Saturday 15 February 2014

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Anne Applebaum


Anne Applebaum in the introduction to Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 quotes Hannah Arendt, who said the story of how East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria became Communist after the war
 while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.
Naturally Miss Applebaum thinks otherwise and sets out to show the manner in which each country became Communist. Each country of course was sui generis but each became Communist because Stalin and the international communist movement which did his bidding willed it. Hannah Arendt is right. The history of these years is very harrowing and not in the end particularly enlightening.  

Let us always remember that Eric Hobsbawm, C.H., referred to the process by which these countries became satellites of Stalin as the 'East European revolutions'. This man Hobsbawm  was accorded great respect when I read history at Cambridge in the 1980s.

Anne Applebaum takes us through the results of a quarter of a century of historical research since the end of the Cold War and this adds much to the story. She reminds us that the Communists in 1945 believed in their doctrine. They believed they could win free elections because had they thought they would inevitably fail to win mass support they would not have been Marxists. This is a point worth making and stressing. The Communists who took power in the region in the late 1940s were working for a foreign power, were therefore traitors, from a democratic or conservative point of view, but they were also dedicated idealists and brave men - in most cases at least. There were a few exceptions, of whom one might be Bierut Boleslaw, who became leader of Poland. Nothing much is known about what he did in the war. Like the other 'Muscovite' Communist leaders he was a spy but his career is very murky before 1945. Miss Applebaum speculates that he was a double agent whom Stalin could blackmail. Perhaps, though Stalin could blackmail anyone living in the Communist bloc.

We should always bear in mind that what is long in the past was once in the future. No-one expected the USA to keep troops in Europe after the war. The fact that they did so is Stalin's greatest failure. It was expected that Britain would face the Communists alone, with only shattered France's support, and Britain had been almost destroyed by her Pyrrhic victory over Germany and Japan. Britain had no means of stopping Russia imposing Communism on Eastern Europe, though her prestige is the reason Stalin insisted that a Communist Greece was out of the question - he said Britain would never tolerate it. Even with the decision of Harry Truman to keep his men in Europe and wage the Cold War the Western powers had no means of leverage in Eastern Europe. Yet for some reason East Europeans blame America and Britain for selling them out in Yalta. It makes no sense yet everyone in Romania continues to trot out this idea.

Stalin would have been better off allowing the Finlandisation of Eastern Europe - allowing the Eastern European countries to have democratic systems in return for their being the USSR's allies as Finland was. This would probably have meant the USA leaving Europe to its own devices. If Stalin wanted a cordon sanitaire, as he did, to protect the USSR from Germany and Britain, a ring of Finlands would have provided this, but he wanted more. He believed in the inevitable victory of Communism and wanted to export the revolution. And Soviet society needed an enemy - so the Cold War served his purposes. When Khrushchev offered to permit the unification of Germany - in effect handing over the DDR (East Germany) to the Federal Republic in return for German neutrality America and NATO foolishly turned down the offer. Ulbricht was horrified by Khrushchev's offer but it was only Eisenhower who saved him and the DDR.

I learnt from this book that Churchill did ask his planners in spring 1945 to look at the possibility of war with the USSR in central Europe. The plan called Operation Unthinkable turned out, predictably, to be completely impractical and unaffordable. What was tragic was the decision not to push further East when the Allied armies had the chance in 1944 and 1945. Eisenhower’s decision to liberate Paris rather than attack Germany, for example, meant the Iron Curtain was further west than it need have been, but in any case Romania's fate would have depended on Stalin. Romania would have only been saved from Communism had the Allies attacked Germany via Yugoslavia rather than via Italy or had Britain and France not gone to war with Germany at all in 1939. 

The blurb reminded me of something I had forgotten, that Anne Applebaum is married to Mr Sikorsky, the Polish Foreign Minister. (He was a member of the Bullingdon Club and is alongside David Cameron and Boris Johnson in that famous photograph). Her book is very strongly weighted to Poland, covers Hungary and East Germany in detail, does not say much about Czechoslovakia, elides Romania and Bulgaria and does not cover Yugoslavia or Albania at all, nor the countries that ended up back in the USSR.

For me the most interesting part was the history of the Polish resistance to the Communists, particularly the WiN. What a great country Poland is – I yearn to revisit. I learnt that there was some sort of a Hungarian resistance too. What interests me more is the moving and heroic story of the Romanian and Ukrainian resistances, but these are not mentioned.

Conflict between Muslims and Christians had already led to the forced migrations of Greeks and Turks before and after the First World War. In 1945 and 1946 a Procrustean reordering  of East Europe's ethnic minorities further north took place. An ethnic war was was fought between Ukrainians and Poles which the world ignored. Ethnic Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians were expelled from the places across Central and Eastern Europe in which their families had lived for many centuries. The whole story of displaced persons - the so-called DPs- is calamitous. Coming after the slaughter of the Jews by the Germans, by 1950 a terrible simplicity had been imposed on Eastern European countries which had hitherto been ethnic mixtures. 

Attlee, Stalin and Truman at Potsdam in 1945 ordered these vast movements of people to get rid of the ethnic patchwork that had led to war in 1939. At almost the same time, oddly enough, the ethnically homogeneous countries, Britain, France and Holland, began to become rapidly multi-ethnic. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, agreeing to the ethnic cleansing of Turkey in 1923, had agreed that ethnic minorities do not live happily side by side but the British Government by the 1960s had changed its mind.

I was recently reading Mircea Eliade’s Lisbon Diary, written while he worked as a diplomat in Salazar’s neutral Portugal. For him the defeat of Germany by Communist Russia was a disaster because it was a disaster for Romania. It is hard not to agree with him  that Romania would have been much better off had the Axis won, her Jews apart, and we do not know what their fate would have been in Antonescu’s Romania had the Axis won.

Things are as they are and happened the way they happened. There is not much point in wondering what would have happened if ...except to remind ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about the way things happened. To think otherwise is to fall into the Marxist fallacy of historicism. Stalin won the Second World War and so did Communism and many left-wing ideas. The Communists eventually gave up their grip on Eastern Europe but socialists and Marxists remain influential because they had been on the winning side in history. The defeat of the Nazis, a very good thing in itself, also led to a big left-wing shift in thinking. Had, say, the Kaiser won the Great War in 1915, or the Great War been avoided or had Nazi Germany not gone to war things might have been completely different. It might be that colonial empires still stretched across Africa and Asia, Europe remained white or the USA were still isolationist as the founding fathers intended. The EU, on the other hand, might have existed in a Europe dominated by the second or third German Reichs. We do not know. As it is, Communism was finally defeated in Eastern Europe, thankfully, after more than forty years of horror. 

In Western Europe, as a response to Stalinism, the democratic left largely won the battle of ideas, meaning ideas like: decolonialisation, confiscation of money from the rich, redistribution of income, the state being responsible for planning and managing the economy, the welfare state and legislating for sexual, racial and every other kind of equality.  

The one hopeful chapter in this book is the last, about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, even though it was a brave, sad failure and repressed with much bloodshed. Anne Applebaum makes the point that no-one expected the uprising - Western experts and Communists alike assumed the Hungarians had been brainwashed to accept totalitarianism. In fact, every fresh generation is born with an instinct to discern truth from falsehood. This is why we must never lose hope.


  1. Thanks for the excellent review. Growing up during the Cold War, I had accepted that the United State's presence in Europe was just the natural order of things. I never occurred to me that, "No-one expected the USA to keep troops in Europe after the war. The fact that they did so is Stalin's greatest failure. It was expected that Britain would face the Communists alone, with only shattered France's support, and Britain had been almost destroyed by her Pyrrhic victory over Germany and Japan. Britain had no means of stopping Russia imposing Communism on Eastern Europe,". So NATO did some good — except, "The Communists eventually gave up their grip on Eastern Europe but socialists and Marxists remain influential because they had been on the winning side in history. The defeat of the Nazis, a very good thing in itself, also led to a big left-wing shift in thinking." I'm imagining that these days NATO (in order to fulfill its tacitly understood mandate to halt the spread of Communism) has its missiles pointed straight up.

  2. A very good review Paul.

  3. In 1936 Bierut was expelled from the Communist Party of Poland for co-operation with the public prosecutor and the court - it would seem that he did that for a reduced sentence on spying charges. It certainly meant he would be less than independently minded in post-war Poland

  4. Raises the point it's easy to forget now, when talking about McCarthyism, Vietnam, Pete Seeger's communism, that in 1950 Communism was an expansionist tyranny that had occupied half of Europe, come to power in China, and posed a genuine threat to human freedom everywhere.

    Without American anti-communism, and the maintenance of their overseas garrisons, there might not be a free country left in the world.

  5. Who else but America could have occupied Germany without eventually causing another war in the west? The answer to why the US didn't invade further east is that we were barely able to do Italy.

    1. Italy was a terrible mistake. I cannot imagine a landing around Dubrovnik - something considered - could have gone much worse. Could Britain have occupied France without America? I suppose not. I wonder if a negotiated peace in 1942 or 1943 might have been better in any case.

  6. I recently finished an e-book on communism, so I will share a little part of it with you. In short, Eastern Europe became communist thanks to the Yalta deal among Roosevelt, Churchill and Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the West just served Eastern Europe on a plate to Stalin. Then the communists took the power in three stages. The first stage was the genuine coalition. Several political parties, differing in ideology and political platforms combined on a common short-term program to form a national government. Similarly to the Nazis, the main goal of the communists was to secure their positions in the police, the army and the press. A communist minister of the interior would allow the communists to hire numerous communists in the police, who would intimidate and arrest all their political opponents. This stage was very short, late 1944 to 1945, in other words, it lasted roughly a year.
    The second stage may be described as the bogus coalition. The government still contained non-communist parties during this stage but the non-communist ministers were chosen by the communist party. The essential feature of this stage was that the agrarian, liberal, social democratic and other bourgeois parties which were tolerated at the beginning were driven into opposition. This stage continued between 1945 to the fall of 1947.
    The third and last stage started with the proclamation of a people’s republic, controlled by one monolithic party- the local communist party regardless of its name- workers’ party, socialist, communist, etc. All other parties were banned. Social democrats were well purged and forced to join the communists. All other opposition was suppressed and its leaders either escaped abroad if they were lucky or they were arrested, imprisoned or merely executed as “spies of the western imperialists.” This stage started in the autumn of 1947 and continued to the end of 1948 for most countries in Eastern Europe. Chris Kostov

    1. You summarise what happened but this has been known since the time that it happened. The UK and USA had no way of preventing Stalin's Russia taking over Eastern Europe so it is simply not true to say that 'Eastern Europe became communist thanks to the Yalta deal'. Does your book break new ground?

  7. Whenever I encounter Hobsbawm's filth I self medicate by enjoying the lectures and writings of a real scholar: Quentin Skinner.

  8. @Chris Kostov. There was nothing bogus about the coalitions formed in the post war period it was communist policy the essential element of the Popular Front (see Dimitrov) it was how communists on the ground worked with anti-fascist forces, it was Stalin that did not like the liberalism that this created or the diversity it fostered and it was he that organised to suppress it, and against this a great many communists fought and were imprisoned. I don't know what you have read but it does sound self-serving, the historical complexities were many.

    The thing that Stalin most feared were western communists, who would have if not gained government in their own right been a major player in Italy, Greece, France and Holland at least, he did a deal with the west to suppress them, just as he arranged the murder of the KKE leadership around Aris in Greece, and tried to get rid of Tito (which was mainly given over to Britain as was Greece -- both gifted by Stalin by the way, Churchill was amazed).

    The Yalta deal went all to the West, the Eastern block were all directly liberated by USSR who did most of the fighting Europe and all but defeated the NAZI regime. After 1943 the cards were on the table. At least Stalin did not drop A bombs on Japan to break up deals about allied occupation of the islands as the US did, that is despite him being a horrid little toe-rag heading up a bureaucratic elite (shades of George Orwell that sounds like us now).

    @P.V.E. Wood is right the Yalta agreement amazed the West in how little Stalin did demand, the fact is Stalin only what they had paid for in blood, and do what should have been done at the end of WWI -- divide Germany between east and west. It was the division that was the most important product of the peace as it neutered Germany's industrial expansion and ushered in a new phase of development.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. There is nothing amazing about the bogus coalitions. The Hungarian communist leader Mátyás Rákosi expressed the communist way of doing politics quite openly - the "salami tactics." You make a coalition with the opposition and then you eliminate the opposition leaders and other key figures one by one. This was the predominant strategy, recommended by Stalin and there are numerous documents proving how farcical all these trials against the opposition leaders were across Eastern Europe.
      Regarding the occupation of Eastern Europe, Roosevelt allowed Stalin to take way too much. The US could occupy a much larger chunk of Germany but they simply allowed the Soviet Army to occupy what they occupied. It is curious to talk about territories paid by blood when the resistance to the Red army in Romania and Bulgaria was next to zero, i.e. they were just occupied by the Soviets. Only Hungary resisted fiercely and fought to the end. According to the memoirs of Bulgarian diplomats, Bulgaria offered the Brits and the Americans to occupy the country but in the end Roosevelt just allowed the Soviets to occupy the country themselves. So, what could Roosevelt and Churchill expect later?! Free elections in Bulgaria or Poland?! Thank God, Truman quickly realized how dangerous Stalin was and he simply didn't allow the Soviets to divide Japan. If he had allowed the Soviets to occupy part of Tokyo, now we could have another East Germany or North Korea in Japan.
      Western communists are western communists. Here we talk about the East European communists. Their leaders were parachuted by Stalin in each country to follow his orders and they completed their tasks quite well.

      By the way the solution after the First World War wasn't to divide Germany but rather to follow President Wilson's recommendations and provide a fair peace treaty with reasonable borders. When you cut off 2/3 of Hungary's territory, or you impose such a harsh peace treaty on Germany, you can't expect that they will be just smiling happily.

  9. I think these exhanges are very interesting but I wish commenters wouldn't hide behind aliases. If you believe what you're writing, why not put your own name to it?

  10. A wonderfully patronising review. Gabi Charing