The Party That Was Its Own Invitation

The Cold War began in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II. Around the globe, nations aligned as either communist or as democracies, with the Soviet Union and China on one side, and the United States and many Western Europe nations on the other. But the dividing lines weren’t as clean as national borders. In communist nations, pro-democracy underground organizations were common (albeit typically outlawed). In democracies, many pro-communist factions operated openly, even forming political parties. In the United States, for example, the Communist Party USA has been around since 1919. And in 1968, a few hundred Dutch citizens formed the Marxist–Leninist Party of the Netherlands (MLPN), a pro-China operation designed to bring Maoism to Amsterdam.

Kind of.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the world of communist nations cracked. After the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union adopted a series of reforms that, among other things, allowed for peaceful coexistence with western democracies. Mao Zedong of China, however, maintained his position that communism, and only communism, was the future. The two nations, which had been de facto allies, became lukewarm toward one another. The Sino-Soviet Split, as it is now known, was underway; the two-way Cold War became a three-faction contest.

In the west, communist organizations within many democracies were experiencing the same internal friction that China and the Soviet Union were exhibiting. In the Netherlands, for example, the prevailing communist party rejected Stalinism, opening the way for a pro-China, Maoist competitor. Officially, a few hundred such Dutch citizens formed the MLPN — much to the approval of Mao himself. In fact, Chris Petersen, the head of the MLPN became a minor celebrity among China’s communist elite. As the Guardian recounted, he “traveled to Beijing more than two dozen times and met Mao Zedong” — all on China’s dime. And per the BBC, at one point, “a special banquet in [hos’ honor was prepared – headed by China’s then foreign minister Chou Enlai.” It appeared that China was grooming Petersen for a leadership role in a hypothetical universe where Europe fell under communist control.

But despite his close relationship with the Chinese, Petersen wasn’t an enemy of the state back home. There’s good reason for that: Chris Petersen wasn’t Chris Petersen. And more importantly, the MLPN didn’t really exist. Both were the creation of Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst (BVD), the Dutch intelligence agency.

Petersen’s real name was Pieter Boevé, who at age 25, according to the Independent, was a “student and part-time mathematics teacher [whose political] allegiance was to the Dutch liberal party [at the time], which was instinctively capitalist in outlook.” But despite his non-communist beliefs, in 1955, he was invited to a festival in the Soviet Union, one he likely would have skipped. A friend in the BVD, however, convinced him otherwise. Per the Independent, the friend asked Boevé “if he would be willing to go to Moscow and report back to the [BVD],” and Boevé agreed. That visit to the Soviet Union gave Boevé a communist credential, and the intelligence agency decided to build him some more. Over the next few years, the BVD embedded Boevé in various different communist groups, even going so far as to have him start a Dutch-language communist newspaper.

And then came the big idea: the MLPN. With the Sino-Soviet split as a backdrop, the BVD created the new party, at first hoping simply to cause dissension among the pro-Soviet communists in the Netherlands. There weren’t a few hundred people signed up as members of the party — far from it. As Boevé told the Sydney Morning-Herald, “In fact, we had at most a dozen members, none of whom had the faintest idea of the truth. The whole thing was a hoax, set up by the secret services to learn all they could about what was going on in Marxist Peking.”

The plan worked, at least according to Boevé. Per the BBC, Boevé had a “role in one of the pivotal episodes of the Cold War — the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon to Beijing in February 1972.” On one of Boevé’s visits to China, government officials asked him “whether he would consider better relations with the US a good or bad thing,” and “the Dutch intelligence service then passed this information on to the CIA – indicating the Chinese were keen on thawing relations.”

Bonus fact: In 1991, Poland held its first entirely free election after the fall of communism. More than a dozen parties received more than 1% of the vote for the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish parliament) and no, the communist party at the time wasn’t one of them. But even if they had, that probably wouldn’t have been the election’s strangest result. The Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party — a joke party dedicated to encouraging people to visit the pub — received 3.67% of the vote, enough for 16 seats in the Sejm. The PB-LP didn’t last long, though; as Time reported, “the party soon split into Big Beer and Little Beer factions” and dissolved in 1993.

From the Archives: Cold Water War: How the Sino-Soviet Split led to a really awkward pool party.