The Survivor

The Post-War Years 1945-54

by Ilya Ehrenburg, translated by Tatiana Shebunina, in collaboration with Yvonne Kapp
World, 352 pp., $6.50

In years of danger and crisis, it becomes almost a crime to survive. Siéyès, the original survivor, blotted his reputation in history for ever, merely by drawing attention to himself. After the First World War, those who came back from the trenches were troubled by remorse, as Harold Macmillan and others have shown in their memoirs. In the same way, there is a general chorus of opinion that there must be something peculiarly wrong and degraded in those who survived the years of Stalin’s terror. The Soviet politicians are not worth condemning. It is obvious that they were concerned only to save their skins. For some reason, writers are less easily excused. Any Soviet writer who came through alive or at any rate without a stretch in Siberia must surely be a coward and a timeserver.

This has been the universal verdict in the West, given with particular fervor by British and American writers, who have never had to risk anything except perhaps an occasional decline in their royalties. The current ran especially strong against Ehrenburg. He was well known in the West. He was friendly with writers and artists, and in the prewar years had been ready to criticize them for not doing enough against Fascism. After the Second World War, all those who repudiated their earlier beliefs by turning against Soviet Russia made Ehrenburg the symbol and excuse for their own betrayal. They had seen the anti-Communist light. He continued to act as an instrument of Soviet policy. Ehrenburg was troubled by these reproaches, and this present volume reflects his trouble. Here are the thoughts of a man who felt that he ought to be ashamed of himself. Ehrenburg sought a way out and hoped to vindicate his honor by throwing himself into the Peace movement. This was a futile endeavor. Last September he died peacefully in his bed, and the obituaries all concluded that he was a character too weak for his times.

This was a harsh and unfair verdict. Writers are not obliged to be heroes. Indeed heroes usually make inferior writers, as witness the pseudo-literary productions of T.E. Lawrence. The manifestoes of writers on every subject from drugs to the Vietnam war are displays of vanity, not acts of heroism. Writers like to think that they are wise guides to ethics or public action merely because they have written entertaining novels or incomprehensible verse. A writer who is really any good sticks to his job of writing, as Thomas Hardy did. Even a writer may want to protest now and then for something. But he has no duty to do so, and his protest will not make the slightest difference. Those who live by words must resign themselves to the fact that they are not men of action.

Ehrenburg’s record was in fact by no means dishonorable. He did not go out of his way to invite the lightning, but he kept his standards intact. In difficult times, he did what he …

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Letters

Uses of Intelligence January 4, 1968