Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum

Source of book: borrowed from the library

Totalitarianism (Merriam-Webster Dictionary):
1: centralized control by an autocratic authority
2: the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority

Totalitarianism (Benito Mussolini):
“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Totalitarian Regime (Carl J. Friedrich & Zbingiew Brzezinski):
A dominant ideology, a single ruling party, a secret police prepared to use terror, a monopoly on information, and a planned economy.

If there is one political philosophy that I hold to without reservation, it is my hatred of totalitarianism. The Twentieth Century saw the rise of totalitarianism on a global scale, and hundreds of millions would be sacrificed to its need for control.

The names are familiar to all of us. Mussolini first coined the definition - and he meant it as a compliment and an aspiration. Hitler and Stalin seem to have competed as to who could slaughter more. (Stalin won, by the way.) Mao and Pol Pot and a host of lesser imitators added to the carnage.

This book was published just last year, and contains a wealth of information from recently opened archives throughout Eastern Europe. In addition, Applebaum interviewed a number of survivors of the Stalin era. Their words are often the most haunting of all.

I first became familiar with Anne Applebaum from her nuanced reporting and writing in the Washington Post and on on foreign affairs. From 1988 through 1991, she chronicled the collapse of communism for the Economist, writing and reporting on location in Warsaw. She also wrote from first hand experience in the Baltic States when they were on the verge of independence. While on this assignment, she met and married Radoslaw Sikorski, currently the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Poland. One of her previous books (which I want to read), Gulag: A History, won the Pulitzer prize in 2004.

Iron Curtain covers the period from the last years of World War Two through the death of Joseph Stalin, (1944-1956) focusing on three Eastern European countries: Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. It is an excellently researched and written book. Although it is not exactly easy reading, it is compelling. While most of us are at least passingly familiar with the basics of how Stalin “perfected” the art of using violence to suppress dissent, this book shows just how it was done, and how Communism was able to destroy the existing civil society and attempt to replace it with an all-encompassing State that attempted to control the very thoughts of the people it conquered.

Probably the thing that struck me the most while reading this book was the similarities between totalitarian systems and cults. Here I use “cult” not in the sense of non-mainstream religious organizations, but in the sense of dangerous, controlling and destructive movements. Think Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians. These movements employ manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, have a totalitarian and communal organization, aggressive proselytizing, and systematic indoctrination. Add the coercive power of the State, and secret police, and you pretty much have Nazism or Stalinism. (Raymond Aron makes a compelling case that Communism is a religion in The Opium of the Intellectuals. I think the case that it is a cult is quite strong as well.)

It wasn’t just the common features listed above, it was the way that Communist ideology was deified and made into an article of faith that was immune to all proof to the contrary. As a biographer of Walter Ulbricht of East Germany noted, “here was a seemingly simple, convincing formula that enabled him to categorize and explain everything he learned, heard and saw.” It was a complete worldview. A complete lens by which all truth could be perceived.

But how could such a cult take over such a large portion of the world in such a short period of time?

According to those Applebaum interviewed, it came about primarily because of the terror and destruction of the war, which caused a desire to return to “normal.” When combined with the apathy by the Allies, and the military force of Stalin’s army, it seemed inevitable.

In my review of They Thought They Were Free, I noted that the Nazis were able to gain power in the aftermath of World War One and the subsequent collapse of the German economy. Anything seemed better than the status quo. Similarly, in Eastern Europe, the Nazis destroyed much of the conquered nations, and the Soviets could appear on the surface as liberators, if only by comparison. After all, of the Jewish population in Poland, barely ten percent remained. Anything was better than that, right?

But it was an illusion. The Soviet army was every bit as brutal as that of Hitler. The old concentration camps, including Auschwitz, were simply repurposed for new political prisoners. As in wars from time immemorial, gang rape was used as a military and political weapon. (There are some heartrending first-hand accounts in this book. Not graphic, but awful nonetheless.) If there were not enough reasons to hate Stalin, his response to reports that soldiers were looting and raping, demanded to know how the complainant could not, “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.” (More than any of the other good reasons I loathe Sartre is that he defended Stalin’s evil behavior as justified under the circumstances. Ick.)

Another interesting fact brought to light is that the first thing the Soviets established was not a collective economy, or communist schools, or puppet leadership. It was the secret police. The basis for all that would come after.

This was necessary because the first order of business was to destroy all competition in the realm of ideas. This was the closest cult parallel, in my opinion. True cults - and cult-like organizations (such as the one I experienced) depend on limiting information. They depend on complete control over the ideas that are allowed to be heard. For Stalin, this meant eliminating everything that was not Communist propaganda.

It is probably impossible to overstate the degree of suspicion that the Communists had for all institutions other than the Party. As Christians, we have generally been aware of the atheistic nature of Communist philosophy - and also of the systematic campaign by Communist regimes to destroy the Church. However, this hatred and destruction was much broader than that. Any small group that met for any purpose was suspect. In Poland, there was a particular distrust of Chess clubs; but all civic organizations such as charities, sports clubs, literary groups, social groups were targeted for either destruction or assimilation into the Party.

For the same reason, those who owned books were often arrested - they might have unapproved ideas. Barbers and pub owners were suspected because of the informal “groups” that might naturally meet at their establishments. As Applebaum puts it:

In the end, the fate of the Polish Scouts, the Hungarian People’s Colleges, the German Christian Democratic youth, and a vast range of other institutions - mainstream and idiosyncratic, political and apolitical, from shooting clubs and fencing teams to folk-dance troupes and Catholic charities - was the same. The nascent totalitarian states could not tolerate any competition whatsoever for their citizens’ passions, talents, and free time.

Likewise, education itself became based exclusively on Marxist/Stalinist theory, and all “Western” influences (such as Montessori - which was popular in Eastern Europe) were purged. The idea was that acquired traits could be inherited. Thus, if the next generation could only be raised without any taint from “capitalist” ideas, this would then be passed on to succeeding generations, and presumably the Communist Utopia would follow. (This is roughly the same philosophy followed by the Christian Reconstructionists, in my opinion, particularly Douglas Phillips and Jonathan Lindvall, who advocate extreme restriction on reading materials and essentially forbid friendships outside of the group. If only one can shelter the children from all “secular humanist” ideas and control every influence, the slate will be wiped clean, and eventually a new Christian Utopia will follow. It’s kind of uncanny how totalitarian systems end up resembling each other.)

In the end, all organized resistance was either destroyed by force, assimilated, or faded away under threat. The book illustrates these options with the stories of the two Catholic cardinals that took different approaches. The cardinal for Hungary actively resisted, and was destroyed along with most of the church organization in that nation. In contrast, the cardinal for Poland played along to a degree in order to survive, but was accused of collaboration. In the end, the Polish church was to be a crucial factor in the liberation and rebuilding of Poland after the fall of Communism. Which choice was better?

For most, there was little day-to-day reason to resist. (I discussed this at greater length regarding They Thought They Were Free.) As Applebaum puts it, unless there were “dramatic circumstances,” there was no reason to buck the system. After all, they depended on the State for food, health care, housing, jobs, and pretty much everything. One defied the State only when circumstances demanded it.

Somehow, though, all of the rosy dreams of the doctrinaires never came to pass. As a Hungarian joke went, “The definition of socialism: an incessant struggle against difficulties that would not exist in any other system.”

One of the surprising things about this book was the wealth of information from those who hated the system, but had no power to change it. Particularly in the intellectual and artistic realms, the officially approved forms were stultifying, and the products laughable. (Some of the poetry quoted - later disowned by its reluctant authors - such as an ode to a steel foundry are so bad as to be impossible to parody.)

One of my favorites was this slogan printed on a banner.

Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of Imperialist warmongers.

The poor guy who had to come up with that - and the one that had to design the banner. Applebaum sums this up with another great quotable line: “The experience of living in a society that forced everyone to sound enthusiastic all of the time, and that forced many people to say and do things they didn’t believe in, eventually had profound psychological consequences.”

Naturally, such control over every aspect of life, and the attempt to control even thoughts would lead to subtle forms of protest. Eventually, the entire system would collapse as a result.

I love the chapters on the the passive forms of protest. Since everything was controlled, even the silliest things could be serious protest. For example, in a system of “enthusiasm,” and earnest seriousness, even ordinary jokes would be seen as subversive. Actually, the root of much humor is the absurdity of the status quo, so this was naturally alarming to the authorities.

I found it immensely interesting that jazz, of all things, came to be the music of protest. Because of its American roots, it was viewed as the very devil by the Stalinists. Here is the money quote from an East German musicologist (speaking the official position, no doubt):

"American entertainment kitsch" was a  "channel through which the poison of Americanism penetrates and threatens to anaesthetize the minds of workers." The threat from jazz, swing and big band music was, he said, "just as dangerous as a military attack with poison gases." After all, it reflected: "the degenerate ideology of American monopoly capital with its lack of culture ... its empty sensationalism and above all its fury for war and destruction ... We should speak plainly here of a fifth column of Americanism. It would be wrong to misjudge the dangerous role of American hit music in the preparation for war."

I just about fell off my chair when I read this. In a past post on Christian Patriarchy, I noted that Rousas Rushdoony (a holocaust denialist and segregation proponent) condemned jazz (and later rock and roll) as inherently evil. As I noted then, it was really the fact that it was derived from Africa that made it problematic. So, lo and behold! The communists hated it too, once again for its political meaning. I doubt Ellington and Gillespie were thinking specifically about Stalin when they performed - but Stalin thought so, and therefore, the music was political on both sides. It was shocking to see the exact same rhetoric in a different context. (I need to write a post someday about the political nature of music throughout history. Notes in and of themselves are not “good” or “evil,” but they have always been used as symbols - and have always been a threat to autocrats. Someday.)

Again, this protest was inevitable. One of the most powerful quotes in the book is from an anonymous blacksmith quoted in one of the semi-underground newspapers.

"How many times have I been obliged to accept the opinion of others, one which I perhaps don't share. As that opinion changes, it's demanded that mine change equally. And that makes me feel sick, sicker than if I'd been beaten. I'm a man, I too. I also have a head which I use to think. And I'm not a child. I'm an adult, who gives his soul, his heart, his youth and his energy for the construction of socialism...I do it willingly but I want to be considered like an adult who lives and knows how to think. I want to be able to speak my thoughts without having anything to fear - and I want to be heard as well..."

For those who have survived any autocratic system, this is at the heart of the issue. This is freedom of thought and speech in a nutshell - and it is what the First Amendment of the Constitution has at its core. Freedom to disagree.

Soon after Stalin’s death, some things loosened up in Eastern Europe. Applebaum considers the end of Stalinism in Poland to have begun with a festival wherein representatives of a variety of nations were invited. Things quickly got out of control (from the communist point of view), and there was spontaneous mingling and communication, and the cat was out of the bag. It was no longer possible to maintain the illusion that the capitalist nations were impoverished, or that there was no world worth having outside of the Marxist paradise. In contrast to the grey and humorless - gloomy even - officially approved clothing and conversation was the fun of spontaneity.

As a Polish newspaper reported, “It turned out that it was possible to be ‘progressive’ and at the same time enjoy life, wear colorful clothes, listen to jazz, have fun, and fall in love.”

(I hate to have to refer to this again, but this is exactly the kind of thing that my friends who have escaped from the Christian Patriarchy paradigm have been saying. In an ideology that controls clothing, music, and particularly love and romance, this is precisely the freedom one misses.)

Two quotes provide a good closing to this book.

The first is from Doctor Zhivago (the book, not the movie):

And so it was necessary to teach people not to think and make judgments, to compel them to see the nonexistent, and to argue the opposite of what was obvious to everyone.

This quote parallels the one I loved from Why Does the Universe Exist. The demise of any cult occurs when the members realize that they are being fed a lie.

The second, is Applebaum’s:

By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.

I note that there are plenty of online reviews from people who hate the book because of its supposed bias. In response, I would note that the history of repression by the communist regimes is so well established as to be rather beyond dispute. The gulags were not an invention. The evidence from those who escaped, survived, or perished is overwhelming. Those who, like Sartre, continue to drink the koolaid continue to look at the flaws of the West and capitalism (and there are many) and cling to the dream that there is one “simple, convincing formula” explains everything - and shows the way to utopia. I would also note that, like the Party apparatchiks before them, these reviewers cite suppose Western sabotage of the economies of communist nations. Some things never change.

Note on the music:

Here are four musical selections which dovetail nicely with this book.

First, when the Nazi’s conquered Poland, the last broadcast from the radio was a live rendition of Franz Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor by Wladyslaw Szpilman (who would later write The Pianist). Upon liberation from the Nazis, he would repeat the performance on live radio, but the station would again be silenced by the Soviets.


The ludicrous interference with the arts led to some bad art, but many true geniuses managed to hide their protest within their “officially approved” works. Sergei Prokofiev wrote Lieutenant Kije for a film of the same name, which officially poked fun at the old Tsarist bureaucracy. A paperwork mistake is made, attributing great heroism to Kije, who doesn’t actually exist. In order to keep the mistake from being discovered, the bureaucrats invent an entire life for Kije - and eventually kill off their creation. (In other words, Manti Te’o wasn’t that original...) The music is full of humor, and clearly shows how ludicrous the whole thing was. The communist officialdom apparently never realized that the joke worked well on them too.


Bela Bartok fled to the United States ahead of the Nazis, and died there before the end of the war. Had he lived to see the Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest, he would have wept as much as he did for the German tanks. I love the Divertimento for Strings, and had the chance to play it a decade and a half ago. The middle movement is widely believed to represent his sorrow at the destruction of Hungary. Starting at the 3:45 mark, there is an ostinato in the lower voices that starts soft, but eventually overwhelms everything, while the higher voices scream in anguish. The machine has crushed all, and nothing is left but mourning. 

The final selection combines so many elements hated by totalitarians everywhere. Rock and roll. Check. African American musicians. Check. Atonality borrowed from “degenerate” classical music. (“Degenerate” and "decadent" were code for “Jewish” in the Nazi lexicon, and “American” in the Stalinist dictionary. And, I should add, “N------” in the Rushdoony paradigm.) And, well, it is about the Cult of Personality. I present Living Color, and some pretty rad 80s pants.

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