The Weight of Totalitarian Ideology

Twenty years have passed since the downfall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites in Eastern and Central Europe.  Most of those countries are now members of the European Union and NATO, and the half century of “Really Existing Socialism” has already been relegated by the region’s young people to the realm of ancient history, the subject of memorials, museums, and school curricula, but of little apparent relevance to their own lives.  Anne Applebaum’s book is an important, if not crucial, reminder of just how devastating those years were.  The history she recounts, though filled with appalling stories of atrocities and mind-numbing cruelty, is also an incredible tale of the resilience of the human spirit.  The key to understanding both of these stories, in Applebaum’s account, is ideology or, to put it another way, the power of ideas.

This focus is an important departure from much of the literature on communist Eastern Europe.  For decades the importance of ideology in this history has been downplayed in favor of materialist or Realpolitik explanations that focused on the geopolitical posturing and positioning that went on during the Cold War, or the cynical or opportunistic actions of the agents of East European communism.  In the process, the concept of “Totalitarianism” was largely abandoned from scholarly discourse.  Political philosophers in North America and Western Europe came to regard the word as a simple term of abuse that was too laden with negative connotations to be of much analytical worth.  Among the many important contributions of Applebaum’s book, indeed perhaps the most important, is her contention that ideas, and especially Marxism-Leninism, have real explanatory power when looking at the history of the period.  Similarly, Totalitarianism, very far from being a term of art to describe a mythical Cold War hobgoblin, was regarded as a very real and practical project by the men and women who ran the People’s Republics, at least until the death of Stalin.

Applebaum’s focus on ideology explains some of the structural choices she makes in her study.  Most importantly, she ends in 1956, with the Polish and Hungarian Revolutions of that year, because they signaled in many ways the end of communism as a coherent ideological project.  The revolutions came as a profound shock to the communist cadres.  Her description of the profound disorientation experienced by the East German leadership in June 1953 applies equally well to the situation among their Polish and Hungarian comrades three years later:  “According to their ideology…this sort of thing [i.e., the strikes and demonstrations] wasn’t supposed to happen . . . it was impossible for workers to rise up against the workers’ state.” For the remaining three decades or so of the era of so-called “Real Socialism” the communist leadership tinkered with numerous combinations of reform and repression to keep their regimes in power.  While still ostensibly “building socialism” and clothed in the obligatory Marxist-Leninist jargon, this was essentially a kind of “transvestite communism.”  Various ad-hoc projects and programs were dressed up in communist terminology.

The importance of ideology to Applebaum’s story is also important for the way it challenges certain common historical narratives.  The standard narrative of the history of the communist take-over of East Central Europe follows more or less the one developed by Hugh Seton-Watson.  In a highly abridged version of Seton-Watson’s historical model, Soviet control of East Central Europe proceeded unevenly through three stages, all of which were highly contingent on exogenous developments.  In the first stage of “True Coalitions” the local communists were one party among several in the first post-war governments, though they usually controlled one or more of the so-called “power ministries” of the Interior (hence the national police), War, and Justice.  As the communists grew in power, and when opportunity arose, they effectively took over control while maintaining the fiction of multiparty democracy in the state of “Bogus Coalitions.”  Biding their time, and given the chance, they mounted coups d’etat against the sham democracies and seized complete governmental power directly, the stage of “Monolithic Regime.”[1]

While Applebaum maintains the broad outlines of this narrative, her focus on the importance of ideology modifies it in some important ways.  In particular, she is very clear that from the closing months of World War II, the communists fully intended to take power in every bit of real estate occupied by the Red Army.  In this respect, the stages of “True” and “Bogus” coalitions, to use Seton-Watson’s framework, were equally counterfeit, as the local communist parties and their Soviet “advisors” were always fully in control of the situation and had a clear plan of complete takeover from the very start.  As she put it:

Theoretically, in 1946 [the Soviet-occupied countries were] democracies.  The [non-communist] governments ruled in coalition with communists, social democrats, and others.  But the . . . communist party, not the state, controlled the security organs . . . Everywhere in Eastern Europe, their control over the secret police gave minority communist parties an outsized influence over political events.  Through the selective use of terror, they could send clear messages to their opponents, and to the general public, about what kinds of behavior and what kinds of people were no longer acceptable in the new regime.

The most important evidence she musters for this charge is the systematic and absolutely thorough evisceration of civil society in the countries that fell into the Soviet orbit.  Indeed, some of the most detailed and poignant parts of the book are those detailing these episodes.  Applebaum shows how the communist occupation authorities moved to infiltrate and control all manner of independent groups literally from the moment the Soviet military gained physical control over an area.  Particularly noteworthy was the alacrity with which the communists took over any youth groups or clubs which had managed to survive the war intact, or which had spontaneously organized in the wreckage of post-war society.

Importantly, the utter destruction of civil society in Eastern Europe was not simply a political strategy on the part of the communist parties to eliminate any possible rivals, though it was that too.  More importantly for Applebaum, totalitarian ideology dictated that the numerous groups and clubs that made up civil society not only should not exist, but that they literally could not exist. By definition, no aspect of human activity could thrive outside of the embrace of the Party.  Not only youth groups, church organizations, philanthropic foundations, and charities were deemed suspicious and subject to absorption by the Communist Party, but even such prosaic groups as chess clubs and bird-watching societies were brought within the communist fold.  As Applebaum summarizes the situation,

In the end, the fate of the Polish Scouts, the Hungarian People’s Colleges, the German Christian Democratic youth, and a vast range of other institutions-mainstream and idiosyncratic, political and apolitical, from shooting clubs and fencing teams to folk-dance troupes and Catholic charities-was the same.  The nascent totalitarian states could not tolerate any competition whatsoever for their citizens’ passions, talents, and free time.

The destruction of civil society helps to answer one of the most persistent questions about the communist regimes:  why did they seem to enjoy so much support?  Public celebrations and festivals were always thronged with apparently enthusiastic participants.  Actual acts of dissent or rebellion were generally limited to a small percentage of the population, and outright revolts were rare.

Applebaum refers to the masses of communist subjects as “reluctant collaborators.” As she sums up:  “The Stalinist system excelled at creating 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.” The main motivations for this “collaboration” were the ever present threat of violence, even if it was only implicit, coupled with some grudging acknowledgement of the success in the reconstruction of the shattered countries of Eastern Europe undertaken by the communist governments.  But most interesting in her explanation (to me at any rate) is the importance of the mechanisms of totalitarianism.  As she points out, “the systematic destruction of alternative sources of authority and of civil society . . . meant that those who questioned the system and its values felt isolated and alone.” The result of all these factors was that “by the 1950s, most people in Eastern Europe worked in state jobs, lived in state-owned properties, and sent their children to state schools.  They depended on the state for health care and they bought food from state-owned shops.  They were understandably cautious about defying the state except in dramatic circumstances.  And, much of the time, their circumstances were not dramatic, because in peacetime, most people’s circumstances are not dramatic.”

As she points out, however, there was nevertheless opposition to the communists. Her treatment of what she calls “passive opponents” focuses on the unorthodox western-inspired fashions sported by some young people, and the jazz and rock and roll music to which they listened, and the very rich production and circulation of jokes throughout communist Eastern Europe.  In the totalitarian societies of Eastern Europe, such relatively innocuous activities (i.e., dressing in flashy clothes, listening to rock and roll music, telling jokes) were by definition subversive behaviors.  As Applebaum explains, “As was the case in so many spheres of life, the communist monopoly on power meant that jokes about anything-the economy, the national soccer team, the weather-all qualified, at some level, as political jokes.  This was what made them subversive . . .” But what of “active opponents” to the communist regimes?  What happened when “dramatic circumstances” did indeed overwhelm quotidian efforts to get along and get by?

Applebaum addresses these questions, and ends her study, by focusing on the uprisings in the GDR, Poland, and Hungary in 1953 and 1956.  Her treatment of these familiar, and tragic, stories is especially useful because of her skillful framing of them in terms of the straightjacket of totalitarian ideology.  As noted earlier in this review, these revolutions mark an important moment in Applebaum’s narrative because they demonstrated the utter impoverishment of communist ideology by the 1950s.

Thus, from the beginning of her narrative to the end, Applebaum focuses on the crucial importance of ideology.  Interestingly, however, the communists seem to be the only people in the story to have an ideology, or even a coherent system of social, political, and economic ideas.  We learn almost nothing, for example, about the ideas, much less the ideologies, of the “Passive Opponents” and “Reluctant Collaborators” of Applebaum’s account.  Even when we get to the gripping accounts of the uprisings in the GDR, Poland and Hungary, the motivating ideologies of the revolutionaries are strangely vague and inchoate or opaque.  Elsewhere in the narrative, Applebaum certainly notes the important role churches, especially the Catholic Church, played as an opponent to the communist regimes. But her treatment focuses (correctly in my opinion) on the importance of the Church as an institution, as opposed to religion itself, as a source of opposition.  In other words, much like the independent labor unions, the mere existence of the Church, as opposed to any “ideological” power of its teachings, excited the interest of the anti-communists.

There are several possible explanations for the strange silence of anti-communist ideologues in this account.  One intriguing possibility, and one that might also help explain the relative ease with which the communists entrenched themselves in power, is that the anti-communist opposition (such as it was) did not in fact have a coherent ideology.  As Applebaum herself suggests on numerous occasions in the narrative, the horrific experiences of the War left the population confused and exhausted.  Hence, while there were non-communist political parties, often reconstituted from the interwar period, they seem (at least in Applebaum’s account) to be strangely devoid of compelling ideological arguments.  While these parties generally did better than the communists in the rare free postwar elections, one gets the sense that this had less to do with the attractiveness of their ideas than with the revulsion felt by most voters for the communist alternative.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it emphasizes the importance for individuals to have clear ideas about what they believe.  Some of the moving personal histories Applebaum recounts reflect a strong ambivalence about the communists, or at least a profound moral and intellectual confusion on the part of many people.  One result was that, as Heda Kovaly points out in her almost unbearably poignant memoir Under a Cruel Star, the communists in postwar Czechoslovakia enjoyed real popularity, at least for a time, among many sections of the population.

In the context of Applebaum’s analytical framework, it forces one to ask what would have happened if, instead of intellectual confusion and moral exhaustion, the communists in 1945 would have encountered a robust and coherent ideological challenge in their zones of occupation in Eastern Europe.

There is another possible answer to the strange absence of a clearly articulated anti-communist ideology in Applebaum’s account, however, though one with potentially troubling implications.  Consider the possibility that there was, in fact, a perfectly intelligible and popular anti-communist ideology present in Eastern Europe namely, Nationalism.  Applebaum herself hints at this several times, especially in the context of her treatment of the 1956 revolutions in Poland and Hungary when she notes the cries of “Russians go Home,” the sacking of Russian bookstores, and the explicit demands for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.  In Poland at least, remnants of the Home Army continued an armed resistance to the communists well after 1945.  The persistence of nationalism as an oppositional ideology also could explain the importance of the churches, which could be seen as expressions of national culture and history as opposed to the “foreign” ideology of communism.  After 1956 (and the end of Applebaum’s account)it is noteworthy that the communists tinkered with hybrids such as “National Communism” and “Communist Nationalism” for years in attempts to legitimize their regimes.  If nationalism was indeed the main oppositional ideology to communism, it may have eventually played a major role in the revolutions of 1989-91, a possibility I explore in a recent paper.[2]  A focus on the importance of nationalism as a successful anti-communist ideology in the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the USSR might help to explain the emergence of a chauvinistic nationalist discourse in some postcommunist countries, which poses a challenge to the liberal impulses trying to manifest themselves at the same time.

These comments are not meant as criticisms of Applebaum’s book, but rather as suggestions for possible ways to build on her research and insights.  Her exhaustive and compelling account serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of ideas in history, and of the terrible consequences dangerous ideas can have if combined with political power.

[1]   Hugh Seton-Watson, The East European Revolution, third ed. (New York:  Praeger, 1956), 167-171.

[2]  Peter C. Mentzel, “Nationalism, Civil Society, and the Revolution of 1989,” Nations and Nationalism, 18, 4 (October 2012).