The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe

The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe

by Kristen Ghodsee

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In The Left Side of History Kristen Ghodsee tells the stories of partisans fighting behind the lines in Nazi-allied Bulgaria during World War II: British officer Frank Thompson, brother of the great historian E.P. Thompson, and fourteen-year-old Elena Lagadinova, the youngest female member of the armed anti-fascist resistance. But these people were not merely anti-fascist; they were pro-communist, idealists moved by their socialist principles to fight and sometimes die for a cause they believed to be right. Victory brought forty years of communist dictatorship followed by unbridled capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today in democratic Eastern Europe there is ever-increasing despair, disenchantment with the post-communist present, and growing nostalgia for the communist past. These phenomena are difficult to understand in the West, where “communism” is a dirty word that is quickly equated with Stalin and Soviet labor camps. By starting with the stories of people like Thompson and Lagadinova, Ghodsee provides a more nuanced understanding of how communist ideals could inspire ordinary people to make extraordinary sacrifices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822358350
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/20/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kristen Ghodsee is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College and a former Guggenheim Fellow. She is the author of Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Left Side of History

World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe

By Kristen Ghodsee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7582-1



I rarely pay attention to street names unless I am lost. Although I learned the Cyrillic alphabet early on, I tended to navigate my way around Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, by landmark. I must have walked up and down Major Thompson Street a hundred times because it was in the neighborhood where my in-laws lived. I assumed this Thompson was not a Bulgarian, but it never occurred to me to ask who he was. Not until a decade later, in a conversation with an octogenarian British physicist in Princeton, New Jersey, would I learn the identity of the mysterious major. This revelation would more or less consume the next six years of my life.

In 2007, Freeman Dyson was eighty-two years old, forty-five years my senior. He was an emeritus professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. I was a junior professor, a member in the School of Social Sciences for the academic year 2006–2007. I often saw Professor Dyson at the three o'clock tea held each day in Fuld Hall. I was too shy to approach him, for he was the academic equivalent of a rock star, a lead singer for the global scientific community. He was also a known contrarian and had recently outraged his colleagues by saying that the problem of global warming had been grossly exaggerated. In addition to his scholarly fame, Dyson enjoyed the adulation of the wider Star Trek geekiverse for the inclusion of a "Dyson sphere" in the 130th episode of The Next Generation. He seemed to me a god among mortals.

After six months of crippling intimidation, I found myself right behind him in the lunch line at the institute cafeteria. He seemed so unassuming as he considered the choice between the blackened haddock and the baked acorn squash stuffed with quinoa.

"Uh ... Professor Dyson?" I said.

"Yes," he said, looking back.

I hesitated. He kept his eyes fixed on me.

"It is an honor to meet you," I said. "My name is Kristen Ghodsee. I'm a member here this year. In social sciences."

"I see," he said. "Are you an economist?" I shook my head. "No, I am an ethnographer. I work in Bulgaria. I'm writing a book about Bulgaria."

"Bulgaria?" His eyes widened. "Are you Bulgarian?" I told him I wasn't.

"Do you speak Bulgarian?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "I've been doing fieldwork there for the last ten years."

"Well, then," he said. "You must come and see me. I have a dear friend who died in Bulgaria many years ago. Maybe you can help me with something."

"I'd love to," I said, my heart thudding. It was perhaps the first time in the United States that I told someone that I worked on Bulgaria and received genuine interest in return.

I made my appointment with Professor Dyson's assistant. I met him in his office on the second floor of Bloomberg Hall. I was very nervous. Our conversation was casual and friendly; he slowly put me at ease by regaling me with stories of his early days at the institute, the one thing we had in common. He had first come to Princeton in 1953 when Robert Oppenheimer was the director and Albert Einstein was still in residence.

"I don't remember much about Einstein, but I do remember seeing T. S. Eliot in Fuld Hall. I was too shy to speak with him," he said.

"Yes," I said. "I can imagine."

We spoke for a while about science and science fiction, a genre of which we were both great fans. Our conversation flowed to Charles Simonyi, the president of the institute's board of trustees. He had just returned from a two-week trip to the International Space Station. For the mere sum of $25 million, Simonyi had become the world's fifth space tourist.

"So what do you think of space tourism?" I said. "Is this where we'll all be spending our holidays in the future?"

"I have the feeling that this sort of extravagant space exploring by private citizens does have a future," Dyson said. "But, of course, I was brought up as a socialist and the idea of extravagant wealth is evil in itself."

I looked around his spacious office. Along the walls stood floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed full of volumes on physics, biology, mathematics, philosophy, history, and literature. The surface of his desk was piled high with papers, files, and books that he was going to review for the New York Review of Books.

"Where I work in Bulgaria," I said, "there are still a lot of people who think that extravagant private wealth is evil."

Professor Dyson tilted his head. He smiled at me. It seemed to me a conspiratorial smile, as if we were now going to share secrets. I was amazed at how comfortable I felt in his office. He was so soft-spoken and modest, and I could not believe how intimidated I was by him just one week earlier. Perhaps he knew that. Perhaps he told me that story about T. S. Eliot on purpose.

"Yes, we see that in Germany very strongly," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I don't know whether you are familiar with Germany, because my wife is German, and we still have family there. And, of course, the Easterners and Westerners are still very different. She is an Easterner. I used to visit the village where her family lived. And in those times, during the communist times, it was actually a happy place. The system worked. The Germans were very proud of it. And they said, 'After all, we invented communism. The Russians messed it up, but we can actually make it work.'"

I was surprised to learn that Professor Dyson knew so much about Eastern Europe. Many of the scientists of my generation are a narrowly focused lot. There are geniuses to be sure, but not always the sort of genius that extended beyond their subject area. Dyson was of a generation that still cultivated the idea of the Renaissance man: a scholar who was widely read and conversant in many disciplines. I also knew that Dyson had served in the British Bomber Command during World War II. Though his mind was dedicated to mathematics, his life had been bound up with politics.

"And they did make it work in a sense," Dyson said. "That society was a very humane society, unless you wanted to be a politician. Of course they were brutal if you got involved in any sort of political activity. But for the people in the villages, it actually worked. The village was prosperous. It was growing stuff it sold to the Russians for fixed prices. It was a fixed economy and everybody had a job. Everybody had security. And the village actually had a zoo, which was their pride and joy. The school children took care of the animals. It was run by the local Communist Party. They actually ran it well. There was a professional veterinarian in charge. It was a great asset to the village."

He paused. He looked away from me and glanced at the screen of his computer. I guessed that an e-mail had arrived. He was adjudicating its relative importance.

"But, of course, as soon as the reunification happened it was destroyed," he said, turning back to me. "It then had to pay for itself, and there was no way you could sustain a zoo in a village like that. So that was just one of the many things that was destroyed. I don't know what the villagers would say today. Of course, the village is transformed totally now. Most of the people who lived there were out of work and had to move into the cities. They have been replaced by stockbrokers and business people who have country cottages there. The village has now been gentrified. They don't do much farming there anymore. But it is just as beautiful as it ever was."

Dyson leaned forward over his wide desk. "We had cousins in Leipzig who joined the march when they began marching against the communist government," he said. "They were trying to reform the communist government. They marched at the same time the Solidarity people were marching in Poland. It was part of the same movement for reform. But one thing they were not marching for was to be swallowed by the West. They did not have that in mind at all. What they wanted was to have a government of their own that was more responsive. And that would sort of be like Austria, an independent country. But what happened was totally opposite. They were immediately swallowed by the West, and all of their institutions were upset and destroyed. And there is still a lot of bitterness, of course."

"Yes," I said. "There is a lot of bitterness in Bulgaria, too. Democracy is not what they expected it to be."

I knew that East Germans had only narrowly voted to adopt the West German constitution. Some GDR citizens would have preferred to reform their brand of socialism rather than embrace capitalism. For many East Germans reunification felt more like a territorial grab by the West, something the Social Democratic politician Matthias Platzeck would refer to as an Anschluss, making reference to Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. In Bulgaria, many were reluctant to see their whole system dismantled and voted their own "reformed" Communist Party right back into power in the first free democratic elections after 1989. Like the East Germans, Bulgarians wanted change, but they wanted to be in control of that change.

In the popular memory, the peaceful revolutions of 1989 were a triumph of democracy over despotism. East European men and women rose up to throw off the yoke of communism and rushed headlong into the open arms of the West (or at the very least into the Western department stores). But even from those earliest years, many were wary of the promises of liberal democracy and free markets and the economic inequality and social hardships they might bring.

I told Professor Dyson that a lot of Bulgarians were also nostalgic about the past.

"Bulgaria," Professor Dyson said. "Yes, of course. You work in Bulgaria. I had almost forgotten about Frank. Will you be going to Bulgaria any time soon?"

"In a month," I said.

"Good," he said, staring back at his computer screen.

"I'd be happy to help in any way I can," I said.

"There was a young man, a classmate of mine, who died fighting with the partisans in Bulgaria," he said. His eyes turned back toward me. "We were at school together at Winchester in 1937. I was twelve and he was fifteen. Do you know E. P. Thompson?"

"The historian?" I said.

"Yes," Professor Dyson said. "Frank Thompson was his older brother. Frank was my friend before the war. Before he went to Oxford, fell in love with Iris Murdoch, and joined the Communist Party. There is a train station in Bulgaria named after him, did you know that?" Dyson said.

"No," I said. "I didn't. But I think there is a street named after him in Sofia. Near where my ex-in-laws live. It's called Major Thompson."

"Yes, that's him," Professor Dyson said, smiling. "I've been collecting information on Frank for many years. The circumstances surrounding his death in Bulgaria are a bit suspicious. There are documents about Frank that should be in the British archives, but are missing. It's a mysterious business. I think there are some books written about Frank in Bulgarian. I'd very much appreciate it if you could bring one or two of them back for me if you happen to come across them while you are there."

"I will," I said. "I can find them in the National Library."

"Good," he said. "That would be very good."

A month later, in the National Library in Sofia, it was easy enough to finger through the old card catalog for the subject: Thompson, Frank. I immediately found an eponymous book published in Bulgarian in 1980. I wrote the bibliographic information down in my notebook. That afternoon I walked from Sofia University to Slaveikov Square where the booksellers crowd together in an outdoor market. Just up from the square on Solunska Street, one finds antiquarian booksellers. If I wanted to buy a book published before 1989, it was here I had to look. The booksellers were middle-aged men who spent most of the day smoking, chatting, and playing backgammon as they waited for customers.

"I'm looking for a book about Frank Thompson," I said to the first vendor in Bulgarian. "From 1980."

"Frank Thompson? The Englishman?"

"Yes," I said. "The authors are Gyurova and Transki."

"Thompson," the man said. "A great hero."

"Do you have the book?" I said.

"No," he said. "There isn't quite the market for those kinds of books anymore."

"What kind of books?" I said.

"Books about heroes," he said. "You can try one of my colleagues."

I walked up the street to the next vendor. "I'm looking for a book about Frank Thompson."

"The English communist?" he said, peering at me through squinted eyes. He looked a bit drunk.

Dyson had told me that Thompson had joined the Communist Party at Oxford. That technically made him a communist. "Yes," I said. "Frank Thompson, the Englishman. He died in Bulgaria."

"Filthy communists," the man said, waving me away. "I don't sell books about filthy communists."

I walked on to the next stall.

"I am trying to find a book published in 1980. It is called Frank Thompson. The authors are Gyurova and Transki." I tried to keep my voice librarian neutral. I wanted to buy a book. I did not want to get in a political debate.

"Maybe," the man said.

He stared down at his boxes. I watched him for a few moments as he walked his fingers across the spines of his books. I thought maybe I should just return to the National Library and xerox their copy. But I had hoped to bring Professor Dyson the actual book. After several moments, the bookseller pulled a thin paperback out of the third box and showed it to me. The cover featured the face of a young man smoking a pipe. He was looking, with a furrowed brow, off to the left of the page. It was a handsome face, and the young man seemed lost in thought. Was this Professor Dyson's childhood friend? The title read [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] I had found it.



Professor Dyson was quite pleased with the book I brought back for him in June. He could read Cyrillic and a bit of Russian, and said that he had a Bulgarian friend who could translate for him if necessary.

"It will be interesting to read the Bulgarian side of the story," he said.

"I think there may be another book or two," I said. "I'll be going back in December. I'll keep an eye out for them."

"Yes," he said. "Please do."

"So was Frank really a communist?" I said.

"He always had a great admiration for communism, and he became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain," Professor Dyson said. "Of course, it all meant something different back then."

"Because of the war?" I asked.

"Because of the world," Dyson said.

Europe in the 1930s was indeed a very different world. The stock market crash of 1929 had plunged the United States and much of western Europe into the Great Depression. Market speculation caused the suffering of millions of men, women, and children. Europe was still struggling to recover from World War I, and the Germans had been forced to pay crippling reparations after its military defeat. The desperate poverty of the Continent gave rise to new nationalist parties based on racism and xenophobia. As fascism spread, working-class political movements were mercilessly crushed by the likes of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Hitler. Those who called themselves "communists," "socialists," or even "social democrats" were vilified and persecuted. Hitler filled the first concentration camps with German communists who challenged Nazi rule, forcing them to wear the inverted red triangle. In many countries it was an act of great courage to openly call oneself a "communist."

I left Princeton that August, but professional obligations would bring me back at least twice a year. Between 2007 and 2013, I often met and had lunch with Professor Dyson when I visited the institute. We developed a kind of friendship around "Frank" and would talk about contemporary political developments in Bulgaria. Dyson had bright, inquisitive eyes and always seemed keen to hear about my latest research projects. He took the time to read two of the books I had written about everyday life in communist and post-communist Bulgaria. It was as if Professor Dyson felt closer to Frank Thompson by learning about the country in which he fought and died.


Excerpted from The Left Side of History by Kristen Ghodsee. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations ix

Prologue. Communism 2.0? xi

A Note on Transliteration xxi

Part I. The Way We Remember the Past Determines Our Dreams for the Future

 1. The Mysterious Major Frank Thompson 3

2. A Communist by Any Other Name . . . 11

3. "I Simply Want to Fight" 21

4. The Brothers Lagadinov 34

5. A Failed Petition 41

6. Lawrence of Bulgaria? 49

7. Ambushed in Batuliya 57

8. Guerillas in the Mist 63

9. Everyday Life as a Partisan 69

10. Blood of a Poet 84

11. The Head Hunted 90

12. Words of One Brother on the Death of Another 97

Part II. The Remains of the Regime

13. The Retired Partisan 101

14. A Woman's Work Is Never Done 113

15. History Is Written by the Victors 126

16. On Censorship and the Secret Police 134

17. The Politics of Truth 144

18. Cassandra's Curse 151

19. The Red Samaritan 155

20. The Past Is a Foreign Country 165

21. A Moment of Redemption 176

Conclusion. On the Outskirts of Litakovo 187

Acknowledgments 201

Notes 205

Selected Bibliography 219

Index 225

What People are Saying About This

Louise Bogan: A Portrait - Elizabeth Frank

"The Left Side of History bears witness to Kristen Ghodsee's intellectual courage, analytic gifts, and profound compassion. She offers portraits of people for whom communism was a living ideology, a belief system that compelled self-sacrifice and nobility, and she does this by looking at their actions rather than criticizing or deconstructing their beliefs."

Joan W. Scott

"The marvel of this beautifully written book is to address a complex set of historical questions in intimate and personal terms. It's stunning as ethnography, but also part memoir—an account of Kristen Ghodsee's quest to satisfy her curiosity about the fate of Frank Thompson, a British partisan killed fighting the Nazis in Bulgaria in 1944. The story she ends up telling is much larger: about communism as an aspiration and a political system; about the economic and social impacts of democracy and free markets after 1989; about the preservation and erasure of public memory; about the relationship of individuals to history. It's a small story with vivid characters and a very large resonance. Best of all, it's a gripping and compelling read."

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The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a lost soul Thompson was. He was attracted to partisans who called themselves terrorists, but they fought the fascists, who were simply the elected government at the moment supporting the country's interest to stay away from the Red terrorists (USSR). Once a read that the Bulgarian is Russian but like talked by Turks, I realized that the guy probably needed to take his pills unfortunately not available in the 1940's.