Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2012).
Better works of history are crafted. They begin with a question. They are created through exhaustive research, editing, and organization. A better work of history answers the original question, creates new questions considers alternative interpretations, and provides overwhelming evidence in support of their answers. Doing so by creating a readable narrative. Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is a better work of history. Applebaum’s original question: How did the Soviets and their allies transform well-meaning Eastern European social/ aid organizations created, or reconstituted, in the immediate aftermath of World War II into tools of oppression?1 In a chilling but necessary read Iron Curtain provides an answer.
History, it turns out, is where the author found some of the answers. One answer is by practice and careful planning. Practice because the Soviets had already perfected the work of political/ social oppression prior to the war in the areas they occupied as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Careful planning in that the Comintern trained Eastern Europe’s future leaders in Russia while the war raged across their prospective domains. Applebaum also describes the war wariness that blanketed Europe in 1944 contributed to Communists political successes. She details aspects of post- War life that are not frequently considered in the West. Populations exposed to total war multiple times as armies advanced and retreated across Europe. Masses of migrating peoples moving from prison camps toward their former homes. Homes and property from which they had dispossessed, now occupied by others, with all evidence of legal title destroyed. Or masses uprooted from their traditional homes and moved to new homes, homes in lands already occupied, or recently vacated. Starvation. Hungry, dispossessed, and disoriented to the point of exhaustion the peoples of Eastern Europe held little but hope.
Most social agencies, public and private, were either overwhelmed or marginally functional. Nearly everything, including governments, required reconstruction. Applebaum describes the process by which the new governments were formed. Without competing civil authority (either internal or supported from the West) and with the Soviet Army providing organization and security, the Soviets were able to install their puppets into the political positions they deemed critical while pretending to share authority with other parties. In first targeting those with the ability and means to resist (armed partisans) and then those with competing organizational structures (churches, charities, wholesalers) the Communists slowly eliminated all challenges. Iron Curtain provides detail to the methods of incremental subversion employed by the Communist Parties in Eastern Europe between 1944 to 1946. Further she details the means employed by the Communists to establish complete control after 1946.
Rather than providing a chronological telling, Applebaum organized Iron Curtain into two parts with multiple chapters each. Chapters detail the methods or targets of oppression. Concentrating on mostly on Communist activity in three counties (East Germany, Poland, and Hungary) she is able demonstrate that the methods employed, and organizations targeted, were similar in each country. Chapter titles include: “Victors, Ethnic Cleansing, Youth, Radio, Politics, Reactionary Enemies, Internal Enemies, Reluctant Collaborators, Passive Opponents, and Revolution.” Titles that give a good indication of the content. The author also provides foreshadowing and occasional humor by providing pertinent quotes at the beginning of each chapter. For example, one of the quotes from the chapter titled Economics was a popular Hungarian joke of the 1950’s “The definition of socialism: an incessant struggle against difficulties that would not exist in any other system.”2 Iron Curtain is certainly organized in a manner that enables the reader’s understanding of the Communist’s commonality of action from 1944 to 1956.
This book is not a pleasant read. It is a necessary read. Anne Applebaum is an excellent writer. I strongly recommend you read it. I purchased my copy of Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain from Better World Books.
1 Paraphrased from Introduction p. xxi
2 p. 223