Commentary Magazine

Russia's Europe, by Hal Lehrman

A Liberal Comes to Life
Russia’s Europe.
by Hal Lehrman.
New York, D. Appleton-Century, 1947. 340 pp. $3.75.


This is a book by a young American liberal about a topic as grave and sizzling as there is in the world today. The liberal, as we have known him, is the more or less attenuated shadow of the prophets. Like Jeremiah he is a person who hath seen affliction, and like Amos he will not be at his ease in Zion. He desires the children of men to be nobler than they ever are, or at least to live out today constantly within the framework of tomorrow. The trouble is that these shadows are so often mere reflections when the sun comes up. In other words, the liberal is tested when he goes out to find his dream and discovers reality instead. If he is honest then and still free, still hot with a thirst for integrity, the time has spoken to him and he will speak to the time.

Lehrman, going into the Lebensraum which the Russians have carved out of Eastern Europe, was curiously like what we “liberals” of my generation were when we first saw Nazi Germany. Much there was weird and wicked of course, but there were reasons why. After a while one’s eyes smarted, however. The theories and the historical backdrop wilted. This was reality, horrible beyond horror, and one had to make up one’s mind about it. What is so impressive about Lehrman’s first-hand account of what has happened to Russia’s satellites is less what is in it—and there is plenty, about which there will be something to say in a moment—than the man who looks out of its pages. I would say an honest man, who found candor expensive and paid the bill. You need not agree with everything he says in order to know that he means what he says. I think he carries a good deal of once-acquired intellectualist face powder around with him. He picked it up at college and through talk with people who spoke as he used to speak. But the fact that he does not step out of character is immensely heartening. He is still Hal Lehrman, who once had all the answers, and knew that the side of the world which ought to be up was his side. He is also a genuinely significant spirit, who has suffered for the truth and can conceal his suffering. Here is a chap worth knowing. His book is so good that many people are going to make his acquaintance. They will meet not a convert but a reporter, not an innocent abroad who lost his innocence but an explorer who found a road.



He tells how, as a PM reporter, he came across seventeen hundred American and British soldiers let out of Nazi camps by the Russian army and eventually corralled on a boat sailing from Odessa to Britain. There were no names they didn’t call the Russians, and so the lid was clamped on their remarks as far as reporters were concerned. But Lehrman could interview Canadians, and found that two out of twenty-seven had no complaint. Let me quote: “I still don’t know if I was right or wrong, but I cabled only what these two told me about the Russians, and uneasily censored the rest out myself. Next day the Toronto Star announced in big type: CANADIANS SAVED, FED BY RUSSIANS.”

That was a good beginning for a PM reporter, received in such esteem because of his employer that the Iron Curtain lifted as if it were a window shade. It wasn’t merely a case of somebody stuffed full of wartime comradeship between Allies, or anxious to do nothing that might make Kipling’s stupid poem come true. Lehrman had studied the history of Eastern Europe. He had learned to dislike the stuffy and conceited feudalism of countries there, the social amorality of aristocrats, the bad odor of regimes which held that the common man was a boot-licker or a dangerous oaf. It seemed to him that all the plush was at last in for a going-over, and that freedom would one of these days be something the people knew they had. He wanted the United States never to be caught in the act of ironing the spine of a reactionary just because the Reds were bolstering up the average plain citizen. The end of the rainbow was Washington and Moscow with a consolidated heel on Hitler.

Then Lehrman went to Greece. Here was a country, grievously hollowed out by the fighting, in which the old political issues were still very much in the foreground. Grafters and satraps seemed to this American observer glued to the royal footstool. He saw groups into which Communists had merely infiltrated painted bright vermilion by their foes. In his opinion the British were making serious blunders, not by reason of ideological stupidity but because of a general bogging down in the morass of Levantine dishonesty. There ought to be, Lehrman thought, a housecleaning, and instead there was waste, graft, and plain murder. Perhaps the worst chapter in the sorry story was the whipping up of nationalist passion. Greeks wanted some of Bulgaria, and Bulgarians wanted some of Greece. Despite all the horror of war, the last thing a good many of these people dreamed of was peace. By and large Lehrman was still on the Left, and his copy was reprinted approvingly in Moscow.

Yugoslavia came next, and our correspondent was welcomed like a long-lost brother. He was assigned a charming interpreter, and admitted to the private offices of ministers. Every time PM gave a cheer for Moscow, Lehrman got a pat on the back. But now he began to prove what was in him. The treatment accorded the political opposition, the unvarnished brutality of the Chetnik trials, the unbridled looting, and the slow but inexorable removal of a chance to live from all sections of the populace save Tito’s army—these he witnessed, at first unwillingly and incredulously, but then with the certainty that what was taking place was the annihilation of every hope for which good men had fought the war. But it is important to note that Lehrman does not wax rhetorical or even verbose. The chapters he devotes to Yugoslavia are the best in the book because they are straightforward, concrete, filled with shreds of this or that yarn that might itself have been a book, and in a rather odd way idealistically cynical.

Lehrman was undergoing a change of heart, in short, but it didn’t affect his vision. When he came to the end of his stay he knew that America and Britain had been wrong about Tito, terribly and grotesquely wrong. And their mistaken judgment was costing Serbs and Croats and Slovenes more than even they, poor devils, had probably ever been asked to pay for a chance to live.



After this came Hungary, where the fate of the democratic spirit may be even more tragic than in Yugoslavia. By this time Lehrman was too sick at heart to look around for excuses. There had been a land reform, yes, but it was so frightfully bungled and unjust that it stank to high heaven. And all else was hell. It was still true that there was no good reason why Russians should love Hungarians, who God knows had acted like soldiers and worse in the Ukraine and elsewhere. But they did not present a bill. They asked for and got instead the death of Hungary—death of the body and the soul. This is a horrible chapter not only because it is a long atrocity story of which every paragraph almost dwarfs Lidice, but also because reading it will force nearly every reader to reckon with his own disillusionment.

The sections on Rumania and Bulgaria are similar, except that in Bulgaria at least there was no discernible excuse for Russian misconduct. Bulgarians had always been pro-Slav. They hung out flags to welcome the great armies from the East, and they meant it. But what happened to them did not differ from what took place elsewhere under Red army control. The aim of that army, as Lehrman interprets it, was “total dominion, physical and spiritual, as quickly as possible.” Speed records were set in Bulgaria precisely because liberal elements there trusted the Moscow authorities. And perhaps the most appalling item in the bill of particulars that must now be drawn up on the subject of Soviet rule is that Nazi and Fascist blackguards are enrolled in Communist strong-arm organizations for the purpose of suppressing every vestige of free speech and of free economic or spiritual enterprise.

Lehrman’s book is discursive, of course, but it is written with great care and genuine stylistic brilliance. This means that it is a sober and dependable account but also an absorbing, even a gripping narrative. One need stress no minor flaws, because there is more than enough beer to make any reader forget the foam in the glass, if indeed he should notice it at all. In this book the American liberal of Lehrman’s generation comes to authentic life. His voice is good to hear. It is not raucous, or insolent, or bellicose. It says many things about this bitter time which an American can read without loathing or false pride. It says that we as a people have made serious blunders, by reason either of our intellectual naiveté or our moral slovenliness. It is not afraid to measure the gap between what we say and what we have done. Lehrman indulges in no emotional or gun-toting sprees. He says that we must learn to be firm, just, and democratic. Our “No’s” should be spoken so that every Russian can hear them. And when we say “Yes” to somebody we must mean what we say.

Even those who refuse to believe that Lehrman’s report is the whole truth, will hardly be able to deny that it is a very striking part of the truth. For nobody had a better chance to see for himself, or was more likely to be open of mind. One may have thought sometimes that Mr. Lehrman’s generation was calamitously miseducated. This book proves that the suspicion was unfounded.



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