1947: Event & Idea

The second quotation opening the ‘Introduction’ in Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005) is taken from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): ‘Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing!) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect.’ The inclusion of this quotation hints that Judt’s European history-writing may pay prominent attention to the relation between events and ideas; after all, as a later quotation, this time from Heinrich Heine in 1828, suggests, this relation is a characteristically Continental – if not English – concern. Heine observed how ‘it is rarely possible for the English, in their parliamentary debates, to give utterance to a principle. They discuss only the utility or disutility of a thing, and produce facts, for and against.’[i]            

Judt’s reading of Europe in the postwar period does indeed foreground the relationship between historical events and political ideas. But it starts out in the more English way of prioritizing events or facts, and notes how the very emergence (with time) of the post-Communist perspective on ‘the years 1945-89’ as simply representing a ‘post-war parenthesis’, meant that previously seemingly permanent phenomena, such as ‘the schism separating East from West’ or ‘the contest between “Communism” and “capitalism”’, were now perceivable as merely ‘accidental outcomes of history’. Cold War-era divisions ‘could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics’, Judt writes.[ii] In keeping with this prioritization of historical events – facts – Judt’s account of the postwar Soviet imposition of Communist ideology presents the imposition of ideology as a product of historical accident. As he summarizes, ‘the year 1947 was to prove crucial, the hinge on which was suspended the fate of the continent.’ Until mid-1946, many US leaders seemed to believe that the wartime partnership with Stalin was still in place. Even in early 1947, as Judt notes, Secretary of State Marshall remained hopeful that any solutions implemented to restore the German economy need not result in the division of Germany, and on this East and West were still ‘in formal accord’. The ‘real break’ only came with the event of the March/April Moscow meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, at which it became clear that the Western Allies ‘were no longer seeking a single German administration’. Given the dominance of Soviet military might at that time, a united Germany would entail the abandonment of the western zones of Germany to Soviet control. Robert K. Murphy, the US Military Government in Germany’s political adviser, saw that ‘it was the Moscow Conference of 1947 […] which really rang down the Iron Curtain’.[iii]      

Of course there were other historical accidents too which determined the laying down of the Iron Curtain in the postwar period, and 1947 itself held many events. A single Germany, geopolitically neutral and militarily weak, was what Stalin hoped for. But his rigid and confrontational stance ensured that, as Judt finds, ‘the immediate cause of the division of Germany and Europe lies […] in Stalin’s own errors’.[iv] Thus Judt stresses in particular one of Stalin’s ‘greatest strategic mistakes’: his decision to opt out of the European Recovery Program of the Marshall Plan in the weeks after its announcement in June 1947. The confinement of the American aid to Western European countries resulted in a further ‘parting of the ways between the two halves of the continent’, Judt emphasizes. But Stalin’s postwar distrust of the West was itself a product of historical process. The years of the East-West wartime alliance, 1941-45, had been – Judt points out – ‘just an interlude in an international struggle between Western democracies and Soviet totalitarianism’. In fact, ‘in Europe the Cold War began not after the Second World War but following the end of the First’ – for instance, Poland was at war with the Soviet Union in 1920. By 1945 the Soviet armies represented the greatest military force Europe had ever seen, and so already in July 1944 Britain’s General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, prophesized to his diary that Russia ‘cannot fail to become the main threat in fifteen years from now. Therefore, foster Germany, gradually bring her up and bring her into a Federation of Western Europe.’[v]

Judt underlines how Russia’s own need for security motivated the creation of the Iron Curtain. ‘Just as the war had been about Germany, so was the peace, and the spectre of German revanchism haunted Soviet calculations every bit as much as it did those of the French.’ At the historical event of the Potsdam conference of July/August 1945, Stalin gained agreement on the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe and the administrative sub-division of Germany for occupation purposes, Judt notes. He enables us to see that, in a general sense, such anti-revanchist assurances were not incompatible with the continuing satisfaction of what Judt calls the ‘template for Russian imperial engagement in Europe’ established in response to Napoleon by Tsar Alexander I. Within the framework of this template, ‘Russian security would be defined by the territory under Czarist control – never again must a Western army be able to reach Moscow unimpeded – and by the success with which its occupants were forcibly reconciled to the new system.’ But Judt’s account also lets us understand that the centuries-long historical process of Russian engagement with security problems such as Germany was continuing with simple discrete events such as Potsdam. Forcible reconciliation to the Soviet system would entail manoeuvres of occupation and control, and Judt cites the remark of the leading historian of the Soviet occupation of East Germany, Norman Naimark, that ‘the Soviets were driven by concrete events in the zone, rather than by preconceived plans or ideological imperatives.’[vi]      

But what interests me is that, if Judt shows the creation of the Iron Curtain to be a product of historical accidents or of a process of historical events, his account also shows that process to be itself all about the imposition of ideas and intellectual control. Hence it is as if – when the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe with Communist ideas – factual process was shown to consist of  ideology even as it determined the imposition of ideology.

Judt sees that the factual process of the Soviet takeover in Eastern Europe fundamentally concerned ‘power, not legality’. He maintains that regarding the consolidation of Soviet power, 1947 was the key year. Though because of insufficient electoral support ‘there was never any prospect of the Communists gaining control of the country [Germany] or even the Soviet zone except by force’, all across Eastern Europe Stalin had preferred to seek to secure power through ‘legal or ostensibly legal means […], at least through the autumn of 1947’. Then with the establishing of the Cominform in late September Stalin could clamp down ‘in what was now a Soviet bloc’. The real goal of the Communist Information Bureau, as Judt recalls, was only ‘to re-establish Soviet dominion within the international [Communist] movement’: it met a mere three times and did not exist beyond 1956.[vii] You could call the Cominform a bald exercise of force itself constituted by Communist Information – by ideas – and hence lacking in sustainable substance.

The Soviet consolidation of power entailed achieving ideological uniformity across the Eastern bloc. Judt summarizes that for Stalin, postwar, ‘the region separating Germany and Russia could not be left in uncertainty’. He only ever intended the formation, ‘in those parts of the region not preemptively absorbed into the USSR itself’, of ‘governments that could be relied upon never to pose a threat to Soviet security’. In reality ‘the only way to guarantee such an outcome was to align the political system of the states of eastern Europe with that of the Soviet Union’.[viii] Hence in her Iron Curtain (2012), Anne Applebaum defines the era of ‘High Stalinism’, 1948-53, as a period when ‘all of the region’s communist parties would pursue an identical set of goals using an identical set of tactics’. Judt wrote of how Stalin aimed to ‘re-mould eastern Europe in the Soviet image; to reproduce Soviet history, institutions and practices in each of the little states now controlled by Communist parties’. They indeed became ‘satellite states’, or what Kenneth Jowett termed ‘geographically contiguous replica states’. Judt interestingly distinguishes between the institutions of the GDR, which were ‘somewhat distinct, reflecting its interim standing in Soviet eyes’, and ‘the spirit of its laws and practices [which] was impeccably orthodox’. This probably relates to the fact that Soviet de-nazification in East Germany essentially amounted to an ideologically-driven process of de-bourgeoisification, such as pertained throughout the Eastern bloc. Rather than concerning themselves particularly with inducing moral re-education or a sense of responsibility, ‘[Walter] Ulbricht and his colleagues’, as Judt underlines, ‘believed that the way to expunge Nazism from Germany was by effecting a socio-economic transformation’. Paying little attention to the distinctively racist (and finally genocidal) nature of Nazism, the Soviet authorities ‘instead focused their arrests and expropriations on businessmen, tainted officials, teachers and others responsible for advancing the interests of the social class purportedly standing behind Hitler’.[ix]

The Soviet totalitarian imposition of ideological and intellectual uniformity was gained through a redefinition of civil society alongside de-bourgeoisification. As Applebaum remarks, ‘the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism’ was ‘the system’s ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest’. The ‘theory of civil society’ developed by the Soviets, Applebaum wrote, was one which asserted – ‘in contrast to Burke, Tocqueville and their own Russian intellectuals’ – and ‘in the words of the historian Stuart Finkel’, that ‘“the public sphere in a socialist society should be unitary and univocal”’. This meant that the Soviet redefinition of civil society – the factual clampdown on independent associations and trade unions, for example – in a sense itself consisted of Communist ideology, when ‘the only organizations allowed to have a legal existence were de facto extensions of the communist party’.[x]

Popular conformism was achieved also through a system of propaganda and education, aimed at creating what Applebaum calls ‘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 [sic] orthodoxy’. She notes of show trials that ‘like practically every other Stalinist institution, they had an educational purpose’.[xi] For Judt, the trials were ‘a form of public pedagogy-by-example’, a ‘venerable Communist institution […] whose purpose was to illustrate and exemplify the structures of authority in the Soviet system’. He quotes the clause of the Czechoslovak ‘Court Organisation Act’ of January 1953 referring to how the courts’ function was ‘to educate the citizens in devotion and loyalty toward the Czechoslovak Republic, etc.’ In a show trial a confession ‘confirmed Communist doctrine’, Judt points out. This mattered because ‘Stalin was not interested in agreement or even consent, only unswerving obedience’. For ‘there were no disagreements in Stalin’s universe, only heresies; no critics, only enemies; no errors, only crimes’. When educational control was maintained through obedience, dogma could replace (potentially critical) thinking, and the function and potency of an intelligentsia be defused. Though Stalin’s ‘main enemies were ostensibly the peasant and the bourgeois’, Judt observed, ‘in practice intellectuals were often the easiest target, just as they had been for the Nazis’.[xii]  

Importantly, Judt comments on how the Communists ‘initially flattered’ Eastern European intellectuals, ‘for whom Communism’s ambitions stood in appealing contrast to the small-state parochialism of their homelands as well as the violent anti-intellectualism of the Nazis’. The specifically universalist rationality of Soviet Communism – or the ideology of universalist rationality which it projected with its globalized Hegelianism – legitimized its actions in the eyes of intellectuals. Whilst the ‘besetting sin’ of Fascism had been its ‘parochial objectives’ – aims which threatened to limit intellectuals’ ambitions to nationalist particularism – Communism, by contrast, was ‘directed towards impeccably universal and transcendent goals’. The consequent sense that ‘the Soviet Union was engaged upon a momentous quest whose very ambition justified and excused its shortcomings’, as Judt writes, was ‘uniquely attractive to rationalist intellectuals’. The Soviet project was perhaps particularly seductive in the form of the GDR which, of the two postwar Germanies, was the one ‘claiming a monopolistic inheritance of the “good” German past: anti-Fascist, progressive, enlightened’. With its ideological aura of anti-(or post-)Nazi, egalitarian rationalism – of quite simply having the most credible ideas – the GDR appeared to ‘radical intellectuals from the “materialist” West’ too as ‘a lean and sober alternative to the Federal Republic’.[xiii]

This delusive appearance of the Stasi state as not just the most ideological state of the Soviet bloc, but also the state consisting of the best ideas, reminds us just how important it is to return to an awareness of the historical actuality of the Soviet satellite states; and precisely whilst the process of historical events was all about the imposition of intellectual control through ideology. In the final paragraph of Iron Curtain, Applebaum makes it clear that the type of democratic and conservative history-writing that she herself practices is premised on an emphasis on particular actualities. This is because ‘before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how it was destroyed in the first place’, she thinks. ‘They need to know particular details, not general theories, and they need to hear individual stories, not generalizations about the masses.’[xiv]     



[i] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (London: Vintage Books, 2010; first publ. [London(?)]: Heinemann, 2005), pp. 1, 164 (quoting Heine).  

[ii] Judt, pp. 2, 1, 2.

[iii] Judt, pp. 86, 108-09, 124 (quoting Murphy).

[iv] Judt, pp. 127, 92, 93.

[v] Judt, pp. 104, 103, 117; Brooke quoted from p. 111.

[vi] Judt, pp. 122, 119, 120 (quoting Naimark).

[vii] Judt, pp. 134, 123, 134, 125, 143. 

[viii] Judt, pp. 129-30.

[ix] Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (London: Penguin Books, 2013; first publ. [n.p.]: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 266; Judt, pp. 167 (quoting Jowett), 59.

[x] Applebaum, pp. 411, 161 (quoting Finkel).  

[xi] Applebaum, pp. 272, 301.

[xii] Judt, pp. 187-88, 190, 188, 193.

[xiii] Judt, pp. 200, 216, 203, 204.

[xiv] Applebaum, p. 498. 


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