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How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life

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AFP/Getty Images
The East German Communist youth organization Free German Youth electing Erich Honecker (third from right) as chairman, Berlin, 1946

In 1947, Stefan Jędrychowski, a Communist veteran, member of the Polish Politburo, and minister in the government, wrote a memo to his colleagues on a subject close to his heart. Somewhat pompously entitled “Notes on Anglo-Saxon Propaganda,” the memo complained, among other things, that British and American news services were more influential in Poland than their Soviet and Polish equivalents, that American films were too warmly reviewed, and that American fashions were too readily available.

But above all, Jędrychowski was annoyed by the clout of Polska YMCA, the Polish section of the Young Men’s Christian Association, an organization founded in Warsaw in 1923 and then banned under the German occupation. In April 1945 Polska YMCA had restarted itself with some help from the international YMCA headquarters in Geneva and a good deal of local enthusiasm.

The YMCA was avowedly apolitical. Its main tasks in Poland were the distribution of foreign aid—clothes, books, food—and the provision of activities and classes for young people. Jędrychowski suspected ulterior motives, however. The YMCA propaganda, he wrote, was conducted “carefully…avoiding direct political accents,” which of course made it more dangerous. He recommended that Comrade Radkiewicz, the minister for state security, conduct a financial audit of the organization and monitor carefully which publications were being made available and what kinds of courses were being taught.

He was not the only one who was worried. At about the same time, the Education Ministry also received a report from leaders of the Communist youth movement, then known as the Union of Fighting Youth (Związek Walki Młodych, or ZWM), who loathed the YMCA even more than Jędrychowski did. The young Communists were irritated by the YMCA’s English classes, clubs, and billiards games. In Gdańsk, they complained, the organization sponsored dormitories and dining halls, and gave away used clothes. In Kraków it had rented a building with a seventy-five-year lease. Though they didn’t say so, all of this was far more than they themselves were capable of doing.

There may have been darker concerns: in the period just after the Bolshevik revolution, a British agent named Paul Dukes had actually used the YMCA in Moscow as a cover for his espionage activities, though not with any particular success. But the Polish Communists wouldn’t have needed to know that piece of history in order to find the Warsaw YMCA irritating. They hated the YMCA because it was fashionable, if there could be said to be such a thing as fashion in postwar Warsaw. The Warsaw YMCA was, for example, the abode of Leopold Tyrmand, a novelist, journalist, and flaneur, as well as Poland’s first and greatest jazz critic. Tyrmand rented a room in the half- destroyed building after the war that was, as he later wrote, “two and a half metres by three and half metres—in other words a hole. But cozy.” All around was nothing but mud, dust, and the ruins of Warsaw: this gave the building, a mere dormitory for single men, the air of “a luxurious hotel.” It wasn’t much, but it was clean and quiet.

In the evenings, Tyrmand dressed in brightly colored socks and narrow trousers, the latter specially made for him by a tailor who also lived at the YMCA, and went to the jazz concerts downstairs. There, “between the cafeteria, the reading room and the swimming pool the best girls ambled about in the then-fashionable style of swing.” Both the Warsaw and Łodz YMCA branches were renowned for these concerts. One fan remembered that getting a ticket to a YMCA concert was “a dream…it was cultured, elegant, hugely fun, even without alcohol.” More than anything else it was entertainment: “We didn’t know anything about Katyń or about how one lives in a free country, we didn’t have passports, we didn’t have new books or movies, but we had a natural need to find entertainment, fun…that was what jazz gave us.” Tyrmand himself wrote later that the YMCA represented “genuine civilization in the middle of devastated, troglodyte Warsaw, a city where one lived in ratholes. Above all we valued the collegial atmosphere, the sportiness, the good humour.”

But with enemies like Jędrychowski and the Union of Fighting Youth, the organization could not last. Under pressure since 1946, by 1949 the Communist authorities had declared the YMCA a “tool of bourgeois-fascism” and dissolved it. With bizarre, Orwellian fury, Communist youth activists descended on the club with hammers and smashed all the jazz records. The building was given over to something called the League of Soldiers’ Friends. The inhabitants were harassed, first with early-morning noise, later with cuts in water and electricity, in order to get them to move out. Eventually, the young Communists threw everyone’s possessions out of the windows of the building and removed their beds.

According to the standard version of postwar Eastern European history, the attack on the YMCA, which began in 1946–1947, should not have happened. For until recently, most historians of this era divided the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe into phases. First there was a moment of “genuine democracy” in 1944–1945 following the defeat of Germany and liberation; then, briefly, a period of “bogus democracy,” as Hugh Seton-Watson once described it, in which different political tendencies emerged into the open and it seemed as if some opposition groups might have a chance of surviving. Then, in 1947–1948, there was an abrupt policy shift and a full-fledged takeover by Communists: political terror was increased, the media muzzled, elections manipulated. All pretense of national autonomy was abandoned.

Some historians and political scientists have since blamed this change in political atmosphere on the onset of the cold war, with which it coincided. Sometimes, this imposition of Stalinism in Eastern Europe is even blamed on Western cold warriors, whose aggressive rhetoric allegedly “forced” the Soviet leader to tighten his grip on the region. In 1959, this general “revionist” argument was given its classic form by William Appleman Williams, who argued that the cold war had been caused not by Communist expansion but by the American drive for open international markets. More recently, a prominent German scholar has argued that the division of Germany was caused not by the Soviet pursuit of totalitarian policies in eastern Germany after 1945, but by the Western powers’ failure to take advantage of Stalin’s peaceful overtures.

But any close examination of what was happening on the ground across Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1947 reveals the deep flaws of these arguments—and, thanks to the availability of Soviet as well as Eastern European archives, a close examination is now possible. New sources have helped historians understand that the early “liberal” period was, in reality, not quite so liberal as it sometimes appeared in retrospect, or to outsiders. Not every element of the Soviet political system was imported into the region as soon as the Red Army crossed the borders.

Indeed there is no evidence that Stalin expected to create a Communist “bloc” very quickly, although in Poland he set up the compliant “provisional” government in Lublin right away. In 1944, Stalin’s deputy foreign minister, Ivan Maisky, wrote a note predicting that the nations of Europe would eventually all become Communist states, but only after three or perhaps four decades. (He also predicted that in the Europe of the future there should be only one land power, the USSR, and one sea power, Great Britain.) In the meantime, Maisky thought the Soviet Union should not try to foment “proletarian revolutions” in Eastern Europe and should try to maintain good relations with the Western democracies.

Yet the Soviet Union did import certain key elements of the Soviet system into every nation occupied by the Red Army, from the very beginning. First and foremost, the Soviet NKVD, in collaboration with local Communist parties, immediately created a secret police force in its own image, often using people whom it had already trained in Moscow. Everywhere the Red Army went—even in Czechoslovakia, from which Soviet troops eventually withdrew—these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria.

Secondly, in every occupied nation, the Soviet authorities, while briefly allowing non-Communist newspapers and magazines to appear, placed trusted local Communists in charge of the era’s most powerful form of mass media: the radio. In the long term, the authorities hoped that the radio, together with other propaganda and changes to the educational system, would help bring the masses into the Communist camp.

Thirdly, wherever it was possible, Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local Communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise. To some degree, the United States and Britain were complicit in this policy—ethnic cleansing of the Germans would be written into the Potsdam Agreement—but few in the West understood at the time how extensive and violent Soviet ethnic cleansing would turn out to be.

Finally, Soviet and local Communists harassed, persecuted, and eventually banned many of the independent organizations of what we would now call civil society, from women’s groups and athletic associations to church organizations and private kindergartens. In particular, they were fixated, from the very first days of the occupation, on youth groups: young social democrats, young Catholic or Protestant organizations, boy scouts and girl scouts. Even before they banned independent political parties for adults, and even before they outlawed church organizations and independent trade unions, they put young people’s organizations under the strictest possible observations and restraint.

In fact, the attacks on youth groups in many of the nations occupied by the Red Army began well before other policies had been set into motion. Polska YMCA was only one of many youth groups to reemerge from the rubble of the war. In an era before television and social media, and at a time when many lacked radio, newspapers, books, music, and theater, youth groups had an importance to teenagers and young adults that today is hard to imagine. They organized parties, concerts, camps, clubs, sports, and discussion groups of a kind that could be found nowhere else.

In Germany, the disappearance of the Hitler Youth and its female branch, the League of German Girls, left a real gap. Until the very end of the war, nearly half of the young people in Germany had attended Hitler Youth and League of German Girls meetings in the evenings. Most had spent their summers and weekends at organized camps as well. As soon as the fighting stopped, former members and former opponents of the Nazi youth groups began spontaneously to form antifascist organizations in towns and cities across both East and West Germany.

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