behind the Iron Curtain Communism is no longer on the march
WITH BLAIR FRASER
Sitting huddled in a straw stack on the Austro - Hungarian border, watching the rocket flares and listening to the random gunfire and the baying of dogs from Communist guard posts three hundred yards away, you felt a furious helplessness. People were being shot at and hunted down like foxes, and there was absolutely nothing you could do.
“That’s right,” said the American volunteer who had let me tag along on his nightly watch. “There is only one way we can help them, and that's to be here to lend a hand when they come over.”
According to Western diplomats who have been in Middle Europe since before Stalin’s death, that’s an accurate summary for governments as well as for individuals. Governments as well as individuals have to tolerate that feeling of helpless rage. But in the opinion of their shrewdest observers here, such patience will pay rich dividends.
These observers believe—I was amazed to find how firmly some of them believe—that the Soviet empire is crumbling before our eyes. As one of them put it. “1956 will be remembered as the year when the Communist collapse began.’ But he added: “That is, as long as we don't make any mis-
takes.” In his view it would be §
a mistake for the West to take any overt action whatever.
Intervention or even the hint of intervention is the one thing, he thinks, that might yet save the if;
Communist empire—any clear evijj
dencc that revolt was being ft§§
nanced or directed from abroad, §
that it might end with the restora|
tion of some old discredited reif;
gime. This last threat was no mere if;
fantasy. Hungarian exiles, onetime leaders in unlamented govern|
ments, did turn up in Austria as ;if
soon as trouble broke out in Budapest, seeking Western help in order to get themselves back into power.
Instead the Western powers quietly assisted the Austrian government in shooing these unwanted ghosts back into their obscurity.
They wanted to let the Hungarian rebellion alone, for they saw it as a spontaneous Communist revolution. Tampered with, it might have ended by polarizing |f
itself once more around Soviet Russia. Let alone, it may be the beginning of the end of imperial communism. if
Not. of course, the end of Communist rule in Russia. Perhaps not even the end of regimes that call themselves Communist in countries Ú that now are Russia’s satellites. But optimists continued on page 51
Backstage behind the Iron Curtain
Continued from page 5
here do believe it is the beginning of ebb tide for communism as a world movement, a movement whose tide has been at flood for too many years.
Even Czechoslovakia, most docile and pliable of .satellite countries, seems to be keeping quiet for reasons that are no comfort to Khrushchev and Bulganin. Western observers here think they know why the Czech government opposed, from the very beginning, the “national communism” and the liberal experiments of Poland and pre-Kadar Hungary. They think the Czech rulers know how unpopular they are, and realize that a liberated people would be vengeful rather than grateful.
Thus it happens that Czechoslovakia is the only country in the world where the portrait of the late Joseph Stalin still hangs over the prime minister’s desk, and a Stalin statuette adorns his desk. The Stalin portrait has been removed from the Soviet embassy here in Prague, but the Czech regime ignores the example of the Communist fatherland in this respect. The official line here is that the party has always been right, about Stalin as about all else, and that it is still right today.
As for the Czech people, they seem to have kept quiet for a different but similar reason. Czechs are cautious folk, with six hundred years’ experience in dealing with alien tyrannies. They still remember what happened when the Mongols came in the thirteenth century— how every nation that gave battle was defeated and destroyed, and how Bohemia survived by letting the Mongol flood go over it unopposed.
Czech officials do not. talk much, and stick to the party line when they do, but Czech citizens have been resuming Western friendships lately. To these friends they say, in effect:
“Why should we go off at half cock, and be beaten like the Hungarians? Look at the map. I.ook who it is that surrounds us. East Germany won't be a Soviet captive for long. Poland and Hungary are breaking away. When all this happens, we shall be free too. All we have to do is wait."
And so fhey kept quiet. This is the attitude that prompted the bitter joke now prevalent in other countries of eastern Europe:
“In this revolution the Hungarians behaved like Poles, the Poles like Czechs, and the Czechs like swine.”
At best this practical, unheroic approach, however shrewd it may prove to be in the long run, would never have brought the Soviet empire to the crisis of today. It is the situation in Hungary, of which every day produces a new horde of witnesses, that has raised hopes of an end to the advances of communism.
Talking to refugees is, admittedly, a poor way to appraise the situation in any country, but the present flow of refugees from Hungary is peculiar. It is significant not only for what the people say but for what they are. In both ways they give a clear impression that what ails the Communist regime in Hungary is not something that happened last November, but something that is happening
day by day in small organic ways—not a wound or even a plague, but a cancer.
When we drove into the Austrian border village of Andau at dusk one mild winter afternoon, the refugees who had arrived in the small hours that morning were just getting up. In the rather cheerless barracks that citizens of Andau have made of their village dance hall. Maria Kiraly was shaving her husband Ferenc —not a wife’s regular duty, 1 gathered, even in a Hungarian mining town, but he had no mirror. While she scraped, we talked.
Ferenc Kiraly is a coal miner twentyfive years old, from a small town in eastern Hungary near the Rumanian border. He speaks a rustic dialect so broad that my interpreter, a Budapest man, could hardly understand him. Kiraly seemed about as non-political as a citizen could be—neither Communist nor militant anti-Communist, no Freedom Fighter, just a hard-working man trying to make a decent living.
That was why he had left home, because he couldn't make one any longer.
“Kadar (Hungary’s puppet premier)
brought In a new regulation ten days ago that every miner had to produce eight thousand kilos a day to get his basic pay. It's impossible, in the mine where I worked. I wasn't making a living anyway, even at the old rate of production. Maria was working as a field hand at a collective farm, and it took all we both earned to keep us going.
“Now Maria's farm co-operative has been broken up. The president of it ran off and took all the money with him. Nobody gets any pay now—they get vouchers each week, but nobody will cash
For $4,000 cash husky young guides will slip you across the border in style to Vienna’s best hotels
the worthless paper slips any more.
“So we came away. All the young people are coming away now. I would like to keep on being a miner—do you think 1 can get to the United States?"
It was still hours too early for that day’s refugees to be arriving, but just while this was being explained to us one family arrived—father, mother and children of nine, seven and two. They had walked the last eight miles in broad daylight, father carrying the two-yearold, so they were tired but jubilant. Father was already a little drunk, for a large brandy in the Andan pub costs thirteen cents, and everyone wanted to buy a drink for the man who had walked out unguided by day.
Why had he left?
"I was fired-—laid oil." He had been a straw boss or sub-foreman in a factory making paper boxes, had lost his job three days before, decided at once to leave Hungary, and had left Budapest that very morning. (For most refugees the journey takes two days or more.)
Why was he fired?
“Not enough work at the plant. I had a colleague fifty-four years old who didn’t want to leave, and one of us had to go. I’d been one of the ‘Freedom Police' for a few days in November, too, and I was afraid they might check up on me sooner or later, so I left.”
Variants of the same story were told by the people who came over in guided groups after midnight. Generally speaking they are all in good fettle when they arrive, tired perhaps from carrying children of up to six years on their backs for eight or ten miles, but in fine physical shape and high morale.
I rode back with one party in the big farm wagon with which Austrian, German and American volunteers meet every guided group each night and take them back to farmhouse reception stations for tea, sandwiches and a rest before the bus ride to Andau. The man beside me was a bachelor in his sixties who had been a colonel in Admiral Horthy’s time. Since 1945 he had been an odd-job laborer or petty clerk, most recently in a string factory.
“I lost my job on New Year's Day,” he explained in halting French. "Already my little fiat had been destroyed by shellfire in the revolution. No job, no house —I thought I might as well leave.”
The old man was the only one in the group, though, who seemed at all sorry to leave his native land. “It is sad," he kept saying; “it is sad.” But his companions were mostly in their twenties, and they weren't sad. they were delighted.
Almost all of them had just been laid off from a wide variety of jobs. They were also full of the news that thousands more workers were to be laid off in a week's time from the factories on Budapest’s Csepel Island. The newspapers they brought with them, yesterday's from Budapest, were full of stories that “every effort is being made to end unemployment.” but they themselves predicted another rush of refugees within days.
Another thing on which all agree is the growing harshness, and the even faster-growing corruption, of the police and the army.
Stefan Vegh and his wife Katharine left Budapest just before Christmas. Things had been quiet with them for more than a month until the night the soldiers came.
“We lived in a suburb, a small place called Vecses,” he said. “It is true that I took part in the revolution and all our people in Vecses knew it, but they said
nothing. However, there was one man of very bad reputation whom we knew.”
After some difficulty with the interpreter Vegh managed to convey that this acquaintance was a “gangster” who had been “run out of town” previously. But on the night of Dec. 15 he turned up at the Vcghs' door.
“My wife answered his knock. He was drunk, and he said he wanted to come in. She wouldn't let him. He went away, and in a little while he came back with twenty Russian soldiers.
“They said, ‘You are a partisan; where have you hidden your arms?’ I said I had no arms. They looked all through the house, tore up the floor, ripped the
upholstery with their bayonets. Of course they didn't find anything and finally they went away.
"We were very scared. We left our home at once, the same night, and stayed with my wife’s brother away at the other end of Budapest. After a week we took the train to a small town near the border. The last fifteen miles we walked.”
Every week it becomes more difficult, though, to get away in this fashion. In practice this means, for the lucky ones who do get away, that escape is becoming more and more expensive. Everybody has to be bribed.
First there is the train crew. If you pay the conductor he will tip you off when the soldiers or police have finished checking the first car on a train. At the next station he will let you out on the wrong side of the track, and you can run up and get into the car they have just finished checking. On the other hand if you don’t pay the conductor he may point you out to the police.
Once off the train, and most people go only a little more than halfway by rail, you still have fifty miles or so of Hungarian territory in front of you. Young and able-bodied men and women, traveling alone or in pairs, can set off on foot. Families can’t. Even if the children could walk that far, a whole brood marching along is too conspicuous.
To take them on the next leg of the journey there will be a man with a truck, but he is not in business for his health. To be fair, you must concede that he is taking a big risk—it’s not his own truck but the property of the Communist government, and if he is caught it will go hard with him. So he charges ordinary passengers a thousand forints per person (the rich, of course, pay more).
Like all Communist currencies the Hungarian forint has a highly disputable value. Before the November rebellion Hungarians could get approximately two Austrian schillings—eight cents—for a forint. In the first days of the rebellion refugees sold their forints for Austrian schillings at par, one for one. Now, they say, an Austrian schilling will buy ten forints, in Austria. Prices haven’t changed that much in Hungary, though, and for most refugees a thousand forints represents most of a month’s pay.
But the refugee must take care not to give all his money to the rapacious truck driver, for he still has one more fee to pay—the guide.
In the main, refugees do not seem to resent the payment to the guide. They feel he earns his money. Usually he is a young man from a border village who knows the terrain well enough to find his way in pitch dark, and who knows from recent hazardous experience the habits of the border guards. He gathers up a group of refugees at sundown, charges them five hundred Austrian schillings or about twenty dollars apiece, and walks them across the border, usually about eight or ten miles.
All these sums are approximate and variable, particularly the bribe to the train crew, but very roughly it costs a refugee about seventy-five dollars a head to bring himself and his family out. That is if he is lucky. If he is unlucky he will be caught once or more by the police or the soldiers, and there is no limit either upward or downward to the bribe he will have to give them to be turned loose.
“The first time we were caught we were still in Budapest station,” a young husband recalled. “I had to give the soldier my overcoat before he would let us get on the train. The second time we were on the train. A soldier came through, supposed to be checking our identity cards, but what he was really looking for was my money. He searched me and didn't find any. Then he tried to search my wife, but she made so much fuss that he stopped. He turned to me again and said, ‘How much money have you got?’
“Finally I gave him five hundred forints and he let us go. It was a good thing that I had the money. There were three other people in the car who couldn't pay him anything, and he arrested them and took them off the train.”
These are poor people. Even a poor man is temporarily flush when he has sold every article he owns except the clothes on his back — refugees do not dare carry even a rucksack. But if the transport of the poor is a prosperous trade in Hungary these days, bringing out the rich is Big Business.
If a man has relatives willing and able to pay $4,000 U. S., cash down in Vienna, he can be taken right from his home to the Bristol Hotel, one of Vienna’s most expensive and pretentious hostelries, by automobile. One car picks him up in Budapest, or anywhere in Hungary for that matter, and takes him to within a few yards of the border. Husky young guides will, if necessary, carry him across on a stretcher or sedan chair to another car that is waiting to whisk him off to Vienna. Many an aged or crippled kinsman has been brought out this way.
These de luxe operations include expertly forged papers, calculated to fool an honest Hungarian policeman or Russian soldier, but of course the operators do not rely on either honesty or stupidity in the border patrol. Bribery is safer.
It still is not safe enough. Every week a few people are shot dead trying to cross the border. In the party with which I rode back from the frontier, one man was visibly bothered by conscience. His brother and sister-in-law with five children had been members of the party when it set out, but half a mile from the border the youngest children started to cry. The guide refused to take them any farther, and they had to turn back alone into Hungary. The brother was ashamed because he had let them go and continued his own escape.
But even if the guides don't trust the policemen they almost certainly pay them. There is much noisy shooting on the Hungarian side of the border, and a rocket flare is set off every few minutes, but I noticed that these activities took place some distance away from the point where the refugees actually crossed.
Economic chaos, prostitution of law enforcement—it adds up to an ugly picture of decay in Communist Hungary. The still unanswerable question is, how far is the decay likely to spread? How badly damaged is the Soviet empire as a whole?
Old regimes can’t come back
Economically the effect will probably be rather serious. Hungary's production has been almost totally disorganized, and the Soviet empire is so constructed that every part of it depends on supplies from every other part. Before the war, the countries that now make up the Communist bloc did only a tenth of their foreign trade with each other. By 1952 the proportion had risen to three quarters, which it still is. The Soviet blocas a whole has made itself almost selfsufficient, but the same operation made its members interdependent. If Hungary stops producing, other partners inevitably go short.
This does not mean the Communist economy as a whole is either breaking down or breaking up. Eastern European countries are well woven into that economy now and could no more extricate themselves than Canada could cut herself off from the economy of the United States. But if they cannot change radically, they can lose their enthusiasm.
Probably the same thing is true politically. So far 1 have not met a single person who thinks that Hungary, or Poland, or any now-Communist country is going to turn away from every form of communism. I have not heard anyone say that any of the old prewar regimes could or should be revived. Even here in Czechoslovakia, where the democracy of Masaryk and Benes was popular and free enterprise relatively successful, people seem to look back on the old days with more distaste than nostalgia. Apparently they have learned to pay to socialism the kind of ritualistic lip service that we in the West pay democracy, whether we really like it or not.
The change that has taken place, if the optimists here are right, is a much more subtle one. If they are right, communism will survive—but without its élan, without its dynamism. After all. the Turkish empire lasted three centuries after its decisive repulse at Vienna in the seventeenth century, and the Arabs held Spain for seven after Charles Martel stopped them at Tours in 732, but neither ever made another advance.
So it is probably much too soon to say that communism is on the run. But in eastern Europe at least, it is no longer on the march, jc