Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Book review - Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Iron Curtain : the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 - 1956 by Anne Applebaum

New York: Doubleday, 2012    ISBN 9780385515696

The basic facts of the segregation of Europe after the end of the Second World War are well known - both the Soviet Union and the Western Powers (USA, Britain and France) divided the defeated Germany between them, and spheres of influence over other countries were split approximately along the lines agreed at the Yalta Conference, confirmed by "feet on the ground" at the cessation of hostilities.

And while those of us who are of a certain age or older know what we know about the Warsaw Pact, and the Cold War, for those of us who had no experience of what it was like to live under the Communist yoke, Anne Applebaum's book is valuable. As a bonus, it is also, for a scholarly book, readable and interesting.

Applebaum has taken the post-war histories of East Germany (GDR), Poland and Hungary as her subject, but by inference many of the things she discusses in these places happened in the other countries of the Eastern Bloc (Romania, Albania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria).

From the opening chapter which describes the way the Red Army took control in newly liberated areas, Applebaum devotes each chapter to a certain area of society to show how the local Communist movements, usually under instruction from Moscow, converted all areas of society to their pursuit of power. First the police and security forces, the media, then the electoral process, then education, to then destroying or replacing other non-state groups, from the Church to charity groups such as the Polish Women's League, Applebaum uses a judicious serving of archival material and interviews with residents to describe how this resulted in a total takeover pretty much by the turn of the decade in 1950. Her description of "High Stalinism", with it's emphasis on parades, production quotas, and hagiography of leaders, is particularly compelling.

Also compelling is her description of the bewilderment of the high officials on the occasions the public let them know they weren't as popular than they thought, although their Soviet minders usually had a much better idea than they did of the mood of the country.

Some things she describes are less well known, at least to this reader - the fact that there were anti-communist partisans in Poland until the early 50s , and the revelation that there was a version of the Mods / Rockers clashes in the 50s between the Communist Youth and those young people who chose to show their independence by listening to Jazz and wearing distinctive clothing.

The final part of the book deals with the repercussions from the death of Stalin, which led, via riots in the GDR and Poland to the 1956 revolution in Hungary. What Applebaum emphasises is the lack of preparedness of the hierarchy for such a spontaneous uprising, despite the secret service states they had built. Mentioned in passing are the different responses each country had to the disturbances, which led to some individual flavour in the Communist experience across the region.

Her epilogue is worth quoting at some length (discussing the legacy of these governments)-

"Yet such regimes can and did do an enormous amount of damage. In their drive for power, the Bolsheviks, their Eastern European acolytes, and their imitators farther afield attacked not only their political opponents but also peasants, priests, schoolteachers, traders, journalists, writers, small businessmen, students, and artists, along with institutions such people had built and maintained over centuries. They damaged, undermined, and sometimes eliminated churches, newspapers, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, banks, sports clubs, and universities. Their success reveals an unpleasant truth about human nature: if enough people are sufficiently determined  and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational, and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if  civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic, and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinization proves just how fragile civilization can turn out to be."

An erudite and illuminating book, Iron Curtain is well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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