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Reappraising Communism and

Martin Mevius
University of Amsterdam, Leerstoelgroep Oost Europese
Geschiedenisen Oost Europakunde , Spuistraat 134, 1012, VB,
Armsterdam, The Netherlands
Published online: 19 Jun 2009.

To cite this article: Martin Mevius (2009) Reappraising Communism and Nationalism, Nationalities
Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 37:4, 377-400, DOI: 10.1080/00905990902985637

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Nationalities Papers, Vol. 37, No. 4, July 2009

Reappraising Communism and Nationalism

Martin Mevius

There are two popular myths concerning the relationship between communism and
nationalism. The first is that nationalism and communism are wholly antagonistic
and mutually exclusive. The second is the assertion that in communist Eastern
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Europe nationalism was oppressed before 1989, to emerge triumphant after the
Berlin Wall came down. Reality was different. Certainly from 1945 onwards, commu-
nist parties presented themselves as heirs to national traditions and guardians of
national interests. The communist states of Central and Eastern Europe constructed
“socialist patriotism,” a form of loyalty to their own state of workers and peasants.
Up to 1989, communists in Eastern Europe sang the national anthem, and waved the
national flag next to the red banner. The use of national images was not the exception,
but the rule. From Cuba to Korea, all communist parties attempted to gain national
legitimacy. This was not incidental or a deviation from Marxist orthodoxy, but
ingrained in the theory and practice of the communist movement since its inception.

Myths on Communism and Nationalism

The notion that communism and nationalism are polar opposites derives from the pro-
tagonists themselves. Nationalists passionately dismissed the thought that communists
could be national or patriotic in any way. Opponents dismissed communists as foreign
“agents of Moscow”; Nazi propaganda, for instance, presented communism and the
USSR to be fundamentally alien Jewish inventions.1 Communists for their part rejected
the charge that they were unpatriotic, supported minority rights and liberation of
oppressed peoples, but vehemently denied (and still reject) the idea that communism
has anything to do with nationalism.2 What adds to the confusion is the communist ten-
dency to accuse opponents both inside and outside the movement of crimes such as
“chauvinism,” “bourgeois nationalism” or “national deviationism.” These statements
have been taken at face value, especially in the media. “The idea of ‘national commun-
ism’ ought to be a contradiction in terms,” writes The Independent.3 Commentators
generally treat the nationalism of former communist Yugoslav dictator Slobodan
Milosevic as being exceptional. According to Foreign Affairs, Milosevic embraced

Martin Mevius, University of Amsterdam, Leerstoelgroep Oost Europese Geschiedenisen Oost Europakunde,
Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB, Armsterdam, The Netherlands. Email:

ISSN 0090-5992 print; ISSN 1465-3923 online/09/040377– 24 # 2009 Association for the Study of Nationalities
DOI: 10.1080/00905990902985637

nationalism “eagerly,” rather than “transcending nationalism as communism had

taught.”4 The BBC considered Yugoslavia to be an exceptional case, where “unlike
in most of Eastern Europe Milosevic’s Serbian Communist Party embraced popular
nationalism, rather than reacted against it.”5 In practice, Milosevic was not such an
exception. There were more communists who embraced nationalism, though these
are also usually seen as singular. Authors frequently call Nicolae Ceauşescu’s indepen-
dent foreign policy and cult of national Stalinism a “bizarre exception.”6 In reality
Ceauşescu’s “national Stalinism” was not abnormal, but rather an extreme case.7
Connected to the idea that communism and nationalism are polar opposites is the
notion that “nationalism was contained during the Communist era and was revived
after 1989.”8 It is not only journalists who express this notion; it is popular with aca-
demics as well. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, specialists of the region argued that
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“history” reappeared after the rejection of the “internationalist experiment” called the
USSR,9 that “ethnic discrimination and interests were laid to rest, by the communist
regimes” but “over time” “nationalism once again resurfaced.”10 In reality,
however, as Andreas Johansson states, “national conflicts were not waiting below
the surface” but were in fact “created, changed and strengthened, both intentionally
and as an indirect consequence of socialist policies.”11 Rather than freezing national
conflict, communist regimes frequently fanned national sentiments or played into
them, such as the Polish “anti-Semitic” surge of 1968, or they attempted to gain
national legitimacy, as exemplified by the Hungarian Kádár regime’s successful
attempt to regain the long-lost Holy Crown of St Stephen. Disagreements about min-
orities were not contained but continued and worsened under communist rule, as a
number of new studies on Hungary and Romania demonstrate. Mihály Fülöp and
Gábor Vincze even speak of an “iron curtain” between the two countries.12
Typical of myths is that these views are not presented in a systematic way. There are
no academic works that argue comprehensively that communism and nationalism are
contradictory. The idea that nationalism disappeared in 1945 to resurface in 1989 is
frequently expressed by academics in current affairs programmes, university lectures
on Central European history or during talks at conferences. It appears less often in
academic articles or books, and even then usually as a quick aside hidden away in a
sentence, but not as an elaborate argument supported by evidence. Significantly,
these remarks are rarely annotated, which suggests they are commonly accepted as
being true: historians are taught not to annotate well-known facts, and tend to footnote
anything but the glaringly obvious.13

Literature Prior to 1989: Theory, the Soviet Union and Minorities

These myths exist despite an extensive literature on the topic. This can be explained by
the focus in the literature. Prior to 1989, interest centred mainly on theoretical
Marxism and the attitude of communists towards national minorities or national


liberation movements in the colonies. Researchers such as Ephraim Nimni, Walker

Conner and C. C. Herod14 published notable works on the theoretical attitude of
Marxists to nationalism. These authors were aware that communist theory was not
necessarily hostile to nationalism, but did not greatly elaborate on how this worked
out in the practice of the communist movement after 1918. Historians, by contrast,
studied day-to-day politics without much reference to theory. An example is
Richard Pipes writing on early Bolshevik nationality policy15 In Nation Killers,
Robert Conquest presents oppression of national minorities under Stalin.16 Robert
King is one of the few to highlight communist conflicts over minorities in Eastern
Europe in Minorities under Communism.17 For Eastern Europe, Hugh Seton-Watson
and Paul Lendvai write on nationalism and communism in the region, though more
from the perspective of the nationalists than the communists.18 Paul Zinner, Ferenc
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Váli and A. Bromke are more interested in the way in which national aspirations
posed a threat to communist dominance in Eastern Europe.19
Communists appeared as supporters of national emancipation, but not as what
Seton-Watson calls builders of “official nationalism.”20 Historians rarely studied the
importance of nationalism as a means of legitimacy for communist regimes and
parties. Even if they did, this was limited mainly to the Soviet Union. There exist
several early studies on the introduction of Soviet patriotism from the 1930s,21 but
many researchers considered this to be a Stalinist aberration from pure “international-
ist” Marxism.22 The East European variant of this form of national communist ideol-
ogy, socialist patriotism, has only recently attracted attention.
While theorists and historians of communism studied nationalism, the great theor-
ists of nationalism almost ignored communist state nationalism altogether.23 Benedict
Anderson notes in Imagined Communities that a “fundamental transformation in the
history of Marxism and Marxist movements is upon us” when describing wars
between China, Vietnam and Cambodia.24 But this is an off-the-cuff remark to illus-
trate the importance of nationalism. Beyond a few cursory remarks in the introduction,
Anderson does not follow it up.
In “Some Reflections on ‘The Break-up of Britain,’” Eric Hobsbawm discusses the
Marxist attitude to nationalism. He argues that Marx himself “accepted the historic
role of a certain number of such national-state economies.”25 “Marxist movements
and states,” Hobsbawm writes, “have tended to become national not only in form
but in substance, i.e. nationalist.” According to Hobsbawm, most Marxists “were
and are proud of the nations, ethnic, cultural or other communities to which they
belong” and, more importantly, “most actual Marxist socialist movements operate
within the confines of some state or people.” After all this, Hobsbawm still concludes
that it is a “basic fact” that Marxists are not nationalists.26
In his key works on nationalism, Hobsbawm pays little attention to the relationship
of the left towards nationalism. Invention of Tradition is a collection of articles on the
constructed national identities of capitalist countries. Though the main argument could
work equally well for communist states, they are not discussed at all in the volume.


In Nations and Nationalism Hobsbawm briefly mentions the adopting of national

symbols by communist parties from the mid-1930s. He concludes that “the remarriage
of revolution and national sentiment was an extremely complicated phenomenon” and
that “there has been little research on such questions.”27

Literature after 1989: Focus on Communist National Legitimacy

In the late 1980s the first works appeared on the national legitimacy of communist
parties outside of the Soviet Union. Considering Nicolae Ceauşescu’s particularly
virulent form of communist nationalism, it is no surprise that two of these were on
Romania. One is by Gilberg Trond, who discusses the nationalism and anti-Hungarian
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chauvinism of the Ceauşescu regime,28 the other is Katherine Verdery’s dissection of

nationalism in the Romanian Communist Party.29 Another relatively obvious candi-
date for research was the German Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the German Demo-
cratic Republic (DDR). With the existence of two German states, national legitimacy
had been a constant concern of the SED leadership from 1946 onwards. In 1992
German historian Sigrid Meuschel presented German communist attempts at present-
ing a national self-image.30
Germany and Romania still appeared as singular cases until the mid-1990s, when a
broader picture started to form, with the emergence of a growing body of work on the
construction of national communist identity. Dutch historian Erik van Ree took an
interest especially from the vantage point of the communist movement. He has
studied the national elements in the works of Marx, Engels31 and Stalin,32 coined
the phrase “Revolutionary Patriotism,”33 and has written on the concept of National
Bolshevism.34 David Brandenberger presented the first solid study on the construction
of Soviet patriotism in the USSR in the 1930s.35 As far as the USSR is concerned,
interest in the policy of korenizatsiya, often translated as “nativization” or “indigini-
zation,” skyrocketed after 1989. Through this policy, the USSR attempted to use
nationalism in order to spread socialism. It was more than a strictly utilitarian
policy, as communists created whole new alphabets and national cultures where pre-
viously none had existed. Several important works examine this process, for instance
Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire36 and Terry Martin and Ronald Suny’s A
State of Nations.37 There are also specific case studies on Soviet Republics such as
Soviet Turkmenistan,38 Uzbekistan,39 the Caucasus,40 Moldova,41 the Ukraine,42
and nationalities within Russia such as the Palekh.43
Questions of communist national legitimacy, culture and ideology are now also
being posed for the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. In a number of works, the com-
petition between communists and their enemies for “the soul of the nation” is the
focus. Walter Kemp argues in Nationalism and Communism in Eastern Europe and
the Soviet Union that the communist inability to deal with nationalism led to the
downfall of the system in 1989.44 Bradley Abrams deals with the changing views


on the nation among Czech intellectuals.45 Árpád von Klimó covers clashing views on
Hungarian nationhood between the Communist Party and the Church.46
Many new studies examine attempts by East European communist parties to gain
national legitimacy, often concentrating on the Second World War and post-war
era. Dirk Spilker shows how the fledgling SED attempted to play the national card
in immediate post-war Germany.47 Yannis Sygkelos has completed a Ph.D. thesis
on what he calls the “Marxist nationalism” of the Bulgarian Communist Party.48 In
my own Agents of Moscow, I explore the conscious, sometimes cynical construction
of Hungarian socialist patriotism shortly after the Second World War.49
Katalin Miklóssy shows how the national policy of the Hungarian Kádár regime
towards Romania in the 1960s was determined in part by national interests.50
Joanna McKay presents an overview of attempts by the East German SED to gain
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national legitimacy after the Second World War right up to 1989—first by claiming
leadership over a united Germany, and later by presenting the DDR as a “nation” in
its own right.51 A similar broad palette is employed by Marcin Zaremba, who analyses
the national legitimacy (or lack of it) of the communist party in Poland.52
Not only communists in control of states pursued national legitimacy. Communist
movements in Western Europe had the same aspiration. Communists first prominently
used the national banner as a focus for loyalty during the Spanish Civil War, as pre-
sented by Xosé Núñez Seixas in his Fuera el invasor!53 Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir
compares the national policies of the Scottish and Icelandic parties before and
during the Second World War.54
All in all, analysts have now covered the national component of communist ideol-
ogy for most of formerly communist Europe and several Western European parties.
Many of these works are excellent in themselves. Taken together they should easily
deflate misconceptions about the incompatibility of nationalism and communism.
This has not yet happened.

Blind Spots on Nationalism and Communism

The main reason why there has been no general reappraisal of the relationship
between nationalism and communism is the intense fragmentation of the field in
terms of chronological and geographical context and of subject matter. Most of the
studies mentioned above remain limited to specific countries and time periods.
This means that the comprehensive nature of communist appeals to national legiti-
macy remains hidden, and communist appeals to nationalism appear as a novelty.
For instance, contemporary observers in the GDR saw the appropriation of national
symbols by the regime in the 1980s as something significantly new.55 In fact, the SED
had been appealing to German nationalism since 1945, and its predecessor the KPD
since at least 1923. Only the content of the regime’s socialist patriotism was


As a result of this fragmentation the “national” aspects of communist policies are

not always fully appreciated. After 1989, history writing concentrated on using new
archival finds to fill in the “blind spots” in the map of communist history.56 The com-
munist quest for national legitimacy is, by contrast, a “blank spot” in the history of
communism. Such blind spots do not always require new documents to be uncovered,
but merely a different perspective.

The Communist Manifesto and the “National Class”

This starts with Marx. He was no enemy of nationalism as such. He was an admirer of
the French Revolution, where the Jacobins had first wed social revolution to an intense
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nationalism, and based his own attitude to nationalism in part on their example.57
Marx believed that nationalism could have a progressive function in two ways: by
fomenting anti-aristocratic bourgeois revolutions, and by melding smaller economic
units into larger ones. The liberation of national minorities was compatible with
Marxism as long as it promoted these causes. But protection of national minorities
was not a duty as such. So, Marx and Engels lauded the national aspirations of
Germans, Poles and Hungarians, but ridiculed the ambitions of smaller nations.58
They described smaller Slavic peoples, Basques, Scots and Bretons as Völkerabfälle,
“whose entire existence is a protest against a great historical Revolution.”59
Marx and Engels also presented an embryonic concept of communist nationhood. In
the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that “the working class has no fatherland,”
which is often quoted to demonstrate the internationalism of the workers’ move-
ment.60 However, the section needs to be cited in full in order to be completely
The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nation-
ality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not
got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the
leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national,
though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.61
Marx did not use this slogan to demonstrate the internationalism of the workers’ move-
ment. In this paragraph, Marx was defending himself from the accusation that commu-
nists were unpatriotic. The concept of the “leading class of the nation” opened the
possibility for a sense of socialist nationhood, and the later communist claims to be
“true” or “socialist” patriots derive in part from this fragment.

Lenin on National Pride

Following Marx, Lenin, too, claimed national sentiment for the working class, in an
article entitled On the National Pride of the Great Russians. “Is a sense of national
pride alien to us, Great-Russian class-conscious proletarians?,” he asked. “Certainly


not! We love our language and our country . . . We are full of a sense of national
pride.”62 Works dealing with Lenin’s views on nationalism rarely pay much attention
to this article, preferring to concentrate on the more important The Right of Nations to
Self-Determination.63 Communist propagandists, however, frequently cited it to
demonstrate that internationalism could be combined with national feeling.64
From the end of the First World War, communists applied this notion of a healthy
nationalism to the liberating nationalism of oppressed minorities and peoples, whereas
they still attacked the “official nationalism” of Russia and the other states of Europe as
“reactionary.” In the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks feared and fought Great Russian
nationalism, but by contrast encouraged the many nationalities and ethnicities of the
USSR to develop national feeling through the policy of korenizatsiya. Stalin supplied
the doctrinal underpinning of this policy in a speech to students in 1925: “Proletarian
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in content, national in form—such is the universal culture towards which socialism is

proceeding.” The defining difference with “bourgeois” nationalism was the fact that
the proletariat controlled the state: “The slogan of national culture became a proletar-
ian slogan when the proletariat came to power.” This was a highly orthodox argument.
It could be traced back to Marx’s brief remarks in the Communist Manifesto and
Lenin’s On the National Pride of the Great Russians.65

The Comintern and the Competition with the Far Right

In Europe, where the proletariat was not in control of the state, communist parties
treated national symbols with suspicion, as emblems of the ruling class. This did
not mean that they rejected nationalism altogether: their venom was aimed in particu-
lar against the “official nationalism” of the nation-states of Europe, the patriotism of
the ruling class and the social democrats. European communists opposed the Treaties
of Trianon and Versailles, defended minority rights, and supported national liberation
movements in the colonies.66
In Europe, communists also used national slogans against the far right. In 1923 the
KPD “briefly used nationalist, anti-Versailles, antisocialist, and anti-Semitic slogans
in an attempt to win over Nazis and other nationalists to communism.”67 This line
was called the “Schlageter Course” after the martyred German nationalists Albert
Leo Schlageter. The KPD followed a similar course on other occasions. It attacked
the Young Plan in 1929 as a form of foreign enslavement, and in 1930 it launched
the policy of “national and social liberation,” a propaganda line expressly designed
to compete with the Nazi Party. KPD activists further attempted to lure Nazi suppor-
ters with national rhetoric in a propaganda campaign centred on the Nazi-turned-
communist Richard Scheringer. In the literature on the history of the KPD, these
policies are often treated separately, even though in fact they were variations on a
theme. Similar to all these policies was the revolutionary approach to national liber-
ation: the Bolshevik Revolution and alliance with the Soviet Union would bring
national liberation for the German people. National symbols remained a topic of


ridicule: the red flag remained the symbol of this revolutionary nationalism, not the
Black-Red Gold of Weimar or the Red-White-Black of the German Empire.
Another similarity between these national policies was that the Comintern, and not
the KPD, had initiated them. Comintern executive committee member Karl Radek
introduced the “Schlageter Course” in a speech in which he praised Schlageter.
Stalin, at around the same time, in a meeting of the Russian politburo, demanded
the KPD strike the “correct national tone.”68
The Comintern also initiated the KPD’s 1930 policy of “national and social liber-
ation.” As late as 2005, Timothy S. Brown repeated an old assertion that it was
designed by KPD secretariat member Heinz Neumann.69 In reality, the “program
declaration on the National and Social Liberation of the German People” had been
written by Comintern functionaries Kuusinen, Knorin and Manuilskij after close con-
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sultation with Stalin.70 It had to be sold to the German party leadership. The Comin-
tern representative in Germany, Georgi Dimitrov, complained, for instance, that party
leader Ernst Thälmann “did not understand” the new line.71 Far from being a unique,
German policy, this national policy was doctrine promoted by the Comintern. Not just
the KPD, but also the French, Austrian, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak parties published
declarations on “national and social liberation.”72

Embracing Patriotism: Soviet Patriotism and the Popular Front

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the communist movement gradually abolished the
taboo on state patriotism. In the Soviet Union, local leaders grew too big for their
boots and were persecuted as “national deviationists.” The national sentiment itself
was not under attack. The true unforgivable sin was a too independent attitude from
the party centre.73 Although the Soviet state encroached on the limited autonomy of
the nationalities, vocal support for national identities and minorities and affirmative
action favouring local cadres remained features of the Soviet Union until its collapse.
National symbols and culture in the Soviet republics were not abandoned. Rather, a
change in emphasis occurred. From about 1934 onwards the national identity of the
republics was subordinated to a broader sense of Soviet patriotism, one that was
heavily infused with references to Russian history. School history books, for instance,
now presented the development of the nationalities from a purely Russian perspective.74
In Europe, communist parties did not have to invent a new, Soviet patriotism.
Instead, they reclaimed the national revolutionary traditions of the French Revolution.
From the Seventh Congress of 1935 onwards, the Comintern encouraged the European
parties to adopt previously derided national symbols such as the French tricolour and
the Marseillaise.75 Secretary-general of the Comintern Georgi Dimitrov played an
important role in this change. Dimitrov was no stranger to appealing to national senti-
ments. Apart from his attempts to explain the correct “national policy” to Thälmann,
this became apparent at the Leipzig trial where he stood accused of plotting the
burning of the Reichstag. During the trial, Dimitrov proudly countered insults of


being a “wild Bulgarian”: “I have no cause to be ashamed of being Bulgarian, in fact I

am proud to say that I am the son of the Bulgarian working class.” He insulted
Germans by recalling that Emperor Charles V spoke German only to his horses, at
a time in history when the Bulgarian saints Cyril and Methodius invented and
spread the cyrillic script.76 Dimitrov picked up these themes at the Seventh Congress,
where he derided communists who sneered at “the national sentiments of the broad
masses of working people.” These were “far from being a genuine Bolshevik,” and
had “understood nothing of the teaching of Lenin on the national question.” Dimitrov
quoted extensively from On the National Pride of the Great Russians to prove his
point. Dimitrov demanded the workers’ struggle take on “national form,” to prove
that the working class was “the only true fighter for national freedom and the indepen-
dence of the people.”77
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This appreciation of national feeling accompanied a change in strategy: communists

stopped openly attacking parliamentary democracy, but allied themselves with demo-
cratic parties in the Popular Front. The shift towards national propaganda was an
important change of emphasis, and traumatic to communist activists who had spent
the previous decade denouncing national symbols and declaring allegiance to the
USSR. In most academic work on the Seventh Congress and the Popular Front,
however, it is a blind spot in that the emphasis lies on the new alliance with the bour-
geoisie, with only marginal attention being paid to the equally novel “national line.”78

The “National Line” of the Comintern

The communist movement dropped the line of the Seventh Congress after the signing
of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact and the onset of war in 1939. It returned to the fore-
front with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. That Stalin used
Russian nationalism in the Great Patriotic War is commonly accepted. What is rea-
lized less often is that all European communist parties now presented the struggle
with Germany as one of national liberation, and the communists as leaders of the
fight against the foreign oppressor.79 Some historians did see a link between Soviet
example and national party policy. Alan Nothnagle writes that national propaganda
by the SED was “based upon the myth of the ‘Great Patriotic War.’”80 German com-
munists, however, did not spontaneously copy Soviet national propaganda. As with the
Schlageter Course, the Policy of National and Social Liberation and the Popular Front,
this was official Comintern policy, introduced by Dimitrov on Stalin’s instructions on
the day of the German attack. Possibly the experience of communist national propa-
ganda during the Spanish Civil War inspired the new course.81 Communist parties
in Central and Eastern Europe all implemented it. They established radio stations
with national names (Radio Kossuth in Hungary, Khristo Botev in Bulgaria, Radio
Kosciuszko for Poland) and the parties formed national brigades named after national
heroes to fight the Germans, such as the Romanian Tudor Vladimirescu brigade. For
Germany it led to the founding of the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland, a


committee of conservative officers using the black-white-red of Wilhelmine Germany

rather than the democratic flag of Weimar.82

Disbanding Comintern and National Legitimacy

The main reason for introducing this national policy was to improve the national
image of communist parties, and so aid them in their struggle against the Germans.
One obstacle in the way of a credible national image was the existence of the Comin-
tern, as it enabled Goebbels in Germany to attack communists as Soviet puppets.
Disbanding the Comintern in May 1943 was therefore the logical consequence of
the “national line.”
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Usually, however, this move is seen as a “gesture to Britain and the United
States,”83 “as a concession to the other Allied powers and a gesture of good faith in
their unity and mutual non-interference.”84 According to this logic, a Soviet Union
inspiring revolution in these countries through the International was hard to reconcile
with the wartime alliance.85 Journalists speculated about a link with the mission of
Roosevelt’s emissary Joseph Davies to Stalin, which took place at around the same
time.86 Later, some academics followed this argument and also stated that “it was
Davies’ official mission to seek the dissolution of the Comintern.”87
In fact Davies’ only mission was to schedule a meeting between Stalin and
Roosevelt.88 Davies himself, however, did nothing to dispel the misunderstanding,
as British ambassador Sir Archibald Clarke Kerr reported. At a party at the US ambas-
sador’s residence in Moscow, former Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov joked
“It is all Mr Davies’s doing.” According to Clarke Kerr’s sarcastic report, “Davies
accepted this compliment with a becoming show of modesty.” When Litvinov then
admitted that the decision had been several years in the making and had nothing to
do with Davies, the latter “remained unperturbed by this admission.”89 After Davies
returned, the popular press favoured the foreign policy motive, and interpreted Comin-
tern dissolution as “the most significant gesture yet made by the Soviet government
towards complete collaboration with the United Nations.”90
There is little evidence to suggest that foreign policy motives really did play a
major role. If they had, then initially the goal was not to befriend Roosevelt or
Churchill, but Hitler. According to a British agent within Comintern, the Russian
foreign ministry, Narkomindel, regarded dissolving the Comintern as “possibly the
sole means of improving German – Russian relations.”91 According to Milovan
Djilas, however, by mid-1940 Stalin had already proposed Comintern dissolution,
but postponed it precisely to avoid giving the impression it was a concession to the

National motives
The first documented discussions on Comintern dissolution that give insight into
motives appear in Georgi Dimitrov’s diary. Stalin tabled dissolution of the Comintern


on 20 April 1941. After a performance at the Bolshoi theatre, Stalin toasted Dimitrov
and announced that the communist parties were to be “made independent” and turned
into “national parties.” The Comintern was an obstacle to the work of national
parties.93 Dimitrov started work on a draft resolution on dissolution on 12 May 1941.
As key advantages he listed one foreign policy motive: the Anti-Comintern pact would
“lose all ground.” All his other considerations were “national”: through dissolution
“the bourgeoisie’s highest trump card, that the communists are agents of a foreign
center, hence ‘traitors’, will be taken away.” Disbanding the Comintern would turn
each communist party into an “authentic national party,” and so increase its appeal.94
Dissolution also meant putting emphasis on patriotism: Dimitrov wanted to combine
“a healthy, properly understood nationalism with proletarian internationalism.”95
The German invasion put an end to plans to disband the Comintern, as it would
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seem like a concession to Hitler, but it was picked up again in May 1943. The key
arguments, national ones, had not changed by then. At a meeting of the politburo
on 21 May Stalin gave two reasons for dissolving the Comintern: first, it was imposs-
ible to lead the international movement from one centre, as different countries needed
different policies. Second, the communist parties “are being falsely accused of suppo-
sedly being agents of a foreign state,” which “is impeding their work among the broad
masses.” Disbanding the Comintern “knocks this trump card out of the enemies’
hands” and would “undoubtedly strengthen the Com[munist] parties as nat[ional]
working class parties.”96
These reasons resurfaced in a letter sent by Stalin to Reuters on 28 May 1943.
“It exposes the lie of the Hitlerites to the effect that ‘Moscow’ allegedly intends to inter-
vene in the life of other nations and to ‘Bolshevize’ them.” This in turn, “facilitates the
work of patriots” for uniting progressive forces “into a single camp of national liber-
ation.” Stalin mentioned only briefly that, for these reasons, the dissolution of the
Comintern would “result in a further strengthening of the United Front of the Allies.”97
Stalin did not dissolve Comintern as a gesture to the British or Americans. Foreign
policy motives may have played a role in the background: Davies’ visit, and the dis-
covery of mass graves of Polish officers at Katýn may explain the timing of the
move.98 The structural reasons were, however, to give national parties more tactical
flexibility and to increase the patriotic appeal of communists by ridding them of the
charge of being “agents of Moscow.” It was a propaganda move with the goal of
making insurrectionary work easier. What is surprising is that new archival sources
are not necessary to come to this conclusion. These arguments were also present in
contemporary published sources, such as the Executive Committee of the Comintern
(ECCI) resolution of 22 May 1943, and Stalin’s letter to Reuters of 28 May. Had they
paid close attention to the importance of national legitimacy in communist history, his-
torians may well have realized these published motives were not so different from the
real ones. Although there certainly are many researchers who give national arguments
a place in the dissolution of the Comintern,99 many others still follow wartime media
speculation about Davies’ trip to Moscow and the appeasement of Britain and the US.


The National Front and Socialist Patriotism after 1945

The communist parties of Europe continued their wartime “national line” after the
defeat of Nazi Germany. Employing a national front strategy, all communist parties
in Central and Eastern Europe, without exception, presented themselves as heirs to
national traditions and guardians of national interests, the defenders of a “true patrio-
tism” free of “chauvinism,” with the Soviet Union as great friend and ally. Commu-
nists everywhere claimed national heroes. In Czechoslovakia, Zdeněk Nejedlý
presented Jan Hus as a communist predecessor, in Hungary József Révai claimed
national poet Sándor Petó´fi for the party. Communists claimed to support national
interests, sometimes in a way they would normally define as “chauvinist”: in Czecho-
slovakia, Hungary and Poland communists violently demanded the expulsion of
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Germans from their countries. Until recently there has been little academic interest
in this communist national propaganda. As was the case with the Popular Front, the
emphasis of most publications was on the “front” aspects of the new strategy, with
less interest in its “national” connotations. General works on Eastern Europe mainly
showed interest in the communist strategies to power, and in general did not pay
much attention to national propaganda.100
Studying the post-war national propaganda of communist parties is worthwhile
because it uncovers another interesting blind spot, concerning the relationship
between “home” communists and “Muscovites.” The former had spent the Second
World War years at home, frequently in the resistance or in prison. Their comrades
in Moscow exile returned triumphantly in the wake of the Red Army. In most
Eastern European countries both groups did not get along well. So in Hungary
“Muscovite” Mátyás Rákosi persecuted “home communist” László Rajk, in
Romania “home communist” Gheorghe Gheorhiu-Dej put “Muscovite” Ana Pauker
in jail. These struggles have sometimes been interpreted as disagreements between
“national”-minded “home” communists and “Sovietized” muscovite exiles. In
reality, however, there were no programmatic differences.
The confusion derives from the Yugoslav–Soviet split when the Stalinist regimes in
Eastern Europe launched a propaganda campaign against the crimes of “bourgeois
nationalism” and “national deviationism.” These accusations were taken at face
value. Hungarians took the propaganda seriously and believed Rajk was a patriot
who opposed the treacherous “Muscovites.” A slogan on a train put Rajk on a level
with Tito: “To the gallows with the Jews Rákosi and Geró´, long live Tito and
Rajk.”101 One Budapest worker believed Rajk to be persecuted by Muscovites and
Jews: “I feel sorry for Rajk, after all, he’s human too and they are constantly persecut-
ing the Hungarians.”102 The Western press also believed that Rajk was being punished
for being a “national communist.”103 Since then, general histories have presented
“home communist” and “national communist” as synonyms,104 and even some
specialists on the region still distinguish between “Stalinist Muscovites” who cher-
ished “the ideal of internationalism and were uninterested in furthering the national


cause,” and “home communists” who were in “close contact with the Hungarian
In reality, the distinction between “home” communists and “Muscovites” was not
one of content. Rather, separation caused by war had formed two competing networks
of power. The confusion probably arises from the Soviet response to the Yugoslav
affair. The crime of “national deviationism” described the wish to take an independent
line from Moscow, like Tito had done in Yugoslavia. Appealing to national sentiment
was never a crime. In fact, the propaganda surrounding the Rajk trial was consciously
national in content, opposing Tito with “the national cause” and smearing Rajk as a

The patriotism of the Muscovites

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Though there was certainly political rivalry between the two groups, this was not
based on content, and certainly not on nationalism. True, in Romania, “home” com-
munist Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu was a vociferous proponent of a Romanian national
line. In Poland the “home communists” around Władysław Gomułka at first pragma-
tically supported a broad coalition, whereas the Muscovites took a more radical
approach.107 Elsewhere, however, the “Muscovites” were the more pragmatic and
patriotic communists. Having spent the war in Moscow they were more in tune
with official Soviet policy, which in 1945 still consisted of national propaganda and
coalition politics. So, Muscovites Zdeněk Nejedlý in Czechoslovakia and József
Révai in Hungary ardently propagated patriotism. László Rajk, by contrast, had not
shown himself to be particularly national in outlook. Whereas the party programme
drafted by Révai and other émigrés in 1944 contained many national references,
these were conspicuously absent from Rajk’s draft, compiled at home in Hungary.
This problem was even more pronounced at the grassroots level. In Hungary,
the returning Muscovites were confronted with open rebellion: veterans of the 1919
revolution and illegality under Horthy openly rejected both the alliance with the
bourgeoisie and the appeals to patriotism. In the power vacuum that followed Nazi
defeat, they established localized “Council Republics.”108 Exactly the same happened
in East Germany, where “old” members of the KPD showed themselves incapable of
adapting to the new, patriotic line. Like in Hungary, they established local dictator-
ships of the proletariat in the power vacuum following the collapse of the Third
Reich.109 In Bulgaria, local party activists clung to the “sectarian” ideas and tactics
of the 1930s and rejected the Popular Front.110 In Romania local communists
refused to adapt to the new line. One of the radicalized home communists in
Romania who could not get used to the new political situation was Nicolae Ceauşescu.
His superiors dismissed him as secretary of the Communist Youth Organization in
1945 and relegated him to work in the regions because he kept insisting on employing
pre-war clandestine methods instead of broader national front tactics.111 Other Roma-
nian communists rejected the new line for nationalist reasons. Hungarian members of
the Romanian Communist Party denounced the new patriotic line of the Romanian


Communist Party, because it meant supporting the annexation of Transylvania by


Blending socialism and nationalism

The constant attacks against “national deviationism” and the sweeping Stalinization of
Central European countries after 1948 usually lead to the observation that, as formu-
lated by Rogers Brubaker, for instance, the first years of communist rule were charac-
terized by “internationalism.”113 Yet despite internationalism and panegyrics to the
Soviet Union, appeals to national legitimacy were not dropped. As was the case
with the demise of korenizatsiya in the 1920s, independence from Moscow was the
true crime; appeals to national sentiment never were. From 1948 the socialist
regimes of Eastern Europe instead tried to fuse proletarian internationalism with patri-
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otism, just as Georgi Dimitrov had demanded in 1941. Communist regimes did not
burn their national flags but emblazoned them with communist symbols. The
People’s democracies did not abandon national holidays, but infused them with social-
ist content. All felt the need for national anthems, though the GDR and Romania wrote
new ones, while Hungary stuck to its religious Himnusz.
This new ideology bore the name “socialist patriotism.” It implied friendship with
other socialist countries and especially the Soviet Union, and hostility towards the
West. Socialist patriotism was formally held to be the opposite of “bourgeois nation-
alism” or the “chauvinism” of the West. This dichotomy fit nicely with Lenin’s views
expressed in On the National Pride of the Great Russians. The “nation” implicit in
socialist patriotism was limited to the working class and its class allies, the peasants
and the progressive intelligentsia, which was compatible with Marx’s brief statements
on socialist nationhood in the Communist Manifesto, and Stalin’s justification for the
slogan “national in form, socialist in content.”
All Central and Eastern European countries developed their own version of socialist
patriotism: in the DDR it was called sozialistischer patriotismus, in Romania patrio-
tismului revolutionar socialist, in Poland patriotyzmu socjalistznego, in Hungary
szocialista hazafiság. Each party constructed its own variety, usually drawing exten-
sively on existing national traditions, including those on the political right.114
It also existed outside Europe: Cuban history schoolbooks spoke of the “martyrs”
who had died for “Patriotismo Socialista.”115 Mao Zedong also adopted a version
of his own.116 In whatever remains of a worldwide far-left Marxist movement,
the concept of socialist patriotism is still a current term. It can be found on left-
wing websites, and in the press releases of the North Korean news agency.117
Stalin’s Soviet patriotism has been covered reasonably well in the literature. Socialist
patriotism—basically a generic variant of Soviet patriotism that could be applied to any
given country—by contrast, has almost never been studied. A search in Historical
Abstracts for publications from 1989 and later leads to four results, in only two of
these in the actual title of an article.118 Prior to 1989 the term appears 27 times, but
almost without exception from publications based behind the Iron Curtain, from


Poland, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Bulgaria.119 Usually these
articles presented some sort of contribution to the development of socialist patriotism.
In a search using Google Scholar the term “socialist patriotism” appears 241 times in
articles and books. Mostly, however, the phrase is used in passing. It is rarely discussed
extensively, explained or the topic of analysis.120 One of the central concepts of com-
munist rule in Eastern Europe has almost never been studied seriously, which again
illustrates the “blind spot” regarding communist attempts to gain national legitimacy.


George Schöplin posited that “a communist cannot be a nationalist because the essen-
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tial theoretical bases of these two answers to the problem of modernity contradict each
Even if true, this does not explain the reality of communist rule, which saw the
wholesale adaptation of national imagery, symbols, rhetoric and policies. If commun-
ism and nationalism were truly an “unholy alliance,”122 then why is it that this coup-
ling took shape so often, and so comprehensively?
Of course, Schöpflin himself realized that practice was more complicated, as do
many other specialists. Indeed, there exists a whole new literature of studies on nation-
alism and communism. It is then all the more surprising that blind spots concerning the
importance of national legitimacy to communism still exist. The main reason is that
many of these new works are limited in geographical and chronological scope. Frag-
mentation is a problem that affects all disciplines, but it is particularly problematic
when studying communism. This was a movement that existed continuously from
1848 to 1989, was international in organization and outlook, and from 1918 was domi-
nated by the Comintern and the Soviet Union. If this context is ignored, communist
attempts to come to terms with nationalism come across each time as singular, new
developments. Taken together, however, this new literature forms a trend in historio-
graphy that should eventually change generally held conceptions on communism and
The goal of this collection is to explicitly point out the existence of this trend by
presenting a number of such case studies on the national legitimacy of communist
parties together. As most communist countries and parties in the world attempted to
gain national legitimacy at some stage or other, delimitation would be a problem no
matter what selection were to be presented. For pragmatic reasons this issue focuses
on Europe, excluding the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The articles range in scope
from the 1920s to 1989. Articles on Spain and Portugal show that appeals to nation-
alism were not just limited to communist-ruled states. As studies on one communist
party can be relevant to its neighbours, a thematic approach was chosen over chrono-
logical, geographic or national considerations, which is why the GDR appears twice in
this issue and Hungary and Czechoslovakia not at all.


Despite these drawbacks, the contributions to this issue represent a broad range of
different approaches to the question of the national legitimacy of communist parties.
José Faraldo and Xosé-Manoel Núñez argue that Spanish communist national pro-
paganda in that quintessentially internationalist conflict, the Spanish Civil War, pro-
vided the inspiration for the later “Great Patriotic War.” José Neves discusses the
difficult relationship between nation and empire and shows how Portuguese commu-
nists at one stage supported colonialism. Jan C. Behrends demonstrates continuity
between Polish socialist patriotism and pre-war Polish nationalism, and analyses the
conflict between Polish communist nationalism and Soviet empire building. Yannis
Sygkelos applies Hobsbawm’s invention of tradition to the communist case by
looking at Bulgarian national festivities. Laura Silverberg weighs the balance
between Soviet and domestic influences on the GDR’s music scene. Jan Kiepe
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looks at the reception of communist national policy in the GDR, and shows that
“socialist patriotism” failed even to convince ordinary party cadres. On the other
hand, communist appeals to national legitimacy were perhaps not a total failure:
Dragoş Petrescu argues that Romanian communists successfully engaged in a
project of nation-building.
This collection is not an overview and there are no explicit comparisons between the
articles. It is hoped, though, that readers will be struck by the similarities between such
diverse cases as the socialist patriotism of the Bulgarian Communist Party and the
national line of the Portuguese communists, between Romanian communist nation
building and the national ideology of the Spanish Communist Party.
The intention of this issue is to offer food for thought, debate and further study. In
any case it will hopefully make it more difficult to see communist expressions of
nationalism and patriotism as “bizarre,” and easier to see them for what they really
are: utterly consistent with communist practice and doctrine.


Research for this article has in part been made possible thanks to a generous veni grant from
the NWO, the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research. The author would like to thank
Erik van Ree and Jan C. Behrends for their comments on the draft. This article and most of the
articles in this issue were first presented at two conferences: the 13th Annual World Convention
of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in New York, 12 –14 April 2008, and the
Workshop on Nationalism and Communism, held at the University of Amsterdam, 25 –26
April 2008.

1. Herf, The Jewish Enemy, 42.

2. Khoo, “Nationalism versus Internationalism.”
3. R. Cornwell, “Communism’s Popular Face in Azerbaijan; Rupert Cornwell in Baku
Meets Ayaz Mutalibov, the Azeri Leader, Set to Lead the Party to Victory in Sunday’s
Elections,” The Independent, 29 September 1990.
4. Djilas, “Profile of Slobodan Milosevic.”


5. “Milosevic’s Yugoslavia”, ,

2000/milosevic_yugoslavia/communism.stm. (accessed 11 November 2008).
6. Stanciu, “Europeaness versus National-Communism.”
7. Tismaneanu, Stalinism for all Seasons, 23.
8. Johansson, “Nationalism versus Anti-nationalism.”
9. Leoussi, “Introduction,” xii.
10. Kovrig, “Partitioned Nation,” 43.
11. Johansson, “Nationalism versus Anti-nationalism.”
12. Földes, Magyarország, Románia, és a nemzeti kérdés; Fülöp and Vincze, Vasfüggöny
Keleten; Miklóssy, Manoeuvres of National Interest.
13. Kahn, How to Write a Winning Term Paper, Chap. 10.
14. Bloom, World of Nations; Herod, Nation in the History of Marxian Thought; Nimni,
Marxism and Nationalism.
15. Carrère d’Encausse, Great Challenge; Pipes, Formation of the Soviet Union.
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16. Conquest, Nation Killers.

17. King, Minorities under Communism.
18. Lendvai, Eagles in Cobwebs; Seton-Watson, Nationalism and Communism.
19. Bromke, “Nationalism and Communism”; Váli, Rift and Revolt; Zinner, National
Communism and Popular Revolt.
20. Seton-Watson, Nations and States, 148.
21. Barghoorn, Soviet Russian Nationalism.
22. See, for instance, Evans, Soviet Marxism-Leninism, 40; Zemtsov, Encyclopedia of Soviet
Life, 226.
23. Breuilly, Nationalism and the State; Gellner, Nations and Nationalism; Hroch, Social
Preconditions of National Revival; Smith, Ethnic Origins of Nations.
24. Anderson, Imagined Communities.
25. Hobsbawm, “Some Reflections.”
26. Ibid.
27. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, 148.
28. Trond, Nationalism and Communism in Romania.
29. Verdery, National Ideology under Socialism.
30. Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft.
31. Ree, “Nationalist Elements.”
32. Idem, “Stalin and the National Question.”
33. Idem, Political Thought of Joseph Stalin.
34. Idem, “Concept of ‘National Bolshevism.’”
35. Brandenberger, National Bolshevism.
36. Martin, Affirmative Action Empire.
37. Martin and Grigor, State of Nations.
38. Edgar, Tribal Nation.
39. Kamp, New Women in Uzbekistan.
40. Baberowski, Der Feind ist überall.
41. King, “Ethnicity and Institutional Reform.”
42. Yekelchyk, “The Leader, the Victory and the Nation.”
43. Jenks, “From Periphery to Center.”
44. Kemp, Nationalism and Communism.
45. Abrams, Struggle for the Soul of a Nation.
46. Klimó, “Die gespaltene Vergangenheit.”
47. Spilker, East German Leadership.


48. Sygkelos, “Nationalism from the Left.”

49. Mevius, Agents of Moscow.
50. Miklóssy, Manoeuvres of National Interest.
51. McKay, Official Concept of the Nation.
52. Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm.
53. Núñez Seixas, Fuera el invasor!
54. Kristjansdottir, “Communists and the National Question.”
55. J. M. Markham, “Who Owns the Past?,” The Times, 27 April 1986.
56. Weber, “Weisse Flecken.”
57. Nimni, Marxism and Nationalism, 20.
58. Cummins, Marx, Engels and National Movements.
59. Marx, “Der magyarische Kampf.”
60. As by Berman, Primacy of Politics, 60.
61. Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” An exception is Erik van Ree,
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Wereldrevolutie, 33.
62. Lenin, National Pride.
63. Lenin, Right of Nations. See, for instance, Carrère d’Encausse, who studies “The Right of
Nations” extensively but only mentions “National Pride of the Great Russians” in
passing. Carrère d’Encausse, Great Challenge.
64. Notably by Georgi Dimitrov at the VII Congress of Comintern. Dimitrov, “The Fascist
65. Stalin, “Political Tasks.”
66. Nothnagle, “From Buchenwald to Bismarck.”
67. Ibid.
68. Hoppe, In Stalins Gefolgschaft, 182.
69. Brown, “Richard Scheringer.”
70. See Hoppe, In Stalins Gefolgschaft, 188.
71. Banac, Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 19 – 20.
72. Hoppe, In Stalins Gefolgschaft, 190.
73. Smith, Bolsheviks and the National Question, 237.
74. Simon, Nationalismus und Nationalitätenpolitik, 106.
75. Jackson, Popular Front in France, 39 – 40.
76. Dimitrov, Dimitrov vs. Göbbels.
77. Idem, Fascist Offensive.
78. See various key authors: Braunthal, Geschichte der Internationale; Carr, Twilight of the
Comintern, 406–07; Jackson, Popular Front in France, 41; Kowalski, European Commun-
ism; McDermott and Agnew, Comintern, 131; Rees and Thorpe, International Communism.
79. Mevius, Agents of Moscow, 27 –29.
80. Nothnagle, Building the East German Myth, 177.
81. See the contribution by Xosé-Manoel Núñez and José M. Faraldo in this issue.
82. Frieser, Krieg hinter Stacheldraht.
83. Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, 32.
84. Lovell and Windle, Unswerving Loyalty.
85. For an overview of literature on Comintern dissolution see McDermott and Agnew,
Comintern, 204– 11.
86. Item no. 417, Kew, National Archives, FO 181/978/3.
87. McDermott and Agnew, Comintern, 206.
88. Dallin and Firsov, Dimitrov and Stalin, 253.


89. A. Clarke Kerr, Cypher. War Cabinet Distribution. From Moscow to Foreign Office, 24/
5/1943, Kew, National Archives, FO 371/37019.
90. Informative item no. 452. American Press Survey. Summary of treatment of Comintern
dissolution, Kew, National Archives, FO 181/978/3.
91. Top Secret. USSR-Political. The Comintern, Kew, National Archives, KV3/301.
92. Dallin and Firsov, Dimitrov and Stalin, 184.
93. Banac, Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 155– 56.
94. Ibid., 163.
95. Ibid.
96. Ibid., 276.
97. Stalin, Dissolution of the Communist International.
98. Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, 172.
99. See, for instance, Bayerlein, Der Verräter, 458– 60; Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, 168– 74.
100. See, for instance, Fejtö, Histoire des démocraties populaires; Naimark and Gibianski,
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Establishment of Communist Regimes; Pittaway, Eastern Europe.

101. Budapest, Hungarian National Archives (MOL) 276/65/61, 12 –127.
102. MOL 276/65/71, 66 – 69.
103. Laszlo Rajk und Komplicen vor dem Volksgericht. Mit einem Vorwort von Kurt Hager.
Dietz, Berlin 1949.
104. Judt, Postwar, 190.
105. Miklóssy, “War of Comrades,” 83.
106. Mevius, Agents of Moscow, 246.
107. “Polish Communist History and Factional Struggle.”
108. Mevius, Agents of Moscow, 69 – 86.
109. See the contribution by Jan Kiepe in the present issue. Pritchard, Making of the GDR, 62;
Weitz, Creating German Communism, 317.
110. Dimitrov, Stalin’s Cold War, 36.
111. Cioflânca, “Preliminaries for the History of the Romanian Communist Youth Union.”
112. Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft.
113. Brubaker, Nationalist Politics, 56.
114. See, for example, the adoption of völkisch nationalism by Polish communists in Jan
C. Behrends’ contribution to this issue.
115. Medin, “Ideologia y conciencia.”
116. Zhao, Nation-State by Construction.
117. Kang, “Historical Changes.”
118. Search performed on 10 January 2008.
119. Search performed on 10 January 2008.
120. Deme, “Perceptions and Problems.”
121. Schopflin, Foreword.
122. Parsons, “Joke that Dances.”

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