“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!” The words of Wordsworth do not fully fit, because with so much bloodshed, the stench of corpses, and skeletons, dead or alive, just discovered as Allied troops entered the concentration camps, there was hardly scope for pure joy. The reference to youth, in turn, is a warning that when one tries, half a century later, not just to reconstruct events but to revive a mood, the past may be prettified through nostalgia for one’s adolescence. Yet dawn seems appropriate. We clearly did feel at the start of a new era. The very horror of the conflict may account for the revulsion and explain why the “Never more!” was even louder than in 1918. Millions of people across Europe were rejecting an old world capable of producing such pestilence. If today the fashion is to stress the end of history, at the time it was to talk of its new beginning.
This yearning for a different society prevailed throughout the Continent, including Eastern Europe, which I had miraculously left on the eve of the war and where German atrocities proved even more abominable than in the West. The neighbors of the Soviet Union were In such a mood even though the soldiers of the Red Army were being greeted there as liberators cum conquerors. The intellectual conception of revolution from above–the idea that Stalin’s tanks, like Napoleon’s armies, brought a more advanced social order–was still to come. The relatively high spirits right after the war rested on the rather optimistic assumption that Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia would be somehow allowed to follow their “own roads to socialism.” Such hopes were soon to be dashed by the advent of the cold war and the closing of the “iron curtain.” Today, it is common to describe the Red Army as an invader. Things were much more complex at the time. With the corruption, inefficiency and injustice of their prewar governments still fresh in their minds and their natural hatred for the Nazis, the new deal, though imposed by the Red Army, had originally a significant degree of support among both workers and intellectuals.
But it was in Western Europe that the quest for a new social order was most perceptible. The role played by the battle of Stalingrad in our imagination or the part performed by the Communists in the Resistance did not, by themselves, explain the big jump in the Communist vote in both France and Italy. To grasp the reason for that, or for the victory of the British Labor Party, in the first parliamentary poll after the conflict, which ousted the war hero Winston Churchill, it is necessary to recapture the climate of public opinion during the period, with its wholesale rejection of greed, exploitation and inequality. On the Continent, fighters emerging from the underground were preaching that property could no longer stand in the way of social justice and that money should no longer be allowed to dominate the press. In Britain, if my memory is correct, The Economist, the voice of the capitalist gospel, was advocating a zero rate of interest. How distant and strange it all sounds now, and how revealing about the unsuspected flexibility and resilience of capitalism.
Why was that system not pushed off the stage? Propagandists who now tell the story should, paradoxically, pay some tribute to the Soviet leader, then known not as a tyrant but as good old “Uncle Joe.” The German surrender took place three months after the conference at Yalta, where the division of Europe was confirmed. The deal meant that within a few years Stalinism would extend to the Elbe. But it also guaranteed stability for the other half of Europe and Stalin stuck strictly to his side of the bargain: Greek Communists facing the British were left to their own devices, while the large Italian and French party battalions were ordered to consolidate their positions without threatening the established order.