Sunday, February 28, 2010

Not just evil but insane

One of the books I have been reading as a form of .... ahem .... relaxation is Tim Tzouliadis's The Forsaken, the painful, indeed horrific tale of what happened to several thousand Americans, mostly ordinary workers, who decided to go with their families to the Soviet Union in the early thirties.

Some were members of the CPUSA, some were left-wing trade unionists, some had simply despaired of getting another job in the Depression or were afraid of losing the one they had. A few hundred went over as part of a deal Henry Ford made with Amtorg to construct car factories in the USSR and produce the Soviet Ford Model As.

Some managed to return; others found that their passports had been taken away and they could not get permission to leave, while living conditions became worse and worse, gradually equalling those of their Russian colleagues and, fist individuals, then dozens, then hundreds started disappearing into the Gulag.

Some survived and returned to the United States to tell the tale. The horror of it lies not simply in what happened to these unfortunate and often naive people but also the indifference shown by the American embassy in Moscow under the infamous Joseph E. Davies and at a time when the State Department was honeycombed with Soviet agents. Yet more horrifying is the behaviour of American fellow travellers and useful idiots such as Paul Robeson, whom Mr Tzouliadis rightly singles out: the man was spectacularly talented and highly intelligent yet his behaviour over the Soviet Union was utterly despicable.

One of the curious aspects of this story is the role of Henry Ford.
Despite a ferocious record of strike-breaking in Detroit, Henry Ford had been only too delighted to sell the Soviets teh necessary industrial blueprings and machinery, together with seventy-five thousand "knocked-down" Ford Model As from the River Rouge plant. It was a deal sweetened by the guaranee of five years of technical assistanc eand the promise of American labour and know-how. The Soviet contract was worth a staggering forty million dollars and, lest we forget, these were 1930s millions, paid for in gold at the height of the Depression.
The logic of the first sentence is not impeccable. Why despite? Ford did not break up strikes for reasons of ideology but because he did not want his factory to stop working. In the USSR, as Mr Tzouliadis mentions later on, strikes for much better reasons than in Michigan were broken up by the Red Army.

As a result of the deal numerous American car workers went to Nizhny Novgorod where the first Ford factory was built. It is not clear how many of this particular group disappeared in the purges but some seem to have managed to return home, disillusioned and miserable. Others stayed on, hoping that the bad conditions will change and disregarding what was happening around them until it started happening to them. By then they had been caught in the trap.

A few more important people went over to help finesse the deal and set up the factory. The first, exploratory group was led by by the engineer Bredo Berghoff, whose reports on Soviet conditions and ability to set up factories were negative and who issed a forceful warning about personal security and the terror, which at that stage was relatively mild.

Ford persevered and got what he wanted: that plum contract. The descriptions of what was actually happening in the plants were horrific with American workers and engineers stunned by the lack of any understanding of basic precautions or of mass production.

The next person to go over was Ford's Chief of Production, Charles Sorenson, who was not greatly in favour of the project but did his best to set up the factory and deal with the unfamiliar situation. When he returned to Detroit he told Ford that he would like to go back to Russia at some later stage to review the project he had set in motion. Ford was adamantly against it:

Charlie Don't you do it! They need a man like you. If you went over there, you would never come out again. Don't take that chance!
Which proves, yet again, the Ford was reasonably well aware of what and who he was dealing with in the Soviet Union. Mr Tzouliadis, to whom much of this story and the surrounding details were new and who is, therefore, more apt to rush into indignation than some people might be, writes:

If Ford's production chief could not be risked twice, no one seemed overly concerned for the safety of the company's present and former employees who would travel to Russia to assemble the Soviet Model As.
Presumably, Ford did not think assembly line workers were particularly valuable, though in actual fact, they were in the Soviet Union of that period. Nor did he care much about them - easy come, easy go. Nevertheless, I think Mr Tzouliadis is unfair to the admittedly ghastly Mr Ford. When he said that Charlie Sorenson would not be allowed out again, he meant that they would keep him there to work and not let him back to the United States. It is unlikely to have occurred even to Henry Ford that at some point in the near future useful workers and engineers would be rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, sent to the Gulag or simply murdered. That would have appeared to most people as completely insane whereas the notion of taking a skilled and experienced production chief's passport away and refusing him an exit visa was eminently sane if somewhat immoral. The the trials of various engineers on trumped up charges of sabotage and espionage, would not have been very well known until it came to the six British ones in the Metro-Vick case of 1933.

This reminds me of one of the crucial episodes in Margarete Buber-Neumann's superlative and harrowing book Under Two Dictators, about which I have written before.

I have to write about this from memory as my copy has been borrowed. Ms Buber-Neumann escaped to the Soviet Union in 1934 with her second husband, Heinz Neumann, Stalin's henchman in the German Communist Party, responsible for the purging of all those members who were not supporters of the Soviet leader. Almost certainly, the Gestapo picked a number of them up in 1933 - 34 on the basis of secret denunciations by Neumann and others of his ilk.

In 1937 both Neumann and his wife were arrested during the purge of foreign communists and the first part of Margarete's book deals with her experiences under Dictator Number One. During her calvary through the Soviet prisons and labour camps she heard that Heinz had been shot, though he had probably been given the fictitious sentence of ten years without rights of correspondence. (Or no sentence at all. Who was there to find out, with his wife in prison?)
In 1939 as part of the agreement with Nazi Germany, Stalin handed over all the German political prisoners and there is a tragic-comic description of their terrified arrival in the land of the Gestapo. The Jews were separated and sent off; the others were sent home with the proviso that they report regularly to the nearest police station.

Margarete was kept back for a very odd reason. The Gestapo officers in charge of the operation did not believe her story that her husband had been shot. Neumann, they reasoned, had been not just a Communist but one of Stalin's most faithful henchmen. Nobody shoots his faithful henchmen. (Little did they know.) Therefore, Neumann must have been sent back to Germany on a secret mission and the best way of finding that out is by imprisoning his wife in Ravensbrück.
Of course, looking at it sanely, the Gestapo was right: why would Stalin have his boy shot? Then again, why would he and his henchmen imprison and murder people who were essential to that economic and industrial development the Soviet Union so desperately needed and desired? It was not just an evil system but a completely insane one.

1 comment:

  1. Helen

    I have just finished "Forsaken" as well.

    I never knew about Henry Ford's assembly line in Russia, nor that the Soviets described the new process as "Fordisation".

    I finally understand where the date 632 AF (After Ford) came from in Brave New World.