Chapter Sixteen

Liberty in Eastern Europe

Bulgaria and Hungary about which I have written most in this book are countries which are virtually excommunicated by the Western world. They have been denied membership to the United Nations. Their crimes are that they have. defended their independence, have resolutely brought to trial those who plotted and intrigued against them – even British and Americans, as Mr. Sanders and Mr. Vogeler found to their sorrow when they became involved in espionage against the Hungarian State.

For this they are ostracised by the Western nations. Bloody coups and counter-coups could be permitted in other countries, in South America or, in Syria, in countries where America and Britain had much closer interests than in Bulgaria or Hungary. But suppression of coups could not be tolerated in the People's Democracies. The Anglo-American official conception of Democracy in the Balkans, seemed to be on the Greek pattern with overflowing prisons and firing squads executing the country's best citizens at the rate of ten or twelve daily. The truth of the matter is that any country which can guarantee safety for British and American investments, no matter what the colour of its regime is acceptable to Whitehall and the White House, whether it be a personal dictatorship in Santo Domingo, clerical Fascist in Spain, semi-Fascist in South Africa, or a gangster regime in a South American Republic.

The corrupt regimes of Eastern Europe before the war, the periodical massacre of a few thousand Communists, the complete suppression of civil and political liberties, were never the subject of official criticism from England and America. If the dictator were a Horthy, a Tsankoff or Filov, a King Boris or King Carol, with their feet well planted on the neck of the people, there were no protests about denial of liberties. If it were a Dimitrov, a Rakosi or a Pauker flung into jail for years without trial, there was no flutter of excitement in the Foreign Office or State Department.

The difference is that to-day the people, an alliance of workers, peasants and intellectuals are in charge in these countries, they are building the new life that their poets have written about for centuries. There is no place in this new life for foreign trusts or for foreign influence which can be used against the interests of the people. The money-changers have been driven out and given something of a scourging into the bargain. One after another, the reserves of British and American capitalism have been marched into the front line against these governments and one after another they have been shot down. Their last trump card, Marshal Tito (probably played unwillingly because he was at best cutting their losses), failed as miserably as did the local opposition and the Church, and the traitors in the Party ranks. Bitter disappointment and tragic blunders in the past have forced men like Rakosi and Dimitrov to build on a sure foundation this time and to maintain that eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty.

Liberty itself is a relative term. There is a suppression of liberties in Bulgaria and Hungary. When one type of regime has been violently destroyed and another has taken its place it would be courting suicide for the new government to grant full rights to the supporters of the regime it has supplanted. The French revolutionaries adopted the great human slogans of "liberty, equality and fraternity," the slogan of the bourgeois revolution, glowing words that kindled hope in the hearts of Europe's masses struggling to free themselves from the shackles of feudalism. The slogan blazed across Europe like a forest fire sweeping away feudal privileges and inspiring revolutions in a dozen states. But the French revolutionaries certainly had no intention to grant "liberty, equality and fraternity" to the Royalists. They quite properly chopped their heads off and prevented as many as possible from leaving the country to plot a counter-revolution with British and German help.

Jozsi Bacsi, whom we met in an earlier chapter, believed there is no liberty in Hungary, because he cannot get a passport to go and live off his cronies along the Riviera. But what about Janos, a Budapest bricklayer, who laid three times .as many bricks as was considered normal before the war and spent last year's vacation at Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia. He and his wife got passports and enjoyed a liberty which they could never have believed possible a few years ago. How many bricklayers had ever been out of the country before? You could count them on the fingers of one hand. What about the thousands of Czech miners who last year filled their lungs with the bracing air of the Black Sea at Balchik, Burgas and Varna – (now Stalino) – in Bulgaria?

There's a former banker I know in Sofia who complains that there is no liberty in Bulgaria, because several of his properties have been taken away and he now works as an employee in one of the nationalised banks. He would like to settle down in Italy.

But what about Georgi, the gnarled old shepherd guarding a flock of brown and black sheep on the mountain road at the co-operative near Klisura? He was the finest shepherd in the co-operative, never lost a new-born lamb, always knew where the sweetest picking was for his flock, could tend twice as many sheep as another man and never get their fleece roughed up with brambles. A fine old man with jet black eyes and a face as brown and wrinkled as a walnut. One son had been killed right there where the co-operative farm was, killed by Tsar Boris's police as he came down from the mountains for food for his partisan group.

"I'd not thought it possible that they could have found a place for an old man like me in the co-operative,” he told me, "but in one year they've given me enough money to build a new house for my second son. He can now get married and there's still some money left over for myself." The co-op. manager patted his back affectionately and said "Djedja earns more than anyone else because he's still an excellent shepherd, and he got paid for over 500 working days last year." For every disgruntled banker there are 10,000 like Georgi.

The whole of Bulgaria's working population get free medical and dental attention, their children free education and the possibility for higher university education. There are three times as many university students as under King Boris, and most of them children of workers and peasants. How can one balance Jozsi's passport and the banker's requisitioned houses against these things?

For the worker and the peasant, the people that created the wealth which provided the privileges for Jozsi Bacsi and the bankers, the new governments are providing new liberties, real privileges which make a mockery of any suggestion that these governments are based on a suppression of liberties. Try and tell the artists who receive monthly advances for their uncompleted work, to whom the government has given studios, for whom the finest villas and castles in the country have been thrown open to work in, that their liberties have been taken away from them. Try and tell the Hungarian factory workers who have been selected for their capabilities and are being trained for posts in the foreign office that their liberties have been suppressed. Visit workers in their rest homes in the mountains or on the coast all over the People's Democracies, former villas of the landowners and industrialists, and ask them where are their liberties. Ask the coal miners of Pernik – now Dimitrovo – where Georgi Dimitrov grew up and organised the first great strike in 1906, if they have been robbed of their liberties. They will tell you that liberty in the days between the wars meant to work on an average of two or three days a week only, to live in miserable hovels miles away from Dimitrovo, to see their families starve, to be shot down if they tried to organise. Liberty in 1950 meant a full working week, wages equal to twice that of a Cabinet minister for underground workers, finest education for their children, new apartments into which they were being moved at the rate of 20 families weekly throughout the year in the city itself, for which they paid no rent, no gas or electric light bills; four weeks' paid holiday every year, constant free medical attention.

I spoke to one miner who had been a university student at the time of the 1923 revolt. He was suspected of being a sympathiser and expelled. In the end he drifted to the mines as an underground worker. He had worked there ever since and was still working. "My sons now have the chance which I was denied," he said. "One has just graduated in Slav studies from Sofia University, the other will graduate next year in Law."

Miners that took part in the 1923 revolt can retire on a pension of 60 per cent. of the earnings. If they care to continue working they are given 30 per cent. plus their wages. Dimitrovo is being built up as a modern city instead of a black, miserable coal town. It has the second best symphony orchestra in Bulgaria. The miners have fought and suffered terribly for their conception of liberty since the beginning of this century, and if you ask them if they have now won out, the answer is a thundering "yes." It is a reply which should reach the ears of striped-trousered gentlemen in the White House and Whitehall, if the legations in Sofia were really doing their job instead of organising espionage and listening to the hard luck stories of dispossessed bankers.

If one asks the women in the villages what do they think about this question of liberty, they will not say they have been denied a passport to go to Monte Carlo. They will say that in five years they have been lifted out of centuries-long bondage. They will talk about their newfound economic independence, that they too get paid for their work, that they are now the equal of the menfolk, that they have been liberated from their age-old double role of working by day as a slave in the fields, and a slave by night in the home. They will talk of new liberties introduced with the creche, the communal laundries, and canteens where husband can get a quick, cheap snack. They will speak of neighbour Rada Ivanova, who has become a member of parliament. That is what they will speak about in discussing liberties, and it's no good going into flights in the stratosphere and quoting from Mr. Bevin or Mr. Acheson because they won't be interested. No religious liberty? Don't I go to Church myself every feast day and who is there to stop me? Cardinal Mindszenty? Pooh! Serves him right for shoving his nose into politics. Liberty of the press? I listen to the Voice of America sometimes and it talks nothing but war, war, war, and says stupid things about our country that any fool knows are wrong! Should we have a press like that perhaps?

Ask the hundreds of thousands of youths who turn out each summer to work on the great construction projects, on roads, dams and railways in the People's Democracies, what restrictions there are on their liberties. They are joined by thousands of youths from all over Western Europe, England and the New World each year, who work with them for a spell to go back to tell of the new life, but not of suppression of liberties. The truth is that each of these youths can look forward to a full and creative life. He will be trained according to his abilities at the expense of the State and he can be sure of a job awaiting him when the studies are over. The job will not depend on his social background, not on the colour of his tie, not on his accent, but on his qualifications. Liberty is a relative term with different values as it moves East into the People's Democracies. Under English liberty who could think of a career in the British Foreign Office, without the correct tie, accents and contacts? The son of a Welsh miner, a Scottish shepherd, a Cockney taxi-driver?

Ask the gypsies in Hungary what they think about Western liberties and the suppression of liberties in present-day Hungary. If you strike one who knows his history he will tell you of the gypsies' experiences of Western ideas of settling their problem and how it is being tackled to-day. There were numerous attempts to deal with the gypsies from the time of Empress Maria Theresa to the time of the Nazis and the Szalasi Fascists. Under Maria Theresa gypsy girls were taken forcibly from their parents and farmed out among "respectable middle class" families. Later, if the girl could prove she had been reared with such a family and had become a "devout Catholic," she received a dowry from the State, providing she married a non-gypsy. The Nazi Szalasi method was simpler: to castrate those men they could lay their hands on and drive the women off to be worked to death in the concentration camps. They were to be exterminated together with Hungary's Jews as "racial degenerates."

The new Hungarian government, which may not enter the United Nations because of its "violation of human rights" and "suppression of liberties," gave the gypsies full civil rights and political rights and started a great drive to educate the children. Special gypsy schools were established with a nine-year education and vocational training programme. Three-month literary courses for adults were also set up, as a large proportion of Hungary's 120,000 gypsies were illiterate. Psychologists carefully watch the children for special talents which can be developed – apart from music, for which they all show a natural aptitude. Adults are taught home-crafts suitable to the districts in which they live. Many of them have been given land.

Budapest's 15,000 gypsy musicians, the life and soul of the little restaurant orchestras, formed their own trade union, and were given a fine headquarters with a home attached where old-timers, too old to draw a bow or beat the zimbal, have been settled with decent pensions. The union has a hostel for friends who come in from the country, and another one for gypsy youths who show promise as musicians, and who can now go ahead and study at the Conservatorium of Music.

These gypsies could give an interesting answer to the question of suppression of liberties and the violation of human rights in the People's Democracies, as could every other member of a national minority, Greeks, Circassians, Armenians, Jews, Rumanians, Turks, Slovaks or Germans.

Drop in at the school-house of some remote village in the Stara Zagora mountains on a winter evening. There will be kerosene lamps on the desks, because electric power is just now beginning to creep over the land. There will be stubbly cheeked peasants, in rough sheepskin coats, women with warm scarves over their heads, painfully trying to copy down words written on a blackboard. After half a lifetime they are getting their first chance to learn to read and write in the government organised evening courses. Ask them about lack of freedom of the press; tell them Mr. Bevin and Mr. Acheson are worried about the violation of human rights in Bulgaria. If they are as kindly as most Bulgarian peasants are, they will shake their heads and think you are mad. If not, they might chase you out of the school house.

There are suppressions of liberty in the Western sense of the word, but nothing which can offset the undreamed of liberties which have been brought to ninety per cent. of the people by the People's Democracies. If you want an affirmative answer to your question, join the landowners and former Horthy officials in the Vaci Street cafes in Budapest. Their liberties have been suppressed. They cannot leave the country; their estates have been taken away from them; they have been dismissed from their jobs; in short they are oppressed. Better still go to the country and talk to the kulaks in Hungary or Bulgaria. They are the ones who are really finding life hard to-day. Their liberties are disappearing. Landowners, bankers and officials probably have some hobbies or are at least adaptable in idling the time away and are not bound to stay in one place. The Kulak, the wealthy peasant, is a man with no spiritual resources, no interest in life but adding another few decares of land to his holding, a few more cows to his herd, a little more money in the bank (or more likely in a hole under the fireplace). The only pleasures he knows are adding to his property, eating himself full and drinking himself stupid. Avaricious and gross, he is traditionally the most merciless employer, a would-be large landowner with none of the saving social graces. And to-day, bluntly expressed, he has no future, and the present is hard. If he read books, he would know that he had no future, even if he read the newspapers he would know it. But each individual kulak thinks he is cunning enough to trick the government by hoarding his grain, hiding his machinery, slaughtering his livestock illegally, salting his money away, leasing his ground to straw men and other devices tried and condemned as useless as far back as the time of the Soviet revolution. But each one in each district in each country goes through the same motions and slowly but surely he comes to a bad end.

What is a kulak? He is not always easy to define but, in general he is a peasant who has more land than he can work with his own family and one hired labourer. There is no hard and fast limit of acreage as to the amount of land a man may possess and escape the opprobrium of being labelled "kulak." If he is energetic and with a large family he may have 50 acres. If he has a small family 25 acres in Hungary and less than that in Bulgaria may put him in the kulak category. By Western or New World standards these may seem ridiculously small holdings for the owner to be classed as wealthy. It must be remembered that in Bulgaria the average size of farms owned by ninety per cent. of the peasants is only seven acres. There is almost no way of ceasing to be a "kulak." He may not sell his excess land. Even if he rents it at nominal rent he will still be regarded as a "kulak." He may on rare occasions rent it to the village co-operative, but it is now "harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle" than a rich peasant to enter a co-operative. At first the kulaks thought there was a way out by putting their large farms into the co-operative and drawing rent for them as well as payment for the working days. But they adopted a domineering attitude, tried to boss the little men who, in the old days had worked as hired labourers on their farms; they tried to get control of the co-operative movement and a reaction started against them and most of them were thrown out of the co-operatives with as much of their land as they could get back.

In the villages the "kulaks" are socially ostracised. If they go to the village taverns, the villagers won't speak to them. They have been dismissed from places they at first occupied in the village councils. Their old power and prestige in the villages have been completely exploded. The bluster has gone out of them and the little men, former farm servants, seasonal labourers, farmers with pocket handkerchief sized holdings, are now the people who decide things. What is the solution for "kulaks"? There is no solution for them except to till the land as small farmers, get used to living on a modest scale, not try to cheat on paying their taxes and delivering their food quotas. There are about 50,000 of them in Hungary, somewhat less in Bulgaria. They are not organised, nor were they ever. They have no political expression. Scattered over the whole country they only amount to two or three families in every village and their power is broken.

There will not be a future generation of "kulaks" so historically speaking their agony will not last very long. There is, of course, no discrimination against their children, who have the same chances as every other child in the village school of being turned into useful citizens.

If one adds the kulaks, the large landowners, dispossessed industrialists and dismissed Fascist officials together, one would have a figure well under ten per cent. of the population who really suffer from a restriction of their liberties. They are much more articulate however than the ninety per cent. so their voices are heard more abroad. The restrictions on their liberties will increase in direct proportion to the war preparations made by the Western powers and to the Western efforts to develop espionage and sabotage networks in the People's Democracies. The leaders of this ten per cent. would imperil the historic extension of liberties to the ninety per cent.

The injustice to the overwhelming mass of the people in Hungary and Bulgaria has lasted for centuries, the injustices to the former privileged ten per cent. will endure at most for a generation.

Over a period of four and a quarter years, from the end of World War II, I have been constantly travelling into the countries of Eastern Europe. For the first three and a quarter years, I was based in Berlin but travelled to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Bulgaria. For the past year I have been based in Budapest, dividing my time between Hungary and Bulgaria, with an occasional trip to Yugoslavia. I have been forced to the startling conclusion that while in Eastern Europe, with the exception of Greece and Yugoslavia, the mass of the population has been granted an extension of basic liberties on a generous and ever-expanding scale, the opposite is the case in Western Europe. The mass of the people there is faced with a constant shrinkage of their basic liberties, which surely include the right to work and to human happiness, the right to lead a creative life, to care for their young and be cared for in their old age.

What liberties have two million unemployed in Italy and two and a half million unemployed in Western Germany? Does it help a starving Ruhr worker that a director of his factory has the liberty to get a passport and travel to the United States? What does a landless peasant in Italy care if the absentee landlords have the right to passports to the gaming casinos of Monte Carlo, while he starves or is shot down for daring to seize the unused land?

Liberty is a relative term! Let Mr. Bevin and Mr. Acheson be sure what they are talking about.

Over a great part of the earth's surface to-day, millions of people are beginning to understand the difference of liberty in its Eastern and Western concepts. The Korean people understand what the Western world means by liberty as their towns and villages are destroyed, thousands of men, women and children are executed for their political sympathies. The miserable peasants of China who received land from the Communists understand it and so does the crowded population of Shanghai bombed almost daily by American planes with American trained pilots. The partisans fighting in the Grammos mountains in Greece understood it when they were burned to death by fire bombs, dropped from American planes, often enough with American observers aboard. The Vietnamese understand it as they are shot down with American weapons wielded by German S.S. troops on orders from the Republic which invented the slogan: "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity!" The Malayans and Indonesians understand well enough what the British and Dutch mean when they speak of liberty. It is a word to shudder at. Even Chief Seretse Khama of the Bamangwato tribe in Bechuanaland understood what liberty in the British sense meant when he exercised his personal liberty to marry a white woman and was hounded out of his country for it by a British Socialist government. Even the British government is beginning to find out the American understanding of the word, as pressure is constantly increased by the groups behind the Marshall Plan for Britain to buy American oil, American food, and dozens of other items of which she has no need.

Liberty which is paraded in the West as a holy grail to keepthe masses quiet, descends on their necks as a rubber truncheon when they organise to demand their real liberties, their basic rights to work, to land, to a secure future. There are hundreds of millions of people in the world to-day who have decided that liberty is something to do with everyday life and work. They are not interested in a liberty of the press to promote religious and racial hatreds; not interested in a liberty for publishers to flood bookstalls with pornographic literature; not interested in the liberty of scientists to devote their best brains to inventing hydrogen bombs or other means of destroying the world; not interested even in the theoretical liberty of the ballot box to decide between two groups of political parties both bent on maintaining the privileges of one tiny group of people over the great majority of the population.

If the same advance is made in the next twenty years as has been made in the past five years in bringing real liberties to the workers and peasants of the People's Democracies, and if the Western powers give up their morbid plans to destroy the People's Democracies by force of arms and the hydrogen bomb, the whole population will be enjoying liberties of a quality not yet dreamed of in the Western world.

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