How Communism Took Over Eastern Europe After World War II

An interview with Anne Applebaum about her new book, The Crushing of Eastern Europe

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Soviet-built tanks wheel into action in a smoke-filled Budapest street during Hungary's rebellion against communist satellite government in October of 1956. (AP)

In a long-awaited history due to be published this week, journalist and author Anne Applebaum draws on firsthand accounts and previously unpublished archival material to describe how the Kremlin established its hegemony over Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The book, titled Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56, explores the gutting of local institutions and the murders, terror campaigns, and tactical maneuvering that allowed Moscow to establish a system of control that would last for decades to come. I spoke with, Applebaum, whose previous book, a history of the Soviet Gulag, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Your book concentrates on three countries -- East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. What made you choose them in particular?I chose those three precisely because they are so different and they just had extremely different experiences of war. Germany obviously was Nazi Germany, Hungary had been a country somewhat in-between, a sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy ally of Hitler, and of course Poland was an ally and very actively [involved in the fight against Hitler.]

So therefore there were three countries with different recent histories and what interested me was the fact that despite those cultural differences, despite the linguistic differences, despite the recent political history, by about the year 1950 if you'd looked in at this region from the outside, they would have all appeared very similar.

In the preface, you state that one of the purposes of the book it is to study the history of totalitarian countries and the methods employed by dictators to suppress populations. What can be learned from the history of the Soviet influence in Eastern Europe?What you learn from studying the period is several things. One is how well prepared Stalin was before he got there. He had for example prepared police forces, secret police forces for each of the countries before he arrived in those countries. Most notably in Poland he begins recruiting policemen from the year 1939. Of course we've always known that he prepared and recruited, and organized communist parties from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution onwards.

​​You also see which kind of institutions the Soviet Union was most interested in. For example, everywhere that the Red Army went, one of the first things they did was take over the radio station. They believed very much in propaganda, in the power of propaganda and they believed that if they just could reach the masses by what was then the most efficient means possible, namely the radio, then they would be able to convince them and then they would be able to take and hold power.

You also learn about some of their obsessions, some of the things they were concerned about. From the earliest days of the Soviet Union, Soviet representatives in the region were very interested in what we now call civil society. So they were very interested in self-organized groups. That means both political parties, it means soccer clubs, it means chess clubs. Self-organized groups of all kinds were a target of Soviet interest and in some cases repressed from the very beginning.

Despite the Soviet Union's elaborate preparations to expand its influence in Eastern Europe, you write that there was a great variety of political parties, private ownership, and free media left to thrive at the beginning. So was the Soviet Union's initial occupation plan far from ideal?

They didn't plan perfectly. They planned strategically. And they didn't know how long it would take to occupy these countries or to change their political systems, and in fact we have some evidence that they thought it might take a very long time -- 20 years or 30 years before Europe is communist.

They also thought from the beginning that it was only a matter of time before they and their ideas were popular. So one of the reasons they held elections -- and there were some free elections in the region, particularly in Hungary and in East Germany, also in Czechoslovakia very early -- is because they thought they would win. They thought, you know, Marx told us that first there will be a bourgeois revolution, then there will be a communist revolution, and sooner or later the workers will have the consciousness, they will come to consciousness themselves as the moving forces of history and they will understand that communism is the way to go and they'll vote us into power.

And they indeed were very stunned in some cases when it didn't happen. I mean, one of the reasons for the big reversal when they cut off this early evidence of democracy was that they were losing. They lost those early elections and they realized they were going to lose them even more in the next round and they decided to stop holding them.

According to your book, Stalin was pursuing more than ideology in Eastern Europe. He also had a geopolitical and even a mercantile agenda.

There were many mercantile interests on Stalin's part. I mean, essentially it is the deportation of German factories. The Soviet Union literally occupied, packed up, and shipped out of Eastern Germany, out of much of Hungary and indeed much of Poland, which was not well known at the time, factories, train tracks, horses, and cattle. All kinds of material goods were taken out of those countries and sent to the Soviet Union.

There is one argument I don't really go into in my book that one of the reasons for the postwar success of the Soviet Union was that it occupied and took over the industrial production of these countries. It itself was very weak after the war and there were even famines in the Soviet Union after the war, as we know.

Did Stalin intend to create some sort of a buffer zone between the U.S.S.R. and the West by occupying Eastern Europe out of fear that the West might eventually attack the Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union really didn't think like that. The people who occupied Eastern Europe and the people who collaborated with the Soviet Union weren't thinking in those terms. The generals and the NKVD officers who came into the region were thinking they were pushing the boundaries of the socialist revolution and that it was only a matter of time before they moved from Eastern Europe to Western Europe.

You write that the Soviet Union started ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe soon after its occupation. Who was the primary victim and what were the motives behind the picking of particular ethnic groups for cleansing?

What the Soviet Union was interested in after the war was ethnic cleansing in the purest sense, that is, they were creating homogenous states. The primary victims and the first victims of this process were the Germans. It had been agreed at Potsdam that the Germans would be removed from these territories, as many were mixed ethnic territories for hundreds of years. That meant that many millions of Germans physically had to be removed and replaced by Poles or [in] the Sudetenland replaced by Czechs and Slovaks.

The process of ethnic cleansing was much more elaborate than we often now remember. Many millions of people had to be put on trains and shipped out of the country and I should stress two things about it: one is that the communist parties themselves in many of these countries ran this process and the second is that it was extremely popular. The deportation of the Germans was considered a great achievement of the communist parties and was thought as such at the time, even though it was of course brutal and cruel and in many cases unfair. Germans who had worked on behalf of the Polish resistance were deported alongside Germans who had been Nazis.

The other great deportation -- one of the other great deportations of the region -- was essentially the swap of Poles and Ukrainians. When the Polish border was moved West, that left quite a number of Poles in the Soviet Union, it also left a number of Ukrainians in what had been Poland and there was a decision to swap them, to send one for the other. And this was also not an easy process, because many of those people had lived in their villages for centuries and they were uninclined to go. And so at certain points force was used, threats were used, at one point there was in effect an open war between Poles and Ukrainians in those eastern regions, something that's not known very well in the rest of the world.

Despite the repressions, the Soviet Union found allies in Eastern Europe who were eager to collaborate and actively took part in the violence themselves. Who were these people? Did they harbor political convictions or were they simple opportunists who just strove to gain power through cooperation with Moscow?

I think they were people who were both. They were both opportunists and they were people who had convictions. I mean, remember that because people had convictions .... Having convictions doesn't make you a moral person or a good person, I mean, the Nazis also had convictions, they were convinced that their system was right. So there were many people who were convinced that this way of thinking was correct and had been scientifically proven by Marx. So many of them were ideologues and at the same time they were opportunists, they saw that if they hewed to the party line and if they remained close to Moscow they would remain in power.




This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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