I am returning to my country richer – not in a material sense, but intellectually – than when I left. And I think it would not have been possible without your help.”
The quote is from a book of interviews published last year in France, on the Congrès pour la liberté de la culture, or the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF).1 In it, the history of the CCF (1950–1978) is retold in vivid colours by Roselyne Chenu, a top administrator of the organisation, who enjoyed the confidence of its leaders, before Nicolas Stenger’s microphone. The lines quoted above were written to Chenu by a young Hungarian linguist, Mária Pap, before she returned to Budapest in the mid-1970s, whose stay and meeting with fellow researchers in London, Amsterdam, and Cologne were facilitated by the CCF.
The CCF, as the book’s cover informs us, “is nowadays a victim of an astonishing lack of recognition”. But what was exactly the Congress for Cultural Freedom – of which so little is known not only in Hungary, but in Europe as well –, and how was it created?
During the nearly three decades of its existence, the CCF organised an impressive number of programmes and built a support network all over the world, including Central and Eastern Europe. In its golden era, it had offices or correspondents in more than 35 countries around the world and employed dozens of people. It organised international conferences, published prestigious magazines from Paris to Sydney, held art exhibitions, awarded travel grants to writers, artists and musicians, regularly dispatched books and journals to intellectuals living in dictatorships – all in the service of the right to think and express one’s views with no restrictions.
But let us go back to the beginnings. We are in 1950 – the memory of the Second World War and especially the oppressive Nazi regime, with all its cruelty and inhumanity, is still fresh in people’s minds. Not long after Nazism was vanquished, new dictatorships appeared which were similarly oppressive in nature, albeit they stemmed from a different ideology, communism. And this called for a reaction.
At the same time, and as a consequence of post-war power politics, the world was becoming polarised and with it, the Cold War was unfolding. The Soviet Union launched a “peace campaign”. Peace conferences were held one after the other in Wrocław, New York, Paris, allowing the USSR to monopolise the status of “guardian of peace”, supported in its efforts by progressive artists and intellectuals of the Western world.
In June 1950, a congress was organised in Berlin as a reaction to these events – at least at the outset –, in an effort to offer an alternative to the offensives of the international Communist movement, both in the political and ideological arenas, as well as to counteract the Communist influence among the intelligentsia. The choice of venue may have been symbolic: several months of Soviet blockade in the city ended shortly before.
Some 118 intellectuals gathered in Berlin. They came mostly from Europe and the United States, and for the most part were members of the non-Communist left. They wished to demonstrate that liberal democracy was at least as compatible with culture and peace as Communism, and they decided to create the Congress for Cultural Freedom for that purpose at Titania Palace in West Berlin on 26 June 1950. The signatories included writers, philosophers, artists, economists, historians, journalists and unionists of various destinies and commitments. Among them we find such prominent names of the intellectual and artistic scene as Karl Jaspers, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Raymond Aron, Benedetto Croce, Jacques Maritain, Arthur Koestler and Tennessee Williams.
The main objective of these intellectuals was simple and straightforward: to defend and promote freedom, in particular freedom of opinion, against the threat of totalitarianism of any kind – whether it be extreme right or extreme left. That objective was framed in the Manifeste aux hommes libres (“Freedom Manifesto”) at the inaugural meeting in Berlin, mostly written by Manès Sperber2 and presented by Arthur Koestler3 at the closing session. The Berlin Manifesto would then become the charter of the CCF.
After this event in June 1950, many wanted to transform this one-time gathering of anti-totalitarian intellectuals into an association which would provide a forum of continued and concerted action; an international secretariat was organised and set up in Paris to that purpose. Michael Josselson4 was appointed as its administrative secretary and remained the central figure of the Congress until 1967. Nicolas Nabokov5 became its secretary general. At the peak of its activities in the late 1950s, it had dozens of employees, supported by countless intellectuals involved in various capacities, either within the national committees of the Congress all over the world, or within the executive committee which defined general guidelines and future programmes. From the 1950s onward, the CCF gradually became an integral part of the European intellectual landscape.
In parallel, besides the activism of progressive leftist and liberal intellectuals devoted to the ideal of freedom, other forces had been at work behind the scenes from the start. The United States recognised early on that the Cold War would take place in the sphere of culture as well. Some of the executives at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in full development at the time, paid particular attention to the efforts made abroad to fight Communist influence in the cultural field. Thanks to their covert financial support, 50,000 dollars (ca 445,000 euros in current value) were provided in the spring of 1950 to finance the Berlin conference. This initial remittance would be followed by many others, with the CIA becoming the CCF’s major financial contributor in the 1950s and 60s, through respectable foundations which served as fronts. When the CIA’s involvement was revealed by the American press in 1967, it created an international uproar that led to the immediate reorganisation of the Congress (its financing had already been transferred to the Ford Foundation since the end of 1966).
The irony of this incident was that although the CCF was “one of the CIA’s more daring and effective Cold War operations”,6 the people who worked for the Congress – as we learn from Roselyne Chenu on the pages of the book – knew nothing of these secret ties (except, of course, for Michael Josselson and John Hunt, the executive secretaries of the CCF). It was an accident of fate that their personal beliefs and attitudes happened to coincide with some American foreign policy objectives. In fact, we have to agree with Alfred Grosser who, in his preface to Roselyne Chenu’s book, gives the following assessment of the involvement of the CIA: “I admit that, even at the time, I always defended said CIA for having deliberately opted for, in the face of the powerful Communist propaganda, the moderate left, and not the virulent right. It required real political wisdom to support those dedicated to freedom rather than people and organisations manifesting the same intolerance as those on the other side.”
Even though Europe was the main area of the CCF’s operation in the first years of its existence, it demonstrated its willingness to expand its network to other parts of the world early on. Also, already from the early 1950s, the Congress’s fight against Stalinism went hand-in-hand with a stern condemnation of dictatorships on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America – like the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba –, as well as of the apartheid system in South Africa, or even of forms of primitive anti-Communism, like McCarthyism.
Hungarians especially should know more about the Congress for Cultural Freedom, if only because the repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 by the Soviet troops was an event that mobilised the CCF’s forces to an extent never to be repeated in its history. It made appeals to world opinion, gave financial aid to intellectuals who fled Hungary and to those who stayed, drew up white papers, founded the symphonic orchestra Philharmonia Hungarica with refugee musicians, organised actions of solidarity and sympathy on the national committee level. It acted in a similar way in many other cases, including the Prague Spring.
Roselyne Chenu joined the international secretariat of the Congress in 1964. In July 1966, the CCF’s activities were divided according to geographical areas and into separate legal entities. As a close collaborator of Pierre Emmanuel7 until early 1975, she worked relentlessly for the European programmes8 with which she was gradually entrusted – awarding travel grants, organising international conferences and symposia, monitoring the activities of local correspondents and committees, consigning books and journals, and managing an assistance fund for writers and artists forced into exile.
Drawing on her memories, diaries and her personal records as well as those of the Congress,9 Roselyne Chenu, the only living member of the staff of the International Secretariat, gives in her book a fascinating account of this cultural adventure – an adventure that still lives on in the memories of the many people who benefitted from it in an era that is now history.
1 Roselyne Chenu: En lutte contre les dictatures. Le Congrès pour la liberté de la culture (1950–1978). Entretiens avec Nicolas Stenger. Préface d’Alfred Grosser. Éditions du Félin, 2018.
2 Manès Sperber (1905–1984), novelist, essayist and psychologist. His family, originally from Austrian Galicia, fled to Austria in 1916. Sperber moved to Germany in 1927, but Nazism put him on the route again: he first emigrated to Yugoslavia, then to Paris. At first a Communist, he became disillusioned due to Stalinist purges within the party. After the war he worked as a writer and editor.
3 Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), Hungarian-British author and journalist. Born in Budapest and educated mostly in Vienna, Koestler lived in several countries, including Palestine, before settling permanently in Britain in the 1950s. In 1931, he joined the Communist Party of Germany, but in 1938, disillusioned by Stalinism, he resigned. He wrote his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work that gained him international fame, in 1940.
4 Michael Josselson (1908–1978), the founder of the CCF, which he ran until 1967. Born in Estonia, he moved to Germany with his family after the Russian Revolution where he graduated from university. He settled in Paris, then emigrated to the United States in 1936 and became an American citizen in 1942. After the war he was sent to Berlin by the Office of Strategic Services of the US Army (which later became the CIA). He is also the author of the great book Le Général Hiver on Barclay de Tolly, which was published posthumously by Oxford University Press.
5 Nicolas Nabokov (1903–1978), composer, writer and cultural figure; first cousin of Vladimir Nabokov. He became a US citizen in 1939. In 1951, he was elected Secretary General of the CCF, and remained in that capacity for more than 15 years, organising music and cultural festivals.
6 Michael Warner, “Origins of the Congress for Cultural Freedom 1949–1950”, Studies in Intelligence 38 (CIA in-house journal, 2007), https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/ kent-csi/vol38no5/pdf/v38i5a10p.pdf.
7 Noël Mathieu (1916–1984), better known by his pen name Pierre Emmanuel, was a French poet of Christian inspiration. A well-known figure of French cultural life of his time in several capacities, he also worked for the CCF – first as its literary director (1959), then as Vice-Secretary General. After the CCF’s reorganisation in 1967, he became director, then president of the International Association for Cultural Freedom, a position he kept until 1974.
8 The Fondation pour une entraide intellectuelle européenne (European Intellectual Mutual Aid Fund) set up to support intellectuals in Central Europe, began life as an affiliate of the CCF.
9 Most of the records of the International Association for Cultural Freedom and its predecessor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, are kept at the Library of the University of Chicago in its Special Collections Research Center.