2013 Vol. 5 No. 1 — Spring / Books

Opening the “Iron Curtain”

IronCurtainIron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956
By Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2012
614 pages

A really good book stimulates its readers to think, ask questions, and look for answers. This can certainly be said about Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, a work positively or even enthusiastically reviewed by almost all of the most important newspapers and periodicals worldwide. There is no doubt: this is a bestseller. Leaving aside its educational value, it is also a great reading, comprehensive, fascinating, and intriguing. And, yes, it does provoke questions, many of them.

Anna Applebaum was well prepared to write this book. Born in 1964 and raised in Washington, D. C., she received an excellent education at Yale and Oxford. In 1988, she moved to Poland as a correspondent for The Economist. She served as an editor or columnist in several outstanding British and American newspapers and magazines, such as The Washington Post, The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, and Evening Standard. She also was a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most influential right-wing think tanks of the western hemisphere, and is the Director of Political Studies at the Legatum Institute in London. She is married to Radosław Sikorski, the present Foreign Minister of Poland.

Besides Iron Curtain, Applebaum authored four books. Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe appeared in 1995. A description of Applebaum’s 1991 trip from the Baltic to the Black Sea through Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the book concentrates on the region’s shifting national identities. In 1996, it was awarded an Adolph Bentick Prize. In 2003, she published GULAG: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction writing and has been translated into numerous languages. GULAG Voices: An Anthology followed in 2011. In 2012, she co-authored From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food, which also appeared in Polish. Applebaum received several prestigious international awards and orders and is certainly one of the most outstanding contemporary journalists-intellectuals.

Iron Curtain is divided into two parts. The first one, “False Dawn” (chapters 1-10) describes the occupation of Central Europe by the Red Army and the establishment of communist power there. Part two (chapters 11-18), “High Stalinism,” explains how, between 1948 and 1956, the Central European communists, already safely in power, tried and failed to reform their countries into copies of the Stalinist Soviet Union.

The book opens with a sizable Introduction, which examines definitions of the terms “Eastern Europe” and “totalitarianism.” It also discusses theories on Stalinism, Cold War, and the Soviet post-1945 strategy, and lists the most important sources used by Applebaum. She explains that, even though the book is devoted to the entire Soviet occupied Central Europe, it concentrates on Hungary, Poland, and Eastern Germany, “because they were so very different.” (p. xxxv) Finally, the author mentions in the Introduction that she interviewed a series of Poles, Hungarians, and Germans “in order to learn from people who actually lived through this period, and to hear them describe the events and the emotions of that time using their own language.” (p. xxxix) By the end of the book, the author gives a full list of her interviewees but she does not explain what was the key to this selection. Or, if it is accidental, does it matter in terms of Applebaum’s perception of Central Europe? The Introduction, so important in terms of the book’s methodology, provokes more questions. Were Poland and Hungary really so different? If the author wanted to have really different “samples” of “Sovietized” Central European countries, would not it be better to contrast East Germany with Poland (or Hungary) and with a Balkan state? Also, the exclusion of the east Baltic region from the author’s definition of Soviet dominated Eastern Europe is not entirely convincing. (p. xxvii)

The first chapter, “Zero hour,” draws a picture of the international and internal Central European situation in 1945. Chapter 2, “Victors,” is devoted to the Soviets entering their newly conquered territories, to their behavior towards civilians, their expectations, and ways of thinking. Chapter 3, “Communists,” describes Central European supporters of the Soviets, their parties and leaders, the so-called little Stalins. “Policemen” (chap. 4) are about the “little KGBs.” Then, several chapters analyze the most important methods and priorities of the Soviets and communists: “Violence” (chap. 5), “Ethnic cleansing” (chap. 6), “Youth” (chap. 7), and “Radio” (chap. 8). “Politics” (chap. 9) offers a short political history of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany between 1945 and 1948 and “Economics” analyzes land reforms, nationalization programs, introduction of central planning and the consequences of these reforms.

Chapter 11, “Reactionary enemies,” develops the international context of High Stalinism and describes the waves of arrests in the Soviet Union in 1948-49 and 1950-52, the activities of Radio Free Europe, the establishment of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin blockade, the Yugoslav split, and the Church – its persecution and resistance. “Internal enemies” (chap. 12) is about political prisoners, internal party cleansings, show trials, and communist paranoia. “Homo sovieticus” (chap. 13) explains how the communist education, propaganda, and culture were supposed to form a “new man.” “Socialist realism” (chap. 14) describes cultural policies and artistic trends supported by the Soviets and their plenipotentiaries. “Ideal cities” (chap. 15) analyzes a utopian idea of a perfect Stalinist city and depicts the histories of the constructions of Polish Nowa Huta, East German Stalinstadt, and Hungarian Sztálinváros. “Reluctant collaborators” (chap. 16) explains why millions of East Europeans, including some pre-war politicians and intellectuals, accommodated to or collaborated with the new order. Finally, “Revolutions” (chap. 18) describes the events in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary triggered by the death of Stalin and the de-stalinization campaign in Moscow: the political “Thaw” and popular revolts. An Epilogue, a short summary of the most important arguments, closes the book.

It is a pleasure to read the Iron Curtain, even though the readers who studied a history of Central Europe before will not find anything really new in the text. To those, who have only basic encyclopedic knowledge of Central European history after 1945, the book can be a shocking eye-opener. Some parts of the text, such as the descriptions of the Red Army violence and robberies, the cruelties committed by the “little KGBs,” or the absurdities of the communist economic policies, are shocking and disturbing. If a Polish, East German, or Hungarian historian wrote a similar text twenty years ago many Western critics would have called it biased, nationalistic, and influenced by the Cold War rhetoric.

Applebaum wrote a huge epic opus, which could be read as a sequel to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), or parallel to several newly published books on the Cold War, such as Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman – From World War To Cold War by Michael Dobbs (2012); The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War by Norman Stone (2010), or – if one reads Polish – Europa Zimnej Wojny (Cold War Europe) by Jerzy Holzer (2012). Iron Curtain will be a good addition to university syllabi and I am looking forward to discussing the book with my students.

Yet, the book under review is uneven, as if more than one author wrote it. Some parts are brilliant and exciting, and some are uninspiring. One may say that the text is too long and includes too many details. In some chapters, they help to understand the story, make it colorful and vibrant. In other fragments, many details are simply unnecessary. The same comment applies to the narrative’s proportions: some important events are described extensively while other equally significant facts are barely reported. In chapter 18, for example, the 1953 Berlin uprising is portrayed in a very interesting and competent way, while the description of the Polish crisis in October 1956 is short (three paragraphs!) and shallow (p. 484-85). Applebaum is an outstanding specialist in international relations. It is surprising, therefore, that the explanation of the international global context of the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe does not belong to the best sides of the book. One of the main reasons why, in 1956, the West did not help Hungary in a meaningful way was the Middle Eastern crisis. After the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israel, Great Britain, and France attacked Egypt. The United States condemned this operation and, together with the Soviet Union, pressed the intervening countries to withdraw their forces and stop the conflict. Once again, priorities of the great powers were more important then Central Europe. Applebaum does not even mention this and limits the international context of the Hungarian Uprising to three sentences. (p. 487)

Before World War II, most Central European countries were ruled by tough authoritarian regimes and were permeated with an atmosphere of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. It is highly unlikely that all Central European states would have embraced liberal, Western-style democracies, if they had been left alone after World War II. It is quite possible that it would have been followed, like World War I, with a series of bloody ethnic and border wars. Some of them, like the Polish-Ukrainian war, had already started; others, like the Polish-Czechoslovak conflict over Cieszyn (Tešin) or the Hungarian-Romanian war over Transylvania were in the making. This important aspect of the Central European situation is entirely ignored by Applebaum. Also, the Jewish topic is treated by her in such a way that one can have a feeling that she tries to avoid it.

Also, while the book deals with events that occurred after 1945 behind the Iron Curtain, by deemphasizing international relations during this time, Applebaum leaves her readers with a feeling that the West could not do anything about the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe. Not all the specialists agree on this. For example, George F. Kennan, one of the most outstanding of them, wrote that if the American War World II diplomatic performance were different, “[T]he postwar line of division between East and West might have lain somewhat farther east than it is today, and that would certainly be a relief to everyone concerned.” (American Diplomacy, Chicago, 1984, p. 87). It would be interesting to discuss similar opinions and to write more about the location of the Iron Curtain and other borders in Central Europe.

Finally, there are a number of minor problems in the book. A work of this caliber, to name only a few of these problems, deserves better maps (in 1939, Gdańsk did not belong to Poland and Austria did not exist), proper diacritical marks in Polish, and better translations of some Polish words. The Communist Party of Poland was not banned in 1920, “following the Bolshevik invasion.” (p. 56) It was illegal from the very beginning of the Second Republic because it refused to register itself in January 1919. The statement that “the international communist movement flourished in much of Europe in the 1930s” (p. 56) is at least debatable. In the chapter on the “Policemen”, the author lumped together the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland and the Provisional Government of National Unity (p. 69). The first one was established on December 31, 1944, despite the pleas of the Western Allies, by the Polish Soviet-sponsored communists as the continuation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), known as the Lublin Committee. The second one, formed on June 28, 1945, was a product of an agreement with the Western Allies. The Nazis discovered the graves of Katyń not in 1941 but in 1943. (p. 96) The Home Army had never had “300,000 armed partisans” though the Home Army did have 300,000 members but very little in terms of arms. (p. 97). Arthur Koestler was a British-Hungarian writer not German-Hungarian (p. 310) and Adam Ważyk’s “Poem for Adults” was hardly “ one of the first openly anti-communist poems to appear in print in Poland after Stalin’s death.” (p. 408-09). Several important issues, such as the Jews in the Polish “little KGB,” the Volksliste in Poland, the communist land reform in Poland, the 1948 Yugoslav split, and the intellectuals’ fascination with communism are also described in a debatable way or they include such understatements as: “some Eastern European artists did agree to become “socialist realists” between 1949 and 1953.” (p. 383)

It is impossible to avoid typos, small factual errors, and awkward statements in a book of 614 pages. Iron Curtain is a major achievement and everybody interested in European affairs, starting with politicians and journalists, should read it. CR

Piotr Wróbel
Professor Piotr Wróbel holds the Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History at the University of Toronto.
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