The Cold War

Reassessing the Iron Curtain — 1

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe
by Anne Applebaum
Penguin, 2013, 614 pages, $22.99


Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe challenges the revisionist notion that the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe was a response to American belligerence. Roosevelt and then Truman, according to Applebaum, were essentially bystanders during the process. Iron Curtain convincingly demonstrates that Soviet-style communism, operating in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Nazi empire, obeyed a totalitarian logic all of its own.

Roosevelt and Churchill had contrasting attitudes to the Soviet Union at the time of Yalta, February 1945. Roosevelt hoped that if the Stalin’s postwar demands were satisfied, then all might be right. Churchill was far less sanguine, but neither Western power wanted war with their erstwhile Grand Alliance partner. Roosevelt and Churchill, contends Applebaum, decided it would be impossible to “sell” a new war to their respective countries, given that wartime propaganda had “portrayed Stalin as jovial ‘Uncle Joe’, rough-edged friend of the working man”. Churchill resigned himself to the bitter truth: “once the Red Army was in place, it wasn’t going to move”. For the American President, the fate of Eastern Europe “was only of marginal interest”.

Iron Curtain dispenses with The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) by William Appleman Williams, the prototype revisionist account of the origins of the Cold War. According to Williams, Roosevelt’s insistence on an “Open Door Policy” at the conclusion of the Second World War, with its implication that capitalism should be universal, forced Stalin to re-evaluate his relationship with the West. Had the United States continued its Lend-Lease program after Germany’s defeat, or otherwise aided the postwar reconstruction of the USSR, the Cold War could have been avoided. Stalin would not have felt the need to tighten his grip on Eastern Europe which resulted in its complete Sovietisation and “all pretence of national autonomy” forsaken.

Applebaum has a different take on why “political terror was stepped up, the media muzzled and elections manipulated” in Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1947. The key factor in this nightmarish process, she argues, had little to do with the machinations of Roosevelt or Truman, let alone Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech:


First and foremost, the Soviet NKVD, in collaboration with local communist parties, immediately created a secret police force in its own image, often using people whom they had already trained in Moscow. Everywhere the Red Army went … these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria.


The Sovietisation of every Eastern European country “liberated” by the Red Army followed this pattern to the letter.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989–90 allowed the former inmates of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to speak about “the looting, the arbitrary violence and above all the mass rape which followed the Soviet invasion” in 1945. Throughout other parts of Eastern Europe, people never forgot that the Red Army dispatched not only Nazi sympathisers but also “local partisans who had been fighting the Germans but who happened not to be communists”. Nowadays, says Applebaum, the Red Army’s 1944–45 conduct in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria is “rarely remembered as pure liberation”, but more “as the brutal beginning of a new occupation”.

Iron Curtain, in large part, is an exploration of how and why Eastern Europeans allowed themselves to be so thoroughly subjugated by their new Soviet masters. The obvious answer, of course, is that there were not a lot of options unless people were willing to risk prosecution, persecution or even execution. The one possible exception was the East Germans, who could flee to West Berlin, which they did in astonishing numbers: 3.5 million out of a total population of 18 million before the erection of the Berlin Wall (or “Antifascist Defence Barrier”) in 1961.


The reality of Soviet-style communism was not identical to Nazism, and yet Applebaum persuasively argues that they were both totalitarian. She rejects as spurious the claims of revisionist historians in the 1970s and 1980s that “even Stalin’s Soviet Union had never really been totalitarian at all”. The Soviet archives, opened in 1990, lend support to Applebaum’s assertion. She is equally dismissive of postmodernist theories asserting that “totalitarian” signifies nothing more than a self-serving “negative template” used in the West to exalt liberal capitalism and denigrate “The Other”.

Continually switching from East German examples to Polish or Hungarian, Iron Curtain methodically builds the case that totalitarianism not only penetrates the “soul of a nation”, but also “proves just how fragile ‘civilisation’ can be”. It is a phenomenon that did not disappear with Soviet-style communism. The Egyptian historian Sherif Younis recently depicted his country’s Muslim Brotherhood as “a sectarian organisation that locks itself within its own moral and behaviour codes”.

Younis’s characterisation of Egypt’s year-long Muslim Brotherhood government as an entity “driven by its own interests, rendering it difficult to ally with anyone” could serve as a description of the Walter Ulbricht group. This clique of Soviet-trained German communists arrived from Moscow in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Their Plan A was to co-opt all of Germany, but in the end they had to be satisfied with ruling the Soviet-occupied zone, or what became in October 1949 the German Democratic Republic. Virtually all attempts by Ulbricht’s coterie to form an understanding with non-communist political and social forces ended in the capitulation of the latter. For instance, by 1946 the Communist Party could no longer compete with the popularity garnered by the other workers’ party in the country, the Social Democrats, and so Stalin ordered the two socialist parties in the Soviet Zone to “unite” and form the Socialist Unity Party. This signified the death of social democracy in East Germany.              

It was the same story—as Applebaum explains in the chapter titled “Radio”—with the media. At first, small independent newspapers in the Soviet Zone were allowed to compete with the larger Moscow-sponsored publications, but any “political incorrectness” was punished by the enforced reduction of a newspaper’s circulation, the communist authorities having control of paper production and distribution. A similar despotic impulse affected radio content. Until the Americans established a station in the western part of Berlin in July 1945, the Walter Ulbricht group ruled the airwaves. The communists tried something approximating subtlety in the beginning, but their plunging popularity soon forced them to reconsider: “Their conclusion: There should be more ideology, not less—on the radio and everywhere else.”             


Another key aspect of the Eastern bloc states was the attempt to brainwash the young so they would “never even conceive of opposing communism”. This dark fantasy involved, as a Soviet dissident once put it, the attempt to create a new species—Homo sovieticus. All teachers, from kindergarten onwards, had to play their part: “Politics was a lie at the centre of the curriculum for every child.” Increasingly, universities throughout Eastern Europe became institutions for the dissemination of communist ideology: “History became Marxist history, philosophy became Marxist philosophy, law became Marxist law, and sociology often disappeared altogether.”

Every “people’s community” must have its enemies and so it proved in Eastern Europe. In their early days, at least, the Soviet-backed regimes made some show of accommodating Catholic and Protestant churches in their midst, but by the time of High Stalinism (1949–53) the gloves had come off. Applebaum contrasts the struggle for ecclesiastical autonomy by Hungary’s Cardinal József Mindszenty with that of his Polish counterpart, Stefan Wyszynski. Wyszynski enjoyed more success, but it was only relative. The Jews were next on the hit list, even though Moscow supported the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. Echoing the Nazi epoch that preceded Soviet ascendancy in the region, Stalin and his East European underlings “clearly believed, not without justification, that the persecution of Jewish communities would be welcomed by everyone else”.

Ultimately, though, a sizeable percentage of the East European population were—at some level—complicit, or the Soviet-backed regimes would not have survived for almost half a century. This goes beyond the local nomenklatura enjoying the power and privileges of a communist aristocracy and inhabiting “the villas left behind by the displaced bourgeoisie”. As an example, Applebaum writes about a typical owner of a private printing press in East Germany who did the bidding of the regime and so contributed to the “creation of totalitarianism”, and yet would not have necessarily “considered himself a collaborator, let alone a communist”. Iron Curtain employs the expression “reluctant collaborator” to depict people who outwardly conformed and yet “retained an inner sense of disjunction or discomfort”.

The “genius” of communism, getting people to obey the system’s rules, was also its “fatal flaw”. Applebaum quotes Jacek Fedorowicz, a citizen of the People’s Republic of Poland, and his claim that from the earliest age even those with “zero knowledge of politics” understood the code of survival: “we knew exactly what could be said in different settings, at school, among close friends and not so close, at home and on holiday”. In other words, the captive people of Eastern Europe sabotaged the Homo sovieticus project to an extent that communist dictators such as Erich Honecker (GDR) and Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania) never grasped—despite the ubiquitous surveillance systems—until it was too late.

A more emboldened category than the “reluctant collaborators” was that of the “passive opponents”, although Applebaum allows that they were often the same people. These people expressed their hostility to a communist regime “in jokes, graffiti and unsigned letters”. Their contrariness was “often anonymous and frequently ambivalent”. Radio Luxemburg broadcasts were “weirdly popular” among the young, Western music serving as the sound of freedom and the promise of a different way of experiencing life. (Leslie Woodhead’s recently released How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin explores this theme in greater depth.) In 1951, one of the GDR’s official musicologists denounced American “jazz, swing and big band music” as “just as dangerous as a military attack with poison gases”. The regime’s hardliners and so-called liberals never did work out a coherent solution for managing the “degenerate” cultural influences that kept infiltrating the Iron Curtain.


In her overview of the era, Applebaum explains the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe from 1944 in terms of Stalin abandoning his long-standing “Socialism in One Country” doctrine and replacing it with a Trotsky-like embrace of “the international revolution”. This fits with a fairly traditionalist understanding of the origins of the Cold War, and yet there is not a lot of evidence that Stalin set out to destroy relations with the United States. Moreover, Stalin drastically reduced the size of the Red Army throughout 1945 and well into 1946. Additionally, no less than 27 million Soviet citizens had perished in the Great Patriotic War, and much of the Soviet Union’s newly acquired “sphere of influence” lay in ruins. Was this the right moment to be launching the Third World War?

The possibility that Stalin might not have meant to precipitate the Cold War does not excuse him from blame. Stalin did not mean for a lot of things to happen—the 1940 Katyn Massacre in Soviet-controlled Poland, for instance. Jonathan Brent’s Inside the Stalin Archives (2009) reveals that originally neither Stalin nor Beria had any “clear intention of executing the Polish officers”. The trouble was, the Poles refused to “alter their political opinions”, and eventually Stalin and Beria “decided they had no option but to shoot them”.

The Katyn Massacre presaged what happened—metaphorically and, on occasion, literally—in Central Europe during the postwar years. Revisionists often blame Truman for raising Stalin’s ire, but by the end of 1945 the United States had officially recognised the communist regimes in Bulgaria and Romania. In addition, America never lifted a finger to assist the captive nations of Central Europe—short-wave radio programs aside—even when East Berliners rose up against communist despotism in 1953 and the Hungarians and Poles did the same in 1956. The Truman Doctrine spoke not of rollback but containment.               

The exception—the one place in Central Europe where the Americans boldly and heroically fought Sovietisation—was Germany. Applebaum somewhat unfairly discounts Wilfred Loth’s Stalin’s Unwanted Child: The Soviet Union, the German Question and the Founding of the GDR (1998) as merely a “more sophisticated” version of the revisionist thesis first promulgated by William Appleman Williams. Surely Loth is right to argue that the formation of the GDR would have been Plan B for Stalin; and that he watched with alarm the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Stalin lost whatever chance existed of postwar Germany remaining in one piece, albeit as a “Finlandised” state, when he arranged a shotgun marriage between the Social Democrats and the Communist Party in the Soviet Zone in March 1946. From that moment onwards, most Social Democrats in the three Western-occupied zones abandoned all thought of a united Germany and joined their conservative compatriots in agitating for some form of sovereign West German state. America’s creation of Bizonia and then Trizonia, along with the currency reform of 1948, was a response to this groundswell of popular German agitation, which in turn reflected a response to the machinations of the Stalinists in the Soviet Zone.

German currency reform, to continue the chain of events, resulted in Stalin laying siege to Berlin and the ensuing Berlin Airlift (1948–49), the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (1949), NATO (1949), and quite possibly Kim Il-Sung’s Soviet-approved invasion of South Korea (1950). Carolyn Eisenberg’s modern-day revisionist account, Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany (1997), uses archival material to argue that US officials privately welcomed the siege of Berlin because it served as perfect anti-Soviet propaganda, thus making the job of finalising plans for a pro-American West German state that much easier. Of course they did, but that does not mean the USA was responsible for Germany’s division in the first place—quite the opposite, in fact.

To Applebaum’s picture of totalitarianism, there­fore, we should add obtuseness informed by insatiability. Witness Adolf Hitler calling for maps of British India with Operation Barbarossa still in its infancy. Closer to the present day, we might consider the Muslim Brotherhood government overreaching before it had co-opted the Egyptian Armed Forces. In contrast with their fellow nationals trapped in the Soviet Zone, West Germans—even those marooned in West Berlin—could count on the President of the United States of America to protect them from Stalin and his henchmen, the NKVD included. Here, quite possibly, we have the real origins of the Cold War.

One of Applebaum’s objectives in Iron Curtain is to revive the use of the term “totalitarian” because it “remains a useful and necessary empirical description”, something more than an “ill-defined insult”. One problem, in Applebaum’s estimation, is that in the 1950s American Cold War warriors, both Democratic and Republican, wielded the word about as a weapon for their own political advancement: “Was ‘totalitarianism’ a real threat, or was it an exaggeration, a bogeyman, an invention of Senator Joseph McCarthy?” Iron Curtain, drawing on the now-opened archives of the former Soviet bloc countries, confirms for us that totalitarianism was an only too real phenomenon.             


Iron Curtain finishes, appropriately, on a cautiously optimistic note. One of the lessons of the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe, Applebaum maintains, is that totalitarian regimes only seem to be “very nearly invincible”. Ideology inevitably departs from reality and, in the first instance, this makes refuting totalitarian apologists difficult. As Orwell once said about Newspeak, the theory rises “above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system”.

In the long haul, however, the discrepancy between theory and reality allows a growing number of sceptics to “live in truth”, as Vaclav Havel wrote in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”. It is in this conjunction, argues Applebaum, that the astonishing ambition of totalitarianism contains the seeds of its own destruction: “By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.” Thus, over time the Poles created an unofficial union (Solidarity), the East Germans an unofficial peace movement, and so on ad infinitum. The tyrannical impulse might always be with us, waiting there in the wings ready to enslave humankind in the name of some novel form of so-called emancipation, but at least we can be assured that the human spirit is not so easily vanquished.            

Daryl McCann wrote on Margaret Thatcher in the September issue. He has a blog at


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