Through a (Communist) Looking Glass, Then and Now

Pulitzer-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum explores life in post-war, communist Eastern Europe –and what we can learn from it today.

Inna Lazareva
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Inna Lazareva

At four in the morning, on November 10, 1989, a journalist and her friend, together with thousands of others, sat perched on the Berlin Wall, chiseling off shards of Soviet cement. She, an American, had rushed to the focal point of the biggest upheaval in Eastern Europe for decades, after picking up her colleague, a Pole born under communism. Twenty-four years on, the journalist, Anne Applebaum, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and an expert on communist rule in Eastern Europe; her friend and colleague, Radoslaw (Radek ) Sikorski, is now the foreign minister of Poland - as well as her husband.

The notorious Berlin Wall, though built only in 1961, became the symbol and one of the methods by which Eastern Europe was divided into communist and non-communist spheres, and it irrevocably altered the course of history. But it is the years that preceded its erection that are the subject of Applebaum's latest book. "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956" (Doubleday ), dedicated to "those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie," examines the Stalinization of the region - in this case, the conversion of Eastern Germany, Hungary and Poland to communism. The book also touches upon many of the issues relevant to the Jewish populations in Eastern Germany, Hungary and Poland. As Applebaum herself writes, there is "almost no greater emotional minefield" than the history of the Jews in postwar Eastern Europe.

Applebaum, born in Washington, D.C. in 1964, studied Russian history and literature at Yale University. "Some parts of my family are from Eastern Europe, but so long ago that no one remembers," she tells me as we sit down in a bustling cafe off Portobello Road in London's Notting Hill quarter. That family, she elaborated later in an e-mail, "is Jewish," but Applebaum stresses that "I was brought up in a very reformed American Jewish family" and it's not "a central part of my identity."

"I studied Russian because I liked Russian literature and wanted to read it in the original - it sounds extremely pretentious, but that's what I wanted when I was 18." She then went on study international relations at the London School of Economics and St. Antony's College, Oxford, before moving to report for The Economist from Poland in 1988. She later worked as an editor at the Spectator magazine and the Evening Standard, in London, and as a columnist at several other British papers. Today, she divides her time between Warsaw and London, working as director of political studies at the Legatum Institute, a think tank in London, and writing columns for Washington Post and Slate. And writing history books on Eastern Europe, of course.

It was Applebaum's previous work, the Pulitzer-winning "Gulag: A History" (2003 ), an account of Soviet prison camps from the time of Lenin to the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, that triggered her interest in this particular period. "I got interested in the prison guards in the gulags and what motivated them, and I began to think about why people went along with Soviet communism, what was the nature of Soviet ideology," Applebaum explains to me, sitting in the cafe.

Applebaum focused on the period of 1944-1956, "when Stalinism in its fully developed form was exported and brought to other places. This was the moment to look at how this happened and why, for a very brief period of time, it seemed to be successful." Her story ends in 1956, when the Hungarians and the Poles protested and rebelled against the control of the Soviet Union, only to have the regime respond with a violent crack-down in both places. The countries she examines in the book are strikingly different: ex-Nazi Germany alongside Poland, which had one of the largest resistance movements in Europe, and Hungary, a half-hearted ally of Hitler for the latter part of the war: "You also had three different empires: Germany, on the one hand; Poland, which was divided by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 19th century; and you have Hungary, which was, of course, Austro-Hungary. So you have very different political legacies and political traditions. I was interested in how it was possible in a short period of time to carry out this takeover."

Some of the things the Russians initially chose to focus on to promote Sovietization surprised her. "The things that the Russians were interested in doing right away were not the things you would expect," Applebaum explains to me. "For instance, they don't crack down on the churches right away, they don't do a full takeover of the economy right away. What they think is most important is actually the secret police, and what we now call the civil society - spontaneous groups and people who are potential social leaders and mass communicators. They didn't mind who ran the newspapers, but they were very concerned about radio. And I think that reflects their belief that radio would reach the workers and the peasants, and that that was the constituency which was going to support them. And they believed they were going to be supported, which was also interesting."

'Ethnic cleansing'

The book contains an ominous chapter entitled, simply, "Ethnic Cleansing." "The Holocaust was the central piece of ethnic cleansing," explained Applebaum, "but there was also this enormous movement of people that Hitler carried out. It was a project to Germanize whole parts of Europe; western Poland was supposed to be part of Germany - it was meant to be de-Polonized."

After the war, Germans were expelled from both places - both ethnic Germans who had been living there for centuries, and the new colonists, the families of the Wehrmacht and others. "There was certainly an element of revenge, both in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, and even in Hungary," Applebaum notes. "To some degree, the United States and Britain were complicit in this policy; Ethnic cleansing of the Germans would be written into the Potsdam treaty," she writes in the book's introduction, "but few in the West understood at the time how extensive and violent Soviet ethnic cleansing would turn out to be."

Applebaum describes in the book how the Soviet authorities, together with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, leaving millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians and others displaced from towns and villages where they or their ancestors had lived for centuries: "Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born."

This has a personal resonance for both Applebaum and her husband, Radek Sikorski. Applebaum writes how a few years ago, Sikorski, now 49, received a letter from a German, born in the Baltic region. The man's family was given the country home now belonging to Applebaum and Sikorski to inhabit during the war.

"Enclosed was a photograph of his smiling German grandparents, dressed in jodhpurs as if about to go riding, sitting on the front steps of our house," she writes. "The Polish owners of the house actually fled in 1939 and the German family took over the house, thinking they would live there forever. Of course they were expelled at the end of the war."

In 1998, Sikorski published a book, "The Polish House: An Intimate History of Poland" (published in the U.S. as "Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland" ), in which he discusses his own family's renovation of that same, by then dilapidated, dwor ("manor house," in Polish ). As well as charting a personal history of Poland, Sikorski outlines the motivation for restoring the house: "In the 19th century, when Poland was wiped off the map of Europe, Polishness was preserved in two places: in church by the peasants, and in the dworek, the manor house, by the nobility ... Out of over ten-thousand manor houses in Poland before the war, less than a thousand survived communist rule, perhaps half of them in a salvageable state... they perished through stupidity and sloth." Sikorski's native city of Bydgoszcz in Western Poland was located not too far from the house.

In "Iron Curtain," Applebaum notes that the German former owner of the house "hoped his family was remembered positively by people living in the area." In fact, she writes, "they are not remembered at all."

For Jews during the 1944-1956 period, it was the "persistent hostility" that Applebaum says helped persuade them "to leave Eastern Europe and emigrate to America, Western Europe and above all Palestine." At the time of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine in 1947, all Eastern European states, with the exception of Yugoslavia, had voted in favor. "Stalin was very enthusiastic about Israel initially because he thought it was going to be a communist country ... Among the Poles, there was enthusiasm that the Jews were now going to get their own state and there was the notion of 'let's help them set it up.' Some people in Poland knew like no one else what had happened to the Jews during the war."

Applebaum notes that the Soviet-controlled Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments went so far as to set up training camps for the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish army in Palestine. "I suspect, although there's no proof of this that I've seen, that all this business about training people to go and serve in the Israeli army was about having future agents, that the communist parties imagined that those people would somehow remain loyal."

Could the objective have been establishment of a base in the Middle East?

"Maybe. I've never seen a document that says that, but just knowing how their brain worked, that would be my guess as to what that was about." The extent to which this may or may not have been successful is unclear. "Clearly some people who went through these training camps have remembered that, yes, they were asked to keep in touch in some way. Whether they did, history does not reveal. I suspect not."

While many Jewish survivors left for Palestine, others stayed on to join the communists and became actively involved in politics.

Soviets as liberators

The relationship between Jews and communism in Eastern Europe was complicated, explains Applebaum, and it varied from country to country. "That there were a number of very prominent Jews in the Polish Communist Party is undisputed, that there were even more in the Hungarian Communist party is even more undisputed." In post-war Germany, however, there were actually very few.

In retrospect, considering the repression they were subject to during the communist era, one may wonder why the Jews were active in communist party politics in the first place. "That, of course, has to do with the history of Jews in the region, the fact that Jews were excluded from mainstream politics before the war, the fact that many of them survived because they spent the war in the Soviet Union, they fled to the East and that's how they made it through the war," suggested Applebaum. In Poland, many people, including Jews, initially and rightfully saw the Soviet Union as a liberator. "When the Red Army came in, they opened up camps and allowed people out on the streets again; it seemed to many people, at least in the first few months, that they were bringing a kind of liberation. This was of course particularly true for the Jews. So, yes, the communist party was very attractive to Jews right from the beginning, in Poland."

Applebaum is careful in her approach to this topic, noting that there is "a legacy of resentment of the Jewish role in the communist takeover" among some in Eastern Europe. "It's hard to talk about this because it's so exaggerated by both sides."

Although Applebaum does not specify whom she's referring to, one side could arguably be the Polish far right, rabidly anti-communist, which also includes some elements that are anti-Semitic. The other side includes some Jewish and Israeli politicians and pundits who, at least in the past, were quick to equate Polish resentment of the communist era with anti-Semitic prejudices. Israel's late, Polish-born Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir infamously said that "the Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk."

"I didn't want this issue to overwhelm the book," says Applebaum, "it's one of the post-war issues that people are most upset about ... I would hope that both Israelis and Poles could be grown up enough now to try and look at the facts of the story, and not try and interpret what happened after the war as some kind of a black-and-white piece of history. Many people have made political use of this."

In reality, the communist party leaderships became very wary of the number of Jews among their ranks. "There are some extraordinary examples of the Hungarian Communist Party, and its leader Rakosi [Matyas Rakosi, the de facto ruler of communist Hungary in 1945-1956, and himself of Jewish heritage], actually using not quite, but almost, anti-Semitic language as a way of - what they saw as - attracting support from non-Jews."

After the war, there were several waves of anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland. In 1968, the Polish Communist Party threw out its remaining Jewish members, in what Applebaum terms "another failed attempt to become popular." For the system to survive, mass collaboration by many parts of society was necessary, and in her book Applebaum details the discussions she had with many of the people who supported, at least superficially, the communist regime at the time. "It's true that this period is one that people in that part of the world don't much like to talk about," she says. "I've often found when I was interviewing people that they would often very happily go on about the war, when they really were heroes. Particularly in Poland, where there were underground universities, there was a vast resistance and they were all part of it. And then they are very happy to talk about 1956 [when there were a series of anti-regime uprisings in the country], when again they played a very active role in changing things. But people didn't really want to talk about the time in between. They said, 'Well that wasn't very interesting' or 'Nothing exciting happened.' It was a very gray and non-heroic period of time."

But Applebaum implies that the reticence is masking a deeper discomfort about some of the compromises that people made during the communist years to get by. "You had a situation in the late 1940s, early 1950s, where the state really controlled everything - your house, your local hospital, your local schools and you didn't have a choice - you couldn't necessarily leave, and there was no clear avenue for protest. So people said, 'Alright, I'll march in the May Day parade and then I won't lose my job and my children won't lose their possibilities of having a higher education. They didn't necessarily believe it, but some of the things they were asked to do didn't seem so awful ... and so they went along, although at the first opportunity when they didn't have to, they stopped."

The definitive opportunity to stop came, and was seized, in 1989. "The most extraordinary thing in history," says Applebaum, "is the Soviet Union just giving up. And not just the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Communist Party, and all the communist parties - they just threw their hands up in the air and said, 'Right, we quit.' You have to look at a period like this [1944-1956] to understand it: Because people were forced to take part, they went along with it, and then there was no reason to support it at the very end. Including in the center of power: General [Wojciech Witold] Jaruzelski [the last communist leader of Poland] didn't fight back, he just faded into the background."

Differentiated region

The roots of history reach out into the contemporary situation of ex-Soviet states, and Applebaum, a frequent political commentator on current affairs in Washington Post and Slate, maintains a keen interest in contemporary Russia. The first time Applebaum visited Russia, then part of the USSR, was in 1984. She later moved to Poland, where she worked for The Economist in the late 1980s. Today, the stark differences between the two countries are, she believes, in part due to what happened during the communist era. "The region is very differentiated, and this is not a scientific statement, but ... the countries that had the most highly developed civil society during, or at the end of, the communist period are the ones that have been most successful since then ... Who knew that Poland would turn out to be a very entrepreneurial country and that there would be many small businesses, and people would be able to start their own economic activity? I think that's related to the fact that that was basically allowed in Poland in the last 10 years of the communist system, whereas in Russia, where that was absolutely forbidden, it's been much harder to get started again."

As an example, Applebaum refers to the laws passed in Russia last year obliging all NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in loosely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents." "Everyone knows that the next step could be to expel them as spies, so the pressure that's being put on independent organizations in Russia is not an accident; Putin understands very well that these are the kinds of movements that lead to democratization, a more open society and political change, so he's trying to crack down on them."

When asked whether such repression is sustainable, Applebaum hesitates. "I would like to think not. It all depends on how much violence he's willing to use, what his resources are. You can keep a lot of things going with violence, but you have to have the money and of course the society pays a price in economic development. You can lock everybody up - it's been done in Russia - but for how long can you afford it, and how long can you stay in power while doing it?"

Applebaum points to the concern of the richer echelons of Russian society, of the oligarch variety, to be able to move freely, and for their country not to be branded a pariah state, "because they all own so much property, and have so much money, in the West." Applebaum mentions the Magnitsky Act in the United States, a bill signed into law by President Barack Obama last month, and named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who died in Russian custody in 2009 after alleging that some Russian interior and tax ministry officials had conspired in a $230 million tax fraud scam. In response, the Magnitsky Act prohibits Russian officials suspected to be responsible for Magnitsky's death from entering the U.S. "One of the things that is very interesting is the argument over the Magnitsky list: Why are the Russians so upset about 60 people not being able to get visas? Well, guess what? Because it's an unbelievably terrifying precedent for people whose property is all outside the country."

Looking to her own future, however, Applebaum feels herself being drawn back to the communist period. "I would like to write a book about the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s. It's another kind of use of state power that is not very well understood." The famine is known is "holodomor" in Ukrainian ("hunger extermination" ), and was one of Stalin's campaigns against the country's peasants, culminating in 1933 with the deaths of millions. Ukraine has been trying for years to bring about recognition of the famine as a "holocaust."

And, of course, there's 1989. "I have little shards of the wall in my desk drawer. When time has moved on sufficiently, sometime I'd like to write a book about 1989. At some point, it becomes history. It's not quite there yet, but we're getting there."

Inna Lazareva is a British journalist and political analyst, based in Tel Aviv and covering the Middle East. You can read more of her writing on

Anne Applebaum: "Ethnic cleaning of Germans would be written into te Potsdam treat, but few understood how violent Soviet ethnic cleansing would be."Credit: Courtesy



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