Iron Curtain

By Anne Applebaum

I’ve always been a bit mystified by the phenomenon of Soviet communism. Key to my confusion is the enigmatic figure of Joseph Stalin, the one twentieth-century dictator that I’ve never felt I’ve understood. In a nutshell, my question is this: how much of the rhetoric and ideology of communism did he believe in? Not all of it, certainly, but how much, if any? Did he really think that his version of revolution was going to lead to a better world, that he was breaking eggs on the way to making a more perfect omelette (or using, as Applebaum informs us in a note, the Russian equivalent of this expression: “When wood is chopped, woodchips will fly”)? Or was it all just a bunch of propaganda he dished out to give the terror and brutality of his dictatorship a veneer of legitimacy?

With this kind of ambiguity at the top, one can excuse a sense of confusion among the lower ranks. One even sees it in the conduct of a brutal interrogator who jokingly referred to the truncheon he used to beat prisoners with as the “people’s educator.” And yet, as one of his victims noted, this cynicism was “interwoven with some sort of bigoted and sentimental blind faith.”

Perhaps that notion of “blind faith” best gets at the core of it. Because it was, after all, obvious to anyone with eyes to see that communism was a total disaster. It was clear right away that state control was destroying the economy, and that the “people” in whose name the revolution was being made despised their new masters. (Though, incredible as it seems, some communists originally thought that democracy would work in their favour. They were soon disabused.) It was also clear to everyone in charge that without a massively coercive state apparatus – the bully’s truncheon – the whole system would break down right away. Nothing about communism worked except that apparatus, and even it could only be maintained with great effort.

And yet some people still believed. Applebaum juxtaposes the risible lyrics for the East German party anthem “The Song of the Party” (“She gave us everything / Sun and wind . . . We are what we are because of her”) with an observation from someone who sang it: “That is the difficult thing to explain to people: that song – ‘the party, the party is always right’ – we thought it was really the truth, and we behaved that way.” This is indeed the difficult thing to explain. Did people believe? How much did they believe? And how much was just going along with a party line?

Of course historians, even those dealing with recent events, can’t peer into the soul. They can tell us what people did and said, but not what they believed. This is all the more obvious when dealing with a totalitarian state, where even inferences have to be cautiously made. Blind faith, however, can be suggested as a safe fallback position, including as it does those who didn’t want to see, the willfully blind. Applebaum contends that “the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism – as conceived in the 1920s, perfected in the 1930s, and then spread across Eastern Europe after 1945 – was the system’s ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest.” But was it that extraordinary? In any country, in pretty much any time, apolitical people are close to a majority, and will play along with a lot without protesting so long as they aren’t directly affected too much. Totalitarianism just went further in making politics irrelevant, which suited the disengaged anyway.

In her Epilogue, Applebaum quotes Roger Scruton on the nature of the beast: “Facts no longer made contact with the theory, which had risen above the facts on clouds of nonsense, rather like a theological system. The point was not to believe the theory, but to repeat it ritualistically and in such a way that both belief and doubt became irrelevant . . . In this way the concept of truth disappeared from the intellectual landscape, and was replaced by that of power.”

This is true, and familiar. In the concept of ritualistic mouthings that make belief and doubt irrelevant one sees the essence of Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. In the disappearance of truth from the intellectual landscape and its replacement with power one hears the neo-con dismissal of the “reality-based community.” This isn’t to equate American imperialism with Soviet communism, but I think it does help to point out that every society tells itself lies. Ideology and its propaganda are ubiquitous in the modern state.

That said, communism was one of the worst faiths ever dreamed up. In Iron Curtain Anne Applebaum capably describes how a totalitarian system was implemented and then maintained after the takeover of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. The focus is on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, with the analysis directed at the economic, political, and cultural spheres. Of particular interest are the various coping strategies adopted by the people of these countries, which ranged from collaboration to apathetic withdrawal to rebellion. I would, however, disagree with her conclusion, that “If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinization proves just how fragile civilization can turn out to be.” I would argue the opposite: that a more open and efficient social order was not easily destroyed or corrupted but only repressed at great cost. Yes, civilization can be crushed. But given time it will spring up again.

Review first published January 21, 2013.

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