Questions of Right and Wrong

Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

When I first started looking for Alice, I made a list of questions. Now, over a year on, I realise I have the answer to most of them. But I also have a quite different list of questions.

My first list was factual: I wanted to know what Alice did in Spain, what happened to her mother and sister during the second world war while Alice was in the USA with Erwin. I wanted to know when she was arrested and tried and what happened to her after her release. I now have answers to all of those questions: I know about her work in the hospitals in Spain. I know that her mother, Olga, spent the war in Switzerland, that Eva was first in Belgium, then in Paris and finally in London. I know the dates of Alice’s arrests, trials and rehabilitation and so much more besides. I know where she worked after her release, where she lived, where she travelled.

My questions now are different. They are about what Alice thought, what she felt and what she knew. These questions will never have definite answers. Why did she choose communism and remain faithful to it for so long? I can understand what drew her to communism in the first place; as a young, intelligent and idealistic young woman, communism offered her a view of the world that was different, that had answers for the poverty and inequality she saw around her and later, in the thirties, it was the communists who were prepared to stand against the rising tide of fascism in neighbouring Germany. Young intelligent men and women, and in particular young Jewish men and women, saw communism as the answer, and at that time, communism was specifically encouraging Jews to join the fight against fascist anti-semitism.

I can understand the exhilaration of seeing the social barriers come down as men and women of all backgrounds addressed each other as comrade and worked towards one common good in the face of such a patent evil. Alice’s commitment to the party grew, and as a party member, she was invited on a six week trip to the USSR in 1936, during the height of the Stalinist terror. Was she at all aware of how Stalin was treating his own people? Presumably, as part of a visiting group, what she was shown was carefully controlled, but she must have had some sense of what life was like; it was so different from liberal Czechoslovakia. Yet maybe seeing the sacrifices and the intensity of a people apparently focused on one vision was exciting – the promise of a new world. She certainly returned with a renewed commitment and by 1937 was prepared to leave her life of bourgeois comfort for the perils of the Spanish Civil War.

And again, what questions arise from her experience in Spain? She had followed party orders, both about volunteering in Spain and about when to withdraw in July 1938, but her experience there was more personal. She was among a group of young, intelligent, committed people, brave and idealistic to the point of recklessness. She was in an international community, running the hospital which served all those fighting on the Republican side, all were helped regardless of their allegiances, and she organised both the logistics and the cultural exchange among those many nationalities. While she was organising film screenings, concerts, sporting events, political reports and Spanish classes, how aware was she of the Soviet Union’s motives?

The Soviets were not there to support the democratic will of the Spanish people. Their involvement was entirely to do with maintaining power and preventing Germany and Italy acquiring another ally. However, Stalin did not want an all out victory for the communist powers in Spain as that might unite the Western powers with the fascists against Soviet Spain and Soviet Russia. The Soviets therefore played a careful game, with one intention at the political level and another communicated to the soldiers on the ground. How far was Alice aware of the animosity between the communists and the POUM (Trotskyist wing) and the advice of some of the Soviet advisers in Spain to use the weapons of the Stalinist show trials against them? If Alice had known, she should have been alerted to the lengths the Soviets were prepared to go in order to preserve their power and influence.

Why was her view so different from Erwin’s? Why did he never trust the communists? He continued to work in his medical practice in Zilina and kept in touch with Alice, sending her parcels with food and medicines. He could see the rising tides of fascism close by in Germany and Austria, countries whose languages he spoke and whose culture he loved.  He too wanted a fairer world, but he saw the solution differently. Was it just a difference in temperament or had those early years in America influenced his outlook? Maybe his ease with English meant he read a different press and so was more oriented towards the West. Or maybe the reasons were more personal; Alice had been born into privilege and so perhaps took it for granted and found it easier to throw away. Erwin’s middle class status was the result of his own endeavours. As a result, maybe he valued it more. After the war, the reason for their different views was obvious. Erwin had seen the Soviets at first hand when serving in the US army- Alice had spent the war in communist organisations in New York and Pittsburgh. But the war only reinforced the views each held, it did not mould them.

It is perhaps easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the wider political and pragmatic moves. Alice, in the midst of the Spanish conflict had experienced the bravery and comradeship, she felt strong allegiances to those whom she saw suffering and that first hand knowledge, gave her confidence in her view. Erwin at more of a remove from the struggle was maybe able to see the dangers and ambiguities more clearly. It is difficult to know why they were so different, and especially interesting as Alice is quite unusual in having a partner who did not share her values. What seems to be true is that the more straightforwardly you can embrace one point of view, the easier it is to act. The more you see different sides of the story, the more difficult it is. Blind faith achieves change, liberal prevarication does not.

After the war Alice’s faith did not waver; she was determined to be a part of the rebirth of a communist Czechoslovakia. I don’t know whether she had doubts, whether Erwin’s arguments and accounts ever made her waver. Or did she accept there had been mistakes and believed by being a participant, she could ensure these were not repeated in her country? Erwin was prepared to walk away; he was a citizen of more than one country; Czechoslovakia was not quite home for him in the way that it was for Alice. The opportunity for a life of freedom and challenge was more appealing than the risk of being at the centre of a political struggle, in the place where his family had been betrayed and murdered.

Exploring the past I find that the questions I am facing are not only about the past, but also the present. How sinister are the fault lines currently splitting Europe? How can they be healed? I see echoes of the world of Alice’s youth; the tide of populism and racism is rising again. Liberal democracy seems caught in a paralysis of indecision and there is no untainted ideology with which to combat the threat. Communism may have seemed to be the answer then, but it certainly isn’t now, now we know how it all turned out. The young Alice was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to create a better world and fight the evil she saw around her. What should we do now?

I keep circling around the rights and wrongs of her choices and Erwin’s. In the end I am not sure that the question of right and wrong is relevant, we need both. Idealistic activists change the world, for good or ill. The rest of us try to do the best we can with the world we have, sometimes that is not enough.

Source:

Preston, Paul, The Spanish Civil War Reaction, Revolution and Revenge (Harper Perennial 2006)

Credit:© Archivo Iconografico, S.A./COR
Copyright:© Copyright 2000 Corbis

9 thoughts on “Questions of Right and Wrong

  1. Yes, this certainly makes one ponder what it is that drives idealism in people and just why that drive can be so strong and powerful in some. I think you offer a number of contributory factors, not least that of Alice’s background. And you have already shown the influences of her sister and of the friendships she formed at a young age, and the shared ideas with which she grew up. I guess her sense of purpose and commitment to the communist cause could well have been rooted in that idealism rather than the ideology, and this could have enabled her to block out reports of the Stalinist purges, etc . Erwin, on the other hand, will for his part probably also have.been influenced by the powerful anti-communist thinking of the US, particularly reinforced in the military. As you say, much is likely to remain speculative about just why their respective views and outlook could not be reconciled or tolerated within the marriage.

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  2. You write beautifully, Liz, and evoke something of the great James Cameron’s reflective, reporting style. The only point I would query is your comment that Alice [was] quite unusual in having a partner who did not share her values. I could cite many examples of ‘polilticised’ couples who differ, often strongly, in their solutions, including the Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

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    1. I am sure you are right, it’s just I have found that when researching the Czech communists who were in Spain and/or arrested, most of the women I have come across were in relationships with men who were equally (if not more) involved in the struggle.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your analysis and, like you, feel Alice and Erwin’s perspectives on life can help us to examine the present political turmoil. Perceptive and profound. Thank you.

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  4. Hi Liz, I was looking for some photos of my grandma, Helenka, on the internet and came across your blog about Alice. I remember Alice and Eva from my childhood, they lived next door to my grandma in Dlouha trida in Prague, and I still have the beautiful embossed leather photo album they gave me one birthday. Helenka was not a blood relative, though I didn’t know that till my teens, she met my grandfather, Alfred Nenedikt, in Buzuluk in Russia and she had promised him to look after my mum should anything happen to him. Mum had been sent to England on one of Nicky Winton’s trains just before the war. She was repatriated in 1947 and found by Helenka who, true to her promise, took care of her and later became a grandma to me and my brother.
    I wonder whether in your research you may have come across any other personal details regarding Helenka. I am particularly curious about her husband. She never talked about him but I have the feeling that they too were rather mismatched.

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    1. Hi Olga,

      How exciting to hear from you. I do have quite a lot of information about Helenka, which I am happy to share with you. I would also love to hear your memories of Alice and Eva (and Helenka). I am happy for you to have my personal email but don’t like to put it on this public forum. I have a private instagram account and my husband is on Facebook so could message you directly from there. Are you on either of those platforms? I live in the UK and shall be in Prague for the month of May. Where do you live? It would be great to meet up and share information, but if not, I can send you what I have.

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