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Quadrant Magazine History May 2007 - Volume LI Number 5

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The True Genesis of Amnesty International
Claudio Veliz

THE HIGH TIDE of the Cold War concealed vastly more than fanciful antics by KGB agents, and it is unlikely that we will ever know how many quiet initiatives originally designed to divide, influence, distract or, ultimately, to overcome resistance to the communist onslaught escaped detection at the time and will remain hidden forever. Some probably failed ingloriously, and most of those that succeeded at first were later crushed under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, but a few survived the Soviet debacle and went on to prosper in its aftermath, and of these, Amnesty Inter-national must be counted among those that most convincingly went on to flourish after managing the difficult transition with suitable adroitness. Only three years have passed since 2004 when the fiftieth birthday of its governing idea should have been celebrated and it is meet and just, albeit belatedly, to throw light on its true origins and rescue from obscurity the name of its real begetter.

Three centuries ago Giambattista Vico pointed out that the controlling methodological postulate of his Scienza nuova was that:

“The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being [nascimento] at certain times and in certain guises. Whenever the time and guise are thus and so, such and not otherwise are the institutions that come into being ... The inseparable properties of institutions must be due to the modifications or guise with which they are born ... By these properties we may therefore verify that the nature or birth [natura or nascimento] was thus and not otherwise.”

Three centuries later, Isaiah Berlin remarked on the importance of Vico’s understanding that “The nature of men, as of everything, can be discovered by asking the question, ‘What comes into being, at what time, in what fashion?’”1 This may or may not be applicable as a constituent sine qua non of all created things, but it does appear to obtain in self-governing entities such as Amnesty International, distant from external scrutiny and possibly disinclined to stray far from an original intent consistent with the urgencies of the Cold War.

It is gently amusing to note that when marking what purported to be its fortieth anniversary in 2001, there was no reluctance to describe the official version of the inception of Amnesty, included even in Peter Benenson’s obituary, as a “creation myth”.2 “According to Amnesty Inter-national’s ‘creation myth’”, it reads:

“one day in late 1960, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson was reading the Daily Telegraph in the London tube, when he saw a brief article about two Portuguese students who had been arrested for making a toast to freedom in a Lisbon bar. He decided to start an organization to rescue political prisoners and other victims of government repression around the world.”3

To call this a myth was as apposite and truthful in 2001 as it is now timely and appropriate to place it reverently on the same shelf with Athena, Romulus and Remus, and proceed to describe the individuals and circumstances really responsible for creating this very visible and influential organisation.


THIS STORY BEGINS not in 1960 or 1954, but in the early hours of September 3, 1939, when almost simultaneously with the declaration of war in Europe, and only a few days after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Winnipeg, an old, rusty and scarcely seaworthy French freighter carrying over two thousand republican Spanish refugees from the Civil War, docked in Valparaíso. This vessel had been chartered by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who later became the country’s second Nobel laureate, then in France as a special Consul for Spanish Immigration. Neruda had earlier served as Consul in Barcelona and Madrid until 1937 when his robust republican partisanship earned him a swift dismissal. Back in Chile in time to help in the 1938 election that brought the Popular Front to power, he returned to France with the blessing of the newly elected President Pedro Aguirre Cerda with instructions to select from among the republican refugees detained in concentration camps in the south of France a suitable number of skilled workers and their families for resettlement in Chile.4

The voyage of the Winnipeg received ample local publicity detailing the skills that the refugees were bringing to their new country, and among these my father’s eye picked up “experienced mechanics”. At the time he owned the Expreso Universal, a transport company that used heavy Mack and Henschel lorries requiring skilled mechanical attention. Within a fortnight, he had secured the services of half a dozen refugees as drivers and mechanics, including two who had helped General Pavlov’s Russian T-26 tanks rout the Italians in the battle of Guadalajara.

An impressionable nine-year-old vastly more interested in skiing than in politics, I knew nothing about the Spanish Civil War, but this was soon remedied through endless entertaining conversations with the battle-scarred veterans who made themselves memorably useful performing all manner of tasks both as mechanics in the firm and handymen in the household. Their version of the conflict accorded with that of the Chilean Popular Front government and its Radical Party hegemony sequel that continued without interruption for another decade. It was reinforced, at least until the onset of the Cold War, by the notable achievements of a number of exceptionally talented Winnipeg refugees who exerted a definitive influence on Chilean intellectual life ranging widely and brilliantly from choral and symphonic music to architecture, book design, politics, the theatre, history and the visual arts.

A dozen years later, in 1952, I reached the London School of Economics and Political Science in search of a doctorate and bearing such clear and distinct ideas about the civil war that no vacillation was possible when invited by fellow students to lend a hand with translations on behalf of the International Brigade Association. Since the republican collapse in 1939, this organisation had been engaged in supplying relief to republican refugees held in camps in Spain, France and North Africa. After 1945, it moved on to persuade the Spanish authorities to bring to trial political prisoners, especially some who had been in Spanish jails since the end of the civil war.5 This seemed to me then, and now, an eminently decent, worthwhile and spiritually rewarding extra-curricular activity, and I took to it with the kind of enthusiasm readily at hand at twenty-two.

The task was made additionally attractive by the character of the man in charge. Alec Digges was then the only taciturn Irishman on earth, tenacious, clever, good-humoured and a delight to work with. He was born in London in 1914, but grew up in Ireland, a fully-fledged member of both the British Labour Party and the Communist Party of Ireland, he volunteered to fight for the republic, arrived in Spain in 1938, was posted to the 57th Battalion of the XV International Brigade, pushed through a machine-gunners crash course and sent to the front just in time to experience the ferocity of the battle of the Ebro. Sick and wounded, he was sent to a field hospital and repatriated with other members of the British battalion. Made of stern stuff, on the outbreak of the Second World War he volunteered for the army, joined the Grenadiers, landed on a Normandy beachhead, fought his way into Holland and was again repatriated, this time minus a leg. In England, Alec became an indefatigable prime mover of the Inter-national Brigade Association, especially of its campaign on behalf of the political prisoners in Spanish jails.


AT FIRST, my chores were decidedly secretarial, and I spent much time translating appeals to diplomats and politicians on behalf of lengthening lists of men kept in prison without trial, until Alec made me an offer that I did not want to refuse. Offer is the wrong word; invitation is better. Holding a Chilean passport, speaking Spanish with a Chilean accent and much too young to be a civil war veteran, I was ideally suited to do what neither Alec nor any of his comrades or friendly members of parliament could possibly do, which was to enter Spain inconspicuously, a pioneer backpacker, well-worn lederhosen and all, conveying the instructions and funds required to retain the services of lawyers, pay fees, bribe officials and generally expedite the complicated bureaucratic and legal procedures necessary to get the prisoners to court and, with more than a bit of luck, out of the country.

At the time I was also earning a few pounds on the side by penning odd pieces for Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman and Nation, a weekly that in the early 1950s was adorned by more than a sufficiency of intellectual and political heavyweights whose journalistic proximity filled me with pride and, more important, provided a continuing excuse for what turned out to be unusually frequent visits to Spain. To be fair to the profession, I did write a couple or perhaps three articles, one for the then Manchester Guardian, on hitch-hiking in Spain, and others for the old Reynolds News and for the New Statesman on Latin American politics, and one at least, perhaps two, on the grass roots reception of Spain’s 1953 pact with the United States.

Other than this, I did what was required of me without attracting undue attention, sometimes by flying, others entering by train from France, and occasionally hitch-hiking and walking through Andorra and then making my way down the Valley of the Segre to La Seu d’Urgell and Igualada and on to Barcelona and Albacete where I delivered into friendly hands the packages placed in my care, and then to Madrid to meet with people, including foreign journalists, who provided otherwise unobtainable detailed and critical information. My first entries into the Spain of General Franco were in 1953, a year of much positive activity by the Brigade Association that ended nonetheless on a discouraging note.

On April 19, 1953, the Association convened a Conference on “Aid to Spanish Youth” at London’s Holborn Hall, under the joint chairmanship of Peter Benenson and Alec Digges.6 The main item on the agenda was a report by Benenson on the March 1953 Sendros and Arago trials in Barcelona and Vitoria which he attended as an observer jointly sponsored by the Brigade Association, the Trades Union Council and the Society of Labour Lawyers. The accused were thirty-eight young men arrested in 1949 and charged with illegal—communist—political activities under the cover of youth clubs and sporting societies. The sentences demanded by the prosecution included fifteen years in prison for three of the accused; twelve years for another three; ten years for six; eight years for four; six years for seven; four years for four; two years for nine; and one year for two.7

The final sentences were relatively lenient, ranging from a maximum of four years downwards, apparently confirming Alec Digges’ faith in the efficacy of international pressure and the presence at the trials of individuals of consequence able subsequently to impress international public opinion. He was additionally pleased because it had been at his insistence that Peter Benenson as well as Maurice Orbach and Captain Mark Hewitson, both Labour members of parliament, had agreed to travel to Spain when required to represent the Brigade at the trials.

The problem, readily perceived by Alec at the time, was that Orbach was visibly and enthusiastically associated with the extreme left wing of the Labour Party and had also acquired an alarming reputation as a loose cannon, while Hewitson was amiable, easy-going and unimpressive, and their well-publicised involvement with the Brigade Association was unlikely to facilitate the recruitment of other more authoritative public figures. Alec’s approaches to the prominent Labour parliamentarian F. Elwyn Jones QC, and to David Widdicombe, member of the Society of Labour Lawyers and prospective Labour parliamentary candidate, received refusals as clear as they were polite, from Elwyn Jones on the grounds of “unavailability” and from Widdicombe, because:

“it would not be consistent with my membership of the Labour Party to do what you ask ... You know you have my full sympathy and support in trying to help political prisoners in Spain, but this particular proposal is not one I am prepared to subscribe to.”

The proposal was to draft a report to be submitted to the International Association of Democratic Lawyers which it was hoped would “help to stimulate further action on behalf of victims of the Franco regime in a number of [other] countries”. Widdicombe’s refusal was in line with the Labour Party’s policy of non-co-operation with communist front organisations.


THESE RESPONSES did not dampen Alec’s enthusiasm, quite the contrary; undoubtedly aware that publicity can be the ambrosia of politics, he concentrated the Brigade’s limited resources on a steady bombardment of the press, members of parliament, trade unions and government officials with reports on the case of Gregorio López Raimundo, a popular young leader of the Barcelona strikes of 1951, still in prison although his original sentence had expired.8 He chose this case because it had a better chance of attracting the kind of journalistic interest and public attention likely to tempt hesitant members of parliament and other important personages either to support the campaign or, ideally, to take the plunge and agree to stand up and be counted by travelling to Spain on behalf of the Brigade Association.

This was combined with a well-organised “pyramid” campaign whereby a small group of reliable sympathisers, mostly identified with the Communist Party and its supporters, was asked to find two friends prepared to send letters either to the Spanish Ambassador, the Spanish Minister of Justice, or Gregorio López Raimundo himself, and to recruit two other friends each to repeat the process. Even when it stalled not far from its origins, this simple ploy produced a flood of letters the psychological effect of which before and after the 1953 pact between Spain and the United States could not be overestimated.

One of the letters that reached López Raimundo in prison, obviously after the intended perusal by the Spanish authorities, came from the respected historian Christopher Hill, handwritten and signed on Balliol College stationery, and it read in part:

“I am horrified to learn that your release from prison, now due, has been vetoed by the Spanish Minister of Justice and that you are no longer even allowed to receive visits ... I shall certainly do my best to make [these infringements] ... known to the widest possible circle of my acquaintances in this University and elsewhere, so that they may understand the undesirability of our country having friendly relations with a government capable of such tyrannical injustice ...”9

It should be explained that a principal difficulty in sending observers to Spain was that the dates of the trials were normally announced only one or two days in advance with a scarcely visible posting on the bulletin board of the local court. Relatives or friends of the prisoners took turns to check these announcements and when the date was posted rushed to drop a note in the mailbox of the British embassy where a friendly official informed the Foreign Office, which alerted a member of parliament—Maurice Orbach or Captain Hewitson—already prepared to fly to Spain at short notice.

In the autumn of 1953, encouraged by the result of Peter Benenson’s attendance at the Barcelona and Vitoria trials, Alec took the offensive and without waiting for announcements of trials or court appearances asked Maurice Orbach to go to Spain specifically to call on Antonio Iturmendi, the Spanish Minister of Justice, to make representations about the continuing arrest of López Raimundo, on behalf not only of the Brigade Association, but also of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The Minister, not surprisingly, declined to oblige. Reporting on this visit, Sam Wild, the President of the Brigade Association noted, perhaps disingenuously:

“Mr Orbach stressed, as did Mr Benenson and Mr Widdicombe of the Society of Labour Lawyers sent by our Association to attend previous trials, that the Franco regime is extremely sensitive to the presence of observers at trials and the expression of working-class opinion from abroad ...”10

These assessments appeared later to be confirmed by the widely publicised release from prison of López Raimundo, who was allowed to exile himself to Mexico in June 1954, where he predictably resumed his campaigning against the Spanish government. Buoyed by this outcome, Alec thought the time propitious to enlist the support of Barbara Castle and Sidney Silverman, two of the most influential left-wing members of parliament who, he assumed, once properly informed, would help to secure the needed official endorsement of the Labour Party.


ALTHOUGH MY EXPERIENCE was obviously limited, at the time I was the only person within striking distance who had actually met with our friends in Spain and gained at least a sketchy knowledge of the practical measures for organising and financing the intricate process of bringing the prisoners to trial, including, most importantly, the unofficial and decisive co-operation of some prominent journalists and at least one strategically placed person in the British embassy. Alec also considered that only a few weeks before I had been elected President of the London School of Economics’ Research Students Association, which added to my unusual Presbyterian ancestry and my friendship with Ted Castle, Barbara’s journalist husband, who arranged the meeting, gave my contribution a bit of weight and at least a veneer of expertise and objectivity. There was also, of course, the fact that I was the only non-party and non-aligned member of the team working in the campaign. For these reasons Alec thought it prudent to stress that the visit was to be treated as absolutely confidential to avoid misunderstandings if it were known that only the two of us had gone to the House of Commons to report on these matters to Barbara Castle and Sidney Silverman.

The meeting was not a success. Other than expressing continuing moral support and reminding us that their signatures and those of ninety-six other Labour members of parliament had already been affixed to petitions addressed to the Spanish Minister of Justice, the parliamentarians appeared mainly interested in the political affiliation of the prisoners hitherto defended by the Association. Alec was visibly disconcerted when pressed on this matter and of course found it impossible not to agree that almost without exception they were either communists or their activities were consistent with the claims and program of the Spanish Communist Party.11 Both Barbara Castle and Sidney Silverman stressed that in the current political climate and regardless of the merits of the campaign waged by the Brigade Association, it was unrealistic to expect that the Labour Party would grant the formal endorsement that Alec was requesting.

Although certainly not hysterically anticommunist, the Labour Party was sensitive about its relations with communists, an attitude influenced perhaps decisively by the well-publicised crisis of the Australian Labor Party in the aftermath of the April 1954 defection to the West of Vladimir Petrov, the senior Soviet spy and his wife. It was an open secret that the antipodean Labor Party was not of one mind in the matter of relations with the communists, and moves were already under way in October 1954 that led to the foundation of the strongly anticommunist Democratic Labour Party, a division that kept Labor out of power for many years.12

Our interlocutors emphasised that they did not want a British rehearsal of the occurrences that by the end of 1954 already threatened to bring the Australian Labor Party to its knees. They reaffirmed their support for the Brigade Association but also reiterated the emphatic non-communist stance of the British Labour Party. More, while asserting that this was undoubtedly true, Silverman stressed that it was important that it should be seen to be true, and public opinion should have no reason to suspect that any sector of the party was “cuddling communists”. Alec interjected, “Cudd-ling prisoners”, to which Mrs Castle immediately responded, “Only communist prisoners”.

The advice of the two Labour leaders was clear: endorsement by the Labour Party was out of the question as long as the campaign waged by the Brigade Association remained overwhelmingly directed to the defence and protection of communists. As they saw it, by inviting the formal support of the Labour Party the Association was already showing its willingness to broaden the sponsorship of the campaign and what was now required was further to dilute the communist flavour by extending its protection to prisoners of other political persuasions.


THINGS HAD NOT GONE the way Alec imagined; it had not been an encouraging meeting and he did not hide his disappointment. Slowly making our way to the bus stop across Parliament Square, I made what I believe was my only contribution to the genesis of the new entity by reminding Alec of two facts and making a suggestion that I thought could be helpful.

The first fact was that Spaniards have a decidedly legalistic disposition that makes it virtually mandatory to base official actions on enacted legislation. During the civil war, arbitrary abuses were rife on both sides, but once the conflict ceased, even what may appear to have been tyrannical excesses by the government were almost without exception based on law.

The second fact is that virtually all the prisoners that interested the Brigade Association had either been arrested or were held in custody under the terms of the 1939 “Special Law for the Repression of Freemasonry and Communism”, and my suggestion, based on these facts, was that we should try and find out whether there were any freemasons in custody whose defence and representation in the courts could now be assumed by the Association in the same way that it had done with other, more politically committed prisoners.

At first Alec expressed reservations about a move that he feared would distance the campaign from its principal moral objective, which was to help those who during the civil war had fought alongside the International Brigades. The idea of extending this help to freemasons who may have remained uncommitted or even fought with the nationalists, was initially abhorrent to him. However, after some reflection and consultations with his colleagues he decided to give it a try and, as it happens, an early opportunity to proceed came our way with the sobering news that the thirty-eight men whose sentences had earlier been reduced or who had been released after the Barcelona and Vitoria trials of March 1953, had been re-arrested and the sentences re-imposed that had originally been demanded by the prosecution.

This alone justified my return to Spain, but also enabled me to find out more about the plight of freemasons under the terms of the 1939 Special Law. The most recent and best documented case was that of nineteen freemasons arrested in November 1952, mostly in Barcelona, accused of attempting to re-establish a Masonic Lodge in that city. Some of them had already been convicted of a similar offence in 1942 and had served a term of imprisonment. By the time I arrived in Spain, in October 1954, they had all been transferred to the Carabanchel penitentiary, south of Madrid.

Using our informal contacts, I was able to reach a young lawyer, Sr José Méndez Mayorga, retained by masonic organisations in Mexico and the United States, to organise the defence of the prisoners. Posing as the Chilean brother-in-law of Professor Nicolás Bayona Zaragoza’s sister and accompanied by Mrs Bayona Zaragoza, I was allowed to enter the penitentiary to visit Professor Bayona Zaragoza, my distant “relative”, and obtain valuable first-hand information about the circumstances of their arrest and treatment in prison. It was clear that their defence was well-funded and in good hands.13 Sr Méndez Mayorga was very helpful and there was little that we could do to assist him either financially or otherwise, but bearing in mind the meeting with Sidney Silverman and Barbara Castle, there was also a sufficiency of assurances, some in writing, making clear both our moral support and sponsorship, if required.

The same openness that delights democrats can be hemlock to autocrats. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the Brigade Association’s well-orchestrated publicity, the protest meetings, the plugs from friendly journalists and the avalanche of letters to Spanish officials demanding the freedom of López Raimundo produced disconcerting results, certainly beginning with the swift release and exile of the popular leader.14 Not surprisingly, Alec attributed this, as well as the lenient sentences handed down a year earlier to José María Sendrós and his thirty-seven comrades, to Peter Benenson’s presence at the trial and the ensuing publicity campaign. However, according to three of our most reliable and authoritative contacts in Spain, the view from inside was radically different. In previous visits I had met Camille Cianfarra, the New York Times Bureau Chief in Spain for many years, and Henry Buckley,15 the Reuters man in Madrid who introduced me to Bernard Malley, a delightful, witty, unassuming and extremely well-informed man who knew everybody worth knowing in Madrid, maintained excellent relations with diplomats and government officials and, most important, held a responsible position in the British embassy.16

Buckley informed me that he had discussed the early release of López Raimundo with Malley and Cianfarra, and the Brigade Association’s publicity campaign had not even been mentioned; that the release owed nothing to the push from London—about which Bernard Malley was well aware—and everything to Spain’s renewed efforts to regain international respectability, assisted at the time by the worsening confrontation between the two world powers brought about by the Korean War.

The defence of Western Europe from a possible Soviet invasion by conventional forces that could overwhelm Germany and France in a few days made it mandatory for the United States to establish military bases behind the Pyrenees. Formal negotiations started early in 1952, but proceeded slowly, partly because of White House concerns about approaching such a conspicuous former friend of the Axis powers, and also because too hasty a military agreement with Spain could be construed as an admission that Western Europe was virtually indefensible against a Soviet attack. Of course, Franco’s nationalist reluctance to surrender even a sliver of sovereignty to foreign military bases did not help to expedite matters. The discussions concluded with the Pact of Madrid, of September 26, 1953, granting to the United States the use and development of the naval and air base of Rota, near Cadiz, and the air bases in Torrejón, near Madrid, Zaragoza, in north-east Spain, and Morón, near Seville. In return the United States made available to Spain $226 million in economic and military aid.

From the vantage point of the Spanish authorities, the protracted negotiations that preceded the signing of the pact also held the promise of a return to normal international relations, and their leniency at the Barcelona trials was consistent with efforts to advance this process. Their disappointment was understandable when they were not only denied plaudits for what they regarded as a generous gesture, but worse, they were faced with even more hostile publicity and agitation organised by their sworn enemies. With the pact with the United States safely signed, their response was to undo what had so clearly failed to earn them the recognition they thought they deserved, and the thirty-eight young communists and socialists were once again arrested on the legalistic excuse that their sentences had not been submitted for approval to the Supreme Military Tribunal as required by the law of 1939.

Earlier in 1953 there were surprisingly offensive and well-attended anti-British street demonstrations in Madrid to protest against Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Gibraltar.17 Later that same year Spain closed its consulate on the Rock, possibly reflecting a well-founded confidence in the strength of the new “special relationship” with the United States that, as we now know, prospered over time with the world power remaining Spain’s most important and loyal military partner and a key agent in securing its re-admission to international entities such as the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and, eventually, in 1982, the quiet opposition of the United Kingdom and France notwithstanding, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.


TO SAY THAT ALEC was disappointed with these developments is grossly to understate his anger with what he regarded as an abject betrayal by the friendly and trustworthy nation he had conjured with more than a little help from Hollywood, as a composite of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, Paul Robeson’s “Old Man River”, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington and, most importantly, the comradeship with fellow fighters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, especially in the sanguinary battle of the Ebro.

The comparison could not be avoided with what he felt in August 1939, when only a few months after being strafed and bombed by the German Condor Legion in Spain, he had to accept in silence the wrenching expediency of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. On that occasion his unwavering loyalty to the party left him with no option but to obey. Now it was different; no such disciplined acquiescence was expected of him and he simply redefined matters in the light of the new circumstance. Until the pact with the United States, his friends were the same who had fought shoulder to shoulder with him against Franco and Hitler, but now the hated Spanish regime had wormed its way into an arrangement whereby the American government was showering Franco with political comfort and economic aid.

Alec saw the battle lines redrawn with stark clarity, with the victims of capitalist and imperialist oppression all over the world on one side, and the United States and its allies, including Spain, on the other. Given such a contest, he realised that to undertake the defence of the Spanish freemasons had been timely as well as symbolically correct because it opened the door for victims of injustice everywhere, but especially in countries friendly to the United States, to join his former comrades-in-arms in Spanish prisons in a grand international coalition of the oppressed whose plight, when efficiently publicised, would bring embarrassment and opprobrium to the adversaries of the Soviet Union. The conclusion appeared to him inescapable that the International Brigade Association should put its experience at the service of the greater cause.

Alec briefed me before each of my trips to Spain and I reported to him on my return. These meetings afforded ample opportunity to discuss matters such as these, but never before and never again did he express himself on this issue with greater clarity and vehemence than on one particular evening in 1954, late in November, when Peter Benenson and I found ourselves by chance at 2 Parton Street WC1, the Brigade Association’s headquarters, an address that merits a commemorative plaque as the foundation site of Amnesty International.

It was there, over an awful lot of coffee and cigarettes, some Irish whiskey and a surfeit of spirited discussion, that for the very first time, as far as I can remember, Alec explained in some detail his plan for a new initiative that under the name “Amnesty International” would bring together the call for a general amnesty for prisoners in Spain originally adopted at the Brigade’s 1952 Annual General Meeting, the appeal for amnesty made by López Raimundo in his first public declaration issued from Mexico, the definitive internationalism rousingly proclaimed in the communist battle-hymn, the Internationale, and, most significantly, what he sincerely believed to be the robust and continuing international commitment both of the old Comintern and of the new Cominform.18


ALEC’S DEEPLY HELD internationalist vocation was forcefully demonstrated when he volunteered to take arms in two wars neither of which directly affected his adopted Irish homeland. Stalin did not have such a vocation; he never spent time outside the regions that later became the Soviet Union and he had an earthy and robust suspicion of foreigners and foreign places which was exacerbated when such untrustworthy outsiders—“fellow travellers”?—were allowed to shoulder tasks of importance to the Soviet motherland. He would also have agreed with Tip O’Neill in thinking all politics to be local, hence his tenacious disinclination to permit international issues to distract him from domestic matters.

His own historical duty, Stalin firmly believed, was to ensure the survival of the only true revolutionary government on earth before even thinking of venturing elsewhere, a conviction famously encapsulated in the slogan, “socialism in one country”. This approach to international matters was strengthened between 1919 and 1923 by the revolutionary fiascos in Bavaria, Hungary, Austria, Saxony, Thuringia and Hamburg, which not only confirmed his lethal detestation of what he regarded as Trotsky’s romantic “permanent revolution” nonsense, but worse, placed the Soviet Union at risk by leaving matters in the hands of inept foreign revolutionary hotheads.

Such were the antecedents of Stalin’s reluctance in 1936, when Spain was plunged into civil war, to involve the Soviet Union in the formation of International Brigades to fight in a country about which he knew next to nothing and for a cause questionably related to the Soviet national interest. The original idea of enlisting volunteers all over the world to fight for the Spanish republic came from the French communist leader Maurice Thorez, who secured the endorsement of Willi Münzenberg, then the influential propaganda chief of the Comintern. Unable to overcome Stalin’s objections from a distance, they travelled to Moscow to state their case and, after much discussion and procrastination, thought that they had succeeded by proposing to channel the volunteers and the much-needed military aid directly through the Comintern without involving Soviet troops or the Soviet government.

The wily Georgian still demurred and demanded cash over the counter—from the Spanish Republic’s gold reserve then being shipped to Odessa—to pay for the arms sent to Spain. It is even possible that Stalin’s unenthusiastic acquiescence was ultimately forthcoming partly because of the certainty of cash payments, but mainly because of fear of being outflanked by an increasingly influential Spanish Trotskyite left.19

Never before had the Comintern so visibly occupied centre stage as during those heady months when it recruited, armed and led into battle the many thousands of volunteers from countries all around the world who flocked to its offices to join the Brigades.20

Inside Spain, Münzenberg cunningly side-stepped Stalin’s reservations and recycled the creaking revolutionary rhetoric of the Comintern by giving it a good dose of equivocation, more than a pinch of PR re-branding and popular-front sloganeering and marching it into battle under an ocean of red banners and impassioned choral renderings of the Internationale. It was this over-romanticised and rhetorically revolutionary Comintern world fabricated by Münzenberg’s propaganda machine that greeted the twenty-four-year-old Irish volunteer Alec Digges. Not surprisingly, it made such a profound impression on him that it not only survived the defeat that Stalin correctly anticipated would be added to the collection of Comintern fiascos, but more important, it emerged undaunted by the ignoble demands of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and bridged the Second World War and its aftermath untouched by the surge of Stalinist nationalism that in 1943 and 1944 abolished both the failure-prone Comintern and the hitherto hallowed anthem of the USSR, the Inter-nationale, deemed to be flawed, theoretically and symbolically.

A new anthem was forged in a few days of “white-hot frenzy of musical Stakhanovitism” with, among others, Molotov and Voroshilov contributing to the lyrics, and Shostakovich and Prokofiev to the music.21 Neither the word international nor the concept of world revolution were to be found in the new lyrics, mainly devoted to a patriotic glorification of Soviet Russia and her ancient land. The demise of the Comintern and the dropping of its Leninist calls for world revolution were presented as gestures of goodwill towards his wartime allies, but probably the main reason was Stalin’s wish to eliminate a forum for the opinions of foreigners not absolutely subservient to Moscow as well as a potential source for costly and unpredictable international adventurism.22

The problem was that while it was not possible to disguise the domestic participation of communists in the Spanish conflict, public opinion outside Spain had to be brought on side to support the republican cause and respond generously to appeals for funds, guns and men, goals unlikely to be achieved if sponsored mainly by zealous revolutionaries. At first, Münzenberg did use the Communist Party’s “Workers International Relief” and its subordinate agencies, but their influence on international public opinion was worse than disappointing so he came up with a couple of ideas that truly revolutionised politics for the rest of the century and beyond. As Hugh Thomas has pointed out, “he really invented the fellow traveller”,23 and more, he also invented the “front” organisations.

Münzenberg perceived, almost intuitively, that societies experiencing the warm secular embrace of industrial modernity were afflicted by a critical depletion of that moral justification which is “one of our deepest needs, one of our most powerful and essential human drives, ignored at our cost and peril”.24 Lacking any formal knowledge of theology, history or sociology, he understood in practice the importance of “righteousness” in human life. Correctly perceiving the dearth of this definitive ingredient among the middle and upper strata of Western European society, he deployed his formidable propaganda machine to the task of producing a sufficiency of convincing, immaculate and soul-enhancing righteous causes to fill the vacuum.

Münzenberg correctly guessed that once a suitable cause had been hammered onto the public consciousness, it would not be difficult to lure his “innocents”—earlier and more brutally dubbed “useful idiots” by Lenin—to contribute their names, prestige and funds to well-organised “innocents’ clubs” manipulated into delivering the desired result by strategically placed activists, preferably not members of the Communist Party. Those invited to join and ostensibly to lead these organisations were invariably well-intentioned, socially respectable personages eager to play a constructive role in the struggle for social justice while satisfying their need for personal moral justification and “who had no idea that their consciences were being orchestrated by operatives of Stalin’s government”.25

Although probably making old-fashioned communists squirm with the placing of non-party members in the vanguard of policy, this approach proved very successful for raising funds and marshalling international support for the Spanish republic. Münzenberg’s propaganda machine portrayed the war as a Manichaean confrontation between the forces of good and evil; between Franco’s obscurantist fascist terror supported by Moorish, German and Italian mercenaries and levies and an enlightened, virtuous and democratic republic defended by idealistic young heroes from every corner of the globe. He convinced the rest of the world that the republic was a social democratic paradise where torture, arbitrary arrests and executions had been banned forever and which was now struggling to defend freedom, democracy, common decency and justice for the people of Spain.

The international campaign succeeded—Stalin’s reservations notwithstanding—mainly because it was carried forward on the shoulders of large numbers of non-party “fellow travellers” and “opinion makers”, journalists, artists, commentators, priests, ministers, academics and actors glad to be invited to stand up and be counted on the side of the Spanish republic.


WITH HINDSIGHT one can now see that the ease with which Alec Digges, an experienced and disciplined member of the Communist Party, was prepared in 1954 to discuss with us the possible creation of Amnesty International, meant either that the idea was very much his own, or that he was simply adding “prisoners of conscience” to Münzenberg’s pre-war repertoire of deserving causes. Did Alec and Willi ever meet? As far as it is known Münzenberg did not go to Spain during the civil war. I did not ask about this because I only learned about Münzenberg’s existence recently, twenty years after Alec’s death. It is not possible to rule out a meeting in 1938, when Alec travelled to Spain via the Brigade’s recruiting office in Paris, but it does seem unlikely that Münzenberg would have discussed such policy matters with the young volunteer.

If it was Alec’s own idea and he had not canvassed it with his party colleagues, it would be reasonable to assume that both the Spanish-American Pact and the death of Stalin were present at its inception. Before March 1953, party loyalties and obedience to the Kremlin would have prevented any unauthorised tinkering with possible international extensions of the work of the Brigade. Even in 1954 Alec was unwittingly ahead of his time with such an imaginative proposal for tapping the reserves of humanitarian decency in the countries of the American alliance in order to undermine its moral authority. However, his idea was certainly well attuned to the changes that came in the wake of Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” at the Twentieth Congress, especially the Cold War resurrection of the spirit of the defunct Comintern and Cominform, but this time soaring on rhetorical wings that ignored world revolution, but called on the faithful “to take the lead in resisting the plans of American imperialist expansion and aggression in all spheres”.26

It is also possible that by shouldering this simple non-revolutionary and anti-American latter-day task, Alec inadvertently kept alive the original intent of the Cominform and provided a practical goal for one of Münzenberg’s inspired propaganda initiatives. Like the Cheshire cat, the Cominform was gone, but its anti-American smirk remained very much with us and, for example, it is not impossible to suspect that an unintended and distant consequence of Münzenberg’s seminal initiative has been to enable the post-Cominform enthusiasts to respond to the anti-American directive by extending the repertoire of “righteousness” and organise worthy campaigns in favour of peace, freedom, trees, polar bears, democracy, the ozone layer and the compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants and against racial discrimination, obesity, globalisation, capital punishment, forced labour and torture. The Cold War experience would also have confirmed Münzenberg’s conviction that waged urbi et orbi, such campaigns would be ignored inside a communist world undisturbed by a free press and public opinion, but would undermine the moral status of policies advanced by the United States and its allies.


ALEC DIGGES’ ADVOCACY could be persuasive, but as the unusually frank discussion proceeded into the 1954 November night and more practical objections emerged, he hesitated and appeared to have second thoughts about his original suggestion. It was difficult for example to overlook that his initiative would divert scarce human and financial resources away from representing prisoners in Spain as well as risk dissipating the international goodwill accumulated during and after the civil war. The sobering fact could also not be ignored that, the Brigade Association’s best efforts notwithstanding, great successes had not been achieved, even with the current limited objective. It seemed unrealistic therefore, if not quixotic, to embark at this time on such a hugely more demanding international campaign. At least as important was our unforgettable encounter with Barbara Castle and Sidney Silverman, which made it mandatory that neither Alec nor any of his colleagues in the Communist Party could possibly lead the new organisation if it was to secure the widespread non-partisan and morally immaculate public support and influence necessary for its success.

Thinking aloud about this and reminding us of the staffing difficulties, Alec suggested that Peter Benenson was the person best able to lead the new entity and recruit an executive committee of prestigious and friendly British and overseas lawyers and intellectuals. Not amused, Peter asked whether he was being sized up for re-branding as a useful idiot and rose as if ready to leave, saying that this was unfunny and unfair and that he was not prepared to be used in this way. To this, Alec responded, memorably, that he was only joking and that in any case Peter was wrong to think that he could possibly be treated in this way because he always knew very well what he was doing while innocents and useful idiots, by definition, never did. Peter Benenson was an intelligent, cultivated and selfless man who certainly did not impress as a Münzenberg innocent or a Lenin useful idiot.

Peace restored, it was then suggested that Captain Hewitson would be more than happy to preside as long as Alec did the work, but this trivialised matters and the discussion became increasingly light-hearted. The evening ended with Alec’s new international initiative drowned under a barrage of Irish, Spanish and Chilean jokes and a half-hearted acceptance on his part of the wisdom of doing nothing, at least for the time being.

As for myself, I saw Alec a few days later and reminded him that my active contribution owed everything to my youthful encounter with the republican refugees who worked driving and repairing my father’s heavy lorries. While more than willing to continue co-operating with the Brigade’s original campaign on behalf of prisoners, I did not agree that this should extend to helping to overthrow the Spanish government, which I thought unrealistic and not necessarily desirable. During those years I had many opportunities of meeting with survivors of the civil war, and gained some understanding of the complexity of the tragic conflict, which differed decisively from Münzenberg’s propaganda depiction as a simple clash between good and evil. Logic 101 seemed very distant from Igualada when a former communist trooper plunged into an hypothesis contrary to a fact and asked me what would have been the course of the war after 1939, when Hitler and Stalin fell into each others’ arms, if a communist regime had emerged victorious in Spain. Some problem.

What became very clear to me was that the appalling atrocities committed by both sides had bequeathed a legacy of hatred that has not vanished even today. In the 1950s it was at least arguable that the anticipated restoration of the monarchy would offer a realistic solution for an otherwise intractable and deadly confrontation. More, I also had to explain to my good friend Alec that I shared neither his newly minted post-Cominform anti-Americanism nor his Cold War zealotry and asked him not to count on my help with his new initiative if it ever came to fruition. He took all this with equanimity and we agreed both to disagree and to continue working together as we had done in the past.

Between 1954 and 1956 I returned a couple or three times to Spain, but on two occasions I was unable to go, and given the urgencies of the moment, there was no alternative but to recruit my sister Carmen, then a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama, to step into the breach, which she did with characteristic goodwill, charm and efficiency, acting as interpreter for Peter Benenson and completing the necessary discreet local tasks in Barcelona and Madrid. My failure twice to turn up was unrelated to my reservations about the Amnesty proposal. In March 1954, months before the Parton Street meeting, I landed in the Middlesex Hospital after lifting a trunk full of books when moving into digs in Nassau Street; the second time, in August 1955, I was in the United States.

In 1956, I returned to Chile and for a few years lost touch with Alec, but my work at the University of Chile brought me in contact with former Winnipeg refugees who had remained in the country and brought new insights into the complexities of the Spanish Civil War. Names must be mentioned and I start with Mauricio Amster, a communist Polish artist, scholar and craftsman who fought with the Dombrowsky Battalion in the II Brigade, was invalided, survived the war and reached Chile where he soon acquired a well-founded reputation as a brilliant book designer. I was lucky to have my first book designed by him for the University of Chile Press. We became friends and I learned of his disillusionment with Marxism and with the murderous record of the communists, particularly during the Barcelona “May Days” when many hundreds of anarchists and other non-communists were systematically slaughtered.27

He was not the only one. The historian Leopoldo Castedo travelled a similar road, from following the red flags in Spain to grieving for the betrayal of his youthful idealism when Russian tanks persuaded Hungarians to behave, and ultimately becoming a thoughtful and scholarly critic of the Soviet Cold War alternative. The same was true of the playwright José Ricardo Morales, whose latter-day reluctance to follow the path into a red future was rooted in his experience with the sanguinary behaviour of communists when in positions of effective power. There is no doubt that their thoughtful reflections and friendship further distanced me from Münzenberg’s version of the sombre conflict.

In the early 1960s I was back in London and spoke with Alec a few months after the mythical 1961 birth of Amnesty, soon to become Amnesty International. In the intervening years, Tito had refused to buckle, France was at war in Algeria, Perón was deposed, the Cominform was scuttled, Poles and Hungarians took to the streets, China was difficult, Castro was proclaimed in Cuba, the Vietnam War was on its way and all things evidently having been considered, Peter Benenson accepted Alec’s suggestion and took the helm of Amnesty International.



Notes

1. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, 1970, pp. 22–23. Also, Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, 1976, p. 59.

2. Peter Benenson (1921–2005), born Peter Solomon, in Erfurt, took his mother’s name as a tribute to his Russian maternal grandfather; educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, worked in intelligence at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, practised as a barrister after 1946, joined the Labour Party and became a prominent member of the Labour Lawyers Association, stood unsuccessfully for parliament on four occasions, converted to Catholicism in 1958 and became the first Director of Amnesty International in 1961.

3. Jonathan Power, “In the Face of Repression”, Guardian, May 12, 2001; Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Independent, February 28, 2005; Economist, obituary, May 3, 2005; Linda Rabben, “Amnesty’s Roots”, web page excerpt of her book, Fierce Legion of Friends: A History of Human Rights Campaigners, 2002.

4. Jaime Ferrer Mir, Los Españoles del Winnipeg: El Barco de la Esperanza, 1989.

5. In August 1942, the IBA Executive Committee declared “Relief and Release the main task of the [organisation]”. The National Archives (UK), “Communists, suspected communists and communist organizations”, “The International Brigade Association”, KV 5/46–58, serial 570a, 3. The entry reads in part, “The records of liaison with the Secret Intelligence Service show that in the post-war years most of the correspondence passed through Kim Philby’s hands.”

6. International Brigade Memorial Archive, Marx Memorial Library, Catalogue 1986, Documents of Conference, April 1953, Box 4, B/3. Henceforth, IBMA, MML.

7. April 19, 1953, IBMA, MML, Catalogue 1986, Box 4/B/3 and 4.

8. “... the first thing was to get plenty of publicity on the Spanish situation, and to get the Labour Party interested ...” See National Archives, “Communists ...”, “The IBA” KV 5/46–58, Serial 552z, 15.11. A Police Report on the IBA and Friends of Republican Spain Conference of February 28, 1954, notes that among those arrested in Spain was “A man whose name was to become famous, Gregorio López Raimundo. In the course of the campaign on his behalf the association was able to register support from all sections of the trade union and the labour movement.” National Archives, “Communists ...”, “The IBA”, KV 5/46–58, series 567C, M.I.5, Metropolitan Police, O.F.104/1, March 4, 1954, p. 3.

9. April 24, 1953, IBMA, MML, Box 42 B/18.

10. IBA Circular letter signed by Sam Wild, President, Alan Gilchrist, Vice President and Alec Digges, Secretary, September-October 1953, IBMA, MML, Catalogue 1986, File B, 1953, B/62.

11. The IBA and Friends of Republican Spain Conference of February 28, 1954, only listed “Communists, anarchists, socialists and trade unionists ...” among the groups that could be relied upon to oppose the Franco regime, but as Hugh Thomas has explained in some detail, the gestation of the Spanish Communist Party was bound up inextricably with socialists and anarchists who on occasions even considered applying for entry into the Comintern. The National Archives, UK, “Communists...”, “The IBA”, KV 5/46-58, Serial 567c, Metropolitan Police, M.I.5, March 4, 1954, O.F. 104/1, p. 5. See Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, 3rd edition, 1977, chapter 8, pp. 116–17.

12. A crisis that elicited a memorable intervention by Prime Minister Robert Menzies during the parliamentary debate on Soviet espionage: “I cannot help wondering how many of the great army of labour supporters in Australia, who fear and dislike communism, and who are its pledged enemies, have enjoyed the spectacle of their leader, in his dual capacity, playing the Communist game on a public platform, and therefore with public influence, to a degree that the Communists, by their unaided efforts could not have reached in 100 years.” Royal Commission on Espionage, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 3 Eliz II, House of Representatives, October 28, 1954, p. 2481.

13. IBMA, MML, Box 42, File C: 1954, C/45, C/46 and C/49.

14. Gregorio López Raimundo was released on June 4, 1954, and immediately went to Mexico. The Brigade Association had already sent Mr David Widdicombe as an observer to his trial in July 1952. Letter from López Raimundo to Alec Digges, July 10, 1954, IBMA, MML, Catalogue 1986, Box 42/C/35; also Box 42/C/32 and 43.

15. Camille Cianfarra was for many years the Bureau Chief for Spain for the New York Times, he also wrote a number of important books including The Vatican and the War, 1944, and The Vatican and the Kremlin, 1950. He was killed, with another 45 passengers, in the collision between the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm off Nantucket on July 25, 1956. Henry Buckley covered the Spanish Civil War for Reuters and the Times and when the conflict was over wrote a book, The Death of the Spanish Republic, in which his support for the defeated government found robust expression. He met his Catalan wife during the battle of the Ebro and their honeymoon was spent retreating with the republican forces over the Pyrenees into France. After covering the Second World War, always for Reuters, he and his wife returned to live in Spain. See also Buckley’s entry in Hugh Thomas’s Civil War.

16. Malley’s interest in Spanish affairs transcended the narrow demands of his latter-day profession. Before joining the diplomatic corps he translated Victor Pradera’s The New State, published in London in 1939 with a foreword by HRH the Prince of Asturias. He remained in Spain through the war and became good friends with the British Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare (later 1st Viscount Templeton) who served from 1940 to 1944 and succeeded notably in encouraging Franco to keep Spain out of the war. His later correspondence with Malley is illuminating and candid. I am not alone in regarding Malley as an exceptionally well-informed observer of contemporary Spanish affairs; Hugh Thomas, the distinguished historian, also met him in the 1950s and we recently exchanged impressions on this amiable matter and found ourselves in complete agreement.

17. In a letter to Lord Templeton, Malley reported that he witnessed how approximately 20,000 angry nationalist demonstrators marched on the British embassy to protest against the Queen’s visit to Gibraltar. They were restrained with difficulty by mounted police armed with sabres from which he himself “had to run for [his] life”, as he had been mixing with the crowd the better to report on the protests. Letter from Bernard Malley to Lord Templeton, Madrid, May 9, 1954, MS Templewood XIII (26): 50–55, Dept. of Manuscripts & University Archives, University of Cambridge Library.

18. A few days after arriving in Mexico, on July 1, 1954, López Raimundo addressed a rally organised by the United Organisations in Aid of Republican Spain, in which he stated that “the idea of an amnesty for political prisoners is welcomed by people of all walks of life ... the criminals who govern [Spain] cannot, in the long run, fail to take heed of the worldwide pressure for such a genuinely Spanish demand”. Text published in España Popular, Mexico, July 9, 1954. IBMA, MML, Catalogue 1986, Box 42/c/33. In 1919 Lenin founded the Third International, committed to world revolution and best known as the Comintern, dissolved by Stalin in 1943. Its non-revolutionary Cold War successor was the Cominform, founded in 1947 and eventually dissolved by Khrushchev in 1956.

19. Willi Münzenberg, mastermind of communist propaganda, was born in Erfurt in 1914 and murdered near Grenoble in 1940, almost certainly by the NKVD. Stephen Koch, Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals, 1994, pp. 332–44; Hugh Thomas, “The Spanish Civil War. Spain, 1936–1939”, in A.J.P. Taylor & J.M. Roberts, Editors, History of the Twentieth Century, Chapter 58, p. 1601; also, Hugh Thomas, Civil War, chapter 27, pp. 452–64. See also Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, 1992, pp. 532–33.

20. “Each communist party was instructed to raise a given number of volunteers. Most of the ablest leaders of the Comintern were employed in this way. The future Marshal Tito, Josip Broz, for example, was in Paris organising, from a small left-bank hotel, the flow of recruits through his so-called ‘secret railway’, which provided passports and funds for East European volunteers.” Thomas, Civil War, p. 454.

21. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar, 2003, pp. 406–407.

22. According to Milovan Djilas, Stalin dissolved the Comintern because “it had become a nuisance as well as an anachronism, with its émigré members attempting to promote policies that were out of line with [Stalin’s]”. Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, pp. 792–93. Largely the same applies to the 1947 decision to create the Cominform, not as a resurrected revolutionary Comintern, but as a carefully designed instrument to “mount a joint propaganda offensive against acceptance of the Marshall [Plan]” and ensure tighter Soviet control over its Eastern European satellites; pp. 925–26.

23. Thomas, Civil War, p. 341 n3; an opinion shared by Münzenberg’s wife, the legendary Babette Gross, who described him as “the Patron Saint of Fellow Travellers”, Andrew Campbell, “Double Lives: Three Australia Fellow Travellers in the Cold War”, National Observer, Summer 2007, No. 71, pp. 44–45.

24. Stephen Koch, “Lying for the Truth: Münzenberg & the Comintern”, New Criterion, November 1993.

25. Koch, “Lying”, November 2, 1993, also Double Lives, pp. 19–30.

26. Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, p. 924.

27. His reservations notwithstanding, Amster completed an impeccable translation of the Manifesto, which he also designed for the University of Chile Press, Marx y Engels, Manifiesto comunista, translated by Mauricio Amster, 1970; on the “May Days”, Raymond Carr, Spain, 1808–1939, 1966, pp. 663–70; Thomas, pp. 651–53; Helen Graham, “Against the State: A Genealogy of the Barcelona May Days (1937)”, in European History Quarterly, vol. 29, No. 4, October 1999, pp. 485–542.


Claudio Véliz now lives on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. His most recent contribution to Quadrant was “The Enduring Deception of Francisco Goya” in the October issue.

 


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