BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Postwar enslavement of half of Europe
, February 2, 2013
The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956
by Anne Applebaum
(London: Allen Lane/Penguin)
Hardcover: 614 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
When I reviewed Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History a decade ago (News Weekly, September 6, 2003), I commented that it was refreshing to come across a baby-boomer journalist from the left-wing Washington Post who was prepared to honestly criticise communism.
Her appraisal of communism is just as clear-sighted in her new book, in which she analyses the Soviet Union’s takeover of Eastern Europe between the end of World War II and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
She dedicates it to those Eastern Europeans who refused to live (in Vaclav Havel’s expression) “within a lie”.
Applebaum formally divides Iron Curtain into Part One: False Dawn, and Part Two: High Stalinism; but over the course of her story more of a tripartite chronological division emerges.
There is first of all a confused period up to 1948, then unambiguous dictatorship under Stalin until his death in 1953, and then three years of continued authoritarianism during which augurial cracks begin to appear in the imperial edifice — such as Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
While Applebaum refers in passing to all the countries of Eastern Europe, she focuses on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, beginning with their puppet rulers Bierut, Rakosi and Ulbricht, who arrived in the baggage train of the Soviet Red Army.
If the Russian troops had behaved differently (which is probably impossible, given the criminal regime which had shaped them, and the inconceivably savage fighting which they had experienced on the Eastern Front), they might have been welcomed as liberators — which they sometimes were at first, especially by Jews.
However their violence, looting and raping, endorsed by Stalin (“[understandable] if a soldier… has fun with a woman or takes some trifle”) quickly destroyed any such illusions.
What was more, the Poles had not forgotten the Soviet occupation of the eastern part of their country 1939-41, or the Red Army’s cynical refusal to assist the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
The Soviets occupied countries in which years of war had profoundly disrupted every aspect of the old moral and civil order, including family, education, religion, work, politics, ethnic minorities and national borders.
As in the USSR, their aim was the production of a new type of human being, Homo Sovieticus, and their method was totalitarianism.
Applebaum deals with revisionist criticisms of the concept of totalitarianism, and concedes that it is only ever aspirational and never succeeds absolutely in practice; but she concludes unapologetically that “the leadership of the Soviet Union did try very hard to impose a totalitarian system on the very different European countries they then occupied”.
The rest of the book is the story of the ways in which it attempted to reach this goal and the opposition it encountered along the way.
All the familiar historical events of the era are dealt with, such as the 1947 Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine, Tito’s 1948 rift with the USSR, the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, the 1949 emergence of NATO and East Germany, the 1953 death of Stalin and the East German uprising, and the 1956 Hungarian and Polish revolts.
However, this is far more than a chronological record, or even just a political analysis.
Certainly there are descriptions of the way in which the Soviet authorities phased out elections (they were never held at all in Poland) and opposition parties during the first few years after World War II, in the countries occupied by the Red Army, but there are also whole chapters detailing every aspect of life in their new satellites.
The political culture of each country became quickly dominated by Russian control of interior ministries and police forces and the establishment of networks of informers, along with the systematic vilification of all other political parties, even — particularly! — those with records of anti-fascism.
Any persisting political opposition was dealt with by show trials, labour camps and executions.
The principle of Lenin’s dictum, “Down with non-partisan literature!”, was applied to fields as diverse as schools, universities, youth organisations, the media (especially radio), literature, the arts, sport and recreation, all of which were co-opted to toe the party line.
This produced some spectacular and controversial balancing acts on the part of performers such as Gyorgy Lukacs and Bertolt Brecht. (The latter, who had his proletarian clothes tailored for him, agreed to return to communist-administered East Germany provided he was met at the border by a large car).
Even the most innocuous manifestations of civil society, such as chess clubs, music societies, charities and Boy Scouts, were eliminated or brought under state control.
Churches and their clergy were bribed, compromised, threatened and infiltrated, and Applebaum illustrates the difficulties of choosing an appropriate response to this overt and covert persecution, by comparing the careers of Cardinals Mindszenty in Hungary and Wyszynski in Poland.
Ethnically, there was mass displacement of Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians, as well as surreptitious internal purging of communist party leaderships to appease Eastern Europe’s endemic anti-Semitism.
Economically, there were attempts to replicate the USSR’s control of agriculture, commerce and industry through two-, three-, five- and six-year plans, and its schemes of socialist competition which publicised the achievements of Stakhanovite Heroes of Labour.
And the results were the same as in the USSR: shortages, shoddy goods, corruption, barter systems, black markets, discontent with the authorities and envy of Western prosperity.
Applebaum’s chapter, “Reluctant Collaborators”, deals with the question of why most of the population of the USSR’s East European empire went along with the system, despite their lack of support for it.
Fear, bribery, pragmatism and a sense of powerlessness all played their part.
She writes: “Most people wanted to be neither party bosses nor angry dissidents. They wanted to get on with their lives, rebuild their countries, educate their children, feed their families, and stay away from those in power….
“[T]he vast majority of Eastern Europeans did not make a pact with the devil or sell their souls to become informers but rather succumbed to constant, all-encompassing, everyday psychological and economic pressure.
“The Stalinist system excelled at creating large groups of people who disliked the regime and knew the propaganda was false, but who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it.”
Her next chapter, “Passive Opponents”, shows the way in which opposition could be expressed through religion, or through jokes, graffiti, unsigned letters, cartoons, films and music.
One of the most interesting features of this grassroots discontent with dull, grey, Stalinist repression was the attempt to emulate from the early to mid-1950s Western youth culture, in the form of clothes, music and dance.
It makes fascinating reading because it foreshadowed the later outbreak of Western youth rebellion during the 1960s, which infiltrated the Eastern Bloc, and played a small part in the development of attitudes which led eventually to the events of 1989 and after.
Of course, this same cultural phenomenon provided the risibly paradoxical spectacle of young Western devotees of permissive sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll adulating authoritarian regimes — such as Albania, China and Kampuchea — notorious for their systems of austerity and conformism which were even harsher than those spawned by Soviet imperialism.
We can see with hindsight that the settlement of Eastern Europe 1944-56 was inherently unworkable, and doomed from the beginning; but unfortunately, despite its ultimate collapse, many of its toxic features continue to plague the region.
As Applebaum observes in her epilogue, “If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinisation proves just how fragile civilisation can turn out to be.”