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People's Century 1945 - Brave New World

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Description

People's Century

Brave New World
1945

A little more than fifty years ago, Soviet and American troops met and rejoiced at the defeat of Nazi Germany. The mood on the river Elbe was one of camaraderie between Allies, and their optimism was shared by the liberated populations of Europe. Yet within a few years, this hard-fought peace will disintegrate into a cold war of competing ideologies. Brave New World tracks the mounting tension between these two superpowers, from the post-war world of the late 1940s through the early 1960s.

Two people kissingLieutenant Alexandr Silvashko served under Marshal Konyev and remembers the scenes of joy and celebration on the banks of the Elbe: "We were like brothers. We had defeated the enemy together. We were united in fighting fascism and we had won."

But as the people of Europe emerged from the ruins of bombed-out cities, no one knew how relations between East and West would affect them. To ease Soviet fears that Germany might rise again, frontiers were redrawn, displacing millions -- and forcing others to live with an oppressive ideology: Stalin's armies of liberation proved to be armies of occupation, determined to extend the socialist system to Eastern Europe.

Russian soldiers like Captain Anatoly Semiriaga had no doubt what the future held: "We were taught that the defeat of fascism was an important step towards the victory of socialism all over the world. Since the Red Army had liberated Eastern Europe, sooner or later socialism would be established there. . . . We were told [that] the Germans were not solely responsible for this war -- imperialism was responsible. And who are the representatives of imperialism now? The same Allies with whom we fought together against Hitler."

America, meanwhile, tired of war, turned her back on the still-smoldering battlefields of Europe and shifted her attention instead to economic growth at home. Lieutenant Gail Halverson: "It was like a new life -- it was like walking from one scene of a tragedy into a musical." Halverson had spent three years in the US Air Force. "All the worry and concern was just obliterated. And we disbanded -- our military -- we just disbanded very rapidly. Now's the time for peace."

In 1946, Winston Churchill would deliver a speech at Fulton, Missouri that would soon catapult Americans out of their complacency: "From Stetin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Budapest -- all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere."

Photo of ReaganOnce, the American press had billed an alliance of three equals. Now, "Uncle Joe" was turned into a scheming despot, intent on forcing whole countries into submission. Soviet press responded in kind. Both governments were soon engaged in a new war, each committed to demonizing the other.

Following the Second World War, Berlin had been divided into sectors under the joint control of the Allies. The city's geography, however, placed it deep within Eastern Germany, and its Western zone was now a conspicuous outpost of capitalism within the new communist order. In June 1948, Stalin cut off all supply lines to the city's western sector without warning. For close to a year, West Berlin would be supplied by airlift.

Increasingly, East and West found themselves competing for hearts and minds. When China became a Communist nation in 1949, the Soviet Union trumpeted the inevitability of world revolution. On Stalin's seventieth birthday, the people were called out to celebrate the onward march of communism. Tamara Banketik was there: "I was transported into a fairy tale. I had eyes only for him. He had such kindly eyes. It was as if he was my father. I just wanted to touch him.... We lived in terrible conditions..., but we knew our society was just and that capitalism was terrible and people were exploited. That's what we were taught. It didn't matter how badly I lived now, I hoped it would get better. I believed in Stalin and knew that life would improve."

In the Soviet sphere of influence, all instances of possible Western "contamination" were suspect. In Russia, musician and Moscow University student Alexei Kozlov was among the huge audience that secretly listened to Radio Liberty: "The radio was our only access to the West. Neighbors could denounce you for listening.... Jazz was banned and they put out propaganda about jazz players and Americans, suggesting it was just one step from playing sax to murder. There was a saying: 'Today he plays jazz and tomorrow he betrays the nation.'"

In September 1949, the world learned that the Soviet Union had the atom bomb. Taken in combination with Mao Zedong's communist takeover of China, the United States plunged into paranoia. Communists -- real or imagined -- were pursued in the full glare of publicity. The Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the FBI began a systematic and relentless pursuit of anyone suspected of communist sympathies. Buffalo, New York resident Manny Fried was just one small target: "J. Edgar Hoover set up a team of twenty-five FBI men to get me. They decided that I was the symbol of the left in the community and they must break me."

Stalin dies in 1953 -- but his legacy would last for decades. Under the new leadership of Nikita Kruschshev, the harshest aspects of Stalin's terror slowly evaporated. But in the countries of Eastern Europe, there were soon calls for greater independence from Moscow. In October 1956, Hungarian students held an anti-Soviet march that prompted a bloody uprising in Budapest. Gergely Pongratz found himself leading a group of freedom fighters: "We were fighting for the freedom of our country. Russian infantry came behind the tanks.... I saw a Russian head looking out and I pulled the trigger. I saw the Russian soldier fall out on the sidewalk. I started to cry. I killed a human being." Four days later, Soviet forces withdrew -- but the fight for independence had only just begun.

Meanwhile, Berlin remained the one point at which the border between East and West was still open -- and Germans could move freely across the divide. Millions voted with their feet. In the summer of 1961, East German authorities closed the border and built a wall through the middle of the city. Thousands tried to escape in the first few weeks. Anita Möller describes how her brother and others dug a 200-yard tunnel right under the wall -- and how, finally, she and her husband and child were sent for: "We waited a long time in this café. It was like a spy film. There were secret signs: a newspaper, a party badge, a bag in the right hand, a password. But if things went wrong, we could be shot. Everyone knew that."

In the West, the Berlin Wall would be dubbed a "wall of shame" -- while in the East, it would be called the "anti-fascist protective rampart." The armies that had once embraced in comradeship now confronted one another from conflicting camps. The Brave New World had become an armory, bristling with hostility.

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