The Berlin Congress for Cultural Freedom, 1950

Seventy years ago, in the last week of June 1950, the inaugural event of the Congress for Cultural Freedom was held in the ruins of the Titania Palace in Berlin. The Nazis had screened propaganda films at the Titania, which had just about survived allied bombardment. Now, many of Hitler’s refugees—including Franz Borkenau, Alfred Weber and Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter—were among the attendees determined to deliver a public rebuke to totalitarianism.

The week-long Congress was a costly undertaking. The organisers had to pay for the travel, accommodation and expenses of a fair number of the eminences of the Western intelligentsia. Among the delegation from the United States were Sidney Hook and Arthur Schlesinger; Britain was represented by the famed author of The Last Days of Hitler, Hugh Trevor-Roper, the philosopher A.J. Ayer and the doyen of cultural criticism, Herbert Read. Jean-Paul Sartre was among those invited from France, but he predictably declined to have anything to do with condemning totalitarianism.

In a rather shadowy way, the money for the Berlin Congress was provided by the CIA, which continued to pay most of the bill for the activities and publications of the Congress for Cultural Freedom until the late 1960s. The story of the CIA’s clandestine financing of the organisation has been amply told. In fact, since 1967, when it broke in the Nation and the New York Times, it has been the major theme of almost all commentary on the Congress. And the general tone of that commentary—from The Agony of the American Left (1967) by Christopher Lasch, to Who Paid the Piper? (1999) by Frances Stonor Saunders—has been denunciatory. Implicit in the question posed by Saunders—and explicit in the text itself—was the accusation that several of the most recognised writers, artists, historians and sociologists of the mid-twentieth century were nothing other than hired hacks of the CIA. Every word they wrote was to be discredited by the association.

But the inauspicious story of the inaugural Congress in Berlin is one which, in my opinion, calls for an altogether different kind of approach. Clive James once questioned why so many Western intellectuals seemed to find it harder to despise Mao Zedong than Richard Nixon. To answer it, he recommended the study of an “untapped academic subject: the sociology of the international intelligentsia”. In a Jamesian vein, I wonder if the more intriguing question about the Congress for Cultural Freedom is not where the money came from, but why, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA felt compelled to spend such exorbitant sums to shield Europe from its own intellectuals?

The initial prompting for a pushback against Soviet propaganda—on both sides of the Atlantic—came from ex-communists and other non-communists on the political Left who had learned all about the totalitarian nature of Stalin’s Russia long before the Cold War. In the United States, the New Leader magazine, an endeavour of Menshevik emigres, had been waging a lonely war against Soviet communism since 1924. In Britain, George Orwell, famously chased out of Spain by the communists in 1937, tried in vain to launch a post-war League for the Rights of Man, but he complained to Arthur Koestler in 1946 that the intellectuals he approached were “timid” because they realised that such an organisation would, in practice, have to be “anti-Soviet”.

It was not until 1948, with the establishment of the Office for Policy Coordination (OPC), that the CIA began to take an interest in propagandising in Europe. By that time, the Americans were far behind the Soviets on that score. The USSR’s aggressive early Cold War foreign policy—which included the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade—had been attended by a campaign to foment anti-Americanism throughout Europe. Three years before the Berlin Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Soviets had convened a Congress of German Writers in the same city, where a visiting Russian delegation had done most of the talking. Rather than literature, they focused their addresses on the stratagems of the Western imperialists. An International Writers’ Congress followed in Wroclaw (1948), with prominent Western intellectuals invited along to be lectured on the same subject. The Writers’ Congresses were part of an attempt to return to the successful Popular Front strategy of the 1930s, when European communist parties had taken advantage of liberals’ horror of Nazism to establish front groups through which they became an influential political force. Similar gatherings were held in Western cities—Paris, Stockholm and New York—in 1949. The communists hoped to gain from widespread pacifist sentiment in the aftermath of the Second World War. They advanced the notion that the Soviet Union sought only peace, but that its attainment was imperilled by Western warmongers. The Soviets established the World Peace Council (WPC), and Albert Einstein was among the well-intentioned pacifists tricked into collaboration with it. Concurrently, aided by intelligence procured from American spies the Rosenbergs, the Soviets developed their first nuclear weapons.

Such was the intellectual atmosphere in post-war Paris that the OPC’s first attempt to counter Soviet propaganda, with a Congress of its own in 1949, was an abject failure. Sidney Hook was among the prominent participants, and he reflected bitterly in Partisan Review about the Franc Tireur intellectuals who had turned the event into an anti-American demonstration. Things were different, however, in the American sector in Germany, where there was significantly more existential fear about a return to totalitarianism and a far greater determination to stand up to the Soviet Union. (Lali Horstmann’s memoir of the final months of the Second World War demonstrates that it was a matter of indifference to nobody in Germany which army showed up to liberate them, and under whose occupation they were subsequently to live. The existential fear that runs through her text was proved well founded when the NKVD showed up with the request to borrow her husband for a few friendly questions. The reader subsequently learns that he was never heard from again.)

In 1948, the American Military Government (OMGUS) had helped to establish the journal Der Monat, under the editorship of Melvin Lasky. The first issue featured an article in which Bertrand Russell argued that the life of the mind would be extinguished if the Russians won the Cold War. Such things had been unsayable before October 1947, as the Americans had faithfully observed the agreement made at Potsdam to refrain from criticism of other occupying powers. But the realisation had dawned that the Russians had been breaching it wantonly, and General Clay belatedly decided that all bets were off. When Der Monat finally arrived, it was gratefully received by Germans. Melvin Lasky, who was not yet thirty, had been schooled in the offices of the New Leader. He had made a name for himself when he had gone along to the Soviet-sponsored German Writers’ Congress in 1947, in order that there might be one dissenting voice to make the case for the free world. He subsequently took a leading role in organising the Berlin Congress.


Many of the luminaries of the Paris intelligentsia refused to come to Berlin. However, it was a Frenchman, David Rousset, who first suggested that a Congress in support of freedom against totalitarianism should be held in the Western half of the city. Rousset was a survivor of Buchenwald who had embarrassed the bien pensants of the Parisian Left when he proposed that a commission of former inmates of Nazi camps should investigate the Soviet labour camps. The aim of the commission would be to determine whether the regime’s designation of them as “educational facilities” was justified. When a communist newspaper responded by vilifying Rousset as a “Hitlerite” and accused him of lying about the camps, he sued for libel. It was an ingenious move because it forced the French courts to pass judgment on the nature of the Soviet Gulag system. Rousset was able to produce several survivors as witnesses.

His idea of holding the Congress in Berlin seemed, on the face of it, another inspired move. West Berlin was a lonely democratic enclave whose hungry citizens had resisted a year-long blockade in bombed-out surroundings. The city’s mayor, Ernst Reuter, who, like Rousset, was a veteran of Nazi camps, had famously addressed thousands of Berliners outside the crumbling Reichstag to urge resistance to the blockade. They had resisted—and successfully, too. Arguably, Berlin was the front line of the fight between the free world and Soviet totalitarianism.

In actual fact, the choice of host city for the Congress for Cultural Freedom only served to expose the fissures on the democratic front. The German and Central European delegates at the Congress—Reuter, Borkenau, Koestler and Alfred Weber among them—along with a handful of exceptionally brave intellectuals who had travelled from the other side of the Iron Curtain, were uncompromising in their condemnation of the slave labour system threatening to impose itself upon them. And from the American delegates, they received nothing but sympathy. Sidney Hook, for instance, was a battle-hardened veteran of the campaign against the Moscow Trials, which had been chaired by John Dewey in the 1930s. Arthur Schlesinger, author of The Vital Center, saw communism and fascism as twin extremisms. It is true that, also among the American contingent was the increasingly unhinged James Burnham, who was becoming an apologist for Joe McCarthy, and who seems to have been positively excited by the prospect of nuclear war. But the account of Hugh Trevor-Roper, who reported on the Congress in Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, revealed the chasm which separated the British intelligentsia from their German counterparts.

Trevor-Roper was incredulous at having had to bear so many ex-communists in Berlin. He concluded that the whole thing had been a political demonstration stage-managed by renegades. On the first count, he was right. The Congress was a political demonstration, and Arthur Koestler’s impassioned stand against neutralism was generally held to have been the highlight. But it had been advertised as a show of intellectual solidarity against totalitarianism. What did Trevor-Roper expect to hear? How could a defence of freedom be mounted, in Berlin, in 1950, in an apolitical manner?

It was the same story that Orwell had reported to Koestler in 1946. The British intellectuals were happy enough to support freedom in the abstract; they were not prepared to make a show of opposition to those that threatened it. In any case, the British historian seemed to ignore the fact that most delegates—including the entire British contingent—had no history of communism; that there had been no dissension, to cite one of many examples that contradict the accusation of stage-management, to Herbert Read’s paper about the decline of culture under capitalism; and that part of the reason that Koestler’s opinions had not been balanced by any partisans of Stalin was that Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had ignored their invitations.

The subjects of discussion had been advertised to all delegates in advance of the Congress, and one of them was “Science and Totalitarianism”. A biologist who had worked in Moscow delivered a paper on the errors of Lysenkoism—a wholly appropriate topic, which, given its dreadful impact on Soviet agriculture, captured exactly the baleful influence of totalitarianism upon science. Nevertheless, in Trevor-Roper’s submission, a discussion of the topic was beneath the intellectual level of serious scholars. Conveniently, since he had managed to avoid any mention of the world as it stood in 1950, Trevor-Roper preferred A.J. Ayer’s ivory-tower reflections on John Stuart Mill’s arguments for tolerance. The Oxford historian’s bitterest barbs, though, were aimed at the people of Berlin, whose temper he seemed completely unable to grasp. After questioning whether it was possible to discuss cultural freedom in a “city whose natives have never really believed in it”, he was provoked by the reaction of the 2000-strong audience to a short speech by Franz Borkenau to accuse them all of Nazi sympathies.

The opening session of the Congress had been held the day after the North Koreans launched their invasion of the South. By the final day, President Truman had announced that the US would aid the South Koreans. Borkenau expressed gratitude for Truman’s stand, and the audience broke into paroxysms of applause. Undoubtedly, the invasion of the non-communist half of a partitioned country by the communist half was a sinister portent for Germans—especially in the aftermath of the blockade. Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper portrayed the Berliners’ show of support for America’s Democratic President as “hysterical German applause” and declared it “an echo from Hitler’s Nuremburg”. With Borkenau’s speech, he suggested, an alliance had been cemented between the ex-communist orators and the ex-Nazis in the audience. To lend verisimilitude to this fantasy, he used the adjective hysterical three times. Never mind that Borkenau and Koestler both had Jewish backgrounds; nor that Borkenau had been one of the best-known anti-Nazi publicists in Britain in the 1930s; nor that the Congress was being hosted by the Social Democratic mayor, Ernst Reuter, who had spent a significant part of that decade in a Nazi camp; nor, finally, that Alfred Weber had used the occasion of the Congress to make a public mea culpa on behalf of Germany for the atrocities of the Nazis—atrocities of which he had himself been a victim.

Responding to Trevor-Roper, Commentary’s correspondent, Francois Bondy, pointed out that the “contribution of Professor Borkenau shocked some of his hearers perhaps not so much by its lack of tact as by its essential truth”. Bondy observed that the “greater part of the Western European liberal and socialist intellectuals who were present … did not relish being confronted with a situation in which the issues of freedom and of peace [were] in conflict”. That was the very heart of the matter. The British intellectuals certainly believed in freedom, just not enough to stand up to its enemies. Another response came from Melvin Lasky, who questioned whether the author of The Last Days of Hitler knew anything at all about any of the days of the German dictatorship. Indeed, if Trevor-Roper’s misunderstanding were not wilful, the only explanation for it would be that he rarely got out of Oxford. Unfortunately, a reluctance to descend the ivory tower was a common affliction among British intellectuals. Ayer, too, took umbrage at the political atmosphere in Berlin. And it was on the strength of the Oxford dons’ combined accounts of the Berlin Congress that Bertrand Russell resigned his honorary role in the organisation (Sidney Hook persuaded him to reverse his decision, but Russell eventually resigned again).

Why relate the story of the Berlin Congress, seventy years after the event? Only to show that no amount of CIA money could have goaded the French intellectuals to abandon Stalin, nor roused the British intelligentsia from its splendid isolation.

Oscar Clarke is a British writer and a doctoral student at the University of Bristol. He is researching the political thought of Franz Borkenau. 


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