Anne Applebaum’s massive study—468 pages plus another 140 pages of notes—analyses the tragic history of Eastern Europe under communism and its post Hitlerian prelude. Her tome delves into the antecedents of the post war communist leadership and the forces behind the frequent shifts in communist ideology and its practices. For this was a political system unlike any other. It was in perpetual war against all non-communist states and even against fellow communists as became the case from 1947 with Tito’s Yugoslavia and later with Mao’s China.
Applebaum uses her fluency in Polish and Russian to colour the historical narrative with personal recollections derived from hundreds of interviews. She pays particular attention to the massive personal costs of expulsions in response to border changes, matters that have received little attention falling as they did under the shadow of the holocaust. Under this ethnic cleansing perhaps a million people were killed and some 20 million moved either forcibly or to escape retribution. Among Germans, these included Eastern European colonies of volksdeutsch and those from the 37 per cent of pre-war Germany plus the Czech Sudetenland that went to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Soviet republics. Poles, Ukrainians and Belorussians, Hungarians, Moldavians, Serbs and Romanians plus a host of smaller national groupings all moved amidst sometimes fractious recriminations.
For the most part the Communists thought it unlikely that they would win power through elections. But they considered their cadres of committed supporters counted for more than the ballot box and that eventually the populace at large would recognise the vanguard’s views as being correct.
All the east European national leaders and their ministers were imposed by the Soviets. All were loyal Stalinists (Tito differed only in being a non-imposed leader). The key ones, Ulbricht in East Germany, Bierut in Poland, Rakosi in Hungary and Dimitrov (one time head of the international propaganda organisation, Comintern) in Bulgaria, spent the World War II years in Russia.
The single-minded pursuit of the socialist Nirvana of these leaders and others, like the Western spies Burgess, Maclean and Harry Dexter White, required massive confidence in the system’s merits. All were able to overlook the Soviet Union’s massive crimes during the purges and with the Gulag out of a deep belief that the socialist economic system would surpass the efficiency of capitalist systems. The reality is illustrated by comparing Poland and Spain, two nations with similar GDPs in 1950 but 30 years on Spain’s was five times that of Poland.
But this begs the question: why were so many people, not only national leaders who saw personal benefits, utterly convinced of the merits of communism. Applebaum points to fellow travellers like Sartre, whom she calls ‘the towering intellectual figure of the period’, who, notwithstanding knowledge of Communist evils, still preferred its system to the bourgeois west. But she considers the docility for the most part of ordinary apolitical people on accepting the system to be more troubling. Ordinary people, she says, ‘succumbed to the constant, all-encompassing, everyday psychological and economic pressure. The Stalinist system excelled in creating large groups of people who…knew the propaganda was false but who felt, nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it.’
Among the privileged beneficiaries of the system, many remained supportive even after having experienced its brutality first hand. Some even were nostalgic and claimed economic success for the regimes.
One person interviewed by Anne Applebaum was the East German author Elfreide Bruning, a secret Communist before the war who welcomed the Red Army. The new regime gave her a position of privilege and affluence and, while critical of some aspects, she worked assiduously for its success. At their first meeting, Bruning continued to offer support for the then displaced Communist regime and to reject the stories of excesses and of Red Army atrocities. Later she recontacted Applebaum to relate first hand experiences of corruption that had cost her her husband, and mass rape. She also revealed how she had been aware that terror was used to facilitate thefts of property to which she was a beneficiary.
Bruning and others who the regime pampered, had a vested interest in shutting out of their minds the overwhelming evidence of its mediocrity and cruel destruction of liberty. But most others, at least for most of the time, also tolerated it.
Nonetheless dissatisfaction simmered. A popular uprising in East Germany (1953), continuous unrest in Poland and the 1956 Hungarian revolution demonstrated the unpopularity of the regimes that had brought income levels visibly lagging behind those in Western Europe. Even so, almost until the end, few saw the implosion of 1989, such was the governing class’s stranglehold over all the institutions.
The Communists in Eastern Europe mainly recognised their unlikeliness in gaining power through the ballot box. Although they polled one third of the vote in the initial elections in Czechoslovakia, aside from self-liberating Yugoslavia, nowhere else in Eastern Europe did the Communists have such popularity (and in Czechoslovakia they were going backwards by 1947). Ironically, the Communists and left-wing socialists got a higher share in Italy (39 per cent), while the Communists got 28 per cent in France (and the then semi-Trotskyist socialists got a further 18 per cent).
Electorates in 1945 especially in Eastern Europe did not accept the Communists’ promises of gain for the many at the expense of the rich. This may be partly attributable to excesses widely, though not universally, recognised in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and also to the brutality of the Soviet conquest of Nazi occupied Europe. Communism’s defeat was however not because it destroyed political freedoms but because it failed to deliver the living standards it promised.