David Frum

11.23.12

UPDATED: David's Bookclub: Iron Curtain

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When in 1960 Max Frankel returned from Moscow where he had been the New York Times bureau chief he wrote with striking candor that the lone Western correspondent is no match for the dominating power of the Soviet secret police and the Soviet bureaucracy. For the true story of the Soviet Union, he said, we would have to wait for the historians to tell us "what really happened."

That anecdote opens a 2004 review of Max Frankel's memoirs by the late, great Arnold Beichman.

In his older age, unfortunately, Frankel seems to have lost the curiosity he felt as a younger man. In the forthcoming New York Times Book Review, Frankel delivers a dismissive shrug to Anne Applebaum's powerful new history of the imposition of communism upon Central Europe, Iron Curtain.

[M]illions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin’s paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.

It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?

Frankel poses a bold question. Why remember mass human suffering? How much more pleasant to read, in the words of the old joke about the Boston dowager, "nice books about nice people - people I'd invite into my drawing room."

The answer, surely, is that history requires remembrance - and remembrance of all the details, including those that are "sordid," as Frankel terms them. We remember not only to honor the sufferings of those who suffered. We remember (and this may be even more important) to understand, condemn, and prevent the recurrence of the decision-making of those who inflicted the suffering.

Anne Applebaum observed in the introduction to her magisterial history of the Soviet Gulag that we must remember not in order to say "never again." We must remember because they will happen again, and we need to be ready when they do.

Past histories of the early cold war - I think here of Hugh Thomas' magisterial Armed Truce - focused on the highest levels of state: on the actions of Stalin and the commanders of the Red Army as they fastened unfreedom upon half a continent. What makes Applebaum's Iron Curtain so very important is its descent into the world of everyday men and women who had moral choices to make under Soviet military occupation.

Iron Curtain studies the period 1945-1953 in three places: East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Poland had been one of Nazi Germany's most devastated victims; Hungary, one of its most eager allies. After 1945, all three were drawn into a common fate, in which individuals had to find their ways. We might imagine that these ways required a stark moral choice: resistance or collaboration. In fact, as Applebaum shows, individual reactions were spread along a continuum, in which passive opposition blurred confusingly into reluctant cooperation.

I found myself haunted by Applebaum's telling of the story of Wanda Telakowska. An art critic and designer, Telaskowa had involved herself in a Polish equivalent of the British Arts & Crafts movement in the years before World War II: a study of peasant crafts in search of inspiration for more beautiful furniture, textiles, glass and ceramics.

Telakowska survived the war and continued her aesthetic work. That choice, however, required compromise with the new governing powers.

She accepted the communist regime as inevitable and was determined to work with it - even within it - in order to achieve goals she believed to be in the national interest. In the spring of 1945 she joined the new Ministry of Culture, even though that made her a member of the communist-dominated provisional government, and in 1946 she created the wonderfully named Bureau for Supervision of Production Aesthetics …. Under its auspices, she conducted surveys of folk artists and folk art groups around the country and persuaded Polish artists … to work on her most ambitious project: the provision of Polish factories with new designs that could be mass-produced. … Many did cooperate. Under the slogan 'Beauty is for every day and for everybody' Telakowska's bureau commissioned and purchased dozens of strikingly original designs for fabrics, furniture, cutlery, dishes, crockery, ceramics, jewelry, and clothes.

(pp. 344-345)

Telakowska was not a communist, not a political person at all. Yet in order to continue living in her country and doing her work, she of necessity became a supporter of a hated regime - and a recruiter of others to work for that regime. In so doing, she became compromised: adopting the regime's argot into her own writing, allowing its denigration of Poland's pre-communist history to corrupt her design work. The artistic innovations of the 1920s had to be dismissed as serving only the needs of "capitalism." By acceding to the false claims about "People's Poland," Telakowska subverted her own hopes for a revival of Polish art and design.

Most people are neither heroes nor villains. They accepted, with varying degrees of belief and enthusiasm, compromises that were inescapably "sordid." (That word again!)

These compromises were demanded with special force within Soviet-occupied Germany.

Applebaum:

[F]ormer members and former opponents of the Nazi youth groups began spontaneously to form antifascist organizations in towns and cities across both East and West Germany.

These first groups were German, not Soviet, and they were organized by the young people themselves. All around them, adults were in despair. One in five German schoolchildren had lost his or her father. One in ten had a father who was a prisoner of war. Someone had to start reorganizing society, and in the absence of adult authorities a few very energetic young people took on this role. …

(pp. 153-154)

The Soviet authorities soon made the decision to infiltrate and exploit these groups in their occupation zone. Applebaum cites as an example the sad story of a young man named Manfred Klein. Held in a Soviet prison camp at the end of the war, he turned to Christianity, joining the Christian Democratic party's youth group.

The Soviet comrades approved of his decision … they expected him to be an agent within the Christian Democratic milieu, working on their behalf. … Klein kept working within the system. Though frustrated with his role as the 'token Christian' inside the Free German Youth, he spent a good bit of his time trying to organize the other token Christians into a voting bloc. He lobbied to keep the Free German Youth open to many different kinds of young people, but to no avail. Almost exactly a year after its founding, this brief Soviet-German experiment in non-partisan youth politics had come to an end. On March 13, 1947, the NKVD arrested Klein, along with fifteen other young Christian Democratic leaders. A Soviet military tribunal sentenced him to a Soviet labor camp. He remained there for nine years.

(pp. 156-160)

Business people found their way forward especially painful. Ironically, the problem-solving personality of the entrepreneur was often the very personality type most inclined to deal-making with the new authorities.

Hoping to stay in business, restaurateurs tried various strategies to stay afloat. One [Budapest] cafe owner transformed herself into a street vendor; others joined the communist party, with the hope that this would absolve them of political suspicion. Eventually, many cafe owners volunteered to be 'nationalized,' the better to ensure their own future as 'managers' of their former businesses.

(p. 235)

It's a fascinating thing, as one reads Applebaum's pages, to imagine some similar catastrophe overtaking American society. Which of the people you know would align themselves where on the continuum of resistance and collaboration? It makes a grimly interesting party game to try to guess. It's a game I've played at Anne Applebaum's Polish home, for Anne is not only a friend of mine, but also my wife's co-author in a new Polish cookbook. My friendship with Anne would have disqualified me from reviewing her book for the New York Times, had they asked me. That's an understandable rule. But surely even more disqualifying ought to be the moral dullness that dismisses the importance of the questions asked by Iron Curtain - or that cannot acknowledge the magnitude of Anne Applebaum's historical achievement: a three-country, three-language survey of one of the most tragic turning points of modern times.

For our own internal political reasons, it has been difficult for some liberal-minded Americans to pay due attention to the Cold War experience of those entrapped behind the Iron Curtain. Those who most wished to avoid a military confrontation with the Soviet Union were drawn to diminish the price paid by the subject nations of central Europe for Europe's "long peace." The reluctance to pay due heed seems to continue into our own time. We couldn't talk frankly about Central Europe before, because the subject was too dangerous; we can't talk frankly about it now, because it all happened too long ago.

And when it happens again? The Applebaums will summon us to attention; the Frankels will shrug and look away.

UPDATE

A reader complains in comments - and others have complained by email and Twitter - that I've misunderstood Max Frankel's complaint against Iron Curtain. It wasn't (these readers say) that Frankel wishes to ignore the moral choices and personal sufferings of those entrapped behind the Iron Curtain. It was, rather, that he wishes Anne Applebaum had written a different book altogether, analyzing whether different American policies might have somehow mitigated the hardships of the Cold War.

But of course - as I stressed in my post above - those questions of high policy have been exhaustively discussed. They may well, in fact, be the most discussed questions in 20th century historiography. They also are questions where the discussion does seem at least to have subsided into consensus: the apologetic argument by New Left historians that the Soviets were somehow provoked into subjugating Central Europe - that the Iron Curtain represented a rational Soviet response to a genuine Western security threat - that argument has been crushed post-1989 by the weight of Soviet archival material and the force of the rebuttal from the subjugated peoples themselves.

Frankel:

[Applebaum] begins her tale by insisting that the United States and Britain, having promised the East Europeans a democratic future, quickly abandoned them to Soviet domination. True enough. Yet what were the West’s alternatives? The door to Europe was left open for Stalin in 1945 because the Americans were rapidly redeploying to fight Japan and eager to enlist Stalin in the Pacific war. Applebaum does not speculate about how Soviet colonization might have been forestalled or what methods of intervention for freedom we should be applying now in Cuba or North Korea, Syria or China.

Similarly, she barely touches on the contrary claims of some historians that it was not the West’s appeasement but rather hostility against the Soviet Union that provoked Stalin’s aggressive responses. These scholars accuse the United States of having triggered the cold war, thus baiting Stalin into taking crude defensive countermeasures. Applebaum’s evidence provides a telling rebuttal to those “revisionist” theories, but she never really engages them.

Most conspicuously missing is any sustained examination of Soviet motives for the rape of Eastern Europe. What did the Russians want? Revenge against Germany and its allies? Compensation for their enormous loss of life and suffering in the war and the spoils due a victor? Was the domination of neighboring states a wildly arrogant policy of defense so that no conqueror could ever again follow Napoleon and Hitler to Moscow? Or was it a revival of Russia’s imperial desire to annex at least half of Poland, to secure a rebellious Ukraine and to incorporate the Baltic States and various adjacent Balkan lands?

As Frankel must know, every question he asks above has been asked - and answered - many times by many writers. It seems perverse to demand one more repetition of such a familiar performance. More perversely still: the story Frankel wants (re)told is a story that occurs in Moscow, Washington, and London - a story in which the decision makers carry the great, historic names of Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, and so on. His story is one that has no place for the Central Europeans themselves, not as decision-making individuals anyway. We all know at least in a general way about the anonymous millions of German women raped by the Red Army. But I did not know the story of Robert Bialek, who became leader of the Communist Party's youth section in Saxony, notwithstanding that Red Army soldiers had raped his wife. (see p. 156.)

Totalitarianism aspires to reduce the people it rules to faceless masses, deprived of individuality. Conscientious history rejects this aspiration and restores the individuality to the masses. There is of course an important place for the strategic and diplomatic history Frankel prefers. Happily, it is a place more than amply filled by hundreds of prior works.

Iron Curtain however does something not yet done in English: it restores individuality and moral choice - and thus the possibility of retrospective moral judgment. Applebaum has accomplished something profoundly new in a topic area where there seemed little new left to say. That seems grounds for celebration, not peevish complaint.