Over the years around 34,000 people were ‘sold’ in this way and the trade was sensitive to free-market economic laws. In the mid-1960s the price per head was around DM 40,000; by the mid-1980s, inflation and hard bargaining by the East had pushed that up to more than DM 100,000. The GDR soon saw it as a way of maximising income. The state made nothing from people who legally applied for visas to see their relatives in the West. So the police arrested thousands of them on trumped-up charges, called them ‘political prisoners’ and promptly sold them to West Germany. Egon Bahr, for many years the administrator who handled the sensitive business on West Germany’s side, said it was clear to him that ‘it was part of the GDR’s general budget’. Usually payments were made in hard cash, but on occasion the East received bartered goods. In one year, as part of the agreement, the GDR was sent shiploads of bananas, a luxury item in the East at the time, extremely hard to obtain in the shops of Berlin, Leipzig or Dresden. According to one of the most senior East German economists, this ‘business venture’ netted his massively indebted nation a total of around DM 8 billion. It was the kind of sum without which the country could not survive.2
The trade depended on conditions of high secrecy; it depended on a quiescent population in East Germany desperate to leave the country; and it depended on a regime cynical enough to believe it could sell and buy citizens at will. The sales were never officially admitted by the GDR. The authorities of course recognised that it was not the best advertisement for life in the countries that Erich Honecker, East Germany’s supreme leader then and for more than two decades, liked to say operated ‘actually existing socialism’.
It was socialism as the Soviet Union saw it, imposed at gunpoint on a half-dozen states that did not want it. The empire Joseph Stalin built after World War Two extended as far as the Russian armies reached in the final onslaught against the Nazis in the spring of 1945. There was no other logic to it. By agreement with the Allies at Yalta, the Soviets were essentially allowed to do what they liked in their ‘sphere of influence’. Stalin treated the entire region as one vast dominion, barely recognising any national identities in countries of extremely diverse cultures. The Red Tsar in Moscow imposed as his consuls in Prague, Warsaw and Sofia his own henchmen, whose prime loyalty was to the USSR and then to a Communist ideology. They were chosen for their unswerving allegiance to him. Most of them had spent fifteen or twenty years in exile in Russia and had taken Soviet citizenship. They had lost contact with the lands of their birth. The Soviet Union had given them shelter and a cause to believe in. Most were from countries where Communist Party membership had been illegal between the wars and they had spent long periods in jail. When they returned on Stalin’s instructions after the war, they were not going home. They went to Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland as representatives of a foreign power, to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. They knew what was expected of them: they were to build a socialist imperium in Central and Eastern Europe, with barely any deviation permitted from the Stalinist model. These countries in 1945 had important things in common: they were overrun and occupied by the Red Army and Stalin was about to transform them utterly in his image. Otherwise there were substantial differences, occasionally antagonisms, between them.
The Soviet attempt to turn the region into a stable, reliable and monolithic whole would be a hard task. There was some idealism to begin with. The majority of people who had endured the Nazi occupation were simply relieved the war was over. The experience of the 1920s and 1930s had turned many Central Europeans into socialists, though never anything like as many as the Communists imagined. Only in one country, Hungary, did Stalin permit a genuinely fair election. In November 1945 the Party won 18 per cent of the vote, while the main centre/right party received 51 per cent. The Soviets insisted on a coalition government, while the power of the police and ‘state security’ was placed in the hands of the Communists. In Czechoslovakia there had been a large industrial working class during the 1920s and 1930s; immediately after the war the Communists were supported by about 35 per cent of the voters. But if democracy would not give them power, the Soviets were determined to take it - one way or another. Using a mixture of bribery, intimidation, deceit and, finally, terror, within three years the Soviets had asserted full control over their new colonies. All other political parties were abolished by the end of 1948, or subsumed into the Communist Party and ceased to exist independently.
The occupation had been accompanied by atrocities from Russian troops who had seen some of the most brutal fighting in the war. It will never be known exactly how many women were raped in Germany, Hungary or Poland after the Soviet ‘liberation’, but the number certainly ran into hundreds of thousands. Desperate, conquered, exhausted, most people were prepared to put up with the new reality as long as a few improvements came along. Some of these countries were massively unjust peasant societies where serfdom had been abolished less than a century earlier. In large parts of Romania, agriculture had barely changed since medieval times. Generally, they lagged behind Western Europe. The Communists promised to transform all this, eradicate the injustices, start from scratch andbuild a dynamic new commonwealth of equals through rapid development.
For a while it worked. Immediate postwar reconstruction was as fast as in the Western half of Europe. But it started from an extremely low base of devastation and destruction. While in Britain there was still food rationing until the early 1950s, Czechoslovakia and Romania began exporting food fairly soon after the end of the war. The new regimes were given some praise for getting bridges and city centres rebuilt, transport links running again. Initially, at least, peasants were handed small pockets of land taken from the vast
estates that stretched through tracts of Eastern Europe. Then the land was taken away again in a rush to organise great collective farms owned by the state. Any enthusiasm there may once have been did not last beyond the purges of the last insane years of Stalin’s life.
The Communists had eliminated or cowed into submission their real enemies soon after the war. Opposition politicians were murdered en masse, Church leaders were intimidated into silence and on occasion collaboration. The bourgeoisie had their homes dispossessed and artists were told by commissars of culture what kind of music or painting or literature would henceforth be permitted. All businesses employing more than a handful of people were nationalised and in some countries - Bulgaria for example - no one other than the state was allowed to be an employer of any kind.
Relations between East and West had reached freezing point soon after the war - accelerated by Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. Then, in the winter of 1948-9, a Cold War broke out within the socialist bloc. A leader in one of the ‘liberated territories’ dared to challenge Moscow. During the war Josip Broz Tito had been a partisan leader in Yugoslavia’s struggle against the Nazis, earning respect, and material support, from anti-Communists. He established a Marxist dictatorship in Belgrade but resisted Yugoslavia’s descent into the slave status of his Central and East European neighbours. He identified various paths towards socialism, declared himself a ‘national Communist’ and saw the future for his country as ‘nonaligned’. All this was heresy in the eyes of Stalin, who once boasted ‘I could smash Tito with a snap of my fingers.’ It proved to be not quite so easy. Stalin thought he could afford to show no crack in Communist solidarity in case it was exploited by the West. Tito’s defiance could not go unpunished. Anyone in the empire inclined to show sympathy with the Yugoslavs had to be crushed. Stalin organised a campaign against the ‘nest of Titoist Trotskyite spies’ throughout the satellite states which for the next few years convulsed all of Eastern Europe as Communists devoured their own children in an orgy of bloodshed.
Famous names who had been hailed in the Bolshevik pantheon as heroes suddenly faced arrest on bogus charges, terrible tortures, show trials and, after a ritual ‘confession’, execution. Such was the fate of loyal Communists like Rudolf Slánsky, second in command of the Czech Party, László Rajk, the heir apparent in the Hungarian leadership, and the impeccably Stalinist Tchaiko Kostov in Bulgaria. Scores of thousands of lesser-known comrades were shot in the back of the neck, in the classic Bolshevik manner, or rotted away in prison camps. Often Communists who had survived Hitler’s camps and came out as faithful believers in socialism, died at the hands of their comrades - for example Slánsky’s co-defendant Josef Frank, who after three years in Buchenwald returned to Czechoslovakia as an honoured figure in the ruling regime but was murdered four years later in a Communist-run camp. In turn, those same executioners a month or a year later would themselves be executed. This was the method by which ‘socialist order’ was imposed. Who was or was not a traitor did not matter - the argument was semantic. Stalin believed in constant purges as the most effective way of retaining power and, when things were not going well, he required a regular supply of scapegoats. The system as created by him could not be in error:someone
had to be responsible for its failures.3
The great monster died in 1953 and his crimes began to be exposed by Nikita Khrushchev three years later. Over time the violent excesses were removed, but essentially the system that Stalin created survived barely reformed for another three and a half decades under various successors. It became less vicious, but through bureaucratic inertia and stagnation just as rigid, inflexible and hungry for control over its subjects. ‘Society is the horse and the Party is the rider,’ Stalin had said. The horses of Eastern Europe were ridden extra hard and would prefer to have been stabled elsewhere.
Life in the colonies was modelled on the Soviet Union. Anyone living from Varna on the Black Sea to Gdansk on the Baltic would have recognised how the system worked. It had next to nothing in common with the concepts of socialism defined by any of the faith’s idealistic founders. Traditionally, the main principles of socialism involved a commitment to equality, social justice, freedom, new opportunities for the poor, widening choice, respect for the individual and extending democracy. The Soviet model paid no more than lip service to any of these ideals. The rulers used the language of socialism entirely devoid of its content as a means of giving themselves bogus legitimacy. Soviet communism was not a classless society. Theoretically, under Marxism-Leninism, the working class was supposed to be dominant. The proletariat was the dynamic force that drove history, the textbooks said. The workers operated through a ‘vanguard’ - the Communist Party. It was not like that in real life. In practice, the leaders of the Communist Party sat at the top and did not trust the workers below. Leninists believed that the working class did not know what was in their best interests - they might, after all, if given the choice, allow the bourgeoisie to rule. So the Party would decide what was good for them.
The basis of Soviet communism was the system known as thenomenklatura
, which is how the Party maintained its power. It was an elaborate network of political patronage on a scale unknown in pluralist societies. Its result was that every important job in the country was held by a member of the Communist Party. Centrally and locally, a series of lists were maintained of all the positions that required Party membership - and of the people fit to hold them. This did not apply only to the top government and economic positions, but in every field: judges, head teachers at big schools, managers of football clubs, the fire service bosses, senior army and police officers, newspaper editors, hospital administrators, college lecturers, theatre and concert hall directors. The lists were enormous - in Czechoslovakia, a country of about nine million people, there were something like 450,000 nomenklatura jobs in every conceivable walk of life. Politics became paramount.b
The Party enforced rigid hierarchical discipline on members rather like the army. The high ranks formed a closed elite, a self-perpetuating oligarchy. They had monopoly power and sole access to the fixed list of the top jobs. They rewarded themselves handsomely - luxurious houses, domestic staff, cars, the best medical care. They could travel occasionally to the West. They had access to a range of goods denied to others, from foodstuffs to furniture, at special shops where they paid with hard currency to which only they had access. Their children enjoyed all the class privileges of background and a relatively high standard of living. They went to the best schools and universities; they had far better job opportunities than the children of average workers. The children of the nomenklatura did very well - as long as they were obedient and dutiful. The privileges depended on loyalty to the Party. One false step politically, and the job, the car, the nanny, the maid-servant and cook, the children’s university education, could all disappear overnight. Every rung of the Party ladder was formally required to execute the orders of the rung above, on the absolute Communist golden rule called, with no hint of irony, democratic centralism.4
The rules applied right to the top. The Soviets had ultimate control as they chose - or at any rate approved - the senior political figures throughout their domains. After Stalin died, Moscow interfered just as directly, replacing people whose loyalty they thought suspect, or installing their own Russian-trained favourites. But the Soviets’ reach also went down to relatively low levels. Each government minister in every country throughout its empire, each senior army officer, each police chief, each senior judge, had a Soviet ‘adviser’ with a direct line to the Kremlin.
Navigating these labyrinthine bureaucracies required certain characteristics. Once idealism or revolutionary fervour had disappeared - certainly by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - the system stagnated. The talent pool in the various Communist Parties diminished. Advancement was not on merit, but on obedience and loyalty to the Party. Discretion was rewarded, initiative, originality and brainpower frowned upon. Occasionally some highly intelligent, creative and efficientapparatchiks
reached senior positions, but they were exceptions. Cynicism ate into the soul of communism. Belief grew irrelevant to Communist functionaries. ‘Little by little it became a more or less theoretical thing . . . like the second coming of Christ,’ said Oleg Troyanovsky, who had been a diplomat in several of the satellite states after 1945. ‘You preach it; you are supposed to believe in it, but no one really takes it seriously. Ideology took second place to national interests, sometimes it was just a cover for national interests.’5