Iron Curtain : The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Being a Pole I am lucky to have been born several years after the end of World War II. I was spared the unspeakable horrors and atrocities committed by Germans during the war and occupation. I was also spared the horrors and atrocities that accompanied the Russian liberation of Eastern Europe and were still happening behind the Iron Curtain during the first 10 or so years after the war. My first memories that relate to politics date to 1956, which was the year demarcating the terrible period of High Stalinism and the tough-but-not-all-that-dreadful times of late 1950s to early 1980s.
Anne Applebaum's "The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe: 1944-1956" is a monumental work, meticulously and exhaustively researched (almost 70 pages of references), well written and compulsively readable; in addition I have found it tremendously illuminating. Based on what my family and older friends had told me about the 1940s and 1950s I can see how historically accurate the text is. At the same time I have learned so much about an important period in my native country's history.
The book is divided into two parts: "False Dawn" which deals with the years from 1944 to 1948 - the years of liberation from German occupation and subsequent enslavement by the Soviet ideology - and "High Stalinism", which investigates the 1949 - 1956 period. The author focuses on three countries that were undergoing the process of "Stalinization": Poland, Hungary, and East Germany (the so-called "German Democratic Republic"). Historically and socially, the countries are quite different, yet the fates they suffered in that gruesome period are very similar.
"The Iron Curtain" offers a broad panorama of the times and utilizes a wide array of angles of view. The individual chapters illustrate various aspects of the process of "Stalinization": the Communist leadership, the security apparatus, the armed anti-Communist opposition, massive ethnic cleansing, the indoctrination of youth, the role of radio (the main mass media at the time), the so-called free elections and referendums, the nationalization of industry, the role of small business, the persecution of church and the religion's role in leading the resistance, the show trials, the elimination of all civic and social institutions, the creation of homo sovieticus, the so-called "socialist realism" dictate in arts and culture, the reluctant collaborators and passive opponents of the system, and finally the revolutions against Stalinism, which began in 1953 and culminated in 1956.
While Ms. Applebaum's work - she is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her "Gulag", and in my view she deserves another award for the "Iron Curtain" - is extremely thorough and rich in detail, the best feature, to me, is its structural concept: interweaving the serious historical study approach with deeply resonant personal stories of people. It is yet another testimony to the quality of the author's work that various reviewers identify different central themes of the book. The motif that resonates with me the most is one that the author mentions at the end of the Introduction "I sought to understand how ordinary people learned to cope with the new regimes, [...] how they came to make terrible choices the most of us in the West, nowadays, never have to face." The motif of ordinary people, present throughout the entire book, forcefully appears close to the end, where Ms. Applebaum writes about "the system's ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest".
As a pragmatist and an ideology skeptic I have been particularly impressed by the story of Wanda Telakowska of the Ład group, a "reluctant collaborator", a true positivist, who worked very hard - and successfully! - to preserve the notions of beauty and harmony in art design for mass-produced items despite the then prevalent grim model of socialist realism. She managed to convince the "Sovietized" people at the top of power hierarchy that reconstructing Polish culture after the war was an important goal.
It took me way over a month to read the book as I read every single sentence with full attention. I needed to know about that horrible period. I owed it to my parents, grandparents, and all the people who had to suffer so much. I had an obligation to learn about those times and tell that to others. "The Iron Curtain" should be a mandatory reading to help people understand how totalitarianism works, how dangerous an ideology can be, how easy it is to mislead millions and millions of people and how it is possible that even after almost everybody quits believing, an ideology can thrive for long years.
Four and three quarter stars.
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