on 29 December 2013
I enjoyed this book very much. I have always wanted to understand why Russia and the West fought together against Germany in the Second World War, and then went on to become enemies with the division of Europe. This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this period of European history, and the background to the subjugation of Eastern Europe by Russia after the Second World War.
on 7 February 2014
I am just about old enough to remember 'Eastern Europe'; I can remember school books and soon-to-be-outdated atlases in which Europe was neatly divided in half, West and East. I can just about remember the 'fall of Communism', specifically I remember the tanks on the street of Romania, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of my headteachers actually managed to get hold of a piece of concrete he solemnly told us was a piece of the Berlin Wall. I got an idea of Eastern Europe as a strange and homogenous region with identical cultures, histories, and similar sounding place names, all built out of concrete. Later, I learnt about spheres of influence, the Warsaw Pact, the Cold War, and Totalitarianism, all of which seemed to reinforce these ideas.
Later still, and I started to meet people from 'Eastern Europe' and found my ideas were challenged. Not least, people from the Czech Republic and Poland aren't especially impressed with the 'East/West' dichotomy and see themselves as inhabitants of central Europe, a place that was never in my old books. I have visited both countries, and found that the old Habsburg cities survived the horrors of World Wars and Communism, if not intact, then with their historic hearts still beating. I realised that my earlier ideas weren't just challenged, but wrong. So was Communist 'Eastern' Europe just a veneer, or a piece of Western propaganda? How did the Soviet Union come to dominate such a large territory so completely?
So it was with some interest I looked forward to the paperback publication of this book; the title alone seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. However, fairly early on it becomes apparent it wasn't quite what I was looking for; rather than the 'Crushing of Eastern Europe', this is a book about the suffocation of parts of Central Europe. Most of the Soviet sphere of influence is mentioned only in passing, with the dominant focus being on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Eastern Europe itself, being an integral part of the USSR during the period in scope, is barely mentioned at all.
The distraction of the title and the disappointment of the slightly limited scope apart, this is a marvellous book. Appelbaum looks in detail at various aspect of how the Soviet Union found itself in control of large swathes of Europe outside its own territorial borders, and the means it used to exercise complete domination over these countries. The very first chapter shows that the job of 'crushing' the area had largely been done by World War Two, and whilst not a blank canvas, the Soviets had several pulverised, demoralised and weary countries in dire need of reconstruction on which to inflict it's brutal totalitarian regimes.
In the first half of the book, through chapters on the situation at the cessation of hostilities, the dividing of the defeated areas into zones, the nascent communist parties in the three areas of focus, the policemen, violence and media used to exert complete control over the population, the forcible repatriations of people based on ethnicity, the suppression of 'civil society' and the efforts to force one party systems and Marxist economics onto each of the conquered countries, Appelbaum paints an appallingly vivid picture of the situation that befell the populations in the years immediately after World War Two.
In the second half, she concentrates on the 'reactionary enemies' in the church and the 'internal enemies' within the communist systems that were brutally suppressed in the name of Stalinism, the desire and failed efforts to turn both the people and the cities into idealised versions of a communist citizens in a communist utopia, the efforts to control both the artists and the workers, the emphasis based on 'realism' and industry, and the effect all this had on the ordinary people, whether they became 'reluctant collaborators' or 'passive opponents', or both, all culminating in the unsuccessful uprisings and revolutions in the mid 1950s after Stalin's death.
By ending where it does, the story feels a bit unfinished. The brief epilogue isn't especially satisfying, attempting to squeeze 33 years into a handful of pages after taking nearly 500 to explain a dozen years up to that point doesn't really work. There is surely scope for a sequel.
Clearly, the image of 'Eastern Europe' behind the Iron Curtain was not a veneer, and not a construct of Western propaganda. Life under Soviet communism was unpleasant, difficult, or downright impossible for many people. There were definite similarities between the experiences of each of the constituent countries of the 'Soviet Empire', especially in the years leading up Stalin's death. Yet, as Applebaum demonstrates, the populations of these three countries, and by extension the rest of the 'Soviet Empire', somehow managed to retain enough 'civil society' and national character to re-establish themselves once the Soviet yoke was lifted. Crushed or not, Central Europe survived under Soviet domination, and has regained it's place on the map.
on 5 November 2012
Anne Applebaum's last book, 'Gulag' related events that were so horrifying that you were almost glad when the book came to an end. The story here is also of cruelty and failure, but not on such a terrible scale. It shows how ordinary, decent people were made to conform, partly at least because of the threat of terror, and how the Soviet backed governments in Eastern Europe tried to divert attention from their failure to get public support or to significantly improve living standards. It ends with the doomed attempts at rebellion in East Germany and then Hungary.
A lot of research must have gone into this book, but the author manages to present her ideas clearly and simply. Partly of necessity, she has to concentrate on only three countries, Hungary, Poland and East Germany. She shows that the conventional picture of the Cold War only breaking out in 1948-9 is misleading. The communists genuinely believed, after the War, that they could win popular elections. But they were soon disabused of these ideas. Instead, they effectively seized power and crushed any opposition.
By relating the personal stories of many of the people that she was able to interview, the author is able to make the story that she is relating much more interesting. A major theme is how private institutions were not allowed to survive for very long under Communism.
This book is well worth reading. It extends our knowledge of what happened in Eastern Europe after the War, and never fails to interest the reader.
Readers of the Washington Post will be familiar with the lucid and knowledgeable writings of Anne Applebaum.
Her book about the Gulag rightly won her acclaim as an historian of the first rank. This outstanding book of over 650 pages will cement that reputation.
For the very first time we are given a detailed and meticulously researched account of what happened after 1945 in those Baltic states that fell under the tyranny of the Soviets. In so doing Applebaum gives us a new and much needed perspective on the so-called Cold War.
She also destroys the myth that Eastern Europe was a homogeneous grey,backward and poor mass. She also rightly points out that the fighting did not end in 1945. In one or two cases it lasted into the 70's.
The book tells us again of the brutal and murderous treatment by the soviets of anyone accused of being a dissident. Torture, 'show trials' and blackmail were commonplace. Applebaum reveals how Stalin's wartime allies fully consented to the ethnic cleansing that was carried out with typical soviet brutality.Thousands died as a result.Rape was commonplace as were confessions obtained under torture. The Cardinal of Hungary, for example, was forced under torture to admit taking part in plot to steal the crown jewels and begin a new world war.
Soviet totalitarian rule attacked and in some cases destroyed any institutions such as the Catholic Church, fearing any form of rival belief.
'Iron Curtain' will make very uncomfortable reading for those in the West who blamed Western warmongers for Soviet terror, indeed for any of the many apologists for Stalin' monstrous regime. Applebaum exposes the frantic desire of the Soviet system to exterminate any form of independent life, for example, Freemasons. Education became pure propaganda. Even children's stories were rewritten in order to make them ideologically correct.
The book superbly details the eventual failure of this parody of a political system. She explains, however, that the West singularly failed to intervene to hasten the demise of this doomed evil system.
The book concentrates on three states: Poland, Hungary and the former East Germany. They differed greatly. As yet she is unable to tell us what was happening inside the Soviet Union while all this was going on. One day hopefully she will. Until that day we have been given a masterly account of how in those three countries in particular Stalin undermined their institutions, twisted their language and manipulated the people. She has given us an essential window into a hideous world of paranoia, lies and evil that is almost impossible to imagine. Yet it took place over many decades beginning less than 70 years ago.
Anne Applebaum is married to the current foreign minister of Poland. She is a fluent Polish speaker.
on 22 February 2015
This book is probably best read as a follow-on to a decent history of the Second World War, so if you know your Ardennes from your Dunkirk, you'll be good to go. It starts at the end of the war, with the Soviets having stormed Berlin and pretty much continues from there, making a convincing refutation of the general idea that conflict and bad times stopped in 1945. Millions of people in Eastern Europe had it what you might call 'bad' under the Nazis but if Applebaum is to be believed (and with a bibliography like that, not to mention the amount of shoe-leather she's worn out digging out old survivors to talk to in person, why wouldn't she be?) it got, if anything, considerably worse under the Russians.
Over the course of 450 pages, Applebaum shows, layer by layer, how the Russians went about imposing socialism on those Eastern European countries under its control after the end of the war. She shows how the involuntary imposition of a political ideology on a country can only be achieved by means of force and is thus doomed to become a totalitarian rule, no matter what the initial intention of that ideology. In this respect, the simple showing-how-it-was-done, the book is a total success. It is so good, in fact, that it could almost be used as a guidebook on how to set up a totalitarian state. In her attention to this nuts-and-bolts approach, however, Applebaum often neglects to really convey the profound impact the Kremlin's overarching decisions about moving populations and building factories and educating children had on individuals in the same way a Beevor or Hastings might. But on the other hand, no other modern historian shows how society works so clearly; no one else shows how huge, complicated changes of state often began as the whim of one man, a whim which could be changed or reversed by the hour. And the sense of understanding Applebaum creates in her readers is what is so amazingly compelling: you feel, throughout this whole book, that you finally get the whole Communism thing.
But it is in the final few pages when the reader finally sees what Applebaum has been driving at and why she has written her book in the way she has. And in that moment, it becomes clear what a monumental achievement this is.
Yeah, basically: the best book I've read about Communism.
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.
on 22 December 2015
Anne Applebaum has provided a full and complete study of the USSR's total subordination of an entire region over the period of a decade. As such, Applebaum has produced one of the most thorough and detailed histories this reader has yet read. Rather than serving as a political chronology, as many such studies today often are, Applebaum has examined every aspect of political, economic and cultural life wherein the Soviets asserted their influence.
The book begins with the definition of totalitarianism as originally coined by Mussolini, as a system wherein everything is by and for the state, and then proceeds to illustrate how the progenitor of Fascism's vision was implemented by his supposed ideological opposites.
Iron Curtain follows a chronological narrative, beginning with the end of WWII and detailing the various conferences, Yalta and Potsdam, and how the so called agreements were never honoured. From there a particularly harrowing account of Soviet occupation follows. The second half of the book treats the cultural and civic takeover of communism in more detail, concluding with the failed uprisings in East Berlin in 1953 and more importantly, Hungary in 1956.
While the book offers a vivid account of the crushing of East Germany, Poland and Hungary, one feels that an account of perhaps Romania and Bulgaria could have been incorporated, however, Applebaum makes it clear in the introduction that the primary focus of the book would be those three countries, and others would feature only in passing.
As such, Applebaum did not overstretch what is already a vast study, and as a unified whole has few faults.
Overall, an indispensable work for anyone interested in 20th Century history, international relations or Eastern Europe.
on 20 November 2013
A very detailed account on how ordinary citizens lived in Eastern European Countries, through the end of the Second World War and Nazism and then Soviet Invasion, at first welcoming them as liberators but slowly realizing that their freedoms were being eroded bit by bit closing down the media, radio, youth groups, art and culture, replacing them with heavily censured communist versions.
The book covers the new cities created and the communist economy such as the five year plans,and work life, the communist authority songs, marches, schools and summer camps held to inordinate citizens to be good communists and to conform, encouraging workers to accede their quotas with competitions and rewards winners were made famous and held up as good examples to aspire too.
The most difficult and emotional chapters to read were on the arrests, executions, beatings and prison conditions, and the mental toll on citizens who did not agree with communism but felt that they had to conform to keep their families safe.
The last two chapters deal with the uprisings following the death of Stalin and the debates the authorities had on whether to allow more freedoms to keep the protests at bay, the book most covers East Germany, Poland and Hungary.
A very good read and highly recommended.
on 11 October 2014
Very good read. Highly detailed, leaving few areas uncovered, this is a comprehensive account of the gradual, but devastating take over by the Communists of previously democratic, peaceful countries. The methodical infiltration of existing institutions, the blatant use of propaganda, lies, misrepresentation, pressurising, the use of force and compulsion are consistently detailed in each and every state taken under the "wing" of the USSR, is disturbing. Anyone who takes an interest in British politics will find a resonance in the propaganda examples. The recent Scottish Independence referendum and in particular the nationalists style and use of propaganda in a "modern" democratic state bore disturbing similarities to the Russian tactics - used especially in East Germany, where the Russians, aware of the interest and watchfulness of the Western powers, sought to win "hearts and minds" in order to placate the democratic powers. The fact that it failed, reflected on the courage of East German residents, alert to what was going on. Ultimately it took fear, fraud and force to establish the communist state takeover. Nonetheless the power of propaganda, of authority, of fear, is so very well covered by Applebaum. This is a longish read admittedly, but that does not distract from its message. Democracy is extremely fragile and its very concept opens it to its potential demise and in a very short order. A good, powerfully written book, with warnings for us all.
on 27 May 2015
Excellent. concise, and meticulously researched. A rather over looked chapter of European history, I always assumed that the Soviet-union absorbed the Eastern satellite states immediately after the war, fascinating to see how these countries continued to believe that self-determination was still a possibility; and how they roundly rejected the Communists in the first post-war elections. The shocking Soviet abuses, Nazi death camps simply renamed and rejigged to act as Soviet secret police internment camps, offers as true an illustration for the evils of both regimes as is possible. This alongside heartbreaking personal accounts of political violence made me appreciate anew the fact that most peoples in Central and Eastern Europe consider 1989 their real liberation.