their political sympathies, had just a few years before made documentaries and feature films in Mussolini’s Italy with help from the authorities, and his was not an isolated case. By 1943 Mussolini’s rule was the normal order of things for the many millions of Italians who had no adult memory of any other peacetime government.65
The moral standing of the vast majority of Italian intellectuals in the post-war years thus mirrored the rather ambivalent international position of the country as a whole, too uncomfortably implicated in its authoritarian past to take center stage in post-war European affairs. In any case, Italy had long been oddly peripheral to modern European culture, perhaps because of its own centrifugal history and arrangements: Naples, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Turin each formed little worlds of their own, with their own universities, newspapers, academies and intelligentsias. Rome was the source of authority, the fount of patronage and locus of power. But it never monopolized the nation’s cultural life.
In the end, then, there could be only one place for a properly European intellectual life in the years after World War Two: only one city, one national capital whose obsessions and divisions could both reflect and define the cultural condition of the continent as a whole. Its competitors were imprisoned, had destroyed themselves or else were parochially absorbed. Ever since the 1920s, as one European state after another fell to the dictators, political refugees and intellectual exiles had headed for France. Some had remained during the war and joined the Resistance, where many had fallen victim to Vichy and the Nazis. Some had escaped to London, or New York, or Latin America, but would return after the Liberation. Others, like Czesław Miłosz or the Hungarian historian and political journalist François Fejtö, did not emigrate until the Soviet coups in Eastern Europe forced them to flee—at which point it seemed only natural that they would go straight to Paris.
The result was that, for the first time since the 1840s, when Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Adam Mickiewicz, Giuseppe Mazzini and Alexander Herzen all lived in Parisian exile, France was once again the natural European home of the disinherited intellectual, a clearing house for modern European thought and politics. Postwar Parisian intellectual life was thus doubly cosmopolitan: men and women from all over Europe partook of it—and it was the only European stage on which local opinions and disputes were magnified and transmitted to a wide, international audience.
And so, despite France’s shattering defeat in 1940, its humiliating subjugation under four years of German occupation, the moral ambiguity (and worse) of Marshall Pétain’s Vichy regime, and the country’s embarrassing subordination to the US and Britain in the international diplomacy of the post-war years, French culture became once again the center of international attention: French intellectuals acquired a special international significance as spokesmen for the age, and the tenor of French political arguments epitomized the ideological rent in the world at large. Once more—and for the last time—Paris was the capital of Europe.
The irony of this outcome was not lost on contemporaries. It was historical chance that thrust French intellectuals into the limelight in these years, for their own concerns were no less parochial than anyone else’s. Post-war France was as much taken up with its own problems of score-settling, scarcity and political instability as any other country. French intellectuals re-interpreted the politics of the rest of the world in the light of their own obsessions, and the narcissistic self-importance of Paris within France was projected un-self-critically onto the world at large. As Arthur Koestler memorably described them, post-war French intellectuals (‘the Little Flirts of Saint Germain des Prés’) were ‘peeping Toms who watch History’s debauches through a hole in the wall.’ But History had afforded them a privileged perch.
The divisions that would characterize the French intellectual community in later years were not immediately in evidence. When Jean-Paul Sartre founded Les Temps Modernes in 1945 the editorial board included not only Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty but also Raymond Aron, reflecting a broad consensus around left-wing politics and ‘existentialist’ philosophy. The latter label also encompassed (rather to his discomfort) Albert Camus, at the time close friends with Sartre and De Beauvoir and, from his column on the editorial pages of the daily newspaperCombat, the most influential writer in post-war France.
All of them shared a certain ‘résistantialiste’ attitude (though only Camus had taken an active part in the Resistance itself—Aron was with the Free French in London and the others made their way more or less untroubled through the Occupation years). In Merleau-Ponty’s words, the wartime struggle had overcome for French intellectuals the dilemma of ‘being versus doing’. Henceforth they were ‘in’ History and must engage with it to the full. Their situation no longer afforded intellectuals the luxury of refusing to commit themselves to political choices; true freedom consisted of accepting this truth. In Sartre’s words, ‘To be free is not to do what one wants, but to want to do what one can’.
Another lesson that Sartre and his generation claimed to have learnt from the war was the inevitability—and thus in certain measure the desirability—of political violence. This was far from being a distinctively French interpretation of recent experience: by 1945 many Europeans had lived through three decades of military and political violence. Young people all across the continent were inured to a level of public brutality, in words and actions, that would have shocked their nineteenth-century forebears. And modern political rhetoric offered a ‘dialectic’ with which to domesticate calls for violence and conflict: Emmanuel Mounier, editor of the magazine Esprit and an influential presence on the Christian Left, undoubtedly spoke for many in 1949 when he asserted that it was hypocrisy to oppose violence or class-struggle when ‘white violence’ was practiced on the victims of capitalism every day.
But in France the appeal of violent solutions represented more than just a projection forward of recent experience. It was also the echo of an older heritage. Accusations of collaboration, betrayal and treason, demands for punishment and a fresh start did not begin with the Liberation. They recapitulated a venerable French tradition. Ever since 1792 the Revolutionary and counter-Revolutionary poles of French public life exemplified and reinforced the two-fold division of the country: for and against the Monarchy, for and against the Revolution, for and against Robespierre, for and against the Constitutions of 1830 and 1848, for and against the Commune. No other country had such a long and unbroken experience of bipolar politics, underscored by the conventional historiography of the national Revolutionary myth as inculcated to French schoolchildren for many decades.
Moreover France, more than any other Western nation-state, was a country whose intelligentsia approved and even worshipped violence as a tool of public policy. George Sand records a walk along the Seine in 1835 with a friend who was urgently pressing the case for bloody proletarian revolution: only when the Seine runs red, he explained, when Paris burns and the poor take their rightful place, can justice and peace prevail. Almost exactly one century later the English essayist Peter Quennell described in the New Statesman ‘the almost pathological worship of violence which seems to dominate so many French writers.’
Thus when the elderly Radical Party politician Edouard Herriot, president of the French National Assembly until his death in 1957 at the age of 85, announced at the Liberation that normal political life could not be restored until ‘France has first passed through a bloodbath’, his language did not sound out of the ordinary to French ears, even coming as it did from a pot-bellied provincial parliamentarian of the political center. French readers and writers had long since been familiarized with the idea that historical change and purgative bloodshed go hand in hand. When Sartre and his contemporaries insisted that Communist violence was a form of ‘proletarian humanism’, the ‘midwife of History’, they were more conventional than they realized.
This familiarity of revolutionary violence in the French imaginaire, together with sepia-tinted memories of the old Franco-Russian alliance, pre-disposed intellectuals in France to greet Communist apologetics for Soviet brutality with a distinctly sympathetic ear. Dialectics helped, too. Commenting on the Slánský trial for Sartre’s Temps Modernes, Marcel Péju reminded his readers that there is nothing wrong with killing one’s political enemies. What was amiss in Prague was that ‘the ceremony with which they are killed [i.e. the show trial] seems a caricature of what it could be if this violence were justified in a Communist perspective. The charges, after all, are not prima facie implausible.’
French intellectuals visiting the Soviet bloc waxed more lyrically enthusiastic than most at the sight of Communism under construction. Thus the poet and surrealist Paul Eluard, addressing a (doubtless bemused) audience in Bucharest in October 1948: ‘I come from a country where no-one laughs any more, where no-one sings. France is in shadow. But you have discovered the sunshine of Happiness.’ Or the same Eluard in Soviet-occupied Hungary, the following year: ‘A people has only to be master in its own land and in a few years Happiness will be the supreme law and Joy the daily horizon.’
Eluard was a Communist, but his sentiments were widespread even among the many intellectuals and artists who never joined the Party. In 1948, following the Czech coup, Simone de Beauvoir was sure the Communists were on the path to victory everywhere: as her contemporary Paul Nizan had written many years before, a revolutionary philosopher can only be effective if he chooses the class that bears the Revolution, and the Communists were the self-anointed representatives of that class. Engaged intellectuals were obliged to take a stand on the side of progress and History, whatever the occasional moral vicissitudes.66
The importance of the Communist question for intellectuals in France was also a consequence of the ubiquitous presence of the French Communist Party (PCF). Though never as large as the Italian party (with 800,000 members at its peak), the PCF in the immediate post-war years was even more electorally successful, with 28 percent of the vote in 1946. And unlike the Italians the French Communists did not have to face a unified center-right Catholic Party. Conversely, the French Socialist Party, thanks to its long inter-war experience of Communist tactics, did not align itself unquestioningly with the Communists in the early stages of the Cold War (though a minority of its members would have liked to see it do so). And so the PCF was both stronger and more isolated than any other Communist party.
It was also peculiarly unsympathetic to intellectuals. In marked contrast to the Italians, the PCF had always been led by hard-nosed, blunt-minded Party bureaucrats, exemplified by the ex-miner Maurice Thorez who ran the Party from 1932 until his death in 1964. For Stalin, Thorez’s most important quality was that—like Gottwald in Czechoslovakia—he could be relied on to do what he was told and ask no questions. It was no coincidence that, having deserted from the French army during the phony war of 1939-40, Thorez spent the next five years in Moscow. The French Communist Party was thus a reliable if somewhat rigid satellite party, a serviceable vehicle for declaiming and practicing the Stalinist line.
To the post-war student generation, looking for leadership, direction, discipline and the promise of action in harness with ‘the workers’, the PCF’s very rigidity had a certain appeal, at least for a few years: much as its Czech or Polish counterparts initially inspired enthusiasm among their peers further east. But to more established French intellectuals, the fervor that the PCF’s cultural commissars brought to the imposition of orthodoxy in the turgid pages of the Party daily L’Humanité and elsewhere posed a daily challenge to their progressive beliefs. Writers or scholars who threw in their lot with the PCF could not expect, like Vittorini in Italy or the Communist Party Historians’ Group in London, to be allowed any leeway.67
For this reason the affinities of the Parisian intelligentsia are our soundest guide to the fault-lines of faith and opinion in Cold War Europe. In Paris, as nowhere else, intellectual schisms traced the contours of political ones, at home and abroad. The East European show trials were debated in Paris with special intensity because so many of their Communist victims had lived and worked in France: László Rajk had been interned in France after the Spanish Civil War; Artur London had worked in the French Resistance, was married to one prominent French Communist and was the future father-in-law of another; ‘André Simone’ (Otto Katz, another Slánský trial victim) was widely known in Parisian journalistic circles for his work there during the thirties; Traicho Kostov was well-remembered from his days in Bulgarian foreign service in Paris—his arrest in Sofia actually made the front page of Camus’s Combat.
Paris was even the site for two influential political trials of its own. In 1946 Victor Kravchenko, a mid-level Soviet bureaucrat who defected to the US in April 1944, published his memoirs, I Chose Freedom. When these appeared in France in May of the following year, under the title J’ai choisi la Liberté, they caused a sensation for their account of the Soviet purges, massacres, and in particular the Soviet concentration camp system, the Gulag. In November 1947, two months after the Cominform meeting in Poland where PCF leaders had been raked over the coals for their failure to toe the new Soviet hard line, the Party’s intellectual periodical Les Lettres françaises ran a series of articles asserting that Kravchenko’s book was a tissue of lies, fabricated by the American secret services. When the paper repeated and amplified these charges in April 1948, Kravchenko sued for libel.
At the trial, which lasted from January 24th to April 4th 1949, Kravchenko brought forward a stream of rather obscure witnesses in his support; but the defendants could flourish a sheaf of depositions from major French non-Communist intellectuals: the Resistance novelist Vercors, the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the art critic, Jean Cassou, Resistance hero and director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and many others. These all attested to the impeccable Resistance record of the French Communist Party, the indisputable revolutionary credentials of the Soviet Union, and the unacceptable implications of Kravchenko’s assertions—even if true. In the judgment Kravchenko was awarded a single franc of insultingly symbolic damages.
This ‘moral’ victory for the Progressive Left coincided with the first round of major show trials in Eastern Europe, and the adoption of intellectual positions for and against the Soviet Union—as Sartre had begun to insist a few months earlier, ‘One must choose between the USSR and the Anglo-Saxon bloc.’ But for many critics of the Soviet Union, Kravchenko had been a less than ideal spokesman. A longtime Soviet apparatchik who had chosen exile in the USA, he held no appeal for those anti-Communist European intellectuals, perhaps the majority, who were as concerned to keep their distance from Washington as they were to deny Moscow a monopoly of progressive credentials. With such a person, wrote Sartre and Merleau-Ponty in January 1950, we can have no feelings of fraternity: he was the living proof of the decline ‘of Marxist values in Russia itself’.
But another trial proved harder to ignore. On November 12th 1949, four weeks after the execution in Budapest of László Rajk, David Rousset published in Le Figaro littéraire an appeal to former inmates of Nazi camps to assist him in establishing an enquiry intoSoviet concentration camps. Basing himself on the Soviet Union’s own Code of Corrective Labor, he argued that these were not re-education centers as officials asserted, but rather a system of concentration camps integral to the Soviet economy and penal system. A week later, again in Les Lettres françaises, the Communist writers Pierre Daix and Claude Morgan accused him of inventing his sources and caricaturing the USSR in a base calumny. Rousset sued for defamation.
The dramatis personae in this confrontation were unusually interesting. Rousset was no Kremlin defector. He was French; a longtime socialist; a sometime Trotskyist; a Resistance hero and survivor of Buchenwald and Neuengamme; a friend of Sartre and co-founder with him in 1948 of a short-lived political movement, the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire. For such a man to accuse the Soviet Union of operating concentration or labor camps broke sharply with the conventional political alignments of the time. Daix, too, had been arrested for Resistance activities and deported, in his case to Mauthausen. For two left-wing former Resisters and camp survivors to clash in this way illustrated the degree to which past political alliances and allegiances were now subordinated to the single question of Communism.
Rousset’s witness list included a variety of highly credible first-hand experts on the Soviet prison system, culminating in dramatic testimony from Margarete Buber-Neumann, who testified to experience not only in Soviet camps but also in Ravensbrück, to which she had been sent after Stalin handed her back to the Nazis in 1940, part of the small change of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Rousset won his case. He even had some impact upon the conscience and consciousness of his contemporaries. Following the announcement of the verdict in January 1950, Maurice Merleau-Ponty confessed that ‘the facts put altogether into question the meaning of the Russian system’. Simone de Beauvoir felt sufficiently constrained to insert in her new roman-à-clef, Les Mandarins, a series of anguished debates between her protagonists over the news of the Soviet camps (though she flatteringly re-adjusted the chronology to make it seem that Sartre and his friends had been aware of such matters as early as 1946).
To counter Rousset and his like—and keep ‘progressive’ intellectuals in line—Communist parties exercised the moral lever of ‘anti-Fascism’. This had the appeal of familiarity. For many Europeans their first experience of political mobilization was in the anti-Fascist, Popular-Front leagues of the 1930s. For most people the Second World War was remembered as a victory over Fascism, and celebrated as such in France and Belgium especially in the post-war years. ‘Anti-Fascism’ was a reassuring, ecumenical link to a simpler time.
At the core of anti-Fascist rhetoric as deployed by the official Left was a simple binary view of political allegiance: we are what they are not. They (the Fascists, Nazis, Franco-ists, Nationalists) are Right, we are Left. They are reactionary, we are Progressive. They stand for War, we stand for Peace. They are the forces of Evil, we are on the side of Good. In the words of Klaus Mann, in Paris in 1935: whatever Fascism is, we are not and we are against it. Since most of the anti-Fascists’ opponents made a point of defining their own politics as above all anti-Communist (this was part of Nazism’s wartime appeal to conservative elites in countries as far apart as Denmark and Romania), this tidy symmetry worked to the Communists’ polemical advantage. Philo-Communism, or at least anti-anti-Communism, was the logical essence of anti-Fascism.68
The Soviet Union, of course, had every interest in directing attention to its anti-Fascist credentials in the post-war years, especially once the US replaced Germany as its enemy. Anti-Fascist rhetoric was now directed against America, accused first of defending revanchist Fascists and then, by extension, described as a proto-Fascist threat in its own right. What made this Communist tactic particularly effective, of course, was the widespread and genuine fear in Europe of a revival of Fascism itself, or at least a surge of neo-Fascist sympathy out of the ruins.
‘Anti-Fascism’, with its sub-text of resistance and alliance, was also related to the lingering favorable image of the wartime Soviet Union, the genuine sympathy that many Western Europeans felt for the heroic victors of Kursk and Stalingrad. As Simone de Beauvoir put it in her memoirs, in a characteristically sweeping claim: ‘There were no reservations in our friendship for the USSR: the sacrifices of the Russian people had proved that its leaders embodied its wishes.’ Stalingrad, according to Edgar Morin, swept away all doubts, all criticisms. It helped, too, that Paris had been liberated by the Western Allies, whose sins thus loomed larger in local memory.
But there was more to intellectual Russophilia than this. It is important to recall what was happening just a few miles to the east. Western intellectual enthusiasm for Communism tended to peak not in times of ‘goulash Communism’ or ‘Socialism with a human face’, but rather at the moments of the regime’s worst cruelties: 1935-39 and 1944-56. Writers, professors, artists, teachers and journalists frequently admired Stalin not in spite of his faults, but because of them. It was when he was murdering people on an industrial scale, when the show trials were displaying Soviet Communism at its most theatrically macabre, that men and women beyond Stalin’s grasp were most seduced by the man and his cult. It was the absurdly large gap separating rhetoric from reality that made it so irresistible to men and women of goodwill in search of a Cause.69
Communism excited intellectuals in a way that neither Hitler nor (especially) liberal democracy could hope to match. Communism was exotic in locale and heroic in scale. Raymond Aron in 1950 remarked upon ‘the ludicrous surprise . . . that the European Left has taken a pyramid-builder for its God.’ But was it really so surprising? Jean-Paul Sartre, for one, was most attracted to the Communists at precisely the moment when the ‘pyramid-builder’ was embarking upon his final, crazed projects. The idea that the Soviet Union was engaged upon a momentous quest whose very ambition justified and excused its shortcomings was uniquely attractive to rationalist intellectuals. The besetting sin of Fascism had been its parochial objectives. But Communism was directed towards impeccably universal and transcendent goals. Its crimes were excused by many non-Communist observers as the cost, so to speak, of doing business with History.
But even so, in the early years of the Cold War there were many in Western Europe who might have been more openly critical of Stalin, of the Soviet Union and of their local Communists had they not been inhibited by the fear of giving aid and comfort to their political opponents. This, too, was a legacy of ‘anti-Fascism’, the insistence that there were ‘no enemies on the Left’ (a rule to which Stalin himself, it must be said, paid little attention). As the progressive Abbé Boulier explained to François Fejtö, when trying to prevent him from writing about the Rajk trial: drawing attention to Communist sins is ‘to play the imperialists’ game’.70
This fear of serving anti-Soviet interests was not new. But by the early fifties it was a major calculation in European intellectual debates, above all in France. Even after the East European show trials finally led Emmanuel Mounier and many in his Esprit group to distance themselves from the French Communist Party, they took special care to deny any suggestion that they had become ‘anti-Communist’—or worse, that they had ceased to be ‘anti-American’. Anti-anti-Communism was becoming a political and cultural end in itself.
On one side of the European cultural divide, then, were the Communists and their friends and apologists: progressives and ‘anti-Fascists’. On the other side, far more numerous (outside of the Soviet bloc) but also distinctly heterogeneous, were the anti-Communists. Since anti-Communists ran the gamut from Trotskyists to neoFascists, critics of the USSR frequently found themselves sharing a platform or a petition with someone whose politics in other respects they abhorred. Such unholy alliances were a prime target for Soviet polemic and it was sometimes difficult to persuade liberal critics of Communism to voice their opinions in public for fear of being tarred with the brush of reaction. As Arthur Koestler explained to a large audience at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1948: ‘You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons . . . This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.’
Genuinely reactionary intellectuals were thin on the ground in the first decade after the war. Even those, like Jacques Laurent or Roger Nimier in France, who styled themselves as unashamedly of the Right, took a certain pleasure in acknowledging the hopelessness of their cause, fashioning a sort of neo-Bohemian nostalgia for the discredited past and parading their political irrelevance as a badge of honor. If the Left had the wind in its sails and History on its side, then a new generation of Right-wing literati would take pride in being defiant losers, turning the genuine decadence and death-seeking solipsism of inter-war writers like Drieu la Rochelle and Ernst Jünger into a social and sartorial style—thereby anticipating the ‘young fogeys’ of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain.
More representative, in France and Britain at least, were intellectual conservatives whose dislike of Communism had changed little in thirty years. In both countries, as in Italy, actively Catholic intellectuals played a prominent part in anti-Communist polemics. Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene succeeded Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in the space reserved in English cultural life for gifted, dyspeptic Catholic traditionalists. But where English conservatives might rage at the vacuity of modern life or else retreat from it altogether, a French Catholic like François Mauriac was drawn quite naturally into polemical exchanges with the political Left.
Throughout Mauriac’s long post-war engagement with public affairs (he wrote regularly for Le Figaro into his eighties—he died in 1970 aged 85) his arguments were almost always cast in an ethical vein—first with Albert Camus over the propriety of the post-war purges, later with his fellow conservatives over the war in Algeria—of which he disapproved—and always with the Communists, whom he abominated. As he explained to the readers of Le Figaro on October 24th 1949, the French Communists’ justification for the Budapest show trial—then under way—was ‘une obscénité de l’esprit’. But Mauriac’s moral clarity about the crimes of Communism was accompanied in these years by an equally moralized distaste for the ‘alien values’ of American society: like many European conservatives, he was always a little uncomfortable about the alignment with America that the Cold War required of them.
This was not a problem for liberal realists like Raymond Aron. Like many other ‘Cold Warriors’ of the European political center, Aron had only limited sympathy for the United States—‘the U.S. economy seems to me’, he wrote, ‘a model neither for humanity nor for the West’. But Aron understood the central truth about European politics after the war: domestic and foreign conflicts were henceforth intertwined. ‘In our times’, he wrote in July 1947, ‘for individuals as for nations the choice that determines all else is a global one, in effect a geographical choice. One is in the universe of free countries or else in that of lands placed under harsh Soviet rule. From now on everyone in France will have to state his choice.’ Or, as he put it on another occasion, ‘It is never a struggle between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable.’
Liberal intellectuals, then, whether of the continental persuasion like Aron or Luigi Einaudi, or in the British sense like Isaiah Berlin, were always distinctly more comfortable than most conservatives with the American connection that history had imposed upon them. The same was true, curious as it may seem, of Social Democrats. This was in part because the memory of FDR was still fresh, and many of the American diplomats and policy-makers with whom Europeans dealt in these years were New Dealers, who encouraged an active role for the state in economic and social policy and whose political sympathies fell to the left of center.
But it was also a direct consequence of American policy. The AFL-CIO, the US intelligence services and the State Department saw moderate, trade union-based social democratic and labor parties as the best barrier to Communist advance in France and Belgium especially (in Italy, where the political configuration was different, they vested their hopes and the bulk of their funds in Christian Democracy). Until mid-1947 this would have been an uncertain bet. But following the expulsion of Communist parties from government in France, Belgium and Italy that spring, and especially after the Prague coup in February 1948, west European Socialists and Communists drew apart. Violent clashes between Communist and Socialist workers’ unions, and between Communist-led strikers and troops ordered in by Socialist ministers, together with the news from eastern Europe of Socialists arrested and imprisoned, turned many Western Social Democrats into confirmed foes of the Soviet bloc and ready recipients of covert American cash.
For Socialists like Léon Blum in France or Kurt Schumacher in Germany, the Cold War imposed political choices which were in one respect at least familiar: they knew the Communists of old and had been around long enough to remember bitter fratricidal battles in the grim years before the Popular Front alliances. Younger men lacked this comfort. Albert Camus—who had briefly joined and then quit the Communist Party in Algeria during the 1930s—emerged from the war a firm believer, like so many of his contemporaries, in the Resistance coalition of Communists, Socialists and radical reformers of every shade. ‘Anticommunism’, he wrote in Algiers in March 1944, ‘is the beginning of dictatorship.’
Camus first began to have doubts during France’s post-war trials and purges, when the Communists took a hard line as the Party of the Resistance and demanded exclusions, imprisonments and the death penalty for thousands of real or imagined collaborators. Then, as the arteries of political and intellectual allegiance began to harden from 1947, Camus found himself increasingly prone to doubt the good faith of his political allies—doubts he at first stifled out of habit and for the sake of unity. He handed over control of the newspaper Combat in June 1947, no longer so politically confident or optimistic as he had been three years before. In his major novel La Peste (The Plague), published the same year, it was clear that Camus was not comfortable with the hard-edged political realism of his political bedmates. As he put it, through the mouth of one of his characters, Tarrou: ‘I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.’
Nevertheless, Camus was still reluctant to come out in public and break with his former friends. In public he still tried to balance honest criticism of Stalinism with balanced, ‘objective’ references to American racism and other crimes committed in the capitalist camp. But the Rousset trial and the East European show trials ended any illusions he might have retained. To his private notebooks he confided: ‘One of my regrets is to have conceded too much to objectivity. Objectivity, at times is an accommodation. Today things are clear and we must call something “concentrationnaire”if that is what it is, even if it is socialism. In one sense, I shall never again be polite.’
There is here a perhaps unconscious echo of a speech at the International Conference of the Pen Club two years earlier, in June 1947, where Ignazio Silone—speaking on ‘La Dignité de l’Intelligence et l’Indignité des Intellectuels’ (‘The Dignity of Intelligence and the Unworthiness of Intellectuals’)—publicly regretted his own silence and that of his fellow Left intellectuals: ‘We placed on the shelves, like tanks stored in a depôt, the principles of liberty for all, human dignity, and the rest.’ Like Silone, who would go on to contribute one of the better essays in Richard Crossman’s 1950 collection, The God That Failed, Camus became thenceforth an ever more acerbic critic of ‘progressivist’ illusions, culminating in the condemnation of revolutionary violence in his 1951 essayL’Homme révolté that provoked the final break with his erstwhile friends on the Parisian intellectual Left. For Sartre, the first duty of a radical intellectual was not to betray the workers. For Camus, like Silone, the most important thing was not to betray oneself. The battle lines of the Cultural Cold War were drawn up.
It is difficult, looking back across the decades, to recapture in full the stark contrasts and rhetoric of the Cold War in these early years. Stalin was not yet an embarrassment—on the contrary. As Maurice Thorez expressed it in July 1948, ‘people think they can insult us Communists by throwing the word “Stalinists” at us. Well, for us that label is an honor that we try hard to merit to the full.’ And many gifted non-Communists, as we have seen, were likewise reluctant to condemn the Soviet leader, seeking out ways to minimize his crimes or excuse them altogether. Hopeful illusions about the Soviet realm were accompanied by widespread misgivings—and worse—about America.71
The United States, together with the new Federal Republic of Germany, bore the brunt of Communist rhetorical violence. It was an astute tactic. The US was not wildly popular in western Europe, despite and in some places because of its generous help in Europe’s economic reconstruction. In July 1947 only 38 percent of French adults believed that Marshall Aid did not pose a serious threat to French independence, a suspicion of American motives that was further fuelled by the war scares of 1948 and the fighting in Korea two years later. Fabricated Communist charges that the US Army was using biological weapons in Korea found a receptive audience.
In cultural matters, the Communists did not even need to take the initiative. Fear of American domination, of the loss of national autonomy and initiative, brought into the ‘progressive’ camp men and women of all political stripes and none. Compared with its impoverished West European dependencies, America seemed economically carnivorous and culturally obscurantist: a deadly combination. In October 1949—in the second year of the Marshall Plan and just as plans for NATO were being finalized—the French cultural critic Pierre Emmanuel informed readers of Le Mondethat America’s chief gift to post-war Europe had been . . . the phallus; even in the land of Stendhal ‘the phallus is on its way to becoming a God’. Three years later the Christian editors of Espritreminded their readers that ‘we have, from the outset, warned of the dangers posed to our national well-being by an American culture which attacks the very roots of the mental and moral cohesion of the peoples of Europe.’
Meanwhile, an insidious American artifact was spreading across the continent. Between 1947 and 1949 the Coca-Cola Company opened bottling plants in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy. Within five years of its creation West Germany would have 96 such plants and became the largest market outside the US itself. But while some voices had been raised in protest in Belgium and Italy, it was in France that Coca-Cola’s plans unleashed a public storm. When Le Monde revealed that the company had set a target of 240 million bottles to be sold in France in 1950, there were loud objections—encouraged but not orchestrated by the Communists, who confined themselves to the warning that Coke’s distribution services would do double duty as a US espionage network. As Le Monde editorialized on March 29th 1950, ‘Coca-Cola is the Danzig of European Culture.’
The furor over ‘Coca-Colonisation’ had its light side (there were rumours that the company planned to attach its logo, in neon, to the Eiffel Tower . . . ), but the sentiments underlying it were serious. The crassness of American culture, from films to beverages, and the self-interest and imperialist ambitions behind the US presence in Europe were commonplaces for many Europeans of Left and Right. The Soviet Union might pose an immediate threat to Europe but it was America that presented the more insidious long-term challenge. This view gained credence after the outbreak of war in Korea, when the US began to press for the rearmament of the West Germans. Communists could now blend their attacks on the ‘ex-Nazis’ in Bonn with the charge that America was backing ‘Fascist revanchism’. Nationalist hostility to ‘Anglo-Americans’, encouraged under the wartime occupation but silent since the liberation, was dusted off and drafted into service in Italy, France and Belgium—and also in Germany itself, by Brecht and other East German writers.
Seeking to capitalize on this inchoate but widespread fear of war, and suspicion of things American among European elites, Stalin launched an international Movement for Peace. From 1949 to Stalin’s death ‘Peace’ was the centerpiece of Soviet cultural strategy. The Peace Movement was launched in Wrocław, Poland, in August 1948 at a ‘World Congress of Intellectuals’. The Wrocław meeting was followed by the first ‘Peace Congresses’, in April 1949, conducted more or less simultaneously in Paris, Prague and New York. As a prototypical ‘front’ organization, the Peace Movement itself was ostensibly led by prominent scientists and intellectuals like Frédéric Joliot-Curie; but Communists controlled its various committees and its activities were closely coordinated with the Cominform, whose own journal, published in Bucharest, was now re-named ‘For a Lasting Peace, for a Popular Democracy’.
On its own terms the Peace Movement was quite a success. An appeal, launched in Stockholm in March 1950 by the ‘Permanent Committee of the World Congress of Partisans of Peace’, obtained many millions of signatures in Western Europe (in addition to the tens of millions of signatories rounded up in the Soviet bloc). Indeed, gathering these signatures was the Movement’s main activity, especially in France, where it had its strongest support. But under the umbrella of the Peace Movement other front organizations also pressed home the message: the Soviet Union was on the side of peace, while the Americans (and their friends in Korea, Yugoslavia and Western European governments) were the party of war. Writing from Paris for The New Yorker, in May 1950, Janet Flanner was impressed: ‘At the moment, Communist propaganda is enjoying the most extraordinary success, especially among non-Communists, that it has ever had in France.’
The Communists’ attitude towards their mass movements was strictly instrumental—the Peace Movement was only ever a vehicle for Soviet policy, which is why it suddenly adopted the theme of ‘peaceful co-existence’ in 1951, taking its cue from a shift in Stalin’s international strategy. Privately, Communists—especially in the eastern bloc—had little but scorn for the illusions of their fellow-travellers. During organized visits to the popular democracies, Peace Movement supporters (overwhelmingly from France, Italy and India) were fêted and honored for their support; behind their backs they were derided as ‘pigeons’, a new generation of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’.
The Communists’ success in securing at least the conditional sympathy of many in Western Europe, and the great play that Communist parties in France and Italy especially made with their support among a cultural elite suspicious of America, prompted a belated but determined response from a group of Western intellectuals. Worried that in the cultural battle Stalin would win by default, they set about establishing a cultural ‘front’ of their own. The founding meeting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) was held in Berlin in June 1950. The Congress was planned as a response to Moscow’s Peace Movement initiative of the previous year, but it coincided with the outbreak of war in Korea, which gave it added significance. The decision to hold the meeting in Berlin rather than Paris was deliberate: from the outset the Congress was going to take the cultural battle to the Soviets.
The Congress for Cultural Freedom was formed under the official patronage of Bertrand Russell, Benedetto Croce, John Dewey, Karl Jaspers and Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher. These old men conferred respectability and authority upon the new venture, but the political drive and intellectual energy behind it came from a glittering middle generation of liberal or ex-Communist intellectuals—Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, A. J. Ayer, Margarete Buber-Neumann, Ignazio Silone, Nicola Chiaromonte and Sidney Hook. They, in turn, were assisted by a group of younger men, mostly American, who took responsibility for the day to day planning and administration of the CCF’s activities.
The CCF would eventually open up offices in thirty-five countries worldwide, but the focus of its attention was on Europe, and within Europe on France, Italy and Germany. The goal was to rally, energize and mobilize intellectuals and scholars for the struggle with Communism, primarily through the publication and dissemination of cultural periodicals: Encounter in Britain, Preuves in France, Tempo Presente in Italy and Der Monat in Germany. None of these journals ever reached a large audience—Encounter, the most successful, boasted a circulation of 16,000 copies by 1958; in the same year Preuves had just 3,000 subscribers. But their contents were of an almost unvaryingly high quality, their contributors were among the best writers of the post-war decades, and they filled a crucial niche—in France especially, where Preuves provided the only liberal, anti-Communist forum in a cultural landscape dominated by neutralist, pacifist, fellow-traveling or straightforwardly Communist periodicals.
The Congress and its many activities were publicly supported by the Ford Foundation and privately underwritten by the CIA—something of which nearly all its activists and contributors were quite unaware until it became public many years later. The implications—that the US government was covertly subsidizing antiCommunist cultural outlets in Europe—were perhaps not as serious as they appear in retrospect. At a time when Communist and ‘front’ journals and all sorts of cultural products were covertly subsidized from Moscow, American backing would certainly not have embarrassed some of the CCF writers. Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron or Ignazio Silone did not need official American encouragement to take a hard line against Communism, and there is no evidence that their own critical views about the US itself were ever toned down or censored to suit the paymasters in Washington.
The US was a newcomer to culture wars of this kind. The Soviet Union established its ‘Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Nations’ in 1925; French, Germans and Italians had been actively underwriting overseas ‘cultural diplomacy’ since before 1914. The Americans did not begin to budget for such activities until just before World War Two, and it was only in 1946, with the establishment of the Fulbright Program, that they entered the field seriously. Until the autumn of 1947 American cultural and educational projects in Europe were directed towards ‘democratic reorientation’; only then did anti-Communism become the primary strategic goal.
By 1950 the US Information Agency had taken overall charge of American cultural exchange and information programs in Europe. Together with the Information Services Branch of the US Occupation authorities in western Germany and Austria (which had full control of all media and cultural outlets in the US Zone in these countries), the USIA was now in a position to exert huge influence in Western European cultural life. By 1953, at the height of the Cold War, US foreign cultural programs (excluding covert subsidies and private foundations) employed 13,000 people and cost $129 million, much of it spent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite of Western Europe.
The ‘fight for peace’, as the Communist press dubbed it, was conducted on the cultural ‘front’ by the ‘Battle of the Book’ (note the characteristically militarized Leninist language). The first engagements were undertaken in France, Belgium and Italy in the early spring of 1950. Prominent Communist authors—Elsa Triolet, Louis Aragon—would travel to a variety of provincial cities to give talks, sign books and put on display the literary credentials of the Communist world. In practice this did little to promote the Communist case—two of the best-selling books in post-war France were Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (which sold 420,000 copies in the decade 1945-55) and Viktor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom (503,000 copies in the same period). But the point was not so much to sell books as to remind readers and others that Communists stood for culture—French culture.
The American response was to set up ‘America Houses’, with libraries and newspaper-reading rooms, and host lectures, meetings and English-language classes. By 1955 there were sixty-nine such America Houses in Europe. In some places their impact was quite considerable: in Austria, where the Marshall Plan years saw 134 million copies of English-language books distributed nationwide, a significant percentage of the population of Vienna and Salzburg (the former under Four Power administration, the latter in the US Zone of Occupation) visited their local America House to borrow books and read the papers. The study of English replaced French and the classical languages as the first choice of Austrian high-school students.
Like American-supported radio networks (Radio Free Europe was inaugurated in Munich one month after the outbreak of the Korean War), the America House programs were sometimes undermined by the crude propaganda imperatives emanating from Washington. At the peak of the McCarthy years the directors of America Houses spent much of their time removing books from their shelves. Among dozens of authors whose works were deemed inappropriate were not only the obvious suspects—John Dos Passos, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett and Upton Sinclair—but also Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Alberto Moravia, Tom Paine and Henry Thoreau. In Austria, at least, it seemed to many observers that in the ‘Battle of Books’ the US was sometimes its own most effective foe.
Fortunately for the West, American popular culture had an appeal that American political ineptitude could do little to tarnish. Communists were at a severe disadvantage in that their official disapproval of decadent American jazz and American cinema closely echoed the views of Josef Goebbels. While east European Communist states were banning jazz as decadent and alien, Radio Free Europe was broadcasting into eastern Europe three hours of popular music every weekday afternoon, interspersed with news on the hour for ten minutes. Cinema, the other universal medium of the time, could be regulated in states under Communist control; but throughout western Europe the appeal of American films was universal. Here, Soviet propaganda had nothing with which to compete and even Western progressives, often drawn to American music and cinema, were out of sympathy with the Party line.
The cultural competition of the early Cold War years was asymmetrical. Among European cultural elites there was still a widespread sentiment that they shared, across ideological divides and even bridging the Iron Curtain, a common culture to which America posed a threat. The French in particular took this line, echoing the early post-war efforts of their diplomats to trace an international policy independent of American control. Symptomatically, the head of the French Cultural Mission in occupied Berlin, Félix Lusset, got on much better with his Soviet counterpart (Alexander Dymschitz) than he did with the British or American representatives in the city and dreamed, like his masters in Paris, of a restored cultural axis reaching from Paris to Berlin and on to Leningrad.
The US spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win over European sympathies, but many of the resulting publications and products were heavy-handed and counter-productive, merely confirming the European intelligentsia’s innate suspicions. In Germany, America’s excessive attention to Communist crimes was seen by many as a deliberate ploy to forget or relativise the crimes of the Nazis. In Italy the lurid anti-Communist campaigns of the Vatican undercut the anti-Stalinist arguments of Silone, Vittorini and others. Only in art and literature, where the absurdities of Stalinist cultural policy impinged directly upon the territory of painters and poets, did Western intellectuals consistently distance themselves from Moscow—and even here their opposition was muted for fear of offering hostages to American ‘propaganda’.72
On the other hand, in the struggle for the sympathies of the large mass of the Western European population, the Soviets were rapidly losing ground. Everywhere except Italy the Communist vote fell steadily from the late 1940s, and—if opinion polls are to be believed—even those who did vote Communist often saw their vote either as a symbolic protest or else as an expression of class or communal solidarity. Well before the cataclysms of 1956, when the sympathies of most European intellectuals would swing sharply away from the Soviet bloc, the Atlantic orientation of most other Western Europeans had been decided.