A review of With Friends Like These by Larry Watts
The recent past is a forgotten country. The Cold War now seems a period as remote as the Thirty Years War, John le Carré’s novels
almost as quaint as those of Dumas père. Those of us who grew up in the West in the Cold War rather than studying it as history rely on memories of information that was very partial and misleading. We now know the so called satellites of the USSR were very much actors following their own scripts. Often the supposed puppets were pulling the strings. Kim Il Sung manipulated Stalin into supporting his attack on South Korea and Ho Chi Minh inveigled Russia into enabling him to defeat the South Vietnamese. Now Larry Watts’ ground-breaking, enjoyable and meticulously researched book, which deserves to find a wide audience, shows that Ceausescu’s Romania posed a threat to the USSR greater than Tito and comparable with the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring and the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Eastern Europe was not the story of quislings ruling subject people on instructions from the Kremlin. The men and one of two women (of whom Romanians Anna Pauker and Elena Ceausescu were the most significant) who ran the Communist Empire were believers who had risked death and imprisonment from their enemies and from their communist friends because of their beliefs. In power they combined as all politicians do the desire for power, love of manipulation and genuine idealism, to which they added a ruthless devotion to their grim cause and a fanatical conviction that they understood the direction of history which seemed to them scientific but we clearly see to be essentially religious.
Of course we now know Lenin and Marx were wrong. Class is not the driver of history, nor even are economic interests. Nations command far more allegiance even from socialists than social classes. Behind the monolithic appearance of the Soviet Bloc the disappearance of national differences of course did not happen. What is remarkable is the degree to which the conflicts between neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe before 1945 continued seamlessly after the Communists came to power. The most arresting example is Hungary until 1918 the most reactionary country in Europe west of Czarist Russia. There in 1919 in the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Hapsburg Empire the arch conservative antisemitic army and civil service enlisted as supporters of the Bolshevik revolution of Bela Kun a.k.a. Aaron Cohen.
The Hungarian gentile middle class saw in Bolshevik Russia the only hope of preserving Greater Hungary, in particular Hungarian
possession of Transylvania and the Banat, occupied after the armistice by Romania. Kun’s regime hoped the Russian Red Army would break through Romanian lines into the Bucovina and link up with the Hungarian Red Army.
Larry Watts’s book explains that in the 1944-46 history repeated itself and the supporters and gendarmes of the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy who had distinguished themselves in Hungarian occupied Transylvania with great brutality, reinvented themselves as Communist officials and ‘people’s police’. Stalin encouraged Hungarians to hope that Transylvania would become a separate country or divided between Romania and Hungary. He played off Hungary and Romania against each other in the same way that Hitler had done.
Meanwhile the annexation of Bessarabia (now most of the Republic of Moldova) and the Northern Bucovina (which became part of the Ukraine) led to the arrests, deportations and killings of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Romanians who found themselves living in the USSR. In addition, Khrushchev in charge of post-war Ukraine presided over a deliberate famine probably aimed at ethnic Romanians that may have killed between one and two hundred thousand people, while Leonid Brezhnev, First Secretary of the Soviet
Republic of Moldavia, may have reduced the ethnic Romanian population there by as many as a quarter of a million.
Mutual antipathy between Russians and Romanians (the Mamalizhniki or polenta eaters) has long roots in conflict over territory. Russian troops occupied Romania for nearly forty years in the beginning of the 19th century and on several more occasions between 1877 and 1919. Communism only exacerbated things. Engels whose works had the status of holy scripture for Marxist-Leninists had written that the Romanians were a ‘degenerate’ people, ‘a people without history’. The revolution said Engels would ‘annihilate’ the Romanians, wiping them ‘from the face of the earth. And that too would be a step forward.’ Engels wrote this in 1849, angry the Romanians for fighting for the Emperor against the ‘progressive’ forces of the Hungarian nationalist Kossuth. From Communism to Fascism was always but a step.
Gheorghiu Dej the Communist leader of Romania from 1948 till his death in 1965 was unique among Stalin’s satraps in not being a ‘Muscovite’, a Communist trained during the 30s in Russia. He won favour with Moscow for his support in helping reassert Soviet control over Hungary after the 1956 Revolution and succeeded (one would like Watts to have explained in more detail how) in persuading the USSR to withdraw troops from Romania by 1958. Crucially the Romanians also managed to roll up very extensive KGB and Hungarian spy networks (very often the two were combined). These included a series of Hungarian irredentist secret societies operating in Transylvania run by the Communist government in Hungary with KGB knowledge.
In the Warsaw Pact Organisation hastily cobbled together in 1955, Romania from almost the beginning played the role of enfant terrible and barrack room lawyer. Romania took an independent line, enjoying good relations with Tito, building the Iron Gates hydroelectric plant on the Danube without Khrushchev’s permission. In 1963 Dej told Kennedy that he did not support Soviet missile deployments in Cuba and would never allow Soviet missiles to be stationed on Romanians soil. The Cuban crisis may have precipitated an effective declaration of independence in 1963 by the Romanian government who refused to increase military budgets saying they saw no threat of aggression from the West. The Bucharest Spring of 1964 Watts convincingly argues should be compared
to the split with Tito in 1948, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Prague spring four years later.
Ceausescu was more disruptive than de Gaulle in NATO. In June 1965, unnoticed by Western secret services, Romania was dropped from Warsaw pact military operations. The Pentagon continued to plan on the assumption that Romania would fight alongside her Warsaw pact partners even though Romania’s role in the alliance was to impede Soviet policy. Again unbeknown to the CIA, Romania became a Chinese ally second only in importance to Albania, a position it used to help mend fences between China and the United States. For example, Romania helped persuade Hanoi to negotiate with Washington. In 1967 Romania refused to break off relations with Israel following the Six Day War while De Gaulle aligned with the Soviet position. Romania acted as honest broker between Israel and the Arab states and can be take some of the credit for the 1978 Camp David agreement that led to peace between Israel and Egypt.
Ceausescu, alone of the Communist leaders, publically backed the Prague Spring and condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. Yet none of this was understood by the CIA who were spellbound for many years by the disclosures of the Soviet defector Golitsyn. Golitsyn said that Romanian independence was a KGB ruse. This Trojan horse theory which had been disseminated before Golitsyn continued through the Gorbachev period. By 1990 it had become the received wisdom in the West, after Ceausescu’s regime had been overthrown by Romanian Gorbachevites working in league with the Kremlin and the KGB.
Other legends were circulated according to which Kadar and Gomulka followed independent lines whereas both were always loyal to Moscow. General Jarulselski and Urho Kekkonen long-time President of Finland were Soviet agents. Tito was far more amenable to the Soviets than Romania and unlike Romania bought Soviet military equipment. He allowed the Russians to fly over Yugoslav aerospace and use land transport routes and Yugoslav ports for transshipping arms to Soviet clients in the Middle East.
Watts tells us that on several occasions between 1968 and 1971 Russia planned to invade Romania and Honecker of East Germany was told as late as the end of 1973 that Brezhnev had approved an invasion. Russia was emboldened by the relative nonchalance with which the Western bloc has reacted to the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Had an invasion of Romania been received in the same way, Russia intended to march into Yugoslavia. In August 1968, the Romanian Communist Party expected an invasion by the USSR and voted almost unanimously to fight, though as Ceausescu admitted without hope of success. The Stasi. the East German secret service reclassified Romania as an enemy state at this time. The Americans unaware of what was going on were anxious to avoid being drawn into a conflict. So was Tito, who had good reason to fear that Yugoslavia would be invaded after Romania. In August 1968 Tito turned to Great Britain for help, using Sir Fitzroy Maclean as an intermediary, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Romania. MI6 unlike the CIA knew that a Russian invasion was on the cards. Harold Wilson discussed with Michael Stewart and Denis Healey the idea of sending crack troops to fight alongside partisans as in the Second World War. 1968 not 1963 was probably the moment when Cold War came closest to becoming hot.
Ceausescu’s famous speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building on 23rd August 1968 had won him national support but Nagy and Dubcek had had equal popular backing. Why did the Russians and their allies not invade? For a number of reasons. Because in Romania, unlike in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, they no longer had a sufficiently extensive intelligence network enabling them to know what was going on in the party or the armed forces or clients in top positions who could request a Soviet intervention, because Ceausescu and his colleagues unlike the Czechs would have fought and because they had assumed national control over their armed forces which were prepared a military response against an invader from any direction. The fact that the US, Britain, and perhaps most explicitly, Socialist giant China had weighed in to deter a Soviet move no doubt played their role. Courted by the Carter Administration in the late 70s Watts argues that Ceausescu was free in the late 1970s to have led Romania into a non-aligned position similar to that of Yugoslavia and to have competed with Tito for American favours. Instead he decided to create an autarchic national communist state, independent of Moscow and Washington, a path that led him to the firing squad in Tirgoviste on
Christmas Day, 1989.
© Paul Wood 2011