In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 , Anne Applebaum highlights how the Soviets focused their efforts in Eastern Europe on crushing civil society, more than on crushing capitalism.

As TNR reviewer Christopher Caldwell summarizes, “Applebaum credits the historian Stuart Finkel with the insight that communists have always acted more forcibly to undermine free association than to undermine free enterprise. Even when Lenin launched the New Economic Plan in the 1920s, she notes, the ‘systematic destruction of literary, philosophical, and spiritual societies continued unabated.’ The Soviets’ worries were not misplaced: the Armageddon of Eastern European communism in the late 1980s was brought about not by plutocrats but by Czech intellectuals, Polish labor unions, and various church groups.”

Even the smallest zone of free expression had to be dismantled or coopted:

“There was suspicion of pub owners, tobacco sellers, and barbers who ‘due to their regular contacts with the public were the primary disseminators of fascist propaganda.’ But Soviet communism did not permit even independent ‘anti-fascist’ groups. The Polish Boy Scouts were targeted because they had made the decision to join the armed anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. It was not enough that an individual be open to the new regime or hostile to the old. The person who did not make an outright, preemptive demonstration of his servility might cause you trouble later on . . . . This was a society in which everything had to yield before the state’s definition of reality. ‘We need support by our satirical press in the republic,’ a member of the German Central Committee explained when the government shut down a mild humor magazine.”

The church especially posed a threat, especially the Catholic church with its worldwide network: “In 1950, Caritas, the Catholic charity, which operated orphanages and soup kitchens, came under fire for having connections to ‘aristocrats’ and Nazi sympathizers and misappropriating funds. It was nationalized, and priests were fined for alluding to it in sermons. Breaking the Church also allowed the state to seize useful booty that they, like Henry VIII, could place under the authority of ‘patriotic priests’ and leaders of the official ‘opposition.’”

Church leaders responded differently to the pressures. Caldwell writes, “The Hungarian Catholic Church took a hard line. Its cardinal, József Mindszenty, spent the last fifteen years of his life holed up in the American Embassy in Budapest.” In Poland, the church made concessions, but that enabled the church to survive and face down the communists in the 70s and 80s.

All of which supports the notion that social institutions - not only the church but even what appear to fragile institutions like literary societies and public houses - offer a more substantial bulwark against tyranny than the market.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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