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Iron Curtain: Rust or Rupture?

By: Patrick J. Garrity
February 19, 2013

"I am profoundly concerned about the European situation," Winston Churchill cabled the new American president, Harry Truman, on May 12, 1945. The war with Germany had been declared over by the victorious allies just a few days previously, but now, Churchill warned, "an iron curtain is drawn down upon their [the Soviets'] front. We do not know what is going on behind."

In less than a year, Churchill would immortalize the expression "Iron Curtain" in his famous speech at Fulton Missouri.

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone—Greece with its immortal glories—is free to decide its future at an election under British, American, and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed—of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.


For the duration of the Cold War, it was never quite clear what was "going on behind" in those East European nations that had become part of the Soviet imperium. Twenty-odd years after the Iron Curtain collapsed, dissolved, rusted away—whatever term one prefers—Anne Applebaum takes on the task of sorting out the story in Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. She relies on the considerable (and uneven) secondary literature but principally on her own archival research, interviews, and personal accounts. In addition to painting a broad picture of the first decade of Communist rule in Eastern Europe (her focus is on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary), Applebaum strives to recover the experience of daily life in a world where human nature, deep-rooted political culture, and the imperatives of totalitarian rule were in constant tension and often in outright conflict.

Applebaum is well suited to the task, having served as a journalist in Eastern Europe for the Economist magazine (among other publications) and having studied Communist rule closely for her Pulitzer Prize winning Gulag: A History (2003). She is married to Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski.

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For the student of strategy, Applebaum raises important questions about the nature of empires as well as of totalitarianism—whether imperial rule can ever be effective in its own right, in the sense of being just as well as enduring. Throughout history, imperial powers have used various strategies to deal with peoples outside the core of the empire—from cooption to eradication. Applebaum argues that the Soviets, and their East European devotees, were deadly serious about creating a totalitarian empire, and that their imperial strategy was driven by the internal logic of totalitarian ideology, and not by a defensive reaction to real or imagined external threats. By implication, the subsequent political trajectory of Communist Eastern Europe—cycles of repression and reform, within the general context of accelerating economic and moral decay—resulted from the tragic but inevitable clash between ideological imperatives and the stubbornness of human individuals.

Applebaum takes seriously the concept of totalitarianism: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." (This was Mussolini's definition—the term was first used in the context of Italian fascism.) Strictly defined, a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. It has one political party, one educational system, an official artistic creed, a centrally planned economy, a unified media, and a single moral code. Hannah Arendt argued that a totalitarian regime was made feasible by the onset of modernity (i.e., the destruction of traditional societies and ways of life), which created the condition for the evolution of the "totalitarian personality," human beings whose identities were entirely dependent upon the state.

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Applebaum reminds us that there are regimes that have aspired, and continue to aspire, to such total control. We need to understand how they operate, in theory as well as in practice. Eastern Europe provides a critical test case. After the Red Army's march to Berlin, the Soviet leadership tried to impose a totalitarian system of government on the eight European counties they then occupied, just as they had attempted to impose a totalitarian system of government on the many different regions and peoples of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Their efforts there and in Eastern Europe were in dead earnest—they very much wanted "everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." They wanted to do it quickly despite, or because of, the fact that they were dealing with nations that had vastly different political cultures, ethnic traditions, and economic structures. The goal was to turn Eastern Europe into an ideologically and politically homogenous region. World War II gave Stalin an unprecedented opportunity to impose his particular vision of a Communist society on his neighbors.

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By looking at the origins of communist Eastern Europe outside the prism of the Cold War, Applebaum argues, we can learn much about the totalitarian mindset and about how human beings react to the imposition of totalitarian rule. Her approach is very much at odds with anti-anti Communism, which became the dominant view in the Western academy and which still has powerful advocates. Those who opposed American policy in the Cold War argued that "totalitarianism" was a bogeyman, the self-serving invention of those who wanted to promote the liberal-capitalist system. Revisionist historians of the Soviet Union argued that even Stalin's USSR was never totalitarian—all decisions were not made in Moscow; police repression was as likely to originate at the local level as at the center; central planning was never intended to be thorough; and what the West claimed to be mass terror was actually a means to create "opportunities" for social mobility. Foreign policy revisionists contended that the Sovietization of Eastern Europe occurred only after 1948, primarily as the result of Western aggressiveness (the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, currency reform in the western sectors of Germany, and the like), which forced Stalin, reluctantly but understandably, to react against the threat to the Soviet (Russian) homeland from the West.

The classic revisionist formulation, by William Appleman Williams (retold later in more sophisticated versions) held that the Cold War was caused not by Communist aggression but by the American drive for open international markets—the key to which was the inclusion of Eastern Europe and a revitalized and militarized anti-Communist Germany in the capitalist sphere. The Soviets, still weak after the war, fearful of German revanchism, and living under the shadow of the American monopoly of the atomic bomb, naturally responded with defensive measures in their sphere of influence. Otherwise, so the revisionist story went, Eastern Europe would have become a happy, peaceful, Finlandized region, with democratic politics and socialist economies. The East Europeans would have had to be careful not to offend the Soviets in foreign policy, to be sure, but they would have retained distinct national identities and culture. Between 1945 and 1948, there was still a reasonable degree of freedom in Eastern Europe, and thus a window of opportunity for far-sighted, restrained Western leaders to keep the region safe for political pluralism. (Those of a more "realistic" persuasion held that a division of Europe into spheres of influence was inevitable anyway—it was best to consign the East Europeans to their fate without any muss and fuss in order to get on with practical relations with Stalin.

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Applebaum argues that this early "liberal" period was not quite as liberal as it might have appeared. In their zone of occupation, the Red Army and NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) immediately began to impose their own system, learning from the experience of 1939-1941, when the USSR divided much of Eastern Europe with the Nazis as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. During that time the Soviets perfected the use of local collaborators and members of the international Communist movement, mass violence, and mass deportation to the Gulag, to "Sovietize" the local population. Even before the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Soviet authorities had already begun to prepare the ground for a similar transformation of Eastern Europe when the opportunity presented itself.

To be sure, according to Applebaum, the Red Army did not import the full extent of the Soviet political system into the region. Nor did Stalin apparently expect to create a Communist bloc very quickly. But he did plan to create such a bloc over time, once the region went through a period of transition and after the capitalist powers were exhausted by social revolution and wars amongst themselves. But Stalin did not rely on history alone to bring about his empire. Certain key elements of the Soviet regime did follow the Red Army into Eastern Europe from the very beginning—a system of secret police, set up and controlled by the NKVD in collaboration with local Communist parties. The secret police in Eastern Europe often used personnel already trained in Moscow, who operated under the control of the local interior ministries (which the Communists insisted on controlling in so-called "coalition" governments). The secret police immediately began to use selective violence against those regarded as political enemies, broadly defined, many of who had already been identified and targeted.

The Soviets also ensured that trusted local Communists were placed in charge of the era's most powerful form of mass media: the radio. This provided the short-term advantage of controlling the message of the day. Along with changes in the educational system, over time it provided the means to bring mass numbers into the Communist camp. The Soviets and local Communists also harassed, persecuted, and eventually prohibited many of the independent organizations of what we now term civil society—particularly youth groups, such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, young social democrats, and Catholic and Protestant youth associations. Finally, the Communists carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others.

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Some elements of capitalism and liberalism did remain in place for a time—not because the Soviets or the local Communists were willing to accept a mixed regime but because they thought some things less important to eliminate immediately. They believed that with their control of the secret police and the radio and the elimination of youth groups and other non-Communist civic organizations they could win elections and come to power in seemingly legitimate fashion (power which, once obtained, they had no intention of giving up). They also believed that history was on their side. Indeed, in the late 1940s, physical and economic conditions in post-war Western Europe were hardly better than in the East. Capitalism and liberal democracy had been widely discredited because of the Great Depression and ensuing political chaos and war. The Soviets and their local Communist allies had gained considerable prestige for their role in the defeat of Hitler and fascism. Surely the peoples of Eastern Europe, especially the working class, now freed from reactionary elements in the church and big business—with a little "help" from the Communist vanguard—would be on their side. The masses would acquire class consciousness and vote accordingly. In short, the East European Communist leaders, and their Soviet mentors, believed their own propaganda.

Their calculations proved wrong. Despite the threat of physical intimidation, the use of propaganda, and the very real attraction that Communism held for some people devastated by the war, Communist parties lost early elections throughout Eastern Europe. They achieved their high-water mark in Czechoslovakia, winning a third of the vote in 1946, but it was certain that they would do much worse in 1948. That conclusion led the Soviets to arrange a coup against the formally democratic regime.

History, it seemed, needed a firmer hand. The overtly totalitarian policies that began to be imposed on Eastern Europe in 1947 and 1948 were not merely, and certainly not only, a reaction to the Cold War, in Applebaum's view. They were primarily a reaction to the failure to win power to "peacefully" establish the conditions for absolute or even adequate Communist control. The local Communists, "advised" by their Soviet allies, resorted to the harsher tactics used previously in the USSR: mass arrests, the expansion of labor camps, and much tighter controls over the media, intellectuals, and the arts. The Communists began a process of eliminating "right wing" parties, followed by the destruction of the non-Communist left, culminating in the purge of any opposition within the Communist parties themselves. They held show trials very much along Soviet lines. The logic of totalitarianism drove the Communist parties to attempt to eliminate all remaining independent organizations and to replace them with state-run mass organizations, to establish much more complete control over education, and to subvert the churches. They devised new, all-encompassing forms of educational propaganda, sponsored public parades and lectures, hung banners and posters, and organized petition-signing campaigns (e.g., for "world peace").

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The acceleration of totalitarian means to totalitarian ends failed to achieve Communism's ultimate objective of removing all dissent to the bright future ahead. Following Stalin's death in 1953, a series of minor and major rebellions broke out across the region. In East Berlin, labor protests in 1953 were crushed by Soviet tanks. Two major uprisings followed in 1956, in Poland and Hungary. In the wake of those upheavals some Eastern European Communists decided to try to moderate their tactics, without abandoning their goal of totalitarian utopia. As this goal receded, they alternated between attempts to allow more pluralism, debate, and economic freedom, and harsh, punitive, and controlling policies. The threat of direct Soviet military intervention always loomed in the background. They did not abandon belief in the project itself—Communist elites had not yet reached the conclusion that their ideology was doomed to fail. Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956, after all, had only criticized the excesses of Stalin, but said nothing of the failure of Communism per se. Totalitarian ideology had not been implemented properly just yet.

Applebaum's detailed narrative ends in the mid-1950s but she offers her reflections on the ultimate failure of the system. Until 1989 none of the regimes ever seemed to realize they were unstable by definition. They lurched from crisis to crisis, not because they were unable to fine-tune their policies but because the Communist project itself was fatally flawed. By seeking comprehensive control, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest. The Communist claim to legitimacy rested on the assurance of future prosperity and high living standards, which were supposedly guaranteed by the "scientific" tenets of Marxism. They could not conceal for long the fact that living standards never rose as quickly and dramatically as they did in the West. Western radio, travel and tourism all brought home this gap, despite the regimes' efforts to limit information from the outside. Cynicism and disillusionment grew even among those who had originally placed their faith in the system. The general population became characterized by sullen, apathetic workers, and by cynical students and intellectuals who emigrated when possible and who found creative ways to express discontent when not.

Applebaum points out that few Western analysts believed that revolution was possible within the Soviet bloc at any time—for example, the Hungarian Revolution came as a shock—and the events of 1989 were almost completely unexpected. Both Communists and anti-Communists, with few exceptions, assumed that Soviet methods of indoctrination were invincible; that most people believed in the propaganda without question, or at least without opposition; that the totalitarian educational system really could eliminate dissent; that civic institutions, once destroyed, could not be rebuilt and used as foci of resistance; that history, once rewritten, would be forgotten. Totalitarianism, once it had worked its way into the soul of a nation, could not be extirpated.

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Those beliefs were wrong, Applebaum concludes. Human beings do not acquire "totalitarian personalities" with such ease. Appearances can be deceiving. Even when it seems as if ordinary people are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda, when they march enthusiastically in parades and sing the latest songs glorifying the party, the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, and dramatically be broken. The gap between reality and ideology meant that the Communist parties wound up promoting meaningless slogans that they themselves knew made no sense. They were unable to distinguish truth from ideological fiction and were unable to address, much less understand, the worsening social and economic problems. Dissidents like Václav Havel called on their countrymen to "live in truth," to speak and act as if the regime did not exist. Civil society began to reemerge in unusual ways, some of it clandestine and underground (including the black market), and others in seemingly apolitical form, such as jazz bands, academic discussion clubs, and "unofficial" peace movements.

Yet the end of the story was not quite so happy. By their very nature totalitarian regimes do an enormous amount of individual and societal damage. Their short-term success reveals an unpleasant truth about human nature, Applebaum argues. If enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, they can destroy legal, political, educational, and religious institutions, sometimes permanently. As a result, when totalitarian regimes are removed, the instillation of the bare institutions of "democracy" is insufficient to transform them into liberal societies again (and how much more difficult it is for societies that were never liberal in the first place). Decent, democratic political life requires the creation, or recreation, of independent media; private enterprise and the laws to support it; an educational system free of propaganda; and a civil service promotion system based on talent, not ideological correctness. The most successful of the former Communist regimes are those that managed to preserve some of these crucial elements of civil society. Applebaum observes that some nations and political classes, like Poland, are open to such institutions; whereas in Russia, traditional cultural hostility to independent organizations remains strong, and legal and extralegal means are still used to restrain them.

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Applebaum offers a compelling argument. The student of strategy may want to push it a bit further, at least as a line of inquiry. Her explanation of the rise and fall of Soviet Communist totalitarianism focuses on the working out of its internal logic—or illogic—which led eventually to fatal contradictions and collapse. It is as if the history of the Eastern bloc could be isolated from that of the non-Communist world. She does this for good reason, as a way of getting around hackneyed arguments about the origins of the Cold War, and particularly the contention that Western hostility to legitimate Soviet security concerns led Stalin to impose ideological conformity on the region. Nevertheless, Western strategy, and not merely the distant effect of Western culture and economic success, must have had some influence on events there—either to accelerate or retard the demise of the Communist satellite states. Lessons learned from this experience may help us think through similar problems today and tomorrow because imperialism, in whatever guise, has not left us.

This line of study assumes that we indeed will seek in the future to bring about the demise of totalitarian, or at least hostile, regimes that have been imposed by an outside power. Our efforts at regime change will be most effective and enduring if they are anchored in our basic strategic interests and objectives—which might be said to be that of making the world safe for democracy, which is not the same thing as democratizing the world. Our approach to the political fate of the Eastern European states during and after World War II, after all, was rooted in strategic calculation and not merely noble sentiment.

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Immediately after World War II, eastern Europe was seen as a litmus test of Soviet intentions as well as a critical geopolitical battleground. It is not unfair to say that the Cold War resulted from the projection of Soviet military power—and of Communist regimes dependent on Soviet power—so far west. The West Europeans, and the part of Germany that remained outside of Soviet control, were devastated by World War II and were wobbly democracies at best. They did not have the means to resist the further expansion of the Soviet imperium alone and they did not want to rely on the Kremlin's good will and restraint—especially with the evidence (amply documented by Applebaum) of the growing Sovietization of Eastern Europe. American leaders, for their part, believed that the loss of Western Europe would decisively tip the material and moral balance of forces against the United States, and so they committed the country to a policy of containing the Soviet Union, first in Europe and then on a global scale. They did not seek to liberate Eastern Europe, at least not immediately or directly. But for the Cold War to end—assuming the United States did not surrender or simply partition the world with Moscow-Soviet power would have to recede from Eastern Europe, whether by choice or because the Soviets were forced out.

And, after 40 years, Soviet power did finally recede, and with it the Communist regimes that Stalin and his successors had created and maintained. One Soviet official joked about replacing the Brezhnev Doctrine (socialism, once in place, could not be removed) with the "Sinatra Doctrine," letting the East European nations do things their way. The peoples of Eastern Europe did so, by unanimously rejecting Soviet-style regimes, even if they did not all embrace fully liberal alternatives. But they were unable to liberate themselves from Soviet rule alone, even if they played an important role in the process by retaining some sense of human dignity and national pride. Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because the imperial power no longer had the will to continue to impose its rule, even though it undoubtedly had the physical power to do so. One could argue that this loss of will in the Kremlin was simply the working-out of the same natural forces of resistance to totalitarianism as occurred in Eastern Europe. In the case of Gorbachev, at least, there was no loss of confidence in Marxist ideology, however, but rather a monumental failure to understand that maintaining the ideology required force. Once the threat of force was separated from ideology in the imperial core as well as on the periphery, there was no half-way house to fall back on, no "human face of socialism" that would preserve the ideals without the totalitarian means of Communism.

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This brings us back to the prior question—what, if anything, did the West do to accelerate (or perhaps retard) the process that broke up the Soviet totalitarian empire? Answering this question is a matter of serious contention, of course. The West clearly aided the process simply by applying the Woody Allen rule about success in life—just showing up, as an attractive and persistent alternative to the material and moral failings of Communism. We might also say that the United States and its allies blocked one major path that imperial powers typically use to deal with their difficulties, that of war to remove the sources of resistance just beyond the current imperial frontier. Western military force was made sufficiently credible—although perhaps with a tenuous margin—such that Soviet leaders were never willing to throw the dice and risk everything by resorting to direct aggression. At the same time, the United States and its allies managed to drive up the cost of doing business in the military-economic sphere to the point where the Kremlin, and its subsidized allies in Eastern Europe, could afford neither guns nor butter.

The West, as noted above, also decided as a matter of policy essentially not to challenge Soviet rule in the East directly through an active and overt policy of "liberation." It accepted, tacitly and in some cases formally, the legitimacy of the division of Europe—which meant also the legitimacy of the Soviet satellite states, in hopes that time and some sort of general détente might ultimately lessen the burden on the East Europeans. One might conclude that the United States and its allies went too far in the direction of legitimizing totalitarian rule—yet it appears now that they also, consciously or not, introduced "poison pills" into the arrangement (e.g., the human rights "basket" of the Helsinki Accords). In the later stages of the Cold War the United States actively defended the legitimacy of those remaining or reemerging elements of civil society in Eastern Europe (e.g., the Catholic Church and Solidarity in Poland). This defense sometimes went beyond mere rhetoric, to covert activities and the threat of economic sanctions and the like. This contributed to the material and political crisis that ultimately caused Soviet leaders to make the fatal error—for a totalitarian state—of forgetting what the source of its imperial power actually was.

Does this offer a successful formula for future ventures against the periphery of empires established on totalitarian principles? Each case is different, to be sure, but Applebaum's detailed and trenchant analysis of what actually takes place in those empires is an excellent starting point for reflection.