Concentrating on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, the focus of this book is not as wide as might be presumed from either the Iron Curtain or the Eastern Europe of the title. Ann Applebaum explains her reasoning in the introduction and writes that she chose those three countries not for their similarities but for the sharp contrasts between them. Their national experiences before 1944 were markedly different, and that had an important bearing on their different experiences and reactions after they were taken into the Soviet empire.
Applebaum also helpfully sets out her objectives for the book:-
* To gain an understanding of totalitarianism, not in theory but in practice, and how it shaped the lives of millions of Europeans in the 20th Century.
* To seek evidence of the deliberate destruction of civil society and small business.
* To investigate the phenomenon of social realism and communist education.
* To gather information on the founding and early development of the region's secret police.
* To understand how ordinary people learned to cope with the new regimes; how they collaborated, willingly or reluctantly; how and why they joined the party and other state institutions; how they resisted, actively or passively; how they came to make terrible choices that most of us in the West, nowadays, never have to face.
Generally speaking, the end result matches-up to those objectives very well. I do have a few reservations, however. Despite the huge amount of information included, the bitter hatred of many East Germans for the Stasi (secret police) and all its works is not, I feel, fully communicated to the reader. Neither am I sure that readers with no other information on the education system (which had merits as well as faults) would come out with a very full picture. Similarly with the process of joining the Communist Party - which in practice was not open to all, even though all were expected to enthusiastically subscribe to its objectives.
Social realism is well covered, as is the destruction of civil society and small business. Especially sad was the destruction of the church and youth groups, including the YMCA, that sprang back up almost spontaneously as soon as the Nazis were defeated.
The understanding and new information on totalitarianism in practice that we gain from the book comes largely through the stories such as those of the suppression of independent civic and social groups; of failed enterprises such as the training of factory workers to be theatre critics; and Applebaum's clear-sighted account of the realities of the Stakhanovite and Shock Worker movements, work targets and norms, and all that went with them.
Ultimately, whole nations were living an all-embracing tissue of lies. Included were lies about their belief in the system and enthusiasm for their leaders, and lies about their true thoughts. Indications of their thoughts were carefully graded between different audiences and environments - home, family, school, work, etc. The situation relaxed a little after Stalin died in 1953, but not tremendously. As ever, jokes were a notable form of subversive but relatively safe comment; Applebaum provides some examples.
When mass dissent broke out, in East Germany in 1953, Poland in 1955 and in Hungary in 1956, the leaders and heads of state institutions were shocked and scared, and turned immediately to Moscow for direction and support, resulting in tragedy in each case.
The archival evidence marshalled by Applebaum is usefully augmented with information on personal experiences gained from interviewees in each of the three countries examined.
The book has a detailed index, an extensive bibliography, many notes, and 46 photographs. Editing and proof reading show signs of having been done in too much of a hurry, but they can be corrected in future editions (one hopes in time for the forthcoming paperback). Meanwhile, the intended meaning of mangled words and sentences is usually clear enough.