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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism, a completely new political and moral system. In Iron Curtain, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated. Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain.read more
Using extensive material newly available since the end of the Warsaw Pact, the author asserts a new model of the coming of the Cold War to Eastern Europe and the rise of the high Stalinist state type. Western histories tend to treat the war as a separate entity from the Cold War. The Allies beat Hitler. The West falls out with Stalin. Stalin creates what become the satellite states of the east. This book asserts that from the Soviet side it was a seamless process, with the core elements of a slavish Stalinist party and an extra-constitutional security police arriving with the Soviet military. Ms. Applebaum, a journalist who covered the region as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, sees the core of the Stalinist apparatus [a party apparatus totally under Moscow’s control, a security police run by this party outside legal norms and with direct KGB control and both party and police firmly joined to the Soviet occupation authority via crossposting of Soviet military and police officers] as a direct Soviet template with only minor variations from local conditions. She shows the constitutional fan dances and elections as the smoke screen they were. Stalin was determined to have friendly regimes. In Stalinist logic all those not creatures of the SU were objectively fascist. Therefore Western pushes for democracy and sovereignty were simply outside the mental horizons of both the rulers in the Kremlin and the Soviet minions on the ground. The three test cases offered are Poland, Hungary and East Germany. Regrettably she has simplified the German situation considerably but the treatment remains valuable. Recommended for those interested in the end of WW2 and the first phases of the de facto World War 3 in Europe.read more
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Life under Nazi overlords during World War II was horrific for the peoples of Eastern Europe, but it didn’t improve all that much once the Red Army arrived, ostensibly as “liberators.” Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is an account (in great and graphic detail) of how the Soviets imposed their will on Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, East Germany, and Hungary. Applebaum is fluent in Polish and Hungarian, and so she has been able to utilize sources inaccessible to most western historians. The result is a much more comprehensive narrative of the imposition of Soviet style communism on what became the Eastern Bloc than has hitherto been available to the general reader in the West. And what a sad tale of woe it is!Stalin was not about to allow unfriendly states exist on his western border. Accordingly, the Soviet government began planning how to control the small countries of Eastern Europe once it became apparent that the Red Army would sweep into Germany. Negotiations with the western allies (the U.S. and Britain) for a post-war settlement at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences proved to be just window dressing, as the Soviets did pretty much what they wanted in areas controlled by their armed forces irrespective of the agreements arrived at the conferences. Pockets of armed resistance to Soviet rule continued for several years after the war against Germany had ended in 1945. Ukrainians fought Poles for control of disputed territory before new national boundaries were finalized under Russian supervision. The Polish “Home Army,” an anti-communist group that had formed while the Nazis were still in power, fought the Soviet-imposed government on into the early 1950s before they were finally suppressed. Mass deportations were effected immediately after the German surrender as Stalin sought to change the boundaries of Europe by relocating Poland several hundred miles to the west. This was “ethnic cleansing” writ large. Millions of people were put on trains and shipped out of their native countries. Germans living in what had been East Prussia were shipped west to a shrunken Germany while their former homeland became part of Poland. Whole groups of Poles and Ukrainians were in essence “swapped” – Poles living in the Soviet Union were shipped west, and Ukrainians in Poland were sent east. As the Red Army poured into Eastern Europe, it was accompanied by the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) and a cadre of Moscow-trained communist nationals of each conquered country. The tightening of the Soviet grip was gradual, except in Germany. The Soviets even allowed relatively fair elections to take place in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1946 and 1947. The communists expected to win since they viewed themselves to be liberators of those countries. They were stunned to find out that they were very unpopular, garnering only small minorities of the votes. How then did the Soviets impose “totalitarianism” on the societies they conquered? Applebaum puts forth a number of explanations:Most saliently, there were life-threatening repercussions to disobedience. The NKVD maintained control of the security apparatus and established Gestapo-like secret police institutions in all the occupied countries. They then employed intimidation, beatings, transportation to the Gulag, and executions of anti-communists to impose Stalin’s will on the general populace of all the eastern European countries except Yugoslavia, which, although communist, had not been “liberated” by the Red Army. In addition, the Soviets immediately took control over the radio broadcasting capacity of each country. (They believed strongly in the power of propaganda and at that time, radio was the most powerful broadcast medium.) They took advantage of the natural tendency of people to defer to authority. Also, like the Nazis and early Soviet communists, the East European communists organized the youth into propaganda-driven organizations with putative goals of social or intellectual or physical achievement. And finally, after years of the war and depredations of World War II, East Europeans just wanted to return to normalcy, even if the new “normal” wasn’t very good.Two other important considerations kept the otherwise not-very-workable system going. On the one hand, elites had many special privileges not available to the masses to keep them happy and in line. They therefore had a vested interest in maintaining the system. On the other hand, the hoi polloi had a number of well-established ways to get around the strictures and hardships of the Communist regimes. Even if you couldn’t find anything in the notoriously empty grocery stores, it wasn’t impossible to get what you wanted “na leva” (literally, “on the left” – i.e., outside of normal channels.) Furthermore, while you couldn’t get access to anything interesting to read in regular book shops, “samizdat,” or censored publications reproduced by hand and passed from reader to reader, still allowed those who could work the system to get information from the world on the other side of the curtain. Most of Applebaum's book, however, is not about why the takeover happened, but rather what it was like, and what the nature was of the system the Communists sought to impose in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary.After she describes the process of the takeovers, Applebaum details the careers of several “mini-Stalins,” who were put in charge of various governments by the Soviets. All of them were nationals of the countries they came to rule, but had been communists before the war, and received rigorous training in Stalinist statecraft in the Soviet Union. She also gives an account of ordinary life in the communist countries, bleak from consumer goods shortages, dreary propaganda-laden “entertainment,” and virtually complete lack of political choice.Applebaum ends the history in 1956 with the Polish and Hungarian uprisings, although that was far from the end of the Iron Curtain. But there was in fact a sea change then. Stalin had died in 1953, and the Kremlin was trying to stabilize its satellites. Presumably, she will continue the saga with another volume.Evaluation: Applebaum’s prose is readable and her historical research is very thorough. To some extent, the book drags on because the story is so depressing. But for anyone who wonders how people could live so long under the adverse conditions of communist-ruled Eastern Europe, this book provides a very complete explanation.The author is what we might label a “neo-con” on the political spectrum. She currently directs political studies at the Legatum Institute, and before that worked for the American Enterprise Institute. She is also married to a fierce anti-communist Polish politician. While I could see how her background may have colored her presentation, I could not quarrel with the facts she presented.I listened to the unabridged audio version. The narrator, Cassandra Campbell, seemed quite competent, particularly in her fluent pronunciation of foreign words and names. Nevertheless, the unrelenting progression of depressing events caused the listening experience to be a downer. Moreover, some readers less familiar with the time and geography under consideration might miss the maps, photos, and footnotes that accompany the written book.(JAB)read more
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Another masterful treatment of an important but underexposed period in recent history. Concentrating on the experiences of East Germany, Poland and Hungary, Applebaum outlines the deliberate role played by the Soviet armed forces in securing power for satellite parties, the. Implementationof Stalinist strategies for maintaining power and the different responses leading to post-Stalin responses.read more
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According to this disturbing but fascinating history, the U.S.S.R.'s 1944-1950 subjugation of Eastern Europe was a brutal process. With other priorities in the forefront at Yalta and other wartime Allied summits, FDR gave Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe short shrift, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Applebaum (Gulag). In this account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe during and after WWII, Applebaum concentrates on events in Poland, Hungary, and what became East Germany, all of which unroll with depressing sameness. The Soviet army arrived in 1944-1945 with enormous destruction. There followed an orgy of arrests, trials, executions, and deportation of "fascists," a broad category that included noncommunist anti-Nazi resistance groups. Expulsions of ethnic Germans was also carried out on a mass scale. Faithful Marxists, the Soviet leaders knew that the masses would prefer communism, so they initially allowed political parties, churches, newspapers, and even elections, assuming the people would naturally vote for a proletarian state. When that didn't happen, democracy was quickly shut down. Applebaum delivers a gripping if unremittingly painful account of the period during which Communists, astonished at losing every election, steadily suppressed civil society, whereupon darkness descended for 40 years. With precision in her narration and penetrating analysis, Applebaum has written another masterful account of the brutality of Soviet rule. Illus., maps. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.