Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 556 pp., $35)
At the end of World War II, Eastern and Central Europe were “liberated” from Nazism only to see it replaced by a social order installed by the other great totalitarian nation, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In his famous speech at Westminster College in March 1946, Winston Churchill told the world that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” The left wing at the time saw the charge as outrageous and as warmongering. Anne Applebaum’s book not only confirms the accuracy of Churchill’s understanding that Moscow was establishing regimes that would attempt to duplicate the Soviet system, but she shows that the Soviet-led rulers of those regimes would attempt to eradicate any independent civil society and build a new human being — “Homo Sovieticus,” the new Soviet man — who would accept his essential role as the builder of Communism.
What Applebaum has accomplished in her worthy successor to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag is nothing less than the first full account of precisely how the USSR worked to create — in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, the three “people’s democracies” on which she concentrates — mechanisms that would make it virtually impossible to resist implementation of a Stalinist social structure. Any individual who sought to belong to or participate in a group not controlled by Communists was per se an “enemy of the state” and not to be tolerated. To insist on individuality or the right to belong to autonomous groups — even chess clubs — was viewed as a dangerous precedent that might lead to “anti-Soviet actions” by members, who thus deserved imprisonment before they could actually become opponents of the regime.
The new postwar governments turned out to be as horrendous and oppressive as those the people had endured during Nazi occupation. The Nazis used radio as their main propaganda apparatus to control the population, and likewise the Soviets moved immediately to take over the radio stations, ensure that they were not destroyed in the final days of fighting, and put in place broadcasters who would broadcast propaganda that would cement the Communists’ social control.
That was the first step in a highly successful process. By 1948, Applebaum writes, the Eastern European Communist parties “had eliminated the most capable of their potential opponents. They had taken control of the institutions they considered most valuable. They had created, from scratch, the political police.” The armed opposition in Poland had been destroyed and the legal opposition crushed. In Hungary and East Germany, genuine anti-fascist movements that had sprung up spontaneously were closed down, since they were not under Soviet and Communist control. In Czechoslovakia, the Communists actually had some level of public support, but they nevertheless staged a coup d’état that “left the Communists with absolute power.” (That coup, we should remember, was seen by Henry A. Wallace and his supporters, as well as by the conservative Robert A. Taft, as something the U.S. and the West should have accepted. The realist Walter Lippmann argued at the time that it was American policy that pushed Stalin to take harsh measures to consolidate his power in Eastern Europe.)
The social policing was quite severe. For a short time, the YMCA in Poland provided a center for independent arts and for the distribution of food, clothing, and books, but the Communists viewed its decidedly non-political and popular activities as a “tool of bourgeois fascism”: They closed it down, but not before their youth cadre arrived with hammers and smashed all the jazz records in the library.
In Hungary, independent “people’s colleges” had been created, an effort Applebaum calls a “populist, left-wing project.” Like the Israeli kibbutz movement, these colleges favored communal living and group decision-making, and their participants engaged in folk dancing and singing. The colleges’ leaders wanted to help build a leftist “progressive” intelligentsia, but they also sought to be independent of the party and the state, a stance that doomed the enterprise. The Communist rulers wanted them instead to create cadres for the Communist party, particularly in rural areas where farmers were hostile to the Marxist agenda. They also wanted to recruit more non-Jews into the Communist movement, in order to “Hungarianize” Communism by appealing to the anti-Semitic sentiments of many rural dwellers. The Communists infiltrated the colleges and quickly took over their self-governing administrative sections. Finally, in 1949, the colleges were taken over by the government.
In a strange review of Applebaum’s book that appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Max Frankel wrote that “the heart of her story is hardly news.” Frankel could not be more wrong. Why, he asks, “should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?” Perhaps Frankel was aware of these details, but as one who has read widely in the history of Communism, I can attest to the fact that how Stalinization was accomplished in Eastern Europe at the point of a gun is a story that has never before been told, or explained, so fully. It is one thing to note that the regimes created were totalitarian; for many, that phrase explains little. Applebaum’s research and interviews present readers, for the first time, with a full account of how the Soviets and their acolytes attempted to build totalitarianism. The truth is that knowledge even of the basics of this history can hardly be taken for granted anymore. Many revisionist historians in our own country persist in arguing that it was Western policy that forced Stalin to take tough measures in order to defend Russia’s borders from a future attack, and in their writings they completely ignore what Stalin’s policy meant for the inhabitants of Russia’s new empire. Applebaum proves that what Stalin sought was not safe borders, but sister regimes (and secret police) established and controlled by Moscow.
In addition, Applebaum describes the Soviets’ engaging in what we might rightfully call ethnic cleansing, forcing thousands of subjects from homes they had lived in for decades. The Soviets forced entire groups of people — Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Hungarians, and others — to move from the areas in which they lived, so the Soviets could fill the newly vacant homes with groups of people they hoped would be more loyal to the Soviet-created regimes.
Loyalty was rigidly enforced in these police states. The stories Applebaum presents from scores of survivors are shocking to read. In the 1947 elections in Poland, candidates of opposition parties were removed from the ballot, their leadership arrested, and phony shadow parties with the same names created to persuade the gullible that independent parties still existed. In Hungary, when a leader of the opposition Independence party tried to speak at a meeting, crowds were mobilized to attack him, and the interior minister told him that “if it were up to me you would all be killed.” (It is not surprising to learn that the man quickly fled Hungary to the West.)
The essence of Communist control was to be continually on the lookout to smash suspected enemies of the people — a category that was extremely capacious. The Stasi in East Germany came to surpass the Gestapo in its systematic structure of police control, in which thousands of citizens were brought into its web to function as informers. In Poland, millions of Poles were under constant suspicion.
Readers know well that — despite all the severe restrictions and forced conformity, the attempt to create new socialist cities that had no churches in them, and the imposition of Soviet-style “socialist realism” in the arts and culture — the system would begin to collapse from the weight of its own economic incompetence and its failure to meet the basic needs of the people. As early as 1953, the Germans began a massive strike; the Hungarians attempted their own revolution in 1956, occasioning one Soviet military invasion; and in Czechoslovakia, the attempt to democratize Communism led to yet another. These signs of breakdown revealed the essential failure of totalitarian regimes to permanently achieve the total control they had sought. It all would collapse by the end of the 1980s.
What Anne Applebaum has accomplished is to show us how easy it was for a determined Stalinist leadership, cemented by military force, to implement the structures of total control and an end to independent civil society in ravaged postwar Eastern Europe. Those who have argued that Communism was morally different from fascism will, in reading her account, have their views deeply challenged. Those who argue that the Soviets were only trying to protect themselves against further aggression from their enemies will find that they, too, have bought into the propaganda of Stalin’s loyalists. No longer can anyone say that Churchill was wrong to call what was imposed on Eastern Europe an “iron curtain.” Anne Applebaum has shown us in her definitive account that, with determination and in the absence of much opposition, totalitarians can impose their will on entire societies.
– Mr. Radosh is a columnist for PJ Media and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a co-author of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War.