Evil in the east – communism’s European legacy

Evil in the east – communism’s European legacy

FRANK ELLIS finds much to admire in a survey of postwar communist totalitarianism

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56

Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, London, 2012, xxxix + pp.498, maps, photos, bibliography & index

In the first few years after the war, only about 10 percent of German children attended summer camps. But the German Politburo soon saw that it was the ideologically incorrect children who most needed camps which could teach them “firm friendship with all peace-loving human beings, especially with the people of the great Soviet Union and the best friend and teacher of all children, the great Stalin” (emphasis in the original).

Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain

On the 7th May 1945 the Western Allies (in Reims) and, on 8th/9th May 1945, representatives of the Soviet Union (in Berlin), concluded their respective agreements with the inheritors of the National-Socialist regime, so marking the end of World War II in Europe.

For those people fortunate enough to have been liberated by the Anglo-American Armies and to be part of the post-war American, British and French zones of occupation the word liberation accurately and honestly describes what happened. The Western Allies made extraordinary efforts to mend the broken nations and economies of Western Europe. The contrast with what had already taken place in Eastern Europe as the Red Army and NKVD units replaced the former Nazi occupiers, and what was about to be inflicted on Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet occupation zone in Germany was striking: whereas the Anglo-American Armies came as genuine liberators and nation re-builders, the Red Army and NKVD came with the mission to impose Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist totalitarianism on the Soviet Union’s newly acquired Eastern European empire.

In Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum, weaving personal accounts of suffering, betrayal and survival into a grand narrative, explains what happened to the Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and Poles from late 1944 to 1956. The book falls into two parts. Part I deals with the attempts of the communist parties and their Soviet minders to destroy all internal political opposition. When it very soon becomes clear to the Moscow-trained communists throughout Eastern Europe that communism was very much a minority pursuit, persuasion and cajoling soon give way to arrests, censorship, show trials, terror, class war, destruction of all forms of civil society and persecution of the Church. These were the standard methods used by Lenin and Stalin to totalitarianise the Soviet Union before 1939. Now they were being further refined and being deployed against new opposition.


The "cursed soldiers" - postwar anti-communist Polish fighters

In Part II Applebaum turns her attention to what she calls high Stalinism. This is the attempt throughout Eastern Europe to build socialist societies by ensuring that the state dominated all aspects of human behaviour: major assets were nationalised; internal enemies were to be dealt with; show case cities were built to house the workers; education harmonised and youth moulded for the future. As in the Soviet Union, the aim was to create, to forge some new creature called homo sovieticus. This hideous freak would be free of any hankerings after private property, would see sex as a duty not a pleasure, would glory in collective labour, would regard the desire for privacy as something of a bourgeois prejudice and would at all times, and in all matters, regard the Party’s decisions as final. This initial totalitarian programme ends in uprisings which were crushed and totalitarianism was reimposed, surviving in various mutated forms until the final collapse of Soviet Union’s Eastern European Empire in 1989.

Applebaum endeavours to navigate a path through the literature devoted to totalitarianism. She notes the origins of the term with the rise of Italian Fascism, although Mussolini’s Italy was a weak model when compared to the best exemplar of totalitarianism, the Lenin-Stalin state. Some of the best analyses of totalitarianism are to be found in the work of Friedrich Hayek, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carl Friedrich, Karl Popper, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, all noted by Applebaum. On the debit side, the critical insights of Evgenii Zamiatin, Vasilii Grossman, Zhelyu Zhelev, Stefan Amsterdamski, Leszek Kołakowski, Andrei Almarik, Valentin Turchin, Martin Malia and Ludwig von Mises are noticeably absent. Some reference to the Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung would also have been in order.

One line of attack used by Western leftists to undermine the concept of totalitarianism was to argue that no leader, not even Stalin, could control everything. This misunderstands the nature of the problem. The critical point about totalitarian control is that the control mechanism is also psychological: the masses and the party leaders at all levels are conditioned to act in the spirit of totalitarianism, or at least sufficient numbers are. This is Grossman’s observation in Life and Fate. While Applebaum is correct to note that totalitarian is overused – often through stupidity and ignorance – it takes nothing away from the term’s descriptive power. One should not permit the term to become extinct merely because lazy journalists cannot understand it.

Applebaum effectively conveys the chaos and dislocation which overwhelmed millions of people after the end of the war, made much worse by the complete breakdown in law and order. Refugees sought sanctuary, armed gangs pillaged and killed at will, German women were raped en masse; and the warm spring sunshine was cold and indifferent. Such destruction induced profound despair. To quote Applebaum:

Widespread destruction – the loss of homes, families, schools – condemned millions of people to a kind of radical loneliness (Iron Curtain, p.16)

The power vacuum favoured the Moscow-trained communists, Walter Ulbricht (DDR); Bołeslaw Bierut (Poland); Mátyás Rákosi (Hungary), whom Applebaum calls the little Stalins. These national Quislings came prepared and, of course, enjoyed the coercive support of the Red Army, NKVD and SMERSH.

Even before the end of the war massive deportations and ethnic cleansing were taking place on a scale which is not grasped by people in the West, even today. This forced movement of people continued after 1945:

Ethnic conflict – deep, bitter, violent ethnic conflict, between many different kinds of groups in many countries – was Hitler’s true legacy, so much so that any discussion of the expulsions of Germans from Western Poland, the Sudetenland, Hungary and Romania after 1945 has to begin by recalling what had happened in the previous five years  (p. 126)

I am not convinced that all the blame for this dreadful racial-cultural violence can be placed on Hitler, and, in any case, the five year time frame is inadequate. To understand the racial-cultural violence that washed over Europe in 1945 the starting point in the twentieth century was the war declared on national loyalties and cultures by Lenin and Stalin in order to bring about the total communist control of all states which had the misfortune either to succumb to communist terror through the machinations of traitors or to be the victims of Red Army liberation-invasion. The prime cause of this misery was the totalitarian, internationalist plans of Lenin which prompted violent counter reactions (and not only in Germany). In order to realise their classless, brotherhood-of-man vision, Lenin and Stalin (after 1945 Mao) exterminated tens of millions of enemies and butchered on a scale only matched by NS Germany. Stalin clearly recognised the deadly and uncompromising threat to communism posed by loyalty to one’s own people and so he adopted the simple expedient of exterminating and incarcerating those who remained loyal to their nations and culture. The genocide in Ukraine – the Holodomor – was just one example. Stalin was waging class and race war before 1933 and after 1945.

Victims of the Holodomor - Ukrainian children being starved for humanity's sake

Applebaum recounts the fate of Gerhard Gruschka, a Silesian German, who had refused to join the Hitler Youth. On the face of it he was a German for whom Poles should have had some sympathy. No chance: he was forced to sing the Horst Wessel while being jeered by Poles. Somewhat perplexed Applebaum concludes that “Germans were not treated as individuals. They were treated as Germans” (p. 127). Well, yes that is what will always happen. Distinctions between the good and the bad cannot survive in the aftermath of persecution where one racial-ethnic group has persecuted another and the persecuted group now has the chance to exact revenge.

Post-1945, mass deportations beggar belief: oceans and continents of grief; starving children; homes lost forever; abandoned women; and men bereft of hope and faith. Germans, innocent and guilty, paid a dreadful price. In the words of Applebaum:

By the time it was finished, the resettling of the German populations of Eastern Europe was an extraordinary mass movement, probably unequalled in European history. By the end of 1947,some 7.6 million ‘Germans’ – including ethnic Germans, Volksdeutsche and recent settlers – had left Poland, through transfer or escape. (p. 132)

The Red Army took the lead in the deportation of Germans from Eastern Europe and the role played by the communist parties in Poland and Romania enhanced their standing. What we see here is precisely the connection between National Socialism and Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism identified by Grossman in Life and Fate and the readiness of both states to learn from one another. Clearly confirmed by Applebaum is that the forced march towards a classless society being pursued by the communist regimes in Eastern Europe is based on the same methods – massed roundups, deportations and expulsions – earlier pursued by NS-Germany.

The methods used to impose totalitarianism on Eastern Europe replicated almost exactly those used in the Soviet Union. Churches, youth groups and internal enemies were some of the main targets. Churches were especially feared by the communist regimes. They were independent of the state, owned land and buildings, had international links, produced great scholars, founded and funded charities. The churches also had history on their side, centuries of trials and tribulations, yet they had survived. Moreover, the fact that the Church saw man as a fundamentally spiritual being, not one who could live by bread alone but one compelled to seek God, was an explicit and insuperable rejection of the crude materialism of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. In East Germany, the regime banned the Kreuz auf der Weltkugel, the symbol used by the Christian youth group, Junge Gemeinde. (ibid., p.276). Applebaum is unaware of a small piece of local history. After the very tall radio tower was built in East Berlin, sunlight, when it struck the large sphere at the top, was reflected in such a way that it created the image of a ‘cross on the globe’ (Kreuz auf der Weltkugel). In East Berlin, I was told that this was known as the “Pope’s revenge”. The two main attacks on Church leaders were those mounted against Cardinal Jόzsef Mindszenty, the Hungarian Primate and Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Polish Primate. Mindszenty challenged the regime head on, whereas Wyszyński tried to find some compromise. Eventually, Mindszenty was arrested and tortured; Wyszyński signed “an agreement of mutual understanding”. However weakened the Church was by these persecutions its presence and influence could not be eradicated. Indeed, this time in the wilderness and time of persecution may have helped the Church and resistance to communism in Eastern Europe. The Man from Krakόw comes to mind.

The great irony of the communist obsession with materialism and its war against the church and all manifestations of civil society was that in the area that mattered most (no pun intended) – economics – the socialist/communist project was a miserable failure from the outset. Based on my reading of Ludwig von Mises’s fundamental analysis of socialist economics and the consequences for all economic behaviour implicit in the Marx-Engels programme, I am tempted to conclude that the collapse of all socialist systems is inevitable. In theory, however, it would be possible to maintain a state of penury and material deprivation indefinitely provided the state retains a monopoly control over the means of coercion and violence and the will to use such means. Fortunately, for Marx and his imitators that is not a cost-free option. Such a state would mutate into a full slave state and all innovation would cease. At that stage, decline and regression to barbarism is inevitable. Given that after 1945 the whole world was not turned into a socialist anthill, the critical threat to regime survival stems not exclusively from within the regime – or behind the Iron Curtain or Wall – but from what is taking place beyond its borders. As Western economies prospered relative to the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, and knowledge about these differences could not be prevented from penetrating the communist infosphere, even the regimes’ most dedicated supporters realised that in economic terms – and in just about all other indices of success – the Marx-Engels model had failed.

The absolutely critical point about socialist economics is that it is based on the “common ownership of the means of production”. Not only does this have disastrous economic consequences but it heralds a new era of lawlessness. Nationalization or the common ownership of the means of production is the theft of assets. Once the chain of the expropriation of assets has started – inflamed by the Marxist-Leninist call to “expropriate the expropriators” – there can be no incentive to invest, to innovate or to produce more than that necessary to sustain life since there are no safeguards in law from the rapacity of the state. The state, to borrow from Lenin and Stalin, becomes the “enemy of the people”. One unintended consequence of the common ownership of the means of production and one analysed by von Mises was the destruction of the pricing mechanism. Rational economic planning becomes impossible. Applebaum confirms the problem identified by von Mises and economists from the Austrian school when highlighting Poland’s experiment with socialist economics and five-year plans:

The targets set in these first plans were often pulled from the air, and the understanding of pricing mechanisms was unsophisticated, to say the least. One of Poland’s first economic bureaucrats tried to keep track of the fluctuating prices of coal and bread in the months before the first plan went into effect, imagining that would eventually help him to set the ‘correct’ price for all goods – prices, which, of course, would never need to be changed again, he thought, since there would be no inflation in a communist economy. (p. 260)

The following observation made by Applebaum pertains to the state ownership of all asset classes:

By the 1950s, most people in Eastern Europe worked in state jobs, lived in state-owned properties and sent their children to state schools. They depended on the state for health care, and they bought food from state-owned shops. They were understandably cautious about defying the state except in dramatic circumstances. (p. 417)

Highlighted here are the dire consequences for human freedoms, dignity, prosperity and family stemming from the Marx-Engels creed embodied in the “common ownership of the means of production”. Without the common ownership of the means of production there can be no totalitarian state. Economic freedoms go hand in hand with intellectual freedoms.

Show trials played a vital role in the consolidation of communist power. In the 1930s they were used by Stalin to eradicate all potential rivals, to create a climate of terror and to offer scapegoats for industrial and economic failures.  After 1945, throughout Eastern Europe, the expertise acquired in the 1920s and 1930s was deployed against the new wave of “enemies of the people”. It is important to bear in mind that the whole notion of communist show trials rested on the idea of prophylactic terror. Victims and arrestees were selected on the basis of their class allegiances or, more accurately, the class allegiances assigned to them by NKVD case officers and by what they might do not what they had done. Thus, the mere fact of being, say, the son of a Tsarist official or Army officer, was enough to arouse suspicion of activity in counterrevolutionary plots. The other important element in the show trial psychology was the effect on the party members themselves. In any dispute between what a party member believed to be the truth, and what the party told him was the truth, the party view at any given moment was the politically correct view to be held. This is what is meant by the Marxist-Leninist term, politicheskaia pravil’nost’ (political correctness). Truth does not equal correctness: on the contrary correctness because it is derived from the allegedly superior reasoning and insights of Marxism-Leninism is superior to truth or what are dismissed as “reactionary bourgeois notions of truth”. The effects of this anti-reasoning and relativism on the communist believer are revealed in the following remarks made by the Czech communist, Oskar Langer when justifying the arrests of so-called “enemies of the people”. The comments are cited by Applebaum:

These men are perhaps not guilty in the everyday sense of the word. But just now the fate and interests of individuals are of secondary importance. Our whole future, maybe the future of mankind is at stake (p. 310)

Bertolt Brecht, one of the middle-class Marxist cheerleaders on behalf of the Lenin-Stalin state, said something very similar. Sydney Hook records that when he asked Brecht whether he believed the arrested party members in the Moscow show trials to be guilty Brecht replied: “Je mehr unschuldig, desto mehr verdienen sie erschossen zu werden” (“the less guilty they are the more they deserve to be shot”). This is not justice in any recognizable Western sense: this is the ritual sacrifice of victims in order to propitiate the gods of class war.

Show trials before and after the war and campaigns against imaginary enemies support the view that in conditions of information deprivation and where access to information is controlled and manipulated people can be made to believe just about anything and that hysteria can be induced. Just before Stalin died in March 1953 Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union were hounded and denounced as “assassins in white coats”. As Grossman notes in Forever Flowing, the people who accepted these accusations were people who should have known better. Later, when East Germany was overrun by Colorado beetles this was blamed on US pilots who, it was claimed, were dropping these beetles from planes. The beetles were named Amikäfer (p. 312). Such naming implies, as I suggest it is intended to, that Americans are beetles, insects and vermin to be destroyed and so mimics the same sort of dehumanising language used by the Stalin regime to incite class hatred against Ukrainian peasants as the prelude to genocide.

Socialist realism was another Soviet import and was intended to impose and to promote orthodoxy in all forms of creative endeavour: literature, visual arts, music and sculpture. Casualties there were in all areas but Soviet and East European writers became very adept at outwitting the censors, employing allegory, references to classical authors – Tacitus was a favourite – and all kinds of Aesopian allusions. In the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe, ‘to read between the lines’ took on a new meaning. It meant not just the ability to note what was printed but what was not. Puns and juxtapositions of images could also be used to bypass the censors. Thus when Boris Pasternak died, the reference to his death was juxtaposed with an article on the Czech poet Vitĕzslav Nezval entitled “A Magician of Poetry”. The title of the article was meant to be read as an allusion to Pasternak as well.  Thus for his own security an alert censor checks not just the wording of an article in the press but also its layout. Incongruous juxtapositions do undoubtedly escape the censor’s attention. In an edition of the Soviet trade union magazine Trud which appeared in 1937 there was a picture of Stalin.  On the reverse side, there was a picture of a worker swinging a hammer.  If the paper is held up to the light it appears that the worker is hitting Stalin on the head with the hammer. A scandal was caused in Moscow when it was discovered that the picture of a torch on a matchbox label resembled Trotsky’s face. There is also an example in which Lenin is misquoted:  parazitel’no malo (parasitically few) was printed instead of porazitel’no malo (strikingly few). One of my favourite examples is the omission of the letter “l” in the Russian word supreme commander, a reference to Stalin. So instead of the correct word, glavnokomanduiushchii, we get govnokomanduiushchii. In Russian, the word govno means excrement or shit.  According to the conventions of akan’e the unstressed ‘o’ in Russian is pronounced as an ‘a’. So glavno without the letter “l” sounds like govno. As another example, I cite the paper headline: ‘The Fishing Season in the Far East – Into the Sea with all Communists!’  Applebaum herself is aware of these sorts of errors, deliberate or otherwise. She cites one example of a printing error that occurred after Stalin’s death. Instead of “Stalin was a great friend of peace” the typesetter wrote “Stalin was a great friend of war” (p. 435).

Multiculturalism, the inheritor of the one-world internationalist ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, by denying racial and national differences (race and nations are social and political constructs) increases racial and national tensions which, when the we-are-all-brothers façade can no longer be maintained by state coercion collapses into open racial-cultural violence (cf. Yugoslavia in the 1990s). Just how fragile and deceptive this façade of neighbourliness can be is painfully illustrated in Life and Fate. Jews in Ukraine discover that no sooner have the Germans arrived than their Ukrainian neighbours, neighbours they had long believed had accepted them, turn against them, seize their property and rejoice in the arrival of the Germans. Communism and its obsession with waging class war and exterminating so-called “enemies of the people” bears a great deal of responsibility for creating an ideological climate in which racial differences are exacerbated and can be exploited, as they were by the NS leadership.

Applebaum cites any number of grim episodes of racial-cultural hatred and violence which bear witness to the fact that Lenin and Stalin (and their successors) had not solved the nationalities question. In the summer of 1943, Ukrainian partisans with links to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed some 50,000 Poles living in Volhynia (p. 435). After Ukrainian partisans assassinated the Polish Deputy Defence Minister, General Karol Świerczewski, on 28th March 1947, the Polish regime launched Akcja Wisła (Operation Vistula). The Soviet Union launched a similar operation in Western Ukraine. There is no doubt that both operations were intended to destroy a tightly knit Western Ukraine culture. As Applebaum notes,

Both operations were popular. Polish peasants who had been tormented by Ukrainian partisans were delighted to see them gone – and grateful to the Soviet and Polish troops who had dispersed them (p. 141)

Diversity really is strength. Communist regimes believed that human beings could be endlessly moulded so as to create some template creature, and without the need to pay any attention to biology and genes. To quote Applebaum:

Stalin’s famous suspicion of genetics derived precisely from his conviction that propaganda and communist education could alter the human character, permanently (p. 163)

Here is another example from Applebaum:

[…] from 1948 onwards, the theories of Marxism-Leninism would be explained, expounded and discussed in kindergartens, schools and universities, on the radio and in the newspapers, through elaborate mass campaigns, parades and public events. (p. 272)

Living in the people’s democracies with the pressure to conform to the state-organised lying about the joys of socialism created dreadful tensions, as Applebaum recognises:

Splitting one’s personality into home and school, friends and work, private and public, was one way to cope with the requirement to collaborate. Others tried what Iván Vitányi called “a brainwashing made by myself.” This wasn’t quite the same as Oskar Nerlinger’s determined effort to transform himself from an abstract painter into a socialist realist, but something more like self-silencing (p. 425)

One of the most promoted parts of the politically correct programme in the USA is affirmative action. Once again, communist regimes prepared the way. In Poland, Applebaum notes, members of the working class received preferential treatment under the programme of awans społeczyny (p. 328)  which means something along the lines of ‘social promotion’ or ‘social furthering’. In the Soviet Union these policies were known as korenizatsia (indigenization). Such schemes led to the promotion of poorly qualified and often incompetent members of racial-ethnic minorities. In Rakovyi korpus (Cancer Ward, 1968) Solzhenitsyn provides a brutally accurate description of one such equal-opportunity appointed surgeon who bungles every operation.

Generally speaking, Applebaum provides a comprehensive account of the way in which the regimes imposed socialist realism and censorship, yet there is one glaring and serious omission: language. Censorship, affirmative action and Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism all required a new language to hide the failures and to maintain the grip of the Lie. A person’s willingness to use the new standardised, politically correct language signalled one’s acceptance of the regime’s ideology and thus, publicly at any rate, marked one down as a conformist. The refusal or failure to use the new language attracts immediate attention and censure since it indicates a lack of conformity. Once again, the communist corruption of language for ideological ends clearly anticipates the way language is manipulated in order to serve the purposes of feminism and multiculturalism.

Overall, Iron Curtain is an excellent book which fully exposes the ugly nature of communist totalitarianism. Particularly valuable is the wide range of source material used and the various interviews. I did come across some errors: Applebaum says that the Germans found the mass graves of the Poles murdered in 1940 at Katyn and other sites in 1941 (it was April 1943); that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was published in 1941 (it was 1940); and that the Russian word kulak means ‘wealthy peasant’ (it means ‘fist’).

In my view, Applebaum’s book holds clues to the future. It seems to me that the question of German lands lost to Poland after 1945 has not gone away. Applebaum herself notes, somewhat dismissively, that various Germans demanded that changes to borders be made in 1989. As an outsider looking in, I do not see how a Germany that has morally and psychologically recovered from the NS past; that is now the most powerful economy in Europe; that is assertive and confident, will be able to accept the consequences of the Oder-Neiβe Grenze agreement as a permanent settlement. Germans will argue that such a settlement belongs to the Cold War and now that the Cold War is over the time has come to revisit the question of boundaries. De Gaulle was right: treaties last while they last. The Euro-Alptraum rules out any changes for the next decade or so but in any post-EU Europe – and that might happen suddenly and unexpectedly – all the certainties about European integration and security will have gone and the political-strategic geometry will have changed for good, or rather it will look familiar from the point of view of the long term past.

Dr. FRANK ELLIS is a former soldier and academic, and is now a military historian. His latest book is The Stalingrad Cauldron. Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army (University of Kansas Press, 2013)



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