"# 24. The Greek Civil War
In the face of such extreme violence from both sides it became increasingly difficult for the ordinary citizens of Greece to maintain any kind of moderation. As in those areas of Italy that were similarly contested between Communists and Fascists, many Greeks faced the difficult choice of joining collaborationist militias (and finding themselves on a Communist blacklist), or joining EAM/ELAS (and risking the lives, liberty and property of their families). There was often no middle way. This suited the Germans perfectly, who openly admitted that their intention was to sow dissension amongst the Greeks so that they ‘could sit back as spectators and watch the fight in peace’.34
There are countless examples of how the influence of political forces allowed purely personal grudges to get out of hand. I shall give just one, which is the blood feud between the Doris and Papadimitriou families, as unravelled by the historian Stathis N. Kalyvas.35
In 1942 a young shepherd named Vassilis Doris fell in love with Vassiliki Papadimitriou, a girl who lived in the village of Douka in the mountains west of Argos. Unfortunately she did not return his affections, and fell for his brother Sotiris instead. Embittered, Doris decided to get his revenge on her. He told some local Italian troops that Vassiliki was hiding weapons, and as a consequence the troops went to her house and badly beat her up.
The following year, when EAM came to the area, Vassiliki’s family became prominent EAM supporters. They in turn wished to be avenged for what Doris had done, so they repeatedly denounced him as a traitor to EAM officials. Eventually one of their reports reached the provincial EAM committee. By now it was July 1944, and the regional Communist committee had begun their programme of weeding out reactionaries in the area. Accordingly, Vassilis Doris and his brother Sotiris were both arrested and taken to an EAM prison in the monastery of St George in Feneos. After a week here a guard came into the cells and called out twenty names, including those of Doris and his brother. They were told that they were being taken to the local ELAS headquarters, but in reality they were to be marched up the mountain to a cave where their throats would be slit.
Doris was no fool, and guessed what was about to happen to him. While members of the group were led away to the cave in twos he managed to untie his hands, so that when he was finally brought face to face with his executioners he was able to hit his guard and run away. In spite of the shots that were fired at him he escaped down the mountain and made his way to Argos. A day after his escape, EAM executed his other brother, Nikos, as an act of retribution.
Several months later, after the liberation, Doris got himself a weapon and returned to the area with the intention of avenging himself on Vassiliki Papadimitriou and her family once and for all. On 12 April 1945 he and a band of friends and relatives killed Panayotis Kostakis, a relative of the Papadimitriou family whom Doris believed had been involved in denouncing him to EAM. In reply, that June, two of the Papadimitriou brothers killed Doris’s brother-in-law. The following February, Doris and his band attacked the Papadimitriou house and killed Vassiliki’s mother and her young son Yorgos – and three months later they also hunted down and shot one of Vassiliki’s brothers, her brother-in-law and her three-year-old niece. In the words of one of the villagers, ‘Vassilis [Doris] and Vasso [Papadimitriou] began the whole affair; they survived, but everyone else around them was killed.’
This whole sorry story is a perfect example of how the war, and political forces that imposed themselves on a small Peloponnesian village, turned a minor personal problem into a cycle of violence and murder. Had the Italian occupiers of the region not acted on Doris’s malicious tip-off, his resentment at being rejected by Vassiliki would probably have melted away harmlessly over time. Likewise, had EAM not over-reacted to the equally malicious denunciations by Vassiliki’s family then the situation might not have become murderous. And finally, had the right-wing local authorities after the war arrested Doris rather than giving him carte blanche to hunt down his enemies, the cycle of violence could have been stopped in its tracks. When Doris and his associates were finally arrested and tried they were happy to pretend that they had been acting purely out of patriotism against a family who were violent EAM revolutionaries. It is a sign of just how comprehensive the anti-Communist backlash had become by 1947 that, despite the obviously personal nature of their crimes, both Doris and his accomplices were acquitted.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this whole period of Greek history was the double standards that existed in the justice system. While the prosecution of Greek collaborators largely ceased in 1945, Greek Communists continued to be arrested and prosecuted in huge numbers. In September 1945, according to official figures, the number of leftists in prison outnumbered alleged collaborators by more than seven to one. The figures for executions were even worse. By 1948, according to American sources, only twenty-five collaborators and four war criminals had been judicially executed in Greece.44 More than a hundred times that number of death sentences were carried out on leftists between July 1946 and September 1949.45
Those who were not executed often languished in jail for years or even decades. By the end of 1945 some 48,956 EAM supporters were behind bars, and the number would remain at around 50,000 until the end of the 1940S.46 Even after the infamous internment camps on Makronisos were closed down in 1950 there were still 20,219 political prisoners in Greece and 3,406 in exile.47 As late as the 1960s there were still hundreds of men and women in Greek prisons whose only crime was to have been members of the resistance groups that fought against the Germans.48
This ‘trial of the resistance’, as Italian historians call it, occurred in several countries after the war – but nowhere was it as harsh as it was in Greece. For twenty-five years the country was ruled by a combination of conservative politicians, the army and shadowy American-backed paramilitary organizations. The ultimate low point was between 1967 and 1974, when the country was taken over by a military dictatorship. During this time a law was passed which provided the final insult to the men and women who had fought for the liberation of Greece during the war: EAM/ELAS partisans were formally defined as state ‘enemies’, while former members of the Security Battalions, who had fought on the side of the Germans, were made eligible for state pensions.49
# 25. Cuckoo in the Nest: Communism in Romania
Romania was one of the few eastern European countries that had remained relatively untouched by the Second World War. Parts of it had been bombed extensively by the Allies, and the north-west had been ravaged by the approach of the Red Army – but in contrast to Poland, Yugoslavia and East Germany, where the traditional power structures were almost entirely swept away by the war, Romanian institutions remained largely intact. For the Communists to seize absolute power here, therefore, it was not simply a matter of imposing a new system upon a blank slate – the old system had first to be dismantled. The brutal and menacing way in which the traditional Romanian institutions were liquidated and replaced is a masterclass in totalitarian methods.
After weeks of preparation, the coup was set for 26 August. The plan was for King Michael to invite Antonescu to lunch, and instruct him to open up new negotiations with the Allies. If he refused, the king would immediately dismiss him and appoint a new government made up of opposition politicians. This government would have been prepared beforehand, so that they could take over the reins of power immediately and seamlessly.
Unfortunately, events did not quite turn out as planned. The military situation had begun to deteriorate so rapidly that the marshal decided to leave for the front on 24 August, at short notice. Forced to improvise, the king decided to bring the coup forward a few days. On the afternoon of the 23rd he invited Antonescu to the palace, where, after a brief but tense confrontation, he had the dictator arrested. The move appears to have taken Antonescu completely by surprise. When the king was interviewed by a British journalist a few months later, he claimed that they ‘popped him into the palace strongroom for the night, where his language, I am told, is still remembered with admiration by the palace guards’.1
After the coup of 23 August 1944 there were three governments in quick succession. The first of these was a provisional government under General Sntescu, which lasted just ten weeks. The Soviets were keen to dismiss this government for the simple reason that the Communists held very few positions of any power in it. Sntescu was vulnerable on a couple of counts. Firstly, he had great difficulty in meeting Soviet demands for reparations, which led to accusations that he was reneging on his commitments as laid out in the armistice agreement.5 But his true downfall lay in his failure to purge ‘fascist elements’ from society. In the first six weeks after the August coup, according to a report by the American Office of Strategic Services, only eight Romanian officials were dismissed for collaboration with the Germans.6 While a handful of senior intelligence officers were arrested, the vast majority of the state security apparatus remained untouched. Worse still, former members of the fascist militia, the Iron Guard, could still be seen in Bucharest’s bars and hotels ‘boasting that no Government would dare to touch them’.7 Some cabinet members did call for the immediate establishment of a tribunal for the trial of war criminals, but these calls were dropped when Iuliu Maniu raised legalistic objections. The Peasant Party leader claimed that his opposition to such a purge was in order to avoid further bloodshed, but there were widespread suspicions that he was really just trying to avoid anything that would cause thousands of former Iron Guards to switch their allegiance to the Communists overnight.8
However, the all-important Ministry of the Interior, which controlled the country’s police forces, stayed with the National Peasant Party. Much to the disgust of the Communist Party it was awarded to Nicolae Penescu, who was fervently anti-Soviet. In an attempt to discredit the new Interior Minister, more demonstrations were organized, in which protestors were given the specific instruction to chant ‘Down with Penescu’.10 Such agitation increased steadily as the Communists tightened their grip on the trade unions, using both rhetoric and coercion to mobilize more and more people.
The second Sntescu government was even shorter lived than the first. At the end of November two trade unionists were shot by Romanian soldiers during a drunken brawl, an event that the Communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF) made full use of. A huge funeral was organized for the two dead men, which became yet another mass demonstration against the government. The Communist press, meanwhile, raged about how ‘Hitlerist Fascists’ in the establishment were literally getting away with murder, and directly accused the National Peasant Party of supporting them. In protest at such harassment from the NDF, members of the Peasant Party and the Liberals withdrew from the cabinet en masse. Overwhelmed, Sntescu was forced to resign, this time for good.11
The third post-coup government was formed on 2 December 1944. This time King Michael appointed his Chief of Staff, General Nicolae Rdescu – a non-party figure who was approved by the Soviets. In an attempt to put an end to the continued civil disturbances the king informed the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinski that if the Communist agitation continued he would be forced to abdicate and leave the country. Vyshinski was aware that such a move would cause chaos behind the Soviet front lines, and might even force the Soviets to take formal control of the country – an event that would not look good to their British and American allies. He therefore instructed the Romanian Communists to lower the temperature a little, and for a while at least the street demonstrations were stopped.12
The Communists did, however, use the government reshuffle to make further inroads towards power. They did not quite manage to gain over-all control of the Interior Ministry, which Rdescu kept for himself, but they did get a prominent Communist appointed as his deputy. The new man, Teohari Georgescu, lost no time in seizing as much control for the Communists as he could. He installed his own men in nine of the sixteen prefectures in the provinces, and gave them strict instructions to take no orders from anyone but him. He began to introduce the Communist-trained ‘Patriotic Guards’ into the Romanian security police, the Sigurana, and accelerated the Communist infiltration of the other branches of the security apparatus. By the time Rdescu realized what his deputy was up to it was already too late. When he ordered the disbanding of the ‘Patriotic Guards’ he was simply ignored. When he demanded Georgescu’s resignation he was also ignored – his deputy simply carried on coming into the office and issuing orders to the regional prefects.13
However, their support for Communist agitators was not merely passive. During the February crisis the Soviets made their position more or less clear. On 27 February 1945, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinski went directly to see King Michael and demanded that he dismiss Rdescu, and install Petru Groza as Prime Minister in his place. While the king stalled for time, the Soviets turned up the heat by removing Romanian army units from Bucharest and replacing them with Soviet troops, who now occupied key positions in the city. The implied threat was obvious and, under further pressure from Vyshinski, Michael was compelled to dismiss Rdescu on 28 February. He stalled further over the institution of Groza and a Communist-dominated cabinet, but when Vyshinski made it clear that the Soviets were prepared to take over the Romanian state themselves, Michael had little choice but to capitulate. The Groza government came to power on 6 March 1945. Just six months after the coup, the NDF had managed to see itself officially installed in power.
Over the next year and a half Groza’s government presided over the rapid disintegration of democracy in Romania. The National Peasant Party and the Liberals were almost entirely excluded from Groza’s new cabinet: fourteen of the eighteen cabinet posts were given to NDF members, while the final four were given to breakaway members of the other parties, such as the dissident Liberal Gheorghe Ttrescu, who was made Deputy Prime Minister. The Communists held all the most important ministries, including those of Justice, Communications, Propaganda and, crucially, the Ministry of the Interior. They also held the deputy posts at the Agriculture and Communications ministries.16
Now, at last, the government machinery was subjected to a systematic purge and reorganization according to the Communist agenda. Having finally gained complete control of the Interior Ministry, Teohari Georgescu immediately announced a plan to eliminate ‘fascists’ and ‘compromised elements’ from the security forces. Of his 6,300 Interior Ministry officials, almost half were either placed on reserve or dismissed. Just a few weeks after the new regime came to power, several hundred police and counter-espionage officers were arrested.17 The corps of detectives was given the specific task of hunting down all the former members of the Iron Guard who were still active. There is no doubt that a purge like this was needed, but the way that it was conducted also happened to serve other Communist and Soviet aims. Thousands of Patriotic Guards were now finally allowed to join the police force and the security services. The Soviet spy Emil Bodnra, who until now had been in charge of the Patriotic Guards, was given control of the dreaded Serviciul Special de Informaii (SSI). Another Soviet spy, Alexandru Nicolski, was put in charge of moulding the corps of detectives into the basis for what would soon become the infamous Securitate. Herein lay the foundations of the future Romanian police state.
Having hijacked both the government and its security forces, the Communists now set about dismantling those other two pillars of democratic society: a free press and an independent judiciary. During the summer, the Justice Minister Lucreiu Ptrcanu purged, dismissed or prematurely pensioned over 1,000 magistrates across the country. In their place he installed officials loyal to the Communist Party. He appeared to think nothing of summoning Supreme Court judges to his office in order to dictate their judgements to them, and eventually instituted a system whereby every judge would be accompanied in court by two ‘Popular Assessors’, who would have the ability to overrule him if his decisions were not in accord with Party policy.18
The subjugation of the press was even easier to achieve; indeed, it was already under way. From the very early days after the August coup the Soviets had regularly suspended the publication of newspapers that they deemed to be hostile, or closed them down altogether. For example, the largest National Peasant Party newspaper, Curierul, was closed down on 10 January 1945 and part of its office space given instead to the Communist paper, Scînteia. Similarly the Liberal paper, Democratul, was suppressed because of its articles revealing that many of the areas of Romania allegedly conquered by the Red Army had in fact been taken by the Romanians themselves. Most ridiculously, the official Liberal newspaper, Viitorul, was suspended during the night of 17-18 February because the Soviets thought it was printing coded messages. These messages turned out to be the ‘suspicious’ abbreviations at the end of the name of the British military representative, Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson, OBE, DSO, MC.19
After a year of Groza’s government the democratic press had all but ceased to exist. On 7 June 1946 the US Department of State reported that, out of a total of twenty-six newspapers published in Romania, the National Peasant Party and the National Liberal Party were able to publish only one daily newspaper each. The government, by contrast, had ten daily papers and nine weekly or bi-monthly papers in Bucharest alone. The Independent Social Democrat Party was not allowed to publish a newspaper at all. Despite numerous requests to the Ministry of Information, they were fobbed off with the excuse that there was not enough newsprint available.20
he Communists stood in the 1946 elections on a single ticket with several other left-leaning parties that they had convinced to join them in what they called the ‘Blocul partidelor democrate’ (‘Bloc of Democratic Parties’). When the votes were counted the Bloc officially received about 70 per cent of the vote, and 84 per cent of the seats in the new assembly. The National Peasant Party, by contrast, received only 12.7 per cent of the votes and 7.7 per cent of the seats; the rest went to other small parties. 24 However, independent sources at the time, as well as more recent research in the Communist Party’s own archives, suggest that the true result was exactly the opposite: it was the National Peasant Party that had received the majority of the vote. The election had quite simply been rigged. In Some, for example, the National Peasants had been credited with just 11 per cent of the vote when they had actually won more than 51 per cent. By falsifying the election results in this way the Communists had taken another huge step towards a monopoly of power.25
It was becoming obvious by now that, in the absence of any concerted pressure from the West, there was nothing that anyone could do to challenge absolute Communist rule in Romania. Unfortunately for Romanian democracy, the reaction of the West was indignant but completely ineffectual. During the two years that preceded the election, Britain and America had submitted several formal Notes of Protest, but there was never even a hint that they would back them up with serious action. The brazen way in which the Romanian Communist Party falsified the election results is a testimony to how confident they had grown that the West would remain apathetic – and indeed, while the British and Americans stated openly that they regarded the elections as invalid, neither country was bold enough to withdraw official recognition of the Romanian government.
...On 25 July the leader of the National Peasants himself, Iuliu Maniu, was also arrested. In a show trial that autumn he and the rest of the Peasant Party leadership were accused of conspiring with Britain and America, attempting to leave the country in order to set up an alternative government abroad, and otherwise plotting to undermine the Romanian government. In his defence Maniu quite reasonably claimed that the ‘transgressions’ he was being accused of were simply the normal democratic functions of any politician. It made no difference; he and Mihalache were sentenced to hard labour for life. Their co-defendants received sentences of hard labour or imprisonment that ranged from two years to life.28
The final major force of opposition, the king himself, was neutralized a couple of months later. At the very end of the year, under duress, he was forced to sign an act of abdication, and a few days later he fled the country. He did not return until after the fall of communism, in 1992.
The suppression of free speech was accompanied by a huge drive towards centralization and the abolition of private property. Everything from transport, industry and mining to insurance and banking was nationalized: by 1950 alone 1,060 major enterprises had been brought under state control, incorporating 90 per cent of the country’s total industrial production. In the process, market mechanisms were destroyed, small businesses virtually disappeared, and the economy was placed in thrall to a ‘State Planning Commission’ and a Stalinist ‘Five Year Plan’.31
Perhaps the greatest upheaval in the country, however, was brought about by the collectivization of farms. The land reforms introduced by the Groza government in March 1945 were deliberately calculated to increase support for the Communist-led NDF in the countryside. According to official figures, over a million hectares of land were expropriated from ‘war criminals’, those who had collaborated with the Germans, and landowners who had left their land uncultivated over the previous seven years. Everyone who owned more than fifty hectares of land was forced to relinquish it to the state, who then parcelled it out to the poorer peasants. In total, 1,057,674 hectares of land were distributed amongst 796,129 beneficiaries, giving them an average of 1.3 hectares each. While this was an extremely popular political move, it was much less successful economically: such small parcels of land were extremely inefficient, and without the same access to farm machinery that the old, large farms had had, food production dropped dramatically. 32
Four years later, after the Communists had achieved absolute control of the country, they finally revealed their true agenda for the countryside. At the beginning of March 1949, they announced that all farms up to fifty hectares, which had previously been exempt from Groza’s land reforms, would now also be expropriated without compensation. Local militias and police forces immediately moved in and evicted an estimated 17,000 farming families from their homes.33 In contrast to the Groza land reforms, these expropriations of land and property provoked widespread resistance. In the regions of Dolj, Arges, Bihor, Bucharest, Timisoara, Vlaca, Hunedoara and parts of Western Transylvania peasants fought pitched battles in order to hold on to their lands, and in some cases the army were called in to suppress them. According to Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in later years, mass arrests of peasants were carried out all over the country, as a result of which ‘more than 80,000 peasants … were sent for trial’.34 But now that there was no longer anyone to represent these people in government, or to protect them from the brutality of the new security forces, their resistance was futile.
The land expropriated from these peasants was used to set up almost a thousand collective farms, upon which brigades of landless or poor peasants were set to work. From the outset the project was an abject disaster. The government failed to set up anything like enough communal stations for tractors and other farm machinery: as a consequence crops could neither be properly sown nor properly harvested, resulting in drastic food shortages throughout the country. Having forced through this policy against the will of the people, just over a year later the government was obliged to scale back the programme drastically. The thrust for collectivization resumed in earnest the following year, and after ten years Dej was able to announce that 96 per cent of the total arable land in the country now belonged to state farms, collectives and agricultural associations.35
# 26. The Subjugation of Eastern Europe
In other countries the Communists sought to achieve power through a combination of these two approaches: a democratic surface, with a revolutionary undertow. In the words of Walter Ulbricht, leader of the East German Communists, ‘[I]t’s got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control.’1
In Hungary, for example, the Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi implored Moscow not to withdraw the Red Army, for fear that without it Hungarian communism would ‘hang in the air’.2 Klement Gottwald, the man in charge of the Czech Communists, also asked for Soviet military detachments to be moved towards the Czech border during the February 1948 takeover, just for psychological effect.3 Even if the Red Army was not actually used to impose socialism upon the population of eastern Europe, the threat was implicit.
Wherever the Communists came to power after the war, their modus operandi followed a common pattern. The most important thing was to get themselves appointed to positions of power. In the aftermath of the war, when coalition governments were first being set up across eastern Europe, they were very often headed by non-Communists. However, the positions of real power, such as that of Interior Minister, were almost always given to Communists. The Interior Ministry was what the Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy called ‘the all-powerful portfolio’ - it was the nerve-centre which controlled the police and security forces, issued identity papers including passports and entry/exit visas, and granted licences to newspapers.7 It was therefore the ministry that exerted the greatest power over both public opinion and people’s everyday lives. The use of the Interior Ministry to crush anti-Communist sentiment was not unique to Romania – it happened throughout eastern Europe in the aftermath of the war. In Czechoslovakia, the crisis of February 1948 was directly caused by complaints that the Czech Interior Minister, Václav Nosek, had been using the police force specifically to further the causes of the Communist Party.8 The Finnish Interior Minister, Yrjo Leino, openly admitted that when the police force was purged ‘the new faces were naturally, as far as could be, Communists’ – by December 1945 Communists made up between 45 and 60 per cent of the Finnish police force.9
Another important governmental post was that of Minister of Justice, who controlled the hiring and firing of judges, as well as the purging of ‘fascist elements’ from the administration. As I have shown, this was the first ministry that came under Communist control in Romania. It was also a key ministry for the Communist takeover in Bulgaria. From the moment the Fatherland Front seized power in Sofia in September 1944, the Communists used the Justice Ministry in conjunction with the police to purge the entire country of any possible opposition. Within three months some 30,000 Bulgarian officials had been dismissed from their jobs — not only policemen and civil servants, but also priests, doctors and teachers. By the end of the war ‘People’s Courts’, sanctioned by the Justice Ministry, had tried 11,122 individuals and sentenced almost a quarter of them (2,618) to death. Of these, 1,046 executions were actually carried out – but estimates of the unofficial execution toll range from 3,000 to 18,000. As a proportion of the population this was one of the most rapid, comprehensive and brutal ‘official’ purges of any state in Europe, despite the fact that Bulgaria had never been fully occupied, and had not been involved in any of the wholesale savagery that had engulfed the other countries of the region. The simple reason for this was that, while the intelligentsia in other countries had already been destroyed by the Gestapo or their local equivalents, in Bulgaria the Communists had to do it all themselves. 10
During the February 1948 crisis in Czechoslovakia, for example, Communist control of the radio stations made sure that Klement Gottwald’s speeches and calls for mass demonstrations received maximum publicity; by contrast, the other parties’ appeals to the country were silenced when union members in the paper mills and print works prevented them even from printing their newspapers.15 Similar ‘spontaneous’ censorship by union members occurred in almost every eastern European country.16
Aware that it was impossible to discredit all of their opponents at once, the Communist parties of each country started by nibbling round the edges. This was what the Hungarians called ‘salami tactics’ – removing one’s rivals a single slice at a time. Each slice would dispose of a group who could conceivably be accused of collaboration, or indeed any other crime. Some of these people truly were collaborators, but many others were arrested on trumped-up charges, such as the sixteen leaders of Poland’s Home Army (arrested in March 1945), the Bulgarian Social Democrat leader, Krustu Pastuhov (arrested in March 1946), or the leader of the Yugoslav Agrarians, Dragoljub Jovanovi (October 1947).
Next, the Communists would seek to engineer splits amongst their rivals. They would try to discredit certain factions of other parties, and pressurize their leaders into disowning these factions. Or they would invite rivals to join them in a united ‘front’, causing rifts between those who trusted the Communists and those who did not. This tactic was especially successful with the Communists’ strongest rivals on the left, the Socialists and the Social Democrats. Eventually, having split them time and time again, the Communists would swallow what was left of these parties whole. The Socialists in East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Poland all came to an end by being officially merged with the Communist parties.
Even in Czechoslovakia, where they legitimately won an impressive 38 per cent of the vote in 1946, they were still obliged to govern through compromise with their opponents.17 In other countries the lack of faith from the voting public often took the Communists by surprise. The heavy defeat at the Budapest municipal elections in October 1945, for example, was considered nothing less than ‘a catastrophe’, and left their leader Mátyás Rákosi slumped in a chair ‘as pale as a corpse’.18 He had made the mistake of believing his own propaganda reports about Communist popularity.
In the face of such widespread scepticism, the Communists inevitably resorted to force – at first by covert means, and later through the use of open terror. Popular opponents from other parties were threatened, intimidated, or arrested on false charges of ‘fascism’. Some died in suspicious circumstances, such as the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, who fell from a window of the Foreign Ministry in March 1948.19 Others, such as Bulgaria’s most powerful opposition politician, the leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union Nikola Petkov, were tried by kangaroo courts and executed. Many, like Hungary’s Ferenc Nagy and Romania’s Nicolae Rdescu, responded to threats by eventually fleeing to the West. And it was not just the rival leaders who suffered: the full force of state terror was unleashed on anyone who opposed them. In Yugoslavia, for example, the chief of the secret police, Aleksandar Rankovic, later admitted that 47 per cent of arrests carried out in 1945 had been unjustified.20
During the course of such repression, elections across the region quickly became a sham. ‘Undesirable’ candidates were simply removed from the electoral lists. Alternative parties were listed together with the Communists in a single ‘bloc’ so that voters had no proper choice between parties. The electorate itself was directly threatened by gangs of security policemen at polling stations, and by ensuring that voting was not anonymous. When all else failed, the counting of the votes was simply rigged. As a consequence, the Communists and their allies were finally ‘voted in’ by some frankly improbable margins: 70 per cent in Bulgaria (October 1946), 70 per cent in Romania (November 1946), 80 per cent in Poland (January 1947), 89 per cent in Czechoslovakia (May 1948), and an absurd 96 per cent in Hungary (May 1949).21
... In Hungary alone, a country with a population of less than 9.5 million, some 1.3 million faced tribunals between 1948 and 1953. Almost 700,000 — more than 7 per cent of the entire population - received some kind of official punishment.22
It is no coincidence that this is exactly the same process that had overwhelmed Soviet Russia in the decades before the war. Since the opening of the Russian archives in the 1990s it has become increasingly clear that it was the Soviets who were pulling the strings. The evidence for this is now incontrovertible: one need only read the postwar correspondence between Moscow and the future Bulgarian premier Georgi Dimitrov, in which the Soviet Foreign Minister virtually dictates the composition of the Bulgarian cabinet, to see the extent of Soviet meddling in the internal affairs of eastern European countries.23
From the moment the Red Army entered eastern Europe, Stalin was determined to make sure that a political system was installed here that mirrored the system in his own country. In a conversation with Tito’s deputy Milovan Djilas he famously stated that the Second World War was different from past wars because ‘whoever occupies a territory also imposes upon it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.’24
# 27. The Resistance of the ‘Forest Brothers’
This was particularly the case in those parts of Europe that already knew what it was like to be in thrall to the Soviets. In the Baltic States especially, and in what was to become western Ukraine, nationalist movements sprang up whose members were highly organized, fiercely patriotic, and prepared to fight to the death. Unlike their neighbours to the south they were under no illusions about Stalin’s intentions. Having already suffered Soviet occupation at the beginning of the war, they did not regard the immediate postwar years as something new, but rather as the continuation of a process that had begun in 1939 and 1940.
The struggle of the anti-Soviet resistance is one of the most under-appreciated conflicts of the twentieth century, particularly in the West. For over ten years hundreds of thousands of nationalist partisans fought a doomed war against their Soviet occupiers in the forlorn hope that the West would eventually come to their aid. This war would last well into the 1950s, and would result in tens of thousands of deaths on all sides.
...A ‘purer’ version of anti-Soviet resistance took place in the Baltic States, and particularly in Lithuania, which, according to Swedish intelligence reports, had ‘the best organized, trained and disciplined of all the anti-Communist guerrilla groups’.2 In all three Baltic countries the partisans were collectively known as the ‘Forest Brothers’. In the proudly nationalist atmosphere that has predominated since the 1990s their exploits have, quite literally, become legendary.
Right from the beginning, these fearless men and women embarked on some very ambitious operations indeed, especially in Lithuania. In the north-east of the country partisan units of 800 men or more fought pitched battles against the Red Army. In the centre, large groups of fighters terrorized Soviet officials, and even conducted attacks on their offices and security buildings in the centre of Kaunas. In the south they set elaborate ambushes for NKVD troops, assassinated Communist leaders and even attacked prisons in order to free their comrades who had been captured.
Determined to put a stop to Neifalta’s activities once and for all, a large force of NKVD troops marched to the Kalniškes forest on 16 May 1945. They surrounded the area where Neifalta was hiding and gradually began to close in on him. Realizing they were trapped, Neifalta and his followers withdrew to a hill deep in the forest and prepared themselves for battle. They defended themselves heroically, inflicting heavy casualties on the Soviets with small arms and grenades – over 400 of them, according to the partisans themselves (although Soviet forces put the real number at only a fraction of this). After several hours of fighting, however, they began to run out of ammunition. Neifalta realized that their only hope of survival was to try to break through the Soviet cordon. Using the last of their ammunition, two dozen or so managed to burst through the Soviet lines, and escaped to take refuge in the nearby marshes of Zuvintas. They left behind them the bodies of forty-four partisans – more than half their total strength – including Neifalta’s wife, who had died with a machine-gun in her hands.
Neifalta himself lived to fight another day, but it did not take long for fate to catch up with him. That November, in a secluded farmstead nearby, he and his comrades were once again surrounded, and Neifalta was killed in the resulting firefight.5
When the people of Lithuania remember the anti-Soviet insurgency of the 1940s and 19450s, these are the stories they tell. Such battles have become a symbol of everything the Lithuanians wish to remember about their own bravery and the nobility of their cause.
Looked at objectively, however, the Battle of Kalniškes also demonstrates many of the reasons that such resistance was doomed to failure. To begin with, the Soviets were better supplied than the partisans – it was not they who had run out of ammunition. The Soviets also vastly outnumbered the partisans at Kalniškes, as they did in virtually every other battle of the time. While some 100,000 people are thought to have been involved in the Lithuanian resistance between 1944 and 1956 – and Estonia and Latvia boasted another 20,000—40,000 each – this was nothing compared to the millions of soldiers that the Soviets could call on once Germany had been defeated.6 At a local level this meant that the Soviets could afford to lose dozens or even hundreds of men in a single battle. The partisans could not.
One of the cornerstones of Soviet methods was the use of torture. This usually took the form of beating prisoners, a practice that was so common, and so violent, that in one district of Latvia 18 per cent of police suspects were reported to have died during interrogation.8 Other methods included the administering of electric shocks, burning the skin with cigarettes, slamming doors on prisoners’ hands and fingers, and waterboarding. One former partisan suffered the same torture as the hero of George Orwell’s 1984: Eleonora Labanauskiene was locked into a toilet stall the size of a telephone booth, along with fifty rats released from a cage.9 Such torture was officially frowned upon by the authorities, but in reality it was sanctioned at every level of the Soviet administration. Stalin himself had claimed before the war that the use of torture was ‘absolutely correct and useful’ because it ‘brought results and greatly accelerated the unmasking of enemies of the people’. The Soviet secret police continued to use Stalin’s endorsement as an excuse for torture at least until the end of the 1940s.10
While torture did provide the authorities with intelligence, it also had other, less welcome, results. All partisan memoirs state with pride that the ‘Forest Brothers’ would rather die than surrender, and there are numerous stories of partisan units trying to shoot their way out of hopeless situations rather than giving themselves up peacefully. This is not mere myth: Soviet reports also describe the extraordinary determination of partisans in both Ukraine and Lithuania to die fighting. For example, a Lithuanian police report from January 1945 describes how security troops surrounded a house containing twenty-five partisans who refused to surrender even after the house was set on fire. Five of these partisans broke out and crawled across a field towards a machine-gun crew in an attempt to silence it. They were shot one by one, but did not give up advancing until they were all dead. The rest of the group carried on firing from the burning house until it finally collapsed and buried them.11 Such determination was only partly born of bravery. The certainty that they would be tortured, and perhaps the fear of what they might reveal under interrogation, provided a strong incentive for partisans never to be taken alive.
Sometimes the NKVD would force local residents to come and look at the bodies, and their reactions were observed in order to discover where their loyalties lay. ‘If they saw people passing by the corpses who revealed sadness or pity, they would go out and arrest them and torture them, demanding that they reveal the names and surnames of the dead men.’ There are numerous stories of parents being shown their dead children, and being obliged to show no emotion for fear of betraying themselves.12
The price of revealing one’s loyalties in situations like this could be high. Zealous security officials thought nothing of targeting the friends and family of known partisans if they thought it might flush the insurgents out into the open. The very least such people could expect was arrest and interrogation, followed by the threat of deportation to Siberia. This was perhaps another reason that partisans were so reluctant to give themselves up during a siege. Many who found themselves surrounded would hold a grenade to their heads and blow themselves up, specifically so that the Soviets would not be able to identify them and so be able to target their families. Occasionally the Soviets would attempt surgical reconstruction, but ‘Even a father could not recognize his son under these circumstances.’13
As the partisan war progressed, Soviet anti-insurgent methods became much more sophisticated. In 1946, whole bands of pseudo-partisans were set up to help catch the real ones. Such groups would pretend to be guerrillas from another region and, having arranged a meeting with the real partisans, would kill them all, along with any witnesses. They also murdered and robbed civilians in the name of the partisans, thereby giving the whole movement a bad name.16
In his history of the Estonian partisans, the former Prime Minister of Estonia Mart Laar tells the story of Ants Kaljurand, a legendary figure in the resistance who became known as ‘Ants the Terrible’. According to the story, Ants had a habit of announcing his arrival in any particular area by mail. On one occasion he notified the manager of a restaurant in Parnu that he would be coming to lunch on a certain day, at a certain time, and that he was expecting a particularly tasty meal. The restaurant manager promptly informed the local authorities. When the day arrived hordes of plain-clothed NKVD men surrounded the restaurant, ready to leap out and capture the famed partisan leader. But Ants fooled them all by arriving in a Russian car marked with Russian army tags, and by dressing in the uniform of a high-ranking Soviet officer. Unsuspecting, the NKVD men left him alone. After enjoying a hearty meal, Ants left a generous tip and put a note under his plate reading ‘Thank you very much for the lunch, Ants the Terrible.’ By the time the NKVD men realized what had happened, he and his stolen Russian car were long gone.19
Stories like this demonstrate one of the major problems with getting to grips with what happened during the partisan war in the Baltic countries. It is plainly unthinkable that any partisan leader would make a habit of announcing his arrival to strangers by mail, or that he would risk such stunts purely for the sake of a meal – and yet such stories are recounted again and again as if they are true. The Lithuanian partisan Juozas Lukša recognized the importance of such mythology to inspire the people, but acknowledged that much of it was nonsense: ‘People sympathized with the partisans,’ he wrote in 1949; ‘therefore, tales of their heroic deeds were often exaggerated to the extent that only a skeleton of the truth remained.’20
One of the greatest mistakes of the Baltic partisans was to imagine that the war they were fighting was predominantly a military one. In reality they were being attacked on several fronts at once – not only militarily, but also economically, socially and politically. The Soviets understood from the outset how much the guerrillas relied on their local, rural communities for support. They therefore set about dismantling these communities with a ruthlessness that left the fighters reeling.
The first blow came in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the Communists embarked on the same programme of land reform that they were practising elsewhere in Europe. This was an issue that genuinely divided the population, with the poor and the landless naturally much more in favour of it than those who would be forced to give up parts of their property. Middle-class farmers were much more likely to join the partisans than the poorer peasants – this created an embryo of a class struggle, and allowed the authorities to portray the partisans as reactionaries.29 This might seem like a subtle point, but it was an important political victory for the Communists, who could claim that they were the champions of the poor. Combined with other political scoops, such as the award of Vilnius to Lithuania – a city that they had always claimed, but never controlled – it meant that not everyone was quite so willing to support the partisans as some nationalists in the Baltic States would have it.
The second blow came in the late 1940s, when the Soviets once again resorted to the policy of deportation of their political enemies. Between 22 and 27 May 1948, over 40,000 people were deported from Lithuania; the following March a further 29,000 joined them.30 In Latvia, the deportation of 43,000 people to Siberia effectively ended the hopes of the resistance.31 While in the short term these events swelled the numbers of people willing to flee to the forest and join the partisans, it destroyed their support networks amongst the general population. From this point on, the partisans could no longer rely on their communities to provide them with food and other supplies. Instead they were forced to go out and requisition what they needed, thereby alerting the authorities to their presence.
The final blow to the partisan supply lines was the policy of collectivization of land, which effectively took agriculture out of the hands of individuals altogether. Once all farms were owned or controlled by the state, there were no longer any sympathetic individual farmers for the partisans to rely on. Collectivization in the Baltic States was even more rapid than in other countries in the Communist bloc. At the beginning of 1949 only 3.9 per cent of Lithuanian farms were collectivized, only 5.8 per cent of Estonian farms, and only about 8 per cent of Latvian farms. When the policy of collectivization was formally announced, many farmers resisted, but after large numbers of them were punished with deportation the remainder hurried to comply with the new ruling. By the end of the year 62 per cent of Lithuanian farms had been put under state control. In Estonia and Latvia, where the partisans were not so strong, and resistance less organized, the figures were 80 per cent and 93 per cent, respectively.32
And yet one cannot deny the influence that the partisan war had on later resistance movements. The Soviet handling of the partisans and their families, while brutally effective in the short term, served only to create a huge pool of people who were permanently disaffected. It was these people, who were excluded from normal participation in society, and whose children were denied proper jobs and access to higher education, who would later become some of the most active members of the Baltic dissident movement.42
Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s the people of the Baltic States continued to resist Soviet repression, and while they never again took up arms against the Soviets, they were still inspired by the memory of the partisan wars. Partisan stories were told and retold; partisan songs were sung in private, a practice later mirrored in the ‘singing revolution’ in Tallinn. Partisan memoirs were reproduced and distributed throughout the region, such as Juozas Lukša’s Partizanai,43 which would become a runaway bestseller in Lithuania shortly after its declaration of independence in 1990. The partisan war so inspired one of Estonia’s first post-Soviet prime ministers that he too later wrote a book about it.44
The story of the Battle of Kalniškes, which I recounted at the beginning of this chapter, is a perfect example of how the partisan war inspired later generations, and continues to do so. In the years after the battle, the story passed into local folklore, and songs were written to commemorate the heroic last stand. Far from fading with time, the story actually gathered resonance. In the 1980s, former partisans returned and created a shrine to their fallen comrades, and ceremonies of remembrance were conducted on the battle’s anniversary. In 1989 this became a new source of tension with the Soviets. Soldiers stationed at the nearby Soviet garrison deliberately held practice firing sessions during the anniversary, and fired over the heads of the people gathered there. Later, during the night, soldiers tore down the shrine. After independence, however, a new monument was created, and the bodies of the partisans killed at Kalniškes were exhumed and given a proper burial. Today the battle is still commemorated in an annual ceremony attended by former partisans and their families, representatives of the Lithuanian government and army as well as local politicians and schoolchildren. The event has come to symbolize not only the heroism of Lithuania’s partisans, but the wider struggle for Lithuanian independence that lasted almost half a century.45
# 29. Conclusion
In his memoirs of the late 1940s and 50s, published after his death following the famous ‘umbrella assassination’ in London in 1978, the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov told a story that is emblematic of the postwar period – not only in his own country, but in Europe as a whole. It involved a conversation between one of his friends, who had been arrested for challenging a Communist official who had jumped the bread queue, and an officer of the Bulgarian Communist militia:
"‘And now tell me who your enemies are?’ the militia chief demanded. K. thought for a while and replied: ‘I don’t really know, I don’t think I have any enemies.’ ‘No enemies!’ The chief raised his voice. ‘Do you mean to say that you hate nobody and nobody hates you?’ ‘As far as I know, nobody.’ ‘You are lying,’ shouted the Lieutenant-Colonel suddenly, rising from his chair. ‘What kind of a man are you not to have any enemies? You clearly do not belong to our youth, you cannot be one of our citizens, if you have no enemies! … And if you really do not know how to hate, we shall teach you! We shall teach you very quickly!’"1
There were many, many reasons not to love one’s neighbour in the aftermath of the war. He might be a German, in which case he would be reviled by almost everyone, or he might have collaborated with Germans, which was just as bad: most of the vengeance in the aftermath of the war was directed at these two groups. He might worship the wrong god – a Catholic god or an Orthodox one, a Muslim god, or a Jewish god, or no god at all. He might belong to the wrong race or nationality: Croats had massacred Serbs during the war, Ukrainians had killed Poles, Hungarians had suppressed Slovaks, and almost everyone had persecuted Jews. He might have the wrong political beliefs: both Fascists and Communists had been responsible for countless atrocities across the continent, and both Fascists and Communists had themselves been subjected to brutal repression – as indeed had those subscribing to virtually every shade of political ideology between these two extremes.
The sheer variety of grievances that existed in 1945 demonstrates not only how universal the war had been, but also how inadequate is our traditional way of understanding it. It is not enough to portray the war as a simple conflict between the Axis and the Allies over territory. Some of the worst atrocities in the war had nothing to do with territory, but with race or nationality. The Nazis did not attack the Soviet Union merely for the sake of Lebensraum: it was also an expression of their urge to assert the superiority of the German race over Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. The Soviets did not invade Poland and the Baltic States only for the sake of territory either: they wanted to propagate communism as far westwards as they were able. Some of the most vicious fighting was not between the Axis and the Allies at all, but between local people who took the opportunity of the wider war to give vent to much older frustrations. The Croat Ustashas fought for the sake of ethnic purity. The Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought for national liberation. Many Greeks and Yugoslavs fought for the abolition of the monarchy - or for its restoration. Many Italians fought to free themselves from the shackles of a medieval feudalism. The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.
Given that the Germans were only one ingredient in this vast soup of different conflicts, it stands to reason that their defeat did not bring an end to the violence. In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting. The related conflicts over race, nationality and politics continued for weeks, months and sometimes years afterwards. Gangs of Italians were still lynching Fascists late into the 1940s. Greek Communists and Nationalists, who first fought one another as opponents or collaborators with Germany, were still at each other’s throats in 1949. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan movements, born at the height of the war, were still fighting well into the mid-1950s. The Second World War was like a vast supertanker ploughing through the waters of Europe: it had such huge momentum that, while the engines might have been reversed in May 1945, its turbulent course was not finally brought to a halt until several years later.
Other, less dramatic but no less significant incidents have been occurring in many parts of Europe since the fall of communism. In 2006, for example, a student in Slovakia named Hedviga Malinova told police that she had been beaten up for using her Hungarian mother-tongue. The accusation was widely publicized, and reawakened tensions between Slovaks and Hungarians inside the country. The Slovakian Interior Minister accused the student of lying, the police charged her with false testimony, and the uncomfortable relationship between Slovakia and its Hungarian minority seemed just as alive as it ever was in 1946.2
Across the border, Hungary has seen the return of a similar, but even more insidious national hatred: anti-Semitism is on the rise in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1940S. In a letter to the Washington Post at the beginning of 2011, an award-winning Hungarian pianist, András Schiff, claimed that his country was being swept by a wave of ‘reactionary nationalism’, characterized by an increasing hatred for Gypsies and Jews.3 As if unaware of the irony, the Hungarian right-wing press immediately responded by claiming that only Jews were capable of accusing Hungary of such crimes. Zsolt Bayer, for example, wrote in the newspaper Magyar Hírlap: ‘A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that “a foul stench wafts” from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff … Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.’4
Even the total expulsion of a nation’s ethnic minorities has not proved to be a guarantee against such issues. The expulsion of Germans from many countries in the 1940s, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia, was probably the most widespread and complete of all the ethnic deportations after the war. It created a resentment within Germany that has never since dissipated. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the expellees formed one of the most powerful pressure groups in Germany, one that was, in the words of Lucius Clay, ‘largely reactionary and certainly planning to go home’.6 Much like Łemkos and Ukrainians in Poland, these people are continuing to lobby for the return of the lands and property stolen from them in the aftermath of the war. The prospect of having to deal with the claims of these expellees fills most eastern European governments with dread. In 2009, for example, President Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic refused to sign the Lisbon Treaty that granted the European Union new powers, because of fears that certain parts of it might open the door for Germans to mount legal claims against his country. Klaus held up the treaty for several weeks until the Czechs were granted an opt-out from the relevant clauses. The expulsion of the Germans in the aftermath of the war did not solve the minorities problem in Czechoslovakia, as it then was – it merely exported it.
The passion that drives such people comes from the stories and myths that they have been exposed to, and which are repeated throughout their communities. Tatars imbibed the agony of their deportation with their mothers’ milk, and have repeated these stories daily for over sixty years. In their minds the Crimea has been elevated to some kind of promised land. In the words of one Tatar, ‘For the Soviet people, the thirties, the forties, the fifties – are history. For Crimean Tatars, they are now … They live history.’8 Likewise, German expellees endlessly reminisce about the horrors of their trek westwards while Ukrainians talk of the brutality of Operation Vistula as if it were yesterday. Such stories are repeated so frequently not merely because they happened, but because they serve a purpose: they are the glue that binds these national groups together.
The problem with such deeply cherished myths is that they inevitably end up conflicting with someone else’s equally cherished myths. One man’s vengeance is another man’s justice. If the Sudeten Germans remember their expulsion from the Czech borderlands as a time of atrocity, the Czechs commemorate it as a time when historic wrongs were finally put right. If some Polish Ukrainians applaud apologies for Operation Vistula in the liberal press, some Ukrainian Poles see them as a national betrayal. And if the British see the Lancaster bomber as a symbol of pride, many Germans remember it only as a symbol of indiscriminate destruction.
In a speech on the official day of remembrance, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, told his country, ‘If we look back to the twentieth century we see pages of history we’d prefer to forget. But we cannot and should not forget.’13 By invoking history in this way, however, the Italian government was being extremely selective in what it was choosing to remember. Thousands of Italians were indeed massacred by Yugoslavian Partisans in 1945 — but one needed only to look back a further four years to see that it had not been the Yugoslavs or the Communists who had set the process in motion. It was the Italian Fascists who had invaded Yugoslavia in the first place, who had committed the first atrocities, and who had installed the Ustashas – one of the most repulsive regimes in wartime Europe – in power.
Some historians have suggested that hatreds and rivalries between Europe’s competing national and political groups will always exist as long as we continue to commemorate the events of the war and its immediate aftermath. The commemoration in 2005 certainly did nothing to promote friendly relations with Italy’s north-eastern neighbours. Perhaps George Santayana’s famous aphorism that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ should be reversed – that is, it is because we remember the past that we are condemned to repeat it. The depressing re-emergence of national hatreds in the last two decades might seem to suggest so.15"