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Josef Stalin is toppled, at least symbolically, during the 1956 Hungarian revolt. (AP)
Josef Stalin is toppled, at least symbolically, during the 1956 Hungarian revolt. (AP)

Review: History

During life under perfect tyranny, compromises with a fickle state Add to ...

  • Title Iron Curtain
  • Author Anne Applebaum
  • Genre history
  • Publisher M&S/Signal Editions
  • Pages 566
  • Price $39.95

They were uninterested in mere compliance or obedience; they wanted devotion. That was the moral of a story related to me by one of my first college professors, a refugee from communist Hungary.

In 1952, on a normal workday, he was summoned to an office meeting of the entire staff of the literary magazine where he worked. The Communist Party secretary began his speech, “As comrade Stalin teaches us …” Upon hearing the name “Stalin,” his colleagues in the front row stood up and began to cheer. Soon everyone stood up and began to clap. At the side of the room sat a small, eagle-eyed man who kept close watch on the work force. What was he looking for? The enemy of the people.

“And how would he know who that was?” I asked.

“That would be the person who stopped clapping first,” my professor responded.

What would it be like to live under perfect tyranny? Anne Applebaum, whose earlier work, Gulag, received the Pulitzer Prize, captures this world with a cast of characters full of human weaknesses and ambiguity, neither caricatured heroes nor villains, but real people making daily compromises with a fickle and dangerous state. The Polish politician who moves from the prewar semi-fascist right to collaboration with the secret police, but who provides a valuable literary outlet for Catholic thought; the Hungarian psychoanalyst who tries to save her profession by combining elements of Marx and Freud; the post-impressionist German artist who returns to help rebuild East Germany, but ends up painting a mural of happy workers and kindly white-haired party bosses on a government building; and the countless ordinary citizens who just wanted to get on with their lives after years of violence and trauma.

But the totalitarian rulers of Hungary, Poland and East Germany never did get the devotion they craved. Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe unfolded in three acts. In the first, the Red Army arrives. Murderous rape gangs of Soviet soldiers roam the city streets. In East Germany, otherwise pliant local communists complain. Yugoslav Milovan Djilas personally intervenes with Stalin, who coldly urges him “to understand if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes a trifle.”

They took more than a trifle. Reparations quickly turned to looting. Applebaum draws our attention to the iconic photograph of the Soviet flag being placed over the Reichstag in Berlin, which then had to be retouched to erase the multiple (stolen) watches adorning the soldier’s wrist. While secret police detachments hunted down nationalist resistance fighters in the Polish and Ukrainian woods and rounded up unwitting citizens for “a little work” inside the Soviet Union, millions of Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians were forcibly moved to make ethnic borders and national borders coincide. The few remaining Jews wandered the towns and cities of the region in a vain search for surviving relatives.

The second act begins in fall, 1947, with the unbridled use of force against perceived “enemies of the people.” Soviet advisers teach their East European pupils how to create their own gulags; how to cultivate “socialist realism” in art and architecture; and how to replace the Boy Scouts with communist youth leagues. Local monsters, the little Stalins, such as Walter Ulbricht in East Germany, Boleslaw Beirut in Poland and Matyas Rakosi in Hungary, set up their own personality cults. Reruns of the Soviet show trials from the 1930s are staged in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Loyal communists, after being tortured, publicly confess to the most improbable collaborations with Western intelligence agencies.

If the war and the Soviet occupation in its aftermath created fertile soil for totalitarianism, its actual imposition could be accomplished only with large doses of force and fraud. Elections were falsified, opponents murdered, imprisoned priests humiliated and a generation of children taught a pack of lies about history, society and the surrounding world.

But as Applebaum shows, the imposition failed. Homo sovieticus, the new Soviet man, never really took root. Nowhere was this more apparent than in East Germany. As “Americanized” West Germany grew rich, communist East Germany remained drab. International youth festivals in the 1950s that brought brightly dressed and carefree teenagers to Berlin and Warsaw from Paris and Rome only succeeded in stoking a counterculture and a breathless desire for Western goods. Communist economic plans could only work by suppressing wages and consumption in the hopes of long-run growth. This exposed a key contradiction of the entire order: “By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.” When wages fell or toilet paper disappeared from the shelves, the people knew exactly whom to blame: the party itself.

Stalin’s death in 1953 ushers in the third act: revolution and decay. First the workers of East Germany revolt in June, 1953. Soviet tanks prop up the regime, but until the very end the party fears its own workers. Then, in 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev criticizes Stalin’s leadership cult, the Soviet replica regimes fall into disarray and the little Stalins find themselves alone. Poland is temporarily pacified with a compromise. In Hungary, however, a full-scale anti-communist revolution erupts. Party headquarters are sacked, secret policemen swing from lampposts and a desperate, doomed battle is waged against Soviet tanks. The reform communist leader, Imre Nagy, declares his country’s neutrality and departure from the Warsaw Pact, but with the West unwilling to come to Hungary’s aid, the revolution is crushed. Applebaum relates the crisis of the bloc with dozens of interviews and the latest archival findings. It is a highly readable and human account.

What is to be learned from this history of violence and tyranny, of a failed attempt to make a new “Soviet man” by force? Applebaum aims her answer not at her North American readers, but directly at the citizens of Eastern Europe. “Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how it was destroyed in the first place: how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people manipulated.” But this important and beautifully written book deserves to be read well beyond Eastern Europe. Citizens of the post-Arab spring Middle East, for example, would do well to consider their own pasts as they attempt to build a better future.

Jeffrey Kopstein is director of the Centre for Jewish Studies and professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

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