As World War Two ended, Stalin’s occupation of eastern Europe provided him with the opportunity to impose his pathological vision upon eight separate European countries, each with a vastly different cultural, economic and political system. In doing so, he followed a clear blueprint for systematically dismantling the defences that each country had built to protect against tyranny. He began by undermining the rule of law.
Eliminating the Rule of Law
Stalin’s first step was to install puppet leaders as heads of the interim governments in each country. For this purpose he chose men who had spent decades in Moscow and had emerged from his purges as true believers certain to obey his every command. Once installed, Stalin instructed them to disguise their true affiliations and, initially at least, to tolerate aspects of democracy, private enterprise and press freedom.
All immediately, however, established the real instrument of Stalin’s power – a secret police force designed to create terror. All across eastern Europe, exact copies of the Soviet NKVD were set up: Poland’s Security Service (Urzad Bezpieczénstwa or SB); Hungary’s State Security Agency (Államvédelmi Osztály or ÁVO); East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit or Stasi as it became known); and the Czechoslovak State Security (Státní Bezpecnost or StB).
As in the USSR, violence was used to instil terror in the entire population. The targeting of children was one frequently used tactic. Anne Applebaum tells of the arrest of fifteen year old Gisela Gneist in eastern Germany. Gisela and her friends had formed their own ‘political party’ to discuss the idea of democracy that she had heard frequently on American armed forces radio. ‘She was arrested in December 1945, along with two dozen of her teenage friends. Under the stress of torture, Gneiss confessed that she had been part of a counter-revolutionary organisation. She was found guilty by a military tribunal and imprisoned in the former Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Sachsenhausen, along with the former concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz had been reopened with Soviet troops replacing German troops as gaolers and executioners. In Hungary, sixteen year old George Bien was arrested for owning a short wave radio. Tortured and forced to sign a thirty page Russian confession, of which he didn’t understand a single word, Bien eventually ended up in the Gulag camps of Kolyma.
Through the calculated use of terror, the rule of law in Eastern Europe quickly became what Stalin said it was. Arbitrary arrest, the use of torture to force false confession, conviction without fair trial, and the use of arbitrary arrest to fulfil the labour needs of the gulag became the new norm. The most fundamental defence against pathological elites had been demolished.
Eliminating Electoral Democracy
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed that free elections would be held in the Soviet occupied nations of eastern Europe. Stalin, of course, had no intention of honouring this agreement. Under his instructions, the newly installed leaders set about establishing single party states and eliminating electoral democracy.
In Yugoslavia’s the Yugoslav People’s Front, the only party permitted on the ballot, was declared to have won with 90 per cent of the vote. In Bulgaria, opposition parties called for a boycott in protest at the rigging of the election. The communists seized the opportunity to hold the election and declare victory.
In Poland, Stalin moved more cautiously at first. Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, well known to the Polish public as former Prime Minister-in-exile in London during the war, returned to Poland at war’s end, determined to hold Stalin and the allies to the Yalta treaty of holding free and unfettered elections. Widespread violence, torture and murder were used by the communists in an attempt to intimidate Mikolajczyk’s supporters.
Following a referendum which resulted in victory for Mikolajczyk, the communists falsified the results of the subsequent election and installed Stalin’s proxy Bierut as Polish President. There was to be no authentic legal political opposition to the communist party in Poland for the next thirty years.
In Hungary too the communists were decisively beaten in the election held in October 1945, receiving only 17 per cent of the vote. The communists’ responsed by claiming that although they had only won some 17 per cent of the vote, that 17 per cent represented the working class, which deserved a much larger role in government. They then allotted themselves the majority of seats in parliament and the major roles in government, and set out systematically to destroy the opposition. The leader of the main opposition party, Béla Kovács, was arrested and imprisoned in the Soviet Union.
Many protested the communist’s bully tactics. One of those who protested was Sára Karig. Karig had been a member of the Social Democratic Party during the war and a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. She had helped hundreds of Hungarian Jews escape the Nazis by helping them acquire false papers. In 1947 she was the chief election officer in one of the districts in Central Budapest. Seeing the double voting and fraud that was taking place, she reported this to the police. The following day she was arrested, tortured, and sent to the Soviet Gulag camp in Vorkuta. Within a year of her arrest, the communist party ruled Hungary alone.
The abolition of electoral democracy across the bloc was soon complete.
Ending Freedom of Religion
Having eliminated armed opposition, destroyed the legal opposition and dismantled electoral democracy, the communists now turned their attention to abolishing organised religion.
Anti-church propaganda became blatant. In East Germany, Free German Youth gangs appeared at church meetings and heckled those inside. In schools, large public tribunals were run to interrogate children suspected of having religious beliefs, and children were expelled for refusing to publicly renounce religion. In Hungary, hundreds of church schools were nationalised, and monasteries were closed down. Nuns were forbidden to work in hospitals and forced to work in factories instead. In Poland, seminaries were shut, and the teaching of religion in schools was forbidden. Catholic hospitals and nursing homes were also closed down. The Catholic charity Caritas, which operated 4,500 orphanages and almost 250 soup kitchens came under attack. In January 1950, the Polish press agency reported that Caritas had fallen under the control of Nazi-sympathisers, and that its leaders were under investigation for misappropriation of funds. It was placed under state administration and its leaders removed. Across the bloc, priests were arrested in waves. By 1953, around 1000 priests were behind bars in Poland alone.
The new secret police forces also sought to recruit priests into their ranks. In 1949 Stalin instructed the eastern bloc governments to ‘order priests to take citizen’s oaths, [and] … force priests to spread the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin through religious classes and sermons…’
Crushing Human Rights
By 1954, the Polish secret police’s ‘register of criminal and suspicious elements’ had grown to contain six million names, or one in three of the adult population. Waves of arrests and investigations were now the norm with many of those arrested being sent straight to the camps of the Soviet Gulag.
Regimes across the bloc built camps of their own. Between 1949 and 1953, the Czechoslovak regime ran a group of eighteen camps near Jáchymov where prisoners worked in uranium mines to extract material for the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. Death rates in the camps were high. Of the network of camps built by the Romanian regime, the best-known were built along the route of the Danube-Black Sea canal. At their height, the Romanian Gulag held around 180,000 people. The communist regimes in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia also built labour camps, which in the case of Bulgaria continued well into the 1970s, long after the majority of Soviet camps had been closed.
Many innocent civilians, however, were not even allowed the chance of survival that the Gulag camps offered. The authorities regularly looked for opportunities to terrorise the population into compliance. In Hungary, one peasant lit a campfire which got out of control and burned his field. No one was harmed and the harvest was not damaged. The secret police however labelled this criminal arson and a crime against the state. Amidst a burst of national publicity, the man was convicted, sentenced to death and executed. His daughter remembered that as they entered the courthouse for the trial, the gallows were already being built outside.
The End of Freedom of Thought
In a repetition of a pattern seen under communist dictatorships from Stalin to Mao, re-education of the entire population to conform to acceptable ways of thinking now became a focus for the eastern European regimes. Across the bloc, education was targeted at schooling everyone, from kindergarten to the workplace, in what was and what was not acceptable to think and to say.
A new generation of teachers was put in place and public displays of violence were used to enforce compliance. In Poland, for example, armed secret policemen raided a secondary school near the town of Sobieszyn, marched the students outside and beat them viciously. The raid was punishment for now adhering sufficiently to the new Stalinist ideology.
A similar attack was launched on higher education institutions. Across the bloc, the content of university courses changed dramatically, with the curriculum limited to Marxist history, Marxist philosophy, and Marxist law. A new generation of professors filled teaching posts across the bloc. Ideological zealotry was compulsory for such appointments. Academic qualifications were not necessary.
Youth groups were particular targets as the communist authorities saw them as essential tools for re-educating the next generation.
The way in which the communists took over youth organisations at this time provides a clear example of the process described by Andrew Lobacewski of how a pathological minority takes over an organisation. The changes were gradual. First someone at the top would be replaced; then he or she appointed a new deputy; then the deputy would appoint new members and so on. It was clear to members of the organisations what was happening. As one recalled, ‘Each month, new people began gradually infiltrating the scouting movement. There was one, Kosinski, said to be a scout leader. He was as much a scout leader as I am a ballet dancer. He was a [secret police] officer.’ Resistance was met by arrest and imprisonment.
One teacher targeted by the communists, Alajos Kovács, recalled that ‘we were shocked, we did not even know why they were attacking us, we could not understand what had happened. Because of this incomprehension, we began to try – in a masochistic, self-defeating way – to understand what had gone wrong, what we had done wrong.’
Some of the communists leaders involved in the destruction of civil society movements later recalled how their tactics were consciously based on a ‘general law that an organised small group could impose its will on a larger heterogenous group.’
Philosopher Roger Scruton has written that Stalin and the Bolsheviks destruction of eastern European societies reveals an unpleasant truth about human nature: “if enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations a disparate, as historic and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of post-war Stalinisation proves just how fragile ‘civilisation’ can turn out to be.”
Read about the slave camps of the Stalin’s gulag here.