Revising the Cold War Revisionists

Revising the Cold War Revisionists

Mini Teaser: Yes, the Soviets really were that bad.

by Author(s): Robert Service

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.”

Pullquote: The traditions of thought that were hostile to Communism had not vanished. The police could suppress. But policemen, let us give thanks, were not demiurges of Eastern European history.Image: Essay Types: Book Review