“Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own…”
Koko (“I’ve got a little list”), The Mikado
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Why did the story of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Czech spy gain so little traction? Is it because, as UnHerd’s editor Tim Montgomerie believes, a critical percentage of younger people are basically relativists who see no absolute virtue in Britain? Do they believe the former Soviet Union, and for that matter Corbyn’s other interlocutors, the IRA, legitimately saw (and Communist recidivists still see) Britain as being just as badly flawed as all other nations?
Or is it a significant case of amnesia, perhaps even nescience?
No history, only “news”?
The median voter’s age at the last general election was 40; the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, when the median voter was in his/her early teens. The Warsaw Pact – more correctly the Warsaw Treaty Organization of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance – of which Czechoslovakia was a key member, melted away even earlier. Declared disbanded at a meeting of Pact foreign ministers in February 1991, in reality, it had ceased to be in December 1989 when the violent anti-Communist revolution in Romania – President Ceausescu and his wife summarily shot – passed without military intervention by other member states.
That was 28 years ago. The Warsaw Pact is “history”.
Besides, haven’t the relativists got a point: wasn’t the Pact formed (in 1955) only because Nato had admitted the newly independent Federal Republic of Germany?
That is how a narrow chronologist might see it: post hoc ergo propter hoc1. However, in 1955, the USSR was the occupying power in several Eastern Bloc countries still. Moscow wanted to maintain control over their military forces and of those of countries they had occupied in 1945 but subsequently withdrawn from under the Yalta agreement with the former Western Allies (having first made sure there was a Moscow-oriented Communist government in place) – notably Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia was indeed a key Eastern Bloc country. It shared a long border with the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and Poland, and like the DDR it was on the frontline with the Federal Republic of Germany. If it ever came to war with Nato, the Soviet-equipped Czechoslovak army and air force would have a key role. Moscow’s influence in Prague was therefore of the essence.
Nothing illustrates this better than the events of 50 years ago: the Prague Spring and the subsequent invasion by Soviet troops. Early in 1968, the Moscow-loyalist Antonin Novotny was ousted as head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and replaced by the more liberal Alexander Dubcek. The new government ended censorship and announced a plan for reform. Moscow and the Czechoslovak hardliners became alarmed, and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, decided to intervene to restore a pro-Soviet regime.
The invasion in August 1968 took the West by surprise. Moscow had moved troops from the Soviet Union, and Warsaw Pact troops from Hungary, Poland, the DDR and Bulgaria, into place under the cover of Pact military exercises. They quickly took control of Prague and other major cities, as well as communications and transport links. Dubcek, fearing a bloodbath like that during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, had ordered the army not to resist.
Remember dead Czechs
Brezhnev had calculated correctly: the United States condemned the invasion, but as with Hungary, did not intervene.2. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was bloody enough, however: 137 civilians were killed, and 500 seriously wounded.
That summer and autumn the USSR Symphony Orchestra was touring Britain, with the great cellist Rostropovich. I went to Sheffield to hear them. The steps of the City Hall were lined with students chanting “Remember dead Czechs when you clap at the end”.
To my eternal shame, I did go in, and I clapped at the end. My excuse is that I was in my teens. I shall never forget it.3
The following year, I was in uniform, and my next 20 were dominated by the Warsaw Pact threat (with occasional distractions by the IRA). As the desk officer for Central Europe in the MoD’s directorate of military operations in the 1980s, when Jeremy Corbyn is alleged to have got cosy with Czech intelligence and holidayed in that famous tourist attraction, the old DDR, I was certainly mindful of the Sheffield students’ chant, for there were longer-term consequences of the Warsaw Pact invasion.
Dubcek having been forced from power, the new leadership had quickly re-established censorship and movement controls. Czechoslovakia became once more a cooperative and highly effective member of the Pact. If in doubt, read John Le Carré. Not for nothing does the Státní bezpečnost (StB), the Czechoslovak state security service, feature prominently in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As an intelligence-gathering and counter-intelligence organization, the StB was second only to that of the USSR.
With the success of the invasion, an emboldened Soviet leadership promulgated what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. This held that Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where a communist government was threatened. It would be the primary justification for the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and it was what neutralised Solidarity’s resistance in Poland in 1982 after the government of General Jaruzelski had crushed the opposition the previous year.4 Fear of invasion spurred Jaruzelski’s repression, while at the same time tempering the resistance.
The Brezhnev Doctrine required the active cooperation of the Warsaw Pact as a whole, but especially, in the case of Poland, that of Czechoslovakia; for Lower Silesia, one of the strongholds of opposition, lay along the Czech border. Prague under President Gustav Husak – “Hero of the Soviet Union” – was certainly cooperative. In any case, the Soviet troops that had invaded in 1968 were still there (and would not leave until 1991).
For a trade unionist, such as Corbyn, Czechoslovakia in the 1980s ought not have been an attractive country to side with.
But history is never over
It’s all a long time ago of course. I was minded of this recently when I went to another concert, this time the Czech Philharmonic. Besides being an unusually masculine orchestra – more so even than the Vienna Philharmonic (I counted only four women) – they are a very youthful one. Indeed, the leader and the principal cello could not have been born when the Warsaw Pact disbanded, let alone seen the 1968 invasion. I trust they know, however, what their parents’ generation went through. They will have been reminded of it recently by news of their prime minister, Andrej Babis, a Slovak-born billionaire businessman. A court has just rejected his demand by to be cleared of cooperation with the former StB.
A long time ago, but old sins cast long shadows.
Perhaps the 50th anniversary of the invasion will remind the median voters in Britain that the former Warsaw Pact regimes underpinned what President Ronald Reagan called “The Evil Empire” (the USSR), and that they were not simply alternative, equally valid and virtuous, forms of government.
There are, however, persistent “useful idiots”, as Lenin is supposed to have called them – willing dupes of Communism – who are prepared to relativise everything. On BBC’s Question Time last week, the former Labour deputy prime minister, Lord (John) Prescott, excused Jeremy Corbyn’s contacts with the enemies of Britain by saying that William Whitelaw (Margaret Thatcher’s deputy) and John Major when prime minister also talked to the IRA.
Yes, he really said that.
To Lord Prescott, like Mr Corbyn, treason, to paraphrase Talleyrand, does indeed appear to be ultimately a matter of dates.