Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain:
The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,” sheds much light on a dark period, when the brutal Nazi occupation ended in Eastern Europe, only to be replaced by slightly less brutal communist rule. Although Applebaum covers the whole of Eastern Europe – the so-called “Eastern block,” those countries outside the Soviet Union that became communist – she concentrates during this 12-year period on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, which she has chosen “not because they were similar but because they were so different” (p.xxxii). There are also occasional references to Czechoslovakia, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria and Romania. Despite differences between countries, Applebaum highlights striking similarities among them and thereby provides an incisive overview of the gloomy and oppressive totalitarianism that prevailed across Eastern Europe during the period she covers.
Writing for general readers and specialists alike, Applebaum divides her meticulously-researched book into two general parts, “False Dawn” and “High Stalinism.” “False Dawn” covers the period from 1944 to roughly 1948, during which there was a general if cautious optimism throughout the region that the countries liberated by the Soviets would be allowed to work out their own destinies in their own way. But the period of “High Stalinism,” 1948-1953, revealed this cautious optimism to have been entirely misplaced, as Stalin tightened the Soviet grip on all of Eastern Europe, except Yugoslavia. Applebaum’s study is not strictly chronological. In a single, final chapter, she treats two defining moments in Eastern Europe with which most Western readers are likely to be familiar, the 1953 uprising throughout East Germany and the even better known Hungarian uprising of 1956, which occurred after Stalin’s death.
* * *
It is deeply misleading, Applebaum argues in “False Dawn,” to consider the communist takeover of Eastern Europe as coterminous with the end of World War II. Stalin’s initial policy was to “tread softly, not to upset the Allies, and to win people over by persuasion or stealth” (p.89). Communist parties were “under strict instructions to disguise or deny their Soviet affiliations, to behave as normal democratic parties, to create coalitions, and to find acceptable partners among the non-communist parties” (p.67). During this period, social democracy — advocating policies “which, by modern standards, were very left wing” (p.194) — appeared to be on the rise in Western Europe. The USSR and its Eastern European communist allies thought that something resembling real democracy, with pluralism and free elections, “would work in their favor” (p.194). Thus, there was no economic revolution in Eastern Europe in 1945. The state “took control of the economy in small batches. The new regimes began with the reforms that they guessed would be most easily accepted” (p.224).
Simultaneously, the Soviets set about to undermine civil society and replace it with a view of the public sphere as “universal and univocal” (p.151). Far more than is usually acknowledged, a “profound suspicion of civil society was central to Bolshevik thinking” (p.151). Relying upon a cadre of hard-core, dedicated communist party members, “police forces were put in place, civil society was subdued, the mass media were tamed” (p.223). Strong Ministries of Interior, capable of spotting and checking not only actual opponents but also potential dissidents – people who seemed unlikely to support the communist system – were key to concentrating power. Throughout Eastern Europe, communist control over the secret police gave them “outsized influence over political events. Through the selective use of terror, they could send clear messages to their opponents, and to the general public, about what kinds of behavior and what kinds of people were no longer acceptable in the new regime” (p.115). In general, secret police in Eastern European countries were carbon copies of the Soviet model, “in their organizations, methods and mentality,” to the point that they were termed “little KGBs” (p.68). The East German Stasi, in particular, “mimicked the KGB to an extraordinary degree” (p.82).
Among the most suspect in each country were its freedom fighters who had fought the Soviet Union’s enemy, Nazi Germany, many of them communist by inclination if not outright party members. If they could oppose Nazism so fiercely, the communists appear to have concluded, they could easily turn on the new regime– indicating, perhaps, that the communist apparachiks in Eastern Europe and their backers in Moscow were aware at some level that what communism offered the citizens of Eastern Europe was not significantly more palatable than Nazism.
* * *
By the end of 1948, Stalin had effectively eliminated his most capable opponents throughout Eastern Europe, marking the advent of the period of “High Stalinism.” Eastern European communist parties and their Soviet allies then began a “very long-term effort to corrupt the institutions of civil society from within, especially religious institutions. The intention was not to destroy churches but to transform them into ‘mass organizations,’ vehicles for the distribution of state propaganda” (p.255). Social democracy, despite its deep roots in the region, “vanished from the political arena, along with large private companies and many independent organizations” (p.249).
During the five-year period of “High Stalinsim,” from 1948 to Stalin’s death in 1953, Eastern European states would:
directly mimic Soviet domestic and international policies in the hopes of eliminating their opponents for good, achieving higher economic growth, and influencing a new generation of firm supporters through propaganda and public education. Until Stalin’s death in 1953, all of the region’s communist parties would pursue an identical set of goals using an identical set of tactics (p.250).
Although a renewed attack on the enemies of communism was the “most visible and dramatic element of High Stalinism,” Applebaum regards the creation of a “vast system of education and propaganda, designed to prevent enemies from emerging in the future” as “just as important to the Eastern European communists. In theory, they hoped to create not only a new kind of society but a new kind of person, a citizen who was not capable of even imaging alternatives to communist orthodoxy” (p.255). From 1948 onward, the theories of Marxism-Leninism “would be explained, expounded, and discussed in kindergartens, schools, and universities; on the radio and in the newspapers; through elaborate mass campaigns, parades and public events” (p.255).
Applebaum treats different aspects of life in Eastern Europe during the High Stalinist time, discussing art, architecture, and youth. Two of her most interesting chapters are “Reluctant Collaborators,” and “Passive Opponents.” Here she delves into the compromises that average citizens had to make to survive as the regimes became more oppressively totalitarian. The Soviet system excelled, she writes, at “creating large groups of people who disliked the regime and knew the propaganda was false, but who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it” (p.392). By 1950 or 1951, it was “no longer possible to identify anything so coherent as a political opposition anywhere in Eastern Europe” (p.412). And yet:
there was an opposition. But it was not an active opposition, and certainly not an armed opposition. It was rather a passive opposition, an opposition that sought outlets in jokes, graffiti, and unsigned letters, an opposition that was often anonymous and frequently ambivalent (p.413).
The harshest features of communist regimes died with Stalin in 1953 or shortly thereafter, but “even-post Stalinist Eastern Europe could be harsh, arbitrary and formidably repressive” (p.463).
* * *
As she dissects communist policies in different Eastern European countries, Applebaum perceives a positive side for Soviet communism: communist authorities “did call for a war on ignorance and illiteracy, they did align themselves with the forces of science and technological progress, and they did appeal to those who hoped that society could be remade after a terrible war” (p.388). But the damage which Eastern European communism wreaked was nonetheless “enormous.” In their drive to power, Applebaum writes,
the Bolsheviks, their Eastern European acolytes, and their imitators farther afield attacked not only their political opponents but also peasants, priests, schoolteachers, traders, journalists, writers, small businessmen, students, and artists, along with the institutions such people had built and maintained over centuries. They damaged, undermined, and sometimes eliminated churches, newspapers, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, banks, sports clubs, and universities (p.467-68).
Applebaum characterizes the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe as its ability to “get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest” (p.387). But “if the genius of Soviet totalitarianism was its ability to get people to conform, this was also its fatal flaw: the need to conform to a mendacious political reality left many people haunted by the sense that they were leading double lives” (p.394). The success of postwar communist regimes in holding on to power for the better portion of four decades reveals an “unpleasant truth” about human nature, Applebaum concludes:
if enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic, and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinization proves just how fragile civilization can turn out to be (p.468).
Today, the iron curtain across Eastern Europe has been lifted for nearly a quarter of a century and, as we look back to the communist period, it is easy to see the regimes as doomed to failure. One of the many virtues of Applebaum’s richly-detailed work is that she forces the reader into a time and a perspective in which the unsustainability of the communist regimes was not at all apparent. To the contrary, many on both sides of the Iron Curtain regarded this gloomy and oppressive totalitarianism as entrenched for the foreseeable future. Individuals as diverse as Nikita Khrushchev, John Foster Dulles, and Hannah Arendt agreed that “totalitarian regimes, once they worked their way into the soul of a nation, were very nearly invincible” (p.461).
Applebaum recognizes that the term “totalitarianism” is overused, much like “racism” and “fascism,” and today can refer to almost anything we don’t like — a “crude, imprecise and overly ideological” word (p.xxii). But she rightly says that we cannot comprehend the 20th century without an understanding of “how totalitarianism worked, both in theory and in practice” (p.xxiii). “Iron Curtain” constitutes a valuable contribution to that understanding.
Thomas H. Peebles
July 2, 2013
July 11, 2013 · 12:42 pm