on October 30, 2012
As a child living in Romania, I remember that my parents used to do everything so that the infamous Securitate would pry into our lives as little as possible. In the sixties, the Romanian dictator Dej did everything in order to please his Russian masters. His menu included a variety of things, such as beatings, torture, incarcerations, threats, illegal deportations and the suppression of human rights.Mind you, I was not even allowed to take with me my violin, since it was considered "state property".
During my university days, I decided to specialize in the history of the Cold War. Surprisingly, there were many revisionist books and other similar monographs which-up to the fall of Communism-painted a very rosy picture of the Communist "paradise". In fact, some scholars were sure that Communism had its bad points, but capitalism and its ideology represented by America were worse.
Enter Anne Applebaum's book, which totally destroys and naive theories of the revisionist scholars one by one. "Iron Curtain" explains in very simple words to what degree all the countries in Eastern Europe experienced the brutal process of becoming totalitarian states as ordered by Big Brother Stalin. As she claims, this process was a gradual one and did not happen overnight. Neither was it uniform everywhere.
By writing about more than fifteen relevant topics, Ms. Applebaum describes in great detail how tens of millions of people experienced the most terrible regimes known in that geographical part of Europe. She explains how, for example, political parties, the church, the young people, the radio and the economy of those countries were doomed from the very end of World War 2.
The book is divided into two parts:"False Dawn" and "High Stalinism". The first part is about the consolidation of the regimes. The second one is more interesting and focuses on the years 1948-1956. In general, the book is mainly about Central Europe and only three countries are broadly scrutinized: Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but the author makes sure to also write about the similar fate of other countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and to some extent Yugoslavia and the Czech nation. In a way, this book is an accusation
against the West, because it felt into the trap of Stalin and his cronies, thus allowing the rulers of Eastern Europe to conduct policies of suppression, of ethnic cleansing, of mass rape and of nationalization-steps which destroyed the lives of many millions of innocent victims. All of this was possible after conducting mass and false propaganda with the help of the secret services established in order to smash any possible resistance in this process of the so-called "utopia".
Take for example the crackdown on the church in Poland where priests were arrested en bloc.
A similar pattern of harassment and arrests followed in Hungary, where hundreds of church schools were nationalized within months, followed by the closure of monasteries. Nuns in the city of Gyor were given six hours to pack up and leave, while in Southern Hungary 800 monks and some 700 nuns were removed in the middle of the night, told they could only take 25 kilos of books, placed on a transport and deported to the Soviet Union.
In the winter of 1952-53, senior figures in the church of Krakow underwent a
trial featuring fabricated evidence and forged documents. In East Germany, many children were expelled from school for refusing publicly to renounce religion. It was Stalin who, at a Cominform meeting in Karlsbad in 1949, ordered the bloc's communist parties to adopt harsher policies, and it was imperative "to first isolate the Catholic hierarchy and drive a wedge between the Vatican and the believers" .We will have to fight a systematic war agaist the hierarchy; churches should be under our full control by December 1949".
The principle guiding these totalitarian regimes was simple: The party is always right, hence the party cannot make any mistakes.
A new term was invented: "Homo Sovieticus", which meant that this new species would never oppose communism, and would never even conceive of opposing it. No one was exmpt from this ideological instruction-not even the very youmgest citizens. Textbooks had to be rewritten to reflect and praise the new reality of Stalinism. Art in all of its forms was recruited to augment the false messianic credo of these dictatorships, thus the obliteration of free thought everywhere.
Conspirators were to be found in many places and paranoia was the name of the game. Clerics, workers, intellectuals, rural landowners who were all classified under the rubric of "internal enemies" were sent to Gulags, after conducting mock trials which included made-up evidence and false witnesses. Soviet advisers both wrote the scripts of these "trials" and helped persuade victims to make the necessary confessions, after using torture, beatings, confinement in dark chambers, the inculcation of fear about the fate of the prisoner's family, subtly staged confrontations, the use of stool pigeons and many more techniques. Ms. Applebaum singles out the example of Geza Supka, who was the leader of the Freemasons in Hungary. In 1950 this organization no longer existed, since it was considered a threat to the regime. Supka was described (in a thick file declassified only now) as being a "representative of Anglo-Saxon interests in Hungary" and a traitor plotting to overthrow the regime. The file also contains many false testimonies rendered by some of his friends, but the most harrowing element of the file includes the daily reports on Supka by informers. Even the report about his death in 1956 was to be included in that file. Similar modi operandi against other "enemies" were to be found in other counties as well.
Then some revolts in the fifties were immediately crushed in East Germany and Hungary in 1953 and 1956,respectively.
In the end, the communist leaders asked themselves the same questions they had posed after Stalin's death. Why did the system produce such poor economic results? Why was the propaganda unconvincing? What was the source of ongoing dissent and what was the best way to quash it?
In the end, as Ms. Applebaum concludes,"the gap between reality and ideology meant that the communist parties wound up spouting meaningless slogans which they themselves knew made no sense". Here the author comes, in my view, to the right conclusion that after Stalin's death none of the regimes were as cruel as they had been between 1945 and 1953, but "even post-Stalinist Eastern Europe could be harsh, arbitrary and formidably repressive". The Berlin Wall built in 1961 was just one example. Both Romania and Yugoslavia tried at differrent times to carve out individual roles in foreign policy, distancing themselves from the rest of the Soviet bloc, but not necessarily in very meaningful ways.
By using a lot of new archival material, and after interviewing numerous citizens in Germany, Hungary and Poland, the result is a riveting and enthralling book which also offers deep and extensive analysis of the various segments discussed in her book. This opus will become one of the best written on this topic and a classic of its kind. This in spite of the fact that it is not a comprehensive history of the whole Eastern communist bloc. Highly recommended.
on December 14, 2012
I greatly admired Ms. Applebaum's "Gulag", and was looking forward to reading this work. She has done an excellent job of research--thorough, painstaking, a work of great scholarship from beginning to end. And the story she tells is fascinating and tremendously informative.
But that said, I had to stop about halfway through--I simply grew weary of reading it. When I titled this review "makes the case", I am saying that I feel it reads like a grand jury indictment rather than a history. I am not speaking about her writing style, which is excellent, but in terms of how she organized the book. The story is handled chronologically, and within that framework she breaks it down into subject areas as they apply to each of the three nations she chose to study. But this leads to a litany of repression that becomes tedious after a while: Here's what they did to the civic groups. Here's how they crushed the opposition parties. Here's what they did to the churches. Here's what they did to youth. Here's what they did to dissidents, and so on. By the middle of the book, I was saying to myself, "OK, OK, I get the point. I see what they did and how they did it." Notwithstanding her use of individual "witnesses", the ultimate effect is to detach the reader emotionally from the frightening story of how the Soviets imposed their hegemony. It might have also been more interesting to delve a bit further into the biographies of Ulbricht, Rakosi, Bierut, and their cohorts, rather than treating them somewhat superficially as slightly different species of the same animal. And although she criticizes "revisionist" histories, she does not (as far as I can tell) offer any alternative explanation for Stalin's expansionism.
This problem is exacerbated by jumping from one country to another within that chronological approach. Not to sound presumptuous--I stand in awe of Ms. Applebaum's scholarly achievements--but perhaps studying each nation in turn might have been more involving and rewarding for the reader. For one thing, she could then have provided more insight into their respective histories and cultures as a context for examining the process of building a tyranny. And that leads to another criticism, namely that by organizing the narrative as she does and giving it a generic title implies something of a false conclusion, namely that the process followed a uniform standard script throughout eastern Europe . It did not. The process of Communist takeover and consolidation was rather different in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania. At least some explicit attention should have been given to those differences. And perhaps more discussion should have been added about Soviet failures in Austria, and even its willingness to tolerate a democratic Finland.
This would not have required a much longer book. Rather, she might have spared us some of the endless details of repression in favor of providing a broader context for considering how the Iron Curtain was constructed.
All that said, this is a book that absolutely must be read by anyone interested in the subject--and perhaps by those who have more patience than I did.
This review is about the 656 pages version printed in England, by a subsidiary of Penguin Press, written by Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer prize winning "Gulag: A history of the Soviet Camps."
The sheer size and scope of the book give pause to the casual reader but this is mitigated by the author's elegant prose and ability for descriptive details. The reader is not spared from the horrors of war illustrated by the unremitting violence, unmitigated brutality, wholesale rape, mass murder, abject poverty, deadly starvation and theft - events that led to mass dislocation and homelessness of massive populations within Europe by the end of world War ll - and became the fertile ground for the spread of false hope by the communists. These events are well described in the first half of the book, "False Dawn".
The second part, "High Stalinism", is a vivid description of the betrayal of the so-called "communist ideal" by Stalin and his minions based mostly on personal interviews and original source document research by the author. Applebaum depicts the subjugation on Eastern European countries through persecution, mass deportation, bogus trials, trumped-up accusations of treason and sedition and the summary arrests, torture and execution of dissidents. Civil administrations and societies were destroyed, religion was outlawed and churches persecuted - as demonstrated by Stalin's edict to.. "Isolate the Catholic hierarchy...Separate the Vatican from the believers....Control all the churches by December 1949".. at the Cominform meeting in Karlsbad in 1949.
Planted throughout the eighteen chapters, are the stories of individuals, such as Benda in East Germany, Supka and Bien in Hungary who were persecuted by communist regimes. These examples are used to emphasize the paranoia of the totalitarian oppressive governments mainly in East Germany, Hungary and Poland, but were similar to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. National autonomy was dismantled; arts, education, the media and school textbooks were subjugated to the promotion of the "Homo Sovieticus". Information was censored and tightly controlled by the state. Goods were rationed and housing was planned around "Ideal Cities" of communal living. The entire system was sustained by delusions, lies, fraud and corruption made possible by a vast network of informants, compliant and reluctant collaborators and cowed passive opposition. Personal security and professional advancement were closely tied to the allegiance to the communist party.
In the last chapter, the author comments about communism in the present leftist socialist regimes mainly in Latin America. It is an oversimplification, because the choice of each country depends on the various cultural and social make-up and economic needs of the society. One size communism does not fit all.
Iron Curtain is a formidable book that should be read by anyone interested about how socialism (read communism) insinuates itself in a society, either by following the collapse of that society or surreptitiously by subterfuge and lies, heralded by the gradual loss of personal liberty and economic independence. It is a failed doctrine no matter how often it is revived, modified or disguised.
Anne Applebaum is a gifted writer who has succeeded in presenting a complex amalgam of the harsh reality of war, the human tragedy of indiscriminate slaughter and mass persecutions, the genesis of totalitarian regimes and their oppression of millions in what were previously culturally advanced sophisticated societies; she did it in an easy to read elegant style and flowing prose. The book is meticulously detailed, very well researched and documented with 46 illustrations and maps of Eastern Europe before and after WWll. Undoubtedly, Iron Curtain will become a major reference on the subject.
Much has been written about how countries throw off the shackles of totalitarianism and move to democracy, but few books explain the opposite: how do countries collapse and become totalitarian dictatorships, casting off freedom and democracy. In that respect "Iron Curtain" is a fascinating glimpse into how so many radically different monarchies and democracies wound up being forced into accepting Communist governments at the end of World War II. Many Americans believe this occurred simply because these countries were occupied by Russian troops and that their conversion to Communism was a fiat accompli. But the reality couldn't have been further from the truth. Most monarchs fought to retain their thrones and the reconstituted governments more or less resembled what they were prior to the war. Following occupation there was a fairly lengthy period of cohabitation where these liberated countries sought to determine their future course of governance. That they would become Russian satellites was not necessarily a foregone conclusion as witnessed in Austria. In reality any one of a number of Eastern European states could have fought more vigorously to have retained a democratic form of government. "Iron Curtain" makes extensive use of recently declassified documents from archives in the former Communist bloc that help round out how events unfolded in this era and the result is both fascinating and shocking, adding further proof disputing the long held belief that somehow Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta. What Applebaum lays out in "Iron Curtain" is events as they happened, taking into account the death of Roosevelt, Truman's utter unpreparedness for assuming the Presidency, voters in the United Kingdom turning Churchill out of office at a critical point, and the general confusion over the political situation on the ground as the war came to an end.
Clearly Stalin had learned from the Communists lack of success at seizing control of various governments through armed revolution at the end of World War I. Violent overthrow wasn't going to work, but using political methods to seize the upper hand might and it would give the veneer of legitimacy that he desperately wanted to his power grab. To borrow Churchill's phrase, from the Baltic to the Aegean many of these Eastern and Central European countries were early 20th Century creations, bits of the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires who had asserted their self-determination and ascendant nationalism. Casting off the supranationalism of those former empires they were free but dependent on support for self-defense and slow in developing strong political and judicial institutions. As most quickly crumbled under German domination when war broke out they quickly subsumed to that same domination, weakening what little they had developed. Many of these nations were collaborating with the Germans rending their governments discredited when the war ended. The vacuum created in the political sphere war's end gave an opportunity and opening for Communist leaning or affiliated parties to gain greater dominance. The largess from Soviet Russia during those desperate times of food shortages opened the door for friendlier relations. U.S. policy following the war certainly created tensions that began to drive a wedge between those Central and Eastern European nations and the West. It is the slow ratcheting up of those tensions that Applebaum captures so well here; the flashpoints and ruptures that created more cracks and breaks between East and West, with Central and Eastern Europe used as pawns between the two. That these nations forged closer ties to Soviet Russia was not inevitable. Eventually all subsumed that nationalistic ambitions and desires and were forced back into a supranational allegiance; this time not to empire, but to global Communism. Applebaum adds greatly to our understanding of this complicated era which has only recently begun to be examined more closely. This book surely will be winning awards for its keen insight and sharp prose. I wish that more historians had Applebaum's ability to simplify the complicated.
on November 18, 2012
Anne Applebaum's writing is unfailingly lucid and honest. Her latest book presents the reader with a ground-level account of the arrival of Soviet dominion over the nations of Central Europe. Portions of her book have the vividness of conversations among neighbors witnessing the ascendance of the new regimes. With a keen balance between scholarship and journalism she describes how the establishment of the Iron Curtain's Communist regimes were not simply the result of Soviet military might but the outcome of a multitude of individual choices and individual decisions - to serve and to support; to collaborate; to resist; to seek the handful of hollow spaces within which the ends of ordinary human experience could be pursued in a time of diminishing freedom and diminishing hope. Everyone is familiar with the shopworn phrase "the banality of evil". Applebaum's book shows the reader that beneath the spaces routinely colored red on the maps from our youth, ordinary men and women found endurance if not strength, perseverance if not peace, as they coped with the transformation not just of their nations, but of their communities. At the same time others, whether motivated by ideology, or advantage-seeking, or a simple desire to put bread on their families' tables, built the socialist republics of Central Europe stone by stone. It is a sobering and soberly told book, that makes the reader thankful for his freedom, and at the same time conscious of its fragility in the face of overwhelming adversity. "Iron Curtain" joins the bookshelf of indispensable chronicles of the Twentieth Century, and when what happens when, as Auden wrote, "Defenceless under the night/Our world in stupor lies". Highly recommended.
on November 28, 2012
This is a superb book. It's the kind of book you read to admire and learn how to write well and how to marshall a mass of material. It is a model piece of history writing.
The subject of the book is what happened in the eight varied countries in the east of Europe after WW2. It is a story of destruction, despair and depravity. It is a story of damnable behaviour and distorted democracy- such that 10% of the vote, and the Red Army and a secret police force behind you constitutes a majority.
It meticulously plots how the abuse of power in the service of an evil and false creed can easily come to take control of a society. The conditions of economic and military destruction, and the psychological trauma of dispossessed individuals, and dispossessed countries leave civic resilience significantly weakened. A totalitarian solution can come to seem reasonable, especially if the alternative is deprivation, torture, and deportation to Siberia. The story of how the regimes in Eastern Europe turned on their own leaders is well told.
The story of people's everyday coping with the regime, and how they adapted and made compromises to keep living is well described. Some of the justifications they give are pretty obviously tendentious or absurd viewed from a secure Western viewpoint. One of Applebaum's skills is to leave us wondering how we would have coped under the stresses of Communist life, and what absurdities we would have needed to keep some sort of sanity intact.
Applebaum is very good at the details of people's lives. She shows how all the propaganda and other lies was never actually believed- most people could see through its absurdity. And yet publicly they spouted the Marxist pieties for all they were worth- for fear of who or what was watching them. In this sort of system the individual and their quest for self-realisation was lost, and instead a sort of double life between public record and private observation had to be maintained. Political correctness was necessary at all times, even when obviously false. What is actually stranger is how many bureaucrats were filing very detailed and accurate reports to Russia describing the problems, but publicly still celebrating Marxist planning, and arguing that the problem was that the system had not been implemented well enough, not that it was fundamentally flawed from its beginning. The example of Communism is so obviously absurd from this distance- but what other ideas do we currently hold on to that are fundamentally flawed, rather than badly implemented?
This book is heartening when it shows that brainwashing and propaganda do not really change people's hearts and minds. There are many examples in the book where "greater educational effort" is advocated, but the problem was never the people's lack of knowledge- it was the systems's obvious lack of productivity and results.
This book is a superb piece of history writing. It shows the brutality, horror and absurdity of totalitarian Socialism, and of systems that advocate that people need to be perfected in some way or another. It shows the stupidity of monolithic politics- that try to deny our plurality of viewpoints. The conception of the state as "all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value" and of totalitarianism as "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the star" are utterly disastrous to free peoples and free countries. Such concepts can only be maintained by coercion and force, and fortunately eventually they collapse under their own impossibility and contradictions. The tragedy is that so many suffer whilst this illogic collapses.
This book tells a grim story well. It finishes in 1956, and I wonder if she will do the follow up from 1956 to 1989 as her next project.
The optimistic note from this story is that no state can sustain itself on a contradiction for ever. We saw this in 1989 as the Iron Curtain rusted away. We can celebrate the freedom that the Eastern European countries are now enjoying and adapting to.
This is an excellent book and worth reading by all interested in history and politics. Highly recommended.
on November 27, 2012
A great book on a rather sublime subject that is rarely examined in history writings. Very well written with unique and interesting sourcing. The details how the Stalinist Communists took power in parts of Eastern Europe. It was like cooking a frog, slowly turn up the heat and the frog will not even know that he is being cooked until it was too late. Very detailed in how the Stalinist apparatus took over Eastern Europe. While it does suffer from a catalog repetition of Communist terrors, which is common in holocaust history books when describing German atrocities, it covers a wide array of subjects from the social to political usurpation. It also gives an honest and almost at times neutral view of its subject. Stalinists and Communits are portrayed with a cold factual reportage that is without an ounce of pre-determined beliefs. Where the book falls short is its limited scope, looking at East Germany and Hungary and Poland only, and then only within a twelve year period. We miss out on Checkslovakia and Romania and the Baltic States usurpation. Did they not fit the author's theory or story? The period written about is before the upheavals and resistance takes shape and form. But we see the seeds of those conflicts and the inherent problems with imposing ideology and culture and society on a foreign people.
on December 15, 2012
Anyone who has spent significant time in Eastern Europe and speaks one of the local languages will have been saturated with stories of the horrors of the postwar period. However, in the West theirs is a forgotten history, or more accurately, a silenced history. Finally, there is a thoroughly-researched, documented, well-written book that tells the story of the silenced half of Europe. "Iron Curtain" is a testimony to the millions slaughtered in the regions of Eastern Europe and the millions of dreams and souls that were crushed by totalitarianism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the dynamic of contemporary Europe.
I liked how "Iron Curtain" is organized. Each chapter leads the reader further into the labyrinth of totalitarianism. Having spent seven years living in one of the Baltic States, Lithuania, I had heard many survivor's stories; have read many books on the history and atrocities of the postwar period in the Lithuanian language, and thought that I knew a sufficient amount of information on that time period and on how it transformed Eastern Europe. However, Applebaum's book, with it systematic organization, succinct coverage, and many examples and detail made me aware of just how much I did not know. I think that Applebaum makes a strong point in "Iron Curtain" that the bulk of the devastation of World War II occurred in Eastern Europe. However, there was no Marshall plan to help these countries recover. The vast economic advantages Western Europe had over Eastern Europe in the early nineties after these countries freed themselves from the yoke of Soviet domination, was staggering. Eastern Europe has had to play catch-up, fast-forwarding through decades of social, cultural, economic development in just two decades. "Iron Curtain" explains the reasons why. I cannot praise Anne Applebaum's work enough. "Iron Curtain" is a book everyone must read in order to understand the Cold War and the dichotomy between East and West.
I spent four years in Lithuania and Latvia recording the stories of women and men who had participated in the armed resistance against the Soviet Union during precisely this postwar period--1944- 1956; survivors of exile to Siberia and Tajikistan; and Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivors. These survivors stories, documented in my work of literary journalism, "Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart," are the stories of the silenced millions whom Applebaum writes about in "Iron Curtain." Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart: Stories of Women Who Survived Hitler and Stalin The stories are remarkable for what they chronicle: heroism in a scenario in which those who joined the resistance knew that their best chance of survival was maximum two years; sacrifice that meant sacrificing not only one's own life, but very likely that of one's children, parents, extended family; love of nationhood, even when those nations were irrevocably lost. As I read "Iron Curtain" I felt I could hear the voices of the many women and men I'd interviewed for "Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart." Although the countries that fall under the umbrella term of "Eastern Europe" are vastly different linguistically, culturally, socially, they all suffered a similar fate of terror and domination. The stories I recorded for my book are similar to many of the stories that Applebaum documents in "Iron Curtain." Applebaum, in "Iron Curtain" gives us the staggering number of dead in Eastern Europe after World War II, numbers that are escalated during the postwar silence brought on by the Red Army. I remember my aunt, my father's sister who chose to remain in Lithuania in 1944 when the rest of the family fled, said to me once: "After the war there were so few people left in Vilnius. One really felt the lack of people, of manpower." Paulina Zingeriene, a Holocaust survivor, whom I interviewed in Vilnius, told me that of the thriving Jewish community she had grown up with in Kaunas, only a handful survived and returned after the war. She too keenly felt the lack of people.
The terrors of the postwar era in Eastern Europe are passed down in the collective memory of the younger generations. Those who had never witnessed war and terror firsthand, carry the psychological scars of war with them throughout their lives. It is a very specific East European inheritance. I explore these themes in my novel, "This is Not My Sky," an inter-generational saga of three generations of women, all of whom live in New York City, but are deeply affected by their past in postwar Lithuania, or the memory of their grandparents and parents experience at that time. This is Not My Sky: A Novel The psychological effects of the ravishing of Eastern Europe can still be felt in contemporary Eastern Europe--they still shape the people's psyches, even young people born after the collapse of communism. I wanted to explore these themes in "This is Not My Sky." I feel that "Iron Curtain" affirms for me the process that shaped Eastern Europe.
Anne Applebaum's "Iron Curtain," in my opinion, is essential reading for anyone who wants to catch up with the history of an entire region that has been kept quiet for half a century. The dynamics of the atrocities described in this book help one understand why, for example, the United Kingdom and Ireland are flooded with immigrants from Poland and the Baltic States, who leave their homes, their families, their languages to come by the tens of thousands to work as laborers or in the service industry. Eastern Europe has not quite recovered from the extreme shock of the postwar period and the subsequent occupation and Sovietization of the people of that region. "Iron Curtain" helps one understand why not. It's not just poor economics or corrupt governments that drive people out of their home countries, it is the collective memory of the shame of domination and the long-term affects of systematic domination, as recorded and explained so carefully in Anne Applebaum's "Iron Curtain".
on December 19, 2012
This is one of the very best books of its type I have read. It is extremely well researched and authoritatively written and annotated and covers the vast expanse of the Communist takeover and consolidation of power throughout Eastern Europe following World War II under Stalin and his successors. The control, delusion and paranoia engendered is palpable and one develops a great sense of sadness and tragedy for those forced to live under the "big brother system of sham equality" which became so cannibalistic, myopic, self-indulged and hypocritcial. Ironically, for all the praise of workers slaving away for the great and almighty motherland and state, the party elites everywhere ended up as privileged and apart as those in the "terrible" and "predatory" capitalist system they had transplanted. Author Applebaum leaves no secret hidden in her masterly account which makes gripping reading. While communism sought to export a certain glamour through tight control of reality and the use of things such as sport and totally staged and choreographed rallies to engender a sense of superiority over all else and all others, it failed to work and the reality did gradually emerge, both at home and abroad. Of course, escapes and uprisings - although they were ruthlessly suppressed - indicated clearly and increasingly that all was not well. Further, the economic results simply failed to achieve the levels expected of an inherently "superior" system, and, although terror, torture and other controls could and did intimidate most, without exercise of free will, it was doomed and the cancer of doubt took hold and metastasised. The entire structure was inherently unstable. Another key element was that one totalitarian ideology could not easily be imposed over vast numbers of very diverse people and peoples with different national histories, characteristics and features. Ultimately it was merely a matter of painfully-lived time before the entire edifice crumbled, as it indeed did. In the meantime, the stage was littered with corpses and the painful injustices suffered by millions had to wait a book such as this in order to be fully acknowledged.
on January 1, 2013
This book attempts a history of eastern europe between the arrival of the Red Army and the uprising in Hungary in 1956. One part of the book is exceptional writing but the rest of it isn't very good at all.
The good part of the book deals with the unraveling of the communist system in Eastern Europe following the death of Stalin. Its a very well written and very compelling narrative. It connects a wide series of events and personalities in what seems a very original way. The author makes the excellent point that marxist state propaganda, especially that directed at the young, ended up undermining the system rather than supporting it. They were promised utopia and when it failed to materialize, their education had taught them that revolution was the only answer.
The account also made it clear (at least to me) how fragile and how dependent on the autocratic whims one man (Stalin) the whole system was. It was also good in showing how dependent Stalin's system was on isolation and how that isolation wasn't possible in Eastern Europe.
The rest of the book is very much of a mixed bag. Rather than cover all the countries, the author has a focus on Hungary, East Germany and Poland. But there is a massive attachment in the book to Poland. Poland gets a disproportionate share of coverage and a constant outpouring of sympathy. It also disorts the books perspective. Far too often she treats the rest of Eastern Europe as if it were as rural and undeveloped in an industral sense as Poland.
The early parts of the book build up a narrative by subject areas. Always a difficult way to tell a story. She talks about police, economics, media, youth movements and so on. The anacdotes are mostly interesting but it doesn't really tell a clear history of these states as a whole and jumps around constantly. The end of the book doesn't have this problem.
The books coverage of the years 1944-1948 are flawed by a lack of context. Those years were often as horrible in western europe as they were in eastern europe. There was rationing, there was hunger, there were people kept in the military. There was also socialism, the appropriation of private businesses and many (but not all) of the things she looks on with horror in the east. There was of course not the political oppression of the east, but things were still a mess all over Europe. Especially before the Marshall Plan.
The blatent politics of the author also let the book down.
* The author defends the postwar european black market as happy self-organized "traders" solving problems through "messy and uncontrolled capitalism" (p. 230). Her understanding of those matters is very poor. To suggest that the black market was an effective solution and that there was no rationing going on and no rationing possible is more than a bit much.
* The author talks about a "battle for trade" in terms of high taxation, rigid price regulations, massive licensing requirements and penalties for not filling out forms properly. The problem is that those policies were hardly unique to Eastern Europe at the time. They could also be found in places like Italy, France or Britain. By her argument, the author doesn't make a case for Eastern Europe being worse in that regard.
* On p. 382, she calls the reputation that the industrial "new cities" built in eastern europe after the war had for lawlessness "mythology" and compares it to the regime stories about industral sabotage told by the governments. But they were boom towns and there neither anything incredible or unexpected about them being lawless. The author provides no citation for her claim of "mythology".
* She greatly misrepresents the nature of some of the pre-war eastern european governments. Neither Poland nor Hungary between the wars could be considered examples of social democratic government or capitalism or much of the time even democratic government.
She also fails to come to much of a conclusion about what went wrong in eastern europe. She makes much of what she calls "civil society" by which she means private charitable groups and how they were shut down. But its hard to see how scouts, masons, religious charities and the YMCA would have made any difference in the outcome.
She hints at an interesting subject: The "war" after the war in Poland and Ukraine. She only talks about it briefly but it seems like a really interesting topic.
She covers some interesting personalities. There was a designer who tried to get postwar Polish industry to innovate in areas of design but was unsuccessful despite a great amount of effort. The author's implicit suggestion that the design innovation is impossible without a profit motive is open to serious question. But this case is an interesting study in the small decisions that led the system in Eastern Europe to fail.
After reading the book, the conclusion I've come to is that these governments failed for multiple reasons:
a) Stalin's decision to *pretend* to honor the Yalta agreement and establish sham democracy created fatally weak states. The opposition was never destroyed to the degree it was in the Soviet Union.
b) The decision to move Poland "westward" won the Soviets no friends in eastern europe and created enemies everywhere.
c) The states of eastern europe were never able, by geography, to accomplish the isolation that the soviet union developed under during the 1920s and 1930s. The truth about their backwardness could not be kept from East Germans or Poles the way it was kept from most of the Soviet population.
d) The behavior of the Soviet Army in 1945 posioned relations with most of these countries after the war.
e) The Soviet Union treated countries with existing sophisiticated industral economies (East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia) as if they were backward pre-industral countries like Russia in 1917. They adopted policies of rapid industralization that made little sense in industralized countries. Those policies alienated the "workers" in the workers state.
f) The reason that Western Europe economically surpassed eastern europe in the 1950s is probably best explained by the Soviet Union's postwar industral looting, reparations and the lack of anything like a Marshall plan.
I can find a whole lot in the book to fault. But the last 70 or so pages are very interesting. While flawed, the rest of the book builds by starts and fits does build up the full picture necessary to appreciate that conclusion.