IN 1935, the stakes could not have been higher. Hitler ruled Germany. Mussolini had been in power for thirteen years. Civil war was brewing in Spain. Stalin was poised to begin his bloodiest purges in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in Paris, Louis Aragon, André Gide, Ilya Ehrenburg and other intellectuals organized an International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture.
For the stakes of culture, too, were high, not least in Paris, where Ehrenburg, a fervent Communist, was beaten up in the street by André Breton, the surrealist writer, for having denounced all art that was not suitably proletarian. The defense of culture at the writers’ congress was in fact synonymous with the defense against fascism. That is, it was a conference firmly of the left. Ehrenburg had his little moment of vengeance; Breton was excluded.
The English novelist E. M. Forster, one of the speakers at the Palais de la Mutualité (others included Heinrich Mann, Isaac Babel, Bertolt Brecht, Boris Pasternak and Tristan Tzara), soon got bored with the overheated leftist rhetoric. Forster recalled having “to sit through many eulogies of Soviet culture, and to hear the name of Karl Marx detonate again and again like a well-placed charge, and draw after it the falling masonry of applause.”