1948


We teach that it is proper to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. But when Caesar sits himself on the altar, we respond curtly: he may not.

—Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, 1953

By the end of 1948, the Eastern European communist parties and their Soviet allies had already enacted enormous changes in the new People’s Democracies. They had eliminated the most capable of their potential opponents. They had taken control of the institutions they considered most valuable. They had created, from scratch, the political police. In Poland, the armed opposition had been destroyed and the legal opposition had been dismantled. In Hungary and East Germany, spontaneous “antifascist” movements no longer existed, and genuine opposition parties had been eliminated. In the Czech Republic, a successful coup d’état had left the communists with absolute power. Loyal, pro-Soviet communist parties now ruled Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania. Social democracy, despite its deep roots in the region, had vanished from the political arena, along with large private companies and many independent organizations.

Yet the socialist paradise was still far away. The regimes had acquired some collaborators and some true believers, and they were attempting to educate more. Many tens of thousands of people had joined the party and its affiliated mass organizations, including the youth movements, the women’s organizations, and the official trade unions. But the communist parties were unpopular, and their support was still shaky, even in their most trusted institutions. Millions of Eastern Europeans still considered communist ideology to be alien and still thought the party represented a foreign power. The Eastern European communist parties had not won legitimacy through elections, and they had not won legitimacy through their economic policies either. Already, their economies were slipping behind those of the West. The East Germans, especially East Berliners, saw this most clearly after the West German currency reform in 1948. But anyone with Western relatives or access to Western radio knew it too.

Even Stalin didn’t really trust his Eastern European followers, and so he concluded that they now needed harsher methods in order to stay in power. For the next five or so years the Eastern European states would directly mimic Soviet domestic and international policies in the hopes of eliminating their opponents for good, achieving higher economic growth, and influencing a new generation of firm supporters through propaganda and public education. Until Stalin’s death in 1953, all of the region’s communist parties would pursue an identical set of goals using an identical set of tactics. This was the era of High Stalinism.

Although the rhetoric of High Stalinism always sounded supremely confident, the period began in crisis. In March 1949, Bolesław Bierut, now the unchallenged leader of the Polish communist party, outlined his problem in a letter he wrote to Vyacheslav Molotov, which was then passed on to Stalin. Bierut first praised the Polish secret policemen who had “repulsed the attacks of the enemy” in 1945 and 1946. Not only had Poland’s Soviet-trained security officers vanquished the underground and “destroyed Mikołajczyk’s PSL” but they had become a “sharp instrument of the people’s power in the battle against the class enemy and the penetration of foreign espionage.” Yet he was not satisfied. For all of their many achievements, the secret police still had not managed to “decisively reorganize its work in order to conduct a more successful battle against the activities of the enemy.” Among these enemies Bierut listed not only the underground movements but also the “clerics,” the Polish social democrats, the former members of the Home Army, and even former communists who had been “excluded from the party.”

Bierut then went on to list the many “insufficiencies” of the Polish secret police and to recommend solutions. These included the complete closure of the western land and northern sea borders; the infiltration of the potential “enemy” groups; increased security for factories and party offices; and careful “tactical” work among the clergy, using everything from “coercive methods” in some cases to “neutralization” in others. The tone of Bierut’s letter is deeply paranoid, with multiple references to spies, Anglo-American agents, and enemies of various kinds:

In the course of recent months it was possible to observe signs of self-satisfaction, underestimation of the enemy’s ability to reconstruct its organized networks, insufficient watchfulness in relation to the enemy’s activities, a tendency to adopt mechanically old methods of struggle which are clearly not sufficient for the current situation …

Bierut’s paranoia was in a certain sense justified. There was indeed great dissatisfaction among many Polish clerics, as well as in ex–Home Army, ex-communist, and ex–social democratic circles. Large portions of Polish society were certainly more pro-American than pro-Soviet, and many felt more deeply attached to the ideals of the disbanded Home Army than they did to those of the new Polish army, which was visibly dominated by Soviet officers.

But Bierut’s paranoia was surely amplified by Stalin’s own paranoia, which notoriously increased in 1948 and 1949 and for some of the same reasons. Millions of Soviet citizens had experienced the wealth and freedom of Western Europe for the first time during the Second World War and had now returned home to a world devoid of material goods. “Bikes were old, of prewar make,” wrote Joseph Brodsky of his postwar Soviet childhood, and “the owner of a soccer ball was considered a bourgeois.” The dissatisfaction, even among believing communists, was real. Stalin knew it, and the Soviet secret police knew it. During a private telephone conversation, taped and recorded by the KGB, a Soviet general who had returned home from the front told a colleague that “absolutely everyone says openly how everyone is discontented with life. On the trains, in fact everywhere, it’s what everyone’s saying.”

As a result of its wartime conquests and the bloody suppression of resistance movements, the Soviet Union had also acquired whole new categories of highly suspect residents. Because its borders had moved several hundred kilometers to the west, millions of inhabitants of prewar Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic States were now Soviet citizens. Many were naturally unsympathetic to what they perceived as a new form of Russian imperialism, and the secret police knew that too. As of 1945, the KGB viewed all of the citizens of the new western territories as potential agents of foreign influence, saboteurs, and spies. Even after the majority of political prisoners were released from the Gulag following Stalin’s death, Baltic and Ukrainian nationalists remained in Soviet prisons well into the 1960s. To stifle the general discontent, and perhaps to scare new Soviet citizens into compliance, Stalin ordered a major wave of arrests in the years 1948–49, comparable in size to the Great Terror of 1937–38. After a postwar lull, the camps of the Gulag began to fill up again. They would reach their peak, in terms of both numbers and economic significance, between 1950 and 1952.

Stalin’s heightened paranoia also helped provoke the Cold War—which in turn fueled his anxiety further. Western doubts about Soviet intentions in Europe had solidified by the time of Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, and had become policy by 1947, when President Truman declared America’s intention to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” a statement that became known as the Truman Doctrine. Eventually, “support for free peoples” would take many forms, ranging from the fanciful—balloons carrying propaganda leaflets were floated over the East–West borders—to the pragmatic. By far the most effective Cold War “weapon” was Radio Free Europe, a broadcasting service based in Munich, funded by the U.S. government but staffed by émigrés and exiles, broadcasting in their own languages. Radio Free Europe ultimately proved effective not because it offered counterpropaganda but because it reliably reported the news of the day.

Western fear of Soviet intentions combined with Stalin’s paranoia eventually led to deeper military and diplomatic changes, all very well described in the many excellent histories of the Cold War. In April 1949, the Western Europeans ratified the North Atlantic Treaty and created NATO. In October 1949, Stalin abandoned the pretense that there would be an imminent reunification of Germany, and the German Democratic Republic—also known as East Germany, the GDR, or the DDR, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik—became an independent state. The rearmament of Germany, unthinkable a few years earlier, slowly picked up pace on both sides of the border within Germany with the creation of the Western Bundeswehr, the Federal Defense Force, and the National People’s Army in the East. Extra measures were taken to ensure the loyalty of other Eastern European armies. In November 1949, a senior Soviet general, Konstantin Rokossovskii, was named Polish Defense Minister. Though of Polish origin (and though his family still insist heartily that he was born in Warsaw), Rokossovskii had made his career in the Red Army, and he never gave up his Soviet passport. His presence in the Polish government thus established, symbolically and practically, Soviet control over Poland’s armed forces and foreign policy. Other Soviet officers, some of whom spoke no language other than Russian, received senior jobs in the Polish and Hungarian armed forces at this time as well. In both armies, younger officers from working-class and peasant backgrounds were promoted rapidly while older officers were eased out.

But in 1948 the Soviet Union also received three additional, specific blows to its prestige in Eastern Europe. The first was the arrival of the first tranche of Marshall Plan aid money, some $4 billion of which would be distributed over the subsequent two years. The Marshall Fund was not the sole reason for the Western European economic recovery, which now picked up pace, but it did provide a critical moral and financial boost. “Marshall Money” became one of the common explanations for the real prosperity gap that was now developing between the eastern and western halves of the continent.

The second blow was the result of a Soviet provocation that backfired. Following the Western Allies’ announcement of a currency reform and their introduction of the west mark (eventually the deutsche mark) into their occupation zones in June 1948, the Soviet Union responded with what would become known as the Berlin blockade. Soviet occupation authorities cut off electricity, as well as road, rail, and barge access, to West Berlin and halted deliveries of food and fuel. The currency reform did accelerate the economic divergence of East and West Germany, but the purpose of the blockade was not just to protest against the new west mark. It was clearly intended to push the Americans out of Berlin, and perhaps out of Germany as well. The Red Army was confident it would succeed. One Soviet administrator later recalled that when the blockade was announced, the employees at the Soviet military headquarters in Karlshorst loudly cheered, believing that this was the beginning of the end: at last the Western Allies would depart Berlin!

Famously, that did not happen. Instead, between June 24, 1948, and May 12, 1949, the Western Allies organized a massive airlift, bringing thousands of tons of food and fuel into the Western sector of Berlin every day, enough to sustain 2 million people. Allied commitment to the Berlin airlift, and to the maintenance of a Western presence in Germany, took the Soviet leadership in Moscow very much by surprise. Soviet intelligence had massively underrated the airlift’s chances of success and had confidently predicted a quick Western withdrawal. Within a few weeks, the analysts were forced to change their minds. The superb logistics stunned the Russians in Berlin. To one Soviet officer, it seemed as if “the aircraft deliberately flew low over Karlshorst to impress them. One would appear overhead, another would disappear over the horizon, and a third emerge, one after another without interruption, like a conveyor belt!” The success of the airlift eventually forced the Soviet leadership to lift the blockade, and in the months that followed, West Berlin began agitating to become a formal part of West Germany. Soviet intelligence in the region began reporting back to Stalin threats of impending war. He was inclined to believe them.

The third major blow to Stalin’s prestige came from within the bloc. Josip Broz Tito, the “little Stalin” of Yugoslavia, was the only Eastern European communist leader who did not suffer from the knowledge that he was deeply unpopular. Although he had plenty of enemies, and although he disposed of them quite brutally, the Yugoslav communist party also had its own sources of legitimacy. Having led the anti-Nazi resistance, and having created his own loyal army and secret police, Tito—uniquely in the region—had no need of Soviet military support in order to stay in power. Nor did he want much Soviet interference. Although tensions had been brewing for some time, the break became official in June 1948, when the rest of the bloc agreed to expel Yugoslavia from the Cominform.

If the success of the Berlin airlift had compounded Soviet paranoia about lurking Western conspiracies and Anglo-American spy rings, Tito’s departure from the bloc fueled Soviet fears of internal dissent. For if Tito could escape Stalin’s influence, then why not others? If the Yugoslavs could design their own economic policies, then why shouldn’t the Poles or the Czechs? Eventually “Titoism,” or “right deviationism,” became a very serious political crime: in the Eastern European context, a “Titoist” was someone who wanted his national communist party to maintain some independence from the Soviet communist party. Like “Trotskyism” the term could eventually be applied to anyone who objected (or appeared to object, or was accused of objecting) to the mainstream political line. Titoists also became the new scapegoats. If Eastern Europe was not as prosperous as the West, then surely Titoists were to blame. If shops were empty, Titoists were at fault. If Central European factories were not producing at the expected level, Titoists had sabotaged them.

Within the boundaries of the Eastern bloc, the year 1948 was an important turning point in domestic politics too: it was the year in which the Soviet Union’s Eastern European allies abandoned attempts to win legitimacy through an electoral process and stopped tolerating any forms of genuine opposition. The full power of the police state was now turned against the regime’s perceived enemies in the church, in the already defeated political opposition, and even within the communist party itself.

Violence, arrests, and interrogations were deployed against regime opponents, but they were not the only tactic. From 1948, the communist parties also began a very long-term effort to corrupt the institutions of civil society from within, especially religious institutions. The intention was not to destroy churches but to transform them into “mass organizations,” vehicles for the distribution of state propaganda just like the communist youth movements, the communist women’s movements, or the communist trade unions. In this new era, the communist parties now felt it was no longer sufficient to scare opponents. They had to be exposed in public as traitors or thieves, put through humiliating show trials, subjected to extensive attacks in the media, and placed in new, harsher prisons and specially designed camps.

The renewed attack on the enemies of communism was the most visible and dramatic element of High Stalinism. But the creation of a vast system of education and propaganda, designed to prevent more enemies from emerging in the future, was just as important to the Eastern European communists. In theory, they hoped to create not only a new kind of society but a new kind of person, a citizen who was not capable even of imagining alternatives to communism orthodoxy. During a turbulent discussion about falling listenership at East German radio, a high-ranking communist argued that “it is necessary in every detail, in every program, in every department to discuss the line of the party and to use it in daily work.” This was precisely what was done across society: from 1948 onward, the theories of Marxism-Leninism would be explained, expounded, and discussed in kindergartens, schools, and universities; on the radio and in the newspapers; through elaborate mass campaigns, parades, and public events. Every public holiday became an occasion for teaching, and every organization, from the Konsum food cooperative in Germany to the Chopin Society in Poland, became a vehicle for the distribution of communist propaganda. The public in communist countries took part in campaigns for “peace,” they collected money in aid of communist North Korea, they marched in parades to celebrate communist holidays. From the outside—and to some on the inside as well—High Stalinism looked like a political system whose attempt to achieve total control might well succeed.

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