I’m enjoying reading Iron Curtain: The crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum, although at times it can be hard going because it is so detailed.
It covers the period after WWII, and explains the way that communism spread to Eastern European countries, with an emphasis on Hungary, Poland and East Germany.
Much of Eastern Europe had been damaged by the war. There had been massed movements of people both during the war and immediately afterwards. In a political and social vacuum, as a reaction against fascism and under the tutelage of the Soviets, communists took over various governments and communism took over the lives of most people.
If you expressed anti-communistic sentiments you were likely to be sent to the gulag. At the same time, it was almost impossible to be neutral. If you were a writer, you had to write pro-communist material (other books were in any case banned); if you were a printer, you had to register and then you were only allowed to publish certain works; if you were involved in the media, you had to express the correct viewpoints; if you were a bricky, you had to sing the praises of the party; if you were an architect, you had to design in a style acceptable to the party; if you were a planner, you had to plan according to communist ideals; if you wanted a decent house, you had to toe the party line and get involved with politics at some level; and so on. The party was everything, and it is difficult for us, today, to understand just how much it permeated everyday life.
Of course, those at the top, in the party, enjoyed much better facilities.
Sztálinváros (today known as Dunaújváros), was built in the 1950s during the industrialization of Hungary under Socialist rule, as an ideal new city, constructed as the base of a large steelworks. Here are some photos.
Stalinstadt (now known as Eisenhüttenstadt) was a similar new city, built in East Germany, also alongside a new steel mill.
These cities were designed to be showpieces of the new industrial age, populated by people who were untarnished by non-socialist political thought.
Chapter 16 is titled ‘Reluctant collaborators’, and explains how most people simply went along with the party line, without questioning things, even though they didn’t agree with what was happening. Most people worked in state jobs, lived in state-owned properties, and their children went to state schools. They depended on the state for health care, and they bought food from state shops. The state, and the party, could not be avoided.
I previously wrote about the book Red Plenty, and the eventual failure of the concept of the socialist planned economy. Today, a government setting out to control every aspect of life seems absurd, yet it is what happened for decades in the USSR and for many years in Eastern Europe. The fact that a completely planned economy doesn’t work does not mean that the alternative – unfettered capitalism – is necessarily good.
It makes you wonder why some people are so obsessed with political power, and inflicting their own ideas on other people.
I was reading in the Sunday newspapers about how so few young people nowadays bother to get involved in politics or vote. Of the 56% of young people inn the UK who are registered to vote, 44% voted in 2010. They don’t see the point of, every few years, putting an X beside someone’s name who subsequently may, or may not, be elected. Whoever is actually elected is then supposed to represent them, in some way. Often, people don’t even vote for the person they may want to be represented by, but instead register a protest vote. The system is not working. Changing the ‘unit’ being voted for (as the nationalists wish), wouldn’t make any difference, it would simply move the goalposts a bit and add to the number of people telling the rest of us what to do.
In today’s electronic age, we should surely be able to come up with a better way of doing things – one which actually invites, but does not require, expression of opinion on an ongoing basis, and a way that makes people feel a part of things, and that their opinions will be acted upon. It has happened to some extent in another arena with various social media, so why can’t it happen with politics?