Civil Liberties

When the Iron Curtain Fell

How totalitarianism came to Eastern Europe, and why it didn't stay.


Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 608 pages, $35.00.

Time's 1956 Man of the Year, chosen at the last minute, was an anonymous Hungarian freedom fighter. Nobody had anticipated the explosive events that saw student protesters battle Russian tanks with Molotov cocktails in the narrow, cobbled streets of Budapest. The CIA, despite its vaunted reputation for espionage, had been caught off guard. Even Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was taken aback when insurgents began to smash the hallowed symbols of communism, burning books, stripping red stars from buildings, and tearing down memorials from their pedestals, including the large bronze statue of Stalin in the city's main park. The KGB and the CIA were not alone in failing to read the popular mood in Eastern Europe. Hannah Arendt, who had suggested in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1949) that the victims of dictatorships acquired a "totalitarian personality," later conceded that the Hungarian Revolution had been "totally unexpected and took everybody by surprise." Arendt had come mistakenly to believe that totalitarian regimes held their populations permanently enthralled.

In Iron Curtain, the American journalist Anne Applebaum tells how the spell was shattered. She shows how Stalin and his agents set out to destroy every form of freedom in Eastern Europe after World War II yet failed to create a new Homo sovieticus. "Human beings do not acquire 'totalitarian personalities' with ease," she writes. "Even when they seem bewitched by the cult of the Leader or of the party, appearances can be deceiving. And even when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda—even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right—the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken."

Told with great narrative verve and backed by meticulous archival research, Applebaum begins her account with the Red Army's triumphant march to Berlin in 1945. Rape and plunder followed in its wake. Some 70,000 Soviet experts supervised the removal of what amounted to between a third and a half of eastern Germany's industrial capacity. Even bits of salvaged piping and wrecked machines were hauled off, together with works of art and antique furniture. (Marshal Zhukov was rumoured to have furnished several Moscow apartments with his personal booty.)

But the Russians were there to stay. Across Eastern Europe, future leaders known as "little Stalins" were trained in Moscow and flown in to oversee the colonization of their respective countries—Walter Ulbricht in East Germany, Boles?aw Bierut in Poland, Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary. The founders of Eastern Europe's "little KGBs" disembarked from the same planes. As the Czech communist leader Klement Gottwald put it, Stalin loyalists assiduously sought how "to best make use of the experience of the Soviet Union."

With the exception of Germany, where the occupation was open for all to see, Soviet influence was carefully camouflaged. So was the pretense of democracy, as sham coalition governments were set up across the bloc. "It's quite clear—it's got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control," Ulbricht told a young communist.

Stalin ordered Eastern European communists to proceed cautiously, but soon all pretense at cooperation with other political parties was abandoned, as the secret police incarcerated imagined and future enemies of communism. People were arrested for talking about democracy. Others were put under surveillance because they listened to radio or owned books. In Hungary alone, some 140,000 to 200,000 individuals were deported to Siberia after 1945. Local camps also mushroomed across Eastern Europe. One victim remembered that "we all cried like children" on seeing the conditions in one of the camps, even though some of the inmates had survived Dachau during the war.

From 1948 onwards, the communist parties also began to dismantle the institutions of civil society. Schools were nationalized and independent organizations suppressed. Jazz was decried as decadent. Even chess clubs were viewed with suspicion: They might be fronts for spies and saboteurs. Within a few years, the Soviets were eating their proverbial children: In 1949 and 1950, show trials choreographed from Moscow accused hitherto loyal party members and decorated generals of being traitors or spies.

The Roman Catholic Church was the object of a particularly sustained attack. Priests who survived the ordeal became employees entirely dependent on the state. In universities, once thriving faculties of history, law, and sociology were transformed into vehicles for the transmission of state ideology. The theories of "socialist realism" shaped painting, sculpture, music, literature, design, architecture, theater, and film. Step by step, private enterprise was undermined, as everything was forced under the purview of the state's central plan. Most private restaurants became "people's cafeterias" or state-owned "proletarian pubs." Even kindergarteners were subjected to indoctrination. In Poland they were taught to call Stalin by his childhood nickname, Soso. The gruesome founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was given the endearing nickname of "Franek."

All the while, Marxist-Leninist regimes across Eastern Europe continued to gain followers. Many were idealists, some were opportunists, others thugs. Although some joined the party enthusiastically, many collaborated reluctantly, driven by fear or necessity. As Applebaum demonstrates in two compelling chapters, the majority of people simply wanted to get on with their lives and had to conform in order to survive. "Millions of people did not necessarily believe all of the slogans they read in the newspaper," she writes, "but neither did they feel compelled to denounce those who were writing them."

In an epilogue, Applebaum argues that the history of Eastern Europe illustrates an unpleasant truth about human nature: When enough people with adequate resources and sufficient power are determined to destroy old and seemingly stable legal, political, educational, and religious institutions, they are able do so with astounding speed and thoroughness. Civilization, in other words, is fragile.

Although Applebaum's focus is Europe, her observations have relevance for other times and places. Even as the students were taking to the streets in Budapest, the People's Republic of China was consolidating its power through the use of systematic violence, calculated terror, and the mass destruction of an entire civilisation. And despite this devastating history, China today, no less than Eastern Europe in the postwar era, continues to attract its share of apologists convinced of the enduring if not beneficial nature of dictatorship.