A review of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum

In 1952, Hans-Joachim Geyer, a low-level courier secretly working for the West German Federal Intelligence Service, was captured in East Berlin by agents of the Stasi, the spy network of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Geyer, a former member of the Nazi Party, had little difficulty in switching allegiances. According to now available Stasi files, Geyer quickly admitted his work on behalf of the Federal Republic and went so far as to offer up his services to the GDR. With his assistance, the Stasi was able to roll up over 100 West German spies operating in East Germany and seize hundreds of valuable documents. So helpful was Geyer (whose work lasted only a year before his cover was blown) that the GDR paid a large pension to his widow after his death.

Geyer’s story is one of many which Anne Applebaum tells in her magisterial new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, in order to demonstrate how the Soviet Union dominated half of the European continent for over four decades. Geyer was hardly the only former fascist who found the transition to Communism a rather easy one. As his Stasi file recounted, ideology was less important to Geyer than the fact that he “wants to please everybody,” a characteristic trait of those who made their peace with totalitarian regimes of both the right and left. Although Geyer’s collaboration was of the active variety, most people living under the totalitarian yoke of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc regimes went along passively. In painstaking detail, Applebaum, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Gulag system and a columnist for the Washington Post, provides a chronicle of the ugly little compromises that countless citizens made to go along and get along: “everyone who endured a university course in Marxism-Leninism in order to become a doctor or an engineer; everyone who joined an artists’ union in order to become a painter; everyone who put a portrait of [Polish Communist Party leader BolesÅ‚aw] Bierut in his office in order to keep his job.” Rare was the individual who actually stood up to the dictatorship.

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Winston Churchill is widely assumed to have coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” in his famous March 5, 1946, speech delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. But it was actually nearly a year earlier that he first used this striking image to describe the political and ideological barrier that the Soviet Union was erecting between the territories it occupied after World War II and those granted their freedom by the Western Allies. In May 1945, just as Soviet troops were making their way into liberated Berlin, Churchill wrote to President Harry Truman that “[a]n iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind.” As Applebaum relates, Churchill knew full well what was happening in the Soviet-dominated half of Europe thanks to a steady stream of reports from Polish exiles.

While taking the whole of Soviet-dominated Central and Eastern Europe as its canvas, Iron Curtain focuses on three countries: East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Although the individual histories of these nations’ transition into hard Communist dictatorships have been retold in countless books, memoirs, and films, what distinguishes Applebaum’s volume is its holistic approach to the Stalinist postwar crushing of Eastern Europe.

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Applebaum identifies four crucial shared features in the way Moscow established control in all of the nations that would later constitute the Warsaw Pact. The first was the creation of a secret police force, something which “gave minority communist parties an outsized influence.” Though the secret police operated with a modicum of official sanction and were ostensibly loyal to the state, their behavior was often blatantly outside the law and their loyalties lay with the local Communist Party leadership and not the post-war provisional governments. Secret police forces throughout the region, trained by the Soviet’s own NKVD, solely pursued the interests of Moscow, targeting anyone who stood in the way of Communist domination.

The second commonality was the quick effort to take control over mass media, namely the radio. Though it laid waste to East Berlin, the Red Army deliberately avoided bombing the Nazi German state radio station. Anti-Communist and non-Communist broadcasters were summarily fired. Next, Communists set about crushing civil society, the organizations and associations independent of government like women’s and youth clubs, anti-fascist organizations, churches, etc. The Communists could not tolerate anything they did not control; any independent organization, no matter how innocuous, was a potential threat to their hegemony. “To a Soviet officer, educated in Bolshevik schools and trained in the Red Army or the NKVD,” Applebaum writes, “an active participant in any political group other than the communist party was a suspicious figure by definition, and probably a saboteur or spy.” The final, and most ruthless policy, was ethnic cleansing, mainly of Germans but also of Poles and Hungarians, either to West Germany or to the Gulags.

Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was cemented in place within five years of Nazi Germany’s defeat, and would last for forty more. Other than “a few Poles who kept their pistols hidden in the barn, waiting for a better day,” there was by 1950 no “political opposition anywhere in Eastern Europe,” Applebaum notes, the only non-Communist parties in existence being puppet opposition. As early as 1946, for instance, Red Army commanders had already fused together the East German Social Democratic and Communist parties; in just a few short months, some 20,000 Social Democrats were harassed, jailed, or killed.

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That the Soviets and their communist allies throughout the region were able to accomplish so much so fast was due to two factors: a ruthless, ideological lust for power combined with the devastation and poverty of postwar Eastern Europe. The difference between the Allied and Soviet approaches to liberated territory was nowhere clearer than in divided Germany. For West Germans, this was the Stunde Null, or Zero Hour: an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, move on from (if not necessarily confront) the horrors of the Nazi past (the full reckoning with which would not begin until the 1980s) and enthusiastically embrace the Westbindung of newly elected Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. West Germany, along with the rest of Western Europe, enjoyed generous American aid in the form of the Marshall Plan, which was also offered to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries; but Stalin prohibited them from taking it.

Contrast American munificence with Soviet rape (literally) and plunder. To this day, it is unknown how many German women were attacked by marauding Red Army soldiers, but some estimate the number to be as high as 2 million. As the U.S. was pouring money into West Germany in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the disastrous post-conflict recrimination following the First World War, the Soviets were dismantling what little was left in their part of the country. Before the war was even over, the Soviets had delineated arbitrary amounts of various goods they would take as reparations. “Between a third and a half of eastern Germany’s industrial capacity disappeared between 1945 and 1947,” Applebaum reports. Even the animals of the Leipzig Zoo were sent to Russia.

Benito Mussolini had defined totalitarianism very simply as “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In the lands it occupied, the Soviet Union immediately went about building up totalitarian regimes modeled on its own. Initially, it hid the iron fist. Free elections were held in the Eastern Bloc countries, which the Communists actually thought they would win outright (they did win a plurality in Czechoslovakia, an exception). But as it became clear to the Soviets that their Communist brethren were not as popular as they thought, other, firmer tactics were deployed, though sparingly. “The Red Army and the NKVD knew that in societies as uncertain and unstable as those of postwar Eastern Europe, mass arrests could backfire,” Applebaum writes. “But arrests carefully targeted at outspoken people could have a wider echo: if you arrest one such person, ten more will be frightened.” Wartime anti-fascists were not spared abuse, indeed, they were especially suspect. A Hungarian (non-Communist) war hero who took up arms against the Germans was sent to a labor camp and beaten by a guard who shouted that “someone who was able to organize a plot in 1944 can easily be an enemy of the people after 1945.”

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The crucial distinction between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, as defined by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her famous 1979 essay for Commentary, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” is the former’s tendency—its need—to invade every possible aspect of the individual’s life. And so Applebaum regales her readers with descriptions of how the East Bloc regimes attempted to reorder not just society, but man himself. Massive steel mills were constructed across the region, which represented not merely a boost to industrial production but the “most comprehensive attempt to jump-start the creation of a truly totalitarian civilization.” The proliferation of youth groups (and the infiltration of pre-existing, non-Communist ones) stemmed from an “obsession with young people” deriving from a “deep belief in the mutability of human beings.”

The Communists tolerated a modicum of religious practice, though those religious leaders who evinced any opposition to the regime were dealt with harshly (perhaps the most infamous case being Hungarian Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, who sought asylum in the American Embassy in Budapest for 15 years). Communism became a secular religion. In East Germany, the regime created a Jugendweihe, “a secular alternative to Protestant confirmation services,” designed to equip the youth of the GDR “for active participation in the construction of developed socialist society and the creation of the basic preconditions for the gradual transition to communism.” By the 1960s, over 90% of the country’s youth were indoctrinated in such fashion.

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Those who escaped the tentacles of the Communist state were extremely rare; for instance, the Budapest hairdresser who was able to keep her business from being nationalized only because she was so popular with the party bosses’ wives. Even such menial details of daily life as how a restaurant should be run were not exempt from Communist meddling. Across the Eastern Bloc, waiters practically disappeared; table service, after all, was a bourgeois luxury.

With a handful of exceptions (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968), the Soviet Union was able to dominate Eastern and Central Europe without deploying much violence. “For the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism—as conceived in the 1920s, perfected in the 1930s, and then spread across Eastern Europe after 1945—was the system’s ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest,” Applebaum concludes.

Few believed at the time that Eastern Europe would be dominated by Communism for half a century. Poland, for instance, was deeply religious and anti-Bolshevik. Czechoslovakia boasted a relatively decent, multi-ethnic democracy between the wars, with a standard of living that rivaled any country on earth. But herein lies the grim lesson of Anne Applebaum’s indispensable Iron Curtain: “if enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational, and religious institutions, sometimes for good.”