Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 608 pp., $35.00.
THE IRON Curtain is one of those metaphors that continue to chill the spine. Winston Churchill famously used it in his Fulton, Missouri, speech in March 1946, and he often is credited with inventing it. In fact, the Nazi ideological leader, Joseph Goebbels, had used it in the previous year as the Red Army sped toward Berlin, and the Nazis sought to instill a determination among Germans to resist until the bitter end. But Goebbels was not the inventor either. As far as can be established, the first use of this figure of speech occurred in 1920, in a book by British Labour Party luminary Ethel Snowden. She had gone to Soviet Russia on a fact-gathering mission and returned to London with a harrowing account of conditions there. The Russian Communist regime was not the superpower it was to become by the end of the Second World War. Its economy was in ruins, and its armed forces would have lost any war with Western nations. Snowden’s Iron Curtain was a reference to the barrier of communication between Russia and the West. On both sides there was a shortage of information, and she hoped to fill the void with her book.
Anne Applebaum writes about a curtain that was manned by tanks and held in place by walls and barbed wire. And by 1949, the Soviet Union had acquired atomic weapons and rapidly was developing aircraft that could deliver them deep into the Continent. One of the merits of her book is her theme of ideas and their dissemination. Studies of communization in Eastern Europe have traditionally focused on political manipulation, deceit and terror. Applebaum does not stint in exploring these phenomena. But she goes beyond them, also discussing subjects that often get overlooked, including radio, the press, churches and recreational clubs. Even the YMCA and the Boy Scouts get attention.
Her purpose is to show that the imposition of Communism in the countries she studies—East Germany, Hungary and Poland—started as soon as the Red Army and the Soviet technical staff arrived. The process was intensified in 1948, as Hugh Seton-Watson’s classic account, The East European Revolution, points out. The catalyst for Stalin’s command that the USSR’s outer empire should undergo a thorough political transformation, in Seton-Watson’s view, was the American decision in 1947 to offer massive financial assistance to those European states willing to accept a few basic conditions. Chief among these was a commitment to the rule of law, free trade across frontiers and access for American businesses. Stalin could see that the Marshall Plan was designed, effectively if not expressly, to exclude the Soviet Union. Now that he clearly was never going to obtain the loan he had desired for the postwar economic reconstruction of Russia and Ukraine, he laid down the rule that no country in Eastern Europe should take up America’s aid offer. When the Czechoslovak cabinet went to Paris and talked to American officials about how to receive the money from across the Atlantic, a summons arrived from Moscow. Stalin personally growled his displeasure at this impertinent lapse from usual procedures. Everything in Prague must be coordinated with the Kremlin dictator’s wishes.
Applebaum’s analysis coincides with the Seton-Watson thesis that Stalin and his stooges always had plotted to accomplish the reproduction of the Soviet model across the region. Seton-Watson harbored Communist sympathies in his youth and gained some experience of Soviet-style procedures. But he soon abandoned Communism and at war’s end observed with horror the military and political subjugation of Eastern Europe. He concluded that communization had been organized according to a staged pattern. Moscow’s thinking was discernible behind veils of subterfuge as coalition governments and pseudodemocracy gave way to one-party police states. Seton-Watson reported the ineffectual protests of Western officials in the Allied Control Commissions and surveyed the imaginative pretexts for repression adduced by national Communist leaders such as Hungary’s Matyas Rakosi, East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht and Poland’s Boleslaw Bierut. The march on power followed a carefully prescribed route.
This analytical framework explaining communization in Eastern Europe fell under criticism as contradictions in the empirical data emerged. The processes were not the same in all countries, and they did not unfold in the same time frame. For example, some countries acquired collectivized agriculture, but Poland didn’t. Whereas the Catholic Church was systematically pummeled in Hungary, the Polish Communist authorities preferred to compose a concordat with the nation’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. In Czechoslovakia there were show trials of leading Communists unmasked as spies. This did not happen in East Germany or even in Poland, where the first postwar Communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was arrested and beaten up but not dragged into court and forced to confess to fictitious charges.
It also has been pointed out that Stalin desisted from chancing his arm in Finland. Though Finland had been friendly toward Nazi Germany during the war, the USSR contented itself with demanding territorial concessions and geopolitical guarantees from a country that it had sought to turn into a Soviet republic during the 1939–1940 Winter War. This also is what it meted out to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940 and again in 1944. Thus, it was argued that Stalin was a reasonable and flexible fellow. The Finns agreed to move their border northward away from Leningrad and to remain neutral in the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and Stalin concluded Finland’s independence would bring no harm to Soviet security interests. The idea has gained ground that he might well have been open to a less repressive settlement for Eastern Europe if only the Western Allies had handled him with greater respect and understanding. Poor old Joe! Misunderstood and unappreciated, so the argument goes, he allowed the balance of governance to swing in the direction of outright communization. The chances for the USSR to dominate Eastern Europe without entirely suppressing its limited democracy and market economy evaporated in the heat of the Marshall Plan.
IRON CURTAIN will have none of this. The author contends that the communizing process began as soon as the Communist leaders who had lived as political refugees in Moscow since the 1930s returned to the lands of their birth with the Red Army. Rejecting Seton-Watson’s stages of communization, Applebaum starts her book with an exposition of the preparatory groundwork for later communization, a process that was well under way in the last year of the Second World War. The core of her argument is that Communist returners did not confine themselves to assuming power in ministries of internal affairs but immediately sought to impose their influence on the minutiae of everyday life. Communization was dreamed up not in 1947 or 1948 but in 1945 or still earlier.
Applebaum rams home this argument with meticulous attention to the training courses given to the returners. On the banks of the Volga River, as the war turned in favor of the USSR, schools were created to educate young national recruits in the techniques that would be needed to root out opposition to Communism. The human material available to create a new Communist nomenklatura was far from promising. The recruits were not volunteers; they were conscripted. They were not told why they were transported to the Volga schools, and when they reached them, they were subjected to repeated interviews so that their ideological reliability could be assessed. Usually they belonged to families of Communist refugees who had fled to the USSR from persecution in Eastern Europe. Such families had lived in fear of liquidation in the Great Terror of 1937–1938. Not all the recruits had emerged from this frightening way of life with a basic education. Indeed, they felt lucky to be alive. And most cooperated eagerly with their lecturers. The forerunner to the KGB, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, had developed a set of refined techniques to repress any unruly nation. Police training in Volga schools raised up a cohort of Poles, Hungarians and Germans who were ready to initiate and complete the communization of their native lands.
But this general objective was not unique to Stalin’s period of rule. Under Lenin, too, foreign Communists were trained and indoctrinated at party schools to ready them for revolutionary campaigns at home. In July 1920, at the end of the Russian Civil War, Lenin threw the might of the Red Army into Poland. The goal was Communist revolution across Europe. Germany was the great prize. The Communist International, meeting in congress in Russia, sent national delegates back home to foment uprisings throughout the Continent. Lenin spoke casually about the need to “Sovietize” country after country. The Polish armed forces held firm in Warsaw and defeated the Red Army in the battle of the Vistula in August 1920. But the idea of spreading revolution did not die. When Stalin ordered the campaign against Finland in 1939–1940, he was applauded by his archenemy Trotsky for trying to do to the Finns what he and Stalin had attempted in Poland. Soviet Communist rulers felt more secure in world politics if they could expand the territory dedicated to the achievement of Communism. Such objectives deserve emphasis, and Applebaum’s book scores well on this matter.
As a long-standing party specialist on “the national question,” Stalin understood that the returning Communists would have to prove their patriotic credentials in the nations they aspired to rule. Using insights from the historian Martin Mevius and his work on postwar Hungary, Applebaum elucidates the eagerness of Matyas Rakosi to present himself as champion of the national cause. Selective treatment of Hungarian history enabled him to appear in a long line of heroes who had fought against foreign oppressors and for social and economic progress. Stalin gruffly discouraged him from attempting to seem more Stalinist than Stalin. Rakosi was ordered to concentrate on winning popularity among the Hungarian people. Only then could he graft the tiny Hungarian Communist elite effectively onto Hungary’s body politic. It would take time for Rakosi to create a mass Communist Party, and national sentiments needed to be nursed by patriotic festivals, musical celebrations and national flags. But this wasn’t easy for Rakosi; after all, he had survived the Great Terror in the USSR by flaunting his eagerness to be at least as Stalinist as Stalin. But ultimately he accepted the need to avoid too fulsome an acknowledgement of the ties between Hungarian Communist authorities and the Kremlin. Rakosi was under instructions to obey Moscow’s guidelines without divulging them.
One leader who was more than happy to take the “national road” was Poland’s Wladyslaw Gomulka. Incarceration in a Polish prison in the 1930s had saved him from being killed with his comrades in the USSR’s Great Terror. Stalin was a hard taskmaster. The fact that Gomulka set out, without being pushed, to take Poland’s special conditions into account made him the object of the Soviet dictator’s suspicion. He saw the danger of exacerbating relations with the peasantry by bullying them into collective farms. But when the purges of the Eastern European elites began in the late 1940s, Gomulka was a predictable target as someone who thought for himself. No one could win with Stalin except by showing complete personal subservience.
APPLEBAUM ALSO explores the many civic organizations and activities that the Communists eliminated—including all armed groups, which were mercilessly hunted down. In Poland, the Home Army constituted the biggest threat. The 1940 Soviet massacre of captured Polish officers at Katyn and the German suppression of the Warsaw uprising in 1943 had not entirely eliminated the possibility of Poland’s military veterans taking up the struggle against the Red Army’s occupation. Stanislaw Mikolajczyk’s Peasant Party, moreover, was the country’s most popular political grouping. There was no doubt that Mikolajczyk would trounce Gomulka in any free election, thus depriving the Communists of the chance to communize the country. After some of the Home Army’s militants were tricked into handing in their weapons and were arrested, a bloody civil war ensued. Mikolajczyk could see he was in peril. His situation wasn’t helped by the high regard he enjoyed in the West. A show trial or assassination was a prospect, and in 1947 he fled to Britain and then to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life protesting Western passivity in the face of his country’s ongoing degradation. Applebaum describes Mikolajczyk as an example of the kind of outcome in store for anti-Communist political leaders throughout Eastern Europe.
The novelty of her approach comes as she examines the expansion of persecution. Poland had no radio station when under Nazi rule, as the Germans sought to deprive the country of every facility that could foster unmonitored communication. The Communists were no less suspicious of wireless sets. Boleslaw Bierut published a decree in mid-1945 making private possession of a radio a capital offense, and at least one unfortunate Pole was executed for holding on to a “Phillips” model. But Bierut’s larger ambition was not to silence Polish public communication but rather to restrict it to a framework favorable to the Communist cause. Stalin himself enthusiastically granted permission for the establishment of Poland’s first post-German radio station, for his goal was not to reduce the Poles to abject slavery and starvation but rather to turn them into happy collaborators in the communization effort. All modalities of advanced technology were to be employed in that effort.
But no rival sources of information would be tolerated, and an aggressive prophylactic approach was adopted. Though there was no evidence, for example, that the YMCA in Warsaw was a nest of nationalist or anti-Communist resistance, Bierut and Gomulka saw trouble in the organization’s mission of providing shelter and food to disoriented young Polish men. They wanted the new state to be the sole provider of these services. An additional source of concern lay in the fact that the YMCA premises were not adorned with posters that hymned Lenin and Poland’s radiant Communist future. Nor could it be overlooked that the YMCA was an international body with a religious affiliation. For the Polish Communist leadership, Stalin and his party’s international department were the sole foreign authorities that offered healthy—albeit confidential—guidance. The YMCA was promptly ejected from Polish territory.
Throughout Eastern Europe the campaign was widened steadily to achieve dominance over the Catholic Church, perceived as another dangerously global and conspiratorial organization. Things were not the same in each country. In Hungary the ecclesiastical hierarchy was vocal in its warnings against Communist influence. Rakosi opted for a vigorous suppression. Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty was arrested, tortured and pulled out for a show trial despite the inevitable bad publicity this brought upon the Hungarian authorities around the world. Polish priests were equally valorous, but Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski chose a policy of quietly reasoning with the government even though a thousand priests were behind bars by 1950. In both countries, the church stepped back from too direct a clash with regimes capable of immense brutality.
The Communists demanded total freedom to insert their ideas into the minds of citizens. They understood that this would be easiest to achieve with young people, particularly if they could eradicate rival sources of ideas. That became a high priority throughout Eastern Europe. The Boy Scouts became just as suspect as the YMCA—all that collective activity unconditioned by governmental purposes; all that civic license; all that international connectivity. And the support given to the Scouts by “bourgeois” states abroad increased the Communists’ suspicion. The Boy Scout movement had hardly begun to recover from the German occupation when it was suppressed by the new “national” authorities. Resources were allocated for youth leisure facilities and summer camps under direct governmental supervision. Cycling clubs were established even though few people owned bicycles. (The Eastern European economic-planning systems were geared toward the production of coal, iron and heavy machinery.) Swimming teams were nurtured. The Soviet Union declined to send athletes to the 1948 Olympics in London, and German war guilt prevented East and West Germany from dispatching sport squads. But other Eastern European countries eagerly supplied competitors; the Soviet bloc was not quite monolithic on this question. Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia won the gold medal for the ten-thousand-meter run. Prague newspapers heralded his victory as a harbinger of future success for youth and sport under the Communist aegis.
APPLEBAUM, WITH her focus as much on society and culture as on politics, reveals that youngsters in East Germany and Hungary proved resistant to thorough indoctrination. To be sure, they snapped up chances to relax in clubs, buy cheap books or go to summer camps. But though the borders were closed—jazz records were available, for example, only on the black market—Eastern European youths maintained an acquaintance with Western fashion, film and music. Eastern European factories had given up making clothes that competed with mass fashion in the West. Indeed, high couture and expensive jewelry were condemned as reflecting capitalist decadence. Applebaum tells an amusing story about the curious capacity of a woman named Clara Rothschild, owner of the Clara Salon in the swishiest part of Budapest, to keep her business operating. It seems that the wives of the Communist nomenklatura had discovered the delights of the store and begged their husbands to leave Rothschild alone.
But this stay of prohibition proved rare and temporary, and of course the youth of Eastern Europe could hardly afford merchandise from places such as the Clara Salon. Still, they could engage in inexpensive acts of rebellion, and they did so. Teenage boys creamed and combed their hair in provocative ways, slicking it back and ignoring the preferred official style. East German authorities wanted barbers to practice haircuts that were remarkably reminiscent of the Nazi period. Furthermore, youngsters riled Communist committee secretaries by wearing striped socks. Why didn’t they put on blue, black or—best of all—red hosiery? The question hardly needed to be asked. Teenagers of both sexes were growing up in conditions of material shortage. They made the best of the situation as their parents sweated away in the factories and mines and had little time for them in the evenings. The youth of Poland, Hungary and East Germany grew up accustomed to looking out for themselves. The youth revolt that was gathering apace in North America and Western Europe was not entirely absent in Eastern Europe. But of course the physical opportunities were different. Still, if a little adaptation of one’s appearance and clothing could annoy a teacher or group organizer, that was all part of the fun—not much different from elsewhere. It was not long before the Bieruts, Rakosis and Ulbrichts were fulminating against “hooligans.”
This was a word reserved for youths and adults who refused to live their lives according to approved state strictures. It was not the worst in the political lexicon. Communist administrations had a still greater hatred for “speculators” and “black marketeers.” They were not alone. In the United Kingdom, as rationing of food and clothes was maintained into 1954, a category of illegal entrepreneurs known as “spivs” traded goods in demand at high prices. But British ministers wanted to end their restrictions on legal retail trade as soon as possible in the difficult circumstances of postwar recovery. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, Communists relished their chance to take up the fight against all private trade. Rothschild’s days were truly numbered.
Iron Curtain traces the campaign against nonstate provision of goods and services in vivid detail. It began in Poland early in 1947 at the command of the economics minister, Hilary Minc, who stated his purposes in Marxist jargon. “The struggle for the conquest of the market,” he declared, “does not mean the elimination of market-capitalist elements; it means only a struggle for control over those elements by the People’s Democratic State.” This sounded gentler than it was in reality. Urban shops and workshops were driven out of activity by clever bureaucratic maneuvers. Owners needed a license to stay in business, and this would be available only on evidence of professional qualification. It was not enough to have run a cobbler’s shop for years. Another of Minc’s dodges was his imposition of severe limits on numbers of employees. Large- and medium-sized enterprises were closed or expropriated. Minc also made it difficult to buy goods and material abroad or to produce for export. Poland willy-nilly became an almost autarkic economy; its only serious trading partner was the USSR, which took possession of some Polish factories—notwithstanding the fact that Poland, as one of Hitler’s victims, was not supposed to be subjected to reparations requirements. The rule of law vanished from the economy. The government in Poland stayed its hand from collectivizing peasant agriculture; the peasantry was not so fortunate in other parts of Eastern Europe. Communist ideology was fundamentally hostile to market economics.
It was also edgy about popular humor, which Applebaum appropriately adduces from the time. One particular Hungarian joke she relates that tickled my fancy goes as follows:
Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other, “What do you think of Rakosi?” The other replies, “I can’t tell you here; follow me.” They disappear down a side street. “Now tell me what you think of Rakosi,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block. “Okay, here then.” “No, not here, it’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement of the building. “Okay, now you can tell me what you think of our leader.”
“Well,” says the other, looking around nervously, “actually, I quite like him.”
Needless to say, people could receive harsh punishments for poking fun at “dear leaders.”
THE BOOK’S epilogue summarizes what can be learned from this far-from-comic historical experience. Applebaum muses that once the communizing process was over (and, as she shows, it was completed with remarkable speed and thoroughness), the Communist rulers felt entirely confident about the security of their power over society. This comment took me aback, particularly since I agreed with much of the preceding chapters and learned much from them. The burden of her evidence, I believe, falls on the other side of the weighing scales. No doubt the Ulbrichts and Bieruts were satisfied that they could hardly make their police forces more feared or penetrate any new small group of active resistance more effectively. Applebaum believes that this impeded them from perceiving how unstable their power was. To be sure, these heavy-handed rulers were capable of stupendous self-delusion. Their ideology occluded the disadvantages of the one-party state from their minds, and however much they may have thought Stalin had stepped away from the precepts of Lenin, they maintained a permanent admiration for the Leninist repressive order. To that extent, they slipped into a complacent attitude about the Soviet style of Communism that they had imported from Moscow and implanted with Stalin’s help. But they also were schizophrenic. They keenly understood that the traditions of thought, organization and practice that were hostile to Communism had not vanished. The police could suppress. They could kill people, arrest them and put them to forced labor. Policemen, let us give thanks, were not demiurges of Eastern European history.
This contradictory mentality would seem to be universal in the experience of Communism around the world. It had been like this in the early years of Soviet power in Petrograd, when the families of the mighty Lenin and Trotsky lived by “sitting on their suitcases”—a potent Communist phrase for the knowledge that, however imperious their authority over fellow citizens in the dictatorship of the proletariat, Communist rulers could never afford to overlook the dangers of a sudden explosion of the people’s rage. As Applebaum recounts in this magnificent book, explosions happened in East Berlin soon after the death of Stalin in 1953. There were disturbances in Warsaw as well, and by 1956, all of Hungary was in revolt against the ghastly Rakosi. Time and again, the Communist regimes survived with assistance from Soviet forces. When the Prague Spring of 1968 looked as if it might lead to a ripping down of the Iron Curtain, fraternal tank divisions of the Warsaw Pact rolled into Czechoslovakia and crushed that hope.
But in the end, Eastern European Communism fell of its own weight in the mostly peaceful revolutions of 1989–1990 (with the bloody exception being the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania). By then it had become obvious to nearly the entire world that the massive project of communization, undertaken with such zeal and thoroughness at the dawn of the Cold War era, had turned into a tattered shambles amid economies that had plunged into the abyss and societies that mocked the Communist ideology, imposed with such force nearly a half century earlier. The wonder is that it took such a long time for this experiment to crumble to pieces, and Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is a very welcome primer on why this was the case.
Robert Service is an author and professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution.