By Melissa Feinberg

Oxford University Press. 232 pages. £47.99. ISBN 978-0-19-064461-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

1947 is probably the date when the Cold War started. Or at least was officially recognised as underway. In the United States (the key player on the Western side) the Truman Doctrine came into force. It said that communism was a direct threat to America, and there were now two opposing camps. One represented free speech, truth, and elected governments. The other stood for tyranny, lies, and dictatorship. Needless to say, the other side didn’t see it that way. They formed the Communist Information Agency, and claimed that America was an imperialist power and intent on world domination. The truth lay with the peace-loving peoples of the Eastern Bloc countries, while in the United States workers were exploited by greedy employers and black people were victims of racial prejudice. The overall emphasis from both camps appears to have been that “truth was an absolute that could only be possessed by one side”.

Melissa Feinberg is largely concerned to look at how the situation was seen by people in Eastern European countries, and in particular in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary. All of them had “communist governments after the Second World War, and were economically and militarily allied with the Soviet Union”. She excludes Yugoslavia, which “split off from the Soviet alliance in 1948”; the German Democratic Republic, “an independent Communist state allied with the Soviet Union”; and Albania, which “was also a Soviet ally until 1960”. There is a practical reason, too, in that most of the interviews on which her research was based were with people from the five countries named earlier.

The period she looks at is from 1948 to 1956, and the interviews were with a variety of émigrés, and conducted on behalf of Radio Free Europe (RFE), an organisation which, by 1951, was making regular broadcasts from Munich to Eastern Bloc countries. It was mostly staffed by émigrés, though controlled from New York, and its general aim was to persuade people that life in the West was much better than in the East, and to encourage them to question their living conditions and lack of freedom. There may not have been a direct design  to foment any sort of armed uprising, but it would seem that an impression was created that, should there be one, the West, and especially the Americans, would intervene on the side of the rebels. This may have been just wishful thinking, and it certainly turned out that way in 1956 when Russia sent tanks and troops to suppress the Hungarian Revolution. I was a soldier with the British Army in Germany at the time, and we could pick up appeals for help from Budapest on the powerful short-wave radio in the guardroom. Listening to them was all we did.

It’s perhaps difficult to know how truthful some of the émigrés were in their testimonies. They may have been telling the interviewers what they wanted to hear. And it could be argued, at least by those who supported communism, that they didn’t represent the views of the people they’d left behind. They were opportunists and individualists out to further their own interests and not those of society at large, or so it was claimed by the communist authorities. On the other hand, it would be foolish to deny that life behind the Iron Curtain was in many ways limited in comparison to conditions in the West. This would have been particularly true during the Stalinist period, as defined by Feinberg, but it continued to be so right up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. I can’t claim any broad experience of life under communism, but I briefly visited East Berlin and Prague in the late-1970s and early-1980s, and shortages and restrictions were in evidence. I recall fiddling with the radio in the hotel room in Prague and thinking that broadcasts from the West were being jammed. Or was it just another case of something not working properly? Either reason might have applied in a communist country.

The stories that RFE broadcast clearly had a basis in facts provided by émigrés, and their purpose was to remind people in the Eastern Bloc how controlled their lives were. They also served a purpose in the West in terms of shaping ideas about communism and how to see life in, say, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Feinberg doesn’t touch on it, but views about domestic communists in the West were also partly formed by the reports in newspapers, and on the radio, about the situation in the Eastern Bloc. “Enemies within” was a term employed by both sides in the Cold War to describe those who happened to dissent from the status quo. Peace movements in the West could easily be labelled as “Communist front” organisations. And there’s no doubt that America went through a sticky patch when it got into its anti-communist purges in the 1950s, and left itself open to criticism. There were less-publicised purges in other countries, though sometimes, as in Britain, they were carried out without too much publicity. But that’s another story, and not one that Feinberg sets out to deal with.

If communists were less successful in reaching audiences in the West through radio broadcasts, they did try to establish various bodies which, on the face of it, were supposedly independent, but which were there to present the Soviet version of the “truth”. The World Peace Council, the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and the World Congress of Intellectuals were all platforms for propaganda which tried to counter the impact and effect of Western, and particularly American, culture and veracity.

Alexander Fadeyev, head of the Soviet Writers Union, launched an attack on American popular culture which, he said, was used “as a weapon of propaganda. American films, radio programmes, and magazines were banal but sophisticated ideological instruments…..These dubious cultural forms helped shape an environment in which capitalism and imperialist aggression were unthinkingly accepted, insidiously persuading the exploited to consent to their own domination”. I can recall the British Communist Party’s attacks on American comics and films. I was an addict of American westerns and writers, and throughout the 1950s, before, during, and after my military service, I regularly tuned in to the Voice of America’s jazz programmes. It amused me when, many years later, I was friendly with a jazz-loving lady from Bangladesh and she told me that she would have been listening to Willis Conover’s broadcasts at the same time that I was. Fadeyev no doubt would have described us both as typical examples of the worldwide corrupting influence of American culture.    

What particularly brought communist realities to the public’s attention in the West were the show trials that took place in Prague, Budapest, and other locations, around 1950 or so. That the defendants had clearly been forced, by one means or another, to testify to their supposed misdeeds was obvious from their behaviour in court. But how did the public in Eastern Europe react to the confessions? Were they simply conforming in the interests of safety (from suspicion about their own loyalties) or did they genuinely believe that there had been conspiracies to overthrow the government, and plots to carry out sabotage of one kind or another? RFE, and the Voice of America, certainly made it clear that the whole process was a set-up and meant to draw attention away from the failure of communism to fulfil its promises of better working conditions, decent housing, higher wages, and plenty in the shops.

This raises the question of whether or not communism could have weathered the storm of criticism from the West had it been able to satisfy the demands for material well-being from the mass of people. There is evidence to show that, as in Hungary after things had settled down following the failed uprising, an increase in prosperity did help to calm the situation. In crude terms, is it probable that most people cared little about who was in charge provided their material needs were catered for? Shorter hours, higher pay, a house, a car, perhaps a holiday abroad where they could see that they’re were as well off as their counterparts elsewhere, might well be what many people counted as their priorities. Freedom of thought and expression might not have been high on the list of problems they accorded much importance to. It was fine for a Vaclav Havel to claim that it was “living a lie” to accept material benefits and not worry about the way in which society was structured, but how many people saw it that way?  Very few revolutions have a purely intellectual basis and most start with problems relating to wages, living conditions, food shortages, and such matters.

From the émigré records that Feinberg consulted it does strike one that questions relating to work, travel, the chance to study, and similar concerns, did have relevance for émigrés when it came to describing their disillusionment with communism. This is not to play down the very real worries regarding what one person told RFE about “the bell fear” and “the uniform fear”. The “bell” related to hearing the doorbell ring and wondering if it was the secret police on one’s doorstep. The “uniform” was about the anxiety experienced when coming into contact with anyone in a uniform, whether it was a policeman, soldier, postman, or gas inspector. They all represented the state and it was best to avoid any contact with them, if possible. This might seem exaggerated when one thinks about a postman or a man arriving to read the meter, but the postman knows what mail people get, and the gas employee often has access to their homes. In a totalitarian state can anyone be sure about who is passing information to the authorities?

Feinberg says that “before 1956, RFE researchers composed tens of thousands of these reports or “Information items”, using material obtained from émigrés. Some of it was obviously hearsay, with the informant claiming that a certain thing had happened but not having any direct experience of it themselves. The researchers did attempt to verify claims, if they could, and filter out anything doubtful. But communist terror was not “merely a fantasy concocted by RFE or its competitors. This terror was certainly real and many people experienced it”. Informers were everywhere, it was believed, and RFE broadcasts sometimes even named them: “Western broadcasts took fears about informers and transmitted them to broader audiences, tacitly or explicitly encouraging their audiences to interpret their lives through the lens of those fears”. It was one more way of sowing the seeds of discontent among listeners in the Eastern Bloc.

It’s always difficult to know what impact propaganda of any kind has on its intended recipients. In the case of what was aimed at Eastern European countries, in the period Feinberg covers, it could be said to have had an effect in that, following the death of Stalin in 1953 and the Khrushchev disclosures in 1956, things did begin to change a little. The Soviet Union and its satellites were still dictatorships, and it wasn’t safe to dissent. The suppression of the Hungarian uprising, and later the Prague Spring of 1968, together with the persecution of various writers and intellectuals, made it clear that the one-party system was still in operation. But those in control realised that something had to be done, and some advances were made in terms of the provision of goods, though by comparison with the West, austerity continued to be a fact of life for many. But there certainly wasn’t the mass terror that had disfigured the landscape before 1956.

Melissa Feinberg’s Curtain of Lies is a thoroughly researched survey of its subject, and makes extensive use of the RFE records of interviews with people who had found ways out of the “land of conquered slaves”, as Harry Truman called it, to the freedoms of the West. The activities of RFE, along with the Marshall Plan, which poured money into Europe in order to activate an economic revival and stop countries like Italy and France falling into communist hands, had encouraged Eastern Europeans to look beyond the boundaries of their own countries. Andrei Zhdanov, a leading communist in the 1940s, was of the opinion that the Marshall Plan was just a means for America to force other countries into “economic bondage”. If that was the case then many people perhaps preferred it to the kind of bondage that Soviet domination provided.

Curtain of Lies is an informative and useful addition to the library of Cold War studies. It has extensive notes and a good bibliography.