As a child living in Romania, I remember that my parents used to do everything so that the infamous Securitate would pry into our lives as little as possible. In the sixties, the Romanian dictator Dej did everything in order to please his Russian masters. His menu included a variety of things, such as beatings, torture, incarcerations, threats, illegal deportations and the suppression of human rights.Mind you, I was not even allowed to take with me my violin, since it was considered "state property".
During my university days, I decided to specialize in the history of the Cold War. Surprisingly, there were many revisionist books and other similar monographs which-up to the fall of Communism-painted a very rosy picture of the Communist "paradise". In fact, some scholars were sure that Communism had its bad points, but capitalism and its ideology represented by America were worse.
Enter Anne Applebaum's book, which totally destroys and naive theories of the revisionist scholars one by one. "Iron Curtain" explains in very simple words to what degree all the countries in Eastern Europe experienced the brutal process of becoming totalitarian states as ordered by Big Brother Stalin. As she claims, this process was a gradual one and did not happen overnight. Neither was it uniform everywhere.
By writing about more than fifteen relevant topics, Ms. Applebaum describes in great detail how tens of millions of people experienced the most terrible regimes known in that geographical part of Europe. She explains how, for example, political parties, the church, the young people, the radio and the economy of those countries were doomed from the very end of World War 2.
The book is divided into two parts:"False Dawn" and "High Stalinism". The first part is about the consolidation of the regimes. The second one is more interesting and focuses on the years 1948-1956. In general, the book is mainly about Central Europe and only three countries are broadly scrutinized: Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but the author makes sure to also write about the similar fate of other countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and to some extent Yugoslavia and the Czech nation. In a way, this book is an accusation
against the West, because it felt into the trap of Stalin and his cronies, thus allowing the rulers of Eastern Europe to conduct policies of suppression, of ethnic cleansing, of mass rape and of nationalization-steps which destroyed the lives of many millions of innocent victims. All of this was possible after conducting mass and false propaganda with the help of the secret services established in order to smash any possible resistance in this process of the so-called "utopia".
Take for example the crackdown on the church in Poland where priests were arrested en bloc.
A similar pattern of harassment and arrests followed in Hungary, where hundreds of church schools were nationalized within months, followed by the closure of monasteries. Nuns in the city of Gyor were given six hours to pack up and leave, while in Southern Hungary 800 monks and some 700 nuns were removed in the middle of the night, told they could only take 25 kilos of books, placed on a transport and deported to the Soviet Union.
In the winter of 1952-53, senior figures in the church of Krakow underwent a
trial featuring fabricated evidence and forged documents. In East Germany, many children were expelled from school for refusing publicly to renounce religion. It was Stalin who, at a Cominform meeting in Karlsbad in 1949, ordered the bloc's communist parties to adopt harsher policies, and it was imperative "to first isolate the Catholic hierarchy and drive a wedge between the Vatican and the believers" .We will have to fight a systematic war agaist the hierarchy; churches should be under our full control by December 1949".
The principle guiding these totalitarian regimes was simple: The party is always right, hence the party cannot make any mistakes.
A new term was invented: "Homo Sovieticus", which meant that this new species would never oppose communism, and would never even conceive of opposing it. No one was exmpt from this ideological instruction-not even the very youmgest citizens. Textbooks had to be rewritten to reflect and praise the new reality of Stalinism. Art in all of its forms was recruited to augment the false messianic credo of these dictatorships, thus the obliteration of free thought everywhere.
Conspirators were to be found in many places and paranoia was the name of the game. Clerics, workers, intellectuals, rural landowners who were all classified under the rubric of "internal enemies" were sent to Gulags, after conducting mock trials which included made-up evidence and false witnesses. Soviet advisers both wrote the scripts of these "trials" and helped persuade victims to make the necessary confessions, after using torture, beatings, confinement in dark chambers, the inculcation of fear about the fate of the prisoner's family, subtly staged confrontations, the use of stool pigeons and many more techniques. Ms. Applebaum singles out the example of Geza Supka, who was the leader of the Freemasons in Hungary. In 1950 this organization no longer existed, since it was considered a threat to the regime. Supka was described (in a thick file declassified only now) as being a "representative of Anglo-Saxon interests in Hungary" and a traitor plotting to overthrow the regime. The file also contains many false testimonies rendered by some of his friends, but the most harrowing element of the file includes the daily reports on Supka by informers. Even the report about his death in 1956 was to be included in that file. Similar modi operandi against other "enemies" were to be found in other counties as well.
Then some revolts in the fifties were immediately crushed in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956,respectively.
In the end, the communist leaders asked themselves the same questions they had posed after Stalin's death. Why did the system produce such poor economic results? Why was the propaganda unconvincing? What was the source of ongoing dissent and what was the best way to quash it?
In the end, as Ms. Applebaum concludes,"the gap between reality and ideology meant that the communist parties wound up spouting meaningless slogans which they themselves knew made no sense". Here the author comes, in my view, to the right conclusion that after Stalin's death none of the regimes were as cruel as they had been between 1945 and 1953, but "even post-Stalinist Eastern Europe could be harsh, arbitrary and formidably repressive". The Berlin Wall built in 1961 was just one example. Both Romania and Yugoslavia tried at differrent times to carve out individual roles in foreign policy, distancing themselves from the rest of the Soviet bloc, but not necessarily in very meaningful ways.
By using a lot of new archival material, and after interviewing numerous citizens in Germany, Hungary and Poland, the result is a riveting and enthralling book which also offers deep and extensive analysis of the various segments discussed in her book. This opus will become one of the best written on this topic and a classic of its kind. This in spite of the fact that it is not a comprehensive history of the whole Eastern communist bloc. Highly recommended.