Iron Curtain

Anne Applebaum
Penguin Books, London, 2012

By Eszter Salgó, Adjunct Professor of International Relations at the American University of Rome

Order this book through Athenaeum Boekhandel

‘“I’m not an average child after all!! Rákosi is my godfather, Szakasits, my grandfather!” – I said in the winter of 1952 at the age of six in the Zrínyi Ilona Girls Seminary in Debrecen.’ And so begins Anna Schiffer’s unpublished memoir. Anna’s grandfather, Árpád Szakasits, was President of the Social Democratic Party until 1948 (when the SDP was merged with the Communist Party of Hungary) and served as President of the Hungarian People’s Republic until his arrest in 1950. Her father, Pál Schiffer, was an active social-democrat, and later a communist politician. Her father was also arrested in 1950, and both remained in Mátyás Rákosi’s prison for six years. When I myself was five (in 1983), growing up in what was depicted as ‘the happiest barrack in the socialist camp’, Hungary, I explained to the grown-ups around me on my way to the May Day Parade my impetus for marching by saying, ‘I’ll fight for peace.’

I had not yet started reading Anne Applebaum’s book when its dedication (‘to those Eastern Europeans who tried, as far as was then possible, to think, see, hear and speak the truth’) provoked distress within me. I wondered, and I still wonder, whether Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 is dedicated to me or not; whether or not I am one of those Eastern Europeans ‘who refused to live within a lie’. My anguish intensified when I read on the back cover: ‘Today the Soviet bloc is a lost civilization of cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality and strange aesthetics. Iron Curtain is a brilliant history of how this brutal world began, an exceptional work of moral reckoning, and a haunting reminder of how fragile free societies can be.’ Has Hungarian society ever been free? – I asked myself. Hasn’t perhaps fragility been its constant characteristic throughout history? Could it be that the Eastern European civilizations got lost much earlier than 1944?

Anne Applebaum’s overall goal is to understand how ordinary people in Poland, Hungary and Eastern Germany learned to cope with the communist regimes – how they collaborated willingly or reluctantly, how they resisted, actively or passively. Gaining inspiration from writers with extraordinary ability to offer insight into the secrets of man’s soul, such as Czesław Miłosz, Sándor Márai, Arthur Koestler, Václav Havel, and György Faludy, she relied on a wide range of secondary sources and archival materials (with the assistance of Attila Mong in Budapest and Regine Wosnitza in Berlin), and conducted a series of interviews with people who lived through the period between 1944 and 1956. Part One, revealingly entitled ‘False Dawn’, suggests that the transitional period following World War II was not as liberal as many believed or hoped. Liberation rapidly transformed into a brutal occupation – those who promised rebirth granted death. Part Two, ‘High Stalinism’, takes us on a voyage through hell, the reign of stochastic terror. Applebaum’s readings and conversations bring her to conclude that the majority of Eastern Europeans ‘did not make a pact with the devil or sell their souls to become informers,’ but became instead resistant or reluctant collaborators succumbing to constant and all-encompassing psychological and economic pressure.

While she asserts that Stalinism and totalitarianism may be used interchangeably and that ‘if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century – we need to understand how totalitarianism worked, in theory and in practice,’ she correctly stresses that totalitarianism in practice did not exist. Not even at the height of their powers did the mini-Stalins, Mátyás Rákosi, Bolesław Bierut and Walter Ulbricht, hold total control. Believing that many really did resemble Hannah Arendt’s ‘totalitarian personality’, the author harbors hopes that with her story she will be able to unveil the characteristics of the totalitarian mindset. In reality, Hannah Arendt (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) does not define, but instead expresses doubts about the very existence of ‘such a thing as a totalitarian personality or mentality’, and later portrays Adolf Eichmann (a monster with a totalitarian personality according to many) as an ‘average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical’ (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1964), ‘quite ordinary, common-place, and neither demonic nor monstrous,’ who showed no sign of firm ideological convictions or ‘specific evil motives’ (The Life of the Mind, 1971). Our urge to give a name (in this case ‘totalitarian personality’) to the evil that frightens us and whose return we fear, is a kind of defense mechanism thatfosters the illusion of understanding a dreadful reality and taking control of the phantoms that still haunt us.

However, there is no category in which we can place the communist perpetrators and their followers. While being part of a group they were still individuals, each with his or her own personality and motivations. Their particular characteristics certainly prevailed over what they had in common. If totalitarianism and totalitarian personality in practice did not (and do not) exist, then what is worth analyzing is the omnipotent dream of total control, the desperate aspiration of communist leaders to gain total control, the paradise dream of the Soviet nomenclature. Anne Applebaum provides a powerful description of the regimes’ attempt to give birth to a perfect (i.e. harmonious, joyful, and prosperous) state and society and to fill this new home with new people, the homo sovieticus. To achieve this goal, as she points out, the newly constructed socialist cities had to be free from beggars and a periphery, they had to turn into a magic place where workers could conduct a more cultured way of life (in reality extremely similar to the life of the pre-war bourgeoisie), and provide, with their new lives in a new world, a source of inspiration. In fact, the new socialist cities were created with the goal of reordering people’s entire worlds through the redefinition of virtually everything, not just political ideas and economic decisions but also morality, human behavior, and social relations. Sztálinváros in Hungary could be seen as a symbol of the Communist project of cosmogony that aimed to transform the Communist cities into a sort of hierophany – the kernel of People’s Republics (and perhaps of the world), a fixed point that could show direction in the global chaos, a model to admire and emulate. This strategy may also be viewed as ‘the politics of perverse enjoyment’ (as defined by Slavoj Žižek): the communist leadership sought to consolidate in people the awareness that they could regain the enjoyment that they had been unjustly deprived of and enjoy a life that only the bourgeoisie had enjoyed in the past.

The author’s sensibility, her insights and delicate description of people’s moral and psychological collapse, make the book particularly powerful. She aptly argues that of the various kinds of damage wrought by World War II, the hardest to quantify is the psychological and emotional damage. The brutality of the World War I was further intensified by the trauma of World War II: constant, daily violence penetrated far more deeply into everyday life, shaping the human psyche in innumerable ways, not all of which are easy to grasp. Communism, instead of healing the wounds, inflicted further aggression. As a consequence, people lost the ability to distinguish truth from ideological fiction; events, she writes, which would have caused widespread outrage a few months earlier ceased to bother anyone at all.

As Applebaum describes, people chose different methods to survive. Many accepted to conform (this urge could even push people to cancel parts of their biography or to deny uncomfortable facts), some played the game of the regime by leading a double life (the painful experience of which Hungarian psychoanalyst Lily Hajdú-Gimes diagnosed both in her patients and in herself), or tried what Iván Vitányi called ‘a brainwashing made by myself’, something like self-silencing.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, with its voyage through ‘the most shattered part of Europe in the worst decades of the twentieth century’, induces soul-searching. Readers might ask themselves: How would I have behaved in these circumstances? Would I have opted for collaboration or for emigration instead? Would I have opposed the system actively or passively? After reading the book these reflections could turn into a meaningful self-reflection and thus help us learn more about ourselves and gain some understanding of what motivated others.

As István Bibó wrote in 1946, ‘being a democrat means, primarily, not to be afraid; not to be afraid of those who have differing opinions, speak different languages, or belong to other races; not to be afraid of revolution, conspiracies, the unknown malicious intent of enemies, hostile propaganda, being demeaned, or any of those imaginary dangers that become truly dangerous because we are afraid of them. […] In a paralyzing state of fear which asserts that freedom’s progress endangers the interests of the nation, one cannot take full advantage of the benefits offered by democracy. […] The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were afraid because they were not fully developed mature democracies, and they could not become fully developed mature democracies because they were afraid.’

The Polish and Hungarian cultures are wounded cultures. National identities throughout history have been shaped by numerous traumas – defeats, domination by outside forces, oppression – and only a few (and short-lived) triumphs. Thus, national consciousness in both countries has been constantly permeated by a sense of humiliation. The explosion of nationalism in 2010 and the subsequent democratic involution show that Hungarian society is still permeated by fear, hatred and suspicion. Return to normalcy, and abandonment of the Paradise projects, have yet to be accomplished. The past is present; Hungarians (and others as well) live with the weight of history: the phantoms of the past are still protagonists on the stage of politics. Applebaum is correct in arguing that the most successful post-communist states are those which have managed to preserve some elements of civil society. In fact, Poland is in a much better shape today than Hungary, partially because the authoritarian regime was challenged and peacefully changed by the citizens and not by the political leaders (anti-communism in Poland emerged as a widespread grass-root movement and not and as an elite-driven project like in Hungary). As the Polish political theorist Elzbieta Matynia asserts, performative democracy, the indigenously inspired enacting of democracy, emerged in Poland in the 1980s through the construction of a public sphere – through the release of a robust civic creativity.

For Applebaum, before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how it was destroyed, how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated; they need to know particular details, individual stories, not general theories or generalizations about masses. I would add that since there is no democratic society without democrats, no tolerant society without tolerant individuals, society’s renewal must start with people’s individual internal renewal; a collective rebirth, which also foresees the ability to mourn collective traumas, should be driven by the rebirth of individuals. This book, I believe, could be a good companion in our very personal journey of transformation.