The Usual Psychological Effects of a Shotgun Wedding’. British Labour and the Social Democratic Parties in Eastern Europe, 1945-1948. Introduction

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Indian Summer
Even so, in their efforts to encourage the Eastern European Social Democrats to assert their independence, the Labour Party and the Foreign Office would act in concord over the following six months. Promising signs abounded. In Poland, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, who had replaced the fellow-travelling Edward Osóbka-Morawski as leader of the PPS in 1946 and had become Prime Minister after the elections, steered an independent course. In April 1947 the Polish Communist Party (PPR) approached him with a proposal for the immediate fusion of Socialists and Communists, to be announced in a dramatic fashion on May 1st. Cyrankiewicz refused it out of hand, forcing Władysław Gomułka, General Secretary of the PPR, to rewrite his May Day message.43 Cyrankiewicz also appears to have positively impressed Bevin when the two men met in Warsaw in late April. At the Labour Party Conference in May, the Foreign Minister declared that his Office had experienced difficulties with the Poles as they had not lived up to the Potsdam agreements. When ‘they had the good sense to select a Social Democratic Prime Minister, the Social Democratic Party taking an entirely different view, the situation was altered’.44 Notes of optimism sprung even from Rumania. In March it was reported that tensions between Social Democrats and Communists were mounting. Rădăceanu led a movement to break with the Communist Party and seek rapprochement with the Independent Social Democrats.45

But, for the time being, most attention was being paid to the dilemmas facing the Hungarian Social Democrats. In a November 1946 visit to the country, Morgan Philips had met with the leaders of all Hungarian political parties and concluded that Hungary found itself at crossroads. In the free elections of late 1945 the Communists had rallied only 17 percent of the electorate behind them, while the Smallholders Party had secured more than half of the popular vote. From the elections onwards, the principal objective of the Communists had been to redress the balance and destroy the Smallholders by branding them as counter-revolutionaries. The Hungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZDP) had struggled alongside the Communists in the so-called Left Wing Bloc. But the Left Wing Bloc was fighting a race against time: the Smallholders had to be annihilated before the signing of a peace treaty would result in the departure of the Red Army. For that reason, Philips argued, the January 1947 congress of the MSZDP was ‘bound to influence decisively the outcome of the struggle’. The Hungarian Social Democrats would have to choose between persisting in the present course of following the Communists ‘blindly and unreservedly’ and embarking upon ‘a policy aimed at restoring the full independence’ of the party. In that case, there would be a real ‘possibility of greater collaboration between the Smallholder Centre and the Social-Democratic Party’.46 In this respect, the Foreign Office was in complete agreement with Philips. The British Political Mission in Budapest had already pointed to the appeal of an anti-Communist coalition of Social Democrats and Smallholders.47

At the congress, which was attended by Healey, the issue of Social Democratic-Communist cooperation took centre stage. Similar to their Polish counterparts a few months later, the Hungarian Communists had recently suggested a merger. The Social Democrats had ‘so emphatically rejected’ this offer ‘that it has not since been heard’. There were, however, certain other problems. Most of all, the MSZDP was led by the weak and unreliable pro-Communist Ȧrpád Szakasits. While the Social Democrats had ‘the best masses’, the Communists possessed ‘the best leaders’. During the congress, the party leadership made no efforts to approach the Smallholders. On the contrary, Károly Peyer, the pre-war leader of the MSZDP, was denounced by Szakasits for being friendly to the Smallholders Party.48 And the close collaboration with the Hungarian Communists was reaffirmed. Yet, recently there had been signs not only of growing Social Democratic independence, but also of successful efforts ‘to hold the Communists back’.49 For that reason, Healey expected discord between Social Democrats and Communists to increase over the following months. Throughout this crucial period an unremitting British interest in the MSZDP was of the utmost importance, as ‘the Socialist leaders will be influenced by their estimate of the help which the Western parties will give them’. The present leadership was, however, feeble, and a change of power was to be hoped for. Of the prospective leaders in waiting, Minister of Industry Antal Bán seemed ‘the most promising to back’.50

In the case of the Hungarian Social Democrats, backing meant financial support above all. As Minister of Industry, Bán had just presented his Three Year Plan for the revitalisation of Hungarian agriculture and industry. This plan entailed heavy sacrifices on the part of the workers, as precedence was given to capital investment and agricultural development. These kinds of sacrifices could easily be exploited by Communist demagogy. Therefore, to strengthen Bán’s position and prestige within the country and to avoid the Communists taking advantage of working-class disillusionment with the Three Year Plan, Hungary desperately needed foreign credits.51 On his return from Budapest, Healey immediately got in touch with Dalton to arrange for a meeting between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Social Democratic Hungarian Under-Secretary of Finance. During the first post-war years, however, Britain was hardly in a position to prop up foreign economies. As a consequence, the success of the Three Year Plan depended entirely upon American willingness to provide the Hungarian Government with another credit.52

At the same time as the Eastern European Social Democratic parties were struggling to assert their independence at home, they won their greatest victory within the framework of the international Socialist movement. At the International Socialist Conference in Zurich in June 1947, they succeeded in delaying the re-admission of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the European Socialist family with another six months. A mixture of domestic, foreign and nationalist arguments had pitted the Eastern European Social Democrats against the SPD and its flamboyant leader Kurt Schumacher.53 In the face of overwhelming Western European support for the German Social Democrats, the Eastern European parties seemed to be outnumbered at first hand. But, as it turned out, the Belgian Socialists had been unable to mandate their delegation and abstained from voting on the question; as a result, the SPD failed to meet the required two-third majority by a single vote. Even though the Labour Party had voted in favour of the German Social Democrats, Healey concluded that the verdict on the SPD was in fact a blessing in disguise. Schumacher ‘returned with the publicly expressed confidence of nine major parties, while the opposition of the East European Parties would certainly not damage his prestige inside Germany’. On the other hand, the Eastern European Social Democrats had ‘deprived their local Communists of a valuable propaganda weapon against them, a point of some importance in view of the recent intensification of Communist pressure and propaganda against right-wing Social Democracy’.54

In more than one respect, the first half of 1947 was the Indian Summer of the Eastern European Social Democratic parties. The Communists, ‘dizzy with success’ after the effective elimination of most Conservative, Liberal and Peasant parties, experienced major setbacks as the Social Democrats rejected fusion and asserted their independence. Furthermore, there were signals that the Social Democratic parties were steadily gaining ground amongst the Eastern European populations. In June the British Ambassador in Prague reported that the Social Democratic emancipation from Communism had ‘gathered increasing momentum’ over the last months. He believed that the CSSD was the only party that could successfully struggle with the Communists for the heart of the working-class. Recent evidence suggested that the Social Democrats were ‘on their way towards overhauling their rivals’.55 In the same vein, the Hungarian Social Democrats claimed that since the November 1945 elections ‘they had gained whereas the Communists had lost support among Hungarian industrial workers’. As there was every prospect of these developments continuing, the Communists would not be able to govern without the MSZDP and the Social Democrats would uphold their independence.56

Hot Summer
Very soon, though, the development of the Eastern European Social Democratic parties would come to be overshadowed by mounting tensions in the international arena. In late June, Healey observed a ‘trend towards greater rigidity in East Europe’, which might be countered by an international détente.57 The American ‘offensive’, launched with the formulation of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, seems to have been perceived by most Eastern European Social Democrats as being directed as much against Socialism as against Communism. Ever since its proclamation, Social Democrats across the region feared that the United States would ‘pursue a clumsy, heavy-handed and indiscriminate campaign against the new regimes in Eastern Europe which will intensify polarisations of opinion in those countries and drive the Communists to more and more extreme measures’. Even if successful, this campaign could only result in ‘a counter-revolutionary white terror in which the Socialists would go down together with the Communists’.58 The Eastern European Social Democrats needed reassurance above all. For that reason, Healey urged the Foreign Office to make every effort to disprove the impression that Labour Britain was but a junior partner in a dollar-imperialistic world offensive. Furthermore, he asked Philip Noel-Baker, Secretary of State for Air in the Labour Government, to emphasise in his opening address to the Annual Conference that the Labour Party considered ‘the unity of Eastern and Western Europe to be possible and necessary, without entailing any sacrifices of the social gains in Eastern Europe, or the adoption of policies which might offend the Soviet Union’.59

Yet, it was unquestionable that the tide was turning in world politics, as Great Power cooperation was giving way to ever-increasing polarisation. For all its vows to continued collaboration between East and West within the international Socialist movement, certain developments were beyond the Labour Party’s control. In France, the Communists had been ejected from the Government in May. The fact that the French Socialists had not followed suit, thereby demolishing united working-class ranks in France, caused particular discontent within the PPS. No wonder the Polish Socialists are reported to have felt vindicated, when France was subsequently paralysed by a wave of strikes.60 Referring chiefly to the situation in France, Cyrankiewicz declared that the Polish Socialists were ‘wiser than the West European Socialists by a whole historical period’.61 In October, the PPS announced its intention ‘to produce conditions in which a united Workers’ International could be set up, to which both Socialists and Communists belong’; to this end, it would seek to cultivate left-wingers in Western European Social Democratic parties over the following months.62 In the face of the inexorable rise of US-sponsored right-wing parties in Western Europe, the Socialist-Communist united front was presented as the stronghold protecting the social revolutions in post-war Eastern Europe. For as ‘long as the international situation contains the germs of war, Poland and Russia, Socialists and Communists in Poland, sink or swim together’. In this manner, the Polish Socialists hoped to ‘survive the Cold War’.63

The idea that the Cold War would be a short-term conflict was still widespread in late 1947. In mid-October, Healey predicted it would take between twelve and eighteen months before Britain could hope for success in it. In the meantime, it was imperative that Britain should do everything in its power to prevent the ‘complete [G]leichschaltung’ of Eastern Europe to the Soviet model. It seems that Bulgaria and Rumania had for the moment been given up on by Healey. On the other hand, he deemed the future of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland as still undetermined. But a Soviet attempt to redirect the foreign trade of these three countries in a way that would reduce their standards of living was to be expected before long. For that reason, he pleaded to make ‘special concessions’ to each of them.64 The Hungarians were to be supported in their efforts to obtain membership of the United Nations, while British influence upon the United States was to be used to convince the international bank to grant Poland a reconstruction loan. The latter undertaking was also assumed to ‘give direct support to the Polish Socialists’.65

By this time, however, the Foreign Office was no longer willing to make concessions to Poland solely in the hope of strengthening the PPS. On July 31st, Sir Donald Gainer, the new British Ambassador in Poland, met with Bevin and top Foreign Office diplomats to discuss the state of affairs in Poland. It was concluded that the Polish Socialists were not offering enough resistance to Communists, and had in fact yielded to the further communisation of their country. As a consequence, the Foreign Office now regarded the PPS as a ‘broken reed’.66 Bevin hoped that the Catholic Church would be able to counter Communist dominance in Poland, but Gainer was rather sceptical on this count as well. Still, Eastern Europe was not yet completely given up on. While the situation in Bulgaria and Rumania was ‘beyond repair’, in Bevin’s view Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland were ‘still in the balance’. The limited resources that Britain possessed would be focused on these three countries.67 Some weeks afterwards, Healey was informed on the Foreign Office’s change of heart regarding the Polish Socialists. He is reported to have agreed ‘that if the effect of recent international developments (the Marshall Plan etc.) was in the end to perpetuate the division of Europe into two, […] the Socialist parties in Eastern Europe were all doomed’.68

The ‘hot summer’ of 1947 ended with a bang. The founding of the Cominform in late September is often pointed to as the impetus for the forced mergers of Communists and Socialists in Eastern Europe. In this view, the Eastern European Social Democratic parties lost their independence shortly after the Szklaraska Poreba conference and were forced to undergo extensive purges over the following months.69 To be sure, a brow-beaten congress of the (Government) Rumanian Social Democrats would acquiesce with a fusion with the Communist Party within weeks of the creation of the Cominform. Yet the fact that a palace revolution propelled Bán to the position of second-in-command within the MSZDP in October cannot be explained by this narrative.70 Neither does it elucidate how it was possible that even the long foresaken Bulgarian Social Democrats did not embrace the Cominform line of denouncing the Labour Party’s leaders as ‘imperialist lackeys’ at their October congress, but instead maintained that British support for American imperialism emanated from ‘the forces of dying English Capitalism […] headed by Churchill’.71 Above all, however, developments in Czechoslovakia and Poland lend credence to the impression that the CSSD and the PPS had preserved their independence in late 1947.

Diverging appraisals of the events in the summer account for the opposing strategies chosen by the Czechoslovakian Social Democrats and the Polish Socialists in the second half of 1947. In the face of increasing Communist pressure at home and mounting tensions between the Great Powers, the CSSD opted for an ever stronger pro-Western course, while the PPS decided on an intensification of the politics of appeasement. The concept of appeasement was first coined by Healey to describe the conduct of the Eastern European Social Democratic parties in mid-1947. The rationale behind appeasement was that while the Soviet Union was in a position to impose Communist dictatorship on the countries in its sphere of influence, it would, in view of the diversion of energies and resources the upholding of such dictatorships would require, be loathe to do so as long as popular front coalitions, leaning on a modicum of popular support, would be prepared to meet its strategic and economic demands. Therefore, until tensions in the international arena abated, the Eastern European Social Democrats had no choice but to yield to most Communist demands if they wished to keep their organisational independence intact. The time thus bought was to be used to consolidate an autonomous party apparatus and to strengthen the bonds with the Western European Social Democratic parties.72 Britain could contribute to the success of the politics of appeasement if it kept ‘the political temperature low’ and refrained from encouraging the Eastern European Social Democrats ‘into policies which can only expose them to Communist attacks, against which we are powerless to protect them’.73

Still, by the summer of 1947, the CSSD was about to abandon the politics of appeasement, realising it had ‘more to gain by challenging than by lining up behind the Communists’.74 Reasons peculiar to the situation in post-war Czechoslovakia underlay this volte-face. In the first place, the disappointing results at the polls in mid-1946, where the Social Democrats returned only 14 percent of the popular vote, gave cause to qualms over strategies pursued thus far. In the second place, the mere presence of other independent non-Communist parties in the Czechoslovakian National Front Government, presented the CSSD with an alternative to close collaboration with the Communists that was simply unavailable to the other Eastern European Social Democratic parties. Thirdly, Stalin’s effective veto on Czechoslovakian participation in the Marshall Plan, designating that the country found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence after all, deepened pre-existing pro-Western sentiments within Social Democratic ranks.75

The turnaround in the CSSD’s attitude towards Communism met with approval in British circles. In mid-July, Healey noted that Zdeněk Fierlinger and Bohumil Laušman, two of the most prominent leaders of the party, had ‘flirted too closely with the Communists’ and caused the bad Social Democratic turn-out at the elections. At present, however, the Social Democrats were ‘much more independent’ and were expected to regain some of the lost ground in the new elections that were scheduled for the Spring of 1948.76 In the same vein, the Foreign Office considered it ‘most encouraging that two weathercocks like Fierlinger and Lau[š]man should have decided that they can profitably adopt Western ideas and align their party against Communism’.77 Over the following months, the CSSD would substitute the radicalism of the immediate post-war period for a more moderate line. In late August, the Social Democrats voted, with the other non-Communist National Front parties, against the Communist proposal on a ‘millionaires’ tax’, inflicting upon the Communists their first defeat in the Czechoslovakian Cabinet since the end of the war.78 In September, though, a crisis erupted within the CSSD, after Fierlinger, without consulting the party leadership, had signed a ‘pact of unity’ with the Communists. The stage seemed to be set for united front Communist-Social Democratic collaboration after the Polish model, but the pact was engulfed by a wave of indignation amongst both the party leadership and its rank-and-file and was repudiated in due course. It was in this atmosphere that the congress of the CSSD assembled in Brno in mid-November. Fierlinger, exposed as fellow-traveller, was replaced by Laušman as General Secretary of the party. For his part, Laušman would be kept in check by an Executive Committee dominated by ‘autonomists’.79 According to Healey, the congress was a major setback to the Czechoslovakian Communists, who were now ‘faced with an almost impossible task’ to obtain their proclaimed objective of 51 percent of the popular vote in the next elections ‘without open terrorisation’.80

Optimism at the results of the congress prevailed both at the Foreign Office and within the Labour Party. In the first place, the construction of an exclusive Communist-Social Democratic alliance had been avoided. The Social Democrats were now ‘tied firmly to the policy of the National Front of all parties rather than of collaborating with the Communists in a workers’ bloc’.81 Even though British attempts to bring about closer relations between the CSSD and the National Socialists backfired in the face of mutual distrust, the ‘pluck and resolution’ shown by the Social Democrats had done much to encourage the other non-Communist parties.82 In the second place, most observers had been struck by the enormous reverberation of the concepts of democracy and independence amongst the Social Democratic rank-and-file. Even the pro-Communists justified their policies ‘on grounds of expediency or necessity, while accepting the same principle as the anti-Communist wing’.83 One delegate was even ‘warmly applauded’ for a speech in which ‘he went so far as to offer a defence of American foreign policy’ – remarkable stuff indeed, in late 1947 Eastern Europe.

At the same time as the Czechoslovakian Social Democrats gravitated more and more towards the West, the Polish Socialists stepped up their efforts to placate the Communists at home. The foundation of the Cominform seems to have caused particular alarm within the PPS. Within days of its creation, Cyrankiewicz approached the CSSD with a plan to sever relations to the Western European Social Democrats and to establish an international organisation of Eastern European Social Democratic parties. The Czechoslovakian Social Democrats turned down the suggestion, declaring that they were unwilling to denounce their Western European counterparts as traitors or imperialists.84 Thus rebuffed, the Polish Socialists accelerated their campaign to further the formation of a Socialist-Communist united front on the international level. In the following months, the PPS would publish its contacts with the Italian Socialists, who were in a long-term united front with the Communists, and Konni Zilliacus, the most outspoken advocate of collaboration with Communism within the Labour Party. In Healey’s view, though, the publication of these dealings was chiefly intended to ‘delude’ the Polish Communists.85 In order to ward off Communist assaults upon their independence, the Polish Socialists had little choice but to present themselves ‘as the champions of the united front in the international Socialist movement’.86

Even so, a new Communist demand for fusion would not be long in coming. On the first day of the December congress of the PPS in Wrocław, Gomułka reminded those present that the Communist-Socialist pact entered into in late 1946 foresaw the eventual merger of the two parties. He was, however, counteracted by Cyrankiewicz, who, while singing the praises of the united front, declared ‘that the PPS considered it had a unique and indispensable function to perform in the development of the Polish State’. This was taken by the delegates as a clear rejection of Gomułka’s plea. After having been cheered to ‘for several minutes’, Cyrankiewicz went on avowing ‘that the PPS did not propose to be a moon to somebody else’s sun’.87 The outcome of the congress heartened Healey; it had gone ‘a good deal further in affirming the independence of the Polish Socialist Party’ than he had expected beforehand.88 The politics of appeasement was doing its work. The Polish Socialists would go to great lengths to preserve their distinctive character and ‘put up with much so long as essentials remained intact’. The British Ambassador in Warsaw was, however, doubtful about the merits of appeasement. He asked what positive results the politics of appeasement were to produce, short of encouraging ‘the Communists to turn the screw still tighter’. These ‘drawbacks’ to appeasement were acknowledged by Healey, arguing that the Socialist leaders were alert to the risks entailed in their policies. Yet, for the time being, it was ‘a question of survival’. Above all, the Polish Socialists ‘hoped to gain time to consolidate their party and its relations with their co-religionists in other countries pending the final outcome of the “cold” war now being waged’.89

Meanwhile, there was little Britain could do but wait and see. Still, on his return from Poland, Healey urged Bevin to adopt another viewpoint in the question of the Oder-Neiße border. Whilst in Wrocław, he had been ‘very strongly impressed by the damage which our equivocal attitude on Poland’s Western frontier is causing to pro-British sentiment’. He predicted that, once the final peace settlement was signed, the new Polish borders would remain unchanged. But, not living up to its wartime promise to support Polish claims in the West, Britain was ‘antagonising the whole of Polish public opinion’.90 This was likely to have direct repercussions for the standing of the Polish Socialists at home, as popular outlook in post-war Europe seems to have identified the Socialist/Social Democratic parties in their domestic contexts with the exploits of the Labour Government in the international field.91 During their April conversation, Cyrankiewicz had warned Bevin of the danger ‘should the port of Stettin be turned into a second Danzig, […] becoming the centre of a German irredentist movement’. In his view, ‘it would contribute to the peace of Europe if Poland received support from more than one Power’.92 Even though Soviet support for the Oder-Neiße frontier guaranteed de facto Polish possession of the Western territories, the Poles were desperate to have their new borders recognised by the Western Powers, as it was feared that a possible division of Germany might lead the Soviet Union to re-annex Silesia to its part of the truncated German state. This accounts for the panic caused by the failure of the London round of the Council of Foreign Ministers, which had been expected to settle the question once and for all. At the Wrocław congress, Cyrankiewicz even spoke of a ‘new Munich’.93

With the breaking-up of the Foreign Ministers in London the perspectives of the Eastern European Social Democrats faded. Nonetheless, in late January 1948, Healey was still hopeful about the prospects of the Central Eastern European Social Democratic parties. The PPS had ‘[b]ought survival’ and was ‘[w]ell led by Cyrankiewicz’; a fusion had been postponed. The CSSD had embarked upon the right course at its mid-November congress, although it still refused ‘to break [the] National Front’. The MSZDP stood ‘at crossroad[s]’: infighting between the left-wing and the right-wing was proceeding, with a fusion looming in the background.94 Yet, when the Communists resorted to ‘open terrorisation’ in Czechoslovakia after all, the bonds with the Eastern European Social Democratic parties were severed. It is most telling that in mid-March, just a couple of weeks after the Prague coup, Denis Healey and Morgan Philips took a plane to Rome to talk some sense to the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party, who had condoned the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia and sent a letter of good wishes to Fierlinger.95 The focus had shifted from upholding the Social Democratic parties in Eastern Europe to saving the Social Democratic parties in Western Europe. The Cold War had begun in earnest.

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