Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956

Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956 by Anne Applebaum. Anchor, 2013 paper.

Anne Applebaum’s “crushing” in her book’s title is misleading. While she describes Eastern Europe’s brutal experience in the aftermath of World War II with the Russian occupation, she argues that the creation of the ”Iron Curtain”, brutal though it was, followed a brutal German occupation.  Also Eastern European borders were shaped by decisions made by the Allies at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in August 1945. All of this was before Churchill named the Russian occupation zone in March 1946.

One of those Allied decisions was to forcibly move Germans (Volksdeutsche) living in Eastern Poland and Ukraine into a truncated Germany. That single act created 7.6 million German refugees. Add to that the 2.5 Czech refugees returning to the vacated Sudetenland. Applebaum suggests that these numbers dwarf the refugee problem in the twenty-first century.

By 1945 German armies in Eastern Europe were collapsing, with little hope of preventing Russians from capturing the great prize, Berlin. President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about ending the war and bringing the soldiers home, had agreed with General Dwight Eisenhower to allow the Russians to occupy Berlin. Russian armies had also occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Hence allowing the Russians to determine the future of Eastern Europe’s boundaries was simply recognizing the ‘facts on the ground.’

The “liberation” of Warsaw and Poland was a particularly complicated story. There were several Polish organizations involved, and they were bitter rivals: the Poles who had escaped to Britain in 1939 (the London Poles), those who formed a resistance in the forests of eastern Poland, and those Poles who had been in training in the Soviet Union to take over the administration of Poland after the war (Moscow communists).

Initially Joseph Stalin was willing to allow communist parties in Eastern Europe to cooperate with other left-wing parties to form post-war governments.  That effort, Applebaum reports, quickly proved to be impossible. Pre-war Polish and Hungarian governments and certainly the National Socialists in Germany had not allowed these left-wing parties, including the communists, to have any part of the political process and hence they had no governing experience.

Earning “hearts and minds” proved difficult for the Soviets. They realized that they must build a more sympathetic public, and an effort was made to reach out to young people. They opened summer camps and introduced indoctrination classes into the public schools. The Russians also worked to discredit alternative allegiances as well – the Catholic Church for example. Its clergy were branded as reactionaries.

Applebaum describes Russian destruction of civil society in Eastern Europe. Churches, educational institutions, newspapers, art, sports clubs, and universities were elements of civil society in Eastern Europe that the Soviets considered enemies of a workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

The loyalty of factory workers was assured by the intervention of the Russians on behalf of unions. On the other hand, the seizure of private companies that had survived physical destruction, their dismantling and shipment to Russia as war reparations must have reduced factory employment. Land was redistributed where it was not already in the hands of the peasantry, mostly the Junker estates, the German landed nobility of eastern Prussia.

The author notes that Jewish owners of companies and private dwellings were big losers. Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe after the War was alive and well.

She also follows the careers of three “little Stalins.” Trained in Moscow for leadership positions, they brought with them to their respective countries in occupied Eastern Europe a well-trained security police force. With their assistance the Russians held the equivalent of the Russian “show trials” of the 1930s. They already had their lists of enemies of the Soviet Union; more names were added.

The Russians had acquired the Reichsrundfunk, the fully equipped Berlin radio station. It proved to be an important component of efforts to sell communism. The American occupation forces established a rival Radio in the American Sector or RIAS. Radio Free Europe was its successor. The Nazi regime had used radio effectively as a propaganda tool. And like other components of the Allied occupation, radio built on precedents in the Nazi authoritarian state.

Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 was a blow to the ardor of the Russian occupation. Applebaum lists several other blows to Soviet prestige in Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan provided badly needed liquidity in Western Europe. The aid package was offered to Eastern European but declined at the Russian insistence. The blundering attempt to seal off Berlin from the three other occupying powers, the Berlin blockade and the dramatic Berlin airlift all blunders costing Russia considerable ill will.  And also Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito got away with a departure from the Eastern European Russian bloc.

Applebaum doesn’t mention a fourth blow to Soviet prestige, the long battle with two Catholic cardinals Stefon Wyszynaski (Polish) and Jozsef Mindszenty (Hungarian). Both were progressive priests much admired in Eastern Europe as well as the West.

Despite these blows, why wasn’t there more open resistance? For one thing, the Soviet occupation followed a horrible war, now over. Many of those who tolerated Eastern European communist regimes had already taken earlier steps toward collaboration. There were rewards, small though appreciated, like a coal delivery or an additional ration card. By not discussing matters with colleagues, neighbors, and friends; you could avoid trouble. Simply keeping quiet was read as compliance.

Anne Applebaum guides the reader through much disputed territory.






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