Title: Iron Curtain
Author: Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, Anne (2012). Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday
Date Posted: April 15, 2013
This is one of the books picked by the readers and editors of Newsweek as their favorite books of 2012. Anyone who has said or written anything these past four years about the “loss of our freedom” should rad Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, a tragically intimate account of the imposition of communism in Central Europe. The story is told with both artistry and scholarship.
NYT (November 21, 2012 p. BR16) of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Stalin’s Shadow.
Having brilliantly documented the horror of Stalin’s Soviet terror machine in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, Anne Applebaum now offers a bulky sequel, Iron Curtain, about the brutal effort of that same machine to crush and colonize Eastern Europe in the first decade after World War II. Her evidence, once again drawn from archival research and some survivor interviews, is overwhelming and convincing. But the heart of her story is hardly news.
That Soviet tanks carried Moscow-trained agents into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany was known in the West at the time and has been well documented since. When those agents set out to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders, Winston Churchill was moved to warn, just days after the Nazis’ surrender in 1945, that an Iron Curtain was being drawn through the heart of Europe. (He coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.) And Matyas Rakosi, the “little Stalin” of Hungary, was well known for another apt metaphor, describing how the region’s political, economic, cultural and social oppositions were to be destroyed by “cutting them off like slices of salami.”
Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail. She shows how the knives were sharpened before the war’s end in Soviet training camps for East European Communists, so that trusted agents could create and control secret police forces in each of the “liberated” nations. She shows how reliable operatives then took charge of all radio broadcasting, the era’s most powerful mass medium. And she demonstrates how the Soviet stooges could then, with surprising speed, harass, persecute and finally ban all independent institutions, from youth groups and welfare agencies to schools, churches and rival political parties.
Along the way, millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin’s paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.
It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?
In her introduction Applebaum says it is important to remember that “historically, there were regimes that aspired to total control,” not only of the organs of state but also of human nature itself. We should be studying how totalitarianism worked, she maintains, because “we can’t be certain that mobile phones, the Internet and satellite photographs won’t eventually become tools of control” in other places. Well, Vladimir Putin may yet make her a prophet, but so far this century, technology has become a welcome defense against tyranny.
More relevant to contemporary discussion are some themes Applebaum evokes along the way but never develops. She begins her tale by insisting that the United States and Britain, having promised the East Europeans a democratic future, quickly abandoned them to Soviet domination. True enough. Yet what were the West’s alternatives? The door to Europe was left open for Stalin in 1945 because the Americans were rapidly redeploying to fight Japan and eager to enlist Stalin in the Pacific war. Applebaum does not speculate about how Soviet colonization might have been forestalled or what methods of intervention for freedom we should be applying now in Cuba or North Korea, Syria or China.
Similarly, she barely touches on the contrary claims of some historians that it was not the West’s appeasement but rather hostility against the Soviet Union that provoked Stalin’s aggressive responses. These scholars accuse the United States of having triggered the cold war, thus baiting Stalin into taking crude defensive countermeasures. Applebaum’s evidence provides a telling rebuttal to those “revisionist” theories, but she never really engages them.
Most conspicuously missing is any sustained examination of Soviet motives for the rape of Eastern Europe. What did the Russians want? Revenge against Germany and its allies? Compensation for their enormous loss of life and suffering in the war and the spoils due a victor? Was the domination of neighboring states a wildly arrogant policy of defense so that no conqueror could ever again follow Napoleon and Hitler to Moscow? Or was it a revival of Russia’s imperial desire to annex at least half of Poland, to secure a rebellious Ukraine and to incorporate the Baltic States and various adjacent Balkan lands?
Applebaum’s overriding interest is in Stalin’s deranged tyranny, which aggravated the postwar horror inside the Soviet Union at the same time that it was being slavishly imitated by his East European henchmen until his death in 1953. Yet Stalin’s successors were just as intent on preserving their dominion. Why? Applebaum contends that Stalin, having once postponed the Soviet dream of igniting an international Communist revolution, “was preparing to relaunch it” in 1944 as the Red Army rolled westward. But that passing comment — and debatable premise — is all she offers to explain Soviet policy.
While her documentation of the Soviet takeover is impressive, at this late date fewer facts and more analysis would have been welcome. The seeds of the Communists’ ultimate failure in East Europe are strewed throughout her book, but with little explanation. She shows how poorly the Communist regimes provided for their consumers and how they alienated the workers in whose name they governed. Why? And does not this subject require lengthy discussion of how Communism collided with the deeply rooted nationalisms of the region? Applebaum incisively demonstrates the moral confusion that haunted Roman Catholic leaders and other opponents of the Communist regimes, some openly hostile, some reluctantly cooperative, many simply passive. But how should we evaluate their choices?
Iron Curtain is not a full history of the Iron Curtain because of Applebaum’s decision to end her history in 1956, just as Poles and Hungarians openly rebelled against Soviet control. There then followed a 30-year effort in the Kremlin to stabilize and reform all Communist societies, but the East Europeans remained restive, held captive only by Soviet armed might. The colonization became a huge burden on the Soviet economy, and the lures of Western democracy and economic achievement produced corrosive holes in that curtain. Finally, when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to shoot to preserve his costly empire, the curtain collapsed altogether and dragged down the Soviet center as well.
Applebaum rightly concludes, long before that climax, that the totalitarian spell could never be sustained for long. But she declines to generalize about the reasons or the defenses we all may need against other totalitarian threats. Instead, what she has given us is a concrete and sad record that honors the memory of the millions who were slaughtered, tortured and suppressed in the mad pursuit of totality.
 NYT (November 21, 2012 p. BR16) of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Stalin’s Shadow. Max Frankel, former executive editor of The Times, reported for many years from Moscow and Eastern Europe.