Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56
A totalitarian system isn’t what I want to read about, but it is something I must read about.
If you don’t understand how we got to where we are, you can’t understand the present. History didn’t begin 24 years ago when the Wall came down and Communism collapsed. It starts earlier than that.
Anne Applebaum is so easy to read. Her book is very well structured and one can read a chapter, leave and come back later. She enriches the history with interesting personal accounts and her sharp analysis.
Here is a short review per chapter.
Zero hour: 27 April 1945 end WW II. Nights are quiet, surviors crawl out of the ruins, glad to be alive.
Victors: Statistics of plundering of Germany and Eastern Europe by the Russians. They stole everything and had a fetish for wristwatches! Communists made sure that mini Stalins are set up several countries. They were true fanatics totally loyal to Stalin.
Policemen: This chapter was documented about the organization of the secret police in Poland (UB), Hungary (AVO) and Germany (Stasi). Motivation under the recruits was not ideaology, but social advancement, material comfort and education. 88% of Stasi recruits were rejected because of connection to relatives in the West. Training was in the hands of KGB.
Violence: Chapter reads like a blockbuster war movie, captivating and filled with info. Communist Party controls security in Germany, Hungary and Poland. Goal: create sense that any resistance was useless. Most fascinating to read was about Warsaw Uprising and the suppression of truth about Katyn massacre (70 years ago) by FDR and Churchill.
Ethnic Cleansing: Dreaded reading this chapter but it was a page turner about a delicate subject! Thought peace followed liberation, not so in Eastern Europe 1945-1949. Most fascinating: Salomon Morel, Haganah training camps, pogroms. Jewish existence still anchored in quicksand.
Youth: This chapter was dull. Communists were having trouble attracting the youth. Germany: Free German Youth Poland: Polish Youth Hungary: League of Working Youth. New facts:.. how popular Scouting was in Poland in 1946! The scouts wanted to be apolitical and just useful.
Radio: During WW II radio stations in Poland, Germany and Hungary were deliberately not bombed. Soviet occupation knew its importance to goal: soft-sell communism to the masses.What was the Initial wage for radio workers? Daily cup of hot soup and an ID card. Key figures: Germany: H Mahle, Poland: W. Billig and Hungary: G Ortutay. Soviets distrusted Poland the most and found the Hungarian language difficult to master!
Politics: This was complicated to follow. Germany/Hungary/Poland “bloc parties” were formed with force. Politics was now only possible in 1 party! Fascinating: Cominform (Eastern Bloc of 10 countries) vs Marshall Plan = turning point in Cold War.
Economics: 1e change the politics ( more police, less civil society and tame media) then take economic control in small bites! Land reform (backward), retail (irrevelant) the big prize was nationalization of industry (future). Fascinating: Eastern Europe always plagued by shortages, they never did catch up with the West.
Reactionary enemies: Communism vs church, this conflict brought to life by comparison between Hungary Cardinal Mindszenty and Poland Cardinal Wyszynski. two very different men, two different choices. C Mindszenty: political, defiant, public denouncements. C Wyszynski: negotiation, compromise, behind the scenes protests. Church is feared because of its $ resources, the power of the Vatican and always a guaranteed audience.
Internal Enemies: Reading about arrest/conviction of leading communists (1949-1953). Result was “show trials”, scripts and verdicts dictated by Moscow. New facts: Applebaum describes destruction of G. Falduy (Hungarian poet), N. Field ( US spymaster), Golmulka (PL party sec) and Supka (Hungary freemason grandmaster). Remember, the Party is always right! Propaganda: potato beetle (Amikäfer) plight was described as weapon of US imperialism!
Homo Sovieticus: Tools to prove Communist’s right to rule must influence the people from bottom up. Idealogical brainwashing with text books and teachers from kindergarten to university. New: shockworkers (employee of the month) was a failure. People finish quickly and ignore quality. New: sports event Peace Race (bike Prague-Warsaw)…don’t forget..”enthusiasm is mandatory!” More propaganda is not necessarily more convincing.
Socialist Realism: Applebaum gives us examples of the “arts” as a powerful tool to occupy people’s dreams and imagination. The Party not the artists had the final say. Film: Stalin was an avid film buff, favorite film (1938) Volga-Volga. All scripts were checked so unspoken visuals were often used, invisible to the censors. Nobel winner Szymborska (literature) did not include her Stalinist poetry in her collected editions, she was too embarrassed.
Ideal cities: Socialist cities reshape workers by their surroundings. The goals were 1. Accelerate industrialization 2. Draw the peasantry to factories 3. Proof that central planning produces more rapid growth than capitalism Hungary : Sztalinvaros, Poland: Nowa Huta and Germany: Stalinstadt. Nowa Huta was the first town in Poland built with no church! A townhall spire as church visual was erected. In 1983 Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in Nowa Huta as a symbol of totalitarianism’s failure in Poland.
Reluctant Collaborators: These people did not make a pact with the devil, but were compelled to go along with the “party”. How do they survive? 1. Split personality between home-school, friends-work, and private-public. 2. Self-silencing means do not think, know or deal with the country. 3. Denial and ignore uncomfortable facts is what you must do. Keep away from secret police, those in power and controversy. Applebaum fills chapter with personal accounts of survivors
Passive Opponents: These people used jokes, graffiti, unsigned letters clothes and music not as an active opposition and certainly not an armed opposition. It was passive oppostion. They were branded and were proud of it! Poland: Bikiniarze, Hungary: Jampecek, Germany ( East and West) Halbstarke, Czech: Potapka, Romania: Malagambisti. Typical joke: What is the difference between painters of the Naturalist,Iimpressionist and the Socialist Realist schools? Naturalists paint what they see, Impressionists paint what they feel and Social Realists paint as they are told.
And so it was necessary to teach people not to think and make judgements…
to compel them to see the non-existent and …
to argue the opposite of what was obvious to everyone…
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago