Anne Applebaum's 2004 book Gulag was a masterful work of scholarship that shed light on Stalin's network of Soviet concentration camps, telling the story of the nearly 2 million people who perished in them. In Iron Curtain (2012), she describes the fate of the 80 million people of Eastern Europe who fell under Stalinist rule in the immediate postwar era. Applebaum tells the story by focusing on three countries: Poland, Hungary and East Germany.
We tend to think of the postwar East Bloc as one uniform gray mass stretching from the Oder to Siberia, but, as Applebaum describes in the book, each country emerged from the war with very different conditions. Poland was a lunar landscape of rubble, having been ravaged by both Hitler and the Red Army. East Germany, despite the devestation of the aerial bombing of city centers, had an industrial infrastructure that was largely intact. But rather than using this industry as a base for rebuilding a nation that could compete with the rapidly recovering West, Stalin ordered that every factory had to be dismantled and shipped to the Soviet Union:
"It is reliably known that out of 17,024 medium and large factories identified by the USSR in their zone, more than 4,500 were dismantled and removed. Another fifty or sity large companies stayed intact but became Soviet companies. Between a third and a half of eastern Germany's industrial capacity disappeared between 1945 and 1946. In a very real sense, this was the beginning of the division of Germany. Although the other Allies certainly "recruited" German scientists and other experts, no comparable removal effort took place in the western zones of Germany. In the wake of Soviet reparations, the economies of the two halves of Germany began immediately to diverge."
So East Germany began the era as the "poor relative" of the increasingly prosperous West Germany, and to this day still suffers from this postwar legacy.
All three countries had nascent democratic groups, some led by anti-Nazi resistance fighters, and many of whom had ties to, or were sympathetic to, the Communist Party. These individuals were viewed with deep suspicion by the Soviet "liberators." Especially those who had been detained in Nazi concentration camps were seen as potential "traitors" and were either executed or vanished in Stalins Gulag network. These natural leaders were replaced by "mini-Stalins" - such as Walter Ulbricht: party functionaries who had spent the war in Moscow and who exhibited a fanatical loyalty to Stalin.
Applebaum spends much of Iron Curtain describing the efforts to create the new Homo sovieticus, the product of a cradle-to-grave totalitarian system of state-controlled schools, factories and mass organizations that would envelop citizens from the moment of birth. Hence the focus on young people. It was assumed that those who grew up in such as system would never conceive of opposing it. The show trials, the arrests, the violence against clergy and dissidents were all part of birth pangs of the new order that would create the new Soviet man. In addition, Stalin's "scientists" proved that the attributes of Homo sovieticus would be genetically transmitted to future generations.
If there is a silver lining to the overall bleak narrative of Iron Curtain, it is the utter failure of the Homo sovieticus experiment. Try as they could, the "mini-Stalins" could not entirely cut off exposure to decadent western impulses. And it was these impulses that the young people, especially, embraced. Teen-aged boys and girls demonstrated their rejection of the system by wearing striped socks, brightly colored shirts, and narrow pencil skirts. They listened to American jazz, and then American rock and roll. Needless to say, the regimes did everything possible to stamp out this "hooliganism" - but to no avail.
By the time of Stalin's death in March of 1953, things began to unravel quickly across the region. The workers in the Workers' and Peasants' State East Germany were the first to rebel in June of 1953, but this was just a prologue to the bloody revolution in Hungary in 1956. Applebaum describes the events in heartbreaking detail - including the weak response of the United States and other western countries. On the failure of Homo sovieticus Applebaum writes:
"Human beings do not acquire "totalitarian personalities" with such ease. Even when they seem bewitched by the cult of the leader or of the party, appearance can be deceiving. And even when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda - even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right - the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken. "
The uprising in Hungary marked the end of High Stalinism - the totalitarian experiment - in Eastern Europe. What followed were decades of authoritarian rule, marked by periodic outbursts of rebellion (Prague Spring, Solidarnosc, etc.). Why the system was able to persist for another thirty years despite massive structural problems and internal contradictions is a topic for another book.