“After the shooting stopped in 1945, thousands of children and teenagers in Berlin’s ruins were left to their own devices. One in five schoolchildren had lost a parent. Despair gripped the adults in the capital, all of which was still under Soviet control,” writes Anne Applebaum:
In the western district of Neukölln, a group of young people decided to take matters into their own hands. Announcing on the day before the Allied victory that they would help rebuild the city, they formed a civic group and called it “anti-fascist.” Two weeks later, they had 600 members, had cleared the rubble from two sports stadiums and had organized five orphanages.
Inspired by their example, other young Germans began organizing similar anti-fascist groups in Berlin, but they didn’t last long. On July 31, the Soviet Military Administration banned all unregistered organizations. After that, many groups, clubs and associations were denied permission to exist.
“This decision was not an aberration,” Applebaum notes:
Newly opened archives show that the persecution of civic activists, frequently enforced by violence, often took precedence over Communist parties’ other political and economic goals in the Soviet bloc at that time. Selective violence was carefully aimed at elites — intellectuals, businessmen, priests, police officers, anti-Nazi partisans — and above all at anyone capable of founding and leading any kind of spontaneous organization, no matter how apolitical. Scout groups, Freemasons and Catholic youth leaders all figure among the early victims of these regimes.
“People were jailed or deported or executed in totalitarian states not for being threats to the regime but for being threats to the future, a much broader jurisdiction,” Louis Menand notes in The New Yorker:
Applebaum tells of a Polish man who was executed for possession of an unlicensed radio, of a printer who was sentenced to five years for a typographical error in an obituary of Stalin, of teen-agers who were sent to camps or prison for making faces during a lecture on Stalin. By 1954, six million people in Poland were registered as criminal or suspicious elements. That was almost a quarter of the population.
But the main target of totalitarian remaking was not the individual dissident or nonconformist. It was civil society itself.
“From the earliest days of the Soviet Union, Soviet representatives in the region were very interested in what we now call civil society,” she recently told RFE/RL. “So they were very interested in self-organized groups. That means both political parties, it means soccer clubs, it means chess clubs. Self-organized groups of all kinds were a target of Soviet interest and in some cases repressed from the very beginning.”
Applebaum’s new book is not about contemporary Russia, notes The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt. But the chapter headings of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-56 “point to the essential tools and pressure points: Policemen. Violence. Ethnic Cleansing. Youth. Radio. Internal Enemies. [and] …also bring into jarring relief how faithfully Putin has followed the Stalinist recipe,” he observes:
Like Putin, Stalin’s loyalists tolerated, for as long as necessary, certain trappings of democracy. But they made sure from the start to control the security organs — the KGB, by whatever name it took — and they made sure that the organs ultimately controlled everything else. Like Putin, they also tolerated, for a while, some relatively free media. But the media that mattered — radio, after World War II; the television networks, for Putin — were quickly brought to heel.
Identically to the martinets of Eastern Europe, Putin is quick to blame Western provocations when things go awry, to exploit ethnic prejudices and nationalist bigotry to cement his power, to point darkly toward internal enemies. … Even the squashing of Pussy Riot is unoriginal; the Communists 60 years ago were panicked by oddly dressed jazz musicians they couldn’t control.
And as in Putin’s Russia, those who resisted might be beaten, imprisoned or murdered.
“Soviet puppets did not merely want control of their governments, they wanted total control,” one reviewer notes. “They wanted to create a world full of perfect socialists – a breed of man that dissidents sarcastically named Homo sovieticus – who not only accepted their subservience but embraced it, and who were so steeped in ideology that any alternative was quite literally unthinkable. “
By contrast, today’s authoritarian regimes have largely given up the pretense of ideological aspiration, content to secure the passive consent of citizens through a new social contract – offering prosperity or stability in exchange for political docility. Or perhaps it’s not such a novel pact at all?
“In a certain sense, this was the genius of Soviet totalitarianism,” Applebaum writes. “The system created large groups of people who disliked the regime and knew the propaganda was false, but who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it.”
For decades after Russia’s occupation of central and eastern Europe, “this Soviet pattern of ‘totalitarianization’ — the pursuit of total control over all aspects of public life — was widely imitated,” she notes.
“Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya got Soviet and East German advice on secret police methods, as did Chinese, Egyptian, Syrian, Angolan, Cuban and North Korean governments on those and other aspects of societal control.”
(And, she might have added, recently released German archives reveal that Fidel Castro also drew on those other totalitarians, recruiting former member of the Nazi Waffen SS as military trainers.)
When it comes to aiding democratic forces, “[p]rivate and government organizations can give material help, and nongovernmental organizations can advise, particularly on legal and regulatory issues that often are ignored,” she writes. “Officials and activists who have lived through turbulent transitions elsewhere can share experiences, as Poles and Czechs now do with Tunisians and Egyptians.”
The Post’s Hiatt makes a similar point about the historic significance of democratic solidarity.
“For all its tragedy, ‘Iron Curtain’ is in one sense a happy story: The dictators failed to reshape human nature. Europeans rebelled, first in 1956 and again in 1989. Communism crumbled,” he writes:
But the ending, or at least its timing, might have been different had the West not unequivocally defended freedom, including with the Marshall Plan, NATO, Radio Free Europe and the National Endowment for Democracy. The same kind of determination has yet to be mustered in response to Stalin’s imitators in Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention his star pupil in his old Kremlin stomping grounds.
“But above all,” Applebaum concludes, “a repressed society needs a motivated populace if it is to become politically vibrant again. To be more precise, it needs patriotism, historical consciousness, education, ambition, optimism and, especially, patience.”