In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism, a completely new political and moral system. In Iron Curtain, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated. Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain.
Anne Elizabeth Applebaum is a Polish-American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism–Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She has worked at The Economist and The Spectator, and was a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.
Insightful, well researched book. I grew up in a Siberian "closed" town, which was build by Gulag prisoners before I was born, i spent my childhood behind three rows of barbed wires. My small town produced refined plutonium, spy satellites and engines for intercontinental ballistic missiles. In nearly 30 years I lived in the USSR before moving to the USA, I had no idea what was happening outside USSR, not only in capitalist West, but even in socialist East. We just never had a chance to see the world, until Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly everything become possible.
It is sad that the responsibility for rape of Eastern Europe by Stalin's Soviet Union is not acknowledged by current Russian government, as it was by Germany. Without such a moral statement there will be no reconciliation.
This was a thoroughly researched look into the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe. The book primarily highlights the Three Little Stalins: Walter Ulbricht of East Germany, Bolesław Bierut of Poland, and Mátyás Rákosi of Hungary. Other countries are mentioned (Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia) but not with as much emphasis of the major three. I found the politics, economic, ethnic cleansing, and violence chapters the most interesting. The book delivers topic-driven information from 1944 and the Red Army push to Germany until the revolutions on Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Overall a decent book with a lot of information but sometimes was dull and overkill. Recommended for anyone interested in Eastern European history. Thanks!
Short Review This is a book which in its final pages, like a bad report or essay seeks to assert new ideas (and with them the books own value and importance) which were not in evidence in the bulk of the text during whichThe Simpsons provide the essential vocabulary of reader response with Meh and Duh! depending on which blatantly obvious point the author highlights.
Longer Review My overwhelming response to this book is don't bother.
Life, we are told, is short and its pace fast, as a reader one can admit there is an argument that can be made that given the finite number of books that one will read one has good reason to be careful of what one chooses to read. And I can see no way in which this book would make the cut . In my opinion this book is sadly neither bad enough to read for amusement value, nor good enough to be worthy of ones time.
Partly this is because she does have a specific ideological and historiographical point to make; that Totalitarianism is a valid and useful concept for understanding the period, however she doesn't make that front and centre of her presentation or allow it to drive the book as though she lacks the courage of her convictions. I feel myself that this is a bit of a strawman or Aunt Sally, as the opposite conviction seems to me too ridiculous to be taken seriously and five hundred pages of lobbing coconuts at poor aunt Sally is a bit much - although having said that in the context of the USA, occasionally I do notice the idea that the universe orbits that country which is to be properly understood, depending on your ideological conviction, either as the instrument of a benevolent God in the world, or the Chomsyite view as the single source of all evil. As a non-US person I hold to the vile heresy that the USA is simply a country and a state like all others and that other parts of the world occasionally do act in accordance to their own internal dynamic - yea even unto a regional scale. And having said that I can't help but feel that an overly Totalitarian interpretation rather plays into the propaganda of the period, it leads me to think of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, we loose a lot of understanding by elevating leaders into idols.
Really I find that she needs to refine her core idea, then rewrite the book to actually support her argument, along the way it would help to reduce an indifferent Meh response or an amused Duh! if she thought about what she was writing. For example at one point in describing the new steel towns built in Poland (Nowa Huta), Germany (Eisenhüttenstadt) and Hungary (Dunaujvaros) she says that they were Gold Rush towns, perhaps I'm simply irritable but it seems to me the reader either has an understanding of what a Gold Rush town is like or that person ought not be reading grown up books, in which case we don't need a detailed point by point description - she could in theory cut to the chase and tell us the significance to her argument of these towns, and reduce the length of her book considerably - I feel she would struggle to do so, because what I observed reading her book is that she is not marshalling facts as a lawyer might before a judge and jury to build a case but simply dumping a pile of 'Soviet domination of Eastern Europe wasn't nice' in the readers lap which is true, but not a particularly interesting (or shocking) observation.
A number of times I wondered if she had ever been to Europe, or while there had her eyes open, particularly when she discussed the built environment. Across Europe you can read the built environment backwards like a book - the scale and the type of building indicates the type of demand and urgency in meeting it at the time of construction. No doubt better quality housing than the Plattenbau could have been provided, but if you take the dominant styles reflected in cities across western Europe in to account then it is plainly only a variation on a type, not a unique demonstration of Stalinist inhumanity revealed in its provision of functional mass housing.
She has a blind eye for the ideology implicit or unconscious in society, seeing only the conformity that can be imposed from above, not that implied into or aspired towards in all societies. In fact she'd explicitly view my point as Marxist. But it seems to me that you can't for example view the boy scouts as non-ideological simply because one is used to them or likes them. There are a wealth of ideological assumptions simply underlying the idea that it is a desirable and good part of a child's socialisation to spend their leisure time marching, singing, putting up tents and burning food over open fires, and a range of sociological and economic assumptions underlying the presumption that children and their families won't or can't do those things without an external organisation, even before explicitly political issues enter into things such as who may and who may not be a member of such an organisation and what it's stance on questions of ecology and gender might be. I reminded myself once or twice that in a US context to be non-partisan is good, and maybe such a consideration led her to ignore the politics of civil society.
Equally patriotism for her is simply good and non-controversial, yet the notion of Patria strikes me as quite complex - what are the limits to your Patria, who belongs and who doesn't. It is a pity that she doesn't explore this since the inter-war Eastern European states were generally 'imperial' in that one nation consisted the political majority which dominated over the state while minority groups were either marginalised or occupied distinct economic or social niches, while the states of the Soviet empire aspired to create a homo Sovieticus ( a point she gives over a chapter to) and she gives over pages to the fierce partisan warfare between Poles and Ukrainians at the close of the war. Patriotism isn't simple - what does it mean to be Polish or Ukrainian? What does it mean to assert that Vilnus was historically a Polish city, when for much of its recent history its population was mainly Jewish ? Equally it is all well and good to make a song and dance about the westward shift of Poland's post 1945 borders but Appelbaum doesn't acknowledge that those western and eastern frontiers of Poland in 1918 were determined by men with guns and right of conquest, one could with varying amounts of justice and injustice have moved them further in or out.
The sub title "The crushing of Eastern Europe", is perhaps telling since after six years of war one might legitimately ask what was there to be crushed? Given her text and argument 'The rebuilding of Eastern Europe' would have made more sense but presumably might have been taken as too positive in its connotations. And with a little knowledge and peaking through the edges of her text in places one can say that the inter-war states of eastern Europe weren't that great. It's a big assertion when she only discusses Poland, Hungary and east Germany in any case. She's a huge believer in civil society, but inter-war civil society wasn't always so civil, there was anti-Semitism, if there were elections, suffrage was limited, certain groups were excluded not necessarily through formal means - one might note that even though these countries had most peasant economies that peasant parties didn't dominate the political life of those inter-war states. She describes them as having been Capitalist, which I think stretches the definition of the word, they were market economies but with the exception of the Bohemian part of Czechoslovakia, mostly typified by small scale production and not deeply integrated into the world economy,and during the 1930s eastern Europe was increasingly tied into dependency on to the German economy.
In the last couple of pages she mentions the disappearance of churches and entire religious groups under communism, and while I have no doubt that Poland and Hungary are less religious possibly that in the 1920s, that is probably also true of France. It is the position of the Churches in US life which is curious from a European perspective. Indeed in some countries the existence of the Church is not so much a marker of an independent civil society but instead one can see a continuity of ideology from church into state. To an extent Applebaum's book simply ends up reflecting issues that were widespread in the 1950s, ie that societies were conformist, repressive, and required self censorship, were rebuilding, that youth culture was regarded as suspicious and problematic, nervous and jittery, while not picking out much that was unique to Poland and Hungary beyond attempts to repress the Catholic Church, nor allowing that US perspectives are US perspectives rather than universal laws, nor does she draw out the nuances which counter her argument about Totalitarianism - ie when the subject states ended up at times more Stalinist than Stalin . Reading, events from the 1953 disturbances in East Germany to the Hungarian spring in 1956 came over as telescoped together with Stalin's death, rather than events spread out over almost two years - when as has been noticed - a week is a long time in politics.
She's completely soft on the role of the wartime allies, both in playing politics over which resistance groups they prepared to back, and the Imperialist carve up at Yalta, and the whole business of the Suez Crisis. I think anybody could extrapolate the content of this book from Ashes and Diamonds and "La Dolce Vita" with an appreciation of Imperialism. Her final cri de coeur that we have to understand the destruction of Eastern Europe to be able to rebuild it, is apart from being late, I would say unproven. The more relevant question I fear is how far was the Second World war a complete caesura, and how far can the authoritarian politics dominant in Hungary for example, be seen as a continuity of the uneven political and social development since I don't know when.
There are not many jokes in communism. Actually that’s not quite true. A case could be made that communism itself was a massive joke, except those living under it dared not laugh, or laugh only at their personal peril. All humour in what used to be called the Eastern Bloc was inevitably of a subversive nature. For as George Orwell wrote, a thing is funny when it upsets the established order; that every joke is a tiny revolution. The revolutionaries did not want revolution; they wanted total conformity.
Have you ever been in a situation, or a place, say a church or a library, where something struck you as funny? It may not be all that funny on later reflection but just try to contain a laugh when it wants to explode!
I’ve been reading Anne Applebaum’s masterly Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56, a follow up to her equally masterly Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps. There are not many laughs in that, you may think. But you are wrong. I’m not at all sure I could have survived the dull curtain of monotony that descended on Eastern Europe after 1945 for one simple reason – I have an acute sense of humour.
You see, I would have been overcome with explosive fits of laughter over the shear earnest pettiness of it all. Imagine going in to a bookshop and seeing children’s titles like Six-Year-Old Bronek and the Six Year Plan. You leave quickly, only to have your senses assaulted by a propaganda hoarding. There it is, just across the street, boldly announcing “Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to capitalist imperialism!” Your lips are tightly closed; the laughter is escaping like steam under pressure. You don’t want to be seen so you turn away to look at the latest civic art, only to be confronted by a painting entitled “The technology and organisation of cattle slaughter.” Was the Berlin Wall really brought down, I wonder, by a great outburst of laughter? Sorry, I should write the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, to give its official title.
Yes, there is humour in the story but the bigger picture is altogether bleak. In picturing the history of communism in Eastern Europe I see a façade, eaten hollow from within by termites. In the end the whole thing simply collapsed under its inherent contradictions, to borrow a piece of cherished Marxist terminology.
Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: for people in places like Poland, particularly Poland, the Second World War did not end in 1945. The immediate joy of ‘liberation’ simply gave way to an understanding that a new occupation had taken hold, one that was to last for decades.
The expression ‘Iron Curtain’ did not originate with Winston Churchill but it was he who was to give it greatest resonance in speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri in March, 1946;
From Stettin 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, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.
Applebaum sets out her stall quickly. She refuses to entertain the revisionist view that the imposition of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe after 1945 was a countermove to American policy at the start of what was to become the Cold War. No, the importation of a Soviet-style system was a deliberate ideological move, all part of the greater revolutionary good. As she quite rightly says, there was a template already in place for this in the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940, states that had been consigned to Stalin under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
So far as Stalin was concerned there were also foreign policy advantages. The new communist satrapies acted as a buffer zone in a period of growing East West tension. More specifically, an independent Poland would clearly have been a major political embarrassment to the Soviets, doubtless demanding the return of those territories in the east of the country seized by Stalin in 1939 as part of his satanic bargain with Hitler. For Poland it was a bleak choice between extinction and communism.
As always the road to hell begins with noble intentions. Alongside the cynical little Stalins, who had spent years licking the boots of their Master in Moscow, there were genuine idealists, people who believed in the lie. They came as self-perceived liberators, ready to free the working classes from capitalist exploitation. They expected to be welcomed in their establishment of a brave new world. Unfortunately for them it had real people in it.
The truth came quickly; the truth came in Poland. In 1946 the people decisively rejected a communist-backed referendum. Perplexed, the government rejected the people, concluding that they had acted in “some kind of incomprehensible spirit of resistance and complete ignorance.”
Here I immediately fast forwarded to the events of June, 1953 in East Berlin, the first serious uprising against imposed communist rule. Bertolt Brecht, the playwright, had hitherto served as the German Democratic Republic’s tame intellectual and court poet. But even he had enough, offering comment on the worker state’s suppression of the workers in his poem The Solution;
After the uprising of the 17th of June The Secretary of the Writers Union Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee Stating that the people Had forfeited the confidence of the government And could win it back only By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?
That would seem to serve as the very definition of the so-called People’s Democracies. In the place of real people came a hollow cardboard illusion.
Applebaum is splendid in her treatment of the high politics, in her description of the appalling stooges who reproduced the bleak apparatus of Stalinism in their respective spheres of influence: personality cults, purges, camps, bogus trials, the whole depressing paraphernalia. She also offers a description of the corrosive effects of communism on everyday life. Any kind of personal or free expression, even in the most minor forms of liberty, was excised. Popular consciousness was filled with the state and nothing but the state. One small example serves here. The scout movement was banned as were all other private societies. In 1950 in Poland a seventeen-year-old girl met with friends from a former troop. All were arrested and given jail sentences of two to five years.
Iron Curtain is a splendid piece of work, witty, perceptive, thoroughly researched and superbly written. I was impressed enough to consider it the most important book I’ve read this year, one that will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of this period in history, a tragedy on which the final curtain has thankfully fallen. My main criticism concerns the title. It’s not a comprehensive history of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956, as the title misleadingly suggests, but principally a history of three countries behind the Curtain – Poland, East Germany and Hungary. There is next to nothing on places like Romania, where the whole communist experiment eventually descended to the most degenerate form.
Don’t let that bother you. The history we are given is first class, a journey into a heart of darkness. Iron Curtain is a book that is scholarly and accessible, free of all condescension while losing nothing in the telling. It’s a commendable achievement. I felt both exhilarated at deflated at the end, especially after reading about the brutal suppression of the 1956 anti-communist rising in Hungary, which proved to all who were not blind that the liberation of 1945 was nothing but a lie. I was exhilarated by the narrative and deflated by the fate of some of our fellow Europeans, to whom history had dealt such a poor hand.
A well researched book but ultimately, a major disappointment. The author is connected with the neoconservative Legatum Institute as well as high ranking elements in the Polish establishment so if you are looking for a balanced account of Europe behind the Iron Curtain, you shouldn't look for it here. Problems include:
- a narrow focus that concentrates only on the immediate postwar period as well as just three countries, East Germany, Hungary and Poland
- a failure to acknowledge that barmy as the communist system in central Europe was, its instigators weren't all cynical sociopaths like Stalin and that some of them were making an honest attempt to rectify society's inequalities
- a too cosy appraisal of the regimes' opposing forces - fine in the case of dissidents and intellectuals but not in the case of the highly conservative clergy nor the freemasons - both are portrayed as angelic forces and not since Boycey in Only Fools and Horses have the latter received such rave reviews
- the shooting down of easy targets such as Soviet realist architecture (has she ever been to Milton Keynes or Sarcelles?), societal malfunction (should we regard Detroit or Kinshasa as 'typical' of capitalism per se ?) and the lack of 'freedom' (what about Guantanamo Bay?)
- little mention of the catastrophic shock therapy that followed on from the fall of the Berlin Wall - outside the scope of the book perhaps but it needs mentioning to put things in perspective
The sub-Hayekian hectoring quickly becomes tiring and one suspects that some gullible publisher was strong armed into releasing this as a trade book when what we need is an even handed view of the entire 40+ years of Communism in the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe.
Anne Applebaum is a journalist and author of Gulag: A History, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. She has written for many papers and publications, and was a foreign correspondent for The Economist in the late 1980's, when she covered the societal and political changes happening in Eastern Europe. She is married to Radosław Sikorski, Poland's former minister of foreign affairs, and is now a Polish citizen.
Iron Curtain is a well-researched and important book which seeks to answer the question: what happened in central and Eastern Europe immediately after World War 2? How did a number of countries, all ethnically and culturally very different, adopt the same, foreign ideology? How did communist parties - never very popular before the war - suddenly found themselves in position of unchallenged power?
The answer lies in the overwhelming presence of the Red Army. As the soldiers marched towards Berlin, the rest of the allies became aware that there would be no stopping them from eventually dominating the entire part of the continent east of the city. Although post-war agreements allowed only for free and unfettered elections, they were quickly proven to be worthless as elections and referendums were blatantly falsified, and pro-Soviet puppet governments were installed (sometimes without even pretending to hide the fact - Poland's Defence Minister was a Soviet General named Konstantin Rokossovsky). The allies did not want to challenge an overwhelming military presence and start another world war; in the words of president Roosevelt there was little point in opposing Stalin as he had the power to take what he wanted, and it was better to give in to him gracefully. This included not only placing Eastern Europe firmly under Soviet domination, but an enlargement of the Soviet Union itself at the expense of the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. The European people will simply have to endure Russian domination, he infamously said in a private conversation with Cardinal Spellman of New York before the conferences, in the hope that in ten or twenty years they will be able to live well with the Russians.
Applebaum's book is divided into two parts. The first, False Dawn, covers the years of immediate post-war chaos - chaos which was greatly exploited by the Red Army. While it is undoubtedly true that it was the Red Army which provided crucial in defeating Nazi Germany and suffered the biggest loses, it also committed massive looting and rape as it moved westward - which Stalin famously dismissed as soldiers reacting to horrors of war by "having fun with wenches and taking some trifle". While there was no order to conduct sexual violence towards civilians or POWs, little was made to stop it; both Soviet officials and soldiers treated everything they could get their hands on as trophy which should rightfully be theirs. As they lay in ruins, Germany and other Axis countries were also made to pay war "reparations", which included taking resources and stripping both private and state property from anything valuable and transferring it to the Soviet Union. Entire industries have been dismantled and moved eastward; factories literally disappeared, sometimes along with workers. Not only Axis countries were affected: Poland, which has not only not been an Axis country but has never collaborated with Nazi Germany, was also made to pay "reparations" and had its factories, train tracks and trains dismantled and taken away - on the excuse of the factories and other property being "German property", despite them never having German owners. The Soviet Union did defeat Nazi Germany and suffered the worst loss of human life of all allied nations - but also asked a terrible price for its victory, which had to be paid and paid and paid.
The book's second part is titled High Stalinism, and covers institutional and societal changes and radical ideological transformation of entire nations in the newly formed Soviet bloc. These nations have been culturally and ethnically distinct before the war and have never been unified in any way previously; yet after the war they found themselves being shaped into an ideologically and politically homogeneous region, with their national autonomy systematically dismantled, free flow of information and free expression suppressed, and their media, culture and education tightly controlled and moderated. Independent political opposition ceased to exist - anticommunist right-wing parties have been dismantled, as was the non-communist left; any potential opposition inside the communist party itself has been eliminated. Independent organizations have been dissolved and replaced by state-run mass organizations, which would serve at strengthening party propaganda, which would ideally encompass all aspects of society.
The theme of daily life in a world controlled by constant propaganda and its impact on human psyche is a topic of its own, and is explored in greater depth by Polish Nobel-winning poet and author Czesław Miłosz in his The Captive Mind - a must read for anyone interested in the subject.
The subtitle of Iron Curtain might be a bit misleading - while it refers to Eastern Europe, it focuses mainly on Germany, Poland and Hungary, with occasional references to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria. These three countries had very different histories and experiences, both before and during the war - but they all had much closer ties to Western Europe than they did to Soviet Russia, and there was little in their history or culture which would automatically destine them to become totalitarian states. Applebaum studies case after case of political and social repression which radically transformed these countries into Soviet satellites: the subjugation of churches and the clergy, the state takeover of youth organization and the media, the campaigns waged against private enterprise. There are many personal stories in this book - many coming from personal interviews conducted by the author.
This is by no means a definite work concerning the origins and development of communism in Europe - such a work would be numbered in volumes, not pages, and would require a comprehensive overview of history of the Soviet Union itself, about which we read very little. It would also be necessary to include a more comprehensive views of many other countries, most notably Yugoslavia (whose leader, Josip Broz Tito famously defied Stalin which resulted in sour relations until the latter's death), and Romania - whom history has cruelly given a leader so despotic that he might have outdone Stalin himself in his eccentricities. There is still much to write about this subject, and even more to read - but for anyone interested in the post-war development of Central Europe Iron Curtain will certainly prove a title worth reading.
"The best work of modern history I have ever read" says A N Wilson on the cover. The cover praise is gushing as we get "masterpiece" from Oliver Kamm and "at last the story can be told" by Orlando Figes. I have to say that I have come out of this book extremely disappointed and for many reasons.
The best work of modern history is as ridiculous a comment and as to Masterpiece? Evans Reich trilogy just kills this book for the sheer brilliance of the telling of the subject as opposed to a limited focus on 3 nations and a constant dose of wide eyed polemic mixed in. As to the story being finaly being told the story has been told countless times and if it was all new why the extensive bibliography?
There is no denying the appalling struggles with totalitarian communist regimes that the masses were forced to endure in the eastern parts of Europe after the fall of Nazi Germany. The vast humanity that had endured Nazi suffering deserved better but that does not make this book with its wide eyed and bushy tailed presentation any better. Lets take the chapter on Ethnic Cleansing as an example. Russian soldiers treated the German civilians appallingly no doubt but the author seems shocked at times. Why? Had not the Germans just committed atrocity after atrocity on Russian civilians, not only with the gun but by starvation and many other means? Did the author expect some charity? How naive!
The many examples of badly written prose is for me rather astonishing. Lets take this statement about travel. "According to the Interior Ministry statistics, only 9360 crossed the border for any reason in 1951, of whom only 1980 were travelling to capitalist countries" Well yes. We are reading about a country ravished by WW2 that not too far forward is a poverty stricken totalitarian regime with controls over the populace. But what we get a couple of aghast "only"s as if the then Polish government was going to conform to modern western freedom of travel.
The final chapter, Revolutions, finishes with a polemic on everyone being wrong. This is not a writing on history at all and is out of place as to what the chapter should have been about. And as to the Epilogue I just wonder the point. I want history, not another polemic aimed at a modern reader who still seems to think that there is a red menace out there. I mean do others who have praised this book really in their heart feel that the eastern European countries were particularly liberal prior to Nazi and Communist takeovers after 1939 as implied by the author? Free trade does not by itself make Poland, to use as an example, a liberal nation prior to 1939.
This book is as big a failure as I have read in a long time. The gushing praise just had me salivating but I am left very wanting. There must be better books on this subject than this, a book that to me is just a journalistic pursuit aimed at making a western audience reading the Murdoch Press and watching Fox News somehow think that their very way of life is till under attack.
When I was a kid in Soviet school they told us Russian troops brought peace and prosperity to Eastern Europe countries and I believed in it, but what 13-14 years old in totalitarian society could know.
Later I read lot of stuff and now I see picture much clearer: we brought misery and raping to these countries. First our soldiers (not all of them, but enough to discard it as one-off) raped women in all countries they liberated.
Then came more dangerous predators: politicians. They raped not a single woman, but whole country or block of countries at once. It's done on much deeper level that just physical humiliation: political, fate, religions, freedom of expression. They molested kids in youth organization, indoctrinated people with love to Big Brother. If people didn't like it - they put those in labor camps (including Russian Gulag).
I knew about Hungarian 1956 and Prague 1968, but this book talk about other events as well. Please do yourself a favor, read this book to understand how totalitarian regime works.
Page 174 (my book, Polish radio announcer Andrzej Zalewski)
One winter day, I stupidly wrote in the text of the script, “There is a cold atmospheric front approaching us from Russia.” The broadcaster read it aloud … in the morning they phoned me: “Go and see the director.” I went to see the director and was ushered in right away: “Zalewski,” he told me, “I thought you were more intelligent. From now on, remember only warm, good things come from the East.” It didn’t seem funny at the time…
This book focuses primarily on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. The other Iron Curtain countries get only a passing glance.
The author, Anne Applebaum, clearly points out how these countries were in a complete apocalypse at the ending of the Second World War in Europe. Poland had its intellectual elite eliminated. No education was provided for the Polish population during the long German years of brutal occupation.
The climb back to a semblance of civilized society was to be a long one – and it was to be under Stalin’s terms. There was an ethnic cleansing of Poles, Ukrainians, and Germans. In Poland and Ukraine there were roving armed groups intent on asserting their independence from either Poland or Russia.
In all, some 12 million Germans left Eastern Europe in the postwar period and settled in both East and West Germany.
By 1950, not much remained of multi-ethnic Eastern Europe… In the end, most deported Germans went to Germany, Poles went to Poland, and Ukrainians could go to Soviet Ukraine.
Any opposition was repressed with thousands of political prisoners, and a huge police force supervised by Russia’s NKVD with thousands of informers. No one knew who one could trust. It was much like the novels of George Orwell – “Animal Farm” and “1984”.
I felt the writing in the latter half of the book became belaboured and tedious. For example, the author goes on about conformity, but the same could be said of western countries in the 1950’s with the McCarthy era and the ostracism of the new Beat generation. She also dwells over many pages on the sloganeering of workers for higher production outputs which reminded me of the reward plaques that I keep seeing in fast-food and coffee franchises for the “employee of the month”. She was on firmer ground when providing examples of the severe punishments, like imprisonment, for those who transgressed. Also, she describes the extensive privileges given to those at the upper government echelons.
There were times when I felt the author was disappointed that the Western powers did not declare war on the Soviet Union in May 1945 to prevent the assimilation of Eastern Europe. She is somewhat jaded about some of the accomplishments attained in educational levels in Eastern Europe which were abysmal in 1945.
Nevertheless, we do see the repression and subservience that existed to Moscow.
If Anne Applebaum had written 'Iron Curtain' at the height of the revisionist '70s and '80s, she'd be dismissed as an acolyte of Richard Pipes. After two decades of opened files in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European satellite states, however, we know that the traditionalist Western view of 'High Stalinism' was more or less correct. Even giving post-war socialist striving its due, the Stalinist form of Central European consolidation was almost as depraved as the commie-hunters of the '50s claimed. The problem was not so much the brutality of late-period Stalinism - plenty of people died, to be sure, but only a shadow of the number during the famines and Great Terror of the 1930s. The problem was the constant lying to self and others in trying to believe in the type of state that could never really exist under centrally-planned socialism of the Stalinist variety.
Applebaum is at her best when she gives us the same kind of review of daily life under 1950s Eastern Europe Stalinism that Orlando Figes gave us in 'The Whisperers,' his excellent study of the USSR in the 1930s. There is a direct sense of clinging to the false as a desperate attempt to find something to believe in after the utter devastation of society in World War 2. And the supporters of centralist Stalinism appear at their most devious not in crushing political opponents or in controlling the workplace, but in their fervent desire to crush any type of civil society whatsoever - even chess clubs and YMCA outlets. This is why Stalinism was so similar to Falangist fascism - "All supporting the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state" is one of the most depraved concepts of modern government developed in the past century. The notion reaches its most absurd levels when Applebaum relays the lyrics to 'The Party is Always Right,' but of course there is no joke intended in this particular song.
Still, the book can drag a bit in those cultural-life reviews. There are times in the critiques of modern-art formalism and descriptions of 'Homo Sovieticus' when the attention can wander. In general, however, Applebaum is a great writer who makes her analyses come alive.
My bigger complaint is that the book cannot be comprehensive because it chooses to focus on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary. It's understandable that Applebaum wanted to make her subject manageable. Putting aside Yugoslavia may have been necessary because Tito was such a special case. But Romania and Bulgaria are unknowns to many in the West, and a better study of their cultural specifics would have been nice. The bigger loss, though, is Czechoslovakia. The brutal nature of the 1948 coup, and the special circumstances leading up to the 1968 Czech Spring, virtually demand a better coverage of that nation.
Other elements of the book seem hurried. Applebaum spends plenty of time in the 18 months of displaced hell following World War 2, which is very worthy considering the paucity of research in that period. But why breeze over the show trials of 1949-50 so quickly? Why spend so little time looking into the bizarre role played by U.S. citizen Noel Field? A little more balance in what was and was not covered would have made this a better book.
Still, this is a decent analysis about a terrible time in history that is not studied carefully and seriously enough. The holes in Applebaum's study might justify a sequel book to study the Southern European states of Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.
▫️IRON CURTAIN: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum, 2012.
Leaning in heavy to my history shelves, specifically the books that have been sitting there for a (long) spell. Planned to just flip through and get a feel... And then I was entrenched and read it all in one week.
Applebaum's doorstopper is a surprisingly accessible history of three "Soviet bloc" states: Poland, Hungary, and East Germany (GDR/DDR) from 1944-1956.
She delves into the politics of each state, making a clear distinction that these countries are not a "bloc" or monolith, each with differing cultures, languages, and histories shaped by imperialism, geography, and access to resources. Chapters focus on the government leaders, the role of media in Communist propaganda & dissent, educational reforms, economics & industrialization, city planning & architecture, and hints at the future beyond the 1956 scope.
By limiting to this immediate post-War period, the focus is primarily on Stalinist regimes, the "Little Stalins" leaders who patterned their country's governments on Moscow. Pushing her scope to 1956 also gives a small peek of what happened in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany after Stalin's death in 1953 and the impending revolutions of the latter half of the 20th century.
While Applebaum's own right-of-center strokes come out in some synthesis statements, the majority of the book focuses on archival research + interviews / oral histories.
The scope is already SO broad with these three state focuses, but I do hope to follow up with some readings on Czech, Yugoslav, and Romanian histories of this era too. While briefly mentioned in this text (& limited resources mentioned in the notes and bibliography) I was hoping for more on these regions as well - of course, that would have liked turned the book into an encyclopedia set...
Many paths to follow up on here; Recommendations welcome.
If you're interested in a comprehensive political/economic + cultural history of Eastern Europe in this era, this is a worthy addition to the shelf.
Άλλο ένα εξαιρετικό βιβλίο ιστορίας από τις εκδόσεις Αλεξάνδρεια.
Αυτό που μου έκανε εντύπωση είναι η διαφορετική στάση που κράτησε η Σοβιετική Ένωση απέναντι στην Ανατολική Γερμανία, σε αντίθεση με τις υπόλοιπες ανατολικές χώρες. Προσπάθησε δηλαδή να δείξει έναν καλό εαυτό, ένα πρόσωπο καλύτερο από αυτό του προηγούμενου καθεστώτος, των ναζί. Δηλαδή, δεν πείραξε την εκκλησία, δεν κυνήγησε τον κλήρο κτλ, όπως έκανε σε Πολωνία, Ουγγαρία κτλ. Βέβαια από το 1945 μέχρι το 1961 3,5 εκατομμύρια απο τα 18 πέρασαν στη Δυτική Γερμανία.
Είναι τρομακτικό το τι προσπάθησε και εν πολλοίς το πέτυχε, η Σοβιετική Ένωση. Έστησε δίκες-παρωδία, όπως ακριβώς αυτών της Μόσχας, έχοντας πλέον την εμπειρία να ανάγει σε τέχνη τον εξαναγκασμό ομολογίας. Δημιούργησε σοσιαλιστικές πόλεις, δηλαδή τις έχτισε από την αρχή, γνωρίζοντας πλήρη αποτυχία (Στάλινσταντ - Ανατολική Γερμανία, Στάλινβαρος - Ουγγαρία, Νόβα Χούτα - Πολωνία).
Ο τρόπος που πήρανε την εξουσία και η προπαγάνδα, δεν άφησε πολλά περιθώρια σε αντιπολίτευση παρα μόνο παθητικά, δηλαδή σε ανέκδοτα, ανώνυμες επιστολές κτλ. Απαγορεύτηκαν η ψυχανάλυση, τα βιβλία των Φρόυντ, Γιούνγκ, τα κόμικς, ως προϊόντα του καπιταλισμού.
Αυτά είναι μόνο λίγα παραδείγματα. Η συγγραφέας περιγράφει και συγκεκριμένα πραγματικά περιστατικά, που δείχνουν το τραγελαφικό της όλης κατάστασης. Γίνονται μικρές αναφορές σε διανοούμενους που στήριξαν με πάθος το σοβιετικό εγχείρημα, όπως ο Σαρτρ, ο Πικάσο, ο Μπρέχτ και ο Λούκατς.
Πρόκειται για ένα ολοκληρωμένο βιβλίο, που εξετάζει όλες τις πτυχές της ιστορίας των ανατολικών χωρών κυρίως τα 10 πρώτα χρόνια μετά το τέλος του πολέμου.
Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 is a thoroughly-researched and rewarding read. Although I approached the book with some skepticism, due to the author's association with prominent neoconservative organizations (The Legatum Institute and the American Enterprise Institute) and her husband's position as Foreign Minister of Poland (he is an AEI alumnus too), it was detailed and fair -- if vehemently anti-Russian. I noted with interest in the acknowledgements section at the book’s end, a thank you to both the Scaife Foundations AND the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hmmm?
An in depth review of the modes of repressing and molding the human psyche in Eastern European societies that have suffered under the Soviet-Stalinist hand. It touches on everything from the political, economic and social environments to the specific use of radio to either brainwash people or to help the permanent (even though small) resistance during the period of 1944-1956, as well as a beautiful dive into the architecture of oppression (which has quickly become one of my favorite subjects) and the way designing certain spaces, like the industrial cities of '49, '50 influences the way people live their lives. It mainly focuses on Hungary, Poland and the Cheks, but it also touches on my country, Romania, a few times, and makes some very good points about things that I have as well studied in school with regards to our communist years.
My favorite part of Applebaum's writing is her irony and dark humor - she manages to make you laugh with a well-placed remark about some politician's life, in the midst of a lecture on one of the worst things humans have done to themselves. And the pages in this book that write specifically about the use of jokes under communism in order to kindle and keep alive the fire of resistance in people hit very close to home, because even I, born 6 years after the fall of communism in my country, still use some of them and still understand and in a weird way relate to this black, bleak humor.
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, but as always, be aware, this is a history book, not a piece of fiction, so you might have to read everything with a pen in hand and Wikipedia open, in order to check names, dates and facts. I think that's very important to do when you read historical works, as otherwise your brain tends to treat them as pure fiction or the more literary type of writing, and you don't retain as much information.
“Колко пъти съм бил принуждаван да приемам чуждо мнение, което не споделям. Когато това мнение се промени, от мен се иска и аз да променя моето. Това ме кара да се чувствам гадно, по-гадно, отколкото ако са ме били. Аз съм човек и също имам глава, с която да мисля.”
Това не е цитат от някой известен централноевропейски дисидент, а безименен унгарски металург – един от многото работници, които през 50-те години на 20 век протестират срещу непосилните трудови норми и мизерните надници. За онези времена такива протести са звучали напълно неразбираемо – възможно ли е класата, която би трябвало да е най-облагодетелстваната от “държавата на работниците” да протестира срещу тази държава?
Чисто материалните аспекти на този протест настрана, цитатът по-горе разкрива много по-дълбоките измерения на индивидуалната трагедия, сполетяла източноевропейците след 1945 г. – третирането им от режима като непълнолетни, непълноценни и неразвити същества, на които Държавата диктува какво да мислят, какви дрехи да носят и какво да четат, поемайки ги в здравата си тоталитарна хватка от люлката до гроба. Нищо, наистина нищо, не е оставено на случайността
Няма да се спирам нито върху темите, които книгата на Ан Апълбаум покрива – те са развити подробно в общ и конкретен план, като засягат максимално много аспекти от живота на изток от Желязната завеса; нито върху фактите, които в по-голямата си част са познати на хората от нашите географски ширини. По-важни са фундаменталните изводи за природата на режима, чисто човешкото му отражение върху различните хора и поколенията, които отглежда, част от които, ще трябва да преживеят на два пъти душевно раздвоение – веднъж при налагането му, и втори път при колапса в края на 80-те. Изследването не се фокусира върху всички поробени държави (Апълбаум се спира подробно на ГДР, Полша и Унгария), нито обхваща целия период на комунистическа власт (фокусът е най-вече върху повратната за всички сателити 1948 г. до смъртта на Сталин през 1953 г.), но и така дава много добра представа за политическата, социална, икономическа и културна картина.
Но докато четях (с вътрешна наслада) за трудностите, с които съветските “представители” по места са се сблъсквали в опитите си да прекършат окончателно поляци, унгарци и германци, не можех да не направя печалното сравнение, че ние сме били най-покорните и сервилни от целия “блок”. Но дори и при нас, и в годините на най-тотален контрол и най-голяма уравниловка, идеологията като теория и практика не имала никакъв шанс – дори само заради това, че нейното пълно разминаване с начина, по който функционира човешката природа, с елементарните човешки желания и потребности за свободна лична изява, за творчество и индивидуалност, я правят безжизнена, мухлясала, безвремева. “Преди една нация да бъде възстановена, нейните членове първо трябва да разберат как тя е била унищожена: как институциите й са били подкопани, как еизкът й е бил изкривен, как хората й са били манипулирани. Те трябва да знаят всички детайли, а не само общите теории, и трябва да чуят индивидуалните истории, а не обобщенията за масите.”
“Най-успешните посткомунистически държави са онези, които са успели да запазят някакви елементи на гражданското общество по времето на комунизма.”
Comunismul n-a fost “o idee bună, prost aplicată”, ci o idioțenie bine aplicată, care, ca orice idioțenie, a sfârșit prost.
Dacă spun că asemenea lucrări sunt “obligatorii” pentru orice cititor cu pretenții de la sine, sună prea ca la școală.
Dar simt că încă nu sunt suficiente cărțile care să facă obiectiv (și critic) radiografia nemiloasă a așa-zisului comunism, instalat prin intervenția și sub amenințarea tancurilor rusești, în strânsă colaborare cu ticăloșii locali - peste tot în Europa de est.
Cât timp copiii noștri sau noi încă purtăm tricouri cu moaca ucigașului Che Guevara și asta ni se pare absolut normal și cool, dar ne-am îngrozi (pe bună dreptate) dacă cineva s-ar afișa cu zvastica pe tricou sau cu moaca lui Hitler, înseamnă că mai e nevoie să citim niște istorie recentă.
Ori măcar să-i mai ascultăm când și când pe alții, care o cunosc. Altfel, tot noaptea minții ne așteaptă.
I really struggled to get to the middle of the book and eventually gave up. There were lots of interesting facts, but the book tried to do too much, from too many angles at the expense of depth. The author's opinions and frustrations were too prominent in the writing, which at first I liked since my problem with most history books is the overly objective narrative, but this was really too much! At one point it felt like a rant, despite the well polished academic tone... a historian's rant...
Anne Applebaum was an editor at The Spectator, so that should give you enough insight on her. Hysterically, she runs a propaganda and disinformation project at LSE. I've recently learned she is on the board of NED. NED is the national endowment for democracy, which is basically just a U.S. govt-funded agency that “promotes democracy.” Pretty much just a CIA propaganda tool. LSE is the London School of Economics.
That being said however, it's quite clear that the author has a bias against the Red Army and Soviet Union, that she makes the Red Army and Soviet Union sound worse than the Nazis. The Soviet Union, due to the Nazi invasion and the war to save their country, and destroy the Nazis, lost at least 27 million people. Several of the East European countries (Romania, Hungary, Slovakia) that the author portrays as innocent victims supplied HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS of troops to assist the Nazis in their goal of destroying the Soviet Union. Poland, also, during 1920-1, had a war with the Red Army in which the Poles defeated the Red Army. The Poles, as the price for an end of the war, took parts of Ukraine, and Belorussia, which had few Polish residents and incorporated them into Poland.
I have a question for the author or anyone else. Except for the Red Army, who would have freed Poland, and other Eastern European countries, from the Nazis? The answer is no one. Only the Red Army was strong enough to thoroughly defeat the Nazis and force them out of Eastern European and eventually capture Berlin.
It is understandable that a nation that lost more than 15% of its population to invading armies would feel threatened, if there were hostile nations on its’ borders. Stalin was paranoid. But it was not out of the question that the Nazis might try to convince the Western Allies that the Soviet Union was the real menace. General Patton advocated attacking the Red Army (which was an insane idea). The author is ridiculously anti-Soviet.
Well researched and well written book about the post-war period in Eastern Europe. It contains a detailed and interesting narrative of the progressive Stalinization of Eastern Europe, focused primarily on East Germany, Poland and Hungary. The only issue with this book (and the reason why I am not giving it 5 stars) is, in my opinion, a (possibly ideologically motivated) lack of balance in the judgment of the individuals and peoples involved in this process - sometimes they are portrayed in an almost caricatural manner, ignoring that some of them were making an honest attempt to rectify society's inequalities and they did believe that the new Communist societies would remediate the evils visible in the Capitalistic societies. If proper allowance is made for this lack of balanced view, this book is really a very interesting read, recommended to anybody interested in this particular period.
A detailed (enough for me) account of how Stalin forced Eastern- European countries into submission. It focuses on East-Germany, Poland and Hungary, but does, I think, encapsulate the Eastern-Block. With reference to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences and the ‘agreements made by the BIG 3’, that one can see were paid lip-service by Stalin, this provides a most gruesome chronology of how the Red Army occupied these once democratic states. 1939 and 40 saw Hitler (Germany’s desire for hegemony of Europe) invade and occupy neighbouring countries; and inflict harm upon many of the populace. After his invasion of Poland, we declared war. 1944 and 45, Stalin did the same and much worse. I accept, as the war closed, Stalin held all the cards and both Roosevelt and Churchill were not looking for another fight over Europe. I can also accept that many of these countries were still reeling from Nazi occupation; more rabbits caught in the headlights than free-thinking, self- governed entities. Weakened by the war and without any real ability to resist an invasion by the Red Army; Stalin held all the cards. When countries made a stand against communist rule they became witnesses to the carnage that the hammer and sickle was able to wield. Reading the personal stories saddened me; and I cannot sit in judgement, but I come away from this shows, wondering how we could have turned a blind eye to what we knew was happening.
This is a moving descruption of the crushing of Eastern Europe by the Soviets.
The book is written in a dead pan matter of fact style with a grimly dry humour.
It is very easy to get very angry about communist and Soviet evil doing when you read about normal people doing normal things and being executed or sent to the Gulag for it. You need to read the authors book on the Gulag's to get the full impact of flat statements that someone went to the Gulag for several years.
As you get further on into the the book you begin to admire the strength of people living in these countries. There is a lot of imformation about communist slogans in this book, the bulk of which are patronising, stupid nonsense. We British have a slogan dating from the second world war which we are proud of; "Keep Calm and Carry On" which was originally intended for use if we were invaded. You don't have to read far into this book to realise that Eastern Europe lived the idea for several decades. It is clear that these countries may have been swallowed but they were never digested.
This book is well written and informative, giving insight into a little known period of both on the personal and the political level. Well worth the read.
Applebaum focuses on three of the Eastern block countries: Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, then covers how the Soviets cemented control thematically. So there's a chapter on youth groups, art, radio, rebuilding, etc. The epilogue makes a point that when a government tries to control all aspects of life, all aspects of life become a possible venue for political protest--which radio station people listen too, every business decision, even what to wear. Applebaum sheds some light on what it would have been like to live in a totalitarian society.
Life under Nazi overlords during World War II was horrific for the peoples of Eastern Europe, but it didn’t improve all that much once the Red Army arrived, ostensibly as “liberators.” Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is an account (in great and graphic detail) of how the Soviets imposed their will on Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.
Applebaum is fluent in Polish and Hungarian, and so she has been able to utilize sources inaccessible to most western historians. The result is a much more comprehensive narrative of the imposition of Soviet style communism on what became the Eastern Bloc than has hitherto been available to the general reader in the West. And what a sad tale of woe it is!
Stalin was not about to allow unfriendly states exist on his western border. Accordingly, the Soviet government began planning how to control the small countries of Eastern Europe once it became apparent that the Red Army would sweep into Germany. Negotiations with the western allies (the U.S. and Britain) for a post-war settlement at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences proved to be just window dressing, as the Soviets did pretty much what they wanted in areas controlled by their armed forces irrespective of the agreements arrived at the conferences.
Pockets of armed resistance to Soviet rule continued for several years after the war against Germany had ended in 1945. Ukrainians fought Poles for control of disputed territory before new national boundaries were finalized under Russian supervision. The Polish “Home Army,” an anti-communist group that had formed while the Nazis were still in power, fought the Soviet-imposed government on into the early 1950s before they were finally suppressed.
Mass deportations were effected immediately after the German surrender as Stalin sought to change the boundaries of Europe by relocating Poland several hundred miles to the west. This was “ethnic cleansing” writ large. Millions of people were put on trains and shipped out of their native countries. Germans living in what had been East Prussia were shipped west to a shrunken Germany while their former homeland became part of Poland. Whole groups of Poles and Ukrainians were in essence “swapped” – Poles living in the Soviet Union were shipped west, and Ukrainians in Poland were sent east.
As the Red Army poured into Eastern Europe, it was accompanied by the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) and a cadre of Moscow-trained communist nationals of each conquered country. The tightening of the Soviet grip was gradual, except in Germany. The Soviets even allowed relatively fair elections to take place in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1946 and 1947. The communists expected to win since they viewed themselves to be liberators of those countries. They were stunned to find out that they were very unpopular, garnering only small minorities of the votes. How then did the Soviets impose “totalitarianism” on the societies they conquered? Applebaum puts forth a number of explanations:
Most saliently, there were life-threatening repercussions to disobedience. The NKVD maintained control of the security apparatus and established Gestapo-like secret police institutions in all the occupied countries. They then employed intimidation, beatings, transportation to the Gulag, and executions of anti-communists to impose Stalin’s will on the general populace of all the eastern European countries except Yugoslavia, which, although communist, had not been “liberated” by the Red Army.
In addition, the Soviets immediately took control over the radio broadcasting capacity of each country. (They believed strongly in the power of propaganda and at that time, radio was the most powerful broadcast medium.) They took advantage of the natural tendency of people to defer to authority. Also, like the Nazis and early Soviet communists, the East European communists organized the youth into propaganda-driven organizations with putative goals of social or intellectual or physical achievement. And finally, after years of the war and depredations of World War II, East Europeans just wanted to return to normalcy, even if the new “normal” wasn’t very good.
Two other important considerations kept the otherwise not-very-workable system going. On the one hand, elites had many special privileges not available to the masses to keep them happy and in line. They therefore had a vested interest in maintaining the system. On the other hand, the hoi polloi had a number of well-established ways to get around the strictures and hardships of the Communist regimes. Even if you couldn’t find anything in the notoriously empty grocery stores, it wasn’t impossible to get what you wanted “na leva” (literally, “on the left” – i.e., outside of normal channels.) Furthermore, while you couldn’t get access to anything interesting to read in regular book shops, “samizdat,” or censored publications reproduced by hand and passed from reader to reader, still allowed those who could work the system to get information from the world on the other side of the curtain.
Most of Applebaum's book, however, is not about why the takeover happened, but rather what it was like, and what the nature was of the system the Communists sought to impose in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary.
After she describes the process of the takeovers, Applebaum details the careers of several “mini-Stalins,” who were put in charge of various governments by the Soviets. All of them were nationals of the countries they came to rule, but had been communists before the war, and received rigorous training in Stalinist statecraft in the Soviet Union. She also gives an account of ordinary life in the communist countries, bleak from consumer goods shortages, dreary propaganda-laden “entertainment,” and virtually complete lack of political choice.
Applebaum ends the history in 1956 with the Polish and Hungarian uprisings, although that was far from the end of the Iron Curtain. But there was in fact a sea change then. Stalin had died in 1953, and the Kremlin was trying to stabilize its satellites. Presumably, she will continue the saga with another volume.
Evaluation: Applebaum’s prose is readable and her historical research is very thorough. To some extent, the book drags on because the story is so depressing. But for anyone who wonders how people could live so long under the adverse conditions of communist-ruled Eastern Europe, this book provides a very complete explanation.
The author is what we might label a “neo-con” on the political spectrum. She currently directs political studies at the Legatum Institute, and before that worked for the American Enterprise Institute. She is also married to a fierce anti-communist Polish politician. While I could see how her background may have colored her presentation, I could not quarrel with the facts she presented.
I listened to the audio version. The narrator, Cassandra Campbell, seemed quite competent, particularly in her fluent pronunciation of foreign words and names. Nevertheless, the unrelenting progression of depressing events caused the listening experience to be a downer. Moreover, some readers less familiar with the time and geography under consideration might miss the maps, photos, and footnotes that accompany the written book.
Published by Random House Audio on 21 compact discs (unabridged), 2012
This well-researched book brings many aspects of this oppressive period including violence, ethnic cleansing, politics, and economy, control of youth, radio, and arts, which makes it a very interesting read.
The book concentrates on three countries: Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, “because they were so very different.”
It is worth noting that the author starts with explanation of the term “totalitarian,” which was the idea of “total control” and nowadays it is “applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.” And the difference between Soviet Union and the countries occupied by Soviet Union, which still in present time some people have trouble distinguishing, for example Poland was occupied by Soviet Union; it was not part of Soviet Union.
What happened before WWII? “In 1939, after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and agreed to divide Poland, Romania, Finland, and the Baltic States into Soviet and German spheres of influence. On September 1, Hitler invaded Poland from the west. On September 17, Stalin invaded Poland from the east.”
What happened after WWII? April 1945, the liberation day across the capitals of those three countries is described as quiet or silent. The next day the Red Army arrived in Poland and a new chapter of history had started. “In Poland, Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, the Red Army’s arrival is rarely remembered as a pure liberation. Instead, it is remembered as the brutal beginning of a new occupation.”
The regime of Soviet Union, including its ethnic cleansing turned out to be pretty extensive and violent. It was all done on purpose as they knew that “disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.”
Also it has to be mentioned that the Soviet Union soldiers did good for millions of Jews freeing them from concentration camps. Their arrival “made it possible for Poles in the western part of Poland to speak Polish after years of being forbidden to do so in public.” At the same time, “the Red Army left extraordinary devastation in its wake.” The Soviet soldiers were overwhelmed by what seemed to them as richness. “More horrific, and ultimately of deeper political significance, were violent attacks on civilian. (…) Women of all ages were subject to gang rapes and sometimes murdered afterwards.”
“In Hungary they seemed unsure of how, exactly, a fascist might be identified. As a result, the first arrests were often arbitrary. Men were stopped on the streets, told they would be taken away to do a little work. They would then disappear deep into the Soviet Union and not return for many years.”
In regards to economy, “the Bolshevik Revolution’s first slogan had been ‘Peace, Land, and Bread!’ From the moment they arrived, Red Army troops vigorously tried to enforce the same policy, confiscating land from richer owners and redistributing it to poorer peasants. But in Eastern Europe, this simple formula did not have the impact that Soviet officers expected or that their communist colleagues hoped.”
“Land reform was greeted with even greater suspicion in Poland, where collectivization carried particularly negative connotations. In the eastern part of the country, many people had family and friends across the border in Soviet Ukraine, whose peasants had experienced first land reform, then collectivization, then famine. So strong was their fear of this scenario that many Polish peasants opposed partial land redistribution – even knowing they might personally benefit...”
In Hungary, “many peasants thanked the communists for their new land. But many were made uneasy by the receipt of someone else’s property,” particularly as the clergy were often preaching against it.”
As nationalization progressed, the shortages worsened. Shortages and imbalances lasted for about four decades, 1947-1987.
Already in 1950, during the communism, the private sector proved to be more profitable, popular and efficient than state run business. But Soviet Union’s response was, “more control, not less, was what the communist parties of the region believed would stop the strikes, fix the shortages, and raise living standards to the level of the West.”
During the era of High Stalinism, 1948-1953, religion was being suppressed. “Many children were expelled from school for refusing to publicly renounce religion – estimates vary from 300 to 3,000 – and far more were expelled from universities. (…) The closure of monasteries followed soon after.”
Oppression of teachers, arrests in some cases and raids were designed to punish the entire institution if “ideologically correct atmosphere” was not maintained.
Another debilitating aspect of economy was “socialist competitions” – competing to finish given quota quickly, but this never made the economy more productive as quality was ignored.
“The second part of this book describes techniques: a new wave of arrests; the expansion of labor camps, much tighter control over the media, intellectuals, and the arts.” It included control of artistic production. “Private galleries had disappeared almost entirely, along with the rest of the private sector.” On the other hand, Wanda Talakowska, polish art teacher, designer, curator was inspired by folk art created by peasants and favored by Communists. She saw an opportunity to inspire and create new designs in folk art. She saw an opportunity, where others saw none. Unfortunately, the Poles saw her as a Communist collaborator.
As Warsaw was being rebuilt after the war, the Soviet Union tried to make it as Moscow with wide streets, but this is not how Warsaw was built originally. Warsaw with narrow cobbled streets - this is how people remembered it and this is how they wanted it to be rebuilt. It wasn’t an easy process, but to keep people quiet and to avoid riots, little by little the Soviets allowed the rebuilt of Old Town as it used to be. And personally, I am grateful to those who fought for it, as an art and architecture lover I am a great admirer of Old Towns and folk arts, which make every culture so much richer.
Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Low concludes with a chapter on how the Soviet communists took advantage of a devastated Europe to control the destinies of millions of people. Anne Applebaum picks up the story from there, showing in detail the steps that solidified Soviet power in Poland, Hungary and East Germany for two generations.
The pattern was the same in each of these three countries. The Russian army, being place at the war's end, was able to take credit for liberating these areas from German control. Each of the areas had a communist party that benefited from the Soviet presence. The international community, tired of war, gave Stalin a pass which he methodically and ruthlessly used.
In the first year the communists (the Russians in cooperation with the locals) were not so forceful, permitting elections, some opposition and some opposition newspapers. After huge electoral defeats (I was surprised at the size of losses) the speed of dropping the "Iron Curtain "was amazing. Applebaum details the use of violence (inclusive of threats and pre-emptive terror), the institution of secret police, the manipulation of ethnic prejudices, the seizure of property, the destruction and co-option of local institutions (from churches to the chess clubs), the control of jobs, ration cards, media, educaton/youth and the installation of convenient, dull, conservative local puppets.
Applebaum notes that the west was well aware of the torture, the prisons the expropriation of wealth. There was some treaty language that made for gray areas, but the manner of occupation was clearly a violation of international law. The US and Britain were war weary and leaders didn't think they could "sell" more war to their constituents. Stalin had a clear path.
Like Savage Continent, the story is told through both the large issues and the stories of the many people caught up in these overwhelming events. The many stories make the book. Salomon Morel (p. 134-5) was a concentration camp survivor who upon liberation became a brutal commandant of a communist internment camp. In 2005, facing war crimes charges, Isreal (where he had fled) claimed he was a victim. Geza Supka (pp. 296 -299) had a distinguished career as head of Hungary's National Museum and a long resume of accomplishments. His surveillance file provides a fascinating look at the methods of the secret police. Wanda Telakowska (pp. 343 - 346) was able to contend with wretched constraints and pressures and have a productive career enabling artists in Poland. The story of the sad death and funeral of Laszlo Rajk (pp 454-455) drips with irony. These are only a few of the stories of the "unfamous". Each of the leaders of the three countries and their rise to power is also profiled.
Late in the book, Applebaum touches on the topic of mental health. While the space devoted to it in this book is appropriate, I would like to see more work done on this. The people profiled here suffered loss, grief, the loneliness of not be able to share their thoughts, problems of trust, the stress of poverty and restricted movement, and the inner conflict of saying and singing words that contradicted their hearts. I'd be interested in more work describing the mental processes of coping with totalitarianism and adjusting to its aftermath.
There is a lot of research in this book and it is presented in a very readable way. It is highly recommended.
Because I grew up during the Cold War and was a avid follower of the news by the time I was age 9, I thought I knew something about the Soviets and Eastern Europe. Turns out, I knew very little.
Anne Applebaum's superb book details the Soviet Union's enduring and total brutality, paranoia and intolerance toward the people of Eastern Europe, starting not at the end of World War II, but months, even years, before. The Soviets and their puppet leaders in each country sought nothing less than total control over every aspect of every citizen's daily life.
Applebaum concentrates on East Germany, Poland and Hungary. She details how, after a period of relative tolerance up to about 1948, the Soviet hammer began to fall heavily and relentlessly. By then it had become obvious to the stunned Communists in Moscow that the people of Eastern Europe were resistant to the idea of Soviet style "socialism." Again and again in multiparty elections, Communist candidates won only 15 to 20 percent of the vote. The Communists had anticipated a proletarian revolution. What they got instead, after some early enthusiasm, was increasing resistance.
Applebaum writes that the Soviet Union and its local allies "had failed to achieve absolute or even adequate control. The number of their followers was shrinking rapidly."
Political parties were banned. Civic groups and clubs were outlawed, including Boy Scouts, theater groups, school groups, charities, church groups. The free press disappeared, replaced by newspapers and radio stations that spread party propaganda. Church leaders were imprisoned. Terror became an essential weapon. Tens of thousands of people were murdered, sent to the Soviet gulags or tossed into prison. Millions of others endured forced relocations, often from towns and villages where their families had lived for centuries. Labor camps were expanded.
Secret police were established in each country along the lines of the Soviet NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB. The most notorious, of course, was the Stasi in East Germany, which monitored the lives of every citizen it considered suspicious for even the slightest of reasons.
As the '40s became the '50s, the economies of Eastern European countries continued to fall behind those of Western Europe. For the citizens of the Soviet bloc, the quality of life failed to improve, despite or because of, detailed economic plans and goals, some of which were ludicrous.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, public protests became more common. One in East Berlin in '53 brought Soviet tanks. Major rebellions followed in Hungary and Poland in 1956. As a result, the Communists moderated their tactics, which continued to fail in a pattern that was repeated until the fall of Communism in 1989.
Applebaum's book isn't for everyone. I'm a history wonk, and I admire the incredibly detailed and deep research that went into her book. Details that I found fascinating, including governments' mind-numbing tactics borne of paranoia, may numb the minds of some readers too. On the other hand, Applebaum often brings the story of the dark era down the personal level, the result of interviews she conducted with people who lived with and finally triumphed over Soviet domination.
When Communism went out of business after 1989 and the Cold War ended, one of the common reactions was that it would now be possible to put the odd history of that period on the shelf and move on without needing to deal with the history of Stalinist regimes and their mixture of totalitarian control, mass propaganda, and confrontational foreign affairs. Well, what also happened was that the various state archives of these repressive regimes were opened to researchers, so that the history of this period can be reexamined in considerable detail and a refreshing change of perspective. With the fall of Communism, we have become able to learn much more about what really happened.
This outstanding book is a comprehensive history of the Communist regimes established in Eastern Europe at the end of WW2 from their initial establishment until 1956, the time of the failed Hungarian Uprising. The focus is thus on the change from initial regime establishment to "High Stalinism" to the beginnings of liberalization following the death of Stalin. The book proceeds roughly in chronological sequence through a series of topically focused chapters. Within each chapter, the same topics are covered for East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech republic and Slovakia). Other regimes, such as Bulgaria and Rumania, are covered as required.
I had moderate expectations when starting this book. I had already read much about the period and the details of communist regimes are well publicized and generally depressing. I was wrong to have such preconceptions. The author, through meticulous research, takes each topic and in effect writes a mini-exposition for it, one that often stands on its own as a separate story but which is also well linked into the generally narrative that is developed about the Communist "project" in Eastern Europe. The people are shown to be a diverse set of interesting individuals who do their best to cope with the governments. The governments are also shown in much detail as trying to make their way while balancing an unsustainable ideological project with both national needs and pressures from Moscow. The author is not shy in fully fitting in the role of terror, violence, and intellectual and political repression to the broader story. The logic of the story is largely internal to the Soviet Bloc and foreign affairs (and the USA) are mentioned more in passing. That is a helpful focus, since the detailed narrative would become much more complex otherwise.
The writing is very well done and I really regretted finishing the book, which is an odd conclusion given the general topic. This book is important for linking with other literatures, such as on WW2, the Cold War, and the eventual demise of these regimes after 1989.
Overall, it is a spectacular book, one of the best I have read in quite a while.