Book Summary: “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956” by Anne Applebaum

Title: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Author: Anne Applebaum
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Applebaum documents how the Soviet Union imposed Communist institutions throughout Eastern Europe immediately after World War II.

Key Take-aways

  • The Soviets installation of Communist institutions in Eastern Europe was not a reaction to the Cold War. It was part of a deliberate plan.
  • Originally, the Soviets thought that Communism would be so popular that they would easily win free elections. They were shocked when this did not occur.
  • Communists from Eastern Europe were trained in the Soviet Union by the NKVD to take leadership positions in the new regime.
  • The key focus was in taking over:
    • Security services (interior ministry, police, intelligence services and military)
    • National radio stations
    • Youth organizations
  • To establish power, the Communist-dominated security services:
    • Shut down all non-communist political parties, starting with conservatives and then gradually moving left-ward.
    • Harassed all non-communist organizations
    • Established labor camps
    • Carried out ethnic cleansing of entire regions
    • Required teachers promote Communist ideology in the classroom

Important Quotes from Book

Strictly defined, a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media, and one moral code. In a totalitarian state there are no independent schools, no private businesses, no grassroots organizations, and no critical thought.

“Totalitarianism” remains a useful and necessary empirical description. It is long overdue for a revival. One regime in particular understood the methods and techniques of totalitarian control so well that it successfully exported them: following the end of the Second World War and the Red Army’s march to Berlin, the leadership of the Soviet Union did try very hard to impose a totalitarian system of government on the very different European countries they then occupied, just as they had already tried to impose a totalitarian system on the many different regions of the USSR itself. Their efforts were in lethal earnest. 

They wanted very much to create societies where everything was within the state, nothing was outside the state, and nothing was against the state—and they wanted to do it quickly. 

The speed with which this transformation took place was, in retrospect, nothing short of astonishing. In the Soviet Union itself, the evolution of a totalitarian state had taken two decades, and it had proceeded in fits and starts. The Bolsheviks did not begin with a blueprint. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, they pursued a zigzag course.  

In their zone of occupation, Red Army officers and NKVD officers immediately began to impose their own system. From 1939 onward, they used local collaborators, members of the international communist movement, mass violence, and mass deportations to the concentration camps of the Gulag to “Sovietize” the local population. Stalin learned valuable lessons from this experience and gained valuable allies.

Stalin took a long-term view: the protelarian revolution would take place in due course, but before that could happen, the region first had to have a bourgeois revolution.  

Yet as the first part of this book will explain, the Soviet Union did import certain key elements of the Soviet system into every nation occupied by the Red Army, from the very beginning. First and foremost, the Soviet NKVD, in collaboration with local communist parties, immediately created a secret police force in its own image, often using people whom they had already trained in Moscow… these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria… They also took control of the region’s interior ministries, and in some cases the defense ministries as well, and participated in the immediate confiscation and redistribution of land.

Secondly, in every occupied nation, Soviet authorities placed trusted local communists in charge of the era’s most powerful form of mass media: the radio… the national radio stations, which could reach everyone from illiterate peasants to sophisticated intellectuals, were kept under firm communist party control. In the long term, the authorities hoped that the radio, along with other propaganda and changes to the educational system, would help bring mass numbers of people into the communist camp.

Thirdly, everywhere the Red Army went, Soviet and local communists harassed, persecuted, and eventually banned many of the independent organizations of what we would now call civil society: the Polish Women’s League, the German “anti-fascist” groupings, church groups, and schools. In particular, they were fixated, from the very first days of the occupation, on youth groups.

Finally, wherever it was possible, Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. 

The majority of communist leaders in Eastern Europe—and many of their followers—really did think that sooner or later the working-class majority would acquire class consciousness, understand its historical destiny, and vote for a communist regime. 

The harsher policies imposed upon the Eastern bloc in 1947 and 1948 were therefore not merely, and certainly not only, a reaction to the Cold War. They were also a reaction to failure. The Soviet Union and its local allies had failed to win power peacefully. 

As a result, the local communists, advised by their Soviet allies, resorted to the harsher tactics that had been used previously—and successfully—in the USSR. The second part of this book describes those techniques: a new wave of arrests; the expansion of labor camps; much tighter control over the media, intellectuals, and the arts. Certain patterns were followed almost everywhere: first the elimination of “right-wing” or anticommunist parties, then the destruction of the noncommunist left, then the elimination of opposition within the communist party itself. 

Eventually the region’s communist parties would attempt to eliminate all remaining independent organizations; to recruit followers into state-run mass organizations instead; to establish much harsher controls over education; to subvert the Catholic and Protestant churches. They created new, all-encompassing forms of educational propaganda, sponsored public parades and lectures, hung banners and posters, organized petition-signing campaigns and sporting events. 

When they did fall under Soviet political control, few outside the region understood what happened and why. Even now, many continue to see Eastern Europe solely through the prism of the Cold War. 

Yet in one narrow sense they remained very similar: none of the regimes ever seemed to realize that they were unstable by definition. They lurched from crisis to crisis, not because they were unable to fine-tune their policies but because the communist project itself was flawed. By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.   Communist ideology and Marxist-Leninist economic theory contained the seeds of their own destruction in a different sense too. Eastern European governments’ claims to legitimacy were based on promises of future prosperity and high living standards, which were supposedly guaranteed by “scientific” Marxism. 

Although some Eastern Europeans were later nostalgic for communist ideas and idealism, it is noteworthy that no post-1989 political party has ever tried to restore communist economics. In the end, the gap between reality and ideology meant that the communist parties wound up spouting meaningless slogans they themselves knew made no sense. 

The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant.

Until 1989, the Soviet Union’s dominance of Eastern Europe seemed an excellent model for would-be dictators. But totalitarianism never worked as it was supposed to in Eastern Europe, and it never worked anywhere else either.  Yet such regimes can and did do an enormous amount of damage. In their drive for power, the Bolsheviks, their Eastern European acolytes, and their imitators farther afield attacked not only their political opponents but also peasants, priests, schoolteachers, traders, journalists, writers, small businessmen, students, and artists, along with the institutions such people had built and maintained over centuries. They damaged, undermined, and sometimes eliminated churches, newspapers, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, banks, sports clubs, and universities. Their success reveals an unpleasant truth about human nature: 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. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic, and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinization proves just how fragile civilization can turn out to be. 

If you would like to learn more about the ideological enemies of progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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