I have been reading Anne Applebaum’s superb work of history, “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956”. It is a compelling study of how Communism works on the ground and thus how it was able to take control of so many different countries in Eastern Europe so swiftly at the end of the War. In her conclusion she writes, “Even when [human beings] seem bewitched by the cult of the leader or of the party, appearances can be deceiving. And even when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda – even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right – the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken.” She is alluding to the dramatic fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s, and ending on a note of hope in what is otherwise an account of enormous suffering, material and moral.
It happens that Applebaum is married to Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. And it also happens that Sikorski wrote a thought-provoking article in the Telegraph of Tuesday April 9, sub-titled: “Mrs Thatcher was a moral inspiration in the struggle to free Poland from communism.” I was interested to read it because he implicitly endorsed my blog of the day before, in which I had argued that Thatcher’s greatest legacy was her unflinching stand against Communism.
There are other aspects to her legacy, of course, but these are closer to home and open to heated debate, as we have seen in the conflicting responses to the news of her death. I had thought my blog uncontroversial because it seemed so obviously true, but inevitably it had its critics, those who felt the role Thatcher played in changing the toxic political situation in Eastern Europe – and Russia itself – was negligible.
Sikorski, a Polish refugee in England during the 1980s and now playing a significant part in his own country’s democratic life, wrote in his article, “Mrs Thatcher’s role in changing all this cannot be overstated. For those behind the Iron Curtain, she was a member of the anticommunist “Holy Trinity” – consisting of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and herself – who altered the fate of the West, and consequently the fate of those outside it.” He goes on to argue that “by rejuvenating Britain, she made the strongest possible case against the model of the command economy in both its hard and soft forms.”
He emphasises that “What inspired us Poles most was that, with Reagan and John Paul II, she was a deeply moral politician…She stood on the side of the angels in the Cold War and provided leadership for as long as the Soviet Union needed to be challenged…We in the former Eastern Europe will continue to remember her with gratitude as someone who hastened the day when we joined the family of democratic nations.”
Strong words and a fine tribute from someone who knew at first-hand the tribulations of his native country, Poland – and what it was like to discover a potent symbol of hope in the improbable figure of this well-dressed Tory lady, with her handbag, hats and pearls who, according to Charles Powell, her foreign policy adviser who accompanied her on almost all her overseas trips as prime minister, was never afraid to speak her mind – to the consternation of her aides. When she first met Mikhail Gorbachev, apparently she greeted him with “I hate Communism!” Being diplomatic was not her strongest suit.
Although Thatcher’s particular role in the “Holy Trinity” may be debated, she did indeed help to break the malign “spell” of Communism and for this, as Radek Sikorski writes, we should always remember her with gratitude.