Commentary Magazine


Red Spread

Iron Curtain:
The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944
1956
By Anne Applebaum

There was a remarkable notice in the New York Times Book Review shortly after the release of Anne Applebaum’s book Iron Curtain, a stunning exposition of the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. The Times assigned the book to its former executive editor Max Frankel, who had questioned President Gerald Ford during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter and elicited the incumbent’s notorious claim that there was “no Soviet domination” of Eastern Europe.

At the time, Frankel was astonished by the gaffe. It was undeniable that the Soviet Union was dominating and controlling the East Bloc. But now, almost 40 years later, Frankel wonders why anyone would care how the Soviet Union came to do so. “It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror,” he writes of Iron Curtain. “Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?”

Frankel’s bizarre criticism is important to engage for the very reason that Applebaum’s book is an important contribution to the literature of Communism. There has long been an ideological campaign—to which Frankel appears committed—to counter the “triumphalist” history of the Cold War (the Guardian’s reviewer identifies Applebaum as a “right-wing cold warrior”). As she observes in her introduction, there has been a sustained push by revisionist historians to blame the Cold War’s origins not on the genocidal paranoiac Joseph Stalin, but on the inflexible anti-Communist Harry Truman. Iron Curtain—along with other, less accessible recent books—nimbly dispatches such theories.

Let’s start with the simple truth that, despite surviving the age of Nazism, Communism in Eastern Europe was not terribly popular after World War II. Hungary, Poland, and East Germany had disparate experiences with the Nazi war machine, but all rejected Communist rule at the ballot box. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the two countries most enthusiastic about Communism in 1945 were France and Italy, neither of which was “liberated” by Soviet troops. 

Despite various ploys designed to obscure the totalitarian nature of Soviet Communism, the Kremlin couldn’t help but reveal itself to its new subjects. The occupation government of Poland, staffed with Moscow-trained Polish Communists, collaborated in the abduction of Polish underground leaders who had heroically battled Nazi invaders and occupiers. That thousands of foot soldiers of the resistance had been arrested and disappeared into the Gulag system did not go unnoticed by ordinary Poles. Nor was it a secret that their Communist liberators had murdered 21,000 Polish officers in Katyn, after the Soviet Union had jointly invaded Poland with the Nazis in 1940. In the first four months of 1945, the Soviet secret police itself estimated that it had arrested 215,540 people in Poland (a majority of whom were ethnic Germans). By the mid-1950s, Applebaum says, the “register of criminal and suspicious elements” in Poland had ballooned to 6 million names—fully one-third of the population.

The farrago of numbers exposing the cruel reality of “actually existing socialism” is the most depressing feature of Iron Curtain. For example, in the first five years of Hungary’s Communist regime, 400,000 farmers were arrested for not achieving their preposterously high grain quotas. Eighty-eight percent of original recruits to the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret police, were rejected for “having relatives in the West, for having spent time abroad, or for having unacceptable political biographies of one kind or another.” It was, however, a problem that the East Germans quickly overcame: The Gestapo fielded one agent for every 2,000 citizens. The Stasi ultimately narrowed that ratio to one agent for every 166 East Germans.

Drawing from the sinister wisdom of Lenin and his Polish comrade Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first boss of the KGB, the Kremlin understood that beneath the appearance of democracy a zealous secret-police presence was required to assert and retain political control. Applebaum cites an internal Stasi history acknowledging that “from the beginning [we] could not be restricted to defending the attacks of the enemy.” Instead, the Stasi “was and is an organ that has to use all means in the offensive fight against the opponents of socialism.” When Hungary’s interior minister consulted with the head of Soviet military intelligence in December 1944 about establishing a police force to stanch the violence and looting plaguing the country, his Russian counterpart expressed more interest in other types of police work: “We discussed far more about the political police, about which he had much general advice and many proposals.”

Moscow also demanded full-spectrum dominance of Eastern European cultural institutions. The varied worlds of youth culture, radio, music, film, and art were placed under strict party discipline. (Applebaum offers an interesting look at post-occupation Hungarian and Polish film industries, though she largely neglects the even more compelling example of DEFA, East Germany’s skillfully run state movie studio.) And it is when reading of Communist youth groups, party attacks on politically suspect art, and the demand for “socialist realism” that one recalls historian George Mosse’s observation that National Socialism worked aggressively “toward a total culture.”

Applebaum relates the Communist reaction to the popularity of Warsaw’s YMCA, which heaved with young people dancing to imported jazz records. The Soviets deemed such music “a tool of bourgeois-fascism,” closed the club, and created their own, more politically correct “youth” institutions. If “the party could not compete for young people,” Applebaum notes, “its leaders decided to eliminate the competition.” Of course, the Nazis, too, waged war on American jazz and swing music, even creating an ersatz German version of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw–style big-band groups called “Charlie and His Orchestra.” 

But the most disturbing parallel between the Nazi and Soviet regimes—recall that these supposed ideological opposites gleefully collaborated in the dismemberment of Poland—is what Applebaum calls “the Communist indulgence of anti-Semitism.” She writes: “Many hoped that by ignoring or even flirting with anti-Semitism, their party would seem more ‘national,’ more ‘patriotic,’ less Soviet, less alien, and more legitimate”—a particularly despicable indulgence considering the satellite regimes self-identified as “anti-fascist” governments. 

Woven through Iron Curtain are astounding personal stories, like that of Gisela Gneist, a 15-year-old German girl who, excited by the talk of democracy she heard on American Armed Forces Radio, formed a “political party” with her friends. The Soviets arrested, beat, and sentenced her in front of a military tribunal. She was sent to the former Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. “Of some 150,000 people who were incarcerated in NKVD camps in eastern Germany between 1945 and 1953,” Applebaum writes, “about a third died from starvation or illness.”

As one Czech Communist commented during the orgy of purges, arrests, imprisonments, and disappearances: “These men are perhaps not guilty in the everyday sense of the word. But just now the fate and interests of individuals are of secondary importance.” Instead, he said, it was “the future of mankind” that was at stake. But he, too, would soon be arrested, confessing, after vigorous torture sessions, to being “an important link in the anti-state conspiracy of Zionists and Jewish bourgeois nationalists.”

During the period of high Stalinist paranoia, even leading Polish apparatchik Wladyslaw Gomulka was arrested, psychologically tortured (“sooner or later I’ll have a breakdown,” he confessed to his wife), and kept for months in an isolation cell. After the death of Stalin, Gomulka, like many former political prisoners, was rehabilitated by the party and ultimately became its leader, presiding over a totalitarian regime in Poland until his death in 1970. This victim of Stalinism, who intimately understood the regime of false charges and confessions, of torture and institutionalized cruelty, easily slipped back into the role of perpetrator.

It’s these small personal tales of heroism and indignity and the rage-inducing examples of collaboration and cowardice that make Iron Curtain so valuable a book. Applebaum, a columnist with the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2004 history of the Gulag, has provided a significant amount of original research that broadens our understanding of the Cold War’s early years. But it’s the latticework of personal stories and spellbinding historical sleuthing that sets Applebaum in a class of her own.

Contra Frankel, Iron Curtain is a very necessary book. Without efforts like Applebaum’s, what is there to stop the continuous—and commercially successful—flood of tendentious and politicized works of Cold War revisionism from ultimately remaking the public perception of one of freedom’s greatest modern triumphs? So long as wretched books such as Oliver Stone’s recent The Untold History of the United States make their way onto bestseller lists, there can be no rest for those who aspire merely to convey history with accuracy.  Frankel himself claims that after 1956, where Applebaum ends her study, there was “a 30-year effort in the Kremlin to stabilize and reform all Communist societies,” which would come as a surprise to almost everyone who lived in a country occupied by the Soviet Union.

The accommodation, denial, and dismissal of Soviet crimes—even by employees of Frankel’s own newspaper—has been supplanted by a general lack of interest in Moscow’s more than 70-year imperial reign. Applebaum quotes Jean-Paul Sartre’s telling Albert Camus that “like you I find [the Gulag] camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” In today’s Cold War relitigations, one senses a similar moral equivalence.

Iron Curtain swiftly upends the conclusions of historians who work backwards from the premise that America’s antagonists are virtuous at least for antagonizing America. That such antagonists also inflicted horrors upon other countries might prick the consciences of those poised to embrace pro-Soviet scholarship as a mark of anti-American righteousness. Without books like Applebaum’s, the side that won the Cold War seems ever more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the systematic perpetrators of grand-scale abomination.

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