Life Behind the Iron Curtain

by James Robertson

At the close of the Second World War, an ‘Iron Curtain’ descended across Europe “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”, cutting the continent into opposing Eastern and Western sides. The USA’s ploy to influence Western Europe and the Soviet Union’s domineering efforts to do so in the East shaped the continent from 1945 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, affecting the everyday lives of the many people that lived there. Although those who lived either under Communism or capitalism experienced hardships in this period, it was those behind the Iron Curtain that experienced some of the greatest, where Soviet Russia’s sphere of influence was the progenitor for the ‘socialist’ design of life forced upon Eastern European countries by their new, ruling governments. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and the adoption of similarly Soviet-style methods of rulership in the Eastern Bloc directly shaped the lives of those living there, affecting some in positive ways and others more negatively. 

Global conflicts early on in the Cold War set a precedent for the way of life for everyday citizens, especially how Stalin’s attempts to blockade West Berlin created the climate for East Germany’s dichotomist reality. Political disputes created violent conflict within socialist states, resulting in uprisings such as the 1956 revolution in Hungary which affected the status quo. Ideological beliefs came to manifest a tense dystopian world thanks to the infamous show trials and horrific purges of the early Cold War, influencing the mindsets of everyday people living in the Eastern Bloc. 

Up until 1945, it had always been the case that, “from Napoleon to Kaiser Wilhelm to Hitler, Russia’s sorrows originated from the West”. Once World War Two had come to a close, Stalin became preoccupied with establishing “subservient client states” to surround the Motherland and protect it from the ideologically opposed Western countries, namely by extending Moscow’s influence across Eastern European countries which she had only recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Little regard was given to the average citizen residing in any of the countries which Russia exerted its dominance over, especially not by Stalin himself, whose paranoid tendencies caused him to no longer regard the human factor behind each of his decisions. But as the United States was preparing for a “future war – with the prospect of war against the Soviet Union”, and coupled with the fact that “20-25 million Soviet citizens perished during” World War Two, Stalin’s choice to eventually position the USSR to rule by proxy over the Eastern Bloc can be seen as the product of well-informed paranoia. The early global tensions between the superpowers of Soviet Russia and the USA manifested across 1948-1949 in the “first real showdown of the Cold War”. Following the Western Allies’ “introduction of the West Mark (eventually the Deutsche Mark) into their occupied zones” of Germany, Stalin responded by halting “deliveries of food and fuel” and cutting “off electricity as well as road, rail and barge access to West Berlin”, isolating the non-Soviet portion of East Germany in an attempt to make the West capitulate in handing over West Berlin to the East. But Stalin’s ill-advised decision was a “Soviet political failure from start to finish”, as not only did West Berlin survive because of the Western Allies’ airlifted supplies, but it proved to West Berliners that Soviet Russia was not concerned with their wellbeing at all. This globally significant conflict between the opposing sides of the Cold War gave Russia cause to intensify its grip on East Germany in the years after, altering the lives of those living there. 

The socialist state became the epicentre of international tensions as the GDR’s rulers wanted to set the best example of the Eastern Bloc to the nearby Westerners. East Berliners benefited from forms of “free education” and “free healthcare” as part of the Communist ideology of every man as equal. As Berlin was infamous for its slum apartments, termed “rental barracks”, multiple cheaply-made housing blocks were erected in the 1970s as part of a “massive effort to bring the ‘good life’ to socialist citizens”. Even East German women benefited from socialist rule, as Liesbeth Miihle received a “Karl-Marx-award” for her efforts as a “master craftswoman”, a level of equality which West German women had not yet received.“Food and rent [were] subsidised” so that “life was affordable in the GDR”, but these benefits were to always come at a cost for citizens

The economic divide between East and West widened considerably over the course of East Germany’s existence, as “structural deficits had a strong bearing on everyday life”. It was therefore a “lack of readily available goods”, and a not a lack of personal funds, that “stopped people getting hold of what they needed”. For those who lived close to the Berlin Wall, invasion of privacy was common place as “many houses were equipped with electrical security systems” and some citizens experienced soldiers coming in “every night” to check “the cellar and the attic”. As some wished to pursue a life without the all-seeing eye of the state and impending economic meltdown, many East Germans decided to flee, with over “three million citizens” escaping to the West before the Berlin Wall was erected, with an average of “seven people a day [being] imprisoned” at one point. Despite the eventual benefits for the average citizen in East Germany, the fear of the paranoid and Soviet-backed state meant that no-one could live fully at ease.

Although Stalin promulgated the idea that Eastern European countries would eventually “move toward socialism without going through the stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, it soon became clear that the Communist parties that came to rule instead of “their social democratic ‘allies’” had no plans of adhering to Stalin’s initial advice and would instead crush any opposition. Some people of the Eastern Bloc countries were less happy about this than others as “civil rights were limited, legislatures were less powerful, and social institutions lacked autonomy against the government”. Such was the case in Hungary; the linguistically unique nation was one of the most progressive countries within the Soviet sphere and discontent within its people had risen high by the time of 1956. Inspired by the Polish uprisings in June of that year, Hungarian protesters, many of them “fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old kids”, took to the streets, cutting “the Communist symbols from a Hungarian flag” and “toppling a large statue of Stalin in downtown Budapest”. The politically active population of Hungary began “to organise their own authorities and armed groups”, taking power away from the Communist government who struggled to hold onto it. However, for the everyday citizen this popular uprising was a terrifying, life-changing ordeal that eliminated any attempts at sustaining a normal life. Eva Rátki remembers the 1956 revolution as “a really bad experience for [her]”, recalling the fear of being caught in the crossfire between the Soviet Army, the AVO (Hungarian Secret Police) and the revolutionaries who were, as she describes, “not common people – but [instead] some lunatics”. As “hell broke loose” in Budapest, violence was committed by all sides; the AVO did “horrible things, like beating people to death” and revolutionaries retaliated by capturing members of the AVO who were “hanged by their legs [while] someone’s heart was cut out” near the Party Headquarters. Rátki said she “wasn’t happy that the Soviets came in with tanks, because that led to the war [where] many buildings were destroyed” and over 2500 Hungarian lives lost. This event and the terrifying implications it had on normal Hungarian citizens such as Rátki display the chaos which evolved from peoples rebellions against the Soviet-backed state, showing how political differences in oppressive Communist nations could lead to damaging the status quo of normality, which occurred in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia as well.

Stalin’s extensive purges of the 1930s in Soviet Russia was an indiscriminate way of bolstering his power, so it only made sense for new socialist governments to do the same in their own countries as a method of securing control and eliminating any ideological divide amongst their political opponents and amongst their citizens. Communist governments across Eastern Europe used any excuse they could to oust opposition or party members who did not comply with their own views of implementing socialism in what came to be known as “show trials”. Czechoslovakia experienced the worst of these trials, with over “178 executions” including the only woman to ever be killed in one of these purges. Milada Horáková was a “wartime resistance hero” who resigned from government after the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, only to be put on trial under the accusation of “leading a plot to overthrow the communist regime”. Her daughter Jana remembers her mother’s “public trial” as being “calculated to create a sense of terror and fear” amongst the people, forcing them to submit to the new Communist government. Trials such as these were emulated across the Eastern Bloc to create a political vacuum where only Communism could remain. And it was in most of these countries that “Soviet “advisers” were designated to help prepare and mastermind the purge trials”, displaying Russia’s desire to influence the growth of Communism as much as they deemed fit. But it was not only members of government who fell victim to these Soviet-style purges. Any citizen under a Communist regime was at risk of internment in a Russian Gulag or one of the many copycat efforts set up in East Germany. 

In the years after the end of World War Two, “tens of thousands of Poles were sent straight into the Soviet Gulag, as were many Germans”, striking fear into the hearts of those left behind in an effort to force them into complying with their new governments. The fear these purges induced meant that no one could feel safe within their home countries. Even teenagers, such as East German girl Erika Riemann, were not safe, as she served a “sentence for eight years and 16 days” for merely drawing on a picture of Stalin in her classroom. All these forms of persecution on the masses were Soviet Russia’s bread and butter by this point and the implementation of this reign of terror onto Eastern Europe only served to force people into compliance with the state’s regime. 

Although some people living under such an oppressive regime were not perturbed by the fear placed upon them and were able to get on with their lives. Liesbeth Miihle fondly remembers the time of the GDR, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, where she believed that the “solidarity among the comrades was better” then. As a woman, she profited off the socialist need for women in the workforce, as opposed to women of Western countries, and had a happy life where leisurely travel was possible between the satellite states. Eva Rátki recalls that her father, who passed away in 1990, “believed that socialism will be the thing that saves the world” because “there shall be no privileges born with people” and he took these beliefs with him to the grave. The fact that the citizens of such states, which pursued reigns of terror within their own countries, still supported the state and the ideology behind it demonstrates how life behind the Iron Curtain was not horrific for every citizen and some of them could forge a great life out of it.

The people who called the Eastern Bloc home during the Cold War lived according to the Soviet Union’s style of governing, shaped by the global tensions between the superpowers of the East and West. The mini-Stalin rulers of Eastern European countries dictated the new status quo and their everyday citizens. But life behind the Iron Curtain was not as black and white as Westerners have been led to believe. People could still benefit from the equal living conditions and abide by their regime’s ideology, while some still did fear persecution by the state, whether they were politically active or not.

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Primary Sources

Eva Rátki, interview by author, Budapest, 2019.

Westad, Odd Arne and Hanhimäki, Jussi, eds. 2003. The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 

Novikov, Nikolai, “The Novikov Telegram: Washington, September 27, 1946.” Diplomatic History 15, no. 4 (1991): 529.

Speeches-USA. “Iron curtain Fulton, MO, March 5, 1946 Winston Churchill.” 27 April 2019.

Secondary Sources

Applebaum, Anne. 2012. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. London: Allen Lane.

Molloy, Peter. 2009. The Lost World of Communism: An Oral History of Daily Life Behind the Iron Curtain. London: BBC Books. 

Naimark, Norman. 2010. “The Sovietization of Eastern Europe, 1944-1953.” The Cambridge History of the Cold War 1: 175-197. 

Reynolds, David. 2000. One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rubin, Eli. 2017. “Beyond Domination: Socialism, Everyday life in East German Housing Settlements, and new Directions in GDR Historiography.” Imaginations Journal 8 (1): 34-47. 

Siegelbaum, Lewis. 2001. “‘Historicizing everyday life under Communism: the USSR and the GDR,’ Potsdam, 8-10 June 2000.” Social History 26 (1): 72-79. 

Solovyov, Ivan. 2016. “In the USSR, life was boring.” Guardian, 2 November.

Spellman, W. M. 2006. A Concise History of the World since 1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vaizey, Hester. 2014. Born in the GDR: life in the shadow of the wall. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Westad, Odd Arne. 2017. The Cold War: A World History. Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK. 

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