July 16, 2013


When Evil Was a Social System : The moral burdens of living under communist rule in Eastern Europe (CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL, New Republic)

Stalin's project to reshape Eastern Europe by force began in collaboration with Hitler. After signing a pact to divide up the region between them, both dictators invaded Poland in September 1939. Stalin's defenders claim that he was cannily playing for time against a German invasion of the Soviet Union that he knew to be inevitable. Applebaum does not buy it. Had Stalin really suspected a double cross, he would not have sent so many German communists back to Hitler, prison, and death. In this period, the Soviets committed Nazi-style mass murders, most infamously the Katyń Forest massacre, which saw 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war executed in half a dozen far-flung spots. "The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were, for twenty-two months, real allies," Applebaum writes. That period ended when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

This chronology creates a confusion that any history of postwar Eastern Europe, and especially Poland, must reckon with. For when the Red Army came roaring back westward across Poland in 1944 and 1945, it was engaged in two wars at once: a wholly legitimate defensive war against the Nazi aggressor, and a thoroughly illegitimate continuation of a war of conquest begun in collaboration with the Nazi aggressor. The Allies were involved in the Soviets' defensive war but not in their imperial one. This explains how they could betray Poland a second time without ever, then or now, allowing their consciences to be troubled that they might have done otherwise.

It was hard for the Russians to keep the two wars separate. An occupying power in a just war is due a certain freedom of maneuver. When the Potsdam Conference in August 1945 granted allies the right to intern not just Nazis but also "any other persons dangerous to the occupation or its objectives," it opened the door to many Soviet abuses, but Applebaum does not claim that there were any serious alternatives. When the Soviets reopened the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, using them as POW camps, they intended, in Applebaum's words, to "cut dubious people off from the rest of society, at least until the new Soviet occupiers had got their bearings"--not an unreasonable aspiration.

The problem is that it is difficult for a large and unsophisticated army, one that has been engaged for several years in barbarous combat, to make fine distinctions. The Russians treated their Polish vassals like their German enemies. Actions that would have been defensible on military grounds in Germany--confiscating all radios, for instance--were outrages in Poland. Notoriously, the Russians waited across the Vistula during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, while the Germans reduced the city to rubble. The Polish Home Army, the main Polish resistance, with 300,000 men under arms, offered to subordinate itself to the Soviet high command in the fight against the Nazis, but the Russians tricked, disarmed, and arrested its officers and--in many cases--sent them to the gulag. The Polish communist Jakub Berman, Stalin's Polish adviser and later the boss of Poland's secret police, instructed his cadres on how to outmaneuver the Home Army, as if they were so many Nazis themselves.

The Soviets thrived in the mayhem that the Nazis left. Twenty percent of the Polish population was dead, including the great majority of its Jews. Parts of pre-war Poland were grafted onto Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine and were "replaced" with German territory. Applebaum sheds no tears for the 7.6 million Germans expelled from Poland--their goal had been Lebens
raum, colonization, and the destruction of Polish civilization--but she is appalled by the way the Germans were removed. Institutions created to manage their removal were used later to harass other groups. Russians took over property that the Nazis had stolen from Poles and, especially, from murdered Polish Jews. The communists' justification was to blame the property itself: "These companies belonged to the German war machine, and served its goal of destroying the Soviet Union."

Hannah Arendt once said that the story of the communist takeover of Eastern Europe has no intrinsic narrative interest, because it had all happened in the Soviet Union before. Applebaum strongly disagrees. She sees what was imposed on the East as the essence of Stalinism, a set of dark "best practices" distilled over the years. The postwar show trials of Hungarian and Czechoslovak officials accused of "Titoism" and "Zionism" were patterned on those carried out in Moscow between 1936 and 1938. This, for Applebaum, "proves that Stalin judged those trials to have been a political success, a tactic worth repeating in his new client states."
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Posted by at July 16, 2013 5:06 AM

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