Personal histories of a (not so) Cold War
Ehrenreich gier, the son anti-communist activist and founder of magazine Richard Krygier.
When the third secretary in the Russian embassy in Canberra, Vladimir Petrov, defected in 1954, he took with him material that seemed to document the stark fact of Soviet espionage in Australia. Although at the time many citizens and intellectuals disputed this, his father, as Krygier puts it, had no doubt about the veracity of “the revelations of a Soviet spy ring at the highest level of Australian government”. Indeed the claim that Soviet spies in Australia passed significant British and American secret documents to Moscow has been proved true.
It is also indisputable that the Petrov revelations were a significant factor in causing the great split in the ALP in the mid 1950s.
Many of these matters are dealt with in Mary Calwell’s essay, How We Survived the Movement. The Melbourne-born daughter of devout Catholic federal Labor leader Arthur Calwell argues with considerable force that the Cold War would have been relatively insignificant in Australia without the activities of the secretive and strongly anti-communist Catholic Social Studies Movement, and of the trade unionbased Industrial Groups. Members of the movement, which morphed into the National Civic Council, were led by BA Santamaria, with whom I filmed a lengthy interview shortly before his death in February 1998.
This wily political operator sought to use the communists’ own methods of penetrating unions to undermine, and if possible annihilate, the CPA, which by the end of the war had won considerable support in trade unions and the wider labour movement.
Certainly as a result of the split in 1955, which kept Labor in Australia out of power federally for decades, many families, friends and com-
description: I was looking at a tree … but the word ‘‘tree’’ was gone, along with all notions of treeness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance — the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute.
For Ehrenreich such episodes represent a crisis of faith and a kind of class apostasy. Descended from a long line of atheists who viewed the church as an apologist for the boss, she regards askance all talk of the spiritual. In essence, however (and paradoxically), her determination to explore these reveries is a manifestation of What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy? Edited by Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi New South, 297pp, $34.99 THE Cold War dominated geopolitics in the years after World War II and, in the light of current events in Ukraine, some commentators think a new version of it is emerging. But as Vladimir Putin was shaped by earlier conflicts when he worked for the KGB that should come as no surprise.
As Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi point out in their helpful introduction to this collection of fascinating personal stories from another deeply troubled time, the Cold War began about 1946 and ended in 1991. Or so we thought until recently.
From the immediate aftermath of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War dominated world politics and had a profound impact on families and individuals, including in Australia. This especially applied to members of the Communist Party of Australia and to those activists more or less sympathetic to the communist cause.
As Sheila Fitzpatrick, daughter of radical Australian historian Brian Fitzpatrick, puts it in her thought-provoking essay in this finely produced book: “If you’re old enough, and grew up in a left-wing family, the Cold War is part of your personal life, not just a public event.”
But like many members of the Old Left in Australia, Fitzgerald — whose personal life was bedevilled by his alcoholism — was certainly not a communist.
In this carefully edited collection I was particularly taken by the memoir of Martin Kry- her scepticism. ‘‘I was adamantly disinclined to anything that smacked of mysticism,’’ she writes, ‘‘But I was also an empiricist, and empiricism is one of the great pillars of science … [I]t would be a great mistake to ignore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your preconceived theories, that may even confound everything you thought you were sure of.’’
It is, then, as a ‘‘sternly objective reporter’’ that she sets out in search of an explanation, and many incisive and insightful things are said in this endeavour. But for me the real interest of this book lies less in the analysis of these ‘‘fugue states’’ than in the depiction of an emerging (political) personality. In this connection our objective reporter turns out to be an unreliable narrator: declaring the idea of a ‘‘narrative arc’’ to be suspect in her opening pages, Ehrenreich then sets about demonstrating that her life has indeed had a definite trajectory.
This trajectory is clearly related to her par- ents, who, while politically liberal, were cold and unaffectionate, as well as frequently and often dangerously drunk. Barbara is thus a lonely child who has to discover for herself that ‘‘solidarity’’ exists in practice as well as in theory. She calls this process ‘‘joining the species’’. And once she is in, she cannot leave: anyone’s suffering becomes a ‘‘potential emergency’’.
More than once in Living With a Wild God, Ehrenreich implies that her ‘‘mystical’’ reveries derive from the same ‘‘escape’’ from solipsism involved in this political awakening. Personally I think she’s overreaching, but the spectacle of her doing so is strangely moving nonetheless.
Indeed, I came away from this book with a sense that it was all the more affecting for being slightly less than convincing. Those fissures in reality are clearly important to Ehrenreich. But I’m not sure she has got to the heart of why. munities, were, as Calwell puts it, “estranged for life”.
Writing to the Vatican in 1956 about conflicts within the Catholic Church, Arthur Calwell urged ‘‘a complete reappraisal’’ of the role of the movement in Australia. As he so presciently put it at the time: “Lifelong friendships had been severed, calumny is widespread and detraction is regarded as a virtue.”
One possible benefit of Calwell’s piece about her father’s difficult political life is that it may direct readers to Arthur Calwell’s Be Just and Fear Not, released a year before he died in 1973. It remains one of the best autobiographies about the life and legacy of any politician prominent in 20th-century Australia.
One of the most important recent books about political life in Australia is Mark Aarons’s story of four generations of his prominent communist family and their activities in the CPA.
As well as drawing on numerous oral histories, The Family File used the largest collection of security files in Australian history. Hence it may come as no surprise that one of the highlights of What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy? is Aarons’s masterly contribution, Scenes From My Cold War.
Aarons was born three months after Robert Menzies’ failed 1951 referendum to ban the CPA, and the Cold War dominated his child- hood, teenage years and the first two decades of his adult life. His parents, Laurie and Carol, were leading members of the CPA, and as a result, ASIO kept voluminous files on them all.
However, well before Laurie and Carol died — in 2005 and 2003 respectively — indeed, from the late 1960s onwards, they were, to put it mildly, far less certain of the truth of ‘‘scientific socialism’’ and the validity of Marxism-Leninism leading to a communist future via the overthrow of capitalism by an organised, militant proletariat.
As Aarons documents, in Australia, as elsewhere in the West, this applied to all but a dwindling bunch of dyed-in-the-wool ideologues and ageing revolutionary true believers.
One of his many fascinating insights into the history of communist activism in this country is how, largely as a result of the acrimony between Moscow and Peking (now Beijing), the CPA split into three separate and warring communist parties.
It all seems rather bizarre in the conservative Australia of today, but it’s a history worth remembering, particularly when Russia seems keen to reclaim some of the clout it had when it was still the Soviet Union.
The Petrov affair cast light on Soviet espionage in Australia