November 9, 2012 | The Barnes & Noble Review
Imagine yourself at a summer soccer game. The day is fine, the play is lively, and 20,000 fans cheer alongside you. Halftime arrives. Instead of a marching band or cheerleaders, a handful of politicians takes the field. In stiff, bureaucratic language, they urge all present to vote in tomorrow’s three-part referendum on parliamentary reform, the nationalization of industry, and changes to the country’s borders. They say that voting is every citizen’s patriotic duty, imply that there is only one correct answer — “three times yes!” — and hint that they will know how each person casts his ballot. The crowd, bored by the jargon and angry that the game has been co-opted by hacks, begins to jeer.
This scenario played out in Poland on June 29, 1946. The politicians were members of the country’s Communist Party, acting at Moscow’s direction. The referendum was an important test of their new puppet government. But party leaders were forced to falsify the following day’s results to show victory: recently unsealed archives show that only a quarter of the population voted “three times yes,” while the rest rejected at least one of the referendum questions, dealing a major blow to Moscow. Having learned its lesson, the Party used a different approach six months later in a Polish parliamentary election. State security arrested the leadership of the opposition party, struck its candidates from the ballot, falsely reported that the opposition leader had been killed in a plane crash, and sent armed guards to march citizens to polling places and ensure that they voted correctly. This time, 80 percent of voters cast their ballots for the Party’s bloc of candidates.
The 1946 Polish referendum plays a pivotal role in Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956. Through this and similar defeats in the 1940s, the Soviet Union and its proxy regimes learned to their horror that they were not popular. Applebaum writes that Moscow and the local parties had genuinely thought they would win elections: the undeniable historical laws of Marxism would persuade the public and give Soviet communism a mandate in Europe. But Poland was not the only setback: the Communist parties in Hungary and East Germany also lost thumpingly in 1945. And elections were not the only means for citizens to register discontent. Minor rebellions like one’s choice of music, clothes, and social associations became subversive political acts for those citizens disinclined to risk open defiance: Applebaum writes that “by trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.”
Many studies of Eastern Europe under communism dwell on the years after 1947: the time of the Cold War, “high Stalinism,” purges, show trials, and vicious repression. But Applebaum devotes fully half of her outstanding book to the immediate postwar years, when the Iron Curtain was still descending and had not yet touched rubble. She reminds us that the Soviets first occupied the Baltic countries, as well as parts of Poland, Romania, and Finland, in 1939 and simply declined to return them. Applebaum contends that the Soviets did not seize Eastern Europe in response to the West or the Cold War; they were imperialists revealing the rotten core of communist ideology. The word totalitarian, Applebaum writes, “has lost its capacity to shock.” But as she painstakingly demonstrates in her outraged yet scholarly work — both Iron Curtain and its predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag (2003) — totalitarianism in action remains shocking.
The Soviets stayed behind the scenes in Eastern Europe during the early postwar years. Applebaum writes:
Stalin’s initial policy was to tread softly, not to upset the Allies, and to win people over by persuasion or stealth. This is why free elections were held in Hungary, why some independent political parties were tolerated elsewhere, and why, as late as 1948, Stalin told the East German communists to follow an “opportunistic policy” which would entail “moving toward socialism not directly but in zigzags and a roundabout way.”
Guided by Soviet advisers, local party leaders tried to co-opt political and cultural institutions like scouting groups, social democratic parties, and youth organizations. When this failed, the party banned those groups and imprisoned their members. The party also targeted the media. Applebaum quotes a hopeful East German apparatchik who justified an early (and temporary) decision to allow a free exchange of views on the radio: this would “provide a mirror for the masses in an interim period, while they were developing a democratic understanding.” But this type of leniency ended when electoral losses and Stalin’s growing paranoia sparked an increase in the pace of “reform.” As propaganda began replacing classical music on the radio, listeners tuned out. One wrote in a letter to the editor in 1947: “Dear Radio, you have slowly started to become boring.”
The Stalinization of Eastern Europe featured scenes straight out of Orwell. Members of the Catholic Church in Hungary who refused to sign an ominous “peace petition” were branded warmongers. Secret police forces appeared, searching out enemies, and local parties repurposed Nazi concentration camps in emulation of the Gulag. Communists rewrote textbooks and scrubbed a beloved children’s story by changing lines about a child looking out over Warsaw and seeing the spire of a church; the new version had him observing “the Palace of Culture, a towering monument to Stalin.” Socialist realism infected and stultified the arts, producing banal murals and wooden films. Meanwhile, the promises of Marxism never materialized, and economic growth trickled. Bosses drove workers to meet production quotas, causing them to sacrifice quality for quantity, and nationalizations were met with labor unrest. Black markets flourished. Dissenters were shot.
The tragedy of the era that Applebaum captures so well is that the collapse of a monstrous system bent on self-destruction seemed inevitable — but was still decades away. Stalin’s death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing him heralded change; but when change came too quickly, in the form of riots in Berlin in 1953 and revolution in Budapest in 1956, the Party crushed it. Decades of grim industrial repression lay ahead. These harsh years are often lost in the fog of the postwar period, when Western Europe took center stage and the Soviet Union hid its machinations in the East. Iron Curtain is a valuable reminder that the menace of Stalinism knew no borders.