“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.
Naturally, it was not Stalin alone. The real reason for the system’s survival was the American presence in its dual capacity as a provider of force and as a force of attraction. The G.I.s were staying behind as insurance against the temptation for any Western partisans to follow in Tito’s footsteps and seize power. But America, with its skyscrapers and its Ford cars, was also a mythical country. The way we eyed your cigarettes and chewing gum, your nylon stockings and Parker 51 pens, was a portent, foreshadowing Europe’s rush toward an acquisitive consumer society.
What happened need not necessarily have happened, and it may be rather harsh to call us fools because we dreamt in that dawn of a different future. We may have been starry-eyed and rather naïve if we thought that somebody would build that society for us, that I t was enough to give a mandate or, even worse, a free hand to our new masters. Inevitably obsessed with Nazism, we may have been too one-track-minded. Thus absorbed by the little flags on the map showing the movement of armies, we may have failed to discern the social forces that would shape fate beyond the battlefield. Personally, I must confess that three months after the German surrender I completely missed the historical significance of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I just did not understand at the time the momentous step taken by humankind on the road toward potential suicide. I, probably, did not even see that the dropping of the bomb was already a move connected with the coming cold war. Indeed, the mood of 1945 is so difficult to assess accurately because it was a year of transition, with the people still inspired by the wartime alliance against Germany and the politicians already preparing for the new East-West confrontation.
We don’t know yet what our past is going to be, says the wit, reminding us that history is rewritten to suit the current predicament. Since the collapse of the post-Stalinist empire, the victors are dictating the line. With texts strangely filtered from the Soviet archives, they are trying to invent a new tale of wartime Europe, in which those who helped the Anglo-Saxons are heroes and those who helped the Russians are fools or knaves. Nothing, except the insidious poison of propaganda, compels us to swallow such a distortion.
Indeed, on this anniversary occasion, I would be tempted to draw only two lessons. The first is that revolutions–meaning the radical transformation of society, not the seizure of the Winter Palace–cannot be carried out from above; if they are, they spell nothing good for the people. Or, to put it differently, they cannot be carried out by proxy. A deal at the top, like the one at Yalta, hampered the social movements on both sides of the great divide. Our rulers yield only to pressure from below and no genuine long-term progress can be conceived without the active participation of the people.
The second lesson concerns history. If it is ridiculous to proclaim its end today, it was childish for us to think we were starting almost from scratch; we underestimated the weight of the past, the power of inertia and the resistance of the mighty. True, there are moments when history quickens, and if you miss them you may have to wait a long time for the next opportunity. Yet it is in the intervals that you must prepare so as to be ready for the climax. The struggle is, or rather should be, permanent.
Recalling the Europe of half a century ago, bled white, half-starving, with its towns torn apart and Its factories blown to pieces, and setting it against our world with its computerized plants, its laser beams, its rockets to the moon and information highways, there is no denying the technological inventiveness of the human species. The more striking is the contrast with the lunacy of our social organization. Mass unemployment, the yawning gap between rich and poor, the explosive polarization, all show that, after a spell of progress, we are moving backward toward a dangerous past. Add to it wars spreading from Algeria to Chechnya and Tajikistan, “ethnic cleansing” from Europe to Africa, and the return of the earlier horror is no longer unthinkable. We have to wake up, and soon, if we don’t want the millions who perished in the last world war, and who did so fighting fundamentally for a better world, to have died in vain.
Postscript. I wrote earlier that we in Europe may have been too one-track-minded. Let this anecdote plead our case.
It was the autumn of 1942. A French train was nearing Switzerland, approaching Vallorcines, the last stop before the frontier, where we were to contact a priest who knew the way through the mountains. We were two in the empty carriage: My companion, old enough to attend university, had a foreign accent and had to keep quiet, but I, still a schoolboy, fortunately spoke French like a native. In fact, there was a third person, the conductor, who came close, looked me in the eyes and asked bluntly: “Are you going over?” I had a few seconds to decide how to gamble our lives. “Yes” I answered. “Fine. I’ll tell the driver to stop the train before the station so that you can get off in the field. The station today is packed with policemen.”
No wonder that now I am rather allergic to the Increasingly fashionable versions of history, which, conjuring up the “red peril” and the “Bolshevik menace,” do not whitewash Nazism, but find all sorts of excuses for various shades of collaboration. If the conductor and engineer of that train had not been on the side of the Resistance–who knows, maybe Communists–I would not be here to tell the story.