'Crushing Eastern Europe' Behind The 'Iron Curtain'
Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 2:47 pm
If you read Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain as a manual on how to take over a state and turn it totalitarian, the first lesson, she says, would be on targeted violence. Applebaum's book, which was recently nominated for a National Book Award, describes how after World War II, the Soviet Union found potential dissidents everywhere.
"It really meant anybody who had a leadership role in society," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This included priests, people who had been politicians, people who had been merchants before the war, and people who ran youth groups."
The Soviets tried to control as many aspects of life as possible in the Eastern European countries they took over, Applebaum says. Everything was a potential source of dissent. "If you say, 'All painters have to paint like this because the state says so,' and then when one painter says, 'I don't want to do it that way; I want to paint an abstract painting,' then you've made him into a political dissident, even if in another society, he would have been apolitical," she says.
There were also efforts to control mass media, and radio in particular. "The radio was definitely the one institution that all of the communist parties cared about controlling right away," says Applebaum. "They believed very deeply in the power of radio, and they believed in the power of propaganda, and of their own ability to convince people."
Some of the radio shows were question-and-answer programs filled with praise for Soviet activities. Other call-in programs invited callers to share their problems; the solution always involved the Communist Party. As the shows became cruder and more propagandistic, they'd simply broadcast leaders' speeches, Applebaum says. "Or they would broadcast interviews with happy workers and happy peasants who agreed with everything the party was doing."
On show trials
"They began in the Soviet Union. ... They were trials of communist leaders and officials who were accused of spying, or they were accused of being traitors ... and they were scripted in advance, so the suspect would be beaten or tortured or bribed or otherwise convinced to go along with the process. He would then be examined on the witness stand according to a predetermined text; This would all be put on the radio, it'd be recorded in the newspapers, and he would confess to a series of crimes. ...
"These show trials had several functions: They were designed to intimidate people, to intimidate people particularly inside the party, since they were often trials of party leaders; and they were intended to show the power of the state ... and people never quite knew if they were true or not, so they created a lot of public anxiety."
On how the church in Poland stood up to the Soviets after World War II
"The church in Poland was the one church in the region that resisted this kind of [Soviet] attempt to undermine it most effectively. There are multiple reasons why this was possible. One is that the church had served that function before, both in Nazi-occupied Poland and in 19th-century Poland, which was also occupied by foreign powers. The church had always fulfilled this function of having a kind of status as an organ of resistance, so it was more able to fight back.
"The Polish church was also helped by very wise leadership, not all of which looked wise at the time. The head of the church in this period was Cardinal Wyszyński, Stefan Wyszyński, who actually made attempts to accommodate the Soviet regime, with the Polish communist regime, and he signed treaties with them, he tried to talk to people, he made an attempt to protect what he could inside the church. He didn't attempt to be a dissident or to protest loudly, for which he was very heavily criticized at the time and later. But to some degree, he protected the church, and by appearing to be accommodating, he allowed church to survive this period."
On the fear of abstract art in communist culture
"The fear of abstract art is that it could be interpreted in many ways, and who knows what you could read into a painting that didn't have a clear message? One of the obsessions that the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist parties had was always controlling the message — all information that everybody gets has to be carefully controlled and monitored. Art was no exception. Art was supposed to tell a story, it was supposed to have a happy ending, it was supposed to teach, it was supposed to support the ideals of the party. There was no such thing as art for art's sake, and there was no such thing as art reaching into some kind of spiritual, wordless realm. No, art was done in service of the state, and it was something that was going to help mold people and create citizens who do what the state tells them, and who follow the rules."
On forcing people to participate in parades, flag waving and song singing
"When you make people participate in those kinds of politics, you can make them do it — and they'll do it, but you don't make them happy. And very often, the instant they don't have to do it anymore, they'll stop. By coercing people, they created an opposition to themselves."
On the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
"There are essentially two kinds of reasons [for the collapse of communism]. ... One was the discomfort people had with the way the system worked, and their embarrassment and shame at having been made to go along with it. The second reason was the gap that always existed between Marxist, Leninist propaganda and ideology, and what was happening on the ground. The idea of social realist art and of Marxist journalism was that: 'We're going to tell people not what things were like, but what they should be like, and what they will be like, and we'll get them to keep focusing on the future.'
"In conjunction with that, the state made promises about economic growth ... and actually it never happened ... and by the '70s and '80s, the difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe was vast. ... The gap is enormous. Everybody can see it and knows it, and that eventually undermined the ideology not only among ordinary people and workers, but inside the party. People could no longer say with a straight face, 'Our system is better and it's working well,' when it was patently not doing so. So it really was a combination of the economic failure of the system and, if you would, the ideological failure."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The National Book Awards are next week, and my guest is one of the nominees in the category of nonfiction. Anne Applebaum's new book, "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe," focuses on how the Soviets turned Poland, East Germany and Hungary into totalitarian states after World War II. Her research took her into former secret police archives, as well as the archives of government ministries, German art academies, the Hungarian Film Institute and East German and Polish radio.
She also conducted interviews with people in those countries who lived through the period she writes about, 1944 to 1956. Applebaum won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for her book "Gulag." She writes a column for The Washington Post and Slate, and divides her time between Britain and Poland. Her husband is Poland's foreign minister.
Anne Applebaum, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your nomination for a National Book Award.
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thank you very much.
GROSS: So, you know, in some ways, your book is almost like a manual, like if you want to take over a state and make it totalitarian, here are the aspects of society you need to change. Here are some ways of doing it. You're not saying it's going to be effective forever, but, you know, it can get the job done and turn you - for at least a few decades - into a totalitarian state.
So if you see your book as a kind of manual, what's the first thing that you really need to do to crush the people?
APPLEBAUM: Well, first of all, I just stipulate I don't see it as a manual, and I also explain the ways in which that the system contain the seeds of its own destruction. And eventually, it unraveled for reasons that were there from the beginning. But I'd say there are three or four things that have to be done right away.
Number one is the selected, targeted violence that I talked about. You know, they aimed it at particular kinds of people. Number two was control of the mass media. They took over the radio. Number three was the creation of secret police forces. And this was something that was done before they got there. They were recruiting and training potential Polish and German and Hungarian and Czech secret policemen even before they arrived in the region.
So they had kind of their people ready to go in, and they had control of what they considered the most important media ready to go in. And they had - and they were focused on getting rid of anybody who might be an independent thinker or actor. Those were the three main elements of 1945 and 1946.
GROSS: And in the long term, it's very important to get the ear of young people.
APPLEBAUM: That was their - absolutely, that young people were the future. If you educate them and you convert the youth, then eventually, you'll take over the society, and these old people who still believe in old things like the church and like free markets, they'll just die off, and so you won't have to worry about them anymore. And so the initial idea was, yeah, we'll get the young people first and worry about everybody else later on.
GROSS: Just describe, as you do in the beginning of the book, the tremendous amount of dislocation in Eastern Europe after World War II.
APPLEBAUM: It's very hard for us in Western Europe and the United States even to imagine what Eastern Europe was like in the days immediately following the end of the war. The level of chaos and destruction, the destruction of cities, the destruction of public transportation was like nothing else in the western half of the continent.
Now, remember that most of the war had been fought in the East. The Germans fought the Russians - first, the Russians had invaded from the east, then the Germans invaded from the west. There were cities and towns that were occupied two or three times during the war by different armies.
And the physical destruction, the human destruction and the levels of despair and disruption are things that we have trouble understanding. There's a very famous Polish writer and poet named Czeslaw Milosz who wrote - he doesn't even - he felt, after the war, when he spoke to Americans or when he spoke to West Europeans, it was like speaking to people in a different language. You know, they didn't understand anything of what he'd gone through and what he'd seen happen in his part of the world.
And so we're talking about a place where people have really lost everything and have lost, in some cases, lost faith in everything they were taught or everything they'd learned in school, all the values they'd inherited from their parents. They'd seen everything destroyed.
GROSS: And how did World War II make it easier for the Soviets to take over part of Eastern Europe?
APPLEBAUM: Well, World War II came to an end because the Soviet Union marched across Eastern Europe and across Eastern Germany and into Berlin, and that forced Hitler's suicide and the surrender of the Nazis. So the Soviet Union was physically in Eastern Europe at the end of the war and fought its way through that region and was - literally was the occupying power.
And that meant that there were military forces. There were police forces on the ground already from 1944 onwards in this part of Europe, and they were already - as soon as they arrived, they were already laying the ground. They were setting up the circumstances for what would eventually become a much longer-term occupation.
GROSS: Did the Soviets - when they took in the three countries that you examine in your book, Hungary, Poland and East Germany - did the Soviets want the people in these three countries to like the idea that they were going to be under Soviet control, to buy into Soviet-style communism? Or did the Soviets assume, like, we're going to have to do this with a lot of brutality because nobody really wants this? We want them to be under our power, but we know they're not going to want to do that.
APPLEBAUM: In the early days, the Soviet Union and its partner communist parties in the region expected to be popular. They thought they would win support, and they actually expected to win support democratically. There were democratic elections held in Germany and held in Hungary and held in Czechoslovakia in the immediate years after the war, which the communists supported because they expected to win them.
When they didn't win them, and when it became clear very rapidly that communist parties and communist policies were not becoming rapidly popular, then they began to use more violence. And so in the history of this region, there's a kind of - there are waves of violence.
There's - right after the war, there's a wave of violence. And then there's another one in 1948, 1949, as the communist parties realize they're not going to take power through any kind of democratic revolution or through any kind of - or through the ballot box. And then they begin to use violence.
GROSS: What kind of violence?
APPLEBAUM: Mostly, it was targeted violence. After the end of the war, it was not mass or indiscriminate. So it wasn't that there were mass murders or random roundups of people in the street. The policy was for both communist parties - for local communist parties, sometimes with the help of the Soviet Union, to identify people who were potential dissidents.
So that meant people who had been priests, people who had been politicians, people who had been merchants before the war. It meant people who ran these youth groups and other kinds of independent associations and organizations. It meant people who were successful traders. It really meant anybody who had a leadership role in a given society.
And those were the people who were targeted. They were arrested. Sometimes they were tortured. Sometimes they were deported to the Soviet Union to prison. Sometimes they were killed.
GROSS: So I guess this served two functions. One was to get rid of the preexisting power and intellectual infrastructure, but also to terrify everybody else.
APPLEBAUM: Yeah. It had the function - this kind of targeted arrest had the function of making people afraid, and that fear lasted for a very long time in these societies. You know, if you arrest one in - only one in 15 or one in 20 people, that's still - you know, everybody was likely to know somebody who had been arrested, and everybody knew that it was possible to be arrested.
And people became very wary, on their guard. They were careful what they said in public. And they were careful about what they said in their workplaces. You know, they were careful about saying, no, I won't march in the May Day parade. They would rather prefer to agree to march in it - you know, it's such a meaningless gesture - rather than be dissidents.
GROSS: You describe some of the show trials early on after the Soviets took over countries in Eastern Europe. You've read transcripts of interrogations. First of all, just explain what a show trial is.
APPLEBAUM: A show trial was a public trial of - and these were usually - they began in the Soviet Union, and they eventually became famous for concentrating on former communists - or current, sorry, I should say current communists. They were trials of communist leaders and officials who were accused of spying, or they were accused of being traitors. They were accused of betraying the nation in some way, and they were scripted in advance.
So the suspect would be beaten or tortured or bribed or otherwise convinced to go along with the process. He would then be examined on the witness stand according to a predetermined text. This would all be put on the radio. It would be recorded in the newspapers. And he would confess to a series of crimes, you know, I have undermined the state. I have been spying on the regime. I was a traitor. I was attempting to undermine the good work of the comrades.
And these show trials were - both also had several functions. They were designed to intimate people, to intimidate people particularly inside the parties, since they were often trials of party leaders. And they were intended to show the power of the state. You know, look what we can make people say. Look at how we can, you know, how we can present the truth.
And people never quite knew whether they were true or not. So they created a lot of public anxiety.
GROSS: A lot of transcripts of interrogations - was it mostly of these show trials or, of actual interrogations to, you know, to torture or get information?
APPLEBAUM: There were many different kinds of interrogations at different times. Soviet and communist interrogations usually had a particular goal, which was to obtain confession. And sometimes the confession was for the purpose of a show trial, and sometimes the confession was for the purpose of helping the investigators find other people who were supposedly in the spy ring or in the conspiracy. And that was a very Soviet way of thinking, you know, that if you put enough pressure on people, they'll give you all their contacts.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956." It's nominated for a National Book Award. And the book is about how the Soviets got Eastern European countries to become totalitarian states, under the control of the Soviets.
One of the things the Soviet Union had to do, particularly in Poland, was to either crush the church or to make the church complicit with the Soviet communists. Poland is such a historically Catholic country. So what was the first tactic that the Soviets used in the Polish church, in the Polish Catholic Church?
APPLEBAUM: In fact, the initial tactic was not to attack the church. The Soviet Union had the idea that, you know, if we leave off the church and we focus instead on young people and on schools, that eventually these older, church-going people will disappear. I mean, there is a belief we can get the youth to be enthusiastic about communism and atheism, and eventually these old people will die off. They did give up on that pretty quickly. Within a year or two, they had adopted a series of other tactics.
GROSS: What were those tactics?
APPLEBAUM: They began trying to convert priests. They would pick particular people who were either mentally weaker, or who had been - there were reasons why they could be bribed or persuaded. They attempted to convert groups of priests. They attempted to listen in and follow conversations among the faithful in church.
There are wonderful transcripts of - there's a Hungarian set of transcripts of a man who goes into churches every week and reports back to his head office what people are saying. And so then there was an attempt to reach people who are religious, and also perhaps get them to be informers or get them to turn on their fellow worshippers.
There were bans on church activities and confiscations of church property. Church - physically, churches were not harmed in this part of the world, as they were in the Soviet Union, but the churches lost land. They lost buildings. They lost access to bank accounts that they'd had before.
Priests were - people were forbidden to give money to the church. So the church lost its sources of funding. Priests were put on state salaries, which, of course, gave the state another way to put pressure on them, if need be. Church youth groups and church - other kinds of church organizations were banned. Church-related charities were banned. Church schools were banned.
In Hungary, the monasteries and the convents were dissolved, which was - ended many centuries - centuries-old institutions were dispersed sometimes overnight. Church - the churches were pulled out of hospitals. They were forbidden from taking part in any kind of teaching or charitable activity.
Essentially, the church's activities were narrowed, and that from the outside and then from the inside, there was a constant attempt to convert people, to turn people and to create informers inside the system.
GROSS: So what was the church in Poland transformed into by the Soviets?
APPLEBAUM: Well, the church in Poland was the one church in the region that resisted this kind of attempt to undermine it most effectively. It - there are multiple reasons why this was possible. One is that the church had served that function before, both in occupied - Nazi-occupied Poland and in 19th-century Poland, which was also occupied by foreign powers.
The church had always fulfilled this function of being the - of having a kind of status as an organ of resistance, and so it was more able to fight back. And the Polish church was also helped by very wise leadership, not all of which looked wise at the time. The head of the church in this period was Cardinal Wyszynski, Stefan Wyszynski, who actually made attempts to accommodate with the Soviet regime. He - with the communist, Polish communist regime.
And he signed treaties with them. He tried to talk to people. He made an attempt to protect what he could inside the church. He didn't attempt to be a dissident or to protest loudly, for which he was very heavily criticized at the time and later.
But he protected - to some degree, he protected the church, and he - by appearing to be accommodating, he allowed the church to survive this period. And then, of course, in later periods, in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the church really emerged as an extremely strong and powerful and popular institution.
GROSS: So, in Hungary, where all the monasteries were closed, what survived of the church?
APPLEBAUM: The church continued to survive as a religious institution, and it continued to do what it had done for centuries and provide some help and comfort to people who needed it. What it was no longer able to do was to function in society as a support for other kinds of organizations and associations. It was no longer - you know, there was no alternate - there were no alternate institutions.
There were no church schools. There was - nothing else outside the state was allowed to exist, and so the church really lost a role that it had been playing in Hungary for centuries of, you know, of fostering the creation of independent institutions in the society.
GROSS: If you want to control the thinking in a country, you need to control the mass media, and you have a chapter about how the communists took over radio in the three countries that you write about, Hungary, Poland and East Germany. All I can say positive about that, nice to think that radio was that important then.
GROSS: So, of course, radio had already been destroyed in Poland by the war, by World War II. So the communists could kind of start it all over again. But it had to be transformed in East Germany and in Hungary. So I know you did a lot of work at radio archives for your book. Can you tell us about some of the just more, like, hard-line radio programs that were started in the new period of the communist regimes?
APPLEBAUM: It's interesting. The radio was definitely the one institution that all of the communist parties cared about controlling right away. And so even in a period when they weren't so bothered about newspapers or journals or other kinds of media, they believed very deeply in the power of radio, and they believed in the power of propaganda and of their own ability to convince people.
You know, if we can get hold of the radio, we'll convince the masses, then they'll follow us. They'll vote for us. Eventually, they'll support us. And so that was exactly why the radio was so important.
So in this period, you began to have programs - certainly in the beginning -that weren't necessarily hard-line communist, but which were designed to encourage people to think along those lines. So there would be question-and-answer programs where the activities of the Soviet Union and East Germany would be praised and where people would call in and complain about things, and the answers would be that, well, the communist party is going to find the solution to this.
Later on, the propaganda became much cruder, and they would, you know, simply broadcast the leaders' speeches, or they would broadcast interviews with happy workers and happy peasants who agreed with everything the party was doing. I mean, it was exactly as crude as you can imagine it being.
And it's very interesting, inside the radio, there was always a debate about this kind of propaganda and was it working, and how do we make it work better. And there was always some fear that it's too boring. You know, we can't have our programs be boring.
GROSS: They were probably right.
APPLEBAUM: They were certainly right. There's a wonderful document where they're talking about - Walter Ulbricht was the leader of the East German Communist Party. They had broadcast one of his speeches, which was I think two or three hours long. And somebody says, you know, we just can't do that. Nobody's listening to us. And somebody says no, comrade, we must do it, because this is how we'll educate the people, and we can't educate them otherwise. And they argued back and forth about how to make the propaganda work better, but they never quite got it right.
GROSS: Did it ever work? I mean, did any of these shows actually become popular? I know there wasn't a lot of competition, but...
APPLEBAUM: No, there wasn't a lot of competition. I mean, some of the - if I can broaden the questions, yes, some of the ideas and some of the language of communism did become popular. And remember, we started this out by talking about the devastation of the war, and so on. There were a lot of people very disoriented after the war who were looking for a new beginning. They were looking for a different kind of regime.
Liberal capitalism had failed before the war. Fascism was a disaster. What was the alternative? It was communism. And there were people who joined the party not because they were forced to, but because this appealed to them and they saw how they thought it was going to be a different kind of politics and a different way of running the country.
And, of course, some of the early radio programs and some of the early mass media appealed to that or played into it, and it was at least - it got people listening.
GROSS: Anne Applebaum will be back in the second half of the show. She's the author of the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Anne Applebaum, author of the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956." It's about how the Soviets transformed Eastern Europe into totalitarian states after World War II. She focuses on Poland, East Germany and Hungary. Applebaum won a 2004 Pulitzer for her book "Gulag."
You write about art when the communists took over Eastern Europe. And you reprint, you know, some great like socialist realist posters, photographs. They all look so phony. Like, I look at these and I wonder, like, why would people think that this was going to look convincing to anybody? All, like, the happy workers and happy camper, you know, kind of images.
APPLEBAUM: It's funny, isn't it, how out of context, all of that seems laughable, and it's impossible to understand how anybody could have followed them. I mean, it's a little bit like if you've ever seen films of Hitler speaking, you know, he waves his arms around in the air. He looks ridiculous, and he's a laughable figure and you don't understand what was the magnetism, or what was the power that he had. This is a little bit like that.
Remember that if you're looking at a poster of a happy worker and a happy peasant driving a tractor into the shining future, and you are, you know, you're aware that there has been violence all around you. You're aware that there are people who've been killed for or arrested for, you know, disagreeing with this kind of vision or contradicting it, you are - so you have - there's fear in the background. There's a sense of limited possibilities. You know, either I sing the song and I march in the parade and I follow the poster, you know, or what else?
The state owns everything. The state controls my job. The state controls where I live. It controls where my children might go to school or university. It controls the hospitals. It controls every aspect of my life. And so when you're inside that kind of system, it's - the posters might seem strange or eerie or, you know, somehow odd, but they don't necessarily seem funny. It only seems funny in retrospect, or when you're outside of it, ridiculous and kind of - and quiche.
GROSS: There was almost a fear of abstract art in communist culture. And you quote one of the theorists, one of the communist art theorists, Alexander Dimshitz, as saying: "Form without content means nothing." And this is somebody who called Picasso decadent. What were the fears of abstract art?
APPLEBAUM: The fear of abstract art is that it could be interpreted in many ways. And, you know, who knows what you could read into a painting that didn't have a clear message? And one of the obsessions that the Soviet Union and the East European communist parties had was with always controlling the message. All information that everybody gets has to be carefully controlled and monitored.
Art was no exception. Art was supposed to be - it was supposed to tell a story. It was supposed to have a happy ending. It was supposed to teach. It was supposed to support the ideals of the party. It wasn't supposed to - there was no such thing as art for art's sake, and there was no such thing as art reaching into some kind of spiritual, wordless realm. No. Art was the service - it was done in service of the state, and it was something that was going to help mold people and create, you know, citizens who do what the state tells them, and who follow the rules.
GROSS: So the person who I quoted, "form without content means nothing," Alexander Dimshitz, he was the head of the Cultural Division of the Soviet Military Administration. And you wrote a little bit about how, you know, his goal and the, you know, the goal within the Soviet art world was to make contact with artists in Eastern Europe and kind of prepare the way, kind of have them be co-opted so that they could help prepare the way for the bourgeois revolution. So how do they try to co-opt the artist?
APPLEBAUM: Yes. Well, it's very interesting, isn't it, that the communists actually were very in art. Stalin cared about it a lot. It's not usually what you think of them, you know, spending their time doing. But they did believe in the power of art, which is why they were so interested in this.
But, yes, they imagined that the artists - and by that, I mean both visual artists and writers and architects - would, you know, could create the atmosphere in which people were more likely to become communists and they were more likely to see the light. So they were - you know, once again, they were, to some degree, they were voluntary. There were people who wanted to do that kind of art in the beginning, and then later on it became more coercive.
You know, you didn't get into art school. You couldn't buy paint. You couldn't have a studio. You couldn't sell your work unless you were a member of the artists union, and unless you painted the way the artists union wanted you to paint. So it was a - it was - again, as with the destruction of the rest of the civil society, it was done in stages.
GROSS: You describe the Soviet style of architecture and what that was meant to communicate. So maybe you could describe that for us, the kind of high-Stalinist, you know, government-style of architecture and how and where that was applied in the Eastern European countries that you write about.
APPLEBAUM: High Stalinism was a style that didn't last very long, partly because it was - turned out that it was very, very expensive, and it couldn't be maintained forever. But in the brief period when it existed, the point of high Stalinism was to create buildings that were - on the one hand, they had to be understandable to the workers and to average people. So there was no avant-garde. There was no Bauhaus-type architecture. It all had to be - the references were all classical. There were a lot of columns, cornices, things we think of from the history of classical architecture.
At the same time, it was meant to be overwhelming and impressive, so that, you know, you would stand beneath a Stalinist building and you would feel awe and you would feel you were so small, and this Stalinists skyscraper or the Stalinist structure is so much larger than I am.
There were particular efforts to build these kinds of buildings in the center of cities. There was an enormous - it was called the Palace of Culture. In fact, it's still there, and it's still called the Palace of Culture, a kind of Stalinist skyscraper built in the middle of Warsaw. But most often, in this part of the world, Stalinist architecture was used as the - in new towns.
You know, at a certain point, the communist parties were having trouble converting people to their cause, so they thought what if we create entirely new context? What if we build a new town that's from scratch, you know, centered around a steel mill? Everybody working there will be a proletarian. They'll be at work in the factory. And then we can build around it the right kind of architecture and fill it with the right kind of art. Then we'll begin to convert people to our cause. And this was done in several places in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, as I describe.
GROSS: How successful would you say the communists were at making the new communist art actually speak to people, actually be popular, actually mean something in anybody's life?
APPLEBAUM: It's very hard to say what art means to people, because it's, again, you have to look at it in the context of the time. It's true that there were artists who went into factories - I've got several examples of that in my book - and who would try to create art, kind of, design paintings with the advice of the workers in order to get the workers' approval and to create work that they would like to look at.
One of the other, the reasons for social realism was that it was supposed to be, as I say, something that was understandable and that ordinary people would like and didn't require any special education or special way of thinking. And so, to some extent, those kinds of projects people were interested in them and popular. It also has to be said that in every one of these countries, the instant that it no longer became necessary to paint this way, nobody did. In Poland, really, you know, after the death of Stalin, you don't see any art like this again at all, not for the rest of the period of communist occupation.
GROSS: And when you say art like this, what are you describing?
APPLEBAUM: Well, you don't see social realism. You don't see portraits of Stalin. You don't see portraits of Lenin. You don't see happy workers driving tractors into the glorious future. You see abstract art and you see all kinds of other things. But - so, in that sense, it was never popular art in that the artist liked painting it and people flocked to see it. It was political art done for political reasons, and although there were attempts to get, you know, the workers involved in it, those were never overwhelmingly successful.
And, again, it's one of these - it's one of the aspects of communism and of the communist takeover that we overlook, and it tells you a lot about the way these regimes thought. You know, they really did think: We are remaking people. We're remaking society. And part of remaking people and remaking society is remaking the world around them.
You know, if people are looking at different kinds of pictures and if they're living in different kinds of buildings and they are singing different kinds of songs and reading different kinds of, you know, books that are educational and teach them about the rightness of the communist cause, then we will be able to convert them. And these are people who believe in propaganda and they believe in ideology, and you could see it in their newspapers and you could see it in their paintings.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956," is nominated for a National Book Award.
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum, author of the book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956," and it's nominated for a National Book Award. She looks at three countries: Hungary, Poland and East Germany.
You say that the very techniques that the Soviets and the Eastern European communists used to create totalitarian states contain the seeds of the states' own destruction. What do you mean by that?
APPLEBAUM: I mean that some of the things that they did eventually unraveled. So, for example, I've spoken a little bit about how they got people to collaborate, you know, they created a - they were very ambitious in what they wanted to control, not just the economy, not just politics, but also youth groups and social groups and sporting clubs and afterschool activities and all kinds of aspects of life and social life.
But by doing that, by politicizing everything, they also made everything into a potential source of dissent. So if you say all painters have to paint like this because the state says so, then when one teacher says I don't want to do it that way, I want to paint an abstract painting, then you've made him into a political dissident, even if in another society he would have been apolitical.
If you say, right, we're banning all the Boy Scout troops, and one group of the teenagers decides, well, we'd like to keep ours going, you know, sotto voce, then you've made them into political dissidents. And then you have, you know, outlaw Boy Scouts, which, again, sounds ridiculous, but they did exist. There was an illegal Scouting movement in Poland that lasted, actually, all the way up through the '80s. If you tried to control the way people do business or the way they dress, whatever it is that you're doing, if you - the more you try to control, the more sources of opposition you create.
The second thing they did - the second mistake they made was, again, by forcing people to collaborate, they also created a sense of disjunction or dissatisfaction. People will march in the May Day parade and they will wave the flag and they will sing the songs, but they might feel humiliated and embarrassed for having done so.
When you make people show - you know, participate in those kinds of politics, you don't necessarily - you can make them do it and they'll do it, but you don't make them happy. And very often, the instant they don't have to do it anymore, they'll stop or they'll march in the street demonstration or they'll join the opposition once it becomes not dangerous to do so. And so these regimes very often, by forcing people, by coercing people, they created an opposition to themselves.
GROSS: What do you see as being the main reason or two for the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?
APPLEBAUM: There are essentially two kinds of reasons. The one I've just described is one of them. One was the discomfort people had with the way the system worked, and their sort of embarrassment and shame at having been made to go along with it. The second reason was the gap that always existed between Marxist-Leninist propaganda and ideology and what was happening on the ground. The idea of social realist art and of Marxist journalism was that, you know, we're going to tell people not what things are like, but what they should be like and what they will be like, and we'll get them to keep focusing on the future.
And the state - and in conjunction with that, the state made promises about economic growth. You know, we will beat the capitalists. We're going to live better than they do. And actually it never happened, and it never happened in the '40s and it never happened in the '50s. And by the '70s and '80s, the difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe was vast.
Poland and Spain, in 1945, had very similar-size economies. Forty years later, Spain's economy is 13 times as large as the Polish economy. So the gap is enormous. Everybody can see it and knows it, and that eventually undermined the ideology not only among ordinary people and workers, but inside the party.
You know, people could no longer say with a straight face: Our system is better and it's working well, when it was patently not doing so. So it was really a combination of the economic failure of the system and, if you would, the ideological failure, you know, that the system, as it was meant to work, never worked. Marxist-Leninism didn't happen the way it was supposed to, and sooner or later, people just gave up.
GROSS: You know, if you don't mind my bringing this up, you're married to Poland's minister of foreign affairs...
GROSS: ...Radoslaw Sikorski. And you can correct my pronunciation if I have that wrong. So did you begin your relationship with him when you were already interested in exploring communism in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union?
APPLEBAUM: I was already interested in exploring communism in Eastern Europe. In fact, I met him - I was living in Poland in 1988 and '89. I was a stringer then for The Economist magazine. I was a journalist. And I met him then and I already spoke some Polish when I met him and I'd already been living in that part of the world and I had studied Russian at university.
So I was already interested. And then I - it's true that being married to him kept me involved there and showed me aspects of the society at a deeper level that I might not have seen. But no, I was already there. And I was already working on it when I met him.
GROSS: Are there any personal stories he told you about life under communism in Poland that you found very illuminating?
APPLEBAUM: Actually, I did always find illuminating his descriptions of these kinds of communist staged events that happened. You know, so when he was a child, when he was six years old, he was taken to the May Day parade. And I said, well, what did you feel about it? He said, well, it was a parade. It was fun.
You know, you looked out at it and there were flags waving and bands playing and you - you - you know, you were six years old and so you thought it was great. And then as you grew up, you became slowly disillusioned and you disengaged from events like that. Or anyway, he did. And most of the people around him did.
And you came to understand even as a school child that there were things in your society that were false, you know, that they were cheering on the party in the May Day parade and then you would go home and your parents would say that none of it was true. They were telling you things in school that were - that were, you know, about the wonders of the system.
And then you found out somewhere else that that wasn't true either. And so it was always - it was kind of the gap between ideology and everyday life, which he's described to me. Which I've always found illuminating and interesting. And really, anybody who lived in that system has stories like that of how they came to understand that the system was wrong or that it wasn't telling the truth.
GROSS: It must be so confusing for a child to have all the authorities, your teachers, tell you one thing and you go home and your parents say it's all a lie.
APPLEBAUM: Well, some parents found it very difficult to do that. And in the period that I'm writing about in the '40s and '50s, people often - parents were afraid to do that. So their children would come home and spout some propaganda and they would nod and not want to say anything because they were afraid their children would go back to school, contradict the teacher, get in trouble, get thrown out. Get them arrested. Who knew?
So there was a constant dilemma about what you could say at home, what you could say in private, and what you could say in public. And later on, as the fear dropped away and as the system became more sloppy, it became quite common when my husband was growing up in the '60s and '70s, parents always said things that were different from school. But earlier on it was difficult.
GROSS: You mentioned in your book that you did a lot of interviews with people who are in Poland, Hungary and East Germany during the years that you write about - 1944 to 1956 - and in a way this is the last time that you could have done some of those interviews because some of those people you interviewed are quite old. Several of them have died since you conducted the interviews. So do you feel like you got to this period of history at the last opportunity if you wanted to get contemporaneous interviews?
APPLEBAUM: I really did get there at the very last minute. It's true that there have been interviews that people have done in the past and it's true that the access to archives that we now have is also important and gives us a different way of looking at the period, but I very often had the feeling while speaking to people that this is the last chance, this is the last time I'll talk to somebody who was making films in the 1950s or who was, you know, part of the communist youth movement in the 1940s. And I'm actually - I'm very grateful to those people, some of whom were very old, for giving me their time.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations again on your National Book Award nomination.
APPLEBAUM: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Anne Applebaum's new book, "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe," is nominated for a National Book Award. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.