The last world war has been and is until today, one of the greatest failures to humankind. Yes the Allies won and the killing ended, but the scars that remained are still painful now after so many decades. Still, the joy and excitement of people when they finally heard that the war was over must have been a sight to see. For many, that was a respite they relished. The freedom gained at the end was precious. For many more, it was only the beginning, as the suffering would go on in the darkness, behind the iron curtain. Cold and rigid as that image conjures up in the minds of westerners, the iron curtain to the easterners felt like a lead blanket, trapping people underneath.
Vladimir Lenin and by extension the USSR felt the need to create this barrier between them and the rest of the world after the war ended, fueled perhaps by the fact that they had been invaded twice in the last 30 years by Germany. Thus a number of countries became satellite states for the USSR, governed by the socialist ideologies imposed. Socialism strives to make all workers equal in profit and property, eliminating social classes. Communism would be the evolution from socialist ideologies and as utopic as they sounded on paper, in practice, they proved to be failures. The countries taken under the wing of the USSR were Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and East Germany. None of them truly were in fact communist since none of them achieved that status. The government kept all the property and power while corruption assured their stay in power. Instead, every country labelled as communist is actually a socialist one. Even the acronym for USSR stands for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Viewing only the political aspects of socialist countries and foreign policies, during the cold war, presents only one angle from which this period can be seen. On a smaller scale, analyzing people’s lives in the harsh conditions under the iron curtain, we may see how they managed to cope.
A fractured country
Germany was in a weirder condition than some of the other countries. It was split into four occupation zones, though we may simply group it into two, the democratic West and the communist east. In the west, England, France, and the USA each had an occupation zone and the USSR had one in the east. As though the country was not fractured enough, the capital, Berlin, now in the eastern part of Germany under the Russians, was also divided into two. From 1948 to 1949 a 10-month blockade was set up by the Russians to cut all incoming supplies to West Berlin. Basically, Stalin was threatening to starve out the entire population of West Berlin and the allies to the west could not break that blockade as it would signal aggression and the start of a new war. Only by air could supplies be delivered and the amount of effort that had been undertaken to ensure west Berliners with food and supplies set the stage for how the cold war was to be fought from that point on.
Under new management
All the satellite states had to undergo collectivization, 5-year plans, restrictions in movement, no freedom of expression, no free elections and no division of power. On top of that Russian language was mandatory in schools, and any interaction with the west was frowned upon to the point that many people became, later on, aware of secret police files created to investigate undesirables. Privacy thoroughly invaded, the seeds of distrust had been sowed in the hearts of people, living under the weight of the iron curtain.
Nuggets of differences
The degree to which those principles were implemented into each satellite state crystallized the lives of the people there, and reveal certain nuggets of differences from one country to the next. A secret police force was created in every country. Germans had the Stasi, Czechoslovakia had the secret police, Romania had the Security. It seemed like all of them wanted a different phrasing for the same institution used to break people’s privacy. Bugging phones, intercepting letters and attaching them to files that documented entire lives. Mundane things like going shopping for groceries, going to work, dropping letters at the post, meeting with friends at home, talking with one’s significant other before going to bed, recording phone conversations later to be transcribed for the file. A neatly organized file brimming with the most boring thing one does every day. Everything was suspect, the paranoia so ingrained in the communist’s brains it encapsulated their one and only personality trait. Petty minded and dangerous.
Mandatory conversion to atheism
Religion and the practice of it were heavily stifled out along with religious figures. Underground religious rituals were performed in the utmost secrecy. This practice was dangerous for both priests and the people attending. The government wanted to force people into atheism. In the USSR not complying with this conversion leads many people to be harassed, incarcerated, executed and churches were closed and demolished. Basic human rights were being crushed. Houses in Romania were demolished to make room for apartment buildings to accommodate more people. The previous owners of said demolished houses had no say in the matter. The culture was set under a very thick magnifying glass of censorship. Movies, music, and literature had to glorify the socialist state.
Hungary opposed the harsh conditions into which they had found themselves in 1956 and revolted. Thousands of Hungarians were killed in the process. After six years some concessions were made to improve life quality for Hungarians. A number of consumer and cultural products were allowed in Hungary. The citizens gained more freedom to travel abroad. Even the secret police loosened the leash of control they upheld. This reformation of sorts, earned the name Goulash Communism to point out a slightly positive change.
A step too far
The overall oppressive regime in the entire eastern bloc, sprinkled with the corruption that infiltrated through the seems into the fabric of everyday life, pushed its citizens a step too far. The people rose up demanding freedom almost in unison. The Berlin Wall fell, the iron curtain had been lifted and the socialist experiment failed. Now there are still countries under the same regime, slightly different enough to make the quality of life better. There are still people in the former socialist countries in Europe that regret the fall of their respective totalitarian states. They cite the sense of community, the assured job, the house they were granted if they became members of the party, but completely ignore the human rights violation and corruption. In the end, the desire for freedom won out over oppression.