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Yale University Press
Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War

Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War

by George R. Urban, G. R. Urban


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ISBN-13: 9780300069211
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12/28/1997
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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My eyes remained dry when the Soviet system finally imploded; yet I felt a curious pang of loss. A sparring partner who had in some ways served me well had fallen by the wayside. A predictable foe beyond the hills, often heard but seldom seen, had paradoxically been a source of reassurance. Having a great enemy had been almost as good as having a great friend and--at times of disaffection within our own ranks--arguably better. A friend was a friend, but a good adversary was a vocation. Or was it, I sometimes wondered, that my long preoccupation with the "dialectic" had so thoroughly infected me that I could imagine no life beyond an adversarial one? The reader will judge.

It was not that my contrapuntal relationship with communism responded to some deeply felt need in my character. The compulsion to argue, fence, and fight, almost regardless of the objectives, was not the force that drove me--although it was, all too clearly, the motivation that fuelled some of my friends and colleagues in the Cold War. But even I was taken aback when the ground began to shake around the Soviet system and empire. Would they be swallowed up by their own incompetence without a final knock-out blow from us? Would history in my lifetime pit us against another worthwhile challenge? Would it bestow on Europe another unifying enemy of the stature of Stalin--anyone as ruthless, cunning, and worthy of our blade? True, the ideology of communism was unlikely to desert us--ideologies seldom do; but it was the practical embodiment of that ideology--Soviet power and the Soviet organisation of human lives--that had absorbed most of my energies and given meaning to my life; and it was the self-destruction of that outwardly indestructible colossus that made me, in 1989, rejoice and feel deprived at the same time.

If it sounds as though I spent the Cold War pursuing intellectually enjoyable activities, that was not always the case. Tangling with the Leninist utopia was mostly tedious. Like a repeating groove on a gramophone record, the polemics were confined to a smallish number of themes of increasing absurdity. With a few exceptions, they strained my patience without stimulating my imagination or intellect.

In contrast to the remarkable Soviet achievements in the craft of subversion and global image building, much Soviet and all Chinese broadcast propaganda was parochial, simple-minded, and mis-directed. (And I said so, to the astonishment of my Chinese hosts, when I was given a tour, as a "friendly" visitor, of the Chinese foreign broadcasting establishment in Peking in 1979.) There were no audiences for "positive heroes" in Western Europe; the show elements of the show trials were blindingly obvious; and the Colorado beetles allegedly dropped by American aircraft to destroy the North Korean potato crop could destroy no potatoes because there were none to destroy. Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians found it a little difficult to believe, especially after the oppressive applications of Soviet power in 1956 and 1968, that imperialism and colonialism were exclusively capitalist devices; and to the proletariat of East Germany it was not immediately obvious that the West German workers under capitalist management were getting progressively impoverished while they in the German Democratic Republic were marching forward to an ever more radiant future.

The surrogate component in communist propaganda was just too inept, the incitement too crude, and the vocabulary too transparent to carry credibility. Only Western intellectuals bent on self-delusion would be deceived. We in the West had an easier time of it with the words we were addressing to the East. In the electronic age, the facts spoke for themselves. All Western public diplomacy had to do was to provide the echo chambers and voice the sentiments of those who could not speak for themselves.

Grappling with the theory of communism was a different matter. There existed a higher sort of hermeneutics of the sacred texts. Such criticism could be intriguing and deployed to some purpose; but the demand for it was minimal, and what demand there was came principally from Western universities where Marxism was riding high and the taste for public jousting was widespread. Tilting lances with academic communists, whether of the orthodox or deviationist school, was always worth a visit to Cambridge or Columbia University. In the communist countries themselves, however, the canons of Marx and Lenin were, outside the official coteries, treated with contempt and had become socially unacceptable.

It was only towards the end of the Soviet system and after its collapse that the Cold War gave me a modicum of satisfaction. It was then that I had my first encounters with people who had read me or listened to me over the years behind the Curtain and who told me how some of us, and the institutions we represented, had, apparently, contributed to keeping the spirit of resistance alive and brought a measure of light into their universe. This was good to know. It was a reward for the rather puritanical work ethic I had imposed on myself to obliterate the pain of having to wrestle, day after day, with the repetitive falsehoods and empty triumphalism of Soviet propaganda.

One of the most remarkable pieces of feedback came my way on my very first visit to post-Soviet Kiev in November 1991.

While I was waiting for my guide, Oxana, at the Cafe Dnieper, someone unexpectedly tapped me on the shoulder and asked in fair English:

"You are George Urban, aren't you?"

"And who are you, and how do you know my name?"

"Ah," a squat-looking middle-aged man replied, taking off his fur hat, "thereby hangs a long tale, which I haven't got time to tell you right now because a party of German businessmen I'm escorting to Simferopol is waiting in a car downstairs. Let me just say this: I had heard from your interpreter, Oxana Taranenko, a former colleague of mine, that she was meeting the Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna, with you on board. My German guests were on the same plane, so I decided to try to make myself known to George Urban."

"But why did you? And how is it that my name means anything to you?"

"Well," he went on, speaking at great speed, partly in English, partly in German, "This may surprise you. I had been an officer in the KGB, ending up with the rank of colonel. As we can now talk about these things quite freely, I want you to know that for many years I was a spy and had to learn German and English, and other languages. At one time I was the head of the USSR's entire spy network in the Middle East. But then the Israelis got me--and eventually I fell from grace..."

"This is all highly interesting, but how do I come into your story?"

"Oh, that's very simple. When I was being trained for intelligence work as a young officer, one of the Western journals we had to study as part of our syllabus was Encounter magazine, because that, we were told, would give us an insight into the enemy's thinking and ideological machinations at the most sophisticated level. Now, your name and your writings figured prominently in Encounter for many years. I had to study you," he said with great emphasis, "study you! How could I forget your name?"

"And did you find our writings in Encounter useful as a clue to what the `enemy' was plotting?"

"Useful, useful--I found it so fascinating that gradually you and your colleagues weaned me away from my oath and my ideology and made me into a dissident. You see, the Encounter syllabus was too persuasive. It spawned doubt, then occasional insubordination, and finally open dissent in the mind of a master spy! I read you first as a threat and then as a source of inspiration. Can you beat that?" he said with a broad grin. "I was arrested and given a prison sentence, and when things began to change under Gorbachev, I was released and took up a post as professor of German literature at Kiev University, where your guide, Oxana, too, is a lecturer. In any case, I have to rush; let me just thank you and Encounter for having done what you have for us."

The story of the ex-KGB colonel (Yuri Linov was the name he gave me) was the highlight of my trip and an extraordinary recognition of the Encounter group's work in the contest of ideas. But in the 1950s and 1960s, any prospect that we could turn the tables on communism had been distant in the extreme and not, as I then saw it, worth a lifetime's investment of intellectual energy.

I found the Soviet system not only cruel and oppressive but also crude and vulgar. There was a grubbiness, a meanness and degradation about organised communism that offended my sensibilities. Even to argue against it struck me as implying complicity. Should I allow myself to be distracted from my other and, as I liked to believe, more worthwhile, pursuits in philosophy and literature? And could one challenge an ideology from liberal democracy's uncertain platform, "light denied"?

Clearly, I was suffering from the half-truth syndrome that troubled Arthur Koestler. My will, my instincts, my youth were all lined up to do battle with the false creed, but what exactly the true creed was, was harder to decide. I saw European unification, in the early 1950s, as the only new and deeply encouraging initiative. It was a fitting though much belated response to the 1914-45 European civil war. But in Britain, despite Churchill's 1946 Zurich address, the idea of a united Europe was being treated with condescension, if not contempt. A nation that had won World War II on paper but had in reality lost it could not muster the humility or the vision to fit in with the other losers. The grave consequences of that postwar British hubris are still with us. Britain's self-imposed satellite status vis-a-vis the United States is by now a fact of life, even though Britain is, formally at least, part of the European Union. For a nation supposedly as realistic as the English (the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots are a different matter) to be deluded by a myth of superiority for so long and with such self-damaging effect is one of the sad marvels of the modern world.

In the event, I managed to gather a certain amount of assurance from the anxious man's customary belief that so much wickedness cannot go unpunished. But that was more of a prayer than a programme. I drew strength, more seriously, from the spirit of the Stefan George Circle, which was the subject of my slowly evolving doctoral dissertation and, in a different sense, from my very private interpretation of Christianity. But these were abstract, philosophical, and aesthetic sources of inspiration. To apply them to international communications would have been a hopeless and perhaps even ridiculous enterprise. "A private radio station broadcasting esoteric verse to select East European audiences in the small hours," should have been my chosen medium--as an irreverent George Mikes (then a BBC colleague) once quipped in the mid-1950s. He may have been right.

The decision was made for me by the way the Soviet Union was run and Soviet power was exercised. I found myself a belligerent the day I joined the BBC in late 1947, and I went on being profoundly involved in the global engagement to the end. I never doubted that what I was doing was right and important. I was putting my shoulder to the wheel with an enthusiasm that some of my friends thought was worthy of a better cause. I myself did frequently wonder whether creating some good, no matter how humble, in one's private environment might not leave a more positive mark, and give more satisfaction, than polemicising with a dated, and even then clearly ailing, tyranny. A book, a strong spiritual commitment, even two stanzas of verse, might survive, give a modicum of pleasure, or induce reflection; but who would remember the rank and file who contributed in one way or another to the demise of bolshevism--if indeed it ever occurred? For in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s the Soviet system was on the march, and it was not wholly beneficial for one's career or intellectual reputation to be known as an anticommunist.

Least of all was it easy to oppose the Soviet system from the right or even, as I did, from the liberal right. My long preoccupation with Stefan George, my defence, at various meetings in London, of Cardinal Mindszenty after his show trial in 1949, the "reactionary" and, I might add, very mediocre poetry I had published in Hungary (duly banned by the authorities) had made me suspect in the eyes of various socialists and fellow-travellers at many British universities, in some sections of the BBC, and of the British press. My first application for a job in Britain was turned down by the BBC Monitoring Service on the argument (openly stated) that I was too hostile to the new facts of life in Eastern Europe. Significantly, the post I eventually obtained in the European Service had just been vacated by a writer who had gone back to Hungary to support the same Soviet-sponsored regime that had caused me to leave. Within two years he was in prison, and his case was not exceptional. In those early postwar years, Stalin, Tito, Matyas Rakosi, Anna Pauker, and other Stalinist leaders had many admirers in the British establishment. For them, World War II had not quite ended and wartime allies remained friends.

There was, I readily concede, a large piece of truth in the BBC's contention that I was hostile to "the new facts of life" in Central Europe. I had never been a communist, a social democrat or indeed a member of any political party in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. This set me apart from many of my co-belligerents, whose confrontation with communism began with a confrontation with their earlier convictions and consciences as members of Marxist, and mostly also Leninist-Stalinist, congregations. The advantages of having these fallen communists on our side as colleagues were many. They spoke with the eloquence and fervour of the convert and were therefore indispensable to undermining the rationale of communism. I respected them for the thoroughness of their heresy. Most of them were still fuelled by the search for social justice; that motivation was helpful, but they were also overwhelmingly driven by the desire to get even with their past delusions and to warn the world against imitating their folly. Above all, they were sharpening their knives for their former comrades. Although I admired these people for being what they were, I could never quite feel at ease in their company, nor, I suspect, could they in mine. Their protestations were too intense, their cynicism too stark, and their analyses too reflective of the world they thought they had left behind. They marched in negative step, but in step all the same. I was marching to a different drummer.

My dispute with communism, however, was not merely something history had imposed on me, much less just an intriguing way of making friendships and alliances with people with whom, in the absence of a common enemy, I would probably have forged no such friendships. My critique of communism had powerful roots in what, from my late teens on, I thought was the right way of judging and doing things. To say that I was a born reactionary would be to miss the point, for the implication would be that the far Left was pursuing "action," whereas all holistic schemes for the betterment of the human condition can surely be regarded as the truly retrograde (and, alas, only too common) element in history. But it is certainly true that I had been spiritually committed even before I fully understood what Marxism and Leninism were about.

From an early age I believed that all mechanistic explanations of man and history stemmed from a naive conception of human affairs. Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, when I eventually read them, came as recognitions, not revelations. My profound belief in the autonomy and irreducible worth of the individual and of work was as strong in my youth as it is now. To explain them through the categories of background, race, nationality, religion, or even culture struck me as factually mistaken and morally demeaning. Reductionism was, for me, the great intellectual crime of our century.

More important, I saw reductionism and deterministic views as ignoble. Nobility mattered. Could anyone choose to look for his ancestors in the zoo when they could be found instead on Olympus? The Hungarian elite would spill little ink in arguing whether Darwinism or religion was the true way of seeing the world, for "truth," though constantly invoked, was not all-important for them. Honourable conduct was. The truth was forever contingent, elusive, and open to human error, but we could tell noble behaviour from base behaviour, a good Samaritan from a Cain. It followed that whatever the "scientific" truth about man and history, the Judeo-Christian view of it was nobler and more life-enhancing than anything we could read in the works of Marx and Darwin. This did not mean that members of the Magyar elite were profoundly Christian. They were usually Christian in name only, but they did have an exalted, spiritual, resigned yet hopeful, sweet-sour view of themselves and their nation. It sustained them as scholars, bohemians, and nation builders--for then as now, they tried to be all three.

I opposed communism not only because the Soviet system was a ruthless and totalitarian dictatorship (though that would have been reason enough), but because it encapsulated in particularly objectionable form everything I felt was repulsive about the reshaping of our civilisation after two fratricidal world wars: the cult of "scientific" materialism and pragmatism, with the attendant enfeeblement of the spiritual dimension in our lives; the mindless application of Cartesian categories to the humane sciences; the destruction of the environment; the population drift from small communities to megatowns, the massification of society; the meaninglessness of work; the alienation of labour; the depersonalisation of the individual and the destruction of his or her dignity. I may have been fighting modernity itself, as some unfriendly critics suggested, but I like to think I was opposing only a thoroughly debased and debasing form of it--a travesty of the values of the Enlightenment from which communism claimed to have descended. This misapplication of rationalism and the progressivist view of history upset me as much as the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states or Stalin's show trials.

In short, my slowly evolving participation in the Cold War was driven by principle rather than by any prospect of a career-promoting international conflagration. For me the Cold War was to remain just that; I never conceived the contest of ideas as a prelude to a shooting war. At the age of thirty-seven, while a staff member of the BBC, I joined the Inns of Court Regiment of the British Territorial Army because I felt I was in need of toughening, but I did so on William James's principle that young (and not so young) men needed to embrace the "moral equivalent of war." I would have hated to fire a shot in anger. My father and three of my uncles had served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, and their stories haunted me into adulthood. The ravages of that senseless slaughter were everywhere around me in Hungary in the form of armless and legless veterans with begging bowls on their knees and the fear of the future in their eyes. My vaccination against violence came early in life and has stayed with me to this day. The Hungarian conservative establishment's revisionist braggadocio left me cold, although I was well aware of the historical injustice and political folly of the Treaty of Trianon which had given rise to it. In November 1938, my father took his family to Kassa (Kosice) to attend the reintegration of his ancestral home into Hungary. My own enthusiasm was small.

Years later, the British inclination to glorify wartime achievement, the jingoism of the gutter press, the use of the expression to have had a good war (could there be such a thing?), and the award of knighthoods and peerages for warlike pursuits struck me as uncivilised, wholly inconsistent with what Continentals had been led to believe was British "culture," and singularly ill suited to promote European reconciliation and unification. A sense of contrition would have done the British, the Germans, the French, the Americans--all of us--a power of good, but it was nowhere to be found, not even, with rare exceptions, in the Church. Everything in me rebelled against the notion that serving the "national interest" could relieve a nation of moral responsibility, and now in 1996, in the light of the barbaric war in the former Yugoslavia, appeals to the national interest--as though the national interest represented some self-evidently superior good--strike me as especially reprehensible. Nor, for the same reason, could I subscribe to the philosophy of "my country, right or wrong." Indeed, in 1959 my forlorn attempt to use a single moral yardstick on my own small patch in foreign broadcasting brought about the termination of my contract with the BBC.

As deputy programme organiser in the BBC's European Service, I had the temerity to suggest that Britain's repressive policies in the crown colony of Cyprus vis-a-vis the rebellious Archbishop Makarios and his supporters were incompatible with our libertarian message to Soviet-occupied Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution and therefore counterproductive on the international scene. My refusal to participate in one particularly offensive broadcast earned me a reprimand for insubordination. I was downgraded in status, my earnings were reduced, and I was eventually eased out of the organisation, but not before British policy had performed a volte-face on Cyprus, the colony had gained independence, and yesterday's political wisdoms had suddenly been repudiated. I was then told that, yes, historically I had been vindicated and could, if I so wished, be rehabilitated; but BBC broadcasters were paid to do as they were told--not to have historical foresight or moral scruples. I declined rehabilitation and within a few weeks accepted a generous offer from Erik Hazelhoff, then director of Radio Free Europe (and a famous hero of the Dutch Resistance), to join his organisation. Little did I suspect that one day I would be occupying his post.

I have never regretted my protest. It provided me, in retrospect, with fresh strength for the struggles that lay ahead, with the Soviet system and with the numerous members of Western establishments who--whether out of cowardice, conformism, or opportunism--seldom hesitated to give the Soviets and their agents of influence the benefit of the doubt. I was now in the possession of a single yardstick for all seasons--a rare gift in political life. But the consciousness of having been penalised for speaking the truth before it was opportune to do so has stayed with me.

Among the more distant influences that shaped my attitude towards communism of the Soviet type, the idiosyncratic culture of Hungary was an important one. I will say little about it because it is all but inaccessible to those who do not command the language. Let me simply state that from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the middle of our own, Hungarian life and letters gave us dozens of poets possessing the highest powers of thought and feeling. They speak to us in phrases that linger and haunt the mind. Their intoxication with the music of words puts them on a par with the best we can read in the literature of the more widely spoken European languages. To say that the Hungarian sensibility brought forth in the verbal arts geniuses of the stature of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in the musical world is to understate their achievement. A great literature laced with universal sympathies but housed in a small nation's language--could there be a more poignant tragedy for writers and potential readers alike?

For many years, I was caught up in the cadences of Hungarian verse. It is poetry in the sense in which poets are seers and legislators and the rhythm of their words is a portent of destiny. To condense feelings in verse struck me as not only the most economical but also the most sui generis Hungarian way of being. But the Hungarian communion with the perennial topics of poetry--childhood, love, disillusion, disloyalty, old age, death--was a communion with a difference. Much of the best Hungarian verse was deeply anchored in history and intensely patriotic. Hungary's poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries conjure up the sounds and images of Magyar battles with the Turks, the Austrians, and the tsar's army; they speak to us about the loneliness of political exile and the pain of national oppression. Yet beyond the suffering there is a fund of perpetual life; we hear of a Hungarian God in Heaven and a protective Hungarian providence. We sense a nationalism more intent on the preservation of a dwindling race than on conquest or aggression.

I dwell on these peculiarities of the Hungarian collective experience because they made the nation especially resistant to communism. It is not that Hungarian literature is entirely without a social message, even though much of the message was peasant-socialist and wholly untheoretical. There are egalitarian and radical currents in Sandor Petofi, Endre Ady, and Attila Jozsef, and especially in the village-exploring populist prose writers of the 1920s and 1930s. But these voices, although widely heard and discussed, had little practical political impact on precommunist society. The nation deserved better, for the Hungary I knew was ripe for radical change. An impoverished and partly landless peasantry, almost serflike in its deference to the gentry and nobility, was crying out for rights and land reform, while industrial labour was trying to escape from self-perpetuating poverty, social stigmatisation, and working conditions reminiscent of the "satanic mills" of mid-nineteenth-century England. Alongside this vast underclass there lived, in a state of guilt-ridden but not unhappy symbiosis, a highly educated, vibrant, and ultrasensitive intelligentsia.

It was this cruel nexus between deprivation in the ranks and a creative but powerless compassion in the intellectual elite that made Hungary fertile ground for the highest achievements in music, literature, the visual arts, mathematics, and the natural sciences. Felix culpa? I would shun so callous an attribution. Yet undeniably, many of these achievements occurred under the mostly illiberal regency of Miklos Horthy. A fully liberal Western-style government might have achieved less--a fully illiberal Muscovite regime did achieve less--in point of fact, almost nothing at all. In Hungary as elsewhere, Stalinism proved the death of a genuinely national culture.

Why the wretched state of the Magyars did not upset me more than it did I cannot easily explain. My slightly privileged status based on a little family wealth--and pride--cannot account for it, because some of my friends with similar backgrounds were deeply disturbed by the same conditions and sided with the Social Democrats or the peasant Left and in a few cases even with the then completely isolated small band of underground communists. Looking back over a distance of fifty years, I can only surmise that my mental makeup would just not have allowed me to go along with the idea that greater social justice--of which I was otherwise passionately in favour--would make for greater human happiness, if, indeed, I could have brought myself to concede in the first place that happiness was a goal of human existence. Christianity certainly supported no such view. I was conscious of the need for the tragic sense of life long before I read Unamuno.

There was something unworthy, even indecent, about making the satisfaction of creature needs and comforts the central concern of great political parties and governments, I felt on arriving in Labour-dominated Britain in 1947, and the resulting public debate struck me as thin and demeaning. These needs did, of course, have to be met, and met quickly, for the state of Britain in those early postwar years was appalling even by the standards of war-ravaged Hungary. But the improvement of the social condition of society could not be an end in itself. It had to be subordinated to ideas that pointed beyond the mundane round of housing, feeding, and breeding. Yet the promotion, with full state support, of the welfare and education of all did not seem to me to be in conflict with a higher dispensation. A decent and civilised standard of living was, indeed, its precondition. Without fully realising it, I was a one-nation conservative and an advocate of the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Politicians whose programme and rhetoric were confined to problem solving upset me, and I felt sorry for the audiences they attracted. For one brought up to see Britain through idealistic Hungarian eyes, it was hard to believe that such disadvantaged audiences still existed. But they did, and it didn't take me long to discover that subtle British wartime propaganda as well as my own self-delusions during the war had left me with a more lasting legacy than I had been ready to admit.

Socialisms of Marxist inspiration ran counter to what I fondly imagined was the unstoppable spiritualisation of our self-understanding. I had been, to be sure, equally outraged by the violence, the nationalistic phrase-mongering and rabble-rousing propaganda of the various fascist movements that mushroomed in Central Europe before and during the war, but those were for me beneath contempt: it was any self-respecting person's manifest duty to thwart them. I tried to do my bit in that direction too as a member of a short-lived and not very effective resistance movement in 1944-45.

My revulsion against communists, pragmatists, do-gooders, scissors-and-paste historians, easy-profit makers, and the newly rich and vulgar persuaded me to deepen, whilst already in Britain, my study of Stefan George and his circle. I spent seven years doing so, working simultaneously at the BBC, and produced a mediocre volume under the less than popular title of Kinesis and Stasis. This was my doctoral dissertation and a labour of love, but it was a firebreak against the devastating triviality of the modern world and a reaction to that particularly barbaric form of rationalism and muddy populism that poured into Europe in the wake of the Red Army in 1944-45.

In spirit, but to some extent in practice too, I became a belated associate of the George Circle. I met some of its members and dedicated myself to that solemn Hauch of an esoteric existence which made it easier to bear the depressing realities of an impoverished and downgraded postwar England. At the time, I did not think I was trying to escape from the real world. I was convinced that the poetry of George and the writings of Friedrich Gundolf and other scholarly disciples were the only world fit to be embraced by a man of common sense. (To be Continued)

Table of Contents

ONE Preparations12
TWO The Contest of Ideas25
THREE High Communism37
FOUR Second Conductors46
FIVE Reluctant Americans59
SIX The Soft Approach to Communism74
SEVEN Before the Implosion88
EIGHT The National Interest112
NINE Jealousies in the Region123
TEN Draining the Poison out of the System137
ELEVEN Misapprehensions153
TWELVE Dialogues165
THIRTEEN Companions178
FOURTEEN 1956 Reconsidered211
Appendix A: STASI and the Carlos Group249
Appendix B: A Selection of Policy Guidances, 1984-1985256
Appendix C: Excerpts from a Radio Free Europe Review, 1956281

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