Anne Applebaum’s ‘Iron Curtain’ and Thoughts on Eastern European History

Submitted! It’s with a deep sigh of relief that I sit down on the Oxford to London train to write this blog post: after several months of revising, editing, and re-writing, I managed to submit my D.Phil. to the forbidding Examination Schools at Oxford this Thursday afternoon, about a day in advance of the final deadline. With some luck, the viva for said dissertation should be scheduled for this April or May. Like it or not, my ties to this place are becoming more and more marginal: I have no firm plans to return to Oxford after the D.Phil. defense – from there, indeed, it’s basically on to Russia, Arizona, Uzbekistan, and, by the end of August, Cambridge, MA, to begin the next step in this journey at the Harvard Academy.

Still, in the past two months that I’ve been kicking around Oxford, there’s been quite the surfeit of intellectual treats – too many, in fact, for your humble narrator to blog about them as they happen. One recent event which allowed me to indulge in one of my interests that I don’t actually know a great deal about – Polish history – was a recent March 1 talk by Anne Applebaum, author of the semi-recently appeared Iron Curtain:The Crushing of Eastern Europe, at St Antony’s College; Applebaum, a former Antonian and Oxonian herself was back in the UK on a book tour, it seemed, but more than that, the College was pleased to announce the upcoming opening of a Polish Studies Centre.

Oxford’s European Studies Centre: site of last week’s Anne Applebaum event

As both Applebaum and the MC for the evening, Professor Timothy Garton Ash noted, however, twenty-five years ago, when both of them first discovered what was then called the Eastern Bloc, the idea of a Polish Studies Centre at Oxford would have been ridiculous. Not only were the development networks of wealthy Poles and the teaching staff even at a university like Oxford lacking, they noted; but more obviously, with the Iron Curtain still up and travels beyond it still quite the adventure even for perspicacious graduate students at the time, like Applebaum, doing research of any substance in the archives of Communist Poland was challenging at best and a waste of time at worst. And that was even for early modern history. Doing serious work on the multiple traumas inflicted on Poland, and the peoples inhabiting it, in the twentieth century – the Nazi and Soviet invasions, the Holocaust, Katyn, etc. – was simply not possible given the extent to which the Communist regime was the direct product of the Red Army’s 1943-1945 march to Berlin, the postwar purges, and the elimination of alternative, non-Communist Polish political projects after the mid- and late-1940s.

Those days are, fortunately, gone. Still, Applebaum noted, when she got the idea for Iron Curtain a few years ago, she was motivated to explore precisely some of these questions about the roots of Polish Communism. Why was it so possible to build a Stalinist political system in Poland in such a short span of time (roughly 1945 to 1953)?

Under discussion at last Friday’s event: Applebaum’s recent ‘Iron Curtain’

As Applebaum said, moreover, at stake here is not just the tidy, respectable, and hard-won historical that’s the stuff of, say, D.Phil. dissertations (one hopes). The proper interpretation of these years remains deeply contested in Polish history within Poland itself. Go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw (as your humble narrator did in the summer of 2009), for example, and you’ll find a narrative that seeks to link the (failed) Warsaw Uprising with the events of 1989. The tale we get of Polish history is the one that makes some German and Russian friends roll their eyes: Poland as the perpetually victimized nation, always striving (since 1944 if not earlier) to be a part of a democratic Europe, a devoutly Catholic, ethnically Polish nation, whose benevolent ambitions were stymied by Nazi and Soviet genocide, aggression, and occupation. There’s many of element of truth in that narrative, Applebaum stressed, but it also overlooks perhaps the most painful question of how Poland became Stalinized in such a short period of time without (to stress the point) of being incorporated into the USSR itself. At stake, in other words, are questions of Polish complicity and the actual truth of the victimization narrative.

In her presentation, Applebaum noted that there are a number of factors we have to pay attention to this if we want to understand the full story. Hard to imagine today but taken for granted at the time (in the late 1930s) was the assumption that capitalism had basically failed as an economic system, and that there was only one alternative, namely Soviet-style communism. Many of the Poles that Applebaum interviewed for the book had begun their ideological journeys as nationalist rebels and fighters during the years of the Nazi occupation. But after so much fighting against Germans – and operating on the assumption that capitalism could not be a part of Poland’s reconstruction, whether under a Soviet aegis or independent – he eventually lost his passion to fight the Red Army. He fell into the Communist scene among what was left of Polish bohemians after the war, and worked as a professional novelist for a period, even writing Stalinist novels. This is just one story of many, she emphasized – but it also captures the sense of intellectual exhaustion and the powerful hegemony that Stalinist-style Communism held over young European intellectuals for much of the period. There was simply no alternative, people repeated.

Warsaw’s Palace of Science and Culture: not nearly the ugliest of the marks left on Poland by Stalinization

Of course, this story of intellectual breakdown also had a military and intelligence component, as well. As Applebaum argued, even before the war Stalin had no doubt that all of Europe (including Western Europe) would eventually turn Communist. The only question was when and on what terms. Still, it seemed clear (to find echoes with Timothy Snyder’s work on similar subjects) that an independent Polish state was simply not compatible with the Stalinist vision for the re-organization of Europe. If Poland was not to be simply annihilated as a state (what the Nazis tried to do), it had to be totally infiltrated by Soviet elements. Hence, in 1939, training of Soviet Poles, Ukrainians and Belarusians as secret agents and infiltrators began in Smolensk, in the western Soviet Union; once Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, the training shifted to Kuibyshev, further inland still, where more men (roughly 200 in total) were trained. Even as the Soviet Union was taking grievous material and manpower losses from the Nazi onslaught, the project of building a Stalinized Soviet-aligned Poland continued apace.

By the spring of 1944 – as the Red Army charged into Eastern Europe – there was still no agreement between Western leaders and Stalin about the shape of a postwar Soviet state, but ‘the facts on the ground’ soon changed that. The Kuibyshev gang (so-called ‘kuibyshevtsy’) followed the ransacking Red Army into Poland with the twin goals both of destroying the Home Army (the autochtonous Polish resistance force, which numbered the third biggest army in Europe at times during World War II) and liquidating the Polish intelligentsia, businessmen, and Catholic priests. This violence, in other words, predated any specific Cold War tension: the goal from the start was to emasculate the élite of any post-war Polish state to make it easily pliable to Soviet designs.

Not only that, but the destruction of what we today would call ‘civil society’ was swift, too: youth groups, sports groups, and even the Polish scouting movement (similar to the Boy Scouts in the United States today) were either banned or saw their leadership targeted for assassination. By the late 1940s, similar controls extended to other spheres of the economy: printers, for example, might be forbidden from printing anything other than the collected works of Stalin, or the plan targets for a given Five-Year Plan. Aiding this all, arguably, was both the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans as well as Operation Vistula, which saw the deportation of Ukrainians from southeastern Poland as the boundaries of the Polish state were shifted hundreds of miles to the west, as compared to their pre-war boundaries.

The questions and answer session at the talk went into some more specific issues: the relationship of the Polish Communist Party and the Catholic Church, an interesting question from a precocious high school student who wanted to know how (or whether) postwar Polish history could be taught in British secondary school curricula, and (unfortunately) the usual five- to ten-minute monologues that don’t really contain a question. Yours truly was jammed into a chair at the back of the room – hardly opportune question-lobbing real estate – so I wasn’t able to get in a word.

Europe circa 1942: note the lack of easily-defined states in Nazi-occupied Europe. Maybe part of the story of the 1950s is the re-creation of (puppet) states in the East from the wartime imperial project?

But still, I could not but leave the event wondering about how useful the totalitarian paradigm that Applebaum’s work (or at least her presentation) is, really, when it comes to analyzing postwar Eastern European history. Two things concern me: for one, the totalitarian paradigm still seems, if not political, then rather chest-thumping, in that it fits the story of 20th century Europe into a morality play of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ triumphing over ‘totalitarianism’ in a way that may be only slightly less challenging and mature than Applebaum and Garton Ash, for example, (rightly) excoriate the organizers of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. While the story of how the Stalinist system gets built in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, and how it comes apart in the late 1980s, are clearly important bookends to a bigger Eastern European story, the implicit totalitarianism vs. freedom story seems to diver attention to the points of contingency in between those bookends. One wonders about the tug (if one existed) that the examples of Yugoslav or Hungarian-style Communism exerted on Polish economists or planners throughout this period. One wonders, too, about the hard-to-classify role that Polish economists like Michal Kalecki and Oskar Lange played in trying to steer the Polish state and economy in new directions in the 1950s and 1960s – within the basic framework of a Communist one-party system, but expositing ideas that went leaps beyond Stalinist economic pablum. In short, there remain many stories in postwar Eastern European intellectual history that make me wonder whether the focus on the totalitarian moment in Poland may obscure as many contingencies as the victimization-and-heroism narrative it seeks to supplant.

More than that, however, I wonder if the focus on the journey from Stalinism to democracy doesn’t obscure a perhaps more pompous but also important narrative in the history of Eastern Europe, namely the extent to which nation-states became accepted as the legitimate template for national and economic organization (and what a shift this was). As Applebaum highlighted in the beginning of her talk, and as Snyder described in a much earlier spring 2011 talk in Oxford, one of the big contingencies in Eastern Europe in the 1940s was the future of the Polish state: or rather, its lack of a future, and the way what Snyder calls the ‘bloodlines’ ought to be reorganized. From what we know, Hitler saw no use for a Polish state: the lands that comprised it would have to be either annexed to the German state itself, turned into hard-to-classify colonies like the General Government, or perhaps eventually made part of so-called Reichskommisariat, parts of a bigger, terrifying German project of agrarianization and genocide in the occupied East. Lost, perhaps, in the justified focus on the titanic scale of mass killing that would accompany such a project is the extent to which it represented the end of a state system altogether in Eastern Europe. ‘Russia’ might persist as a puppet state of Muscovy, but the national administrative constructions that existed after Versailles and the consolidation of the Soviet Union – Hungary, the Ukrainian SSR, the Belarusian SSR, Romania, etc. – were all to be swallowed up in a Nazi Großraum .

That project failed, of course, but the failure of the Nazi anti-state project and the way in which populations got moved around after World War II created an unexpected, and, arguably, unexpectedly stable Eastern European order that persists to the current day. While Stalinism meant a lot of things for Poland – terror, mass killing, and ideological indoctrination not least among them – it also meant the realization of a more-or-less ethnically homogenous, Catholic, Polish state. This project of national consolidation was either more tortured (Ukraine) or incoherent (postwar Belarus) elsewhere, but the extent to which ‘Stalinization’ also can be seen as a process of state re-formation deserves attention in our stories of the period. As historians of the United States, moreover, look to the ways in which Third World cries for ‘national self-determination’ weighed upon Washington policymakers, it would also be interesting to understand the extent to which both élites and ordinary people in Warsaw, Minsk, Kiev, Budapest, and elsewhere understood the newly-rendered ethnically homogenous state order as legitimate.

Put another way, it’s striking that after so much agitation over national boundaries and self-determination in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, that once almost all of these countries became independent, there was so relatively little concern over the exact same issues. While further books on the life and (not a moment too soon) death of ‘totalitarianism’ in Europe are welcome, it strikes me that we might actually learn more about state formation in Eastern Europe if we look at this transition from Nazi empire to Stalinist-managed nation-states to independence  – one that intersects with the Holocaust and the postwar persecution and expulsion of Jews from Eastern Europe – was possible, and how this part of the world became organized into sovereign states with so little fanfare.

Glamorous Slough, the latest stop on your humble narrator’s travels to hotspots of European high culture

As I finish this post, the train is about to depart the hideously-named English town of Slough: London approaches. The next few weeks are pretty busy for me – a combination of well-earned R&R after submitting the D.Phil., but also a number of academic experiences to refine the arguments more as I look ahead to turning into a book (which is what, in theory, I’ll be doing when at Harvard). I’m about to head out to Paris for a talk (of which more soon), and thence to Cambridge (a Ukrainian language boot camp), Newcastle (a Central Asian studies conference), and eastern Morocco (visiting an Oxford friend). Following all of that, it’s off to Moscow to return to archives and try to begin to make the numerous tweaks and additions the D.Phil. will need to be acceptable, one day, as a book manuscript. I hope. For now, it’s off to the land of chocolate croissants and hopefully benevolent seminar audiences …  a bientôt!


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