Does propaganda require a rationale – or even a point?

The minutes of meetings in Szklarska Poręba, Poland, in September 1947 that lead to the establishment of Cominform (Communist Information Bureau or the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers' Parties) make fascinating reading. They provide a glimpse into the farce of an independent communist government.
In our time it might surprise that actual incumbent leaders of sovereign nations (who also in most cases happened to be the leaders of the local communist party) not only followed the wishes of Moscow (in this case expressed by Stalin’s representative, Andrei Zdhanov, a major perpetrator of the Great Terror) instantly, but also anticipated Soviet wishes and proactively tried to please the powers represented by Zdhanov by saying just the things he intimated he wished to be said, as demonstrated by the speech of Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka. Thisa. Theated by inngs he intimid travesty of democratic proceedings was mocked by Zdhanov himself through his (recorded) laughter and his last words at the meeting, when, after seemingly deferring to the authority of the conference’s chair, the Frenchman Jacques Duclos, for scheduling the next meeting, Zdhanov concluded unabashedly and laughingly, “[I]n any case, there will be a meeting tomorrow.”

It appears that the Soviets considered it important to record all decisions as having been made “unanimously,” which, rather than projecting an image of convergent goals, suggested that the Soviet communists in fact represented a dictatorship where articulation of even the smallest objection was neither possible nor permitted. The eagerness of other representatives to immediately accept their “mistakes” as pointed out by the Soviets and to offer instant changes of their policy continued to turn the proceedings of the Cominform meetings into an inexplicably absurd farce. After all, why would Italian or French communists feel so obliged to obey Moscow’s directives? They were not risking removal from a puppet government, as would their Eastern Bloc counterparts, nor economic repercussions for their countries that were in almost all cases largely independent from the USSR. In fact, they had to have held few realistic hopes of ever forming a Soviet-installed puppet government in democratic Western countries in the first place, or of winning a “war on imperialism” other than by a chance development in international politics.

This leads us to another observation on communist methodology. As an inherently revolutionary movement, the communists had stressed the international character of the “struggle against capitalism” since the inception of their movement, and had organized formal chains of communication and coordination unprecedented in the history of political movements of the twentieth century. Therefore it seems natural that, four years after dissolution of the Comintern, they reactivated the idea of a supervising organization embodied by what was now called Cominform.

Soviet rhetoric also presents an interesting mix of grotesque exaggerations and falsehoods and a projection of economic data fancied as objective. Some of Zdhanov’s statements, especially those alleging that Britain, the U.S. and France purportedly “place special hopes” on their wartime enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan, to “destroy” Germany’s erstwhile and the Western power’s later wartime ally, the USSR, simply do not make much historical or strategic sense. It does, however, beg the question whether his propaganda was actually aimed at upsetting or dividing public opinion among the Western powers, or whether Zdhanov thought that communists world-wide were too scared of or impressed by Stalin to use even a small measure of independent common sense and logic. Another explanation may be that neither Zdhanov nor the communist leaders gave any credence to the often outrageous Soviet propaganda in the first place, so they did not feel constrained from making statements so grotesque as to abandon any claims of seriousness. It is not evident from these materials but Zhdanov, who later became Stalin’s son-in-law, was known as a compulsive alcoholic and died soon afterwards of heart failure caused by this condition.

Another interesting issue is the treatment of Germany. One can only speculate why the USSR was at first so opposed to ending the allied occupation of Germany, and then to dividing it into a capitalist and communist sphere of influence. It may well be that Stalin’s USSR thought that, by preventing such a split, it could preserve an option to annex one day the whole of Germany into the Eastern Bloc under as yet unforeseeable favorable circumstances, and that it would be preferable to preserve a claim to the entirety of the country, especially to its resource-rich western parts including the Ruhr region, rather than to their domain that was only the lesser half of it. Still, the likelihood of acquiescence by the Western powers to such a development had to be considered almost zero at any point in time. It is also not too readily apparent why, other than for reasons of historic fears and of a basically accurate estimation of German capabilities, the USSR maintained such persistent opposition to the reconstruction of Germany. It had to be obvious that, by insisting on both instant reparations in kind and on huge reparations due out of the current production, the victorious USSR was trying to ensure the destruction of the already dramatically exhausted and war-ravaged German economy. Elementary economic thinking, if it was given any space, would have implied that in order to recover a large debt, one cannot expect to remove all means of production and subsistence, and that it is in the interest of a creditor for its debtor to be prosperous rather than become insolvent. Although notions such as the de-militarization and de-industrialization of Germany had also been considered briefly in the West  (the 1944 Morgenthau Plan was shelved due to highly negative public reaction), Western powers seemed already well aware that the unconscionably harsh restrictions and reparations imposed on Germany following WWI had given rise to Nazi sympathies, had fuelled Hitler’s rise to power, and thus eventually led to WWII. By insisting yet again on squeezing the last drop out of a war-torn vanquished Germany, the USSR appeared, in fact, to be setting the stage for the next war. Yet, partly due to their greed, but also because of a perceived populist need for revenge and for the elimination of a future threat, the cash-strapped Soviets could not agree with other Allies on adequate reparations to be imposed on Germany. Presumably, they obtained their equivalent by draining the economy of East Germany in the same or similar way that their hugely inefficient planned economy had used to obtain scarce resources from its other satellite countries.

Tony Judt’s portrayal of the post-war situation in Europe in Postwar: a History of Europe Since 1945 sheds further light on the economic and political factors influential at that time. Notably, while demagogic communist rhetoric routinely equated capitalist regimes with “fascists,” it failed to acknowledge that some reforms hailed as communist achievements were also, in some instances even previously or at least contemporaneously, introduced by democratically elected governments, not only in Western countries, but also by some members of the Eastern European bloc even before the advent of sovietization. Land reforms, democratization, social security, health insurance (dating back to 1935 in the U.S.), and free public education were all part of reconstruction reforms across Europe, including in “imperialist” Britain, although it begs the question how much of it would have been passed without a perceived need to pre-empt the appeal of Marxist propaganda. Nonetheless, the drive to establish communism as an objective with eager help from Mother Russia, or to achieve some form of socialism in general, seemed part of a global trend to provide increased security by a welfare state to populations worn out by two major wars waged in quick succession, interspaced with economic depressions and concomitant post-war austerity measures. No wonder, then, that certain disadvantaged groups felt intensely attracted to some of the more radical goals of communism, despite the fact that democratic sympathies overall outweighed pro-communist sentiments virtually everywhere free articulation was possible, especially in countries that had already experienced the disaster of another form of authoritarian or totalitarian regime within the lifetime of one generation. Anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments should also not be underappreciated in any analysis of the attractiveness of communism which was widely perceived as a Soviet-Russian export product.  

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