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Lead book review

Blackmail, bribery and bullying

The postwar Communist takeover of Eastern Europe might have been resisted, argues Norman Stone, if the various opposition parties had stood firmer

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 Anne Applebaum

Allen Lane, pp.614, £25

You can always tease Hungarians if you say that they have more Nobel Prize-winners than the Japanese, and that that really remarkable statistic is the abnormally high percentage of non-Jews among them, namely 17½. In 1900 Jews made up about 25 per cent of the Budapest population, and once abroad they hit the world with great force, whether in Hollywood or in nuclear physics (the memoirs of Arthur Koestler are a testimony to their drive and adaptability, as well as to their sense of humour).

There is a black story involved, just the same: their role in the Communist takeover between 1945 and 1948. Anne Applebaum does not evade this question, nasty as it is: the four leading figures were Jews, chief among them, Mátyás Rákosi. Their children sometimes became dissidents, and in the later Seventies this led to an extraordinary business. The then (Jewish) cultural boss, Tamás Aczél, sought to discredit them, and allowed David Irving of all people into the archives to study the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the Revolution of 1956. The resulting book, Uprising, said divisive things, but what on earth was Irving doing in the Communist Party archives in the first place?

Bad feelings were stirred up, and Neal Ascherson, in his review of the book, understood what it was really about far better than I did. It is a measure of the explosive nature of the question, given that, historically, the Hungarian Jews were better integrated than any others east of the upper Danube, and perhaps even of the Channel.

When the Russians established themselves in Central (or ‘Eastern’, if you prefer)Europe, they came upon a crashed world. It is very well described in Applebaum’s opening chapters, where she sets the scene for her account of the Communist takeover. Here is a landscape of smashed cities, Warsaw worse than any other, but much of Budapest in ruins; mass rape and, in thousands of cases, kidnappings to Siberia; epidemics from poisoned wells; low-level civil wars, as men hiding out in forests ambushed the security forces or were ambushed by them; vicious village battles between Ukrainian nationalists and Poles; deportations of millions and millions.

The Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia with notices that repeated the wording used by the Nazis: ‘All Germans, regardless of age and sex, will assemble in the town square at . . . .’ Of three million, perhaps one million died. It is greatly to the Germans’ credit that they did not endlessly dwell upon this disaster, but re-made their lives, and eventually staged a reconciliation.

In most of Central Europe and the Balkans, the Red Army was in occupation to enforce obedience, and local Communist parties were established. In the Balkans, their takeover was mainly immediate and brutal, though the King of Romania stayed on as a face-saver until December 1947.  Churchill had struck a famous bargain with Stalin in October 1944, by which he formally conceded the Balkans to Stalin, in exchange for a free hand in Greece. There, the Communists could easily have taken power, but British troops were on hand to stop them, and anyway Stalin, initially,
discouraged them. A civil war there continued until 1949, superbly depicted in Nicholas Gage’s Eleni, which describes his mother’s resitance to the Communists guerrillas occupying her village.


The best book on the takeover of Czechoslovakia is Karel Kaplan’s Short March. He had the run of the Party archives in the period of the Prague Spring, astutely copied many of them, and eventually smuggled them out. His book shows the workings of the Party as it prepared to take power in February 1948: manoeuvres to dominate trade unions, women’s movements, and the media; deployment of ‘the organised discontent of the masses’; manufacturing of provocative incidents; and most importantly of all, the discrediting, with police snooping, of the one real block to the Communists, the Slovak Democrat Party. That party was in effect outlawed; Slovakia was run by a government commission, and Prague fell a few weeks later.

The trouble is, to make this story readable is hideously difficult. There is a further problem with Czechoslovakia, which Applebaum rather skates over: one keeps wondering whether the non-Communists did not have a chance of survival. The Czechs, like the Finns, were careful to make terms with Stalin early on. They handed over sub-Carpathian Ukraine, and the Red Army moved out in 1945. The Communists were by far the largest party, but could not have taken power unless the opposition parties made mistakes.

Most at fault in this respect was the foreign minister Jan Masaryk. Had he joined the others in a mass resignation, he could have forced an election. Instead, he thought he could moderate Communist behaviour and act as a bridge to Moscow. Like other such bridges, he was then walked over. A month later, he was found sprawled on the pavement outside the Palais Czernin — which housed the foreign ministry — at the top of which he had a flat. He had pushed himself — or been pushed — through a bathroom window, and there were signs of a bloody struggle in the room behind. Malcolm Muggeridge sneered that the window dressing had fallen out of the window.

Was it suicide or another Prague defenestration? No one knows. My own guess, based on an incident in Cambridge long ago when an embittered undergraduate put LSD in his supervisor’s drink, is that Masaryk’s death had to do with drugs. The supervisor, left alone, smashed up his own room and then crawled through a window, landing bloodily but unbroken on the grass below.

Jan Masaryk’s death symbolised the tragedy of the Czech opposition, which was equally broken in 1956, when the Hungarians and Poles took the course of violent revolution against the Soviet Union and ensured that their countries would be handled with some respect in the future. The Czechs got the Prague Spring instead, in 1968.

Applebaum is very good on the process of grass-roots takeover: boy scouts, schools and universities, trade unions and the media. In 1945 there was still a degree of freedom, and political parties, partly owing to western supervision rights, were allowed to function. Newspapers could appear, though their circulation was limited because of alleged paper shortages, or because printers went on strike against ‘anti-democratic’ editions.

Hungary and East Germany had free elections, resulting in enormous humiliation for the Communists, and the Soviet bosses had to bang on the table to make sure that the chief ministries — especially the Ministry of the Interior, in charge of police — remained in Communist hands. Thereafter, blackmail, bribery, bullying and fraud were the instruments.

In January 1947 a Communist-dominated parliament came up in Poland, and the same, in September, in Hungary. Then unification of the left was imposed, as had also happened in East Germany, and high Stalinism got going, with its absurd industrialisation and labour camps. In 1953, when Stalin died, Moscow decreed a new course: a handover to native Communists. But this was easier said than done, as Gorbachev also discovered in 1988.

It took until 1956 for them to be removed in Hungary and Poland, and they never were removed in East Germany. There is a case for saying that even the 1956 Revolution in Hungary was started by Khrushchev, as a way of getting rid of Rákosi: it was, after all, none other than Tamás Aczél who launched the initial protest of the writers’ union, the pampered favourites of the régime.

On my first visit to Hungary, in 1962, I met an old boy in a tram who spoke Edwardian English, and was the son of the last commandant of Pola, the base of the Austro-Hungarian navy. He said: ‘Don’t believe what you hear about 1956. It was a Communist provocation which got out of hand.’

There are mysteries in all of this — mysteries never likely to be cleared up, as Communism depends on lies and does not record essentials. The whole nasty story is relieved by one consideration. People who grew up under Communism were thrown back on essentials. Newspapers were empty, television was boring, so you concentrated on the cultural side instead, making sure your children learned music and knew literature: they were often very well educated and, post-Communism, have thrived. So there is a silver lining.

 


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