TWELVE years ago our thoughts were dominated day and night by Hitler’s Germany. Was this Chaplinesque figure who had risen to supreme dictatorial power a mountain or a mountebank? Did he mean war or would he just stop short of it? Would he choose peace for his place in history or would he, like the emperors before him, try to build his monument on the corpses of the young?
The Western world was strong enough to crush Hitler but the nations were not united; once more democracies proved that they could not bring themselves to fight a preventive war. As a student of foreign affairs put it at the time, “The temperature of the democracies is too low for action.”
Schoolboys are taught that history does not repeat itself, but nothing is farther from the truth. No club bore holding forth to his helpless victims is more given to repetition.
Here we are today after little more than a decade trying to read the riddle of the Kremlin. Will Stalin choose peace or will he choose war? Will he learn from the fate of Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler or will he also try to build his immortality on the crucifixion of the young?
In some regards the Russian is harder to understand than the Prussian. At least we had contacts with the Germans right up to the declaration of war on Poland and there was free intercourse between Germany and Britain for those who wanted to study the situation at first hand. But the only visitor who can go from here to Moscow is someone who is
strictly sponsored by the Russian Government or one of its tame societies, and in the realm of diplomacy the two embassies are nothing more than stockades built in no man’s land.
Since we are trying to paint an accurate historical picture let me state that there is no ban on Russian tourists coming to Britain, but the Kremlin does not approve of its citizens looking upon the awful de! cadence of the Western world lest j they should be seduced by the 1 painted hussy and fail to return to their earthly paradise. Until a month ago I had met no Russian in London since the party of M.Ps that came | from Moscow three years ago.
Which brings me to that interesting figure, Ilya Ehrenburg. It was with much interest that I read in the newspapers that he had arrived in London on a cultural mission from Moscow. The British are not very fond of the word culture, preferring the lazier and less self-conscious word “civilization,” but they were intrigued that at such a time the Kremlin should show so much interest in the arts.
Ehrenburg lived for some years in Paris between the wars and established some reputation as a dramatist and essayist, but it was during the defense of Stalingrad that he first attracted the world’s attention. Every day on the radio his voice rang out with the words: “Death
to the Invader!” He inflamed the defenders to a superhuman bravery and ferocity with his dynamic eloquence. Subsequently he became a war commentator and his dispatches appeared in newspapers all over the world. No one can deny he played a powerful part in the defeat of Hitler.
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When he arrived in London this time he was taken over by the British Communists and their bible, the Daily Worker, and it was at once arranged that he should address a meeting in Trafalgar Square with Nelson looking down on him through his one good eye. A great crowd turned out and there was a corps of police to see that no harm came to our distinguished visitor.
Ehrenburg spoke in Russian, but his words were translated by an interpreter. He told of Russia’s longing for peace and denounced American aggression in Korea. The Soviet wanted all nations to govern themselves, each in its own fashion with no interference from outside. That was why the World War II was fought. But if there was to be peace then all its lovers should combine against the base imperialists of the West who were determined to stamp out freedom.
The Communists clapped loud and long, but a miserable Tory in the crowd swore that he saw Nelson wink.
Ehrenburg next addressed a big audience at the Holborn Hall and said with admirable tact that it was a great regret that he could not speak English but he was glad to report that English was now taught in Russia’s secondary schools and even in many village schools—not because it is the language of Washington Press conferences but because it is the language of Shakespeare, Swift, - Thackeray, Byron, Shelley, Keats and Dickens. He had been told to be cultural and he was determined to obey orders.
Toward the end he faitered from the strict path of virtue. “Why do so many British journalists and politicians now speak of Russians no longer as allies but as tomorrow’s adversaries? Where did that change begin?”—here he scowled—“At Fulton, and it came from a man looked upon as a good representative of the good old England —Winston Churchill.”
This was greeted with immense enthusiasm. There is no one so hated by the long-haired culturists as that wicked old man who insists upon saying what he thinks.
Next day in the House of Commons we were debating foreign affairs when the lively youngish Socialist M.P., Richard Crossman, who was once an Oxford don, told of a luncheon he had just had with Ehrenburg during which the eminent visitor had said: “Neither France nor Britain could fight another war. The only difference is that Britain does not know it.”
As usual there were some eyebrows raised at an M.Pconsorting with the devil but most of us thought the
anecdote was a good one and that it expressed the Russian point of view very well. But to our surprise Ehrenburg issued an emphatic denial and also complained that Crossman had committed a breach of confidence as the luncheon was supposed to be private. Seldom has there been so strange a repudiation. In effect Ehrenburg declared that he had not said it and, as it was a private conversation, Crossman had no right to repeat it.
My own feelings were somewhat mixed for I had accepted an invitation for that very evening from the Society for Cultural Relations with the U. S. S. R. to meet the gentleman in question. If we were not to talk then what was the use of going, and if we did talk why should it be private? With a somewhat confused purpose I drove to a house in Kensington Square, the headquarters of the society, and found myself in the presence of some very intense females, a number of theatre and film people, three former Labor M.Ps who had been drummed out of the party and defeated at the polls for being fellow travelers, a sprinkling of prominent men in the Communist Party, and half a dozen officials from the Russian Embassy.
Almost at once I was taken to a corner and introduced to the great man from Moscow. He is in his late 50s, with grey hair, and with eyes that are almost blue. It is an intelligent face that somehow seems to have lost the sparkle it must have had in former years. Once those eyes were humorous,
now they are quizzical and rather sad. He may have been tired, but there is a difference between the fatigue of the body and the fatigue of the soul. Once, as I have stated, he lived in Paris where the freedom of the mind is guarded like a sacred trust. How could one afterwards live happily in Moscow where even the creative mind is chained to political policy?
A bright and attractive woman sat between us as interpreter and we began a conversation on safe lines. He told me that he had come to London to meet people of the theatre and the ballet but no one asked him about anything except politics. “Everybody here is a politician,” he remarked, which was the nearest he descended toward humor.
I told him that we all regretted the worsening of Anglo-Russian relations and asked if he had any suggestions for improving them. “Yes,” he said, “your newspapers should cool down. They are too violent. The temperature is too hot.”
Strangely enough, that was Hitler’s constant complaint after Munich. What is it that makes dictators so sensitive to criticism? Is it that they lose confidence in their own infallibility— like an actor who reads an adverse notice of himself? The Russian people would never be allowed to read the extracts from the British Press unless the Kremlin wanted it for a purpose. Yet here was Moscow showing the same resentment—or fear—as Hitler’s Berlin.
“What else would you suggest?” I asked.
He said that the West should have accepted Pundet Nehru’s plan to end the fighting in Korea and substitute Communist China for Chiang-Kaishek on the Security Council of the United Nations. There was nothing surprising in that. Few things would suit the Kremlin better than to achieve a diplomatic victory in Asia and to call off the hot war in Korea until such time as it was convenient to turn on the heat again.
“But have you nothing to suggest that would be on a bigger scale and give real hope to the world?”
When the woman had translated this to him Ehrenburg’s face suddenly lost it inanimation. His eyes lit up and his hands clinched with some queer suppressed emotion. It hardly needed the interpreter for me to understand the passion of his words:
“Yes! Yes! The nations should ban the atomic bomb. Ban it! It terrifies the children so that they cannot sleep. It is barbaric, terrible. Now we should do it. End the terror of the atomic bomb!”
A few hours before in the lobby of the House of Commons Churchill had said to half a dozen of us: “Nothing
stands between us and defeat but the atomic bomb. Our military situation is worse than in 1939. I never doubted in 1940 that we would win the Battle of Britain, but now there is only the bomb that stands between us and destruction by Russia. It is shameful but it is true.”
But why was Ehrenburg so excited? F ad he been caught off guard? Could it be that at heart he is a civilized man whose conscience is outraged at this scientific horror?
Rightly or wrongly I suspected that Ehrenburg had revealed something of great importance. I have no more knowledge of Russia’s preparations than any other reasonably informed man, but I had a sudden feeling that Russia does not possess the atomic bomb, or if she does it is imperfect and in short supply. At any rate if I had been a judge, and Ehrenburg had been giving evidence in the box, that is the deduction that I would have drawn.
Our conversation ambled to its close and we actually did discuss the theatre, but at the end I could not suppress a question which I was afraid might give him unnecessary embarrassment.
“As a man of letters,” I said, “how would you like to live again in a country where, if you feel like it, you can say that the prime minister is a damned fool?”
He thought carefully for a moment and then answered: “Our political
systems are different. We do not want you to alter yours, you should not want us to alter ours. But why must you always concentrate upon what you dislike in Russia? Why not come and see the good things that we are doing?”
“When can I come?”
He looked somewhat startled and then his eyes resumed their weary look once more. “As a critic of the theatre,” he said, “you would be welcomed any time by the Moscow theatre.” An adroit answer, but one that left the Tory M.P. at home.
A cameraman asked if we would pose for a picture, and we did. Something tells me that by this time it is filed away somewhere for reference, for the quality of culture takes many forms. My wife, who had been mingling with the other guests, had been enjoying herself in her own fashion. “Every time I spoke to a Russian from the embassy,” she said, “he was immediately joined by another. They work in pairs.”
If would be a mistake to place too much importance on a conversation carried on through an interpreter, but the more I think of Ilya Ehrenburg’s outburst about the atomic bomb the more I am convinced that Russia lives in a state of fear. Not only do the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt the dreams of the men in the Kremlin but there is the vast oil empire of the Allies and their stupendous steel output.
How can Russia hope for victory against such a combination even if she turns Western Europe into a desert of destruction? I agree that an animal that is frightened can be more dangerous than one which is only hungry. But there is still room for diplomacy to manoeuvre. ★
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