Perhaps what is most fascinating about the strange episode of human history under which the communist oppression of Eastern Europe falls is that it has gone so long without a comprehensive history of how it occurred. Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 steps into that gap, providing in-depth research and a vividly written history of the period that saw the Soviet oppression and domination through totalitarian regimes of what would come to be known as the Communist Bloc and comprising the countries in Central and Eastern Europe with communist regimes.
Uniquely, the communist dictatorships that lasted, roughly speaking, from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall were based, at least in theory, on an ideology rather than nationalism or, as in the case of Germany, racism. Applebaum traces the oppression of Eastern Europe and the rise of the Iron Curtain to “zero hour,” that moment of silence between the retreat of the German war machine and the invasion of the Russian army on its way to Berlin.
The fighting had ended, and life was to begin again, but in Eastern Europe, where the carnage was worse than anything on the western half of the continent, there was no fresh start. People slipped from labor camps to make their way home, others began long migrations back to their homeland (or further if their homeland was now held by others), and still others continued fighting, shifting focus from the Nazis to the occupying Russian Army. The destruction left not a blank slate, but a gap of order, and into this gap the Soviets dictated the new order at the point of the Russian soldier’s gun.
Applebaum’s writing is vivid and clear, making colorful even the grey oppression of the dark communist decades. Here’s an example from the beginning of the book that I think typifies her writing and which kept me reading to the end:
Explosions echoed throughout the night, and artillery fire could be heard throughout the day. Across Eastern Europe, the noise of falling bombs, rattling machine guns, rolling tanks, churning engines, and burning buildings heralded the approach of the Red Army. As the front line drew closer, the ground shook, the walls shivered, the children screamed. And then it stopped.
Lending an image both of the vast and the specific simultaneously, it’s an apt start to Applebaum’s endeavour to examine the methods and means by which communists, largely directed and guided from Moscow, set up and took control of the governments and peoples of Eastern and Central Europe, first under the guise of democratic elections and then, as necessary, with the assistance of secret police and tank columns.
As she details the fall and decline of civil society to the relentless oppression, Applebaum walks through how communists took control of and used the police, youth organizations, the media (which meant radio in those days), politics, and the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, but especially with a focus on Poland and Hungary. Her examination isn’t directed so much as communism–China, Cuba, North Korea, and Russia (but for its role dominating the Soviet bloc) are not address–but totalitarianism. American “Cold Warriors” positioned themselves, as Applebaum puts it, as opponents to it, and Applebaum sets out to examine whether it was a real threat or just a ruse and exaggeration. Today, the threat of totalitarianism may seem silly, but in a time when Hitler was fresh on the mind and while Stalin’s personality cult raged, the possibility of that the USSR would turn Eastern Europe into a ideologically and politically homogenous region seemed real.
Gone the way of history though it may be, Applebaum succeeds in bringing the period to life, drawing on new resources and documents to tell the stories of the post-World War II Poles, Hungarians, and others trapped behind the Iron Curtain. After reading it earlier this year, I have found myself turning back to Iron Curtain‘s pages on more than one occasion to refresh my memory on details and discussions that Applebaum’s book holds. Not only is it an fascinating, if dark, period of history, but it is a saga we would be wise to learn from and retain. Applebaum does it justice in her account, and it should be a part of the library of any person with even the slightest interest in history of Eastern Europe and the brave peoples who endured the totalitarian oppression of communism and Soviet Russia.