IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1945-1956
By Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, $35, 608 pages
The year 1945 marked the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the defeat of Imperial Japan. At the same time, it ushered in the birth of the atomic age. It also was the year the Soviet Union’s military occupation of Eastern and Central Europe took hold, following the Red Army’s triumphant march from Stalingrad into Berlin.
In that long and bloody slog, the Red Army took a priceless piece of real estate that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had no intention of giving up. He saw the occupied lands as a buffer in a future war and an opportunity to set up puppet governments. Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would note in a speech in Fulton, Mo., in 1946 that an Iron Curtain stretched from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic across the European 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 Sophia in what I must call the Soviet sphere,” Churchill said. The Iron Curtain, marking the Soviet sphere of influence, stood for more than four decades.
How was the Soviet Union able to impose its system on other nations? To answer that question, historian Anne Applebaum has put together an important and highly readable book on the history of the first decade of the Cold War. Focusing primarily on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, Ms. Applebaum notes with vivid clarity how the military occupation gave the Kremlin the ability to install loyalists, many of whom had fled their own countries to live in the Soviet Union before and during the war. They returned home to take charge, using “salami tactics” by gradually getting rid of pro-democracy figures.
“They had eliminated the most capable of their potential opponents,” Ms. Applebaum writes. “They had taken control of the institutions they considered most valuable. They had created, from scratch, the political police.” Even churches were infiltrated, opponents exiled and jailed.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union received several shocks to its system as early as 1948. The first blow was the Marshall Plan, which channeled billions of dollars into Western Europe, helping the war-shattered economies recover and underlining the economic gap between capitalistic and communist economies.
The second challenge came in the form of the Berlin Airlift, initiated by the Western allies to counter the Soviet land blockade of the German capital — an attempt by Stalin to force the United States, Britain and France to abandon their zone. The Soviets ultimately failed, and the blockade of West Berlin was lifted.
The third major setback to Stalin came from Yugoslavia. Under Josip Broz Tito, who was popular among his people for leading an armed resistance to the Nazis, Yugoslavia broke away from Stalin’s grip. There were more serious setbacks yet to come:
In East Berlin, workers rioted in 1953, and the revolt was put down by force.
Radio Free Europe was established in Munich, West Germany, in the early 1950s to broadcast news, feature stories and even jazz and rock ‘n’ roll to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in an effort to counter communist propaganda.
The biggest shock to the Soviets came on Oct. 23, 1956, when Hungarians took to the streets in Budapest and other cities and towns to protest communist dictatorship and censorship, calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks the next month, and its leaders later were tried and executed, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy, a reform communist. I was not yet 11 years old when I saw Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Budapest. They were attacked by snipers and teenage boys flinging Molotov cocktails.
In 1961, the Berlin Wall went up to keep East Germans out of the West. In 1968, the Prague Spring was crushed by Warsaw Pact troops at the direction of the Kremlin. It took another two decades for the Iron Curtain to unravel. The collapse was inevitable in 1989 — though few would forecast it earlier — because it was a failed system. Communism could deliver neither freedom nor prosperity.
Ms. Applebaum argues that communist ideology and Marxist-Leninist economic theory contained the seeds of their own destruction because their very claims to legitimacy were based on promises of future prosperity that never came.
“Human beings do not acquire ‘totalitarian personalities’ with ease,” Ms. Applebaum writes. “Even when they seem bewitched by the cult of the Leader or of the party, appearances can be deceiving. And even when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda — even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right — the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken.”
That’s something the leaders of North Korea, Cuba, Iran and other countries who are oppressing their people should keep in mind.
Frank T. Csongos is a former reporter, editor and bureau chief of United Press International and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.