A Russian woman who visited East Germany in 1986 on a Soviet school trip described to me recently how their East German official hosts explained the Berlin wall as a necessary defence against the hordes of West Germans who wished to storm into East Germany to escape West German economic misery and join in East Germany's success. And she and her 13-year-old Soviet friends had at the time no reason to doubt this, never in their lives having been told anything different. The eventual complete collapse of communism in eastern Europe has naturally tended to focus subsequent attention on its shambolic and incompetent aspects; but its effectiveness as a system of thought control should not be underestimated.
Today, no one under 23 was even alive while communist rule in eastern Europe still existed. No one under 30 or so has any meaningful memories of it. The internet has made complete censorship of the old kind unimaginable to younger people today. As the four decades of the cold war fade into history and mythology, it is important to go on reminding people of the nature of communism in eastern Europe, and why West Germans and other Europeans were not, in fact, desperate to exchange the austere rigours of western capitalist democracy for the fleshpots and freedoms of communist rule.
In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, Anne Applebaum does an excellent job of explaining this for the Stalinist and immediate post-Stalinist period in Poland, East Germany and Hungary. Her book is a masterly synthesis in English of recent research by scholars in these countries, and of the range of memoirs by participants and survivors.
Applebaum's book has a political as well as a scholarly purpose, though on this occasion her political agenda does not detract significantly from her scholarship. As a rightwing cold warrior and director of political studies at the neoconservative Legatum Institute, she is clearly anxious to drive another nail into the coffin of the old European and American left, with their residual tendency to find excuses for Soviet communism.
Thus her book begins with a strong argument against the revisionist belief that the Soviet imposition of communism in eastern Europe after 1945 was a response to hostile US moves at the start of the cold war, rather than a result of communist revolutionary ideology. She agrees that "there is no evidence that Stalin expected to create a communist 'bloc' very quickly", but on the other hand "the Soviet Union did import certain key elements of the Soviet system into every nation occupied by the Red Army, from the very beginning" – starting with the creation by the NKVD of local communist secret police forces.
Here I tend to agree with Applebaum – though since she addresses this question directly only in her introduction, she does not have the space to rebut the revisionist arguments in detail, or to take account of issues such as the effect on Soviet thinking of the complete end to US aid to the Soviet Union as soon as the war ended, at a time when the USSR was coping with colossal wartime destruction and impending famine.
She is right that the template for a communist takeover was already well established since the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in 1940, and most of Moscow's own local communist allies clearly expected full Soviet support for their seizure of power. As Applebaum brings out, many also genuinely believed for a time that they would receive enough mass support to win national elections.
As far as Poland was concerned, it was evident from the entry of Soviet troops into Polish territory in the summer of 1944 that Stalin was not going to permit the creation of an independent Polish government that would demand Soviet withdrawal from the eastern territories seized from Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.
Most of Applebaum's book, however, is not about the reasons for the communist takeover, but the nature of that takeover and of the system that the communists sought to introduce in East Germany, Poland and Hungary. It is an excellent account of the stages by which the communists seized power. It tells the story not only of the ferocity of communist repression, but also of the endless series of petty and not-so-petty compromises by which the mass of the population was persuaded to acquiesce in communist rule.
I would differ somewhat with Applebaum on certain questions of emphasis. In addressing the willingness of many progressive intellectuals to go along – for a time – with communist rule, she does not perhaps give quite enough importance to widespread belief in the bankruptcy of the pre-1939 political orders; something that emerges clearly from the works of, for example, Polish writers such as Czesław Miłosz and Tadeusz Konwicki.
Iron Curtain contains some very vivid descriptions of the creation of new industrial towns in parts of central Europe, and how these were intended as models for the socialist society of the future. She pays due attention to the degree to which – for a while – many ordinary people from impoverished backgrounds also shared in this dream. In describing the actual grim realities of life in towns such as Nowa Huta, however, she fails to set this in the context of early industrialisation – or indeed post-industrialism – in the world at large. Ideology aside, her picture of alcoholism, violence and prostitution amid urban deserts does not differ significantly from that in many parts of the capitalist world in the past and today.
The choice of 1944 to 1956 as a period to study is legitimate, spanning as it does the communist seizure of power, the period of Stalinism and the changes after Stalin's death, culminating in the critically important but very different outcomes in Poland and Hungary. In Hungary, this period ended with a violent anti-communist revolt which was crushed by the Soviet army, thereby doing catastrophic damage to the image of communism in many parts of the world. In Poland, it ended with Soviet acquiescence in the coming to power of national communists who ushered in a much milder form of communist rule.
Nonetheless, by taking the area and the period that she does, Applebaum makes her political case a good deal easier. Had she extended her study to cover the entire period of communist rule in eastern Europe, she would have had to examine how in Poland and Hungary communist rule remained authoritarian but ceased to be totalitarian, and how – contrary to the predictions of western rightwingers – communism eventually collapsed remarkably peacefully, above all because of changes in the Soviet Union itself.
Moreover, by 1989, the most savagely totalitarian large communist country in eastern Europe – Romania – was no longer under Soviet geopolitical domination, and the repulsive Ceaucescu regime was being wooed by western countries as part of their anti-Soviet strategy. Elsewhere in the world, the balance of morality between the west and the Soviet Union became even more complicated as the cold war continued.
In Europe, however, the contrast between the horrors of Stalinist communism and the benefits of democratic capitalism became clear enough in these years, and younger European readers today need to be reminded of this – though not perhaps for entirely the reasons that Applebaum thinks. For communism to collapse in eastern Europe – spiritually in the late 50s, politically in the late 80s – ordinary people had to see that western democratic capitalism really did work better for them. This was not necessarily apparent in 1945. By the mid-50s, it was incontrovertible. This has a lesson for the present. It is not enough to assert as an article of faith the superiority of liberal capitalist democracy. If our system is to win and retain mass support as against other systems, it has to be seen to be superior.
And the system which in the 50s showed itself to be superior to communism was not the "turbo-charged" free market capitalism of the Washington Consensus that led us into the crash of 2008. It was free-market democratic capitalism, yes, but it was also social-market capitalism, above all in West Germany, the frontline of cold war competition. It was to join this kind of system that millions of East Germans fled to West Germany and not the other way round. Once they became aware of social-market capitalism's benefits, millions of Russians also eventually decided to end communist rule.
The problem is that in the 90s Russians did not get this kind of social market system, but something much closer to the feral capitalism of communist propaganda, with pseudo-democracy as a veil for the looting of the state by the new elites. The contrast between communist dreams and capitalist reality in western and central Europe explains the failure of communism. The contrast between democratic dreams and capitalist reality in Russia explains Vladimir Putin.