In High Stalinist Times

Neal Ascherson

  • Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-56 by Anne Applebaum
    Allen Lane, 512 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7139 9868 9

Anne Applebaum’s book begins with one group of women in the Polish city of Lodz and ends with another. The 45 years between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a free, non-communist Poland separate them. But the younger women have decided to start again at the point where their elders left off – and to avoid their mistakes.

In 1945, the main railway station in Lodz, like most Polish stations, was overrun by desperate refugees. ‘Starving mothers, sick children and sometimes entire families camped on filthy cement floors for days on end, waiting for the next available train. Epidemics and starvation threatened to engulf them.’ But the Liga Kobiet – the Polish Women’s League – came to their rescue. A voluntary organisation, the league set up a shelter with food, medicine and blankets. ‘Everyone who had a free minute helped,’ one member told Applebaum. Five years later, the Women’s League had metamorphosed into a political claque in the new communist state. All over Poland, its members had to march in political parades, sign petitions against Yankee imperialism and celebrate Stalin’s birthday. Even within the regime, the Liga was disliked for its dogmatism; as late as the 1970s, when most Polish communists had grown cynical about their future, its grim leaders clung to a ferro-concrete Stalinism.

When the system finally fell down and died, and democracy stumbled back, the discredited league seemed to be dead too. But then, in the late 1990s, a team of women in Lodz decided to revive it as an independent charity. The transition to capitalism was creating new miseries and new needs; the reborn league offered free legal advice, help for single mothers, and alcohol and drug clinics. Now the league is once more unofficial, autonomous and voluntary, supported not by the state but by private donations, often from the owners of textile mills in the city. Some of the members who had been active in the communist period told Applebaum that without the politics ‘perhaps they could really do something useful.’

If this clever and authoritative book has a main connecting theme, it is not ‘the death of democracy’ or the snares of the secret police as the Soviet Union imposed its satellite regimes on East-Central Europe. Rather, it is the loss of private initiative. While she makes no explicit profession of her lack of faith in ‘big government’, Applebaum can be sensed to nurse a deep neoliberal distrust of welfare states – and not just communist ones. She uses the phrase ‘civil society’ in its Gladstonian meaning: a nation’s web of unofficial associations, from chess clubs to owl fanciers to trade unions, by way of the Women’s League in Lodz. Everywhere in Eastern Europe, once the tide of rape and looting had subsided behind the Red Army, the new authorities began to move against ‘civil activists’ and ‘free associations’, herding them – sometimes rapidly, sometimes with great caution over years – into a few official associations licensed and policed by the state and led by Communist Party nominees.

In Germany’s Soviet Zone, the communist team brought from Moscow by Walter Ulbricht moved at once against an anti-fascist group of young people in Neukölln in Berlin who of their own volition were clearing rubble and organising food and water supplies. Ulbricht claimed that the group was merely a cover for surviving Nazis, and set about the construction of a single unified and regime-controlled youth movement. In Poland, the YMCA was one of many associations whose autonomy gave offence (party yobs smashed its record collection with hammers). In Hungary, the interior minister Laszlo Rajk (later the victim of an infamous show trial) banned 1500 unofficial organisations in July 1946 alone, including the Association of Christian Democratic Tobacco Workers. Applebaum considers that this paranoia was an import from the early Soviet Union, from the Bolshevik and Leninist insistence that all independent associations were in reality political. She asserts that ‘even for orthodox Marxists, free trade was preferable to free association … This was true under Lenin’s rule, under Stalin’s rule, under Khrushchev’s rule and under Brezhnev’s rule. Although many other things changed, the persecution of civil society continued after Stalin’s death, well into the 1970s and 1980s.’

She goes on to argue that this was the supreme power priority for the incoming satellite regimes. ‘As in post-revolutionary Russia, the political persecution of civic activists in Eastern Europe not only preceded the persecution of actual politicians, but also took precedence over other Soviet and communist goals.’ This remark is best taken with a pinch of salt. Applebaum’s book shows that the incoming regimes had to deal with opponents bigger and more dangerous than civic activists, and overcome them before moving on to other ‘goals’. Iron Curtain is divided into two periods, and in the first of them – from 1944 to about 1949 – the new ‘People’s Democracies’ were facing not only angry patriotism and traditional anti-Russian feeling, not only the antagonism of huge Catholic peasantries under Vatican influence, but in the Polish case also the armed resistance of battle-hardened partisans in the forests.

As Gulag (2003) showed, Applebaum is a historian with a compulsion for fairness. She pays serious attention to the motives of individuals and movements she dislikes, even when the dislike shows through. Here she makes an imaginative effort to understand why many people in Eastern Europe – if always a minority – were ready to accept the idea of communist-led transformation. The context must be recalled. She senses what that fearsome ‘landscape after the battle’ must have looked and felt like: the smashed cities; the wandering of tens of millions of men, women and children driven from their homes; the strange soldiers hammering on the door. But she also describes a moral void: old certainties and prides which were no longer there. War and occupation in all these countries – terror, looting and thieving, life in illegality, brutalisation – left emptiness, not any feeling of victory. Applebaum writes memorably about the ‘radical loneliness’ which comes from the sense that civilisation has collapsed, that leaders have proved useless, that the nation has failed to protect its honour and its people. Much that had happened – and with the prowling foreign soldiery might still have been happening – could not be talked about for years to come. ‘This peculiarly powerful combination of emotions – fear, shame, anger, silence – helped lay the psychological groundwork for the imposition of a new regime.’

But in addition to the psychology (she might have added) there were rational, patriotic lines of argument which appealed to many. Only radical and revolutionary policies, it seemed, could industrialise Eastern Europe on a scale that would begin to drain rural overpopulation out of squalid, barefoot, illiterate landscapes and give these nations the economic muscle to make a political reality of their independence. This was basically a nationalist programme, but one which in the 1930s could seem to lead towards revolutionary Marxism. No liberal-democratic government of the prewar kind, not even the state-planning regime that had given interwar Poland something of an industrial base, looked capable of that sort of heavy lifting.

But before any lifting, the new regimes had to bed down. In the first four years, roughly from 1944 to 1948, coalitions of ‘democratic forces’ formed governments, with the defence and interior ministries firmly in communist hands and the secret police – trained on the Soviet model – reporting directly to the party rather than to ministers. Decorous on the surface, the People’s Democracies lost no time in crushing challengers. In Hungary, with Red Army assistance, up to 200,000 people were deported to Soviet labour camps and prisons after 1945, while 40,000 employees of previous governments were imprisoned within the country. The Smallholders’ Party was still officially the majority government partner, but its members were being tortured to provide evidence for a ‘fascist conspiracy’ trial. In the Soviet Zone of Germany, in a period when non-communist parties were still legal, something like 150,000 people were sent to labour camps by the Soviet authorities (about a third of them died there).

And yet, as Applebaum repeatedly shows, these regimes were convinced they were popular. Stalin’s Yalta deal with the West obliged them to hold democratic elections and consultations, and – amazingly – they were confident that they would win them: ‘The Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe thought that democracy would work in their favour.’ Poland’s communist leaders, Boleslaw Bierut and Jakub Berman, were accordingly staggered when they lost a clumsily weighted referendum in 1946. It wasn’t only the workers and peasants, supposed to be grateful for nationalisations and land reform, who voted against them: even police voters failed in their duty. The results were duly falsified. But the trauma meant that violence was widespread against voters in the general elections six months later. In Berlin, the 1946 elections saw the Social Democrats crush the Socialist Unity (communist) Party. In Hungary, the Smallholders won the 1945 election, before being terrorised into extinction over the following two years.

After these disillusions, the communist regimes dropped many restraints. By 1947, effective opposition had been broken everywhere and the party leaders were confident that they could ‘overcome the enemy’ at home and abroad. Methods and rhetoric hardened. The Cold War was intensifying, although – as Applebaum points out – the advance of blatant Stalinist tyranny and the sense of growing crisis could be registered well before the founding in 1947 of the Cominform, successor to the prewar Comintern, or the Berlin Blockade in 1948.

Why did this change take place? At several points Applebaum implies that the dream of world revolution, the full ‘Sovietisation’ of Eastern Europe and beyond, had never left Stalin’s mind even after he had adopted the defensive ‘socialism in one country’ strategy. By 1944, with the Red Army advancing through Central Europe, the Kremlin concluded that ‘the international revolution had not been abandoned. It had merely been postponed. And by 1944 the Soviet Union was preparing to relaunch it.’ Stalin releasing his inner Trotsky? This interpretation only fits with notions – now surely discarded – that the Soviet leaders after 1945 really were heading for the Atlantic, with the Berlin Blockade as a bold stride on the way. But Stalin had no intention of launching another war; it took two superpowers to make a Cold War out of mutual misperceptions of threat. Applebaum’s account doesn’t allow that the United States also contributed to the division of Europe, through its policy of drawing a firebreak across the continent which communism could not cross (a subtext of the Marshall Plan, for example). More convincingly, she attributes the hardening in Eastern Europe to a growing awareness of failure – economic, social, political. The local ‘little Stalins’ had cowed or annihilated their enemies; now their Soviet masters were impatient for signs of positive achievement.

But in this period, which Applebaum calls ‘High Stalinism’, the socialist ‘achievements’ failed to materialise. Grand Sovietic ‘plans’ (four-year, six-year) ended in unreliable statistics and avalanches of heavy industrial goods manufactured to meet production targets rather than discernible need or demand. Weary populations grew aware that their standard of living was being outstripped by the capitalist West. With the consumer market ignored, desperate shortages of housing, domestic goods and often food developed. Even more serious, from the Soviet point of view, was the failure of socialist transformation to produce a new and reliable proletariat. The regimes now set about the collectivisation of agriculture along Soviet lines, supposed to take the form of happy partnerships between rural workers multiplying output with modern machinery. But the result was more often stagnation, waste and neglect. The Polish leaders, after thunderous rebukes from Moscow, made no more than a feeble gesture towards collectivisation. They knew what Polish peasants were capable of when provoked, so they left them and their horses alone on their little strip-fields. In the same way, Polish Stalinists avoided a head-on collision with the most powerful and fanatically patriotic Catholic Church in Europe. The primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, suffered only three years of monastic house arrest, and was never put on trial.

It was in this period that Stalin and his police chiefs organised the East European show trials of the 1950s. The trials and executions of communist leaders – Rajk and his comrades in Hungary, Rudolf Slansky and his colleagues in Czechoslovakia – were only the most spectacular events in this general terror, which was to last until Stalin’s death in 1953. (Once again, Poland was not on parade. The previous party chief, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was identified by the Soviets as the appropriate victim, but his trial was skilfully put off until the change of leadership in Moscow made it unnecessary.) Why were these trials so important to the Kremlin when they were so damaging to world communism with their grotesque evidence, fake confessions and paranoid anti-semitism? Applebaum suggests a few reasons: to cover economic failure by blaming foreign sabotage, or to dramatise the virtues of the new party leaderships. But the truth seems to be that the trials – so closely modelled on the horrible charades in prewar Moscow – emerged exclusively from Stalin’s diseased will. Without hands-on Soviet management by teams of Moscow interrogators, none of the satellite regimes would have moved on from persecuting non-communist opponents, real or imagined, to framing their own party leaders as Trotskyist and Zionist traitors.

The uneasy thaw which followed Stalin’s death ended in violence and tragedy. The workers’ uprising in East Germany in June 1953 was followed in 1956 by ‘the Polish October’, the upheaval that ended direct Soviet management of the country and bought the Poles a few years of relative freedom from police terror and stifling censorship. In Hungary, the Polish example led within days to the uncontrollable explosion of the Budapest uprising.

Applebaum is very perceptive about the way fear slowly drained away in that interval, as a new restlessness began to prepare for change. She is excellent on the contrast between the World Youth Festival in East Berlin in 1951 and the one in Warsaw in 1955. The German event, its massive drills and torch-lit marches rousing uneasy feelings among some foreign delegates, was ‘the zenith of High Stalinism’. But the Warsaw festival became a moment of blissful liberation, as Poland opened to the world – discovering its music, its youthful clothes, its optimism and laughter – for the first time since 1939. A cabaret director remembered that ‘suddenly everything had become colourful, in a manner which was unbelievably unsocialist … without warning, they had let a crowd of multicoloured outsiders into grey Warsaw.’ Politically, nothing was ever quite the same again.

After the 1956 revolutions, but beyond the scope of this book, came the long decades of decline as the East European regimes went on the defensive. They justified their existence by empty claims to be ‘overtaking the West’ in one branch or another of the economy, or by cultivating varieties of fake patriotism. The enthusiasm and conviction of the Stalinist years were too embarrassing to remember, overlaid as they were by memories of state terror and national humiliation. And yet that enthusiasm, the faith that they could overthrow capitalism and feudalism and bring about a new socialist world order, was the only legitimacy the incoming communist leaderships of Eastern Europe could have aspired to. When Stalinism failed, as by about 1948 it blatantly had, these regimes decayed into heavily armed police states whose only ideology was survival.

They were cruel, inefficient and increasingly corrupt. But they all (East Germany with most reluctance) gave up the Stalinist ambition to mobilise the private lives of their citizens. They still required obedience and conformity in public, putting in an appearance with office colleagues on May Day for the parade or avoiding critical remarks about the Soviet Union in the bus queue. But once home, your private life – boring, alcoholic, even bourgeois – was your own affair. To call such regimes totalitarian seems far-fetched; their degree of control was so partial, their authority so leaky. Could the term be better used to describe their predecessors, the Stalinist party-states of Applebaum’s book which ruled Eastern Europe for the first ten years after the war?

She is wary about this. Admitting that the adjective has been so diluted that it can be little more than a rude word sprayed on any rival government, Applebaum insists that it’s ‘more than an ill-defined insult. Historically, there were regimes which aspired to total control.’ She refers to Mussolini’s ‘everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.’ And that was certainly the aspiration of the huge Soviet security apparatus which entered Eastern Europe with the Red Army and the Moscow-trained local party leaders. The NKVD (later KGB) transmitted to the new secret police forces the idea that ‘anyone who was not a communist was, by definition, under suspicion as a foreign spy.’ But these recruits, as Applebaum says, were young, often uneducated and from poor rural backgrounds – anything but sophisticated spooks. Credulity of that kind didn’t extend into the upper ranks of the party, and indeed one of the striking things about the big Stalinist figures is how opportunistic, unprincipled, adaptable and open to compromise they turned out to be in later years, when things began to fall apart. ‘Revisionist’ communists, on the other hand, earnest reformers who worried about ‘departures from Leninist norms’, often turned out to be disastrously inflexible.

So even in these postwar years, ‘totalitarian’ described the official goals rather than the reality. Poland’s rulers knew that they never stood a chance of breaking the power of the Catholic Church at the parish level or of expropriating the farmers, and showed typical Stalinist flexibility in evading confrontation. Nor did the populations of Eastern Europe internalise the ‘official goals’ rammed down their throats. Enormous energy was put into the ideological training of ‘youth’. But none of it stuck, and it’s one of the sobering lessons of the last hundred years that ideology runs off the young like water from a duck’s back – once the duck is allowed to flap its wings. In 1945, the Allies expected to meet fanatical ‘Werewolf’ resistance from young Germans hardened by 12 years of Nazi propaganda. Instead, they cuddled up to the American tanks demanding gum and jazz. Hungarian or Polish schoolchildren were taught distorted party versions of national history and recited poems of gratitude to all-wise Joseph Stalin, but at home – once they could be trusted to be discreet – parents usually put them right. People’s Poland mounted a hugely elaborate campaign (brilliantly examined by Applebaum) to infiltrate, undermine and then integrate the Scout and Guide movements, which in this and other countries of the region had developed into patriotic (and pious) youth militias. All the authorities achieved was the creation of a schizoid identity: obedient Soviet-style Pioneers on the surface, daring auxiliaries to the opposition whenever serious protest broke out on the street.

The real challenges to communism in its Eastern European versions came from those who took it seriously. It was no coincidence that the passionate young cadres of Stalinism in Applebaum’s book, hunting down every relic of bourgeois thinking, often became the heroic and ultimately victorious leaders of the opposition in the next generation. Their Marxist-Leninist texts had taught these intellectuals that proper revolutions began with the industrial working class. So when the lids blew off in Poznan and Budapest in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, it was to the factory floor that they went with visions that coupled workers’ control of production with freedom of association and an end to censorship.

The regimes are long gone, and so too are those noble dreams of workers’ self-management. (Who remembers that Solidarity was a trade union committed to anarcho-syndicalism?) But Applebaum is right to point out ways in which the system sabotaged itself. Totalitarian fantasies of control kept these societies in a perpetual condition of emergency. ‘None of the regimes seemed to realise that they were unstable by definition,’ she writes. ‘By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.’ Anyone who formed an independent chess club or model-railway association became a potential enemy of the state.

Here once again Applebaum’s alertness to the way dictatorships hollow out civil society leads back to her distrust of the state itself. ‘By the 1950s,’ she laments, ‘most people in Eastern Europe worked in state jobs, lived in state-owned properties and sent their children to state schools. They depended on the state for healthcare and they bought food from state-owned shops.’ Substitute the Co-op for state shops, and this is an accurate description of how most people in Scotland – for example – lived at the same time (the proportion of privately owned housing in the total stock was actually lower than in communist Hungary). Far from being a living death, that condition is remembered with lively nostalgia. And conflating Stalinism with social democracy in this way obscures the big difference: the matter of liberty. Daily Record editors were not arrested for criticising the government, and the few hundred Scots who could afford to pay private school fees were free to do so.

‘Collaboration’ is a heavy word, in its Second World War sense, and Applebaum – although choosing her words carefully – is unfair when she suggests that all those who accepted communist rules for civil society were ‘reluctant “collaborators”’. After describing the way small East German printers submitted to Soviet guidelines on what they could or couldn’t print, she writes that each one of them had ‘somehow contributed to the creation of totalitarianism. So did everyone who endured a university course in Marxist-Leninism in order to become a doctor or an engineer; everyone who joined an artists’ union in order to become a painter.’

Where, in that definition, did ‘collaboration’ stop and normal Schwejkian ‘getting by’ begin? One of the best things about Iron Curtain is Applebaum’s enormous stock of interviews and personal anecdotes, some of which tell a less judgmental tale. She gives, to take one example, a long and fascinating section to Wanda Telakowska, a warmhearted but decidedly non-communist designer in the Polish arts and crafts tradition. The patriotic Telakowska joined the new regime after the war in order to provide Polish factories with first-class product designs: ‘Beauty is for everyday and for everybody.’ Her Bureau for Supervision of Production Aesthetics was a great success in all ways but one: the factories thought its brilliant suggestions were too expensive and didn’t use them. Afterwards, it seems, Telakowska and her interest in folk art went right out of fashion, dismissed by a later generation as Stalinist. And yet by pitching in as bravely as she did, she was never what we mean by a ‘collaborator’. The Stalinist years were harsh and in the end sterile. But people like Telakowska somehow preserved the idea that a society could exploit its own traditions in its own way, and create an ‘authentic space’, an enclave of independence, as it did so. Nothing was quite ‘total’ in Eastern Europe – except for the illusions of rulers who thought their subjects would one day thank them.