For years the “basic book” on Communism in Eastern Europe was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Soviet Bloc. While it was an excellent and definitive work, Brzezinski did not have access to a mountain of documentation about how dictatorships were imposed on the East European states.
With this data, Anne Applebaum has compiled a precise and detailed account of the process by which this was done. In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 she divides this twelve year period into two distinct eras. The first, described as a “False Dawn,” was characterized by optimism on the part of survivors who hoped to be liberated from wartime terrors and on the part of communists who expected popularity and quick success in building socialist regimes. This era was ushered in by Western as well as East European politicians, whose views Applebaum describes as naïve. President Roosevelt, for example, expressed his faith in Stalin’s good intentions and was more concerned about creation of the United Nations than in protecting the freedom of Eastern Europe’s millions. The British and the Americans made clear their belief that “greater events,” meaning the German threat, overshadowed any reservations they might have about communism and the brutal Soviet regime. For them, Eastern Europe was a secondary concern and they were unwilling to push the Soviets for concessions on the region. At Yalta, when Roosevelt suggested that the eastern border of Poland might stretch as far as Lviv (Lwow) Stalin seemed amenable. Roosevelt, however, dropped this suggestion and, with Churchill, indicated a willingness to allow the USSR to keep the portions of eastern Poland taken under terms of the German-Soviet alliance.
The West’s willingness to write off Eastern Europe was also a product of other factors such as Churchill’s recognition of British weakness. He had no illusions about Britain’s ability to counter the USSR’s presence in that region. In addition, both the Americans and the British were convinced that their electorates would not accept a continuation of hostilities, which might involve the Soviet Union.
Just as Western leaders were naïve about the Soviet Union, East Europeans were even more naïve about the Western Allies. Many pro-Western Hungarians saw their nation as “geopolitically significant” and were convinced that the British would liberate them from the Soviets. Polish politicians believed that the huge Polish-American voting bloc would guarantee U.S. support for a free and independent Poland. East Germans were equally convinced that the West would not allow the fortification of the inner-German frontier which insured their captivity as part of an emerging Soviet bloc.
An important point which Applebaum stresses is that the new Soviet-dominated regimes held elections soon after the war ended because they believed they could win open elections. This confidence was not simply the result of their reading of “public opinion” but also a statement of faith in the Marxist-Leninist ideology. There was, of course, a genuine tilt toward the left in post-war Western Europe and Marxist ideologues saw no reason why Eastern Europe would not be equally disposed toward such leftist innovations as state control over the economy and creation of a welfare state.
The pro-Russian sentiments that might have existed in Eastern Europe were quickly eroded by the behavior of Soviet occupation troops. In Germany, their atrocities were the subject of public discussion in November 1948, when an audience in East Berlin was informed by Rudolf Herrnstadt, eventual editor of the party daily Neues Deutschland and organizer of the meeting, justified the Red Army’s thirst for revenge and dismissed any concerns expressed by citizens who, in many cases, had been members of the German Communist Party. Further expressions of concern were completely suppressed.
Ultimately, the Soviets were not counting on popular support to sustain the pro-Soviet regimes organized around temporary or provisional governments. Moscow-based communists were sent into the newly liberated nations along with the Red Army, which became the real basis for communist power. In Poland and in Hungary, coalition governments were established with communists at the head of those governments. Non-communists were more or less tolerated in this period. In Eastern Germany there was no provisional government, so the Soviets ran their zone through a Soviet Military Administration, until the German Democratic Republic was created in 1949.
Applebaum notes that politics in Soviet-occupied Europe were not intended to be transparent. While real power was exercised by the Red Army and the NKVD, local “administrators” were instructed to hide their Soviet affiliations. Soviet policy called for maintaining a façade of freedom in this period, while creating “little KGBs” which would be the mainstay of communist political power. Even where there were coalition governments, the communists controlled the “power ministries” of Interior and Defense in every nation. With the new political police under their control, the communists employed violence from the very first. With the passing of time and the diminution of popular support, violence became increasing visible and vital to maintenance of communist power in the region.
There were, in addition, numerous relatively benign measures for taking and maintaining control. These included the creation of a state controlled media that faithfully echoed Soviet themes. In the first days, radio stations and newspapers were directly supervised by Red Army officers but, with time, the party trained its own media specialists. At the same time, social organizations became “transmission belts” for party policy and non-party groups were denied the right to organize.
The second phase Applebaum describes, “High Stalinism,” was necessitated by the failure of the more restrained measures to accomplish Soviet goals and began with increasingly oppressive de-legitimization of all opposition elements. As Stalin was shaken by his policy failures – the success of the Marshall Plan, the collapse of the Berlin blockade as a result of the Western airlift, and Yugoslavia’s break with the USSR – Eastern Europe experienced widespread arrests of regime critics and brutality against any resistance to communist policies. Political trials and executions were commonplace and directed against influential members of civil society.
Church leaders in Poland and in Hungary were among the most prominent victims. In East Germany after 1949, anti-religious propaganda became ever more virulent and church services were disrupted by violent gangs organized by the party’s Free German Youth organization. In 1954, the East German government introduced a secular “youth confirmation service,” as a way of forcing youngsters to choose between the party and the church.
While “reactionary clerics” were obvious targets of regime oppression, there was an effort to identify and eradicate all “internal enemies,” wherever they might be found. The Polish secret police, for example, identified forty-three categories of “enemies” and created a registry of “suspicious elements” that contained six million names or one of every three Polish adults. In 1948 there were over 26,000 Polish political prisoners. By 1950 the number has risen to more than 35,000 and in 1954 there were 82,200 political prisoners in Poland. The Polish experience was typical for all of Eastern Europe. As agriculture failed, the regimes added peasants and rural landowners to their target lists and arrested them by the tens of thousands in the early 1950s.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 is an autopsy of the Communist regimes whose leaderships were ultimately confronted by the disappointing reality of their failures. Accordingly, authorities were forced to speculate about why their economic results were so uniformly unsatisfactory. Were those failures the result of policies that were too repressive or of policies that were too permissive? Or, perhaps the disappointing results were the result of sabotage by domestic dissidents or mysterious foreign agents? Would more arrests and terror keep unpopular parties in power or would some degree of free speech and economic freedom strengthen the regimes? In the end, the regimes, erring on the side of caution and suspicion, opted for oppression as the best policy.
Applebaum’s account charts the regimes’ erratic path of manipulation designed to either shift blame for failure or resolve increasingly problematic contradictions on the path to socialism. Discussions of ethnic politics were commonplace as the East European regimes began to collapse. However, as Applebaum demonstrates, the practice of ethnic politics began immediately after the end of the Second World War when the Soviet Union began to consolidate its control over this region by manipulating relationships between its numerous ethnic groups.
Ethnic manipulation had long term and often violent consequences as the eventual collapse of East European socialism demonstrated.
Iron Curtain has contemporary relevance for any person wanting to understand how such inhuman regimes can be established and maintained for decades in spite of their failures and popular rejection. Applebaum’s study demonstrates that while the Communist Party bosses did not understand economics or have an appreciation of the appropriate relationship between citizens and government, they were keen observers of the mechanics of society and knew how to forge effective instruments of oppression. The mass media, political parties, social groups, education, and the police were crafted in a manner insuring that dissent would always be suppressed.