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The Suffocation of Central Europe
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I am just about old enough to remember 'Eastern Europe'; I can remember school books and soon-to-be-outdated atlases in which Europe was neatly divided in half, West and East.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.