In the begging of chapter 3 it’s mentioned that Ivan Konev the man who led the Red Army’s liberation of Prague wrote a book about fighting in Czechoslovakia and how Czechoslovakians and Russians had a friendship by fighting against fascism. “Soviet- Czechoslovak friendship, strengthened and tempered in the battles with fascism, became the unshakable basis for the cooperation between our peoples in the postwar period.” (Applebaum 81) The interesting thing about this is what blatant propaganda it is since Konev was asked by the Slovak Communist leader Vlado Clementis to get control of his men because of their horrible behavior. The book I’m sure ignored all the horrible acts committed by Soviet troops on the citizens of Czechoslovakia. This made me think did the people who experienced the atrocities tell their children and grandchildren and how did it affect the whole idea that the soviets kept pushing of we are united against fascism.
The post-war period in Czechoslovakia saw the spread of Soviet propaganda films and art throughout the country. These films were initially received well among Czechoslovakians, as they “resonated with…viewers who had just lived through six years of German occupation.” (Applebaum, 24) Czechoslovakians were more receptive to Soviet film and art in this post-war era in part due to the recently vanquished Nazi occupation and to a growing nationalism surrounding their pan-Slavic identity shared with Russia. The United States made a limited effort to influence the Czechoslovakians but this effort was insufficient to change the eventual domination of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had become the “friend” of Czechoslovakia. In some ways, this friendship was not honored by the Soviet Union. In chapter two the Soviet Union propagandizes itself as more advanced and modern than its “friends” in the Eastern Bloc. (58) Foreign students were prohibited from marrying Soviet citizens as well.
What caused the Soviet Union’s chauvinism and superiority complex? How did propaganda about the superiority of the Soviet Union affect it’s interactions with “friendly” nations such as Czechoslovakia?
A thread of Applebaum’s book that really interested me were these prevailing and sometimes dueling senses of glorification and “sanitization” or censorship that are explored especially in the fourth chapter, with regards to all forms of media and propaganda: monuments, holidays, films, magazines, etc. The erection of statues and other monuments (and the subsequent shame and destruction of them in the post-Stalinist Czech period) was a massive undertaking, and one that capitalized on the extreme veneration of Stalin and the careful erasure of soldiers’ suffering and trauma. What, really, is the role of monuments in a historical context, especially considering the brevity of some of these statues’ lifespans? Their destruction shows the hefty erasing work on the part of the Czechoslovak government after Stalin’s influence dwindled, but this is not to commandeer the significant erasing going on during his period of reign, too. Holidays like May 9th, the “Day of the Liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Army,” worked actively to “explicitly [usurp] the role Czechoslovaks had played fighting the Nazis, and further [entrench] the Soviets’ chronology of the conflict” (86). Films ignored the brutal humanity of wartime experienced by Soviet soldiers: “combat scenes lack[ed] emotion and tension” (87). Articles published in popular Czech magazines were notorious for how they “gloss[ed] over the typical emotional and physical experiences of war: exhaustion, hunger, pain, injury, fear, and grief” (87). This rewriting of history and the massively hyperbolic heroization of Soviet loyalists is a complicated and interesting phenomenon. What was the need for this sanitization? Wouldn’t you expect people to see through the exaggerative efforts undertaken by the country and the government? Why did they feel compelled to believe and participate in this rhetoric? What do you make of the post-Stalinist experience of continuing to erase?
Kovaly’s “Under a Cruel Star” paints a nearly dystopian account of the monstrosities committed against Czech citizens but as a primary source lacks the contextualization of the misleading, but widespread narrative of a friendly relationship between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. This narrative arose out of a time when “the vast majority of Czechoslovaks supported a close alliance with the USSR” (85), and were genuinely supportive of the emerging relationship offered by the USSR. Applebaum asserts that “many beleived close relations with the USSR were necessary to protect Czechoslovakia’s soverignty in the event of an attack by a revanchist Germany” (20), and there is certainly a legitimate fear that rose up out of the occupation of Nazi Germany, but the use of “soverignty” is eerily foreboding given the USSR’s use of culture control and StB arrests–stripping the soverignty of the people at least. This source makes a clear argument that the relationship between the USSR and Czechoslovakia was involuntary and toxic, yet it was still remembered relatively favorably in the post-war period. This particular scope of remembrance was intended and engineered by both Czechs and Soviets but it was still ultimately successful in that moment which begs the question of why? Was post-war remembrance simply an oversight? An appreciation of the problematic, but ultimately successful liberation? A fear of Germany? What are the long term problems that could have (and did) rise out of this false remembrance?
In Chp. 3 of the book we see that a lot of the holidays were put on the Eastern states to either commemorate the Red Army liberating the Eastern states or making statues of soldiers and Stalin. A place we see this is “In 1955, the infamous Stalin monument in Prague – the largest statue of the soviet leader ever constructed anywhere in the world…” (Applebaum, 86). We also see the soviet union implementing remembrance holidays to make sure the Eastern states felt like they owed the Soviet Union everything because they liberated them. ” In 1951, the communist government instituted a new state holiday in honor of the war: May, 9 “Day of the Liberation of Czechoslovakia by the soviet army”… In Stalinist Czechoslovakia, the liberation holiday became an occasion for Czechoslovaks to publicly perform their gratitude and indebtedness toward their Soviet friends” (Applebaum, 86-87). While the Soviet Union made sure to know they liberated them from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union also made sure to get rid of history that would depict another view of them. “In Leningrad, where approximately 800,000 civilians perished during the Germans’ brutal three-year siege during the war, the post war government shutdown grassroots efforts to commemorate tragedies and excised discussion of it from official histories” (Applebaum, 89). While the exaggerated accounts of Liberation were remembered the dark side of the liberation was glossed over. “… glorified accounts of the liberation in Czechoslovakia glossed over the crimes Soviet soldiers had committed in Slovakia the Czech lands, including widespread looting and incidents of rape and murder” (Applebaum, 88). My question to the class would be why was there a double standard to make sure their achievements were publicized and their failures covered? Also, do you think that if the the amount of civilians dead were public, would have that changed the view from those in Czechoslovakia? Also, do you think that the possibility that there could be a new purley slavic state, made the Czechoslovakians brush off the crimes that the Soviet Army did to them?
One of the most prevalent quotes of the first chapters is when the author states, “To get to ‘know’ the Soviet Union was no longer a process of discovery, comparison, and analysis as it had been during the Third Republic, but of memorization, performance, and ritual” (Applebaum 45). In fact, the Soviet Union had poured numerous hours of films and other realist art into Czechoslovakia in order to pull them into the fold of Eastern influence. The first chapter explores just how ineffective these methods were and how the entirety of this time focuses on how Czechoslovakians wished to retain their national identity. Several times Applebaum makes clear that “Brdecka also mentioned that Czechoslovak viewers were too Westernized and sophisticated to enjoy Soviet films. He claimed that Soviet films were made exclusively with the needs of Soviet audiences in mind– people who are in some regions, still very unrefined and primitive” (Applebaum 38). Applebaum even goes so far as to point out that, “By drawing on stereotypes of the unrefined earthy Russian soul… posited the USSR as a foil for a more sophisticated, Western, and modern [Czechoslovakia]…” (Applebaum 41). These quotes and others exemplify the need for Czechoslovakians to retain their national identity and become an amalgamation, a nexus really, of bother Western and Eastern ideologies. The question, I have then for discussion and to put to you, is how influential was that bombardment of propaganda? Could the Soviet Union have created (or even heeded to the criticisms of Czechoslovakians) propaganda that illustrated the USSR as refined and sophisticated? Or, do you think that ideologically (meaning through the Soviet Communistic lens) it was not possible and the Czechoslovakians were never going to be persuaded into the pure Eastern influence?
Though Soviet films were described as the most direct way to spread Soviet ideology and culture, Soviet music served as a powerful propaganda agent that the Soviet Union desired to control. In effort to control music, Stalin and the Soviet Union attempted to apply Soviet realism to music as they did in film and literature. What was most clear, however, was that the old music of the 19th century Russian bourgeoisie was to no longer be celebrated and spread and that the new creations of Soviet music was to be embraced. Instead, composers made music in the shadow of Stalin, waiting for approval or harsh criticism as they attempted to interpret Stalin’s vague definition of socialist realism and what music of the Soviet Union would be. Though this was interpreted as everything from folk music to writing in entirely new musical keys, it was far from the music of Russia before the revolution.
Given the abandonment of the old Russian greats like Tchaikovsky, I found it odd that this was exactly what was played at a concert of Russian music in Prague in June 1945. The music was met with praise, but “was grounded in sympathy for pan-Slavism, rather than socialism.” Throughout the chapter, we repeatedly see that the Soviet Union wishes for Czechoslovakia to learn and adopt its culture and ideology, but rarely gives them the resources to do so with the Soviet Union lacking in finances to provide performers, an abundance of films, art pieces, and more on a yearly basis. Though it was not explicitly stated, do you think it was the choice of the Soviet Union or Communists of Czechoslovakia to play Russian music that included that of the “old bourgeoisie”? Do you believe this concert was an issue of the Soviet Union not providing the socialist realism music, an issue of the Czechoslovakia Communists not understanding what the current Soviet Union culture is, or the Soviet Union simply not caring enough as long as the Soviet Union was being recognized to push the ideology forward? Do you think the reception would have been different, perhaps grounded in sympathy for socialism, if the music played was that created with Soviet realism in mind, like that of Shostakovich?
Obviously, there will be some hard feelings towards the Germans in Czechoslovakia after the Nazi occupation, however, I feel like the treatment of the Germans has some similarities to the way Nazis treated Jewish people but to an obvious lesser extent.
The main line that stood out to me was that Czechoslovakia wanted to build a “new, purely Slavic state” (28). Applebaum also described an “ethnic cleansing” (26), where there were “violet attacks against … German(s), forcing 660,000 men, women, and children to leave the country” (26). Additionally, at the end of WWII, there were groups of Germans “huddled under armed guard, their shirts marked “N” for Nemec, the Czech word for ‘German'” (23). This seems similar to how Jewish people during Nazi occupation had to wear the Star of David to show that they are Jewish.
I also think this goes to explain the antisemitism still in Eastern Europe. They aren’t mad at the Germans because of how they treated the Jewish people, but instead of how the Germans treated them. What I mean by this is they don’t necessarily care about the loss of Jewish life, and the only reason they have hard feelings towards the Germans is because of the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia.
The Czechs watched Soviet films to justify the expulsion of Germans and their treatment. There was a huge acceptance of the Soviet culture because 1) they were grateful for the liberation and 2) because it would provide a sense of nationalism. However, it is really nationalism if they are building their culture off of the Soviet Union? It seems to me like Czechoslovakia is sort of a toy for the Soviet Union without knowing it. They want to seem like they are in control of what they do and consume, but there is so much Soviet influence in everyday life that it is impossible for them to become truly independent. So, do you think that Czechoslovakia is sort of a puppet of the Soviet Union to spread Germanophobia and create a purely Slavic Eastern Europe which is isolated from Nazism (therefore capitalism, which is which is supposedly Nazism at its peak)? This would be a sort of indirect way of the USSR spreading communism. Is this treatment of Germans justified? Is Czechoslovakia truly thinking for themselves?
For this week’s blog post I would like to draw attention to the dramatic and tragic story of Gunter that Ch. 9 begins with. Even though this story primarily focuses on a singular individual, I believe thematically this story can almost serve as a microcosm for the entirety of divided Germany during The Cold War. Does anyone agree or disagree with this perspective? If so, why?
Furthermore, how does this account reveal the multi-faceted cultural affects felt by those actually living in Germany at this time? The cries “Help, you East Germans” and “Help, you West Germans” also sparked an interesting line of discourse for me in a broad way. Based off of these quotes and other contextual evidence, does this story seem to vilify one side more than the other? Then if both sides were equally to blame, how did this story and other ones like it change the perception of The Cold War in general around the globe?
Moving on then, the author uses this story to introduce the notion of “borderland culture” that existed amongst the communities in divided Germany. In your own words, how do you conceptualize this idea of a “borderland culture”? Likewise, was the border of the Iron Curtain really as “porous” as the author suggests? If not, do you believe it was more so or less so “porous”?
Considering what we have learned so far about both sides’ ideologies respectively, would it make sense for one side of the border to be less secure than the other? Plainly put, I believe the general image of one side being more accepting than the other would have had great advantages both directly in the community and globally. Lastly then, how did the release or disclosure of information to the media become a form of weaponized propaganda so to speak? How can this same strategy be seen to still be used in politics today? Whether within our nation or those across the globe.
As I read chapter 8 of the book, I was focusing mostly on the different reactions to towns destroyed along the border. Those who refused to sell, refused to move, were punished severely – although punishments were nothing new in this situation, especially because East German residents had seen people be shot, arrested, and punished for moving across the border. However, that did not stop many of these people. Why do you think this is the case? After all, it is stated that “the residents, fed up with life on the border, were mostly content to be relocated inland” (Applebaum, 182). Was it simple defiance against a brutal government?