Thaw how far? Eastern Europe 1961–66

Peter Bugge
Department of Global Studies, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

"The socialist system has won in our country," Antonín Novotný, the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, triumphantly declared at a national party conference on July 5, 1960, and six days later the Czechoslovak parliament passed a new Constitution that defined the country as a socialist republic.[1] Cecil Parrott, the British ambassador to Prague, had to admit that for the Communist leaders of Czechoslovakia, "1960 must be regarded a year of achievement," and that with the adoption of the Constitution, "the seal was thus set on the total transformation which the communists have achieved here in the twelve years that they have been in power."[2]

Czechoslovakia was the first country of Eastern Europe officially to enter this stage in its development towards communism, which Stalin had claimed for the Soviet Union in 1936, but between 1963 (Yugoslavia) and 1976 (Poland and Albania), all the other states of the region followed suit. Although a symbolic measure, these declarations testified to a growing confidence among the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe, which was matched by the recognition in the British Foreign Office, and in the West more broadly, that after a tumultuous first decade in power the Communist regimes had come to stay. The period covered in Module II (1961–66) was marked by political and social consolidation, often facilitated by solid economic growth.[3]

At the highest political level, the peaceful deposition of the erratic Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964 and his replacement with the younger, more stable Leonid Brezhnev was widely seen as an indication of the "maturity" of the Communist leadership in the Soviet Union. In Eastern Europe, only Romania saw a change of party leader as Nicolae Ceauşescu took over from the deceased Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in March 1965. It caused a stir when in Czechoslovakia in early 1962 the former Minister of the Interior, Deputy Prime Minister Rudolf Barák, was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Barák was accused of embezzlement and damaging the national economy, but not without justification; the British embassy saw in the trial a move from Novotný to eliminate a powerful rival.[4] In the early sixties, however, such a draconian settling of political scores was an anomaly, a late echo of the purges and trials of the Stalin era.

Nor did the region, unlike in the 1950s, experience any major social riots or unrest. In Hungary, after an initial period of brutal repression following the October 1956 revolt, party leader János Kádár successfully consolidated both his personal power and that of the Communist regime by combining policies aimed at improving the living standard of the broad population with steps towards national reconciliation. In 1962, Kádár reversed the Stalinist doctrine of "he who is not with us is against us" by declaring that "he who is not against us is with us," and in March 1963 he followed up on his words with a general amnesty. Ivor Pink, the British Envoy Extraordinary in Budapest, closely monitored these developments in his annual reviews of Hungarian events. On 1961, Pink reported that Kádár was seeking national reconciliation while gradually curtailing the power of the secret police; 1962 was "a year of consolidation and compromise at home", which left "the Hungarians … to-day more prosperous and freer than any of their neighbours except the Poles"; and 1963 was according to Pink a year when Hungarians had begun to accept Kádár as the best Prime Minister they could expect to have under the circumstances.[5]

Hungary's membership of the U.N. had been suspended in 1957, and much to the irritation of Pink, the "Hungarian Item" was brought up in the General Assembly every year thereafter. He found the measure futile since the world press paid no attention, unfair because the issue "continued to present the Hungarian Government as worse than its neighbours in Eastern Europe long after this ceased to be true," and counterproductive because it made it more difficult for Kádár to grant an amnesty to the political prisoners of 1956. Pink was therefore happy when the issue was buried in 1963 so that Hungary could again become a full member of the U.N., and the U.K. could upgrade their legation in Budapest to embassy status.[6]

The period covered in Module II was not without Cold War tension – most notably so with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 – but apart from the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, which put an end to the hemorrhaging of the German Democratic Republic through emigration, most of the drama (the Congo Crisis of 1961, the early stages of the Vietnam War) happened far from Europe. Here, the doctrine of "peaceful coexistence" survived and was reinforced throughout the 1960s. Pink was not alone among British diplomats in recommending cultural and economic cooperation as a way to normalize relations between the U.K. and the East European states, and in 1963 also the British representations in Bucharest and Sofia were granted embassy status. For Romania in particular, this was a reward of their interest in improving relations with the U.K.[7]

Cultural exchange was an important component in British diplomacy, and all annual country reviews specified achievements in this field, listing exhibitions, concerts, and visits of British artists and intellectuals. Suspicions persisted on both sides. A 1965 request from a teacher of English with a job offer from a language school in Bulgaria led to a Foreign Office discussion about whether British teachers signing up for jobs in Eastern Europe were mostly Communists or fellow travelers, and if it would therefore be wise to grant them the same rights as British teachers elsewhere, who upheld their pension rights for a longer period! The conclusion was negative.[8] Conversely, Communist leaders occasionally called for ideological vigilance against the unhealthy appropriation of Western culture. One particularly graphic 1962 warning from the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov about the pervasive influence of Western vices was seen in the Foreign Office as "a complete and somewhat unexpected vindication of the policy of cultural penetration of the Iron Curtain which we have been pursuing and which we have been urging on our allies for the last three years."[9] This triumphant conclusion was surely as exaggerated as the fears of Zhivkov.[10] The significant growth in British cultural contacts with 1960s Eastern Europe was facilitated not only by the genuine thirst for Western culture among Eastern European publics,[11] but also by the conviction of the regimes that cultural exchange with the West would strengthen their international standing more than it would undermine their domestic authority.[12]

This trend was manifest in the broadest mass form of cultural exchange: tourism. All East European states eased travel restrictions in the 1960s to open up for tourism not just within the socialist bloc, but also for Western European visitors.[13] In 1961, a total of 102,600 Westerners visited Czechoslovakia, but six years later the number of Western tourists alone exceeded 800,000.[14] British diplomats took note of these trends. In 1964, the embassy in Bucharest reported in detail about new Romanian policies to make incoming tourism easier and more attractive,[15] and in 1965 Ivor Pink wrote that the sharp increase in mass tourism in Hungary was a general East European trend, "both a sign and a consequence of the greater confidence of the East European Governments, who are no longer so concerned to restrict the movements of people and ideas." Pink saw this as a highly positive development and he hoped that many Western tourists would make it across the frontier: "The impact of a multitude of personal contacts […] helps to destroy mutual illusions and to revive old channels of influence." One notices how the praise of mutual understanding was linked to more utilitarian goals, as spelled out explicitly in Pink's conclusion: "The Hungarians are indeed after our money, but their interest in Britain and their need for our products will make it our own fault if we fail to get it back."[16]

The promotion of trade and British exports was a recurrent theme in annual country reports and numerous bulletins on economic developments in Eastern Europe. Even the faintest interest in contact was duly noticed, as seen in a 1962 discussion about the possible visit of a Bank of England representative to poor, isolated Albania.[17] The advancing thaw allowed the British Minister of Trade, Edward de Cann, to make a grand tour of Eastern Europe in July 1964 with visits to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Except for Czechoslovakia, this was the first visit of a British minister since the Communist seizures of power. All local British embassies evaluated the visits as an unqualified success. J. D. Murray, ambassador to Romania, neatly summed up the goals of the visit:

The atmosphere has now been created for an expansion of trade and, through trade, the contacts and influence that can help towards the attainment of our political objectives. Failure to grasp this opportunity could well lead to the relegation of the U.K. to a minor role in supplying Rumania with the means of developing her economy and her independence, with consequent loss of British influence and prestige as compared to our competitors of the Common Market and also with the U.S.A and Japan[18]

Like cultural contacts, trade with Eastern Europe was seen as a means to help these countries break free from the Soviet Union (the remark about Romanian "independence" refers to the country's controversies with the U.S.S.R. over Romania's role in the economic division of labor within the "Eastern Bloc"[19]), but British interests in a competitive global market were never left out of sight.

The noticeable East European consolidation was based on genuine economic achievements. For all its brutality and misdirected investment, the industrialization drive of the Stalin era did lay the foundations for a structural modernization and economic growth that from the late 1950s was increasingly converted into raising standards of living. These were years of urbanization and huge advances in education and public health, of the birth – though with some delay and on a smaller scale than in Western Europe – of a consumer society where items such as refrigerators, television sets, or even private cars became accessible to ordinary people.[20]

The planned economy of Czechoslovakia, the only East European country with an advanced pre-war industry, ran into troubles in the early 1960s,[21] but the background file prepared for Mr. de Cann's 1964 visit noticed how liberal-minded economists were now having a voice, and accepted that there was some justification in the Communist claim that under their rule, Czechoslovakia had made big advances in the economic field.[22] Such (at times grudging) recognition was not unseen in diplomatic reports, and when George Clutton, the British ambassador to Poland, in 1963 wrote that "the real weakness of the party is that it is increasingly regarded by the general public not just as Communist, but as hopelessly incompetent," he indirectly acknowledges that "Communist" and "competent" were not necessarily contradictions in terms.[23]

The tangible relaxation of Communist rule, which as noticed by several ambassadors found expression in both high and low culture, may well to some extent have been "safety valve stuff," as Ivor Pink remarked in 1963 about the twist, the striptease, and the satire now seen in Budapest,[24] but the years covered in Module II were a period when the East European countries became less alien, less hostile, more "normal" from a British point of view. "Prague is taking on more and more the appearance of a Western capital," Cecil Parrott wrote in 1961,[25] and also from Sofia, Budapest, and Bucharest the early sixties brought reports about jazz and even pop music being played at clubs and on the radio, about unrestricted dancing and a vibrant night life, interesting theatres, etc.[26] George Clutton, who found it nigh-impossible to say a positive word about the Polish regime, summed up 1963 as follows:

Except for the most glorious summer in recorded Polish memory, continued licence in contacts with the West, including facilities for travel and to indulge in indiscreet conversation, and freedom to dress and dance as if he lived in Western Europe, the average Pole can have little good to say about 1963.[27]

For the East Europeans who had lived through the 1950s, such achievements were, however, far from negligible.

[1] Novotný's speech in full can be found in Rudé Právo, July 6, 1960, 1–2. See also Kevin McDermott, Communist Czechoslovakia, 1945–89: A Political and Social History (London: Palgrave, 2015).

[2] FO 371/159205 (Czechoslovakia: Annual Review for 1960), January 12, 1961.

[3] This essay focusses on the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe. It largely leaves aside East Germany and with it the "German question," and also Yugoslavia, which under Josip Broz Tito developed its own form of socialism, while pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy. For good general surveys of the region's history under Communism see Joseph Rothschild and Nancy M. Wingfield, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe since World War II, 4th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe since 1945, 4th ed. (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); or Mark Pittaway, Eastern Europe, 1939-2000 (London: Arnold, 2004).

[4] FO 371/165813 (several reports of March and April 1962 on the arrest and the trial).

[5] FO 371/166021 (Annual Review and Calendar of Events in Hungary for 1961); FO 371/171742 (Annual Review for 1962); FO 371/177538 (Hungary: Annual Review for 1963).

[6] References as in note 4. See also László Kontler, Millennium in Central Europe: A History of Hungary (Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House, 1999), 430–441.

[7] The U.K. had used this interest in 1961 to press for the release from prison of former employees of the British legation in Romania. FO 371/159509 (Despatch of June 8, 1961 from David Scott Fox to the Foreign Office).

[8] FO 371/182614.

[9] FO 371/171735 (R. H. Mason to the British Legation, Sofia), June 14, 1963.

[10] The same Mason seems to be aware of this, cf. his sarcastic remark in the same letter to Sofia: "Can life in Bulgaria really be one long Ball of Kirriemuir? Admittedly I was there in the off season, but it did not seem so to me." FO 371/171735 (R. H. Mason to the British Legation, Sofia), June 14, 1963.

[11] G. L. Clutton, the British ambassador to Poland, told from a visit to Cracow in January 1961 how the local authorities had successfully devised strategies for how to open an English Reading Room in the city without attracting the attention, or wrath, of the local Soviet consul. FO 371/159495.

[12] This was a recurring motif in reports from Romania. With some envy, the British legation reported in 1963 how the French successfully used cultural exchanges to increase their influence in the country, FO 371/171885. See also the March 1965 memorandum from the British embassy on recent developments in the cultural sphere in Romania, FO 371/182731.

[13] Research on tourism in Communist countries is a new and rewarding field. See Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane P. Koenker, eds., Turizm: The Russian and East European Tourist under Capitalism and Socialism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006) and Adam T. Rosenbaum, "Leisure Travel and Real Existing Socialism: New Research on Tourism in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe," Journal of Tourism History 7, nos. 1–2 (2015): 157–176.

[14] Significantly, the easing also affected Eastern European visits to Western Europe. In 1961 62,610 Czechoslovak citizens visited a cap­i­tal­ist state; the num­ber in 1967 rose to over 200,000. Figures from Jan Rychlík, Cestování do ciziny v habsburské monarchii a v Československu. Pas­o­vá, vízová a vystěhovalecká politika 1848–1989 (Prague: ÚSD AV ČR, 2007), 59–61 and 83, and from Martin Franc, „Výkladní skříň social­is­mu. Obchod s potravinami v Praze v 50. a 60. letech 20. století." In Bolševismus, kommunismus a radikální socialismus v Československu, Svazek V, edited by Zdeněk Kárník and Michal Kopeček (Prague: Dokořán, 2005), 222–240, at 236.

[15] FO 371/177646. A telegram of June 5, 1964 summed up the report as follows: "Although there is an obvious economic motive, this action is not without political significance as part of the general liberalization of contacts with the West. It is also indicative of the current mood of self-confidence."

[16] FO 371/182644 (Despatch No. 7 S., February 9, 1965, from Ivor Pink to Michael Stewart, M. P).

[17] FO 371/165809.

[18] FO 371/177429 (J. D. Murray to R. A. Butler), July 29, 1964. The material of this file is particularly rich with detailed country reports and policy briefings for the Minister of Trade and extensive summaries and evaluations of the proceedings of his four visits. A handwritten comment expresses some skepticism towards Murray's plea for giving "generous credits to Rumania."

[19] Since 1949, the states under communist rule were organized in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (C.M.E.A.), also known in the West as Comecon. From the early 1960s, Romania increasingly sought to pursue its own goals independently of Moscow's wishes. See also FO 371/166161 (Rumania: Annual Review for 1961) and FO 371/171894 (on Romanian foreign trade initiatives in 1963).

[20] For a balanced discussion of economic achievements and failures, see Ivan Berend, Central and Eastern Europe 1944–1993: Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). In much of continental Western Europe, the "age of affluence," as Tony Judt has called the time from around 1953 to 1971, also made itself felt in earnest only from the late 1950s on­wards. Tony Judt, Postwar – A History of Europe since 1945 (London: William Heinemann, 2005), 324–353. On consumption in Eastern Europe see Paulina Bren and Mary Neuburger, eds., Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[21] See FO 371/159220 (a 1961 report on the Third Five Year Plan) and FO 371/165826 (Czechoslovakia: Annual Economic Review 1961).

[22] FO 371/177429 (Brief: Visit of the Minister of State at the Board of Trade to Eastern Europe, July 1964: Anglo-Czechoslovak Relations. Northern Department. Foreign Office), July 7, 1964.

[23] FO 371/177572 (Poland: Annual Review for 1963), February 3, 1964.

[24] FO 371/171775 (Art and Literature in Hungary), March 22, 1963.

[25] FO 371/159205 (Czechoslovakia: Annual Report for 1960).

[26] FO 371/171735 (A 1963 discussion of the penetration of Western culture in Bulgaria); FO 371/165862 (Various reports from 1962 on Czechoslovak cultural development, including a mention of a craze for modern dances in Prague); FO 371/182731 (Report on the cultural scene in Rumania, March 1965). J. D. Murray writes: "On the more popular level, the 'twist' and the latest pop records from France, America and the United Kingdom can be heard over the radio and at the Bucharest night clubs, and public performance of such 'unseemly' dances is no longer frowned upon (it still comes as a little surprise to hear 'The Saints come Marching Home!' jazzed up and sung in English on the radio)."

[27] FO 371/177572 (Poland: Annual Review for 1963), February 3, 1964.

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