Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE Second World War is already fading back into history, but no peace has succeeded it, not even a formal peace between the principal belligerents. None of the bright hopes which gladdened men's hearts on the days of victory has been realized. Instead of living in an age of freedom and democracy, we are witnessing their remorseless extinction by party dictatorship and police inquisition in one half of Europe and fear for their safety in the other half. The economic chaos, which the devastation, dislocation and beggary of the war inevitably produced, has proved far graver and more persistent than the experts predicted. Bitter fighting is in progress in China, Greece, Palestine and Kashmir, and may at any moment break out in half a dozen other parts of the world. The United Nations has failed to impose a peaceful rule of law because the unity of the Great Powers, which was its axiomatic foundation, has broken down. Instead of being welded together in one world, mankind is fatally divided into two sharply opposing camps with the fear of another and deadlier war poisoning the air which it breathes. At the present moment all these conflicts and disturbances seem to be moving to their climax. The year 1948 has every appearance of becoming a crucial year in human history. Whatever its outcome, however, it is fairly certain that the return of peace and stability cannot be looked for in any near future. Though civilization will probably not collapse even in Europe, and though a new war may quite possibly be avoided, the world is passing through such a vast upheaval that it is unlikely to recover a new balance and a new security for many years to come.
To gauge the magnitude of the current revolution one must cast a few backward glances, not with any nostalgic desire to revive the dead world of 1939, but in order to focus more clearly the weaknesses which destroyed it and to estimate the requisites for a new and more durable order. It is now generally conceded that the dissolution of the old European society set in at the beginning of this century, but even now it is hard to realize its rapidity and completeness. Since the days of Charlemagne, Western Europe had been steadily expanding its empire over the globe. Even in medieval times Poland, Hungary and Bohemia had already come under the spell of the west, but only in the nineteenth century did its culture and its political ideas begin to permeate the Balkan peoples, so long shut off from the light by the heavy curtain of Turkish tyranny. At the opening of the present century they still lay in a twilight zone between east and west. Meanwhile, European pioneers had conquered the Americas and Australasia and had established their overlordship throughout most of Asia and Africa. Russia alone remained outside the western orbit, little affected by its notions of individual freedom and representative government, still wrapped in the lethargy and ignorance so luminously depicted in Chekhov's stories. World politics in 1900 were controlled by the four Great Powers of the west -- the British and French Empires, the Austro-Hungarian Empire stretching from the Adriatic almost to the Black Sea, and the upstart German Empire thrusting into the forefront with its coal and steel and its military megalomania. The supremacy of these four seemed unassailable, and yet how fragile it now looks to have been! In less than 40 years it has vanished from the earth.
At the end of the first war the Hapsburg dominions, which had preserved South-Central Europe from Ottoman and Moscovite inroads and had done much to improve its economic and social condition, broke up into a congeries of small, weak, unstable states. With the rebirth of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia the resurgence of the Slavs and the recoil of the Teutons had begun. The trend of 500 years had been dramatically reversed. At the time this portent seemed less momentous than it was, because the Russian Revolution had deprived the Slav world of its natural leadership. At that time Russia appeared crippled and exhausted. She had lost Finland, Poland, much of White Russia and the Ukraine, Bessarabia and the Baltic provinces. Territorially she had never been so weak since the days of Peter the Great. Nothing seemed less probable than that in 25 years the Soviet Empire should recover and surpass the power of the Tsars.
But the new Russia possessed a weapon more potent than any the Tsars had wielded. It was the fountainhead not only of the Slav mystique but of the Communist gospel. The new faith had some attraction for the industrial populations of the west, already imbued with the Marxist dogma, increasingly rebellious against economic inequality. But Communism had much greater attraction for the agrarian populations of Eastern Europe. From time immemorial they had suffered poverty and exploitation at the hands of the great landlords. The spectacle of their overthrow and of the division of the land among the peasants in Russia sent a thrill of expectation through this region. Except in Rumania, however, little was done to satisfy the land hunger or to relieve the chronic distress of the overpopulated countryside, both of which were enhanced first by the restrictions imposed on immigration by the United States, the British Dominions and Latin America, and secondly by the disastrous collapse of agricultural prices after 1929. The governments of the new countries, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, were incapable of solving their social and economic problems. The mirage of Soviet equality and prosperity, which neither famines nor political massacres were able to dispel, loomed larger in the eyes of the peasant peoples as their own poverty and subjection became more acute. The corrupt, half-hearted democracies of Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Jugoslavia gave way to dictatorial and semi-dictatorial régimes which repressed every movement aiming at social reform, however feeble and hesitant. The twin triumph of poverty and reaction threw millions into the arms of the Communists. When the war broke out, Eastern Europe was ripe for revolution. When the Red Armies began to drive back the German oppressors, from whose savagery and exactions they had suffered so long, vast numbers of Eastern Europeans began to look to Moscow for their salvation. When the Soviet marshals finally liberated them, they were hailed as their saviors, not only from the Germans, but from the tyranny of the dictators and landlords who had gone before. That there was widespread and genuine enthusiasm for Russia in all these countries is a fact which has to be grasped and understood, because it laid the foundation for the Soviet ascendancy in Eastern Europe. Whether it is still a solid foundation is another matter, but it explains the ease with which the Kremlin was able to impose its will on its satellites. Stalin did not have to use much force. He had only to place a band of Moscow-trained leaders at the head of their Communist parties to rally a large body of followers in each of these countries. With the Red Army in the background, a little guidance and a few discreet gestures were enough to hoist his henchmen to power and seize control of the police and the army. Even in Czechoslovakia a few divisions near the frontier sufficed to extinguish any resistance to the Gottwald coup.
This, then, was the upshot of the second German attempt at world conquest. The historic drive of Europe toward the east had been thrown into reverse. The recoil of the Teutons had ended in the extinction of their long domination in Central Europe. The resurgence of the Slavs had been consummated in the apotheosis of a huge Russian power, already master of all Eastern Europe, ruthlessly stamping out its free institutions, replacing them by the police rule of Muscovite tradition. Beyond lay the west of Europe, drained of its economic lifeblood, much of it devastated, all of it more or less mentally deranged by the strain of the war and the internal stresses of enemy occupation. In France and Italy, which had suffered most, political and economic chaos offered a perfect seed-bed for Communist agitation. Britain's economic strength had been pumped almost dry by a war effort which had far exceeded the intrinsic capacity of her wealth and population. Only Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland remained comparatively intact. Europe was nothing but a geographical expression. Cut in two by the Iron Curtain, psychologically, politically and economically disrupted, it lay prostrate at the mercy of the Russians and the Americans, facing each other on the Elbe and the Danube. Its destiny was no longer in its own hands.
In any circumstances the impoverishment and confusion which had overtaken Western Europe must have severely shaken its prestige in the rest of the world. As it happened, the decline of its old power was accompanied and greatly accelerated by two other great movements which had been gathering momentum for two generations -- the expanding might of the United States and the political and social earthquake which was swallowing up the old order in Asia. Of the former little need be said. The titanic growth of American industry had been rapidly ousting Western Europe from its position as the workshop and the banking center of the world. Though its standard of life had continued to rise slowly, the European economic system was out of date. It consisted of 20 or more small national units, all working not with but against each other, making no attempt to pool their natural resources or to develop their agriculture, their electric power or their transport systems on rational lines, surrounded like medieval castles with moats and walls to keep out each other's trade. It had long been obvious that a continent organized or rather disorganized on these lines could not hope to keep pace economically, scientifically or socially with the 48 States of the American Union, working together as a single unit. It was also obvious that the economic power of the United States would some day be translated into military power, when the occasion demanded. This was indeed the lesson of the First World War, but it was insufficiently understood either by Europeans or Americans. The former made no move toward sinking their ancient quarrels and uniting their depleted forces in order to recover their prosperity. The latter withdrew into isolation, unaware of or unwilling to face the destiny which their national achievement had thrust upon them. The second war left no further room for doubt. The United States emerged from it not merely as the world's greatest Power, but braced to shoulder its responsibilities.
In the light of the American ascent, the decline of Europe stood out in yet sharper relief. The same effect followed from the upheaval in Asia. There the characteristic notions of the west had long been sapping the traditional outlook of oriental society. Nationalism had taken firm root in China and India and throughout the Arab world. Before Hitler launched his lunatic assault, Sun Yat-sen had overthrown the old Chinese Empire and the movement for emancipating China from foreign control had begun. India had already attained partial autonomy with the promise of ultimate self-government. Egypt, 'Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan were at various stages on the road to independence. The emotional and material stresses of the second war knocked away the last props of the old order. The pretensions of western civilization to lead mankind on an upward path were patently contradicted by the barbarity and ruthlessness with which the western nations conducted their civil war, and by the spectacle of death-camps and torture chambers organized by Europeans, which outdid the worst traditions of oriental inhumanity. Within two years of the war's ending India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon had attained national status. Native republics had been proclaimed in Java and Indo-China. Not only Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, but Syria and Lebanon had become sovereign states. The European domination of Asia was finished. But the yearning for independence, which sprang from the teachings of Europe, was not the only subversive force at work. Alongside the revolt against the white race, revolt was beginning to simmer against the secular oppressors of the poor -- the grasping landlord, the grinding money-lender, the venal official. It was symbolized by the struggle of the Chinese Communists against Chiang Kai-shek, by the secession of the Indian Socialists from the Congress Party, by the mushroom growth of Communist parties in every eastern country. Throughout the east new thoughts were challenging the habits of centuries. Its vast illiterate masses were beginning to dream strange, often fantastic dreams inspired by emissaries trained in the revolutionary academies of Moscow. If the future of Europe was obscure, the future of Asia was beyond the vision of the most presumptuous prophet.
Out of the prevailing confusion a new world is taking shape. When it finally settles into its mold, its structure will be so different from anything that has gone before that a comfortable Victorian risen from the dead would detect in it little resemblance to the world which he knew. At present, however, everything is still fluid; hardly any fixed points have yet emerged. But there are signs of incipient consolidation here and there, which may point the way toward the new order. They are at least worth putting together, always remembering that they may be again swept into the melting pot.
The most significant change is the revival of Western Europe's will to live. The mood of apathy and despair seems to be yielding to new hope and energy. For that the Marshall Plan must be regarded as mainly responsible. It was not, however, the offer of further American aid which revived the drooping spirits of the Europeans. They had no reason to think that by themselves more billions of dollars could be more than a temporary palliative. What stirred them to action was the notion that by working together they could use this American grant to lay the foundation of a new European system. The concept of a Europe united for the first time in its history began to fire their imaginations. In that direction might lie not merely the road back to prosperity, but the road toward the recovery of the stability and self-respect which Europe had forfeited by its two fratricidal wars. The meeting of the 16 western nations on the initiative of Britain and France generated a psychological change in the European atmosphere which has continued to gather impetus. At the start the governments were cautious and chary of commitments. They were not sure of their peoples. Now they are being propelled forward by a rising tide of popular opinion in favor of European unity, little aware perhaps of the difficulties to be overcome, but instinctively convinced that that is the right track. The speed with which the Brussels Pact and the Franco-Italian customs union were negotiated, the ease with which the Economic Council of Europe was established, the resolution introduced by more than 170 members of all parties in the British House of Commons for establishing a permanent Council of Western Europe, and the convening of a constituent assembly to frame the constitution of a federation, the public interest in the meeting of the first Congress of Europe at The Hague -- these are a few symptoms of the sudden impulse which is transforming the outlook of Europe. None of these things was conceivable a year ago; none of them would have been practical politics six months ago. One may well pause to consider what are the factors which have so unexpectedly produced this surge of opinion.
It may safely be said that without the Marshall offer the unitary movement in Europe would not have been launched. Though Mr. Churchill had preached the gospel of unity at Zürich nearly two years ago, and though many people in Britain and the Continent were sure that it held out the only hope of real recovery, there was no cue which would set the official world in motion, no immediate objective which would justify it in summoning Europe together. Secretary Marshall's Harvard speech provided both the cue and the objective. But it also produced another effect which gave a far sharper spur to Western Europe than the prospect of further American aid or even of the resurrection of Europe. The Russians realized as soon as anybody that the new movement might mean rapid recovery in Western Europe and its emergence as a new Great Power closely linked with the United States and the British Commonwealth, which would block the advance of the Communist empire. In their determination to frustrate both these aims the Kremlin staged a vigorous counter-movement. Communist power was quickly consolidated in Rumania, Hungary, Poland and finally in Czechoslovakia by the suppression of the liberal and peasant parties and the forcible absorption of the Socialists. All these four countries were dragged reluctantly back behind the Soviet fence and forbidden to take any part in European union or American assistance. The Cominform was created to prosecute relentless war against both projects and against all who supported them in Western Europe.
The effect of this Russian offensive was twofold. It not only stimulated the fear of Russian expansion in Western Europe, but it brought the old antagonism between the Communists and the Socialists -- the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks -- to breaking point. There could no longer be any tolerance or coöperation between them. Those who were for the Marshall Plan were against Communism. Those who condoned the totalitarian suppression of liberty throughout Eastern Europe were exposed as opponents of those human rights which Mr. Attlee, M. Blum and M. Spaak uphold as firmly as Mr. Churchill, M. Bidault or Count Sforza. The declaration of war by the Socialists against "Communist imperialism" was an essential factor in promoting European unity. It meant that the Labor Government in Britain was prepared to throw its whole weight into the continental struggle in order to stem the Communist advance; as the strongest Socialist government in Europe it used its considerable prestige to rally the weakened and divided Socialists abroad in the critical year of their fight for existence. It meant that coalitions including Communist parties were no longer possible in France or elsewhere. It meant that the battle for the control of the trade-union movements in France or Britain could no longer be postponed, but must be fought out before it was too late.
There was also a further implication. For the first time since the war the Socialists and the middle parties found themselves united by a common hatred of Communism stronger than the acute differences over state enterprise and capitalism which divided them. In Britain the three parties discovered themselves in unavoidable agreement on foreign policy. In France the alliance of the Socialists and the M.R.P. began to acquire solidity. In Italy the balance has tipped strongly against the Communists. Everywhere the fatalistic drift to the extreme Left was brought up with a jerk. Without an understanding between the Socialists and the middle parties any talk of uniting Western Europe was futile, for there could be no economic union which did not endorse the social objectives of the Socialists and a large measure of state planning coupled with a large measure of free enterprise for employer and worker alike. Such an understanding was gradually forming before the Prague coup d'état. That crude and sinister episode rendered it imperative. The danger of offending Russia by creating a western bloc had been shown by a lightning flash to be far less formidable than the danger of the disunited countries of Western Europe being swallowed up one by one. The Russians had succeeded in creating the political and psychological conditions without which there could be no prospect of pulling the west together.
One other condition was also necessary -- the whole-hearted participation of Britain. It was plain that without substantial restoration of German industry the economy of a Western Union could not be made viable. But the revival of German economic strength raised the old fears of its being used once more to dominate the Continent and to furnish the sinews of a second military resurrection. The bogey of a German Pan-Europa could be laid only if Britain became an integral part of the European system. Mr. Bevin's vigorous lead in convening the 16 nations and in promoting the Brussels Treaty was therefore decisive. With British participation the problem became soluble. Without it General de Gaulle could hardly have held out the olive branch to the traditional enemies of France, nor could the Belgians and the Dutch have urged the necessity for reviving German trade without fear of the consequences. In any case, German industry would require several decades to recover from the material and moral devastation of the war and from its enormous losses of manpower. The gradual restoration of Germany, which Europe could not do without, might be safely undertaken instead of being indefinitely postponed if the British were committed to taking their full share in guiding and controlling it. In the old days before the first war British intervention in continental affairs was apt to arouse misgivings. After 1919 the complaint was rather that she still held too much aloof. Now her active partnership is seen to be indispensable.
A word may be added regarding the British standpoint. The lessons of the war have sunk deep. The bombing of 1940 has not been forgotten, nor the rain of V-1's and V-2's in 1944. To prevent Western Europe from falling under the domination of a single Power is more than ever the cardinal axiom of British policy. From the economic angle, though, Britain is bound to seek closer relations with Western Europe. In 1938, 30 percent of the exports of Britain went to the Marshall countries of Europe. Her exports must now be increased by 75 percent, if her trading account is to be balanced. An outlet for a substantial part of that increase must be found in the European market, as any considerable expansion of her export trade with the dollar countries is hardly feasible. Similarly with imports. Before the war about 23 percent of British imports came from the Marshall countries. Britain's penury of dollars furnishes a strong incentive to increase that proportion. At the same time it is not less essential that British trade should be maintained with the dominions and colonies, which in prewar days took 40 percent of her exports and furnished 37 percent of her imports. To reconcile the special relations between the United Kingdom and the other British countries with closer association with Western Europe presents a delicate but not insoluble problem. If the will to solve it is strong enough, there is not much doubt that a way can be found. There is one other potent bond between Britain and Europe which has been immensely reinforced by recent events. Neither strategic nor commercial interests by themselves would be enough to provide a sufficient incentive for more intimate ties with the Continent unless there was a common faith. But the elements of that faith exist. The abhorrence of Communism and the police state, the belief in individual liberty and representative government, are the common heritage of Britain and the peoples of Western Europe. Until the civilization which they created was threatened with destruction by a hostile creed assailing the Christian ethic and the whole concept of human self-determination, the western nations never realized that their common beliefs might outweigh their differences in the scale of values. For the first time they are coming to feel an emotional need to unite, without which no society can become a living reality.
And so by one of those strange confluences of events Western Europe has been unexpectedly afforded a new opportunity. The breath of a new spirit is beginning to reanimate it. Already there is an air of confidence, determination and optimism in Britain, France, Italy and the Scandinavian countries, which had previously been woefully lacking. Of course they are only on the threshold of a very difficult enterprise. Immense obstacles stand in their path. How far can the life of nations, which for centuries have thought of themselves as distinct and unique, be merged with the life of other nations? How far are they prepared to sacrifice a part of their sovereignty without which there can be no effective economic or political union? In a word, can 16 countries with strong personalities and traditions of their own learn to work together intimately and trustfully?
Upon the answers to these questions the fate of Western Europe, and much more than that, now depends. If it can preserve its freedom and recover its economic stability, a great step forward will have been taken toward framing the structure of the ultimate peace. A Western Union in Europe must of necessity be closely linked with the British Commonwealth, the United States and the Pan American Union. Together they constitute so formidable a group that, as long as they work together, the danger of a major war will be remote. If the dawn of better times, which might be heralded by a good harvest this year, begins to cheer the 250,000,000 people of Western Europe the menace of Communism will fade. If largely through their own efforts they feel that the hungry 40's are being banished and that the 50's will see them back on the road to greater political, economic and social security, they will feel no urge to sell their freedom for a mess of pottage.
Such a revival of Western Europe would be of much more than local importance. As its strength and well-being developed, the effect upon the eastern half of the Continent would be profound. Czechoslovakia, so long permeated with western ideas, is not likely to abandon her liberties forever. In Poland, Hungary and Rumania there is little natural love for Russia or for the totalitarian way of life. The underground revolt against Communist dictatorship has begun, nurtured not only by the dispossessed middle classes, but also by the Socialists. But these nations are at present tied to the Russian chariot by two powerful bonds -- the fear of their old régimes and the fear of Germany. They want to be freed from Communist dictatorship, but they do not wish to see their industries denationalized or the land restored to the great landowners. They want to recover their national independence, but they all fear a German resurrection, particularly the Poles and the Czechs, who have expelled millions of Germans and seized their property. The German problem is the great obstacle not only to the unity of Western Europe but still more to the unity of Europe as a whole. The German people will never remain content to be split in two. As time goes on, the cry for a united Germany will grow steadily louder. In proportion as Western Germany begins to enjoy self-government and more tolerable conditions of living, so will its attraction for the dwellers in the Russian zone increase. The aim of the latter will not be to draw their western brethren under the Slav yoke, but to join with them in throwing it off. And what then? Would a united Germany resign herself permanently to the loss of Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia, which have made so much of German history? If ever the day comes when the reuniting of all Europe becomes practical politics, that will be the greatest stumbling block. But for the present it is a remote question. The evils which now beset Western Europe are quite sufficient for today.
We are now witnessing a pregnant and poignant drama. Can Western Europe pull itself together this year and next, for the issue may be settled in as short a time as that? Can it by its own united strength stem the tide of Russian aggression now threatening Finland and Scandinavia? Can it offer to its peoples the first fruits of an economic revival based on common use of its resources and productive capacity? Can it acquire the dynamism of a renewed and passionate faith in the freedoms which have been the lifeblood of its civilization? Will the United States help the builders to lay these first stones of the new Europe not only by tiding them over the first few difficult years, but by making common cause with them in defending by all the means in its power the ideals which have made both Europe and America? As Secretary Marshall has said, "The decisive factor for good in the present circumstances of Europe will be the action of the United States." That is one set of questions, to which the answers will be soon apparent. If they are positive, as well they may be, the configuration of a new western world will have begun to take shape. Its center of gravity will no longer be in Europe, as of old, but in the United States. It will no longer be divided by barren hatreds, but will seek the path to a better way of living together. It will abjure war except in defense of freedom itself. That will be the beginning of a real United Nations, no longer crippled by a split personality, but held together by a common faith.
Then there is another question. Are the rulers of the Soviet Union ready to risk everything, including war with the western world, in order to crush the rebirth of the European spirit and to achieve a world-wide Communist empire? We shall shortly know the answer to that question also. If it is negative, the first step will have been taken toward an accommodation between east and west. History is what men make it. We are now standing at one of its great divides.