Category Archives: European History

Pledging Allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet Union

Kati Marton, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy 

 Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring 

          Spying has frequently been described as the world’s second oldest profession, and it may outrank rank the first as a subject matter that sells books. A substantial portion of the lucrative market for spy literature belongs to imaginative novelists churning out best-selling thrillers whose pages seem to turn themselves – think John Le Carré. Fortunately, there are also intrepid non-fiction writers who sift through evidence and dig deeply into the historical record to produce accounts of the realities of the second oldest profession and its practitioners, as two recently published biographies attest: Kati Marton’s True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, and Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring.

        Bearing similar titles, these works detail the lives of two men who in the tumultuous 1930s chose to spy for the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin: American Noel Field (1904-1970) and Englishman Guy Burgess (1911-1963). Burgess, the better known of the two, was one of the infamous “Cambridge Five,” five upper class lads who, while studying at Cambridge in the 1930s, became Soviet spies. Field, less likely to be known to general readers, was a graduate of another elite institution, Harvard University. Seven years older than Burgess, he was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union at about the same time, in the mid-1930s.

           While the 1930s and the war that followed were formative periods for both young men, their stories became noteworthy in the Cold War era that followed World War II. Field spent five years in solitary confinement in post-war Budapest, from 1949 to 1954, imprisoned as a traitor to the communist cause after being used by Stalin and Hungarian authorities in a major show trial designed to root out unreliable elements among Hungary’s communist leadership and consolidate Stalin’s power over the country. His imprisonment led to the imprisonment of his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter. Burgess came to international attention in 1951 when he mysteriously fled Britain for Moscow with Donald Maclean, another of the Cambridge Five.  Burgess and Maclean’s whereabouts remained unknown and the source of much speculation until they resurfaced five years later, in 1956.

            Both men came from comfortable but not super-rich backgrounds.  Each lost his father early in life, which unmoored both. After graduating from Harvard and Cambridge with elite diplomas in hand, they even followed similar career paths. Field served in the United States State Department and was recruited during World War II by future CIA Director Allen Dulles to work for the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), all the while providing information to the Soviet Union. Burgess served in critical periods in the British equivalents, Britain’s Foreign Office and its premier intelligence agencies, M15 and M16, while he too reported to the Soviet Union.  Field worked with refugees during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Burgess had a critical stint during the war at the BBC.  Both men ended their lives in exile, Field in Budapest, Burgess in Moscow.

          But the two men could not have been more different in personality.  Field was an earnest American with a Quaker background, outwardly projecting rectitude and seriousness, a “sensitive, self-absorbed idealist and dreamer” (M.3), as Marton puts it. Lownie describes Burgess as “outrageous, loud, talkative, indiscreet, irreverent, overtly rebellious” (L.30), a “magnificent manipulator of people and trader in gossip” (L.324).   Burgess was also openly gay and notoriously promiscuous at a time when homosexual conduct carried serious risks.  Field, Marton argues, was never one of Stalin’s master spies. “He lacked both the steel and the polished performance skills of Kim Philby or Alger Hiss” (M.3).  Lownie claims nearly the opposite for Burgess: that he was the “most important of the Cambridge Spies” (L.x).

          Marton’s biography of Field is likely to be the more appealing of the two for general readers. It is more focused, more selective in its use of evidence and substantively tells a more compelling story, raising questions still worth pondering today. Why did Field’s quest for a life of meaning and high-minded service to mankind lead him to become an apologist for one of the 20th century’s most murderous regimes? How could his faith in that regime remain unshaken even after it imprisoned him for five years, along with his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Marton raises them in a way that leads her readers to consider their implications. “True Believer” seems the perfect title for her biography, a study of the psychology of pledging and maintaining allegiance to Stalin’s Soviet Union.

         “Stalin’s Englishman,” by contrast, struck me as an overstatement for Lownie’s work. Most of the book up to Burgess’ defection to Moscow in 1951— which comes at about the book’s three-quarter mark — details his interactions in Britain with a vast array of individuals: Soviet handlers and contacts, British work colleagues, lovers, friends, and acquaintances.  Only in a final chapter does Lownie present his argument that Burgess had an enduring impact in the international espionage game and deserves to be considered the most important of the Cambridge Five.  Lownie’s biography suffers from what young people today term TMI – too much information.  He has uncovered a wealth of written documentation on Burgess and seems bent on using all of it, giving his work a gossipy flavor.  At its core, Lownie’s work is probably best understood as a study of how a flamboyant life style proved compatible with taking the pledge to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

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          As a high school youth, Noel Field said he had two overriding goals in life: “to work for international peace, and to help improve the social conditions of my fellow human beings” (M.14). The introspective young Field initially saw communism and the Soviet Union as his means to implement these high-minded, humanitarian goals. But in a “quest for a life of meaning that went horribly wrong” (M.9), Field evolved into a hard-core Stalinist.  Marton frames her book’s central question as: how does an apparently good man, “who started out with noble intentions” end up sacrificing “his own and his family’s freedom, a promising career, and his country, all for a fatal myth. His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequences of blind faith” (M.1).

         Field was raised in Switzerland, where his father, a well-known, Harvard-educated biologist and outspoken New England pacifist, established a research institute. In secondary school in Zurich, Field was far more introspective and emotionally sensitive than his classmates. He had only one close friend, Herta Vieser, the “plump, blond daughter of a German civil servant” (M.12), whom he subsequently married in 1926.  Field’s father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 53, when Field was 17, shattering the peaceful, well-ordered family life the young man had known up to that time.

         Field failed to find any bearings a year later when he entered Harvard, his father’s alma mater. He knew nothing of America except what he had heard from his father, and at Harvard he was again an outsider among his privileged, callow classmates. But he graduated with full honors after only two years. In his mid-twenties, Marton writes, Field was still a “romantic, idealistic young man” who“put almost total faith in books. He had lived a sheltered, family-centered life” (M.30).

         From Harvard, Field entered the Foreign Service but worked in Washington, at the State Department’s West European Desk, where he performed brilliantly but again did not feel at home, “still in search of deeper fulfillment than any bureaucracy could offer” (M.26). In 1929, he attended an event in New York City sponsored by the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party.  It was a turning point for him.  The “warm, spontaneous fellowship” at the meeting made him think he had realized his childhood dream of “being part of the ‘brotherhood of man’” (M.41). Soviet agents formally recruited Field sometime in 1935, assisted by the persuasive efforts of State Department colleague and friend Alger Hiss.

          For Field, Marton writes, communism was a substitute for his Quaker faith. Like the Quakers, communists “encouraged self-sacrifice on behalf of others.” But the austere Quakers were “no match for the siren song of the Soviet myth: man and society leveled, the promise of a new day for humanity” (M.39-40).  Communism offered a tantalizing dream: “join us to build a new society, a pure, egalitarian utopia to replace the disintegrating capitalist system, a comradely embrace to replace cutthroat competition.”  In embracing communism, Field felt he could “deliver on his long-ago promise to this father to work for world peace” (M.39).

            In 1936, Field left the State Department to take a position in Geneva to work for the League of Nations’ Disarmament Section — and assist the Soviet Union. The following year, he reached another turning point when he participated in the assassination in Switzerland of a “traitor,“ Ignaz Reiss, a battle tested Eastern European Jewish Communist who envisioned exporting the revolution beyond Russia.  Reiss was appalled by the Soviet show trials and executions of 1936-38 and expressed his dismay far too openly for Stalin, making him a marked man. Others may have hatched the plot against Reiss, and still others pulled the trigger, Marton writes, “but Field was prepared to help” (M.246). He had “shown his willingness to do Moscow’s bidding – even as an accessory in a comrade’s murder. He had demonstrated his absolute loyalty to Stalin” (M.68).

            Deeply moved by the Spanish Civil War, Field became involved in efforts to assist victims and opponents of the Franco insurgency.  During the conflict, Field and his wife met a refined German doctor, Wilhelm Glaser, his wife and 17-year old daughter Erica.  A precocious, feisty teenager, Erica was the only member of her high school class who had refused to join her school’s Hitler Youth Group.  She had contracted typhoid fever when her parents met the Fields. With her parents desperate for medical attention for their daughter, the Fields volunteered to take her with them to Switzerland. In what became an informal adoption, Erica lived with Noel and Herta for the next seven years, with the rest of her life intertwined with that of Fields.  After Erica’s initial appearance in the book at about the one-third point, she becomes a central and inspiring character in Marton’s otherwise dispiriting narrative – someone who merits her own biography.

            When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Field landed a job in Marseilles, France, with the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), a Boston-based humanitarian organization then charged with assisting the thousands of French Jews fleeing the Nazis, along with as many as 30,000 refugees from Spain, Germany, and Nazi-occupied territories of Eastern Europe.  Field’s practice was to prioritize communist refugees for assistance, including many hard-core Stalinists rejected by other relief organizations, hoping to repatriate as many as possible to their own countries “to seed the ground for an eventual postwar Communist takeover” (M.106).  It took a while for the USC to pick up on how Field had transformed it from a humanitarian relief organization into what Marton terms a “Red Aid organization” (M.131).

         After the Germans occupied the rest of France in November 1942, the Fields escaped from Marseilles to Geneva, where they continued to assist refugees and provide special attention to communists whom Noel considered potential leaders in Eastern Europe after the war.  While in Geneva, Field attracted the attention of Allen Dulles, an old family friend from Zurich in the World War I era who had also crossed paths with Field at the State Department in Washington.  Dulles, then head of OSS, wanted Field to use his extensive communist connections to infiltrate Nazi-occupied countries of Eastern Europe. With Field acting as a go-between, the OSS provided communists from Field’s network with financial and logistical support both during and after the war.

        But Field failed to understand that his network was composed largely of communists who had fallen into Stalin’s disfavor. Stalin considered them unreliable, with allegiances that might prioritize their home countries – Poland, East Germany, Hungary or Czechoslovakia – rather than the Soviet Union.  Although Stalin tightened the Soviet grip on these countries in the early Cold War years, he failed to bring Yugoslavia’s independent-minded leader, Marshal Josip Tito, into line.  To make sure that no other communist leaders entertained ideas of independence from the Soviet Union, Stalin targeted a host of Eastern European communists as “Titoists,” which became the highest crime in Stalin’s world — much like being a “Trotskyite” in the 1930s.   Stalin chose Budapest as the place for new round of show trials, analogous to those of 1936-38.

            Back in the United States, in Congressional testimony in 1948, Whittaker Chambers named Field’s long-time friend Alger Hiss as a member of an underground communist cell based in Washington. Hiss categorically denied the allegation and mounted an aggressive counterattack, including a libel suit against Chambers. In the course of defending the suit, Chambers named Field as another communist who had worked at a high level in the State Department.  Field’s double life ended in the aftermath of Chambers’ revelations. He could no longer return to the United States.

            Field’s outing occurred when he was in Prague, seeking a university position after his relief work had ended. From Prague, he was kidnapped and taken to Budapest, where he was interrogated and tortured over his association with Allen Dulles and the CIA.  Like so many loyal communists in the 1930s show trials, Field “confessed” that his rescue of communists during the war was a cover for recruiting for Dulles and the arch-traitor, Tito.   He provided his interrogators with a list of 562 communists he had helped return to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.  All, Marton writes, “paid with their lives, their freedom, or – the lucky ones — merely their livelihood, for the crime of being ‘Fieldists’” (M.157).  At one point, authorities confronted Field with a man he had never met, a Hungarian national who had previously been a leader within Hungarian communist circles, and ordered Field to accuse the man of being his agent.  Field did so, and the man was later sentenced to death and hanged.

          Hungarian authorities used Field’s “confession” as the centerpiece in a massive 1949 show trial of seven Hungarian communists, including Laslo Rajk, a lifelong communist and top party theoretician who had been Hungary’s Interior Minister and later its Foreign Minister.  All were accused of being “Fieldists,” who had attempted to overthrow the “peoples’ democracy” on behalf of Allen Dulles, the CIA, and Tito.  Field was not tried, nor did he appear as a witness in the trials.  All defendants admitted that Field had spurred them on; all were subsequently executed. By coincidence, Marton’s parents, themselves dissident Hungarian journalists, covered the trial.

           Field was kept in solitary confinement until released in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. Marton excoriates Field for a public statement he made after his release. “We are not among those,” he declared, “who blame an entire people, a system or a government for the misdeeds of a handful of the overzealous and the misguided,’’ adding her own emphasis to Field’s statement. Field, she writes, thereby exonerated “one of history’s most cruel human experiments, blaming the jailing and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents on a few excessively fervent bad apples” (M.194).

         Field’s wife Herta traveled to Czechoslovakia in the hope of getting information from Czech authorities on her missing husband’s whereabouts. Those authorities handed her over to their Hungarian counterparts, who placed her in solitary confinement in the same jail as her husband, although neither was aware of the other’s presence during her nearly five years of confinement.   When Field’s younger brother Hermann went looking for Field, he was arrested in Warsaw, where he had worked just prior to the outbreak of the war, assisting endangered refugees to immigrate to Great Britain. Herta and Hermann were also released in 1954. Hermann returned to the United States and published a short work about the experience, Trapped in the Cold War: The Ordeal of an American Family.

           Erica Glaser, Field’s unofficially adopted daughter, like Herta and Hermann, went searching for Noel and she too ended up in jail as a result.  Erica had moved to the American zone of occupied Germany after the war, working for the OSS. But she left that job to work for the Communist Party in the Hesse Regional Parliament. There, she met and fell in love with U.S. Army Captain Robert Wallach.  When her party superiors objected to the relationship, Erica broke her connections with the party and the couple moved to Paris. They married in 1948.

          In 1950, Erica decided to search for both Noel and Herta. Using her own Communist Party contacts, Erica was lured to East Berlin, where she was arrested. She was condemned to death by a Soviet military court in Berlin and sent to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison for execution. After Stalin’s death, her death sentence was commuted, but she was shipped to Siberia, where she endured further imprisonment in a Soviet gulag (Marton’s description of Erica’s time in the Gulag reads like Caroline Moorhead’s account of several courageous French women who survived Nazi prison camps in World War II, A Train in Winter, one of the first books reviewed here in 2012).

       Erica was released in October 1955 under an amnesty declared by Nikita Khrushchev, but was unable to join her husband in the United States because of State Department concern over her previous Communist Party affiliations.  Allen Dulles intervened on her behalf to reunite her with her family in 1957.  She finally reached the United States, where she lived with her husband and their children in Virginia’s horse country, an ironic landing point for the fiery former communist.  Erica wrote a book based on her experiences in Europe, Light at Midnight, published in 1967, a clever inversion of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.  She lived happily and comfortably in Virginia up to her death in 1993.

            Field spent his remaining years in Hungary after his release in 1954.  He fully supported the Soviet Union’s intervention in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stopped paying dues to the Hungarian Communist Party after the Soviets put an end to the “Prague Spring” in 1968, but Marton indicates that there is no evidence that the two events were related.  Field “never criticized the system he served, never showed regret for his role in abetting a murderous dictatorship,” Marton concludes. “At the end, Noel Field was still a willing prisoner of an ideology that had captured him when his youthful ardor ran highest” (M.249).  Field died in Budapest in 1970. His wife Herta died ten years later, in 1980.

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            Much like Noel Field, Guy Burgess, “never felt he belonged. He was an outsider” (L.332), Lownie writes.  But Burgess’ motivation for entry into the world’s second oldest profession was far removed from that of the high-minded Field: “Espionage was simply another instrument in his social revolt, another gesture of self-assertion . . . Guy Burgess sought power and realizing he was unable to achieve that overtly, he chose to do so covertly. He enjoyed intrigue and secrets for they were his currency in exerting power and controlling people” (L.332).

         Burgess’ father and grandfather were military men. His father, an officer in the Royal Navy, was frequently away during Burgess’s earliest years, and the boy depended upon his mother for emotional support and guidance. His father died suddenly of a heart attack when Guy was 13, bringing him still closer to his mother.  Burgess attended Eton College, Britain’s most prestigious “public school,” i.e., upper class boarding school, and from there earned a scholarship to study history at Trinity College, Cambridge. When Burgess arrived in 1930, left-wing radicalism dominated Cambridge.

         Burgess entered Cambridge considering himself a socialist and it was an easy step from there to communism, which appeared to many undergraduates as “attractive and simple, a combination of the best of Christianity and liberal politics” (L.41). Fellow undergraduates Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, whom Burgess met early in his tenure at Cambridge, helped move him toward communism.  Both were recruited to work as agents for the Soviet Union while at Cambridge, and Burgess followed suit in late 1934.  Burgess’ contacts within Britain’s homosexual circles made him an attractive recruit for Soviet intelligence services.

        Before defecting to Moscow, Burgess worked  first as a producer and publicist at the BBC (for a while, alongside fellow Etonian George Orwell), followed by stints as an intelligence officer within both M15 and M16.  He joined the Foreign Office in 1944.  While with the Foreign Office, he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington, where he worked for about nine months.  Philby was his immediate boss in Washington and Burgess lived for a while with Philby’s family. In these positions, Burgess drew attention for his eccentric habits, e.g., constantly chewing garlic; for his slovenly appearance, especially dirty fingernails; and for incessant drinking and smoking — at one point, he was smoking a mind-boggling 60 cigarettes per day.  A Foreign Office colleague’s description was typical: Burgess was a “disagreeable character,” who “presented an unkempt, distinctly unclear appearance . . . his fingernails were always black with dirt. His conversation was no less grimy, laced with obscene jokes and profane language” (L.183). Burgess’ virtues were that he was witty and erudite, often a charming conversationalist, but with a tendency to name-drop and overstate his proximity to powerful government figures.

            Working at the highest levels within Britain’s media, intelligence and foreign policy communities, Burgess frequently seemed on the edge of being dismissed for unprofessional conduct, well before suspicions of his loyalty began to surface.  How Burgess could have remained in these high level positions despite his eccentricities remains somewhat of a mystery.  One answer is that his untethered, indiscreet life-style served as a sort of cover: no one living like that could possibly be a double agent. As one colleague remarked, if he was really working for the Soviets, “surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlor communist so obviously – with all that communist talk and those filthy clothes and filthy fingernails” (L.167).   Another answer is that he was a member of Britain’s old boy network, at the very top of the English class system, where there was an ingrained tendency not to be too probing or overly judgmental of one’s social peers.  Ben McIntyre emphasizes this point throughout his biography on Philby, reviewed here in June 2016, and Lownie alludes to it in explaining Burgess.

          The book’s real drama starts with Burgess’ sudden defection from Britain to the Soviet Union in 1951 with Donald Maclean, at a time when British authorities had finally caught onto Maclean — but before official doubts about Burgess had crystallized.  Burgess’s Soviet handler told Burgess, who had recently been sent home from the Embassy in Washington after he threatened a Virginia State Trooper who had stopped him for a speeding violation, that he needed to “exfiltrate” Maclean – get him out of Britain.  By leaving himself, Burgess surprised and angered his former boss Philby, who was charged with the British investigation into Maclean’s activities.  Burgess’ defection turned the focus on Philby, who defected himself a decade later.

          The route out of Britain that Maclean and Burgess took remains unclear, as are Burgess’s reasons for accompanying Maclean to the Soviet Union.   The official line was that the departure was nothing more than a “drunken spree by two low-level diplomats,” but the popular press saw the disappearance of the two as a “useful tool to beat the government” (L.264), while of course increasing circulation.  Sometime after his defection, British authorities awoke to the realization that the eccentric Burgess may have been more than just a smooth-talking, chain-smoking drunk.  But they were never able to assemble a solid case against him and did not believe that there would be sufficient evidence to prosecute him should he return to Britain.  In fact, he never did and the issue never had to be faced.

         The two men’s whereabouts remained an international mystery until 1956, when the Soviets staged an outing for a Sunday Times correspondent at a Moscow hotel.  Burgess and Mclean issued a written statement for the correspondent indicating that they had come to Moscow to work for better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West, convinced as they were that neither Britain nor the United States was seriously interested in better relations.   Burgess spent his remaining years in Moscow, where he was lonely and isolated.

        Burgess read voraciously, listened to music, and pursued his promiscuous lifestyle in Moscow, a place where homosexuality was a criminal offense less likely to be overlooked than in Britain.  Burgess clearly missed his former circle of friends in England.  During this period, he took to saying that although he remained a loyal communist, he would prefer to live among British communists. “I don’t like the Russian communists . . . I’m a foreigner here. They don’t understand me on so many matters” (L.315).  Stalin’s Englishman outlasted Stalin by a decade.  Burgess died in Moscow in 1963, at age 52, an adult lifetime of unhealthy living finally catching up with him. He was buried in a Moscow cemetery, the first of the Cambridge Five to go to the grave.

             Throughout the book’s main chapters, Burgess’ impact as a spy gets lost among the descriptions of his excessive smoking, drinking and homosexual trysts.  Burgess passed many documents to the Soviets, Lownie indicates.  Most revealed official British thinking at key points in British-Soviet relations, among them, documents involving the 1938 crisis with Hitler over Czechoslovakia; 1943-45 negotiations with the Soviets over the future of Poland; the Berlin blockade of 1948; and the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula in 1950.  But there does not seem to be anything comparable to Philby’s cold-blooded revelations of anti-Soviet operations and operatives, leading directly to many deaths; or, for that matter, comparable to Field’s complicity in the Reiss assassination or his denunciation of Hungarian communists.

          In a final chapter, entitled “Summing Up” – which might have been better titled “Why Burgess Matters” – Lownie acknowledges that it is unclear how valuable were the many documents were which Burgess passed to the Soviets:

[E]ven when we know what documentation was taken, we don’t know who saw it, when, and what they did with the material. The irony is that the more explosive the material, the less likely it was to be trusted, as Stalin ad his cohorts couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a plant. Also if it didn’t fit in with Soviet assumptions, then it was ignored (L. 323-24).

          One of Burgess’ most damaging legacies, Lownie argues, was the defection itself, which “undermined Anglo-American intelligence co-operation at least until 1955, and public respect for the institutions of government, including Parliament and the Foreign Office. It also bequeathed a culture of suspicion and mistrust within the Security Services that was still being played out half a century after the 1951 flight” (p.325-26).  Burgess may have been the “most important of the Cambridge spies,” as Lownie claims at the outset, but I was not convinced that the claim was proven in his book.

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            Noel Field and Guy Burgess, highly intelligent and well educated men, were entirely different in character and motivation.  That both chose to live duplicitous lives as practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession is a telling indication of the mesmerizing power which Joseph Stalin and his murderous ideology exerted over the best and brightest of the generation which came of age in the 1930s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 25, 2017

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Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, Russian History, Soviet Union, United States History

Revolutionary Train Ride

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train 

            On April 9, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, secretively boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, that was headed for Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia.  The train left Zurich on its journey just days after the United States had entered World War I on the side of Russia and its allies, Great Britain and France.  Over the course of 8 days, Lenin and a group of 32 fellow Bolsheviks and their families traveled 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers). They passed through Germany, then Russia’s battlefield enemy, crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry to neutral Sweden and on to Finland (at the time part of the Russian empire), before arriving at Petrograd’s famous Finland Station on April 16, 1917.  Barely six months later, in November 1917, 100 years ago last month, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts had seized control of the reins of power in Russia and declared a new revolutionary government in the world’s largest nation-state, with Lenin at its head.

           Lenin’s trip from Zurich to Petrograd via train is the centerpiece of Catherine Merridale’s incisive, often-riveting Lenin on the Train, in which she recounts in detail what she aptly terms a “journey that changed the world” (p.5).  Merridale, author of several other books on Russia and the Soviet Union, also provides a close look at the world Lenin inhabited in the immediate weeks and months before and after his train trip, while stopping short of the events of the 1917 November Revolution (often termed the “October Revolution,” due to the 13-day difference between the Julian calendar employed in Russia at that time and that utilized in most of the rest of the world).  She has done extensive digging into the archives and historical records of Russia, Germany, France and Britain to produce a nuanced picture of these crucial months in 1917. Her account benefits from detailed portraits of the numerous people who surrounded and interacted with Lenin in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and of course during the notorious train ride.

            Lenin’s ride back to his home country in April 1917 was precipitated by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s stunning abdication a few weeks previously, abruptly ending the nearly 300-year Romanov dynasty.  Russia at the time of the Tsar’s abdication was a country seething with anger and falling into chaos. Workers were striking over food shortages and civil unrest was spreading from Petrograd across the country, all at a time when Russia’s war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was going poorly, with alarming desertion levels among its demoralized troops.  The State Duma, a parliamentary body dating from Russia’s 1905 Revolution that had shared power with the Tsar, conferred authority upon what came to be known as the Provisional Government, a caretaker institution charged with maintaining order and continuity until more permanent institutions could be established. Many Russian reformers and revolutionaries saw the Provisional Government as a step toward liberal, Western-style democracy.

            Not Lenin.  A fiery but uncommonly focused revolutionary from a decidedly bourgeois family, Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the most militant of the many revolutionary and reform groups that had pressed for changes in the Tsarist regime in Russia’s 1905 Revolution (“Bolshevik” was Lenin’s term, “majority men,” coined prior to the 1905 Revolution and intended to contrast with the other anti-Tsarist forces, the “Mensheviks,” literally “minority men” but by 1917 far more numerous than the Bolsheviks).  Lenin had spent much of his life since 1905 in exile, out of reach of the Tsars and their heavy-handed methods.  At the time of the Nicholas II’s abdication, he was in Zurich, where he was spending his daytime hours in the city’s library, reading and writing, theorizing and fantasizing about the coming world revolution that would bring down capitalism and imperialism. Lenin at this stage in his life was, as a contemporary put it, the “only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation twenty-four hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution” (p.78).

            Once he learned that the Tsar had abdicated, Lenin was naturally more than eager to get back to Petrograd and put his revolutionary stamp on the emerging post-Tsarist regime.  In crossing Germany to return home, Lenin’s party benefitted from the unexpected cooperation of the German High Command.  But the extent of that cooperation remains unresolved to this day.  Was Lenin a German spy or agent? Did Germany acquiesce in the trip across its territory with the expectation that Lenin’s return to Russia would lead to its withdrawal from the war, thereby freeing Germany to fight on a single front against it British and French enemies?  Merridale does not shy away from addressing these still open questions.

          Throughout, Merridale provides a close up look at Lenin during his most pivotal period, emphasizing the forcefulness of his convictions while treading lightly over the ruthlessness of his character.  The Lenin who arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, really believed that the world was on the edge of a worldwide proletarian revolution; that the revolution had already started in Russia but would not be restricted to her  boundaries (more conventional Marxist wisdom held that the revolution would start in Germany; Russia was considered too backward and insufficiently industrialized); and that with this revolution, the capitalist and imperialist world of 19th and early 20the century Europe would vanish. Lenin foresaw, as Merridale puts it, a “series of coordinated, pitiless and violent campaigns that would annihilate the twin oppressions of capitalism and empire forever. The bourgeoisie would have to die, the big country estates would burn, and everywhere slave-owners would face enslavement themselves” (p.77).

           When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station armed with this apocalyptic vision, the many anti-Tsarist forces in Russia were in almost complete disarray.  In the weeks that followed, Lenin provided clarity and focus to his Bolshevik followers on two key points which helped propel them to seizure of power a half year later: there would be no compromise between the Bolsheviks and  other anti-Tsarist forces; and there would be no further support for the war among the capitalist and imperialist powers that was ravaging Russia.

* * *

          Lenin and his party traveled in a single wooden train car, painted green, with three second-class and five third class compartments, plus two toilets and a baggage area.  The puritanical Lenin instituted strict rules aboard the train.  Disturbed by the bent of some of his group to sing well into the night, he instituted official times for sleeping. Smoking was allowed only in the toilets, with a system of tickets for their use. Those who wished to use the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to accord priority to those with “first class” tickets who needed to use the toilet for more basic purposes.

       Before the train left, Lenin had wrenched numerous concessions from the German High Command, the most critical of which was that the car transporting his group was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, “sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population” (p.7).  A chalk line drawn on the floor of the car served to demarcate a “border” between “Russia” and “Germany,” with the Russian travelers confined to one side of the line, the German soldiers assigned to guard them on the other. A designated neutral, befittingly a Swiss national, acted as the contact between the passengers and the German soldiers.  Lenin needed to stay in the Russian portion of the car so that he could later say he never set foot in “Germany.”  The High Command also agreed that no passenger could be ordered to leave the train, and that there would be no passport controls and no discrimination against potential passengers on account of their political views.

          The trip took place at a time when Germany yearned to be relieved of its two-front war so that it might concentrate its resources on the Western Front against its British and French enemies, before reinforcements from America could have a significant effect upon the stalemate in the trenches.  If Russia could be persuaded to withdraw from the war, Germany could then “focus all its troops along a single front, crushing the French and British like so many gnats” (p.39-40).   Britain and France, of course, were committed to keeping Russia in the war at almost any cost for precisely this reason.

          By 1917, the inconclusive nature of trench warfare had led all belligerents to search for ways of gaining advantages off the battlefield.  In Germany, foreign ministry officials had come to support using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored French military mutineers and Irish nationalists, and even looked at possibilities for sparking rebellion in distant India.  They were thus “quick to grasp [Lenin’s] potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort” and indisputably provided some financial backing to Lenin, what has come to be known as “German gold” (p.7).

          Lenin’s critics and rivals for power seized on the notion of “German gold” to label him a traitor, an agent operating on behalf of the enemy that was slaughtering Russian soldiers.  These charges never receded, and they continue to intrigue contemporary historians.  Merridale evaluates some of the more elaborately documented theories that Lenin was in fact a German agent, and finds them unproven.  In one instance she recounts, in the 1950s renowned diplomat and Russia expert George Kennan examined extensive documentation purporting to show an agency relationship between Lenin and the German government and concluded that the documents were forgeries.

          Lenin himself added to the speculation and conspiracy theories by denying that he had accepted any German assistance. Merridale suggests that, rather than lying about his acceptance of German gold, Lenin could have utilized his acceptance to forge a powerful argument on his own behalf.  A braver Lenin, she contends, might have “boasted of that German cash,” as a means to “help the German proletariat defeat the Kaiser. . . If taking German money was one kind of crime,” Lenin could have argued that “trampling on the people’s dreams, making them fight against their will and even starving them were surely worse. . . [Lenin] might have pointed to the poetry of taking money from the robbers of the poor, whatever country they were from” (p.262).

          Merridale submits that Germany most likely gambled that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were unlikely to achieve power on a long-term basis but could stir up useful “inconclusive civil chaos” (p.56) in the short term to further destabilize and weaken Russia. The Germans seemed to recognize that fomenting revolution was a dangerous idea, given that Germany had its own socialist revolutionaries at home. Lenin in any event arrived in Petrograd amidst the rumors of treachery and treason.

          Most socialists and many revolutionaries at that time, including some members of Lenin’s own Bolshevik party, regarded cooperation with the Provisional Government and bourgeois forces as necessary, at least on an interim basis. Lenin, however, never wavered in his categorical rejection of any compromise, coalition, or cooperation with the Provisional Government or any of the reform elements in Russia. Waiting for the bourgeoisie to turn into a revolutionary force was in Lenin’s view pointless.  The bourgeoisie was inalterably “bent on the defense of property, profit, and caste” (p.227).   Collusion with the Provisional Government would be the “death of socialism” (p.223).

            Scorning the Provisional Government, Lenin saw the key to revolution and subsequent governance of the country in a network of workers’ councils, known as “soviets,” led by the Petrograd Soviet. He rejected the conventional view that the Petrograd Soviet and its counterparts in provincial cities were simply workers’ educational councils designed not to compete with the Provisional Government for power. The soviet system which Lenin envisioned would not be a parliamentary republic, Lenin told his supporters, but rather a “Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom” (p.228). To defend against counter-revolutionary insurgencies, the new revolutionary state would need to be governed by what Lenin termed, in perhaps his most enduring phrase, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.195).

       Lenin further distinguished himself from other revolutionaries and reformers with his uncompromising stance on Russia’s unpopular war. By the time of his return to Petrograd, Russia had sustained nearly 5 million causalities, killed, missing or wounded, a far higher rate than any other belligerent. By some estimates, an additional 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. Arguments about the war had foiled all attempts at unity among the many anti-Tsarist factions. From the war’s outbreak in 1914, a major Russian objective had been to wrestle Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, away from the dying Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aspiration for control of Constantinople’s shipping lanes along the Bosporus and Dardanelles survived the Tsar’s abdication.

        Many in the Provisional Government saw the quest for Constantinople as reason enough to remain in the war. Others on the left believed that a more modern, democratic Russia could deliver a quick deathblow to the Kaiser and German imperialism, especially with the United States now fighting alongside Russia and its Western allies.  Russia could then join with revolutionary elements in Germany in establishing a socialism that transcended national boundaries, a position sometimes termed “revolutionary defencism.”

      Lenin would have none of this.  He rejected even the slightest concession to proponents of “revolutionary defencism.” The present conflict, Lenin reminded his followers, “unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war” (p.227).  Bourgeois elements, he argued, “could never give up on war because their future was bound to it” (p.224). Lenin was no pacifist, however. Cessation of the capitalist and imperialist war among the great powers must be followed by transnational class warfare against capitalism itself.  Lenin forced these ideas upon his party, and in November 1917 forced them upon the country after he and his Bolshevik cohorts had ousted the Provisional Government in an armed insurgency.

* * *

        Although not detailing the events of the November 1917 insurgency, Merridale argues that Lenin succeeded in that fateful month because he had worn down his opposition by the “force of his conviction.  While others talked and traded exquisite concessions, picking their way along the path of revolution as if they were avoiding mines, Lenin knew where he wanted to go and he knew exactly why.  His energy was prodigious, and he wrote and argued tirelessly, repeating the same themes until his opponents wearied of concocting new rebuttals” (p.230).  Merridale’s book is neither a biography of Lenin nor a comprehensive account of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; there are plenty of works available on both subjects, including several that have come out during this centennial year of the 1917 Revolution.  But hers is an ideal choice for readers whose goal is to understand what drove Lenin, literally and figuratively, to reorder the course of history.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 6, 2017

 

7 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History, Russian History

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

* * *

          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

Why Isn’t Russia More Like Us?

Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?

How the World Entered a New Cold War 

             In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x).  Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?”  Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia.  Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here.  But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.

            Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers.  His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration.  He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state.  With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book.  But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

          Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold.  Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

      Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.

         During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one.   Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341).  The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).

         By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy.  It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235).  The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236).  Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).

* * *

            Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991.  He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20).  The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).

           The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet.  Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).

           Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47).  Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.

          In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy.  Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill.   More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella.  NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64).   “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”

            In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately.  Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term.  Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement.  Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy.  Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin,  was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).

            As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg.   The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them.  Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).

* * *

            In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression.  There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime.  The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech.  He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.”  Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)

            Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33).  Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).

           American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions”  – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173).  Georgians and Ukrainians had:

provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).

Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).

            Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president.  Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid.  But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister.  The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.

            Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012.  During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234).  After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).

            The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.

          Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp.  He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).

         If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234).  Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).

            Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where  plots and conspiracies against Russia abound.  Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).

* * *

            Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014).   The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp.  Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, History, Russian History

World War Warm-Up

 

Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts:

Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 

 

            In the 1930s, at a time when authoritarian right-wing dictatorships and military rulers appeared to be on the rise across Europe — not only in Germany and Italy, but also in Portugal, Poland, Greece, Romania and Hungary — Spain embarked upon a different course. In 1931, its monarchy yielded to a Republican form of government, with a democratic constitution and an elected parliament.  Five years later, in February 1936, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won a parliamentary majority and promised far-reaching reforms. Spain was then arguably Western Europe’s most backward country, with industrialization lagging behind other Western European nations, large landowners dominating the rural economy, and the Catholic Church controlling the country’s social and cultural life.

            To major segments of Spanish society – especially the military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church — democracy itself was profoundly threatening and the Popular Front appeared bent on leading Spain directly to its own version of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When a coup against the Republican government and its democratic institutions commenced on July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco, who had been reassigned by the Popular Front to a distant military outpost on the Canary Islands, quickly assumed leadership. The Spanish Civil War, now considered a warm-up for World War II, ensued.

        In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, Adam Hochschild explores what he terms the “fiercest conflict in Europe since World War I, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then” (p.xiv). He recounts the conflict in large measure from the perspective of the approximately 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain, 750 of whom died, a “far higher death rate than the US military suffered in any of its twentieth-century wars” (p.xiv).  The Spanish Civil War was the “only time so many Americans joined someone else’s civil war – and they did so even though their own government made strenuous efforts to stop them” (p.xx).

          Two of Europe’s most ruthless dictators, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, supported Franco and the three year assault on Spain’s democratic institutions.  But the Republican side received substantial support from the Soviet Union and its no less ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin.  With Great Britain, France and the United States officially neutral throughout most of the conflict, the Soviet Union was the only major power willing to sell arms and ammunition to the Republican side.

          To the Americans arriving in Spain, the Soviet Union appeared to represent modernization and international solidarity across national lines, a beacon of hope not only because it was the only major nation taking a stand against fascism, which they saw as the “most dangerous development on the planet” (p.22); but also because the Soviet Union seemed better equipped to resist the economic crisis that was extending its grip across the globe in the 1930s. But the Americans discovered that the Soviet Union was more interested in doctrinal purity and purging its ranks of communist heretics, especially those loyal to Stalin’s archrival Leon Trotsky, than in advancing the democratic principles that the Republic stood for.  In addition to communists and socialists of all stripes, the Republican side drew support from urban liberals and secularists, trade unionists, rural farm workers, anarchists and a motley collection of fringe groups.

            Hochschild tells this intricate story through individual lives and personal portraits.  Assiduous readers of this blog will recall To End All Wars, reviewed here in October 2014, in which Hochschild detailed Great Britain’s participation in World War I through personal stories of leading opponents of the war and political and military leaders prosecuting the war. Here, too, he weaves the stories of individual American and international volunteers into a broader narrative of the three-year civil war. The personal portraits in Hochschild’s account of Britain during World War I were nearly equally balanced between war supporters and opponents. Here, the personalities are mostly on the Republican side, although we also meet a few individuals who assisted the Nationalists.

                 The dominant American in Hochschild’s narrative is Bob Merriman, a lanky economist from Nevada who seemed to be heading toward a successful academic career in Berkeley, California, when he decided to leave Berkeley for a two-year tour in the Soviet Union and, from there, traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side.  Once in Spain, Merriman rose quickly to become the charismatic chief of staff of what came to be known informally as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the unit to which most of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers belonged. We experience the main battles of the war primarily through Merriman, up until April 1938, when he disappeared in battle. Hochschild also introduces a host of other Americans who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause. Numerous journalists and literary figures add vitality and specificity to Hochschild’s overall picture of the war. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are central characters in the story. Antoine St. Exuprey, André Malraux and John Dos Passos make short appearances.   Hochschild’s title “Spain in Our Hearts” is from the pen of Albert Camus.

* * *

              Franco’s military rebels called themselves Nacionales, which in Spanish is stronger than “nationalist” in English, suggesting that the rebels represented “the only true Spaniards” (p.27). Hochschild characterizes the Nationalist cause as a “war of earlier centuries against modernity, of traditional Catholicism against the secular world, of an ancient rural order against urban, industrial culture” (p.69). Franco’s aim was to “restore the glories of age-old Spain and the key pillars of a highly authoritarian state: the army, the Church, the big estates, and the overseas Spanish empire that had once spanned continents . . . There would be no elections, no independent trade unions, no democratic trappings of any sort” (p.69).

            The Nationalist military forces counted among their ranks the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion, along with large numbers of North African Arab or Berber recruits, which together “formed the core of the Nationalist army” (p.98).  Termed “Moors,” the Arab and Berber recruits were led by Spanish officers who told them that they would be “fighting against infidels and Jews who wanted to abolish Allah.” The recruits thus fought alongside Spanish militiamen whose war cry was “Long Live Christ the King” (p.29). Spain’s Catholic hierarchy, the “most reactionary in Europe,” embraced Franco and the Nationalist cause “wholeheartedly, and were rewarded in turn” (p.69). In regions that came under Nationalist control, Republican reforms, including a law permitting divorce, were reversed. “Textbooks were purged of anything deemed contrary to Christian morality, and all teachers were ordered to lead their children daily in praying to the Virgin Mary for a Nationalist victory” (p.69).

            On the diverse but faction-riddled Republican side, Hochschild highlights the role which Spanish anarchists played.  Adherents of a creed that thrived in Spain, anarchists believed in “commnismo libertario, libertarian or stateless communism. The police, courts, money, taxes, political parties, the Catholic Church, and private property would all be done away with. Communities and workplaces would be run directly by the people in them, free at last to exercise a natural human instinct for mutual aid that, anarchists fervently believed, exists in us all . . . Anarchism was really a preindustrial ideology, and exactly how its vision was to be realized in a complex modern economy remained hazy at best” (p.42).

            Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War seemed to some the concrete realization of the anarchist vision. It is hard to find an example, before or since, Hochschild argues, “where so many ideas normally considered utopian were put into practice on a scale affecting millions of people” (p.214). Workers’ collectives ruled the city. Large mansions were seized and turned into homeless shelters, a liqueur distillery became a hospital, and a monastery became a children’s TB sanitarium.  Pawn shops were forced to give objects back to poorer citizens. Throughout the city, anarchist flags “hung from balconies or ropes strung across streets. They also fluttered from small poles fastened to automobiles and were painted on every imaginable surface. . . from subway cars to shoeshine boxes” (p.51). Barcelona thus “turned the normal social order on its head,” (p.61), drawing independent-minded leftists from all over the world.

            Some 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries, divided into five international brigades, provided support to the Republican army, itself an “ill-trained hodgepodge of militia units loyal to different political parties and trade unions” (p.148). The 2,800 American volunteers who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from 46 different states, and included “rich and poor, Ivy League graduates, and men who had ridden freight trains in search of work” (p.xx). About half were Jewish and about one-third came from the New York City area. There were 90 African-American volunteers. The Abraham Lincoln brigade also included a Native American member of the Sioux tribe; two FBI fingerprint experts; a vaudeville acrobat; a rabbi; and a Jewish poet from New Orleans.

            Their de facto leader, Bob Merriman was, according to one report, the “backbone and moving spirit” of the Lincoln brigade, “filled with initiative, overflowing with energy . . . unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade” (p.247). A member of the brigade described Merriam as “universally liked and respected . . . one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance” (p.111). Yet, Merriman maintained what to Hochschild was a puzzling, even obstinate, loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union throughout the Spanish conflict. Merriman disappeared in a battle near the town of Corbera, six miles west of the Ebro River, in April 1938. There is much speculation, but still no definitive answer, as to the details of Merriman’s disappearance.

          Ernest Hemmingway, already a celebrity author, was a war correspondent during the war, and his “notorious strut and bluster” (p.xv) are on full display throughout Hochschild’s narrative. Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, often considered his greatest work, was published in 1940 and is drawn directly from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Eric Blair, writing under the name George Orwell, actually fought and was injured in the war. His memoir Hommage to Catalonia constitutes one of the most significant contemporaneous records of the conflict. Both Hemmingway and Orwell passionately supported the Republican cause, but they portrayed the cause differently, Hochschild notes. Orwell’s Hommage described a “faction-ridden Republic . . . a picture far different from what its government wanted to present to the world” (p.362). Hemmingway, by contrast, said nothing in his wartime dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image, saving his most acidic and searing insights for novels and short stories published after the war.

           Many other journalists figure prominently in Hochschild’s account. Famed New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews became a passionate supporter of the Republican side. Matthews fought his own civil war at the Times with his colleague William Carney, who wrote from Spain as an open Franco enthusiast.  Louis Fischer, an ardent communist as a young man who contributed to the 1949 anti-communist tract The God that Failed, abandoned journalism altogether to become an advisor to the Republican side. Socialite journalist Virginia Cowles, more realist than Hemmingway or Matthews, revealed the “spirit of revenge” (p.203) and summary executions that permeated the Nationalist side, and was among the first to depict the Republican cause as doomed.  Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemmingway wife number three (of four), accompanied Hemmingway throughout much of the war.

          Among the small number of internationals who aided the Nationalists, the most colorful is Torkild Rieber of Texaco Oil, a “swashbuckling American oilman with a penchant for right-wing dictators” (p.xvi).  Texaco was close to being the official supplier of oil to the Nationalist cause — on credit, often with free shipping, and probably in violation of United States law. A “grateful Franco continued to buy Texaco oil long after the war, and later made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella, the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honors . . . A few years later the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry went further. ‘Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits . . . we could never have won the civil war’” (p.343).

         Hochschild unsparingly recounts the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, while giving the Nationalists a decisive edge for brutality. The Nationalist carpet bombing of the Basque town Guernica, which inspired the war’s best known work of art by Pablo Picasso, “represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air,” with a “powerful impact on a world that had not yet seen the London blitz or the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima” (p.177).   One of the reasons that the bombing of Guernica inspired such worldwide outrage was that Franco and the Catholic Church first vigorously denied that it had ever taken place, then claimed that Guernica had been burned to the ground by retreating Republican troops.

            The Nationalist ferocity “knew no bounds” toward female supporters of the Republic. Rapes were standard and, “playing on centuries of racial feeling that was shared across the political spectrum, Nationalist officers deliberately compounded the terror by choosing Moorish troops to do the raping” (p.39). The treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was ruthless. But the Republicans generally spared Nationalist enlisted men, “considered either deluded by propaganda or forced to fight against their will” (p.241), whereas the Nationalists routinely shot captured soldiers at all levels, targeting internationals in particular: 173 of the 287 Americans taken prisoner were killed.

            More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war, most during the first four months. By contrast, some 150,000 civilians were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war. By the end of 1936, the Republican government had largely succeeded in bringing civilian deaths to a halt. But such deaths included many clergy members and attracted the attention of the conservative American press, doing great damage to the Republican chances of gaining assistance from abroad. When a British special envoy encouraged both sides in Spain to suspend summary executions, the Republic readily agreed. Nationalist Spain, “where the number of political prisoners facing the death sentence ran into the thousands, refused to do likewise” (p.339).

            The story of the Spanish Civil War must be told against the backdrop of a Europe in 1936-39 lurching toward continent-wide war. After the September 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France ceded the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco “knew that the path to victory was clear. Previously, Hitler had been in no great hurry for the Spanish war to end, since it distracted Western attention from his ambitions in the east. But with Munich behind him, he sent the Nationalists a massive new wave of arms and supplies” (p.338). For his part, Stalin after Munich “began to lose interest in the war. . . [and] gradually withdrew most of the Russian and Eastern European officers he had lent to the Republic’s military and, for good measure, he continued to order many of them executed” (p.331).

            A few weeks after Munich, the Republican government announced that its was removing all international support, in the forlorn hope that Great Britain and France might insist that Franco do the same with the German and Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side. The departure of the International Brigades, Hochschild writes, “marked the end of an almost unparalleled moment. Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in” (p.337).

            Britain and France formally recognized Nationalist Spain on February 27, 1939, while combat continued.  By March 31, 1939, the Nationalists occupied all of Spain, and the fighting was over. The outcome, Orwell wrote, was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” (p.362) – and he could have added Washington to the list, Hochschild notes. In Orwell’s succinct phrasing, the Nationalists won “because they were stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t” (p.362). Hochschild speculates, as many have before him, that greater assistance from the Western powers might have tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor.

            Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance. If, during the war, Nationalist supporters in a particular town or village had been killed or had their property confiscated, “people from that town were executed in retaliation, whether or not they had had anything to do with the original events. If the regime couldn’t lay its hands on someone, his family paid the price. . . At every level of society, Franco aimed to rid Spain of what he considered alien influences” (p.344).  Franco remained in power 36 years after the cessation of hostilities, up until his death in 1975.

* * *

          Hochschild acknowledges that the Second World War has largely eclipsed the Spanish Civil War in our collective memory today.  But by presenting the three-year assault on democratic institutions in Spain through the lens of participating American and international volunteers, Hochschild captures the flavor of a conflict that, as he aptly puts it, was seen at the time as a “world war in embryo” (p.xv).

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky

August 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Using Space to Achieve Control

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 

            In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”

            The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).

          Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii).  It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city.  .  . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs.  But Duneier’s  story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.

* * *

            In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy.  Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8).  After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).

          This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory.  “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish.  Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula.  In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).

          Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos.  The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).

      In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.

          But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).

* * *

       The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.

       Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.”  Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America.  Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived.  But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality.  Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.

        Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.  

         Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North.  The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality.  For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.

         Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).

            Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing  “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”

       For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114).  More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning.  In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.

            Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s.  In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.”  In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).

        Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.  Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities.  For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).

         Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth.  Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration.  As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).

        Two white theorists,  Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women.  Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.

         In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).

* * *

         Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work.  But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves.  Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.

          Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D. C.

July 27, 2017

 

 

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Filed under American Society, European History, United States History

Portrait of a President Living on Borrowed Time

Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle:

The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt 

            During the last year and a half of his life, from mid-October 1943 to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential plate was full, even overflowing. He was grappling with winning history’s most devastating  war and structuring a lasting peace for the post-war global order, all the while tending to multiple domestic political demands. But Roosevelt spent much of this time out of public view in semi-convalescence, often in locations outside Washington, with limited contact with the outside world. Those who met the president, however, noticed a striking weight loss and described him with words like “listless,” “weary,” and “easily distracted.” We now know that Roosevelt had life-threatening high blood pressure, termed malignant hypertension, making him susceptible to a stroke or coronary attack at any moment. Roosevelt’s declining health was carefully shielded from the public and only rarely discussed directly, even within his inner circle. At the time, probably not more than a handful of doctors were aware of the full gravity of Roosevelt’s physical condition, and it is an open question whether Roosevelt himself was aware.

In His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, seeks to shed light upon, if not answer, this open question. Lelyveld suggests that the president likely was more aware than he let on of the implications of his declining physical condition. In a resourceful portrait of America’s longest serving president during his final year and a half, Lelyveld considers Roosevelt’s political activities against the backdrop of his health. The story is bookended by Roosevelt’s meetings to negotiate the post-war order with fellow wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in Teheran in December 1943 and at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. Between the two meetings came Roosevelt’s 1944 decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term, a decision he reached just weeks prior to the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the ensuing campaign.

Lelyveld’s portrait of a president living on borrowed time emerges from an excruciatingly thin written record of Roosevelt’s medical condition. Roosevelt’s medical file disappeared without explanation from a safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital shortly after his death.   Unable to consider Roosevelt’s actual medical records, Lelyveld draws clues  concerning his physical condition from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, discovered after Suckley’s death in 1991 at age 100, and made public in 1995. The slim written record on Roosevelt’s medical condition limits Lelyveld’s ability to tease out conclusions on the extent to which that condition may have undermined his job performance in his final months.

* * *

            Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of Roosevelt, was a constant presence in the president’s life in his final years and a keen observer of his physical condition. During Roosevelt’s last months, the “worshipful” (p.3) and “singularly undemanding” Suckley had become what Lelyveld terms the “Boswell of [Roosevelt’s] rambling ruminations,” secretly recording in an “uncritical, disjointed way the hopes and daydreams” that occupied the frequently inscrutable president (p.75). By 1944, Lelyfeld notes, there was “scarcely a page in Daisy’s diary without some allusion to how the president looks or feels” (p.77).   Lelyveld relies heavily upon the Suckley diary out of necessity, given the disappearance of Roosevelt’s actual medical records after his death.

Lelyveld attributes the disappearance to Admiral Ross McIntire, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist who served both as Roosevelt’s personal physician and Surgeon General of the Navy. In the latter capacity, McIntire oversaw a wartime staff of 175,000 doctors, nurses and orderlies at 330 hospitals and medical stations around the world. Earlier in his career, Roosevelt’s press secretary had upbraided McIntire for allowing the president to be photographed in his wheel chair. From that point forward, McIntire understood that a major component of his job was to conceal Roosevelt’s physical infirmities and protect and promote a vigorously healthy public image of the president. The “resolutely upbeat” (p.212) McIntire, a master of “soothing, well-practiced bromides” (p.226), thus assumes a role in Lelyveld’s account which seems as much “spin doctor” as actual doctor. His most frequent message for the public was that the president was in “robust health” (p.22), in the process of “getting over” a wide range of lesser ailments such as a heavy cold, flu, or bronchitis.

A key turning point in Lelyveld’s story occurred in mid-March 1944, 13 months prior to Roosevelt’s death, when the president’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger confronted McIntire and demanded to know more about what was wrong with her father. McIntire doled out his “standard bromides, but this time they didn’t go down” (p.23). Anna later said that she “didn’t think McIntire was an internist who really knew what he was talking about” (p.93). In response, however, McIntire brought in Dr. Howard Bruenn, the Navy’s top cardiologist. Evidently, Lelyveld writes, McIntire had “known all along where the problem was to be found” (p.23). Breunn was apparently the first cardiologist to have examined Roosevelt.

McIntire promised to have Roosevelt’s medical records delivered to Bruenn prior to his initial examination of the president, but failed to do so, an “extraordinary lapse” (p.98) which Lelyveld regards as additional evidence that McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of those records after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Breunn found that Roosevelt was suffering from “acute congestive heart failure” (p.98). He recommended that the wartime president avoid “irritation,” severely cut back his work hours, rest more, and reduce his smoking habit, then a daily pack and a half of Camel’s cigarettes. In the midst of the country’s struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, its leader was told that he “needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller” (p.99), Lelyveld wryly notes.  Dr. Bruenn saw the president regularly from that point onward, traveling with him to Yalta in February 1945 and to Warm Springs in April of that year.

Ten days after Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis, Roosevelt told a newspaper columnist, “I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified . . . I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do” (p.103). The president, Lelyveld concludes, “seems to have processed the admonition of the physicians – however it was delivered, bluntly or softly – and to be well on the way to convincing himself that if he could survive in his office by limiting his daily expenditure of energy, it was his duty to do so” (p.103).

At that time, Roosevelt had not indicated publicly whether he wished to seek a 4th precedential term and had not discussed this question with any of his advisors. Moreover, with the “most destructive military struggle in history approaching its climax, there was no one in the White House, or his party, or the whole of political Washington, who dared stand before him in the early months of 1944 and ask face-to-face for a clear answer to the question of whether he could contemplate stepping down” (p.3). The hard if unspoken political truth was that Roosevelt was the Democratic party’s only hope to retain the White House. There was no viable successor in the party’s ranks. But his re-election was far from assured, and public airing of concerns about his health would be unhelpful to say the least in his  re-election bid. Roosevelt did not make his actual decision to run until just weeks before the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the convention, Roosevelt’s then vice-president, Henry Wallace, and his counselors Harry Hopkins, and Jimmy Byrnes jockeyed for the vice-presidential nomination, along with William Douglas, already a Supreme Court justice at age 45. There’s no indication that Senator Harry S. Truman actively sought to be Roosevelt’s running mate. Lelyveld writes that it is tribute to FDR’s “wiliness” that the notion has persisted over the years that he was “only fleetingly engaged in the selection” of his 1944 vice-president and that he was “simply oblivious when it came to the larger question of succession” (p.172). To the contrary, although he may not have used the used the word “succession” in connection with his vice-presidential choice, Roosevelt “cared enough about qualifications for the presidency to eliminate Wallace as a possibility and keep Byrnes’s hopes alive to the last moment, when, for the sake of party unity, he returned to Harry Truman as the safe choice” (p.172-73).

Having settled upon Truman as his running mate, Roosevelt indicated that he did not want to campaign as usual because the war was too important. But campaign he did, and Lelyveld shows how hard he campaigned – and how hard it was for him given his deteriorating health, which aggravated his mobility problems. The outcome was in doubt up until Election Day, but Roosevelt was resoundingly reelected to a fourth presidential term. The president could then turn his full attention to the war effort, focusing both upon how the war would be won and how the peace would be structured. Roosevelt’s foremost priority was structuring the peace; the details on winning the war were largely left to his staff and to the military commanders in the field.

Roosevelt badly wanted to avoid the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson had made after World War I. He was putting together the pieces of an organization already referred to as the United Nations and fervently sought  the participation and support of his war ally, the Soviet Union. He also wanted Soviet support for the war against Japan in the Pacific after the Nazi surrender, and for an independent and democratic Poland. In pursuit of these objectives, Roosevelt agreed to travel over 10,000 arduous miles to Yalta, to meet in February 1945 with Stalin and Churchill.

In Roosevelt’s mind, Stalin  was by then both the key to victory on the battlefield and for a lasting peace afterwards — and he was, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “get-at-able” (p.28) with the right doses of the legendary Roosevelt charm.   Roosevelt had begun his serious courtship of the Soviet leader at their first meeting in Teheran in December 1943.  His fixation on Stalin, “crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy” (p.28), continued at Yalta. Lelyveld’s treatment of Roosevelt at Yalta covers similar ground to that in Michael Dobbs’ Six Months That Shook the World, reviewed here in April 2015. In Lelyveld’s account, as in that of Dobbs, a mentally and physical exhausted Roosevelt at Yalta ignored the briefing books his staff prepared for him and relied instead upon improvisation and his political instincts, fully confident that he could win over Stalin by force of personality.

According to cardiologist Bruenn’s memoir, published a quarter of a century later, early in the conference Roosevelt showed worrying signs of oxygen deficiency in his blood. His habitually high blood pressure readings revealed a dangerous condition, pulsus alternans, in which every second heartbeat was weaker than the preceding one, a “warning signal from an overworked heart” (p.270).   Dr. Bruenn ordered Roosevelt to curtail his activities in the midst of the conference. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote that Roosevelt had “all the symptoms of hardening of arteries in the brain” during the conference and gave the president “only a few months to live” (p.270-71). Churchill himself commented that his wartime ally “really was a pale reflection almost throughout” (p.270) the Yalta conference.

Yet, Roosevelt recovered sufficiently to return home from the conference and address Congress and the public on its results, plausibly claiming victory. The Soviet Union had agreed to participate in the United Nations and in the war in Asia, and to hold what could be construed as free elections in Poland. Had he lived longer, Roosevelt would have seen that Stalin delivered as promised on the Asian war. The Soviet Union also became a member of the United Nations and maintained its membership in the organization until its dissolution in 1991, but was rarely if ever the partner Roosevelt envisioned in keeping world peace. The possibility of a democratic Poland, “by far the knottiest and most time-consuming issue Roosevelt confronted at Yalta” (p.285), was by contrast slipping away even before Roosevelt’s death.

At one point in his remaining weeks, Roosevelt exclaimed, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” on Poland (p.304; Dobbs includes the same quotation, adding that Roosevelt thumped on his wheelchair at the time of this outburst). But, like Dobbs, Lelyveld argues that even a more physically fit, fully focused and coldly realistic Roosevelt would likely have been unable to save Poland from Soviet clutches. When the allies met at Yalta, Stalin’s Red Army was in the process of consolidating military control over almost all of Polish territory.  If Roosevelt had been at the peak of vigor, Lelyveld concludes, the results on Poland “would have been much the same” (p.287).

Roosevelt was still trying to mend fences with Stalin on April 11, 1945, the day before his death in Warm Springs. Throughout the following morning, Roosevelt worked on matters of state: he received an update on the US military advances within Germany and even signed a bill, sustaining the Commodity Credit Corporation. Then, just before lunch Roosevelt collapsed. Dr. Bruenn arrived about 15 minutes later and diagnosed a hemorrhage in the brain, a stroke likely caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain or the rupture of an aneurysm. “Roosevelt was doomed from the instant he was stricken” (p.323).  Around midnight, Daisy Suckley recorded in her diary that the president had died at 3:35 pm that afternoon. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hope of the world, is dead,” (p.324), she wrote.

Daisy was one of several women present at Warm Springs to provide company to the president during his final visit. Another was Eleanor Roosevelt’s former Secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, by this time the primary Other Woman in the president’s life. Rutherford had driven down from South Carolina to be with the president, part of a recurring pattern in which Rutherford appeared in instances when wife Eleanor was absent, as if coordinated by a social secretary with the knowing consent of all concerned. But this orchestration broke down in Warm Springs in April 1945. After the president died, Rutherford had to flee in haste to make room for Eleanor. Still another woman in the president’s entourage, loquacious cousin Laura Delano, compounded Eleanor’s grief by letting her know that Rutherford had been in Warm Springs for the previous three days, adding gratuitously that Rutherford had also served as hostess at occasions at the White House when Eleanor was away. “Grief and bitter fury were folded tightly in a large knot” (p.325) for the former First Lady at Warm Springs.

Subsequently, Admiral McIntire asserted that Roosevelt had a “stout heart” and that his blood pressure was “not alarming at any time” (p.324-25), implying that the president’s death from a stroke had proven that McIntire had “always been right to downplay any suggestion that the president might have heart disease.” If not a flat-out falsehood, Lelyveld argues, McIntire’s assertion “at least raises the question of what it would have taken to alarm him” (p.325). Roosevelt’s medical file by this time had gone missing from the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, most likely removed by the Admiral because it would have revealed the “emptiness of the reassurances he’d fed the press and the public over the years, whenever questions arose about the president’s health” (p.325).

* * *

           Lelyveld declines to engage in what he terms an “argument without end” (p.92) on the degree to which Roosevelt’s deteriorating health impaired his job performance during his last months and final days. Rather, he  skillfully pieces together the limited historical record of Roosevelt’s medical condition to add new insights into the ailing but ever enigmatic president as he led his country nearly to the end of history’s most devastating war.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 28, 2017

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, History, United States History, World History

High Point of Modern International Economic Diplomacy

Ed Conway, The Summit: Bretton Woods 1944,

J.M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy 

               During the first three weeks of July 1944, as World War II raged on the far sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, 730 delegates from 44 countries gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Northern New Hampshire for what has come to be known as the Bretton Woods conference. The conference’s objective was audacious: create a new and more stable framework for the post-World War II monetary order, with the hope of avoiding future economic upheavals like the Great Depression of the 1930s.   To this end, the delegates reconsidered and in many cases rewrote some of the most basic rules of international finance and global capitalism, such as how money should flow between sovereign states, how exchange rates should interact, and how central banks should set interest rates. The conference took place at the venerable but aging Mount Washington Hotel, in an area informally known as Bretton Woods, not far from Mount Washington itself, Eastern United States’ highest peak.

In The Summit, Bretton Woods, 1944: J.M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, Ed Conway, formerly economics editor for Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and presently economics editor for Sky News, provides new and fascinating detail about the conference. The word “summit” in his title carries a triple sense: it refers to Mount Washington and to the term that came into use in the following decade for a meeting of international leaders. But Conway also contends that the Bretton Woods conference now appears to have been another sort of summit. The conference marked the “only time countries ever came together to remold the world’s monetary system” (p.xx).  It stands in history as the “very highest point of modern international economic diplomacy” (p.xxv).

Conway differentiates his work from others on Bretton Woods by focusing on the interactions among the delegates and the “sheer human drama” (p.xxii) of the event.  As the sub-title indicates, British economist John Maynard Keynes is forefront among these delegates. Conway could have added to his subtitle the lesser-known Harry Dexter White, Chief International Economist at the US Treasury Department and Deputy to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the head of the US delegation and formal president of the conference.  White’s name in the subtitle would have underscored that this book is a story about  the relationship between the two men who assumed de facto leadership of the conference. But the book is also a story about the uneasy relationship at Bretton Woods between the United States and the United Kingdom, the conference’s two lead delegations.

Although allies in the fight against Nazi Germany, the two countries were far from allies at Bretton Woods.  Great Britain, one of the world’s most indebted nations, came to the conference unable to pay for its own defense in the war against Nazi Germany and unable to protect and preserve its vast worldwide empire.  It was utterly outmatched at Bretton Woods by an already dominant United States, its principal creditor, which had little interest in providing debt relief to Britain or helping it maintain an empire. Even the force of Keynes’ dominating personality was insufficient to give Britain much more than a supplicant’s role at Bretton Woods.

Conway’s book also constitutes a useful and understandable historical overview of the international monetary order from pre-World War I days up to Bretton Woods and beyond.  The overview revolves around the gold standard as a basis for international currency exchanges and attempts over the years to find workable alternatives. Bretton Woods produced such an alternative, a standard pegged to the United States dollar — which, paradoxically, was itself tied to the price of gold.  Bretton Woods also produced two key institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now known as the World Bank, designed to provide stability to the new economic order. But the Bretton Woods dollar standard remained in effect only until 1971, when US President Richard Nixon severed by presidential fiat the link between the dollar and gold, allowing currency values to float, as they had done in the 1930s.  In Conway’s view, the demise of Bretton Woods is to be regretted.

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          Keynes was a legendary figure when he arrived at Bretton Woods in July 1944, a “genuine international celebrity, the only household name at Bretton Woods” (p.xv). Educated at Kings College, Cambridge, a member of the faculty of that august institution, and a peer in Britain’s House of Lords, Keynes was also a highly skilled writer and journalist, as well as a fearsome debater.  As a young man, he  established his reputation  with a famous critique of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a tract that predicted with eerie accuracy the breakdown of the financial order that the post World War I treaty envisioned, based upon imposition of punitive reparations upon Germany. Although Keynes dazzled fellow delegates at Bretton Woods with his rhetorical brilliance, he was given to outlandish and provocative statements that hardly helped the bonhomie of the conference.   He suffered a heart attack toward the end of the conference and died less than two years later.

White was a contrast to Keynes in just about every way. He came from a modest first generation Jewish immigrant family from Boston and had to scramble for his education. Unusual for the time, in his 30s White earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford after having spent the better portion of a decade as a social worker. White had a dour personality, with none of Keynes’ flamboyance. Then there were the physical differences.   Keynes stood about six feet six inches tall (approximately 2.0 meters), whereas White was at least a foot smaller (approximately 1.7 meters). But if Keynes was the marquee star of the Bretton Woods because of his personality and reputation, White was its driving force because he represented the United States, undisputedly the conference’s driving force.

By the time of the Bretton Woods conference, however, White was also unduly familiar with Russian intelligence services. Although Conway hesitates to slap the “spy” label on him, there is little doubt that White provided a hefty amount of information to the Soviets, both at the conference and outside its confines. Of course, much of the “information sharing” took place during World War II, when the Soviet Union was allied with Britain and the United States in the fight against Nazi Germany and such sharing was seen in a different light than in the subsequent Cold War era.  One possibility, Conway speculates, was that White was “merely carrying out his own, personal form of diplomacy – unaware that the Soviets were construing this as espionage” (p.159; the Soviet Union attended the conference but did not join the international mechanisms which the conference established).

The reality, Conway concludes, is that we will “never know for certain whether White knowingly betrayed his country by passing information to the Soviets” (p.362).   Critically, there is “no evidence that White’s Soviet activities undermined the Bretton Woods agreement itself” (p.163;). White died in 1948, four years after the conference, and the FBI’s case against him became moot. From that point onward, the question whether White was a spy for the Soviet Union became one almost exclusively for historians, a question that today remains unresolved (ironically, after White’s death, young Congressman Richard Nixon remained just about the only public official still interested in White’s case; when Nixon became president two decades later, he terminated the Bretton Woods financial standards White had helped create).

The conference itself begins at about the book’s halfway point. Prior to his account of its deliberations, Conway shows how the gold standard operated and the search for workable alternatives. In the period up to World War I, the world’s powers guaranteed that they could redeem their currency for its value in gold. The World War I belligerents went off the gold standard so they could print the currency needed to pay for their war costs, causing hyperinflation, as the supply of money overwhelmed the demand.  In the 1920s, countries gradually resorted back to the gold standard.

But the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing depression prompted countries to again abandon the gold standard. In the 1930s, what Conway terms a “gold exchange standard” prevailed, in which governments undertook competitive devaluations of their currency. President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, used a “primitive scheme” to set the dollar “where he wanted it – which meant as low against the [British] pound as possible” (p.83).  The competitive devaluations and floating rates of the 1930s led to restrictive trade policies, discouraged trade and investment, and encouraged destabilizing speculation, all of which many economists linked to the devastating war that broke out across the globe at the end of the decade.

Bretton Woods sought to eliminate these disruptions for the post-war world by crafting an international monetary system based upon cooperation among the world’s sovereign states. The conference was preceded by nearly two years of negotiations between the Treasury Departments of Great Britain and the United States — essentially exchanges between Keynes and White, each with a plan on how a new international monetary order should operate. Both were “determined to use the conference to safeguard their own economies” (p.18). Keynes wanted to protect not only the British Empire but also London’s place as the center of international finance. White saw little need to protect the empire and foresaw New York as the world’s new economic hub.  He also wanted to locate the two institutions that Bretton Woods would create, the IMF and World Bank, in the United States, whereas Keynes hoped that at least one would be located either in Britain or on the European continent. White and the Americans would win on these and almost all other points of difference.

But Keynes and White shared a broad general vision that Bretton Woods should produce a system designed to do away with the worst effects of both the gold standard and the interwar years of instability and depression.   There needed to be something in between the rigidity associated with the gold standard on the one hand and free-floating currencies, which were “associated with dangerous flows of ‘hot money’ and inescapable lurches in exchange rates” (p.124), on the other. To White and the American delegation, “Bretton Woods needed to look as similar as possible to the gold standard: politicians’ hands should be tied to prevent them from inflating away their debts. It was essential to avoid the threat of the competitive devaluations that had wreaked such havoc in the 1930s” (p.171).  For Keynes and his colleagues, “Bretton Woods should be about ensuring stable world trade – without the rigidity of the gold standard” (p.171).

The British and American delegations met in Atlantic City in June 1944 in an attempt to narrow their differences before travelling to Northern New Hampshire, where the floor would be opened to the conference’s additional delegations.  Much of what happened at Bretton Woods was confined to the business pages of the newspapers, with attention focused on the war effort and President Roosevelt’s re-election bid for a fourth presidential term.  This suited White, who “wanted the conference to look as uncontroversial, technical and boring as possible” (p.203).  The conference was split into three main parts. White chaired Commission I, dealing with the IMF, while Keynes chaired Commission II, whose focus was the World Bank.  Each commission divided into multiple committees and sub-committees.  Commission III, whose formal title was “Other Means of International Cooperation,” was in Conway’s view essentially a “toxic waste dump into which White and Keynes could jettison some of the summit’s trickier issues” (p.216).

The core principle to emerge from the Bretton Woods deliberations was that the world’s currencies, rather than being tied directly to gold or allowed to float, would be pegged to the US dollar which, in turn, was tied to gold at a value of $35 per ounce. Keynes and White anticipated that fixing currencies against the dollar would ensure that:

international trade was protected for exchange rate risk. Nations would determine their own interest rates for purely domestic economic reasons, whereas under the gold standard, rates had been set primarily in order to keep the country’s gold stocks at an acceptable level. Countries would be allowed to devalue their currency if they became uncompetitive – but they would have to notify the International Monetary Fund in advance: this element of international co-ordination was intended to guard against a repeat of the 1930s spiral of competitive devaluation (p.369).

 

The IMF’s primary purpose under the Bretton Woods framework was to provide relief in balance of payments crises such as those of the 1930s, when countries in deficit were unable to borrow and exporting countries failed to find markets for their goods. “Rather than leaving the market to its own devices – the laissez-faire strategy discredited in the Depression – the Fund would be able to step in and lend countries money, crucially in whichever currency they most needed. So as to avoid the threat of competitive devaluations, the Fund would also arbitrate whether a country could devalue its exchange rate” (p.169).

One of the most sensitive issues in structuring the IMF involved the contributions that each country was required to pay into the Fund, termed “quotas.” When short of reserves, each member state would be entitled to borrow needed foreign currency in amounts determined by the size of its quota.  Most countries wanted to contribute more rather than less, both as a matter of national pride and as a means to gain future leverage with the Fund. Heated quota battles ensued “both publicly in the conference rooms and privately in the hotel corridors, until the very end of the proceedings” (p.222-23), with the United States ultimately determining quota amounts according to a process most delegations considered opaque and secretive.

The World Bank, almost an afterthought at the conference, was to have the power to finance reconstruction in Europe and elsewhere after the war.  But the Marshall Plan, an “extraordinary program of aid devoted to shoring up Europe’s economy” (p.357), upended Bretton Woods’ visions for both institutions for nearly a decade.  It was the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the post-war years, not the IMF or the World Bank. The Fund’s main role in its initial years, Conway notes, was to funnel money to member countries “as a stop-gap before their Marshall Plan aid arrived” (p.357),

When Harry Truman became President in April 1945 after Roosevelt’s death, he replaced Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, White’s boss, with future Supreme Court justice Fred Vinson. Never a fan of White, Vinson diminished his role at Treasury and White left the department in 1947. He died the following year, in August 1948 at age 55.  Although the August 1945 change in British Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to Clement Atlee did not undermine Keynes to the same extent, his deteriorating health diminished his role after Bretton Woods as well. Keynes died in April 1946 at age 62, shortly after returning to Britain from the inaugural IMF meeting in Savannah, Georgia, his last encounter with White.

Throughout the 1950s, the US dollar assumed a “new degree of hegemony,” becoming “formally equivalent to gold. So when they sought to bolster their foreign exchange reserves to protect them from future crises, foreign governments built up large reserves of dollars” (p.374). But with more dollars in the world economy, the United States found it increasingly difficult to convert them back into gold at the official exchange rate of $35 per ounce.  When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, the United States held $10.5 billion in gold, but foreign governments had $40 billion in dollar reserves, and foreign investors and corporations held another $30 billion. The world’s monetary system had become, once again, an “inverted pyramid of paper money perched on a static stack of gold” and Bretton Woods was “buckling so badly it seemed almost certain to collapse” (p.377).

In a single secluded weekend in 1971 at the Presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, Nixon’s advisors fashioned a plan to “close the gold window”: the United States would no longer provide gold to official foreign holders of dollars and instead would impose “aggressive new surcharges and taxes on imports intended to push other countries into revaluing their own currencies” (p.381).  When Nixon agreed to his advisors’ proposal,  the Bretton Woods system, which had “begun with fanfare, an unprecedented series of conferences and the deepest investigation in history into the state of macro-economics” ended overnight, “without almost anyone realizing it” (p.385). The era of fixed exchange rates was over, with currency values henceforth to be determined by “what traders and investors thought they were worth” (p.392).  Since 1971, the world’s monetary system has operated on what Conway describes as an “ad hoc basis, with no particular sense of the direction in which to follow” (p.401).

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            In his epilogue, Conway cites a 2011 Bank of England study that showed that between 1948 and the early 1970s, the world enjoyed a “period of economic growth and stability that has never been rivaled – before or since” (p.388).  In Bretton Woods member states during this period “life expectancy climbed swiftly higher, inequality fell, and social welfare systems were constructed which, for the time being at least, seemed eminently affordable” (p.388).  The “imperfect” and “short-lived” (p.406) system which Keynes and White fashioned at Bretton Woods may not be the full explanation for these developments but it surely contributed.  In the messy world of international economics, that system has “come to represent something hopeful, something closer to perfection” (p.408).  The two men at the center of this captivating story came to Bretton Woods intent upon repairing the world’s economic system and replacing it with something better — something that might avert future economic depressions and the resort to war to settle differences.  “For a time,” Conway concludes, “they succeeded” (p.408).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 8, 2017

7 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, History, United States History, World History

Reporting From the Front Lines of the Enlightenment

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Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment

           The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe.   In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor.  The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in  Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).

         But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself  was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound.  But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15).  Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).

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        In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.

        Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith.  Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good.    A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.

        Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him.  But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15).  For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).

      Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.

        A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.

        But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127).   Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.

        Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great.  Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion.  Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.

          But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva,  was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views.  Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education.  Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.

         Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149).   But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more  contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed.  Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).

         By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.

        The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.

          Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell  wrote afterwards.  The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal.  Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler  left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.

          After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited.  There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island.  Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli.  During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.

        Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner.  But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).

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       After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment.   It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.

Thomas H. Peebles

Florence, Italy

January 25, 2017

 

5 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Intellectual History, Religion

Formidable Thinker, Reluctant Politician, President of Two Countries

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Michael Žantovsky, Havel: A Life

     In our time of rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism, Václav Havel, if he is remembered at all, seems anachronistic, a quaint figure from a bygone era. The first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Havel (1936-2011) was elected during the “Velvet Revolution” in December 1989, barely a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just days after Soviet control of Czechoslovakia collapsed.  After the 1992 “Velvet Divorce” split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel served as Czech Republic president from 1993 to 2003.

     Although both Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first, Havel was more than just president of two countries. He was also a towering moral symbol in Eastern Europe’s remarkable transition to democracy in the 1990s after decades of communist rule.  Michael Zantovsky demonstrates in his engaging biography, Havel: A Life, how Havel was instrumental in bringing about the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, “one of the most dramatic social transitions of recent history” (p.1). As president of two countries, Havel should be credited with “finally putting to rest one of the most alluring utopias of all time” (p.1).

     Havel may fairly be paired with Nelson Mandela, the most visible and best-known engineer of late 20th century transitions to democracy. Before becoming political leaders, both Mandela and Havel were jailed on account of their dissident activities.  Like Mandela, Havel advocated non-violence “not only as a matter of moral principle but as a weapon of political struggle” (p.437). But unlike Mandela, who was a man of action par excellence – a boxer as a young man, then a civil rights lawyer – Havel was an intellectual par excellence.

    Zantovsky describes Havel as a “formidable thinker, who consistently attempted to apply the results of his thinking process . . . to his practical engagement in the realm of politics” (p.1-2).  Havel’s deep thinking on the individual in the modern state is as much a part of his legacy as his actual steering of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic through the post-communist years.  Havel was already known as a playwright when he became a dissident challenging the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. If he had never entered politics, we would likely remember him as one of the 20th century’s most noteworthy  playwrights, on par with the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Berthold Brecht.

     Zantovsky’s book divides into two roughly equal parts: Havel the playwright and dissident in the first half; Havel the politician in the second. Zantovsky himself is an important figure in his story. A clinical psychologist by training, a correspondent for Reuters, and once an aspiring rock music lyricist, Zantovsky served as a primary advisor and press secretary to Havel during the early transition years. Later, he received appointments as Czech Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom. Zantovsky admits to having shared with Havel “many laughs, moments of sadness, quite a few drinks and some incredible moments together, both before and after he became president” (p.5).  Zantovsky’s insider’s view, seen only rarely in biography, does not preclude him from presenting a balanced portrait of his one-time boss that includes Havel’s shortcomings and failures. Zantovsky also indicates that this is his first book in English. His crisp, straightforward style, coupled with wry observations and humorous digressions, reveals a high comfort level not only with his subject but also with the English language.

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     Havel’s early years coincided with the critical events that marked the life of his country and indelibly shaped his adult perspective. In 1938, when Havel was two, France and Great Britain abandoned the defense of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the infamous Munich accords of 1938, the “prime trauma of modern Czechoslovak history” (p.336). The Nazis invaded the country in March 1939. After their defeat in World War II, Stalinists in 1948 seized control of the Czechoslovak government in a non-violent putsch and instituted a communist regime that lasted four decades, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (these events are set forth in Prague Winter, the memoir of Madeline Albright, a fellow Czech native and prominent contemporary and friend of Havel, reviewed here in May 2013).

      Havel grew up in comfortable circumstances, but his moderately wealthy bourgeois background was not an asset once the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. Havel’s privileged upbringing left him feeling “’alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed’ and humbled” (p.21). This feeling of being outcast, isolated and unfairly privileged, Zantovsky writes, “remained with Havel throughout his life. In his own thinking it endowed him with a lifelong perspective from ‘below’ or from the ‘outside.’” (p.21). From his teens onward, Havel was a “leader, setting agendas, walking at the front, showing the way. . . [but] with a diffidence, kindness and politeness so unwavering (and often unwarranted) that Havel himself caricatured it some of his plays” (p.3). At age 19, when he fell in love with his life-long partner and wife Olga Šplichalová, Havel already had the “gravitas of really believing what he was saying” (p.53).

     Havel’s bourgeois background precluded him from being accepted in an arts and science faculty at a Czech university. He was able to gain admission to a program in the economics of transportation, an arcane field that did not interest him, and he dropped out to join the Czech military. After completing military service, Havel became a playwright and an established member of the “shadow, non-conformist, bohemian underworld” (p.41) of the Prague intellectual class. Whatever he did  in the future, Zantovksy indicates, Havel’s loyalties always remained with this shadowy underworld.

     Havel’s plays explored how inauthenticity, alienation, the absurd, social isolation and depersonalization affected individuals in Czechoslovakia and totalitarian societies generally.   In one of his best known plays, “The Memorandum,” Havel posed the question of “passive participation in evil” (p.93), a question that he would return to repeatedly. Havel sought to demonstrate how totalitarian control drives individuals to “isolation, and makes them fear, suspect and avoid others” (p.95). But the human capacity to “’live the truth,’ to reaffirm man’s ‘authentic identity’” constitutes in all of Havel’s plays what Zantovsky terms the “nuclear weapon” that “gives power to the powerless. As soon as the system is no longer able to extract the ritual endorsement from its subjects, its ideological pretensions collapse as the lies they are” (p.200).

     In the 1960s, Havel gradually became associated with dissident opposition to the Communist regime. With his principal themes of identity, responsibility and the elusive notion of “living in truth” by this time fully formed, Havel came to the hazardous conclusion that rather than “waste time by hopelessly tinkering with the [communist] system in the effort of making it livable and sustainable, it was necessary to replace it as a whole” (p.96). Havel became a full-fledged leader of the dissident movement at the time of the “Czech spring” of 1968, when the Czechoslovak government sought to institute modest reforms under the guise of “socialism with a human face.” In August of that year, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the fledgling reform movement in one of the “most massive overnight military invasions in European history” (p.115). Twenty oppressive years of what the communists termed “normalization” followed.

     The early years of so-called “normalization” following suppression of the Czech Spring were for Havel a period of “shapeless fog” (p.132). But by the mid-1970s, Havel had become the driving force behind the Czechoslovak dissident movement.  His essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” dissected the nature of the communist regime and argued that sustained opposition on the part of ordinary citizens could eventually topple it. Havel became one of the principal authors of Charter 77, written in late 1977 in response to the imprisonment of members of  Czech psychedelic rock band.  Charter 77 became the defining document of the Czech dissident movement and helped raise awareness in Western countries of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. The charter criticized the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights provisions in its constitution and in a host of international instruments that it had signed.

     During his dissident years, Havel landed in prison on multiple occasions, the longest being nearly four years, between 1979 and 1983. While imprisoned, Havel wrote an extensive series of letters to his wife Olga, later published as “Letters to Olga” — “hybrids of creative writing, philosophy and political prose” (p.3). Although in jail when Czech dissident activities surged in the early 1980s, Havel was nonetheless directly or indirectly linked to these activities, as an “instigator, an inspiration, a spectator or as a friend. It almost appears as if he were a spider at the center of a web, spinning and waiting” (p.275). Around this time, Havel “must have realized himself that he was on a transitional trajectory from being an artist and dissident to becoming a politician” (p.275). His prison experience had made him “uniquely well prepared for the single-minded focus towards the tasks ahead, culminating with his leadership of the Velvet Revolution” (p.231).

     A dizzying six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Havel, leading a disparate group termed Civic Forum, became his country’s first freely elected president since the legendary post-World War I leader Tomas Masaryk.  Havel “probably never dreamt about being president, nor did he particularly wish to assume the office. Throughout his life he thought of himself primarily as a writer; what people thought about his writing affected him much more personally than what they thought about him as a politician” (p.317). But in what Zantovsky terms the “reality play of his life,” Havel had “set the stage in such a way that, when the final act arrived, the logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position” (p.317) as the newly independent state set upon an uncertain transformation away from totalitarian rule and toward democracy.

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     Both as a protester and as a politician, Havel advocated what Zantovsky terms “socialist humanism,” an idealized version of the social welfare states of Western Europe. Despite his voracious reading and self-education, when Havel became president he was “ignorant of the fundamentals of economic theory” and “totally unfamiliar with the practical workings of a real economy” (p.392-93). Only “grudgingly” did Havel come to “acknowledge, and even to respect the role of political organizations as agents of change and condensers of political energy” (p.204). In an interview after he left office, Havel said that his most serious mistake as president was that he had “not more energetically promoted his vision of a humanistic and moral society during his time as president.” To many people, especially his detractors, Zantovsky wryly notes, “he had done little else” (p.459).

     Havel seemed embarrassed by the power that his political position yielded, “always wary of trying to elevate himself or of exaggerating his own importance” (p.405). In leading the transition away from communism and toward democracy, one of Havel’s strengths, but arguably also a weakness, was that he rejected the “concept of the Enemy.” He consistently went out of his way to “understand rather than to demonize the motives of the other side and, if at all possible, always to extend to them the benefit of the doubt” (p.108-09). Havel’s conciliatory approach “led to accusations that he was soft on the exponents of the previous regime, or even that there was possible some secret collusion between them” (p.109).

     The most significant issue Havel had to deal with as President of Czechoslovakia was the Velvet Divorce, when a Slovak independence movement split the country in July 1992 into a new Czech Republic and a southern and eastern neighbor, Slovakia. Havel could not endorse separation, which “ran against the grain of his conviction, his philosophy, his understanding of democracy and his sense of responsibility” (p.419). But neither could Havel take a “heroic stand” against separation, “in view of the risks and uncertainties this would pose for 15 million of his fellow citizens” (p.419). It was better to have two functioning countries than a single, dysfunctional one, Havel reasoned. Havel resigned as president of Czechoslovakia after Slovakia’s official July 1992 declaration of independence.  He had no involvement in the working out of details of the separation over the following six months. But he was persuaded to run for the presidency of the new Czech Republic and became its first president in January 1993.

     As Czech President, Havel had a complicated relationship with Vaclav Klaus, his Prime Minister who went on to succeed Havel as Czech President in 2003.  Klaus was in many ways the opposite of Havel. A free-market economist, Klaus battled with Havel over the “character of Czech society and over the values and principles it should abide by. For Klaus, these values could be reduced to individual economic and political freedom and a vague allegiance to the national community as the conduit of history, culture and traditions” (p.456). Klaus was a Eurosceptic, whereas Havel “emphasized time and time again the great opportunity that the process of European integration offered for ‘civilizational self-reflection,’ and promoted the idea of ‘Europe as a mission’” (p.449). Havel’s relationship with his Polish counterpart Lech Walęsa, another hero in Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, was less complicated, in no small measure because Walęsa shared Havel’s dedication to European integration for former Warsaw Pact  countries.

     Walęsa embodied the “heroic past of the Polish nation, with its brave if sometimes futile resistance to foreign oppressors,” whereas Havel “exemplified the fundamental unity of Central Europe with the rest of the West in terms of culture, philosophy and political thinking” (p.444). But despite differences in the two men’s character and outlook, they were a forceful single voice for expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and accession of former Iron Curtain countries into the European Union, which both US President Bill Clinton and major Western European leaders initially opposed. Havel and Walęsa “complemented each other as well as any pair since Laurel and Hardy. It is hard to imagine that the enlargement would have occurred without either of them,” Zantovsky contends. “If most of Europe today is safer than at any time in its history, it is not least thanks to the vision of statesmen like Bill Clinton, Lech Walęsa. . . and Václav Havel” (p.444-45).

     When Havel left the Czech presidency in 2003, he was a widely known and respected figure worldwide, and he traveled extensively throughout the world.  His wife Olga had died in 1996 and Havel married an actress (Havel had more than his fair share of extra-marital affairs while married to Olga, which Zantovsky mentions but does not dwell upon). Havel became a Visiting Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, where he wrote a memoir, “To the Castle and Back,” which Zantovksy describes as an “existential mediation on the meaning of life, politics and love, for which the presidency is not much more than a backdrop” (p.504). He also wrote a play, “Leaving,” that seemed to foreshadow his own death. After several years of declining health, brought about in part by a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking, Havel died at his country home in December 2011, age 75.

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     Zantovsky summarizes the “remarkable balance sheet” of his former boss’ presidency by noting that Havel should be given credit for the “peaceful transformation of the country from totalitarian rule to democracy; [and] for building a stable system of democratic and political institutions, comparable in most respects, flaws included, to long-existing systems in the West” (p.497). Further, Havel “successfully brought the country back to Europe and made it an integral part of Western political and security alliances; and he remained an inspiration and identifiable supporter in the struggle for human rights and freedoms around the world” (p.497). Even the Velvet Divorce, Havel’s greatest setback as a political leader, was mitigated by its “peaceful and consensual character” (p.497).

    Yet Zantovsky also notes in his affectionate portrait that Havel “conspicuously failed at making the society at large adhere to his ideals of morality, tolerance, and civic spirit, but that said more about society than about him. Arguably, he had never expected to succeed fully” (p.497). Today, the ideals of this enigmatic, brilliant man and reluctant politician seem far more elusive than in Havel’s time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 19, 2016

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