October 20, 1947 (Page 17)
"Thank you! Thank you!"
The thing started off with a deceptive air of tranquillity and good fellowship. Three hundred German writers from all zones, plus a half-dozen from abroad, gathered (for the first time since war's end) in Berlin. The Russians, though they sponsored the affair, took it easy -- at first.
The opening speeches were about such innocuous concerns as German unity and anti-Fascist solidarity. The Russian angel of the performance, a small, feral, red-eyed lieutenant colonel named Alexander Dymshitz, sat and beamed. But as the sessions wore on, the Reds could not resist the temptation to make political hay. Up stood one Vselovod Vishnevsky, a Soviet author and war reporter in excellent standing with the Kremlin. He told how, during the siege of Leningrad, he had personally saved German anti-Fascist and classical literature from German bombs. That was all right, but he went on:
"Now the Soviet Union wants nothing but peace and freedom; for which you German writers and the German nation must fight shoulder to shoulder with us....Reactionary forces in Washington and London are trying to create an iron curtain, but the Soviet nation is watchful and cannot be frightened, not even by atomic bombs....Brothers, comrades, we know how to answer. If you need us, call for our help and we will fight together."
Vishnevsky was dutifully applauded. But he had irritated many Germans from the Western zones who cast about, among the handful of Anglo-U.S. observers and reporters, for someone to answer him. They settled on 27-year-old Melvin J. Lasky, able U.S. correspondent for the New Leaderand Partisan Review , who sat up all night preparing his rebuttal, delivering it next day in excellent German.
The Colonel Sweats. The Reds seemed to listen at first with only half an ear. Said Mr. Lasky:
"The writer, the publisher and the reader have certain inviolable civil rights, and all three have responsibility for vigilant protection and uncompromising maintenance of these rights and this freedom. If they fail -- that is, if you and I fail, here in Europe, or in America, or anywhere in the world -- slavery has come again. Manuscripts will be banned, books will be burned, and writers and readers will once again be sitting in concentration camps for having thought dangerous ideas or uttered forbidden words."
At this point Colonel Dymshitz began to sweat. But the worst was yet to come. Lasky pitied the writers of the Soviet Union: "We know how soul-crushing it is to work and write when behind him stands the police. Think of how it must shatter the nerves of a Russian writer to worry constantly whether the new party doctrine or revised state formula of 'social realism' or 'formalism' or 'objectivism'...has already become passé and the mark only of a 'decadent, counter-revolutionary tool of the fascists.'" Lasky expressed his sympathy for Soviet writers who "suddenly find themselves excommunicated as 'poisonous dregs' [because they do not write] odes to the new five-year plan."
Small Victory. Colonel Dymshitz and his flock of German Communist stooges could stand no more. They stamped their feet, hurled insults. Nevertheless the German chairman insisted that Lasky be heard to the end, and he was. When he had finished, he got a thunderous ovation and Germans from all zones crowded around to shake his hand. "Thank you, thank you!" said one. "I would get up and say the same thing if it were not for my mother in Weimar. You have given us much courage."
Through the foyer of the theater strolled a Soviet author, egg-bald, 39-year-old Boris Gorbatov (whose article on Truman was the subject of Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith's recent protest to Molotov), and Vishnevsky, both with medals and ribbons conspicuously displayed on their well-pressed double-breasted suits. They were joined by two or three Americans who spoke Russian; cigarettes were passed, conversation began amicably but became heated when the Americans told the Russians (who spoke no German) the content of Lasky's speech. Gorbatov was angry. "Why do you attack us all the time? All we want is peace....You always threaten and try to frighten us with your atomic bomb. I have been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, you know, the devil is not as bad as he is painted...."
"I've been through five wars," chimed in Vishnevsky dourly, "and I'm afraid I'll have to go through a sixth...."
Gorbatov protested. "No, no. I think these disagreements will be straightened out."
"You're a silly optimist, Boris," said Vishnevsky. "You think that we will have ten years of peace....Maybe we will....I know Stalin too thinks that these problems will be solved peacefully...but I don't see it....." He laughed and shook his head. "I am a professional military man and I cannot imagine what it will be like. Europe and Asia of course are ours. You will sit there in North and South America and we will shoot rockets at each other...."
"Aren't you being a little hasty, claiming all Europe and Asia?" an American asked.
"Don't be childish. They're ours already," said Vishnevsky grimly.
Here Gorbatov protested. "You're a warmonger yourself," he said half laughingly to Vishnevsky. "You must not be feeling well today."
In the evening session, Valentin Kataev lashed out at Melvin Lasky. He was angry and well he might be, for his own play (My Father's Home ) had been unceremoniously banned in the Soviet Union. "I want to answer the speech of the unknown American writer Lasky. I am so glad I have made the acquaintance of a monstrous warmonger....Excuse me for spending so much time in answering the unknown and pitiful figure of Lasky...." After 20 minutes of name-calling, Kataev subsided.
It was a small victory for the voice of freedom. Many Russians and Americans felt that it was unwise for allies to squabble before a congress of the conquered. Several German writers were heard to mutter: "Maybe Goebbels was right."