Mussolini had gone by 1944 but his definition of totalitarianism lived on: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”. That was the blueprint for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe too.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, 547pp, £25
Concentrating on Poland (where her husband is foreign minister), Hungary, East Germany and Bulgaria, Appelbaum shows with admirable clarity how Stalin rolled out the totalitarian state. But this is no dull analysis of the ideology and structures of communism; instead, she uses the testimony of both opponents and victims of the regime to bring the period to life, showing the full range of damage – physical, economic, political and psychological – and its aftermath.
As the numbers killed by Stalin’s actions were even greater than those slain by the Nazis, this damage was enormous. Yet leaders of the western democracies effectively ignored the repression taking place elsewhere on the continent..
Applebaum is balanced. Although rape, violence and looting were commonplace, she points out, to the average Soviet soldier, the demoralised populations of central and eastern Europe seemed to be living lavishly.
After the war, some countries’ Communist parties experimented with democracy but abandoned it when beaten in elections. Most soon realised that if allegiance to Soviet rule was to be the norm, patriotism must be discouraged. The Potsdam agreement signed by the Allied leaders in July 1945 helped to do this by sanctioning the moving of thousands of people to other countries in the biggest programme of ethnic cleansing ever seen.
Soon, the experience of peacetime seemed for many people to be little different from the despair of war. This was the time of High Stalinism, when central Europe’s Communist rulers all used secret police, state violence, manipulation of youth organisations, control of the radio, and all the levers of the state to frighten the populations into submission. The long-term aim was to create true believers dedicated to Communism and without any nationalist identity. Education would be used to create this “Soviet man”. Once a child had been transformed into a good Soviet citizen, these would become inheritable traits.
Many commentators have questioned why, given its dismal failure, so many millions went along with the Soviet experiment for so long. As Applebaum points out in a book that is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand Europe in the postwar years, at least at the start, the Communists did seem to bring order, safety, housing, jobs and a new education system. And in any case, who would want to pass judgement “on the people who lived in the most shattered part of Europe in the worst decades of the twentieth century”?
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