Apart from Iceland, a European country lying far out in the North Atlantic, the east-west extremes of Europe are Ireland’s coast at 10 degrees west longitude and Russia’s Ural Mountains at 60 degrees east.  Twenty-five degrees east is the central meridian of these 70 degrees of longitude, and Poland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are all situated to the west of it.  Before World War II, these countries had always been truthfully referred to as Central Europe.  Therefore, to speak of any of them as “Eastern Europe” is to perpetrate a falsehood, one that was repeated incessantly from the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 by Soviet propagandists as well as Western journalists, academics, politicians, and statesmen, and is still found today in Western publications, a quarter-century later.

Referring to these countries as Eastern Europe has served various interests.  Soviet propagandists initiated the falsehood—which ranks alongside Lenin’s appropriation of the Russian word bolshevik (“majority”) for his national minority party—to make it appear that Soviet colonization of Central Europe after World War II was no menace to Western countries, even though the border between West and East Germany, which marked the farthest penetration of the Soviet empire into Central Europe, was 1,150 miles from Moscow and only 420 miles from London.

Why did Western journalists, academics, politicians, and statesmen go along with the lie?  The advantage for them was that the usage obscured the betrayal of the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and millions of Germans by the U.S. President and the British prime minister at the Yalta Conference, three months before the end of World War II.  The secret agreements Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill made at Yalta in February 1945 with the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin allowed communist governments to be imposed upon Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and much of Germany—a betrayal that was particularly heinous in the case of Poland, whose government-in-exile in London had been (and was at the time of the conference) a staunch ally of Britain and the United States and had made significant contributions to their war effort.  The betrayal at Yalta was political; it was not a military necessity.  (My father, Maj. John Henry McElroy, told me the 89th Infantry Division in which he served was inside Czechoslovakia, rolling rapidly north toward Berlin at a pace that would have put them there in a few days, when they were ordered to stop.)

Thus “Eastern Europe” helped to conceal the shameful fact that Roosevelt and Churchill had consigned millions of Central Europeans to Soviet terror and economic exploitation.  Speaking of countries in the center of Europe as “Eastern Europe” made it appear that Roosevelt and Churchill had consented only to allowing Stalin to control what belonged to the Soviet Union by right of geopolitics, since Eastern Europe was historically the European region dominated by czarist Russia.  That false consciousness was agreeable to U.S. journalists, academics, politicians, and statesmen who served as custodians of Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation as the preeminent wartime leader of the Free World.

George Paloczi-Horvath’s memoir The Undefeated (first published in London in 1959) details the process of Soviet colonization in his native Hungary, a process that was employed also in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and eastern Germany.  First, the Red Army installed a one-party, Soviet-style police state; then the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appointed a reliably servile native communist (usually a man educated in Moscow) to head the police state, report to the committee, and carry out its directives in the colonized country.  The exploitation began with the Red Army stripping the Central European countries of their industrial machinery, rolling stock, and other valuable property and shipping it to the Soviet Union.  The exploitation was institutionalized by requiring the colonized countries to purchase products from the U.S.S.R. with real money (U.S. dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs, etc.) while the Soviet Union bought the colonies’ products in rubles, a currency having no international exchange value, despite the high worth the Kremlin set for the ruble within the Soviet empire.

The upshot of the Yalta agreements was that the greater part of Europe’s heartland went in 1945-47 from the evils of living in Hitler’s Third Reich to the evils of living in the Soviet empire, which was every bit as rapacious and menacing.  The Soviet Union was the only combatant in World War II to gain colonies from its participation in the war; territorial expansion was its aim from the beginning.

World War II began in September 1939 with coordinated invasions of Poland from the west by the Nazis and from the east by the Soviets.  The treaty signed in Moscow in August 1939 by representatives of Stalin and Hitler provided for a prearranged division of Poland between the invaders.  The Soviet Union also occupied Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and parts of Finland militarily.  These conquests remained in the Soviet empire until it disintegrated in 1989-91.  It was Hitler’s overreaching invasion of Soviet-held territory in June 1941 that voided the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and led Stalin, in order to save the Soviet Union from a Nazi takeover, to ally with Great Britain and (later) the United States.

In the years immediately following World War II, prospects for further Soviet expansion—this time into Western Europe—seemed promising as desperate shortages of food, winter fuel, and other basic necessities gripped Europe, and Soviet agents took advantage of the situation.  Socialist political parties in Western Europe saw their memberships grow as political unrest and strikes fomented by communists and communist sympathizers increased.  Communist influence in France was particularly worrisome.  The Labour Party in Britain took control of Parliament and ousted Winston Churchill as prime minister.  Only the offer in 1948-49 of massive amounts of American food and other goods to every war-torn country of Europe (Stalin refused the offer and would not allow countries occupied by the Red Army to accept it) and the organization of a military alliance of free nations from both sides of the North Atlantic prevented further westward expansion by the Soviet Union.  The Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were implemented under the leadership of Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt upon his death in April 1945.  Both measures had bipartisan support in Congress.

But it was not the United States that freed the Central European colonies of the Soviet Union.  The example of the world’s free-market nations undoubtedly encouraged the captive nations of Central Europe to throw off the yoke of Soviet colonization.  The “miracle” of West Germany’s recovery from the ravages of World War II, while communist East Germany languished in the slough of applied Marxist theory, was particularly instructive.  John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl provided moral support, and that support was surely important.  But no actions of theirs actually liberated the peoples of Central Europe.  Still less was it the work of the last General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.  The Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, Czechs, and Slovaks liberated themselves by insisting on their natural right to be free and by telling the truth about Marxism: that the theory’s application condemns human beings to life in a straightjacket of politically correct dogmas and chronic shortages of such necessities and amenities of civilized life as food, electricity, soap, and toilet paper.

Their victory was the result of four decades of brave demonstrations of opposition to Marxist despotism.  In 1953 in East Germany; in 1956 in Poland and Hungary; in 1968 and 1977 in Czechoslovakia; in 1968, 1970, and 1976 in Poland; and throughout the 1980’s in Poland in the nonviolent actions taken by the Christian labor union Solidarity, whose elected president was Lech Walesa.  Solidarity was the only union in the history of organized labor ever to enroll over four-fifths of the wage and salary workers of an entire nation.  The actions of Solidarity produced what Stalin had promised Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta: free multiparty elections.  Those free elections weakened the Polish Communist Party’s grasp on power and precipitated the destruction of the Soviet empire, as the Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian republics, seeing what was happening in the Soviet colonies of Central Europe, took courage and defied the Soviet state by withdrawing from the Soviet Union under the brave, inspiring leadership of the president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin.  That withdrawal brought about the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  At midnight, December 31, 1991, a quarter-century ago, after an existence of only 69 years (1922-91), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disappeared from the political map of the world as its flags were taken down from the Kremlin.

The “dictatorship of the proletariat” of Marxist theory was the de facto tyranny and terror of a one-party, absolutist state.  Communist governments have depended on promulgating lies and making the people they govern live in fear of what the party can and will do to them if they do not behave as if those lies are the truth.  In one of his sermons—before Communist Party thugs kidnapped him and beat him to death—a young Polish priest in Warsaw, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, analyzed this essential feature of Marxist government:

We fear suffering, we fear losing freedom or our work.  And then we act contrary to our consciences, thus muzzling the truth.  We can overcome fear only if we accept suffering in the name of a greater value.  If the truth becomes for us a value worthy of suffering and risk, then we shall overcome fear.

When human beings live a lie such as speaking of Central Europe as “Eastern Europe” or acceding to the proposition that total economic and political regimentation is “social justice,” we forfeit our humanity, our God-given consciences and freedom.  Standing up for the truth and for what is right in the nature of things as God has created them is a necessary precondition of self-government.

The peoples under communist government in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s resisted Marxist oppression by boldly speaking the truth and taking responsibility for their lives.  We must always remember and honor the value they saw in free, independent self-government and the sacrifices they were willing to make to obtain it for themselves and their posterity.