Blood and Lies Behind the Iron Curtain

Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Iron Curtain tells the largely untold story of Eastern Europe’s suppression at the hands of the Soviets after the Second World War

Books Communism Europe History
The people versus the People's Republic: A young freedom fighter in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (credit: Getty)

Nineteen forty-five was a good year for Britain. We had beaten Hitler in Europe (and Japan in Asia) and could get on with our lives. Peace, justice and freedom went together. That perspective — largely shared in Western Europe, America and the Commonwealth — still shapes our view of history today. 

Anne Applebaum’s masterly book gives, for the first time, a systematic explanation of the other, largely untold, side of the story, from the half of the European continent that sees 1945 differently. For the countries that fell into Soviet hands-most of Central Europe, plus the Baltic states and the Balkans — the defeat of Nazism marked the beginning of a new torment: Communist rule. 

It was not bad in the same way as under the Nazis. They had banned higher education in Poland, for example, hoping to create a nation of helots; Communists by contrast prized university education, so long as it taught the subjects they valued, in the way they wanted. Class and religious persecution replaced, with a few exceptions, oppression on grounds of ethnicity. 

Nor did events take the same course everywhere, not least because the starting points were so different. As Applebaum notes, the countries that the Red Army occupied-or “liberated” as they believed-differed wildly. They included big countries and small ones, monarchies and republics, autocracies and law-governed states, prosperous places and dirt-poor ones, states that had been independent for centuries and places such as East Germany (as it was to become) that had never been independent. Some had deep historic ties with Russia; for others the new Soviet overlords might as well have been from Mars.

Forty years later, the idea of a homogenous “Eastern Europe” — grey, cowed, unsmiling, shabby, poor, backward and isolated — had taken deep root in outsiders’ minds. In meticulous, gripping, poignant detail, Iron Curtain explains how that came about. It sustains a narrative arc over 11 years in multiple countries, while dealing with names, places and events that to many readers will be unfamiliar. 

She roots the story in the chaos of the immediate postwar era. It may come as a surprise to British readers, for example, to know that the fighting did not stop in 1945. Many countries were in a state of, in effect, civil war, with the remnants of wartime anti-Communist resistance armies (in Poland’s case under the command of the lawful government-in-exile in London) fighting the invaders from the east. The last Polish fighter, Józef Franczak, was killed in an ambush in 1963. The last Estonian partisan, August Sabbe, died while fleeing the KGB as late as 1978.

With memories of the chaos of war still raw, Communist rule seemed to many less horrific at the time than it does in retrospect. For all the iniquity of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Stalin teamed up with Hitler to divide the region, the Soviet Union and Communism had acquired a kind of moral legitimacy. Capitalism and bourgeois democracy seemed to have failed catastrophically. The Soviet Union had redeemed itself through the defeat of Fascism. Was it not time to give something else a try?

Though the process was eventually barbaric and ruthless, everything did not happen at once. Just as with the Bolshevik Revolution 30 years earlier, the Communists did not begin with a blueprint. They made it up as they went along. They did not start off believing that a general policy of savagery would be necessary. 

Our recent memory of Communism is shaped by its declining years, when debts, strikes and shortages highlighted the unworkability of planned economies. But the commissars of 1945, a rum lot with murky backgrounds and varying abilities, believed their own propaganda. It might be necessary to act toughly against individual enemies, with murder, torture, imprisonment or blackmail. Rivals for power — such as non-Communist political parties — were fair game too. But the Communists did not believe it would be necessary to impose their rule by terror. Explained properly, and given enough time, the masses would vote for it anyway.

For this reason, the process was a gradual one. Instead of imposing a Soviet-style planned economy from the start, in most countries they tolerated small business and peasant farmers. Communist party membership, tiny at first, mushroomed. Behind the scenes the moves were more sinister: Communists took control of the interior ministry, particularly the secret police and the radio, in those pre-television days the sole means of mass communication. 

By the gruesome standards of the time, this was small potatoes. With the full consent of the Western allies and with the support of local majority populations the new rulers also conducted ethnic cleansing: Germans in huge numbers and with great brutality were sent home to Germany. Poles from the country’s eastern regions (then in the Soviet Union) took their place. Tens of thousands of people died. Countless numbers were raped and robbed. Nobody made much fuss about it.

In the chaos of defeat, few paid much attention to the niceties of property rights either. The Communists launched popular programmes of land redistribution and nationalised heavy industry, promising better conditions for the workers. That, they hoped, would give people a persuasive foretaste of the paradise ahead.

But parliamentary elections, from 1945 onwards, conveyed a different message; a hugely shocking one for the region’s new masters. The despised “bourgeois” parties, despite systematic harassment and myriad bureaucratic obstacles, did well-and increasingly so over time. Voters wanted radical reforms, social justice and a new start — but not Soviet-style Communism. For people who believed they had an inviolable mandate from history, that was an intolerable setback. It also infuriated their masters in Moscow. 

What followed was a gruesome imposition of totalitarian rule, in the real (rather than lazy, rhetorical) sense of the term. Multiparty politics was abandoned. Political parties had to merge with the Communists, to accept a role as puppets, or fold. Independent media closed. The tentacles of Communist power spread from the secret police to every part of government: Applebaum gives a chilling description of how a series of arrests persuaded Hungary’s census office to abandon its principled refusal to provide its files to the secret police. 

Totalitarianism offered no room for independent institutions, or for rival systems of belief. The Catholic church was both. It came under agonising pressure, infiltrated, intimidated, and its clergy labelled as foreign stooges, peddlers of superstition, crooks and reactionaries. Some believers switched sides, joining “progressive” pro-regime front organisations. Others went underground. For the first time in centuries, martyrdom became a real choice for believers, in the heartlands of Christian Europe.

Before his arrest, Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary issued a statement absolving in advance Catholics who might be forced to sign documents denouncing him. Torture forced a garbled confession, in which he admitted participation in a plot to restore the Habsburgs, steal the crown jewels and start a third world war.

His counterpart in Poland after 1948, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, took a less antagonistic approach, hoping to buy time for the church to recover from the devastation of the war. Controversially, he signed an agreement with the authorities in 1950, instructing clergy to foster respect for the law — in effect abandoning the underground resistance. It did not stop him being arrested too. 

Applebaum’s book is so persuasive that it is easy to overlook how controversial it is. She explodes in particular the notion that the Soviets tightened their grip on their part of Europe in response to ill-judged bellicosity from Western warmongers. Like Gulag, her previous masterwork, Iron Curtain will make uncomfortable reading for soft-headed apologists for the failed Soviet experiment, and for those who see the Soviet system only as a phoney threat used to justify McCarthyism and hysterical anti-Communism. 

It also explains in a manner worthy of Arthur Koestler what totalitarianism really means. In the final chapters of the book she details the Soviet system’s relentless desire to hunt down every fragment of independent life and thought. Freemasons, for example, had deep historical roots in Hungary. But the notion of a secret society, even one based on altruism and reason, was impermissible. Education, and anything that would influence young people, was a priority for the Communists too. That meant rewriting children’s stories to make them ideologically correct. University admissions were skewed to encourage workers and discourage the bourgeois-in a way that for some British readers may have unpleasant echoes of the modern fashion for “fair access”. 

Yet as the screws tightened, the system increasingly failed. Productivity plummeted amid abysmal working conditions. Exhortation and propaganda were no substitute for proper wages. When in 1953 East German workers went on strike to demand a less punishing regime, the Soviet Union used tanks against them. Political repression turned inwards too: when the real class enemies and bourgeois nationalists were jailed, the secret police began hounding Communists instead, including some of the most grizzled veterans of the cause. Their dazed and fanciful confessions undermined the regime’s legitimacy too: how was it possible that so many fascist hyenas had been able to nest for so long in the bosom of the party? Something was surely adrift. 

Paradoxically it was the belated funeral of one of the victims of the show trials, the loathsome secret police chief Laszlo Rajk, that fuelled the Hungarian reform Communists in 1956. His interment also buried Hungarian Stalinism, paving the way for the brief era of freedom that was crushed by the Soviet invasion.

That both doomed the Communist cause and demoralised its opponents. For the dogged anti-Communist activists from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the West’s failure to intervene was a catastrophic disappointment. Only one choice remained: to make the best of things. Yet the repeated use of force destroyed the Soviet claim to the moral high ground. For the next 30 years, the rulers of Eastern Europe gnawed at knots they themselves had tied. Why was Communism not popular? Why didn’t it work? Would another dose of liberalisation mean revolution and Soviet invasion? 

The result was a series of ad hoc experiments: more room for the Church in Poland; “Goulash Communism” in Hungary, intensified repression and the Berlin Wall in East Germany. The uniformity of “Eastern Europe” began to erode. As Applebaum notes “by the 1980s East Germany had the largest police state, Poland the highest church attendance, Romanians the most dramatic food shortages, Hungarians the highest living standards and Yugoslavia the most relaxed relationship with the West.”

But none of it worked. Applebaum nails this in her conclusion: “By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.” That opened the way for dissidents to undermine the regime, even where they could not confront it. Poles organised underground scout troops. Czechoslovaks brought philosophy dons from Oxford (including this reviewer’s father, J.R. Lucas, and Standpoint contributors such as Roger Scruton) to give seminars in boiler rooms. East German Protestant churches nibbled at their country’s militarism. 

Iron Curtain is not a comprehensive history of the Soviet empire’s eastern realms. It focuses almost exclusively on only three countries: Poland (Applebaum, a fluent Polish speaker, is married to the present foreign minister, Radek Sikorski); the former East Germany, and Hungary. This is both a strength and a weakness. The three countries differed greatly, as did the Communist tactics used in them. Her archival research and interviews, often with people in the very last years of their lives, paint powerful, exemplary pictures. 

Many readers may yearn for a broader perspective, though. What was happening inside the Soviet Union, where the Communist rulers of Western Ukraine and the Baltic states imposed the full Soviet template with far greater brutality and speed? What about Yugoslavia, where the wartime partisan leader Jozef Broz (Tito) was instituting his own version of Communism, and soon to break with the Soviet camp? What about Romania and Bulgaria? 

But the central point is made magnificently. To rebuild something you have to understand how it was destroyed in the first place, “how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated”. In the countries portrayed in the book, it is the best explanation — in any language — of what happened to them. For the rest of us, it is a window into a world of lies and evil that we can hardly imagine.