‘Say what you will—the Communists were more intelligent. They had a
grandiose program, a plan for a brand-new world in which everyone
would find his place . . . From the start there were people who realized they
lacked the proper temperament for the idyll and wished to leave the
country. But since by definition an idyll is one world for all, the people
who wished to emigrate were implicitly denying its validity. Instead of
going abroad, they went behind bars’.
‘And so it was necessary to teach people not to think and make judgments,
to compel them to see the non-existent, and to argue the opposite of what
was obvious to everyone’.
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
‘I met many people in the camp who managed to combine a shrewd sense
of what was going on in the country at large with a religious cult of Stalin’.
Evgenia Ginsburg, Journey into the Whirlwind
‘Stalinism means the killing of the inner man. And no matter what the
sophists say, no matter what lies the communist intellectuals tell, that’s
what it all comes down to. The inner man must be killed for the
communist Decalogue to be lodged in the soul’.
‘Here they hang a man first and then they try him’.
Molière, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac
To Western observers in the years after 1945, the Soviet Union presented a daunting prospect. The Red Army marched on foot and hauled its weapons and supplies on carts powered by draught animals; its soldiers were granted no leave and, if they hesitated, no quarter: 157,593 of them had been executed for ‘cowardice’ in 1941 and 1942 alone. But after a halting start, the USSR had out-produced and out-fought the Nazi colossus, ripping the heart from the magnificent German military machine. For its friends and foes alike, the Soviet victory in World War Two bore witness to the Bolsheviks’ achievement. Stalin’s policies were vindicated, his pre-war crimes largely forgotten. Success, as Stalin well understood, is a winning formula.
But Soviet victory was bought at a uniquely high price. Of all the victors in World War Two—indeed of all the participant countries, victors and vanquished alike—the USSR was the only one to suffer permanent economic damage. The measurable losses in people and resources were immense, and would be felt for decades to come. Zdenĕk Mlynář, a Czech Communist studying in Moscow in 1950, recalled the capital as mired in ‘poverty and backwardness . . . a huge village of wooden cottages.’ Away from the cities the situation was far worse. Roads, bridges, railways had been deliberately destroyed across much of Byelorussia, Ukraine and western Russia. The grain harvest in the early fifties was smaller than that of 1929, which in turn had been far less than the last peacetime harvest under the czars. The war had been fought across some of the Soviet Union’s best arable land, and hundreds of thousands of horses, cows, pigs and other animals had been killed. Ukraine, which had never recovered from the deliberate, punitive famine of the thirties, faced another—this time unplanned—in the winter and spring of 1946-47.
But the war years had also seen what would prove an enduring semimilitarization of Soviet life. Centralised direction and a relentless focus upon the production of tanks, guns and planes had turned the wartime USSR into a surprisingly effective war machine, careless of human life and welfare but otherwise well-adapted to fighting a total war. The cohort of Party bureaucrats formed in the war—the Brezhnev generation—equated power and success with large-scale output in the defense industries, and they were to run the country for the next forty years with that model always in mind. Longstanding Leninist metaphors of class struggle and confrontation could now be linked with proud memories of a real war. The Soviet Party-State acquired a new foundation myth: the Great Patriotic War.
Thanks to the Nazis’ treatment of the lands and people they overran, the war of 1941-45 in Russia was a great patriotic war. Stalin had encouraged autonomous expressions of Russian national and religious sentiment, allowing the Party and its goals to be temporarily displaced by an aura of common purpose in the titanic battle against the German invaders. And that same emphasis upon the Soviet Union’s roots in Russia’s imperial past served Stalin’s purposes in his post-war foray into central Europe.
What Stalin wanted in Europe above all, as we have seen, was security. But he was also interested in the economic benefits to be had from his victories in the West. The little states of central Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria, had lived under the shadow of German dominion long before World War Two: in the 1930s especially, Nazi Germany was their main trading partner and source of foreign capital. During the war this relationship had been simplified into one of master and slave, with Germany extracting for its war effort the maximum possible output from land and people. What happened after 1945 was that the Soviet Union took over, quite literally, where the Germans had left off, attaching eastern Europe to its own economy as a resource to be exploited at will.
The Soviet Union extracted reparations from Hungary and Romania, as former allies of Hitler. These reparations, like those taken in kind from the Soviet Zone in Germany, did relatively little to compensate for Russia’s losses but they represented substantial sacrifices for the donor countries: by 1948, Romanian reparations to the USSR represented 15 percent of that country’s national income; in Hungary the figure was 17 percent. From countries that had not fought against him Stalin was no less demanding, but on ‘fraternal’ rather than punitive terms.
It is estimated that until the late 1950s the Soviet Union exacted from the GDR, Romania and Hungary considerably more than it spent to control them. In Czechoslovakia it broke even. Bulgaria and especially Poland probably cost Moscow rather more in aid, between 1945 and 1960, than they furnished in trade and other deliveries. Such a pattern of mixed economic benefit in economic relations between metropole and colony is familiar to historians of colonialism and in this respect the relationship between the USSR and the lands to its west was conventionally ‘imperial’ (except that in the Soviet case the imperial center was actually poorer and more backward than its subjugated periphery).
Where Stalin differed from other empire-builders, even the czars, was in his insistence upon reproducing in the territories under his control forms of government and society identical to those of the Soviet Union. Just as he had done in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, and in the Baltic states in 1940 and again (following their re-conquest from the Nazis) in 1945, Stalin set out to re-mould eastern Europe in the Soviet image; to reproduce Soviet history, institutions and practices in each of the little states now controlled by Communist parties.
Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the German Democratic Republic were to become, in the felicitous words of one scholar, ‘geographically contiguous replica states’.45 Each was to have a constitution modeled on the Soviet one (the first of these was adopted in Bulgaria in December 1947, the last in Poland in July 1952). Each was to undergo economic ‘reforms’ and adopt Five Year Plans to bring its institutions and practices into line with those of the Soviet Union. Each was to become a police state on the Soviet template. And each was to be governed by the apparatus of a Communist Party subservient (in fact if not name) to the ruling Communist Party in Moscow.46
Stalin’s motives for reproducing Soviet society in the satellite states were once again very simple. The widespread desire in post-war Eastern Europe for peace, land, food and a new beginning might have eased the Communists’ path to power, but it was no guarantee of local support for Soviet policies. The preference for Communists over Fascists, or for some form of democratic Socialism, could not be counted upon to survive practical experience of Communist rule. Even the appeal of Soviet guarantees against German revanchism might wane in time.
Stalin needed to secure his satellite neighbours’ unswerving allegiance, and he knew only one way to do this. First, the Party had to secure a monopoly of power. In the words of the Hungarian Constitution of August 1949, it was to take and keep a ‘leading role’, extinguishing or absorbing all other political parties. The Party became the only medium of social mobility, the sole source of patronage and the dispenser—through its control of the courts—of justice. Inseparable from the state whose institutions it monopolized, and taking its instructions directly from Moscow, the local Party and its state security apparatus were the most direct lever of Soviet command.
Secondly, the Party-State was to exercise a monopoly over economic decisions. This was not a simple matter. The economies of the east European states varied considerably. Some were modern, urban and industrial, with a sizeable working-class; others (the majority) were rural and impoverished. Some, like Poland and Hungary, had quite sizeable state sectors, dating from pre-war strategies of protection against German economic penetration. In others, like Czechoslovakia, property and business had been mostly in private hands before the war. Some countries and regions had a thriving commercial sector; others resembled parts of the Soviet Union itself. Most of the region had suffered seriously from the effects of the Depression and the autarkic protectionist policies adopted to combat it; but, as we have seen, during the war certain industrial sectors—in Hungary and Slovakia especially—had actually benefited from German investment in war production.
Notwithstanding this variety, the Communist seizures of power were followed in short order by the imposition of economic uniformity across the region. First, in keeping with the Leninist redefinition of ‘socialism’ as a matter of ownership rather than social relations, the state expropriated large-scale firms in service, commerce and industry, where these were not already in public hands. Next, the state took over, taxed or squeezed out of business all firms employing more than fifty people. In Czechoslovakia, by December 1948, there were hardly any private businesses left with more than 20 employees. By that same date 83 percent of Hungarian industry was in state hands, 84 percent of Polish industry, 85 percent of Romanian industry and fully 98 percent of Bulgarian industry.
One of the means at hand for eliminating the property-owning middle class in eastern Europe was currency reform. This was an effective device for destroying the cash savings of peasants and businessmen alike, an updating of older exactions like the forced capital levy. In Romania it was undertaken twice, in August 1947 (when it had the legitimate objective of ending hyperinflation) and in January 1952, when peasants who had built up savings over the previous four years (there was little for them to spend their money on) saw them wiped out.
As in the Soviet Union, so in Soviet-run eastern Europe, the peasantry were doomed. The initial post-war reforms in the countryside had distributed small parcels of land to large numbers of farmers. But however politically popular, these reforms simply exacerbated the longstanding agrarian crisis of the region: too little investment in machinery and fertilizer, too many underemployed laborers and five decades of steadily falling prices for farm produce. Until they were firmly ensconced in power, the Communist parties of eastern Europe actively encouraged inefficient land redistribution. But from 1949 they moved, with increasing urgency and aggression, to destroy the ‘nepmen’ and ‘kulaks’.
In the early stages of rural collectivization, small peasant landowners—few large landholders remained by this time—were penalized by punitive taxation (often exceeding their money income), differential prices and quotas that favored the new collective and state farms, the withholding of ration books, and discrimination against their children, who were denied access to post-primary education. Even under such conditions a surprising number of independent peasants held on, though mostly on economically insignificant ‘microfundia’ of two hectares or less.
In Romania, where tens of thousands of peasants were forcibly registered on collective farms in the autumn of 1950 and where the regime was uninhibited in its resort to force, it was not until 1962 that future President Nicolae Ceauşescu could proudly announce the completion of rural collectivization ‘three years ahead of schedule’. In Bulgaria, in the course of the first two Five-Year Plans beginning in 1949, viable agricultural land had been completely removed from private hands. In the Czech lands, where collectivization began quite late (in 1956 most arable land was still privately farmed), 95 percent of agricultural land would be taken over in the next ten years, rather less (85 percent) in backward and inaccessible regions of Slovakia. But here, as in Hungary and throughout the region, independent farmers survived only in name. The measures taken against them and the destruction of markets and distribution networks ensured their impoverishment and ruin.
The irrational, occasionally surreal quality of Soviet economic practice was faithfully reproduced throughout the bloc. On September 30th 1948, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej of the Romanian Communist Party announced that ‘We want to achieve a socialist accumulation at the expense of the capitalist elements in the countryside’—in a country where ‘capitalist elements’ in the rural economy were conspicuously absent. In Slovakia, in the course of 1951, there were even efforts to send urban clerks and government functionaries out into the fields. ‘Operation 70,000 Must Be Productive’, as it was called, proved disastrous and was quickly abandoned; but this exercise in Maoism avant l’heure, just fifty miles east of Vienna, says much about the mood of the times. Meanwhile, as in the newly Sovietized Baltic lands, the consequence of Communist land reform was long-term institutionalized scarcity, in countries where food had hitherto been abundant and cheap.47
To address this palpable policy failure, the authorities introduced Soviet-style laws criminalizing ‘parasitism’, ‘speculation’ and ‘sabotage’. In the words of Dr Zdenka Patschová, judge and member of the Czechoslovak National Assembly, addressing her fellow legislators on March 27th 1952: ‘The unmasking of the true face of the village rich is the foremost task of criminal proceedings . . . Non-deliveries and non-fulfillment of the [agricultural] production plan must be severely punished as sabotage.’ As this faithful echo of Soviet rhetoric from the 1930s suggests, antipathy towards the peasant, and successful implementation of rural collectivization, were one of the chief tests of Stalinist orthodoxy.
In the short run, implementation of Soviet-inspired plans for industry was not so obviously a disaster: there are some things that command economies can manage quite well. Collectivisation of land and the destruction of small businesses released an abundant supply of men and women for work in mines and factories; the single-minded Communist emphasis upon investment in heavy goods production at the expense of consumer products and services ensured unprecedented increases in output. Five Year Plans were everywhere adopted, with wildly ambitious targets. In terms of gross production figures the growth rates in this first generation of industrialization were impressive, notably in countries like Bulgaria or Romania which started from virtually nothing.
The number of people employed in agriculture even in Czechoslovakia, the most urbanized state in the region, dropped by 18 percent between 1948 and 1952. In the Soviet Zone of Germany raw steel output rose from 120,000 tons in 1946 to over 2 million tons by 1953. Parts of Eastern Europe (south-west Poland, the industrial belt north-west of Bucharest) were transformed almost overnight: whole new cities were built, like Nowa Huta near Crakow, to house the thousands of workers turning out iron, steel and machine tools. On an appropriately smaller scale the semi-militarized, monolithic, first-generation industrialization of the interwar Soviet Union was being re-run throughout the Soviet bloc. Much as they had set out to do in Russia, the Communists in eastern Europe were reproducing a foreshortened and accelerated version of western Europe’s nineteenth-century industrial revolution.
Seen in this light, the economic history of eastern Europe after 1945 bears a passing resemblance to the pattern of West European recovery in the same years. In western Europe, too, investment in productivity and growth was given priority over the provision of consumer goods and services, though the Marshall Plan softenedthe pain of this strategy. In Western Europe, too, certain industrial sectors and regions took off from low starting points, and a dramatic transition from countryside to town took place in the course of the 1950s in Italy and France in particular. But there the similarity ends. The distinctive feature of the economic history of Communist eastern Europe is that, in addition to coal, steel, factories and apartment blocks, first-generation Soviet industrialization produced grotesque distortions and contradictions, more so even than in the USSR itself.
Following the establishment in January 1949 of Comecon (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance48), the rules for inter-state Communist trade were laid down. Each country was to trade bilaterally with the Soviet Union (another echo of Nazi-era requirements, with Moscow once again substituting for Berlin) and was assigned a non-negotiable role in the international Communist economy. Thus East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary would supply finished industrial products to the USSR (at prices set by Moscow), while Poland and Romania were to specialize in producing and exporting food and primary industrial products. In return the Soviet Union would trade raw materials and fuel.
Except for the curious inversion we have already noted—with the imperial power furnishing raw materials and the colonies exporting finished goods—this structure is reminiscent of European overseas colonization. And as in the case of non-European colonies, so in eastern Europe: the indigenous economies suffered deformation and under-development. Some countries were prevented from manufacturing finished goods, others were instructed to make certain products in abundance (shoes in Czechoslovakia, trucks in Hungary) and sell them to the USSR. No attention was paid to the economics of comparative advantage.
The Soviet model of the thirties, improvised to address uniquely Soviet circumstances of vast distance, abundant raw materials and endless, cheap, unskilled labor, made no sense at all for tiny countries like Hungary or Czechoslovakia, lacking raw materials but with a skilled industrial labor force and long-established international markets for high-value-added products. The Czech case is a particularly striking one. Before World War Two, the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia (already the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1914) had a higher per capita output than France, specializing in leather goods, motor vehicles, high-tech arms manufacture and a broad range of luxury goods. Measured by industrial skill levels, productivity, standard of living and share of foreign markets, pre-1938 Czechoslovakia was comparable to Belgium and well ahead of Austria and Italy.
By 1956, Communist Czechoslovakia had not only fallen behind Austria, Belgiumand the rest of Western Europe, but was far less efficient and much poorer than it had been twenty years earlier. In 1938, per capita car ownership in Czechoslovakia and Austria was at similar levels; by 1960 the ratio was 1:3. Even the products in which the country still had a competitive edge—notably small arms manufacture—no longer afforded Czechs any benefit, since they were constrained to direct their exports exclusively to their Soviet masters. As for the establishment of manufacturing mammoths like the Gottwald Steelworks in Ostrava, identical to steelworks in Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the USSR, these represented for the Czechs not rapid industrialization but enforced backwardness (crash programs of industrialization based on the manufacture of steel were pursued in spite of Czechoslovakia’s very limited resources in iron ore). Following the one-time start-up benefits from unprecedented growth in primary industries, the same was true for every other satellite state. By the mid-fifties, Soviet Eastern Europe was already beginning its steady decline into ‘planned’ obsolescence.
There are two partial exceptions to this brief account of the economies of the Soviet bloc. While primitive industrialization was undertaken just as enthusiastically in Poland as elsewhere, land collectivization was not. Stalin seems to have grasped the impracticality of forcing Polish peasants onto collective farms, but this consideration alone would hardly have caused him to hesitate. Soviet caution when dealing with Poland (we shall have occasion to meet it again) was strictly instrumental. In marked contrast to the other subject peoples of eastern Europe, there were a lot of Poles, their capacity and propensity to rebel against Russian servitude was familiar to generations of Russian officers and bureaucrats, and Soviet rule was more obviously resented in Poland than anywhere else.
From the Soviet point of view, Polish opposition was an annoyance—remnants of the Polish wartime underground carried on a guerilla war against the Communist regime until at least the end of the 1940s—and seemingly undeserved. Had not the Poles gained 40,000 square miles of rather good agricultural land in exchange for the 69,000 square miles of eastern marshes transferred to the USSR after the war? And was not Moscow the Poles’ (only) guarantee against a Germany whose revival everyone anticipated? Moreover Poland was now free of its pre-war minorities: the Jews had been murdered by the Germans, and the Germans and Ukrainians had been expelled by the Soviets. If Poland was now more ‘Polish’ than at any time in its complicated history, it had Moscow to thank.
But inter-state relations, above all in the Soviet bloc, did not hinge on gratitude or its absence. Poland’s use value to Moscow was above all as a buffer against German or Western aggression. It was desirable that Poland become socialist, but it was imperative that it remain stable and reliable. In return for Polish domestic calm Stalin was willing to tolerate a class of independent farmers, however inefficient and ideologically untidy, and a publicly active Catholic Church, in ways that would have been unimaginable further south or east. Polish universities were also left virtually intact, in contrast to the purges that stripped out the teaching staff of higher educational institutions in neighbouring Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
The other exception, of course, was Yugoslavia. Until the Stalin-Tito split, Yugoslavia was, as we have seen, the most ‘advanced’ of all the east European states along the path to socialism. Tito’s first Five Year Plan outdid Stalin by aiming at a higher rate of industrial investment than anywhere else in the Soviet bloc. Seven thousand collective farms had been set up before collectivization had even begun in the other satellite states; and post-war Yugoslavia was well on the way to outdoing Moscow itself in the efficiency and ubiquity of its apparatus of repression. The partisans’ wartime security services were expanded into a full-scale police network whose task, in Tito’s words, was ‘to strike terror into the hearts of those who do not like this sort of Yugoslavia.’
Yugoslavia’s per capita income at the time of the break with Stalin was the lowest in Europe save for neighboring Albania; an already impoverished land had been beaten into penury in the course of four years of occupation and civil war. The bitter heritage of Yugoslavia’s war experience was further complicated by its ethnic composition, the last genuinely multi-national state in Europe: according to the 1946 census Yugoslavia’s 15.7 million people comprised 6.5 million Serbs, 3.8 million Croats, 1.4 million Slovenes, 800,000 Muslims (mostly in Bosnia), 800,000 Macedonians, 750,000 Albanians, 496,000 Hungarians, 400,000 Montenegrins, 100,000 Vlachs and an uncertain number of Bulgars, Czechs, Germans, Italians, Romanians, Russians, Greeks, Turks, Jews and Gypsies.
Of these only Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins and Macedonians were accorded separate recognition under the 1946 Constitution, though encouraged to see themselves, like all the others, as ‘Yugoslavs’.49 As Yugoslavs, their prospects seemed grim indeed. Writing from Belgrade to a Greek friend at the end of the 1940s, Lawrence Durrell had this to say of the country: ‘Conditions are rather gloomy here—almost mid-war conditions, overcrowding, poverty. As for Communism—my dear Theodore a short visit here is enough to make one decide that Capitalism is worth fighting for. Black as it may be, with all its bloodstains, it is less gloomy and arid and hopeless than this inert and ghastly police state.’
In the initial months following the split with Stalin, Tito actually became more radical, more ‘Bolshevik’, as if to prove the legitimacy of his claim and the mendacity of his Soviet critics. But the posture could never have been sustained very long. Without external help, and faced with the very real prospect of Soviet invasion, he turned to the West for aid. In September 1949 the US Export-Import Bank loaned Belgrade $20 million. The following month Yugoslavia borrowed $3 million from the International Monetary Fund, and in December of that same year signed a trade agreement with Great Britain and received $8 million in credits.
The Soviet threat forced Tito to increase his defense spending (as a share of Yugoslavia’s meager national income) from 9.4 percent in 1948 to 16.7 percent in 1950; the country’s munitions industries were moved for safety into the mountains of Bosnia (a matter of some consequence in the wars of the 1990s). In 1950 the US Congress, now convinced of Yugoslavia’s possible significance in the global Cold War, offered a further $50 million in aid under the Yugoslav Emergency Relief Act of 1950, and followed this in November 1951 with an accord that allowed Yugoslavia to receive military aid under the terms of the Mutual Security Act. By 1953 the Yugoslav national deficit on current account was fully covered by American aid; over the course of the years 1949-55 Tito’s aid from all Western sources amounted to $1.2 billion, of which just $55 million was repaid. The stand-off over Trieste, which had bedeviled Yugoslavia’s relations with Italy and the West since May 1945, was finally resolved in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Yugoslavia, Italy, Britain and the US on October 5th 1954.
Western aid allowed the Yugoslav regime to continue favoring heavy industry and defense, as it had been doing before the 1948 split. But while the League of Yugoslav Communists retained all the reins of authoritarian power, the ultra-Bolshevism of the post-war years was abandoned. By the spring of 1951 only the postal service, together with rail, air and river transport, was left under federal (i.e. central government) control. Other services, and all economic enterprises, were in the hands of the separate republics. By 1954, 80 percent of agricultural land was back in private hands, following a March 30th 1953 decree permitting peasants to withdraw themselves and their land from the collective. Of the 7,000 collective farms, just 1,000 remained.
Stalin had emerged from his victory over Hitler far stronger even than before, basking in the reflected glory of ‘his’ Red Army, at home and abroad. The personality cult around the Soviet dictator, already well advanced before the war, now rose to its apogee. Popular Soviet documentaries on World War Two showed Stalin winning the war virtually single-handed, planning strategy and directing battles with not a general in sight. In almost every sphere of life, from dialectics to botany, Stalin was declared the supreme and unchallenged authority. Soviet biologists were instructed to adopt the theories of the charlatan Lysenko, who promised Stalin undreamed-of agricultural improvements if his theories about the inheritability of acquired characteristics were officially adopted and applied to Soviet farming—as they were, to disastrous effect.50 On his 70th birthday in December 1949 Stalin’s image, picked out by searchlights hung from balloons, lit the night sky over the Kremlin. Poets outdid one another in singing the Leader’s praises—a 1951 couplet by the Latvian poet V. Lukss is representative:
Like beautiful red yarn into our hearts we wove,
Stalin, our brother and father, your name.
This obsequious neo-Byzantine anointing of the despot, the attribution to him of near-magical powers, unfolded against a steadily darkening backdrop of tyranny and terror. In the last years of the war, under the cloak of Russian nationalism, Stalin expelled east to Siberia and Central Asia a variety of small nations from western and south-western border regions, the Caucasus in particular: Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Nalkars, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars and others, in the wake of the Volga Germans deported in 1941. This brutal treatment of small nations was hardly new—Poles and Balts had been exiled east by the hundreds of thousands between 1939 and 1941, Ukrainians in the 1930s and others before them, back to 1921.
The initial post-war trials of collaborators and traitors across the region echoed nationalist sentiment as well. Peasant party leaders in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria were arrested, tried and shot between 1945 and 1947 for a mixed bag of real and imaginary crimes, ranging from Fascist sympathies through wartime collaboration to spying for the West; but in every case prosecutors took particular care to impugn their patriotism and credibility as representatives of the Bulgarian/Hungarian /Polish ‘people’. Socialists who refused the embrace of the Communist Party, like the Bulgarian Krastyn Partakhov (tried in 1946 and sentenced to prison where he died three years later), were also singled out for punishment as enemies of the people.
What is striking about the non-Communist victims of these early public trials is that—with the exception of those who really had thrown in their lot with the Germans and whose activities were thus common knowledge—they conspicuously refused to plead guilty or confess to their alleged ‘anti-national’ crimes. In the palpably rigged Sofia show trial of Agrarian Party leader Nikola Petkov and his ‘co-conspirators’, in August 1947, four out of the five accused proclaimed their innocence in spite of torture and false testimony.51
With the Yugoslav crisis of 1948, Stalin’s attitude shifted. As an alternative to Moscow, Belgrade had a certain appeal to many. Unlike Stalin, Tito posed no imperial threat (except within the local Balkan context); and by liberating his country and leading it to Communism with no help from Moscow, the Yugoslav leader had set an attractive precedent for any Communist in eastern Europe still tempted to ground a local revolution in national sentiment. Stalin was notoriously paranoid about threats to his monopoly of power; but that does not mean that he was altogether mistaken to see in Tito and ‘Tito-ism’ a genuine danger. Henceforward, therefore, nationalism (‘small-state nationalism’, ‘bourgeois nationalism’) ceased to be a local asset and became instead the main enemy. The term ‘nationalist’ was first deployed pejoratively in Communist rhetoric at the June 1948 meeting of the Cominform to condemn the Yugoslav ‘deviation’.
But with all domestic non-Communist opponents now dead, imprisoned or in exile, to what genuine risks was the Soviet monopoly of power exposed? Intellectuals could be bought off or intimidated. The military were firmly under the thumb of the occupying Soviet forces. Mass popular protest posed the only significant threat to Communist regimes, as it would seriously erode the credentials of the ‘worker and peasant’ state. But in their early years the Peoples’ Democracies were by no means always unpopular with the proletarians they claimed to represent. On the contrary: the destruction of the middle classes and the expulsion of ethnic minorities opened prospects of upward mobility for rural peasants, industrial workers and their children.
Opportunities abounded, particularly at the lower rungs of the ladder and in government employ: there were jobs to be had, apartments to be occupied at subsidized rents, places in schools reserved for the children of workers and closed to the children of the ‘bourgeoisie’. Competence mattered less than political reliability, employment was guaranteed, and the burgeoning Communist bureaucracy sought out reliable men and women for everything from block organizer to police interrogator.52 Most of the population of Soviet eastern Europe, especially in the more backward regions, accepted their fate without protest, at least in these years.
The two best-known exceptions to this generalization both occurred in the most urban and advanced corners of the bloc: in industrial Bohemia and in the streets of Soviet-occupied Berlin. The ‘currency reform’ of May 31st 1953 in Czechoslovakia, ostensibly ‘a crushing blow against the former capitalists’, had the effect of cutting industrial wages by 12 percent (because of the price rises that followed). Together with the steadily worsening working conditions in what had once been an advanced industrial economy based on well-remunerated skilled labor, this triggered mass demonstrations by 20,000 workers at the Škoda plant in Plzeň, a major industrial center in western Bohemia, followed by a march on the city hall, on June 1st 1953, by thousands of workers carrying portraits of Beneš and pre-war president Tomáš Masaryk.
The Plzeň demonstrations, confined to one provincial city, fizzled out. But a few days later a far larger protest was sparked off a few dozen miles to the north by substantial(unpaid) increases in the German Democratic Republic’s official work norms. These were imposed by an unpopular regime, already (and not for the last time) far more rigid than its Soviet masters in Moscow, whose advice to the East German Communist leadership to accept reforms and compromises to stem the hemorrhage of skilled workers to the West had been ignored. On June 16th some 400,000 workers went on strike across East Germany, with the biggest demonstrations in Berlin itself.
As with the Plzeň protesters, the German workers were easily put down by the Volkspolizei, but not without cost. Nearly three hundred were killed when Red Army tanks were called in; many thousands more were arrested, of whom 1,400 were given long prison sentences. Two hundred ‘ringleaders’ were shot. The Berlin Uprising was the occasion for Berthold Brecht’s only overt literary dissent from the Communist regime to which he had—somewhat ambivalently—committed himself:
Following the June Seventeenth uprising
the secretary of the Writers’ League
had leaflets distributed on Stalin Allee
where one could read that the people
had forfeited the confidence of the government
and could regain it only through redoubled efforts.
Wouldn’t it be simpler under these circumstances
for the government to dissolve the people
and elect another one?
Angry, disaffected workers on the industrialized western edge of the Soviet empire were a poor advertisement for Communism, but they hardly represented a threat to Soviet power—and it is not coincidental that both the Plzeň and Berlin uprisings took placeafter Stalin’s death. In Stalin’s time the truly threatening challenge came, as it seemed, from within the Communist apparatus itself. This was the real implication of the Yugoslav schism, and it was in direct response to ‘Titoism’ that Stalin thus reverted to earlier methods, updated and adapted to circumstances. From 1948 through 1954, the Communist world underwent a second generation of arrests, purges and, above all, political ‘show trials’.
The chief precedent for the purges and trials of these years was of course the Soviet Terror of the 1930s. Then, too, the main victims had been Communists themselves, the goal being to purge the Party of ‘traitors’ and other challenges to the policy and person of the General Secretary. In the 1930s the presumptive ringleader was Leon Trotsky—like Tito, a genuine Communist hero un-beholden to Stalin and with views of his own about Communist strategy and practice. The Terror of the thirties had secured and illustrated Stalin’s untrammeled power and authority, and the purges of the post-war years would serve a similar objective in Eastern Europe.
But whereas the Moscow Trials of the 1930s, particularly the 1938 trial of Nikolai Bukharin, had been sui generis, theatrical innovations whose shock value lay in the grisly spectacle of the Revolution consuming not just its children but its very architects, the trials and purges of later decades were shameless copies, deliberately modeled on past Soviet practice, as though the satellite regimes hardly merited even an effort at verisimilitude. And they came, after all, at the end of a long string of judicial purges.
In addition to the post-war trials for treason and the political trials of anti-Communist politicians, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe had used the courts to punish and close down the churches everywhere except Poland, where open confrontation with the Catholic Church was deemed too risky. In 1949 the leaders of the United Protestant Church in Bulgaria were tried for conspiracy to ‘restore capitalism’. The previous year the Uniate Church in Romania was forcibly merged with the more pliable Romanian Orthodox church by the new Communist regime, in keeping with a long tradition of persecution reaching back to the Russian czars of the eighteenth-century. Selected Catholic priests were tried on two separate occasions in Prague on charges of spying for the Vatican (and the USA), receiving sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment; by the early 1950s there were eight thousand monks and nuns in Czechoslovak prisons. Monsignor Grosz, who succeeded the imprisoned Cardinal Mindszenty as head of the Catholic Church in Hungary in January 1949, was found guilty of working to restore the Habsburgs and of plotting with Titoists to arm Hungarian Fascists.
The trials of Communists themselves fell into two distinct groups. The first, beginning in 1948 and lasting through 1950, were immediate responses to the Tito-Stalin rift. In Albania, Communist Interior Minister Koçi Xoxe was tried in May-June 1949, found guilty and hanged the following month. Charged with Titoism, Xoxe had the distinction of really having been a supporter of Tito and his plans for the Balkans, at a time when these had Moscow’s backing. In this respect his case was a little unusual, as was the fact that it was handled in secret.
The Albanian trial was followed by the arrest, trial and execution in Bulgaria of Traicho Kostov, one of the founders of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Kostov, crippled by his sufferings at the hands of Bulgaria’s inter-war rulers53, was if anything a known opponent of Tito and critic of the latter’s plans to absorb Bulgaria into a Balkan Federation (Tito disliked Kostov and the sentiment was mutual). But Stalin distrusted him anyway—Kostov had imprudently criticized a Soviet-Bulgarian economic agreement as unfavorable to his country—and he was an ideal candidate for a trial intended to illustrate the crimes of nationalism.
He and his ‘group’ (‘The Treacherous Espionage and Wrecking Group of TraichoKostov’) were charged in December 1949 with collaboration with pre-war Bulgarian Fascists, espionage on behalf of British intelligence and conspiring with Tito. After finally giving in under sustained torture and signing his ‘confession’ of guilt, Kostov refused to speak the pre-agreed text in his courtroom appearance, publicly retracted his statement to his interrogators and was carried out of the courtroom protesting his innocence. Two days later, on December 16th 1949, Kostov was hanged, and his ‘co-conspirators’ sentenced to long imprisonment in accordance with decisions taken by Stalin and his police chief Lavrenti Beria before the trial had begun. Kostov’s case was unusual in that he was the only East European Communist who retracted his confession and protested his innocence at a public trial. This caused some minor international embarrassment for the regime (Kostov’s trial was broadcast on radio and widely reported in the West) and instructions were given that this must never happen again. It did not.
Shortly before Kostov’s execution the Hungarian Communists had staged a show trial of their would-be ‘Tito’, Communist Interior Minister László Rajk. The text was the same as in Bulgaria—literally so, with only the names changed. Accusations, details, confessions were all identical, which is not surprising since both trials were scripted in Moscow. Rajk himself was no innocent; as Communist Interior Minister he had sent many others to prison and worse. But in his case the indictment took particular care to emphasize his ‘traitorous work’ as ‘a paid agent of a foreign power’; the Soviet occupation was especially unpopular in Hungary and Moscow did not want to run the risk of turning Rajk into a hero of ‘national Communism’.
In the event there was no such danger. Rajk duly spoke his lines, acknowledging his service as an Anglo-American agent working to bring down Communism in Hungary, informing the Court that his real name was Reich (and thus of German, not Hungarian origin), and that he had been recruited in 1946 by Yugoslav intelligence who threatened to expose his wartime collaboration with the Hungarian Nazis ‘if I did not carry out all of their wishes.’ The proceedings of the Tribunal trying Rajk and his fellow ‘conspirators’, including Rajk’s own confession of September 16th 1949, were broadcast live by Radio Budapest. The pre-determined verdict was announced on September 24th; Rajk and two others were condemned to death. The executions, by hanging, were carried out on October 15th.
The public trials of Rajk and Kostov were only the tip of an iceberg of secret trials and tribunals set off by the hunt for Titoists in the Communist parties and governments of the region. The worst affected were the ‘southern tier’ of Communist states closest to Yugoslavia: Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Hungary. In Hungary alone—where Stalin’s fear of creeping Titoism was marginally more credible given the proximity of Yugoslavia, the large Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina region of Serbia, and the close alignment of Hungarian and Yugoslav foreign policy during 1947—some 2,000 Communist cadres were summarily executed, a further 150,000 sentenced to terms of imprisonment and about 350,000 expelled from the Party (which frequently meant loss of jobs, apartments, privileges and the right to higher education).
The persecutions in Poland and East Germany, while they put thousands of men and women in prison, did not result in any major show trials. There was a candidate in Poland for the role of Tito-Kostov-Rajk: Władisław Gomułka, Secretary General of the Polish United Workers Party and Vice-President of the Polish Council of Ministers. Gomułka had openly criticized plans for land collectivization in Poland and was publicly associated with talk of a Polish ‘national path’ to socialism. Indeed, he had been criticized for this by loyal Stalinists in the Polish party, and in August 1948 he was replaced as General Secretary by Bolesław Bierut. Five months later he resigned from his ministerial post, in November 1949 he was expelled from the Party and that December Bierut publicly accused Gomułka and his ‘group’ of nationalism and Titoism.
Reduced to the post of administrator for Social Assurance in Warsaw, Gomułka was finally arrested in July 1951 and only released in September 1954. Yet he was not harmed and there was no Titoism trial in Warsaw. There were trials in Poland—one of them, in which a group of officers was charged with anti-state plotting, began on the day of Gomułka’s arrest in 1951. And in a scheme devised by the secret services in Moscow, Gomułka was to have been linked to Rajk, Tito et al. via a complex network of real or invented contacts centering on an American, Noel Field, director of the Unitarian Church’s relief efforts in post-war Europe. Based in Budapest, Field’s imaginary network of master spies and Titoists had already been invoked in the charges against Rajk and others and was to have been the main evidence against Gomułka.
But the Poles were able to resist Soviet pressure to conduct full-scale public witch-hunts on the Hungarian model. The decimation of the exiled Polish Communist Party, at Stalin’s hands in Moscow ten years earlier, had given Bierut a foretaste of his own probable fate if Poland too entered the vortex of arrests, purges and trials. The Poles were fortunate in their timing too: delays in preparing the dossier on Gomułka—he had refused to break under interrogation or sign a fabricated confession—meant that Stalin died and his henchman Beria was killed before a Polish trial could be mounted. Finally, some Soviet leaders undoubtedly judged it imprudent in these early years to tear the Polish Communist leadership apart in full public view.
No such inhibitions applied in Czechoslovakia, however, where the biggest show trial of them all was to be staged in Prague in November 1952. A major Czech show trial had been planned from 1950, in the immediate wake of the Rajk and Kostov purges. But by the time it was finally mounted, the emphasis had shifted. Tito was still the enemy and accusations of espionage for the West still figured prominently in the indictments. But of the fourteen defendants at the ‘Trial of the Leadership of the Anti-State Conspiracy Centre’, eleven were Jews. On the very first page of the charge sheet it was made abundantly clear that this was no accident. The ‘Trotskyite-Titoite bourgeois-nationalist traitors and enemies of the Czechoslovak people’ were also, and above all, ‘Zionists’.
Stalin was an anti-Semite and always had been. But until the Second World War his dislike for Jews was so comfortably embedded in his destruction of other categories of person—Old Bolsheviks, Trotskyites, Left- and Right-deviationists, intellectuals, bourgeois and so on—that their Jewish origin seemed almost incidental to their fate. In any case, it was a matter of dogma that Communism had no truck with racial or religious prejudice; and once the Soviet cause was attached to the banner of ‘anti-Fascism’, as it was from 1935 until August 1939 and again from June 1941, the Jews of Europe had no greater friend than Josef Stalin himself.
That last claim is only partly ironic. The European Communist parties, especially those of central and eastern Europe, counted significant numbers of Jews among their members. The Jews of inter-war Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania were an oppressed and disliked minority. Young, secular Jews had few political options: Zionism, Bundism54, Social Democracy (where it was legal) or Communism. As the most uncompromisingly anti-national and ambitious of these, Communism had a distinctive appeal. Whatever its passing defects, the Soviet Union offered a revolutionary alternative at a time when central and eastern Europe appeared to be facing a choice between an authoritarian past and a Fascist future.
The appeal of the USSR was further accentuated by the experience of war. Jews who found themselves in Soviet-occupied Poland after the Germans attacked in 1939 were frequently deported eastwards and many died of disease and hardship. But they were not systematically exterminated. The advance of the Red Army through Ukraine and Byelorussia into the Baltic States, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany saved the remaining Jews in these lands. It was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz. Stalin most certainly did not fight the Second World War for the Jews; but had Hitler won—had the Germans and their collaborators remained in control of the territories they had captured up to the Battle of Stalingrad—millions more Jews would have been exterminated.
When the Communist parties took over in eastern Europe, many of their leading cadres were of Jewish origin. This was particularly marked at the level just below the top: the Communist police chiefs in Poland and Hungary were Jewish, as were economic policy makers, administrative secretaries, prominent journalists and Party theorists. In Hungary the Party leader (Mátyás Rákosi) was Jewish; in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland the Party leader was not Jewish but most of the core leadership group were. Jewish Communists throughout the Soviet bloc owed everything to Stalin. They were not much welcome in the countries to which they had returned, often after long exile: neither as Communists nor as Jews. Experience of war and occupation had made the local populations even more resentful of the Jews than before (‘Why have you come back?’ one neighbor asked Heda Margolius when she escaped from the Auschwitz death march and made her way back to Prague at the very end of the war55); the eastern European Jewish Communists could be counted on, more perhaps than anyone else, to do Stalin’s bidding.
In the first post-war years Stalin displayed no hostility to his Jewish subordinates. At the United Nations the Soviet Union was an enthusiastic supporter of the Zionist project, favoring the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East as an impediment to British imperial ambitions. At home Stalin had looked favorably on the work of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed during the war to mobilize Jewish opinion in the USSR and (especially) abroad behind the Soviet struggle against the Nazis. Soviet Jews, like many others under Moscow’s rule, fondly supposed that the more ecumenical mood of the war years, when Stalin sought and accepted help from any likely quarter, would translate into easier times after victory.
In fact, the opposite happened. Before the war had even ended Stalin, as we have seen, was exiling whole nations to the east and doubtless harbored similar plans for the Jews. As in central Europe, so in the lands of the Soviet Union: even though Jews had lost more than anyone else, it was easy and familiar to blame those same Jews for everyone else’s sufferings. The wartime invocation of the banner of Russian nationalism brought Soviet rhetoric a lot closer to the Slavexclusivist language of old-time Russian anti-Semites; this was certainly not to the regime’s disadvantage. For Stalin himself it represented a return to familiar territory, his own anti-Jewish instincts underscored by his observation of Hitler’s successful exploitation of popular anti-Semitism.
For various reasons it had always suited the Soviet purpose to downplay the distinctively racist character of Nazi brutality: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar was officially commemorated as the ‘murder of peaceful Soviet citizens’, just as the post-war memorial at Auschwitz confined itself to general references to ‘victims of Fascism’. Racism had no place in the Marxist lexicon; dead Jews were posthumously assimilated into the same local communities that had so disliked them when they were alive. But now the presumptively cosmopolitan qualities of Jews—the international links from which Stalin had hoped to benefit in the dark months following the German attack—began once more to be held against them as the battle lines of the Cold War settled into place and international wartime contacts and communications became in Stalin’s eyes a retroactive liability.
The first victims were the Jewish leaders of the wartime Anti-Fascist Committeeitself. Solomon Mikhoels, its prime mover and a major figure in Russia’s Yiddish Theatre, was murdered on January 12th 1948. The arrival in Moscow of Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir on September 11th 1948 was the occasion for spontaneous outbursts of Jewish enthusiasm, with street demonstrations on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and chants of ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ outside the Israeli legation. This would have been provocative and unacceptable to Stalin at any time. But he was rapidly losing his enthusiasm for the new State of Israel: whatever its vaguely socialist proclivities it clearly had no intention of becoming a Soviet ally in the region; worse, the Jewish state was demonstrating alarmingly pro-American sensibilities at a sensitive moment. The Berlin blockade had just begun and the Soviet split with Tito was entering its acute phase.
On September 21st 1948 Pravda published an article by Ilya Ehrenburg indicating clearly the change of line on Zionism. From January 1949 articles began to appear in Pravda attacking ‘cosmopolitans without a fatherland’, ‘unpatriotic groups of theater critics’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, ‘persons without identity’ and ‘passportless wanderers’. Yiddish schools and theatres were shut down, Yiddish newspapers banned and libraries closed. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee itself had been suppressed on November 20th 1948. Its remaining leaders, artists, writers and government functionaries were arrested the following month and kept in prison for three years. Pressured under torture to confess to an ‘anti-Soviet’ conspiracy, they were clearly being prepared for a show trial.
The security forces colonel who conducted the investigation, Vladimir Komarov, sought to broaden the charges out to encompass a large-scale Jewish conspiracy against the USSR directed from Washington and Tel Aviv. As he put it to Solomon Lozovsky, one of the prisoners: ‘Jews are low, dirty people, all Jews are lousy bastards, all opposition to the Party consists of Jews, Jews all over the Soviet Union are conducting an anti-Soviet whispering campaign. Jews want to annihilate all Russians. ’56 Such overt anti-Semitism might have been embarrassing even to Stalin, however; in the end the fifteen defendants (all Jewish) were secretly tried in the summer of 1952 by a Military Tribunal. All but one were executed; the sole survivor, Lina Shtern, received ten years in prison.
Meanwhile the anti-Semitic tide was gathering strength in the satellite states. In Romania, where a substantial part of the Jewish population had survived the war, an anti-Zionist campaign was launched in the autumn of 1948 and sustained with varying degrees of energy for the next six years. But the size of the Romanian Jewish community and its links to the United States inhibited direct attacks on it; indeedthe Romanians for some time toyed with the idea of letting their Jews leave—applications for visas were allowed from the spring of 1950 and not halted until April 1952, by which time 90,000 Romanian Jews had left for Israel alone.
Plans for a show trial in Romania centred on the (non-Jewish) Romanian Communist leader Lucretius Pătrăşcanu. Pătrăşcanu’s publicly voiced doubts over rural collectivization made him a natural candidate for a Romanian ‘Rajk trial’ based on charges of pro-Titoism, and he was arrested in April 1948. But by the time his interrogators were ready to bring him to trial the goalposts had moved and Pătrăşcanu’s case was bundled with that of Ana Pauker. Pauker was Jewish; the daughter of a Jewish shochet (a ritual slaughterer) from Moldavia she was the first Jewish government minister in Romania’s history (and the first female foreign minister anywhere in the world). She was also a notorious hard-liner in doctrinal and policy matters, which made her an exemplary target for a Romanian leadership trying to curry favor with the local population.
Stalin’s death aborted the plans of Romanian Communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej to stage a show trial of Pauker and others. Instead, during 1953 and early ’54, the Romanian Party conducted a series of secret trials of lesser fry accused of being Zionist spies in the pay of ‘imperial agents’. Victims ranging from genuine members of the (right-wing) Revisionist Zionists to Jewish Communists tarred with the Zionist brush were accused of illegal relations with Israel and of collaborating with Nazis during the war. They were sentenced to prison for periods varying from ten years to life. Finally Pătrăşcanu himself was tried in April 1954, after languishing in prison for six years; charged with spying for the British, he was found guilty and executed.
Pauker was more fortunate: protected by Moscow (first by Stalin, later by Molotov) she was never directly targeted as a ‘Zionist’, and survived her September 1952 expulsion from the Party, disappearing into obscurity until her death in 1960. The Romanian Communist Party, smaller and more isolated than any of the other east European parties, had always been rent by infighting, and the defeat of the ‘rightist’ Pătrăşcanu and the ‘leftist’ Pauker was above all a factional victory for the viciously effective dictator Gheorghiu-Dej, whose governing style (like that of his successor Nicolae Ceauşescu) was morbidly reminiscent of old-style authoritarian rule in the Balkans.
Jews were purged from Romanian party and government posts in these years, as they were in East Germany and Poland, two other countries where one faction of the Party could mobilize popular anti-Jewish sentiment against the Party’s own ‘cosmopolitans’. East Germany was especially fertile territory. In January 1953, as the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ was unfolding in Moscow, prominent East German Jews and Jewish Communists fled west. One member of the East German Central Committee, Hans Jendretsky, demanded that Jews—‘enemies of the state’—be excluded from public life. But by luck, by timing or out of prudence, all three states avoided a full-scale anti-Semitic show trial of the kind planned in Moscow and carried through in Prague.
The Slánský Trial, as it became known, is the classic Communist show trial. It was meticulously prepared over three years. First to be ‘investigated’ were a group of Slovak Communist leaders, notably the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Vladimír Clementis, arrested in 1950 and accused of ‘bourgeois nationalism’. To them were added various mid-level Czech Communists, accused with the Slovaks of having taken part in a Titoist-Trotskyist conspiracy along lines familiar from the Rajk case. But none of those implicated and held in prison during 1950 and 1951 was senior enough to serve as figurehead and ringleader for the major public trial that Stalin was demanding.
In the spring of 1951 Soviet Police Chief Beria instructed the Czechs to shift the emphasis of their investigations from a Titoist to a Zionist plot. From now on the whole enterprise was in the hands of the Soviet secret services—Colonel Komarov and another officer were sent to Prague to take the investigations in hand, and the Czech security police and Communist leadership received their orders from them. The need for a prominent victim had focused Soviet attention on the second figure in the Czech hierarchy after President Klement Gottwald: Party General Secretary Rudolf Slánský. Unlike Gottwald, who was a serviceable figurehead and pliable Party loyalist, Slánský, though eminently Stalinist (like Rajk before him), was a Jew.
At first Gottwald was reluctant to have Slánský arrested—the two of them had worked closely together in purging their colleagues over the past three years and if the General Secretary was implicated, Gottwald himself might be next. But the Soviets insisted, presenting forged evidence linking Slánský to the CIA, and Gottwald gave way. On November 23rd 1951 Slánský was arrested; in the days that followed prominent Jewish Communists still at liberty followed him into prison. The security services now set themselves the task of extracting confessions and ‘evidence’ from their many prisoners in order to construct a major case against Slánský and his collaborators. Thanks to a certain amount of resistance by their victims (notably the former General Secretary himself) even in the face of barbaric torture, this task took them the best part of a year.
Finally, by September 1952, the indictment was completed. The text of the confessions, the indictment, the predetermined sentences and the script of the trial were then sent to Moscow for Stalin’s personal approval. Back in Prague a ‘dress rehearsal’ of the full trial was conducted—and tape-recorded. This was to provide an alternative text for ‘live transmission’ in the unlikely event that one of the defendants retracted his confession in open court, like Kostov. It was not needed.
The trial lasted from November 20th to November 27th 1952. It followed well-established precedent: the accused were charged with having done and said things they had not (on the basis of confessions extracted by force from other witnesses, including their fellow defendants); they were blamed for things that they had done but to which new meanings were attached (thus three of the accused men were charged with having favored Israel in trade deals, at a time when this was still Soviet policy); and prosecutors charged Clementis with having met with Tito (‘the executioner-of-the-Yugoslav-people and lackey-of-imperialism Tito’)—at a time when Clementis was Czechoslovakia’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tito was still in Soviet good graces.
Two characteristics marked this trial out from all those preceding it. Prosecutors and witnesses repeatedly emphasized the Jewishness of most of the accused—‘the cosmopolitan Rudolf Margolius’, ‘Slánský . . . the great hope of all the Jews in the Communist Party’, ‘representatives of international Zionism’, etc. ‘Jewish origin’ (sometimes ‘Zionist origin’) served as a presumption of guilt, of anti-Communist, anti-Czech intentions. And the language of the prosecutors, broadcast over Czechoslovak radio, harked back to and even improved upon the crude vituperation of Prosecutor Vyshinsky in the Moscow Trials: ‘repulsive traitors’, ‘dogs’, ‘wolves’, ‘wolfish successors of Hitler’ and more in the same vein. It was also recapitulated in the Czech press.
On the fourth day of the trial the Prague Communist daily Rudé Právo editorialized thus: ‘One trembles with disgust and repulsion at the sight of these cold, unfeeling beings. The Judas Slánský’, the paper continued, was betting on ‘these alien elements, this rabble with its shady past.’ No Czech, the writer explained, could have committed such crimes: ‘only cynical Zionists, without a fatherland . . . clever cosmopolitans who have sold out to the dollar. They were guided in this criminal activity by Zionism, bourgeois Jewish nationalism, racial chauvinism.’
Eleven of the fourteen accused were sentenced to death and executed, three were condemned to life imprisonment. Addressing the National Conference of the Czechoslovak Communist Party a month later, Gottwald had this to say about his former comrades: ‘Normally bankers, industrialists, former kulaks don’t get into our Party. But if they were of Jewish origin and Zionist orientation, little attention among us was paid to their class origins. This state of affairs arose from our repulsion at anti-Semitism and our respect for the suffering of the Jews.’
The Slánský trial was a criminal masquerade, judicial murder as public theatre. 57 Like the trial of the Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow which preceded them, the Prague proceedings were also intended as an overture to the arrest of the Soviet Jewish doctors whose ‘plot’ was announced byPravda on January 13th 1953. These Jewish physicians—‘a Zionist terrorist gang’ accused of murdering Andrei Zdanov, conspiring with the ‘Anglo-American bourgeoisie’, and advancing the cause of ‘Jewish nationalism’ in connivance with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (as well as the late ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalist’ Solomon Mikhoels)—were to go on trial within three months of the Slánský verdicts.
Indications are that this trial in its turn was envisaged by the Kremlin as a preamble and excuse for mass round-ups of Soviet Jews and their subsequent expulsion to Birobidzhan (the ‘homeland’ in the east assigned to Jews) and Soviet Central Asia, where many Polish Jews had previously been sent between 1939 and 1941: the MVD publishing house had printed and prepared for distribution one million copies of a pamphlet explaining ‘Why Jews Must Be Resettled from the Industrial Regions of the Country.’ But even Stalin appears to have hesitated (Ilya Ehrenburg warned him of the devastating impact a show trial of the Jewish doctors would have upon Western opinion); in any case, before he could make a decision he died, on March 5th 1953.
Stalin’s prejudices do not require an explanation: in Russia and Eastern Europe anti-Semitism was its own reward. Of greater interest are Stalin’s purposes in mounting the whole charade of purges, indictments, confessions and trials. Why, after all, did the Soviet dictator need trials at all? Moscow was in a position to eliminate anyone it wished, anywhere in the Soviet bloc, through ‘administrative procedures’, Trials might seem counter-productive; the obviously false testimonies and confessions, the unembarrassed targeting of selected individuals and social categories, were hardly calculated to convince foreign observers of the bona fides of Soviet judicial procedures.
But the show trials in the Communist bloc were not about justice. They were, rather, a form of public pedagogy-by-example; a venerable Communist institution (the first such trials in the USSR dated to 1928) whose purpose was to illustrate and exemplify the structures of authority in the Soviet system. They told the public who was right, who wrong; they placed blame for policy failures; they assigned credit for loyalty and subservience; they even wrote a script, an approved vocabulary for use in discussion of public affairs. Following his arrest Rudolf Slánský was only ever referred to as ‘the spy Slánský’, this ritual naming serving as a form of political exorcism.58
Show trials—or tribunals, in the language of Vyshinsky’s 1936 Soviet Manual of Criminal Investigation—were explicitly undertaken for the ‘mobilisation of proletarian public opinion’. As the Czechoslovak ‘Court Organisation Act’ of January 1953 baldly summed it up, the function of the courts was ‘to educate the citizens in devotionand loyalty toward the Czechoslovak Republic, etc.’ Robert Vogeler, a defendant at a Budapest trial in 1948, noted at the time: ‘To judge from the way our scripts were written, it was more important to establish our allegorical identities than it was to establish our “guilt”. Each of us, in his testimony, was obliged to “unmask” himself for the benefit of the Cominform Press and the radio.’
The accused were reduced from presumptive political critics or opponents to a gaggle of unprincipled conspirators, their purposes venal and traitorous. The clumsiness of Soviet imperial style sometimes masks this objective—what is one to make of a rhetoric designed to mobilize public opinion in metropolitan Budapest by reiterating the errors of those who opposed ‘the struggle against the kulaks’? But the ‘public’ were not being asked to believe what they heard; they were merely being trained to repeat it.
One use of the public trials was to identify scapegoats. If Communist economic policy was not producing its pre-announced successes, if Soviet foreign policy was blocked or forced to compromise, someone must take the blame. How else were the mis-steps of the infallible Leader to be explained? There were many candidates: Slánský was widely disliked inside and outside the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Rajk had been a harsh Stalinist interior minister. And precisely because they had carried out unpopular policies now seen to have failed, any and all Communist leaders and ministers were potential victims in waiting. Just as defeated generals in the French Revolutionary wars were frequently charged with treason, so Communist ministers confessed to sabotage when the policies they had implemented failed—often literally—to deliver the goods.
The advantage of the confession, in addition to its symbolic use as an exercise in guilt-transferal, was that it confirmed Communist doctrine. There were no disagreements in Stalin’s universe, only heresies; no critics, only enemies; no errors, only crimes. The trials served both to illustrate Stalin’s virtues and identify his enemies’ crimes. They also illuminate the extent of Stalin’s paranoia and the culture of suspicion that surrounded him. One part of this was a deep-rooted anxiety about Russian, and more generally ‘Eastern’ inferiority, a fear of Western influence and the seduction of Western affluence. In a 1950 trial in Sofia of ‘The American Spies in Bulgaria’, the accused were charged with propagating the view ‘that the chosen races live only in the West, in spite of the fact that geographically they have all started from the East’. The indictment went on to describe the accused as exhibiting ‘a feeling for servile under-valuation’ that Western spies had successfully exploited.
The West, then, was a threat that had to be exorcised, repeatedly. There were Western spies, of course: real ones. In the early 1950s, following the outbreak of war in Korea, Washington did consider the possibility of destabilizing eastern Europe and US intelligence made a number of unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the Soviet bloc, lending superficial verisimilitude to the confessions of Communists who had purportedly worked with the CIA or spied for the British Secret Service. And Stalin in his last years seems genuinely to have expected a war; as he explained in an ‘interview’ in Pravda in February 1951, a confrontation between capitalism and communism was inevitable, and now increasingly likely. From 1947 through 1952 the Soviet bloc was on a permanent war footing: arms production in Czechoslovakia increased seven-fold between 1948 and 1953, while more Soviet troops were moved to the GDR and plans for a strategic bomber force drawn up.
Thus the arrests and purges and trials were a public reminder of the coming confrontation; a justification for Soviet war fears; and a strategy (familiar from earlier decades) for slimming down the Leninist party and preparing it for combat. The 1949 charge that Rajk had conspired with the US and Britain to overthrow the Communists seemed believable to many Communists and their sympathizers in the West. Even the otherwise outré accusations against Slánský et al. drew on the widely recognized truth that Czechoslovakia had many more links with the West than other states in the bloc. But why Rajk? Why Slánský? How were the scapegoats chosen?
In Stalin’s eyes any Communist who had spent time in the West, out of Soviet reach, was to be regarded with suspicion—whatever he or she was doing there. Communists who had been active in Spain during the Civil War of the thirties—and there had been many from Eastern Europe and Germany—were the first to fall under suspicion. Thus László Rajk had served in Spain (as a political commissar of the ‘Rákosi battalion’); so had Otto Sling, one of Slánský’s co-defendants. Following Franco’s victory, many of the Spanish veterans had escaped into France, where they ended up in French internment camps. From there a significant number of them had joined the French Resistance, where they teamed up with German and other foreign Communists who had taken refuge in France. There were enough such men and women for the French Communist Party to have organized them into a sub-section of the Communist underground, the Main d’Oeuvre Immigré (MOI). Prominent post-war Communists like Artur London (another Slánský trial defendant) made many Western contacts through their wartime work in the MOI and this, too, aroused Stalin’s suspicions and was later held against them.
The wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR had been instructed to make Western contacts and document Nazi atrocities—the very activities that later formed the basis of the criminal charges against them. German Communists like Paul Merker who spent the war years in Mexico; Slovak Communists like the future Foreign Minister Clementis who worked in London; anyone who remained in Nazi-occupied Europe: all were vulnerable to accusations that they had contacted Western agents or worked too closely with non-Communist resisters. Josef Frank, a Czech Communist who survived imprisonment at Buchenwald, was charged at the Slánský trial with using his time in the camp to make suspect acquaintances, ‘class enemies’.
The only Communists who were not prima facie objects of Stalin’s misgivings were those who had spent long periods of time in Moscow, under Kremlin scrutiny. These could be counted on twice over: having spent many years in full view of the Soviet authorities they had few if any foreign contacts; and if they had survived the purges of the thirties (in which most of the exiled leadership of the Polish, Yugoslav and other Communist parties had been eliminated) they could be counted on to obey the Soviet dictator without question. ‘National’ Communists on the other hand, men and women who had remained on home soil, were deemed unreliable. They usually had a more heroic track record in domestic resistance than their Moscow confrères, who had returned after the war courtesy of the Red Army, and thus a more popular local image. And they were prone to form their own views on a local or national ‘road to Socialism’.
For these reasons the ‘national’ Communists were almost always the main victims of the post-war show trials. Thus Rajk was a ‘national’ Communist, whereas Rákosi and Gerö—the Hungarian Party leaders who stage-managed his trial—were ‘Muscovites’ (though Gerö had also been active in Spain). There was little else to distinguish them. In Czechoslovakia, the men who had organized the Slovak national uprising against the Nazis (including Slánský) were ready-made victims of Soviet suspicion; Stalin did not enjoy sharing the credit for Czechoslovakia’s liberation. The Kremlin preferred reliable, unheroic, unimaginative ‘Muscovites’ whom it knew: men like Klement Gottwald.
Traicho Kostov had led the Bulgarian Communist partisans during the war, until his arrest; after the war he took second place to Georgii Dimitrov, newly returned from Moscow, until his wartime record was turned against him in 1949. In Poland Gomułka had organized armed resistance under the Nazis, together with Marian Spychalski; after the war Stalin favored Bierut and other Moscow-based Poles. Spychalski and Gomułka were both later arrested and, as we have seen, narrowly avoided starring in their own show trial.
There were exceptions. In Romania it was one ‘national’ Communist, Dej, who engineered the downfall of another ‘national’ Communist, Pătrăşcanu, as well as the eclipse of the impeccably Muscovite and Stalinist Ana Pauker. And even Kostov had spent the early thirties in Moscow, at the Comintern’s Balkan desk. He was also a well-attested critic of Tito (although for his own reasons: Kostov saw in Tito the heir to Serbian territorial ambitions at Bulgarian expense). Far from saving him, however, this just exacerbated his crime—Stalin was not interested in agreement or even consent, only unswerving obedience.
Lastly, there was a considerable element of personal score-settling and cynical instrumentalism in the selection of trial victims and the charges against them. As Karol Bacílek explained to the National Conference of the Czech Communist Party on December 17th 1952, ‘The question as to who is guilty and who is innocent will in the end be decided upon by the Party with the help of the National Security Organs. ’ In some instances the latter fabricated cases against people out of coincidence or fantasy; in others they deliberately claimed the opposite of what they knew to be the case. Thus two of the defendants in the Slánský trial were accused of over-billing Moscow for Czech products. Typically, goods made in the satellite states were deliberately under-priced to Soviet advantage; only Moscow could authorize exceptions. The ‘over-billing’ in the Czech case, however, was established Soviet practice, as the prosecutors well knew: a way of funneling cash through Prague and on to the West, for use in intelligence operations.
Similarly cynical—and part of a campaign of personal vilification—was the charge against Ana Pauker, who was accused of Rightist and Leftist ‘deviationism’ simultaneously: first she had been ‘critical’ of rural collectivization, then she forced peasants to collectivize against their will. Rajk was accused of dissolving the Communist Party’s network within the Hungarian police in 1947; in fact he had done this (on the eve of the 1947 elections and with official approval) as a cover for the dissolution of the far stronger Social Democratic police organization. Later he had secretly re-established the Communist network while maintaining the ban on other parties. But his actions, impeccably orthodox at the time, were grist to the Soviet mill when the time came to remove him.
The defendants at the major show trials were all Communists. Other Communists were purged without public trials or without any judicial process at all. But the overwhelming majority of Stalin’s victims, in the Soviet Union and the satellite states, were of course not Communists at all. In Czechoslovakia, in the years 1948-54, Communists represented just one-tenth of 1 percent of those condemned to prison terms or work camps, one in twenty of those condemned to death. In the GDR the Stasi was created on February 8th 1950, with the task of overseeing and controlling not just Communists but the whole of society. Stalin was routinely suspicious not only of Communists with contacts or experience in the West, but of anyone who had lived outside the Soviet bloc.
It thus went without saying that virtually the entire population of eastern Europe fell under Kremlin suspicion in those years. Not that the post-war repression within the Soviet Union was any less all-embracing: just as Russians’ exposure to Western influence in the years 1813-15 was believed to have paved the way for the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, so Stalin feared contamination and protest as a result of wartime contacts in his own day. Any Soviet citizen or soldier who survived Nazi occupation or imprisonment was thus an object of suspicion. When the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet passed a law in 1949, punishing soldiers who committed rape with 10 to 15 years in a labour camp, disapproval of the Red Army’s rampage across eastern Germany and Austria was the least of its concerns. The real motive was to fashion a device with which to punish returning Soviet soldiers at will.
The scale of the punishment meted out to the citizens of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the decade following World War Two was monumental—and, outside the Soviet Union itself, utterly unprecedented. Trials were but the visible tip of an archipelago of repression: prison, exile, forced labor battalions. In 1952, at the height of the second Stalinist terror, 1.7 million prisoners were held in Soviet labor camps, a further 800,000 in labor colonies, and 2,753,000 in ‘special settlements’. The ‘normal’ Gulag sentence was 25 years, typically followed (in the case of survivors) by exile to Siberia or Soviet Central Asia. In Bulgaria, from an industrial workforce of just under half a million, two persons out of nine were slave laborers.
In Czechoslovakia it is estimated that there were 100,000 political prisoners in a population of 13 million in the early 1950s, a figure that does not include the many tens of thousands working as forced laborers in everything but name in the country’s mines. ‘Administrative liquidations’, in which men and women who disappeared into prison were quietly shot without publicity or trial, were another form of punishment. A victim’s family might wait a year or more before learning that he or she had ‘disappeared’. Three months later the person was then legally presumed dead, though with no further official acknowledgement or confirmation. At the height of the terror in Czechoslovakia some thirty to forty such announcements would appear in the local press every day. Tens of thousands disappeared this way; many hundreds of thousands more were deprived of their privileges, apartments, jobs.
In Hungary, during the years 1948-53, about one million people (of a total population of less than ten million) are estimated to have suffered arrest, prosecution, imprisonment or deportation. One Hungarian family in three was directly affected. Relatives suffered commensurately. Fritzi Loebl, the wife of one of Slánský’s ‘coconspirators’, was kept for a year in the prison at Ruzyn, outside Prague, and interrogated by Russians who called her a ‘stinking yid prostitute’. Upon her release she was exiled to a factory in north Bohemia. The wives of prisoners and deportees lost their employment, their apartments and their personal effects. At best, if they were lucky, they were then forgotten, like Josephine Langer, whose husband Oskar Langer, a witness at the Slánský trial, was later sentenced in a secret trial to 22 years in prison. She and her daughters lived for six years in a cellar.
Romania saw perhaps the worst persecution, certainly the most enduring. In addition to well over a million detainees in prisons, labor camps and slave labor on the Danube-Black Sea Canal, of whom tens of thousands died and whose numbers don’t include those deported to the Soviet Union, Romania was remarkable for the severity of its prison conditions and various ‘experimental’ prisons; notably the one at Piteşti where, for three years from December 1949 through late 1952, prisoners were encouraged to ‘re-educate’ one another through physical and psychological torture. Most of the victims were students, ‘Zionists’ and non-Communist political detainees.
The Communist state was in a permanent condition of undeclared war against its own citizens. Like Lenin, Stalin understood the need for enemies, and it was in the logic of the Stalinist state that it was constantly mobilizing against its foes—external, but above all domestic. In the words of Stephan Rais, Czechoslovak Justice Minister, addressing the June 11th 1952 Conference of Czechoslovak Attorneys:
[the attorney] must . . . rely on the most mature, solely correct and truthful science in the world, on Soviet legal science, and thoroughly avail himself of the experiences of Soviet legal practice . . . An inevitable necessity of our period is the ever increasing class struggle.
The martial vocabulary so beloved of Communist rhetoric echoed this conflict-bound condition. Military metaphors abounded: class conflict required alliances, liaison with the masses, turning movements, frontal attacks. Stalin’s assertion that class warfareaccentuated as socialism approached was adduced to account for the curious fact that even as elections everywhere showed 99 percent support for the Party, its enemies were nevertheless multiplying, the battle had to be fought with ever firmer resolve, and the domestic history of the USSR had to be painstakingly reproduced across the Soviet bloc.
The main enemies were ostensibly the peasant and the bourgeois. But in practice intellectuals were often the easiest target, just as they had been for the Nazis. Andrei Zdanov’s venomous attack on Anna Akhmatova—‘a nun or a whore, or rather a nun and a whore, who combines harlotry with prayer. Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people’59—echoes most of the conventional Stalinist anti-intellectual themes: religion, prostitution, alienation from the masses. Had Akhmatova been Jewish, like much of the central European intelligentsia, the caricature would have been complete.
Political repression, censorship, even dictatorship were by no means unknown in Europe’s eastern half before the coming of Stalinism, although there was universal agreement among those in a position to compare that the interrogators and prisons of inter-war Hungary, Poland or Romania were much to be preferred to those of the ‘popular democracies’. The instruments of control and terror through which the Communist state operated after 1947 were perfected by Stalin’s men, but for the most part they did not need to be imported from the East; they were already in place. It was not by chance that Piteşti prison was set up and run for the Communist Securitate by one Eugen Turcanu, who in an earlier incarnation had been a student activist at Iaşi University for the Iron Guard, Romania’s inter-war Fascist movement.
What distinguished the Party-State of the Communists from its authoritarian predecessors, however, was not so much the sheer efficiency of its repressive apparatus; but rather that power and resources were now monopolized and abused for the near-exclusive benefit of a foreign power. Soviet occupation succeeded Nazi occupation with minimal transitional disruption and drew Europe’s eastern half steadily deeper into the Soviet orbit (for the citizens of East Germany, emerging from twelve years of Nazi dictatorship, the transition was smoother still). This process and its consequences—the ‘Sovietization’ and ‘Russification’ of everything in Eastern Europe from manufacturing processes to academic titles—would sooner or later alienate the allegiance of all but the most inveterate Stalinists.
And it had the ancillary effect of blurring many people’s recollection of their initial ambivalence in the face of the Communist transformation. In later years it was easy to forget that the anti-Semitic and frequently xenophobic tone of Stalinist public language had found a sympathetic audience in much of eastern Europe, just as it did in the Soviet Union itself. Economic nationalism had popular local roots too, so that expropriation, nationalization, controls and state regulation of work were by no means unfamiliar. In Czechoslovakia, for example, under the Two-Year Plan introduced in 1946, recalcitrant workers could be exiled to labor camps (though it is also true that most Czech judges in the years 1946-48 refused to apply these penalties).
In its initial phases, then, the Soviet take-over of eastern Europe was not quite as one-sided and brutal a transition as it would appear in retrospect, even if we discount the high hopes vested in the Communist future by a minority of young people in Warsaw or Prague. But just as the Nazis’ brutality had alienated potentially friendly local sentiment in the territories they ‘liberated’ from the USSR in 1941-42, so Stalin soon dispersed illusions and expectations in the satellite states.
The result of imposing an accelerated version of the Soviet Union’s own dismal economic history upon the more developed lands to its west has already been noted. The only resource upon which Communist managers could consistently rely was labor-intensive production pressed to the breaking point. That is why the Stalinist terror of 1948-53 in Eastern Europe so closely resembled its Soviet counterpart of twenty years before: both were tied to a policy of coercive industrialization. The centrally planned economies were actually quite effective at extracting surplus-value from miners and factory workers by force; but this was all they could do. Soviet-bloc agriculture slipped further and further backwards, its occasionally surreal inefficiencies exemplified in the USSR by the bureaucrats in Frunze (now Bizkek, in Kirghizstan) who in 1960 encouraged local peasants to meet their (arbitrary and unattainable) butter delivery quotas by buying up stocks from local shops . . .
The trials and purges, and the accompanying chorus of mendacious commentary, helped degrade whatever remained in eastern Europe of the public sphere. Politics and government became synonymous with corruption and arbitrary repression, practiced by and for the benefit of a venal clique, itself rent by suspicion and fear. This was hardly a new experience in the region, of course. But there was a distinctively cynical quality to Communist misrule: old-fashioned abuses were now laboriously embedded in a rhetorical cant of equality and social progress, a hypocrisy for which neither the inter-war oligarchs nor the Nazi occupiers had felt the need. And, once again, it was a form of misrule adapted for the near-exclusive benefit of a foreign power, which was what made Soviet rule so resented outside the Soviet Union’s own borders.
The effect of the Sovietization of eastern Europe was to draw it steadily away from the western half of the continent. Just as Western Europe was about to enter an era of dramatic transformation and unprecedented prosperity, eastern Europe was slipping into a coma: a winter of inertia and resignation, punctured by cycles of protest and subjugation, that would last for nearly four decades. It is symptomatic and somehow appropriate that during the very years when the Marshall Plan injected some $14 billion into Western Europe’s recovering economy, Stalin—through reparations, forced deliveries and the imposition of grossly disadvantageous trading distortions—extracted approximately the same amount from eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe had always been different from western Europe. But the distinction between eastern and western Europe had not been the only one by which the continent understood itself, nor even the most important. Mediterranean Europe was markedly different from North-West Europe; religion had far greater salience than politics in the historic boundaries within and between states. In Europe before World War Two, the differences between North and South, rich and poor, urban and rural, counted for more than those between East and West.
The impact of Soviet rule upon the lands east of Vienna was thus in certain respects even more marked than it had been upon Russia itself. The Russian Empire, after all, had only ever been part-European; and the European identity of post-Petrine Russia was itself much contested in the course of the century preceding Lenin’s coup. In brutally cutting the Soviet Union adrift from its ties to European history and culture the Bolsheviks did great and lasting violence to Russia. But their suspicion of the West and their fear of Western influence was not unprecedented; it had deep roots in self-consciously Slavophil writings and practices long before 1917.
There were no such precedents in central and eastern Europe. It was, indeed, part of the insecure small-state nationalism of Poles, Romanians, Croats and others that they saw themselves not as some far-flung outriders at the edge of European civilization; but rather as the under-appreciated defenders of Europe’s core heritage—just as Czechs and Hungarians understood themselves, reasonably enough, as dwelling at the very heart of the continent. Romanian and Polish intellectuals looked to Paris for fashions in thought and art, much as the German-speaking intelligentsia of the late Habsburg Empire, from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia to Trieste, had always looked to Vienna.
That integrated, cosmopolitan Europe had of course only ever existed for a minority—and it died in 1918. But the new states hatched at Versailles were fragile and somehow impermanent from the very start. The inter-war decades had thus been a sort of interregnum, neither peace nor war, in which the fate of post-imperial central and eastern Europe remained somehow undecided. The likeliest outcome—that a renascent Germany would be the de facto heir to the old empires in the territories stretching from Stettin to Istanbul—was narrowly averted only by Hitler’s own errors.
Instead, the imposition of a Russian rather than a German solution cut Europe’s vulnerable eastern half away from the body of the continent. At the time this was not a matter of great concern to western Europeans themselves. With the exception of the Germans, the nation most directly affected by the division of Europe but also ill-placed to voice displeasure at it, western Europeans were largely indifferent to the disappearance of eastern Europe. Indeed, they soon became so accustomed to it, and were anyway so preoccupied with the remarkable changes taking place in their own countries, that it seemed quite natural that there should be an impermeable armed barrier running from the Baltic to the Adriatic. But for the peoples to the east of that barrier, thrust back as it seemed into a grimy, forgotten corner of their own continent, at the mercy of a semi-alien Great Power no better off than they and parasitic upon their shrinking resources, history itself ground slowly to a halt.