Iron Curtain excerpt: Anne Applebaum on how lives in Eastern Europe were transformed under Soviet totalitarianism.

How lives are transformed amid civilization’s rubble.

German WWII soldier
A German soldier in 1945

Getty Images.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 is a book about the imposition of Soviet totalitarianism on Eastern Europe: how institutions were transformed, how civil society was undermined, how violence and propaganda were used to create communist regimes. It is also a book about the people who lived through this confusing period. Faced with impossible choices, some chose to collaborate, though they bitterly resented it. Others found ways to oppose the new regimes in subtle ways. This series of excerpts offers, in abbreviated form, a few of these stories.

* * *

Many people have tried to describe what it feels like to endure the disintegration of one’s entire civilization, to watch the buildings and landscapes of one’s childhood collapse, to understand that the moral world of one’s parents and teachers no longer exists and that one’s respected national leaders have failed. Yet it is still not an easy thing to understand for those who have not experienced it. Words like “vacuum” and “emptiness” when used about a national catastrophe such as an alien occupation are simply insufficient: They cannot convey the anger people felt at their prewar and wartime leaders, their failed political systems, their own “naive” patriotism and the wishful thinking of their parents and teachers. Different parts of Eastern Europe experienced this collapse at different times. But whenever and however it came, national failure had profound effects, especially on young people, many of whom simply concluded that everything they had once thought true was false.

Certainly that was what happened to Tadeusz Konwicki, a Polish novelist who spent the war as a partisan. Brought up in a patriotic family near Vilnius, in what was then eastern Poland, Konwicki eagerly joined the armed wing of the Polish Resistance, the Home Army, during the war. First he fought the Nazis. Then, for a time, his unit fought the Red Army. At some point their struggle began to deteriorate into armed robberies and gratuitous violence, and he found himself wondering why he was still fighting. Eventually he left the forests and moved to Poland, a state whose new borders no longer included his family home. Upon arrival, he realized that he had nothing. At age 19, he was in possession of a coat, a small backpack, and a handful of fake documents. He had no family, no friends, and no higher education.

Konwicki had also lost his faith in much of what he had believed to be true in the past. “During the war,” he told me, “I saw so much slaughter. I saw a whole world of ideas, humanism, morality collapse. I was alone in this ruined country. What should I do? Which way should I go?” Konwicki drifted for many months, considered escaping to the West, tried to rediscover his “proletarian” roots by working as a laborer. Eventually he fell, almost accidentally, into the Communist literary world and into the Communist Party—something he would never have considered possible before 1939. For a very brief time, he even became a “Stalinist” writer, adopting the style and mannerisms dictated by the Communist Party.

His was a dramatic fate, but not an unusual one. Many young people focused their disappointment on the old political elite who had so catastrophically failed to prepare Poland for war, and on the patriotic nationalism that had previously sustained them. Another Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski, satirized the saccharine patriotism of the prewar politicians: “Your fatherland: a peaceful corner and a log burning obediently in the fire. My fatherland: a burnt house and an NKVD summons.”

For young Nazis, the experience of failure was even more apocalyptic, since they had been taught not just patriotism, but a belief in German physical and mental superiority. Hans Modrow—later a leading communist politician—was about the same age as Konwicki in 1946, and equally disoriented. A loyal member of the Hitler Youth, he had joined the Volkssturm, the “people’s militia” which put up the final resistance to the Red Army in the last days of the war. At age 17 he was filled with intense hatred of the Bolsheviks, whom he thought of as subhumans, physically and morally inferior to Germans. But he was captured by the Red Army in May 1945, and immediately experienced a moment of profound disillusion. He and another group of German prisoners of war were put on a truck and transported to a farm to work:

“I was a young man, and I wanted to help. I stood on the truck and handed down the others’ backpacks, and then gave my pack to somebody else, so that I could jump off the truck myself. By the time I landed on the ground, it was stolen. I never got it back. And it was not a Soviet soldier who had done it but one of us, the Germans. Not until the next day did the Red Army turn us all into equals: They collected all of our backpacks—nobody was left with one—and we were given a spoon and cup to eat with. Because of this episode I started thinking about the Germans’ so-called camaraderie in a different way.

A few days later, he was appointed driver to a Soviet captain who asked him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine. Modrow had never heard of Heine, and felt embarrassed that the people he had thought of as “subhuman” seemed to know more about German culture than he. Eventually Modrow was transported to a POW camp near Moscow, where he was selected to attend an “antifascist” school, and where he would receive training in Marxist-Leninsm—training which, by that point, he was more than eager to absorb. So profound was his experience of Germany’s failure that he very quickly came to embrace an ideology that he had been taught to hate throughout his childhood. Over time, he also came to feel something like gratitude. The Communist Party offered him the chance to make up for the mistakes of the past—Germany’s mistakes, as well as his own. The shame he felt at having been an ardent Nazi could be erased.

This article is the first of four excerpts drawn from Anne Applebaum’s book, The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.