Anne Applebaum: "Why did so many people co-operate with what were clearly evil and unjust regimes?"

The Books Interview.

How does Iron Curtain, your new book about eastern Europe after the Second World War, relate to your previous book, Gulag, a history of the Soviet camps?

In a way it came out of Gulag, because the thing that became interesting to me in the course of writing that book was the question of why people went along with things; why people collaborated. Why did so many people co-operate with what were clearly evil and unjust regimes?

You describe a process in the Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe after the war that you call “passive collaboration”.

I struggled for the correct phrase. Someone who read the manuscript said, “You shouldn’t use the word ‘collaboration’.” On the other hand, I couldn’t think of what other word I could use.

What I meant were people who went along with things because they had very bad choices and because the circumstances of their lives forced them to do it.

I have huge sympathy for people who lived in, say, Poland or Czechoslovakia in that period. I have much less sympathy for people in the west. There was always information about what was going in eastern Europe. They had plenty of good choices. So I don’t feel sympathy for Eric Hobsbawm and his friends but I do have sympathy for unwilling, half-enthusiastic communists in eastern Europe in the 1950s. They had a tough time.

What was the legacy of that collaboration?

The psychic costs were very high. I lived in Poland in the 1990s and that was a very difficult, angry time. People were often angry about change, about the past and developed complexes about life being unfair.

You see it still in the politics of contemporary Hungary, you see it in the politics of contemporary Russia – the idea that there are conspiratorial groups in society that want to overthrow the established order. That comes directly from the communist period.

You mentioned Eric Hobsbawm. How do you see the role of western communists and fellow-travellers in this period? You mention Sartre, among others, in the book.

They assisted in legitimising the regimes, at least for a period, but I wouldn’t overplay their role. They were important in legitimising the Soviet Union in the 1930s – that was when they did real damage.

You suggest that there was nothing inevitable about the fate of eastern Europe. It’s not as if the countries in the region were predisposed to totalitarianism.

Right. If Austria had been taken over, Austria would have been a communist country. And if the Soviets hadn’t taken over Poland, Poland wouldn’t have been a communist country.

What did the eastern European communist leaders in this period have in common?

People such as Bierut in Poland, Rakosi in Hungary and Ulbricht in East Germany were the people Stalin could put most faith in. That was because they had previously allowed themselves to be put under the Comintern umbrella. They had gone along with the Comintern’s various changes of political line. And so they were known quantities.

Why do you place so much emphasis in the book on ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe after the war?

The eviction of the Germans, in their millions, from eastern Europe was an enormous operation and it was largely funded and carried out by local Communist Parties with the help of the Red Army. And that had a number of effects: it helped to create communist structures on the ground and it was also extremely popular.

But those structures turned out fairly quickly to be rather precarious didn’t they?              

There’s a very real sense in which Soviet totalitarianism contained the seeds of its own destruction. When you attempt to control everything, you also politicize everything.

The system, in attempting to control every aspect of society, creates the possibility of dissent. That’s exactly what happened in the 1950s and repeated itself over and over again until the very end.

Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56” is published by Allen Lane (£25)