Saturday, January 5, 2013

When the Iron Curtain Fell

by Frank Dikötter


January 5, 2013

Time's 1956 Man of the Year, chosen at the last minute, was an anonymous Hungarian freedom fighter. Nobody had anticipated the explosive events that saw student protesters battle Russian tanks with Molotov cocktails in the narrow, cobbled streets of Budapest. The CIA, despite its vaunted reputation for espionage, had been caught off guard. Even Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was taken aback when insurgents began to smash the hallowed symbols of communism, burning books, stripping red stars from buildings, and tearing down memorials from their pedestals, including the large bronze statue of Stalin in the city's main park. The KGB and the CIA were not alone in failing to read the popular mood in Eastern Europe. Hannah Arendt, who had suggested in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1949) that the victims of dictatorships acquired a "totalitarian personality," later conceded that the Hungarian Revolution had been "totally unexpected and took everybody by surprise." Arendt had come mistakenly to believe that totalitarian regimes held their populations permanently enthralled.

In Iron Curtain, the American journalist Anne Applebaum tells how the spell was shattered. She shows how Stalin and his agents set out to destroy every form of freedom in Eastern Europe after World War II yet failed to create a new Homo sovieticus. "Human beings do not acquire 'totalitarian personalities' with ease," she 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."

Told with great narrative verve and backed by meticulous archival research, Applebaum begins her account with the Red Army's triumphant march to Berlin in 1945. Rape and plunder followed in its wake. Some 70,000 Soviet experts supervised the removal of what amounted to between a third and a half of eastern Germany's industrial capacity. Even bits of salvaged piping and wrecked machines were hauled off, together with works of art and antique furniture. (Marshal Zhukov was rumoured to have furnished several Moscow apartments with his personal booty.)

But the Russians were there to stay. Across Eastern Europe, future leaders known as "little Stalins" were trained in Moscow and flown in to oversee the colonization of their respective countries—Walter Ulbricht in East Germany, Bolesław Bierut in Poland, Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary. The founders of Eastern Europe's "little KGBs" disembarked from the same planes. As the Czech communist leader Klement Gottwald put it, Stalin loyalists assiduously sought how "to best make use of the experience of the Soviet Union."

With the exception of Germany, where the occupation was open for all to see, Soviet influence was carefully camouflaged. So was the pretense of democracy, as sham coalition governments were set up across the bloc. "It's quite clear—it's got to look democratic, but we must have everything in our control," Ulbricht told a young communist.