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.