Chris Harman


Interesting titbits

(September 1983)

From Socialist Review, No.57, September 1983, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What a Beautiful Sunday
Jorge Semprun
Seeker and Warburg £8.95.

Jorge Semprun is best known these days as the script writer of such Costa Gavros films as Z and L’Aveu. [1] But before that he had a long history as an activist inside the Spanish CP under the name Federico Sanchez.

This resulted in him spending a period in Buchenwald towards the end of the Second World War.

His ability to speak several languages fluently got him a position in the statistics department which enabled him to survive. It then led him into numerous underground expeditions in Franco’s Spain and innumerable leadership meetings of the CP which took place in Eastern Europe.

His last book The Autobiography of Frederico Sanchez was a series of reminiscences of these years. It was a best seller in Spain because it revealed the inside dirt on what the leaders of the Spanish CP had been thinking and doing during their long years in exile. Where else could you learn about their holidays in the Crimea, their personalities, their attempts to avoid coming to terms with the truth about Stalinism (as late as 1964 Carrillo complained that concern with the horrors of the Stalin period was an obsession of ‘guilt-ridden petty bourgeois’), their absurd belief you could overthrow Franco through a ‘pacific general strike’.

The book was a fascinating read. Yet it suffered from one great fault. For all his contempt for the leaders of Spanish Eurocommunism, Semprun did not offer a radically different perspective to theirs. A lot of his venom came from the fact that they had expelled himself and his friend Fernando Claudin back in 1964 for saying things they themselves began to say after 1968.

What a Beautiful Sunday is very much in the style of the earlier book. But the memories it records are about wider things than just Spain – memories of Buchenwald, of trips to Prague, of the stories passing between top Communists during the years after Stalin’s death, of the shocked horror for people like Semprun when they learnt that Stalin had his own Gulag system of Buchenwald type camps.

Some of the stories are fascinating: the account of the fear felt by a former Buchenwald prisoner, now an East German police officer, when someone who had been under him in the camps’ CP cell is executed at a Prague show trial for working with ‘fascist spies’ in the camp; the story recounted by Carrillo of how after foreign Communist leaders had been told by Khrushchev how Beria was shot dead by other members of the Politbureau, rolled in a carpet and smuggled out of the Kremlin, John Gollan of the British CP remarked. ‘A gentlemen’s affair, indeed!’

But the faults of the earlier book are even more marked this time. Semprun has no analysis of why Stalinism developed, and ends up seeing it as the logical culmination of Leninism and even Marxism.

This is combined with an attempt to give his memories a metaphysical depth they don’t have by embroidering into them imaginary conversations between Leon Blum, the former French socialist premier (who was an honoured prisoner in a house just outside Buchenwald) and the ghost of the German writer Goethe (who 130 years previously used to walk in the wood where the concentration camp was built).

If you ignore these bits of self-indulgence by the author the book is a good read. It relates interesting titbits from the history of Stalinism. But in the end, you don’t feel it’s led you anywhere.

Note by ETOL

1. In the printed version the latter film is called L’Avenue.

Last updated on 25 March 2010