." /> Summary of Anne Applebaum's 2012 book,"Iron Curtain"
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Iron Curtain
the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956

Author: Anne Applebaum

Doubleday, 2012

Hitler's armies pushed east into the Soviet Union. Then Stalin's armies came out of the east.

Anne Applebaum quotes Tamás Lossonczy about the city of Budapest in 1945:

The mad orgy of ruins, entangled wires, twisted corpses, dead horses, overturned parts of blown-up bridges, bloody hoofs which had been torn off horses. (p 3)

Eastern Europe had been where most of Europe's Jews lived, Jews having accounted for less than one percent of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler's vision of a Jew free Europe was realizable only by his invading Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and eventually Hungary and the Balkans, where most of Europe's Jews actually lived. "Of the 5.4 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, the vast majority were from Eastern Europe." (p 8)

Applebaum writes of the war shattering a sense of natural order, of respectable citizens ceasing to regard banditry as a crime and boys from respectable families becoming hardened criminals. "One stole to keep one's partisan band alive, or to feed the resistance, or to feed one's children."

Widespread destruction – the loss of homes, families, schools – condemned millions of people to a kind of radical loneliness... national failure had profound effects, especially on young people, many of whom simply concluded that everything they had once thought true was false. Besides, the war had left them without a social network and without a context. Many really did resemble Hannah Arendt's "totalitarian personality," the "completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party."(p 16)

Applebaum describes a young Nazi who was fighting to save Berlin. He was captured by the Russians and came under the supervision of a Soviet captain who knew more about German culture than did he. He became disillusioned with what he had been taught about German racial and other superiorities. The communist party offered him a chance to make up for Germany's mistakes as well as his own and the shame of having been an ardent Nazi.

Some in East Europe saw Stalin's troops as liberators and some did not. The historian John Lukacs, a 21-year-old in Budapest, saw an ocean of soldiers in green-gray coming from the east, and up close he saw "dark, round, Mongol faces, with narrow eyes, incurious and hostile."

Behind his armies, Stalin sent a few communist exiles back to the country of their origin to organize communist parties. He wanted these parties to build coalitions with other leftists, people who were friendly to the Soviet Union, people whom his allies, including Roosevelt and Churchill, were calling "democratic forces."

Applebaum writes of Polish people "without mixed feelings" seeing the Russians as liberators. But there were many who saw them otherwise. Among the hostile Poles were those who had fought the Germans. There was fear and distrust also between the Polish Home Army leaders in exile in London and Stalin. Applebaum discusses Home Army fighters and the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944 and Stalin leaving them to be crushed by the Germans.

She writes of the thievery of Soviet soldiers damaging their image as liberators. Soviet soldiers came upon luxury they were unaccustomed to, including "flush toilets and electric gadgets." They attributed the affluence to the evil ways of the bourgeoisie, and they saw the bourgeoisie as having contributed to Hitler and his expansion. Applebaum writes of one political officer writing back to Moscow, explaining the agriculture that he came across as "kulak agriculture" based on exploitation. Applebaum writes of a rationale for the thievery. The soviet soldiers "stole back."

Liquor and ladies' lingerie, furniture and crockery, bicycles and linen were taken from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic and the Balkan states as well as Germany. (p 26)

Soviet soldiers taking advantage of a license given them as victors, and Germans pleading to no avail to keep needed factory equipment, all this is in Applebaum's Chapter Two, "Victors."

Liberating Soviet territory and fighting fascism were the stated goals of Stalin's armies, but in the countries they said they were liberating it became convenient for Stalin's political agents to stretch the fascist label. Applebaum writes:

But in every country occupied by the Red [Soviet] Army, the definition of "fascist" eventually grew broader, expanding to include not only Nazi collaborators but anybody whom the Soviet occupiers and their local allies disliked. In time, the word "fascist," in true Orwellian fashion, was eventually used to describe anti-fascists who also happened to be anticommunists. And every time the definition was expanded, arrests followed. (pp 88–89)

The Yalta treaty of February 1945, to which Stalin was a party, speaks of "liberated peoples" creating "democratic institutions of their own choice." And ideology led communist leaders in East Europe to believe that working people – the majority – could or would be won over to their side. Applebaum quotes the Polish communist Leon Kasman saying, "We also knew that if we took power and conducted politics correctly, we would win over people who didn't trust us, didn't believe us or were against us." And she describes the German communist Walter Ulbricht as expecting, in his words, a "working class majority in all towns and villages." (pp 195–96).

Applebaum describes the 1946 referendum in Poland that asked people to vote on the following questions:

Do you support land reform and nationalization of large industry while preserving private property? Do you wish to keep Poland's new territories and its new western border? (p 201)

The referendum won. The answers were "yes." And there were parliamentary elections on 17 January 1947 that were rigged. The communist coalition won 80 percent of the vote. The British and US ambassadors lodged official protests and boycotted the opening of Poland's parliament. The major opponent of the communist coalition was a centrist agrarian party, the PSL. The leader of the PSL, Mikołajczyk, previously leader of the London-based Poles, was to describe the January vote as "a black day in Polish history." He felt forced to flee Poland for his life. The PSL was forced to unite with the communist coalition to form the United People's Party, in effect destroying the PSL. This was the new democracy in Polad.

In Hungary, writes Applebaum, the communist party "was absolutely confident of its success in its first postwar national elections, the first truly free and fair poll in Hungarian history." These were elections required by the Yalta Agreement, to be held in November 1945. Writes Applebaum: "Full suffrage was extended to women, peasants, and the uneducated for the first time." The communists were in a coalition with Social Democrats. But to the utter dismay of Hungary's communist party leader, Matyas Rakosi, the Independent Smallholders Party won, with 57 percent of the vote. The communist party finished third with a 16.9 percent. communist party leadership looked for enemies to blame. There were accusations that the Smallholders Party used anti-Soviet slogans and violence, and blame was put on the primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal Jozseph Mindszenty. In Moscow, however, blame was laid on Hungary's communist party, said to have been infiltrated by criminal elements, careerists, and adventurers, and there was the complaint that party leaders in Hungary were not of Hungarian origin – meaning, according to Applebaum, too many Jews.

Rokosi must have felt shame at not keeping up with the glorious victory over fascism. But no matter. Rokosi, who was Jewish, remained as Stalin's man in Budapest. There a republican government was formed. Cardinal Mindzsenty's push for monarchy had failed. Hungary was officially a multi-party state. But, with pressure from the Soviet Union, Rakosi became deputy prime minister. Stalin's people were in control. The communists held the interior ministry – the police.

Applebaum writes of the police already eliminating youth organizations and of communist propaganda via radio. Applebaum writes that by voting day on August 31, 1947, "some 500,000 people had been eliminated from the voting rolls, about 8.5 percent of all voters. Another 300,000 never showed up, possibly because they were too intimidated. Just to be certain, the communists carried out one final fraud: they distributed tens of thousands of extra, blue-colored ballots to special voting brigades." (p 211)

The Social Democrat and anti-Nazi heroine Sara Karig, who had helped rescue Jews, reported election fraud and the next day she was arrested. She was "kept in custody for three months, interrogated and tortured, accused of spying." (p 212)

Of Czechoslovakia, Applebaum writes of the undemocratic path to power of Stalin's people there. And the same thing happened in Bulgaria, where the Bulgarian communists dissolved noncommunist parties.

The Stalinists in East Europe believed that a successful socialist economy would win the hearts and minds of those who labored for a living. First they had to establish their political power. Then they could start changing the economy. They began with what they thought would be most easily accepted: land reform. In Poland were poor peasants to receive land that had belonged to the landed wealthy. Many Poles remembered the disastrous collectivization in the Soviet Union less than twenty years before, and land reform in Poland did not go as well as hoped. There was land reform also in Hungary but, writes Applebaum:

In much of the country, land reform increased support not for the communist party but for the Smallholders' Party, whose rural ethos appealed far more to the new class of small landowners. (p 227–28)

The so-called "volunteer" collectivation of agriculture in East Germany after 1956, writes Applebaum, ensured "that thousands of East German peasants fled to the West." (p 228)

As for small-scale business people, "Though their businesses were technically legal in 1945 and 1946, capitalists understood from the start that they were operating in a hostile environment." The Stalinists attacked free trade. "Most communist leaders shared Lenin's loathing for small business," writes Applebaum. "At a Central Committee meeting in October 1946 for example, German communist leaders discussed not whether private shops should be brought under state control but when." (p 229)

In Germany, communists speaking righteosly were and on a crusade portrayed the nationalization of major industries as a fight against fascism.

In Hungary, according to Applebaum, the nationalization of industries,

took place in stages. First the coal mines, then the largest industrial conglomerates, and eventually the banks. In March 1948, the government nationalized all remaining factories with more than 100 workers, putting 90 percent of heavy industry and 75 percent of light industry in state hands. By 1948 there was very little major private industry anywhere in the country.

She adds, "In the longer term, nationalization of the economy prolonged the shortages and economic distortion created by the war. Central planning and fixed prices distorted markets, making trade between individuals as well as between enterprises difficult." (p 237–39)

About East Europe in general, Applebaum writes that governments' claims to legitimacy were based on promises of future prosperity and a high living standard, which were supposedly guaranteed by scientific Marxism.

All the banners and posters, the solemn speeches, the newspaper editorials, and eventually the television programs spoke of faster growth. And although there was some growth, it was never as high as the propaganda made it out to be. Living standards never rose as quickly and dramatically as they did in Western Europe either, a fact that could not be hidden for long. In 1950, Poland and Spain had very similar GDPs. By 1988, Poland's had risen about two and a half times—but Spain's had risen thirteen times...The smiling communist youth cadres of the 1950s gave way to the sullen, apathetic workers of the 1970s, to the cynical students and intellectuals of the 1980s, to waves of emigration and discontent. (p 465)

Stalin's death in 1953 was followed by an attempt at a surge in thinking that a new liberalism would help bring public support for the communists and their policies. Applebaum writed that the Soviet Union's politburo

lectured their German comrades. They told them to abandon celebrations of Ulbricht's birthday, to liberalize their economic program, and to postpone, indefinitely, the planned announcement of East Germany's imminent transition to "full socialism."

The liberalization was "meant to be instituted across the bloc in order to stem the tide of protest and discontent." But it didn't work out.

Applebaum writes of the demise of the East Europe's communist regimes with sarcasm, jokes, people discarding false and meaningless jargon and living their lives "as if the regime did not exist."

In 1956 came the uprising in Hungary. And in the West there was an awakening on the Left to what had been happening in East Europe. Writes Applebaum: "After 1956, the French communist party fractured, the Italian communist party broke away from Moscow, and the British communist party lost two-thirds of its members."

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.