Behind the Iron Curtain
“Iron Curtain,” by Anne Applebaum, summarizes its grim theme in its subtitle: “The crushing of eastern Europe, 1944-1956.”
The writer’s husband has been a member of the present Polish government. She is a columnist who divides her time between London and Warsaw. She made use of a massive amount of material that has become available since the Cold War ended. That includes not only records from the European countries under discussion, but also much that has been unearthed about the Soviet records in Moscow. In addition to massive footnote citations she notes what other historians have written about the period in question, and interviewed scores of people who lived through those times.
Among other things’ she found that Stalin, who was paranoid about foreign relations, was totally unprepared for the Berlin airlift when the Russians tried to cut West Berlin off from communication and supplies from the West. He ordered the blockade in the certainty that the place would surrender so that all of Berlin would be part of East Germany. The airlift and its success took him completely by surprise.
The author concentrated her attention on three of the Iron Curtain countries — East Germany, Poland and Hungary. She makes mention of the others — Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. But her immense detail as to how people reacted to Stalin’s totalitarian methods comes from the first three countries.
She even discusses how the word “totalitarian” can be vague as to meaning, pointing out that Ayn Rand considered some progressives totalitarian, while some progressives applied that word to Ayn Rand. She gives Mussolini credit for popularizing the word, when he said it sort of meant “one for all” and then made himself the one who was over all others.
The Communist instigators in Poland, East Germany and Hungary had been trained in Moscow. When the Russian army moved through their countries these instigators aimed at acquiring control of the police forces, the nation’s youth and the nation’s communications, especially the radio. East German radio went on the air early, but she says it didn’t go on early in Poland because there were no working radios in the country. The author interviewed a person who wrote scripts for one of the Polish radio stations that did get started. He was writing for a weather program and told of a cold front coming from out of the east. After the broadcast the station supervisor called him in and said: “Never say that anything cold is coming from the east. Only warm, friendly things come out of Russia.”
The man being interviewed told the author: “At the time, I didn’t think that was funny.”
Radio from the Western countries was easy to contrast with what the government-run stations were saying, and East Germans began to say their own stations were becoming boring. Filling the air with diatribes about capitalism and praise of the joys of socialism was contrasted with the jazz that came from the American-operated stations. East German youths began to wear long hair and special trousers, much to the dismay of government leaders. Some of the young people even were sent to jail, but that didn’t deter the movement, especially after rock and roll came into vogue.
Anything that brought people together was considered suspect. Early on, the East German leaders banned all chess clubs, for instance, until they could organize state-run units. Churches and churchmen especially were targets, and the author contrasts the attitude of a prelate in Poland with that of his contemporary prelate in Hungary.
Stalin’s death coincided with unrest. Widespread strikes in East Germany were put down with Soviet tanks, but the author found that Nikita Khrushchev used the unrest to blame it on Lavrentii Beria, head of the Soviet secret service who had been a Stalin henchman and much feared. The new Soviet leaders took Beria by surprise, pinned blame for the unrest on him and executed him forthwith.
Before patrols began to guard the border between East and West Germany, it was American and British military authorities who at first tried to restrict movement from east to west, fearing the influx would overwhelm their facilities. Even so, several hundred thousand individuals made the crossing before the Berlin Wall went up.
Early elections didn’t support the Communists as much as they hoped, and they began to be more repressive. Crushing the revolt in Hungary concludes the book, and the author concludes with the comment that the governments were unstable because they tried to make theory trump reality. This is a stark lesson today for China, North Korea, Iran, the Tea Party and any other organization or nation that feels the same way. This extensively detailed book should be required reading for anybody studying the operation of governments.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.