Tag Archives: Totalitarianism

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism

Mussolini.cover

Mussolini.2

David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini:
The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared important values. “Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Italian History

Grotesquely Unthinkable

Judt

Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century

           Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.

           But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.

           The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.

           The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:

was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).

           The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.

           Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).

          Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:

The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).

           Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).

            Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).

           Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).

           Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).

           Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.

           This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
July 30, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual History

Totally Gloomy

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain:

    The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

               Applebaum.bigger

                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

    Rockville, Maryland

    July 2, 2013

     

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