When the Soviets First Met Central Europe
Online Interviews
A conversation between Anne Applebaum, Mária Schmidt and John O’Sullivan after the launch of the Hungarian translation of Applebaum’s book.

O'Sullivan: Congratulations to Ms Applebaum, I really enjoyed the book. It is entitled Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. The takeover of Eastern and Central Europe by the communists after the war, in two years, was actually welcomed by many people, and there were a lot of optimistic sentences. Would you explain how it happened?

Applebaum: I wrote about a very difficult moment, about that the people remember differently. It is true that some people remember the arrival of the Red Army as a liberation. It all depended who you were, where you were, what was happening around the end of the war. For people who were in Nazi concentration camps, the arrival of the Red Army was a liberation. For many millions of other people, there was a kind of hope because it meant the end of a Nazi regime, like in Poland. But very quickly, a few days later there was a disappointment. The war was over, but the Red Army became more and more violent and angry. There was a huge wave of rape in Germany, in Hungary, and in Poland. There was a huge mass theft, damage, destruction. People had hope for reconstruction, for the end of the war: “we will build something different, something better". But the Red Army’s brutality confused the people. The Soviet soldiers couldn't understand the wealth in Central Europe, it did not meet their knowledge about the capitalism and the supposed poverty it created. They saw beautiful buildings like here in Budapest, ladies in fur coats... and they became angry.

O'Sullivan: I agree with that. After the end of the war, horrible  atrocities happened. But what about the hope? The communist parties had some degree of public support when they rose to the power. But their willingness to the democracy quickly vanished.

Applebaum: The Communists themselves were optimistic thinking that they will have support. Most of them really believed in the ideology of the communism, that the workers and the peasants will support them at the elections. Mátyás Rákosi held huge rallies in Budapest. There were really free elections in 1945 in Hungary and the Communists believed they could win them. But the results of the elections were shocking for them: they did not do well in Hungary, in Germany. They did slightly better in Czechoslovakia. The Communists realized that they will not get into power with democratic elections.

O'Sullivan: Ms Schmidt, would the Communists have taken over if the Red Army have not helped them?

Schmidt: No, no way. Because of the Communist regime in 1919 Hungarian people were very well aware what Communism is like. 83 percent of the Hungarians voted against the Communists in 1945. There was a very strong anti-communist attitude in the society. The communist party was a tiny minority: Kádár told later that there were times when the Communist party had 35 members.

Applebaum: That was actually very similar to Poland: the Communists were a very tiny group of people and they know that they would not win a democratic election.

Schmidt: Stalin was very angry about the Hungarian situation, he has lost credit in Rákosi.

O'Sullivan: The Communists in power were a minority of a minority. Most of them were in exile in the Soviet Union before 1945.

Applebaum: One of the things that happened when they came back, there was a competition between the Moscow Communists and the local Communists. The Moscow group was supported by the NKVD, so they won the contest. There was a very bitter fight between them.

Schmidt: Those who were brought to different places, like Spain, Switzerland or the USA, they had different ideological explanations, they got into trials.

O'Sullivan: The Communists' allies in the culture, a number of artists and intellectuals tried to give some support to the proletarian internationalism.

Applebaum: It is very important to remember what happened during the war. People perceived their previous political elite to have been a complete failure. There was a real doubt of liberal capitalism, about the Western system. There was a desire to find something different. These were the times when left wing ideas had power all around Europe, in England, and in France too. People were looking to build some kind of a new system. The language of communism suited this post-war moment: “we start it again, building up from the scratches, the war was a catastrophe”. The language of internationalism was very important too.

O'Sullivan: In England, there were slogans like "We planned for the war, let us now plan for the peace" at the era of the Attlee government. But Western sympathy seems to run onto rocks at the time of the show trials in Eastern Europe. This was not what they have thought, it was more brutal. Why did the show trials happen, why was it important to the Communists?

Schmidt: The Mindszenty trial was the most important trial in Hungary. It was a Catholic country, Mindszenty was very popular as a real anti-communist. He unified the Hungarians at the time of the Communist takeover. His arrest and trial showed the Hungarians that everything's over, the Communist takeover happened. That was the time when the Hungarians gave up the hope. Then came the trials inside the Party, but that was not that interesting for the people.

O'Sullivan: One piece of Western help that was offered, but then turned down by the Communist governments, was the Marshall aid.

Applebaum: The Soviet Union forced the governments to turn down the offer.

O'Sullivan: But the success of the Marshall aid was recognized by the people in these countries.

Applebaum: One of the striking things about Europe in the 40s and the 50s that the economic growth in Western Europe begins to differ from the East immediately. Vienna became richer than Budapest, within 5 years. It was very significant. Communism never delivered a high economic growth after the war; that was a problem for  Communism until the end. The success of the Western states meant that Communism was never able to outpace the West.

Schmidt: After 1948-1949, the borders were  closed, it was almost impossible to leave the country. Communication was also cut. People had to work in order to prepare for a World War III against the USA. That was a very sad period.

O'Sullivan: The communist countries suffered from an economic failure and repression. It was felt by the people.

Applebaum: By 1948 the Communists realized that people are not going to  vote for them, the economies are failing and the West is growing more quickly. I found it in the archives about the trials that communist leaders were disputing why their political and economic system is not working. The answer was: it is because of spies and sabotage... So new "enemies" were attacked inside the party, inside the church. These were show trials for the public, trying to explain them the situation in the country.

O'Sullivan: All of these trials seemed to be fantastic to the Western eyes with all these spy stories. How was it seen by local public? Did they respond in a way that the Communist leadership wanted?

Schmidt: There were some show trials in the party, but most of the cases were real: people fought  against the regime, over 400 people were executed before 1956 who really did something against Communism. There was real resistance in the whole country.

Applebaum: There were bizarre trials with complicated stories but there were ordinary trials too, it's true.

O'Sullivan: What was true for Hungary, was it true for Czechoslovakia, for Poland too?

Applebaum: It took different forms in the different countries. People in this era had very bad choices. There was no situation to take up arms against the government. But you can find different types of resistance everywhere.

O'Sullivan: At the end of the high Stalinism, reformist Communists emerged.

Applebaum: Communism never worked. They tried different ways but none of it worked. In Central Europe from 1945 to 1990 there were waves of new policies, without success. In 1989, the Communists themselves gave up, everywhere.

Schmidt: Since the beginning of the 80s they knew that it could not  work. The new generation on the second and third level realized that it would not work. After Gorbatchev, they began to build up their positions after the fall of Communism, in the new era of democracy.

O'Sullivan: Both of you agreed that the Communist system was unpopular and it failed. Why does it still have so many supporter in many Western universities?

Applebaum: I've been working on this subject as a historian for more than 10 years. When I wrote my Gulag book, there were some controversies, but the academics of my age and the younger generation are different. Among the younger academics, there is very little sympathy for Communism, even in the most PC universities in America.

Schmidt: Those who were involved in lying about Communism or praising it, they just did not want to see that this was a mistake by themselves. They just went on to say the same things.

Applebaum: But as this generation goes, things are changing, you can already see it.

O'Sullivan: Marxism was important on the European continent, but a late flowering plant in the English speaking intellectual world.

Applebaum: It did not have political influence there, rather a cultural one.

O'Sullivan: Today there is a crisis in Ukraine, a new conflict with Russia, but very few people suggest that this is a revival of Communism. How would you describe the ideology of President Putin and the Russian elite?

Applebaum: The ideology is different, but some of the tactics are amazingly similar to the Communists. This pattern of how it is done, it is amazingly similar. The ideology is much narrower and it takes several forms, from Russian nationalist ideology to a complicated anti-Western, anti-libertine standpoint. The essential idea is to unify people behind an anti-Western ideology, creating a new order, an alternative to Europe. In Ukraine there is a deep problem with the national identity, there were terrible governments in the last 20 years.

Schmidt: For Hungarians, Polish and Baltic states, Ukraine is a very important country. The United States did not understand the situation in Ukraine, it seems to me it is too late. They did not do anything in the last 20 years to work out a system which is working. Ukrainian people are in a very bad situation. There will be some serious problems in the near future. One thing is clear: if there is no strength against Russia, they will go as far as they can.

O'Sullivan: There is a theory that in a post-authoritarian regime the democratic institutions exist but there is only one independent organization, and that's the national security service. Russia is run by its intelligence service. It chooses the ideology which is most useful in different situations. How can one deal with such a regime?

Applebaum: Russia hasn't been a priority in the West in the last years, people did not focus on the country. Now Russia returned, people are talking about it again. The narrative is changing. Until now, many thought that Russia is just a flawed Western country, and some day it will make a transition and then it becomes like us. That is now really gone. Now Russia is absolutely an anti-Western country. We need to understand what it wants. This understanding is happening in Europe, for example in London.

Schmidt: But I did not hear one single sentence from Berlin. What did Merkel say?

Applebaum: My impression of the Germans is that they are aware of what is going on.

O'Sullivan: It takes time to turn around.

Applebaum: It's like a huge ship.

Schmidt: It took time, it began in 2008 with Georgia, now it is 2014.

Applebaum: What is happening now, should have happened in 2008 too, but it did not happen for various reasons. My impression —and other people's impression—is that there is a change. The conversation in different that it was 6 months ago.

Schmidt: They realize that something should be done, but they have no idea, what.

Applebaum: Some people do have ideas.

O'Sullivan: We came to the end of the conversation. Maybe you both agree that one of the factors in this situation is that no one in Central Europe feels yet that they are able to rely on the United States and Western Europe, which limits their options as well.

Applebaum: There is certainly a move to reactivate the NATO, the Western alliances. A dialogue is beginning, I don't think it is a lost cause.

O'Sullivan: We know that your husband, Mr Radosław Sikorski played a major part in making a free Ukraine a real possibility, and he is attempting to get Western Europeans and Americans involved. I would like to see it acknowledged.

Schmidt: It is important that those countries also realize that they have to work together. Poland, Hungary, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the whole region could act together, with a common standpoint. That is very positive.

Applebaum: It is important that the Visegrád states stay together, and Europe stays together. The Russians intend to pick up the European countries one by one, break up the European institutions, and destroy the post-Cold War order of Europe. There is a reason why Russia funds far right parties in Europe too - it wants to break up the continent.



Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washngton Post and Slate. She also directs the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute in London.

Mária Schmidt is Director of the Museum of House of Terror in Budapest.

John O’Sullivan is Director of the Danube Institute Budapest.

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