A doorstop of a book from Allen Lane can be a daunting prospect. But, having read Anne Applebaum’s prizewinning Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (2003), I knew that appearances can be deceptive. This was going to be a compelling read.
Iron Curtain describes the takeover of Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War and its subjection to tyranny under the Stalinist regime. Applebaum’s great gift is detail: life as it was lived on the ground, a seamless blending of historical fact with individual tales, descriptions of moments, scenery, the landscape - natural, man-made and political. Traversing the histories of the Eastern Bloc nations, from East Germany to Poland, Hungary to Czechoslovakia, one is immersed in sights, sounds and smells, the places and era brought to life. Many individuals stand out, including 16-year-old George Bien of Hungary, arrested in 1945 along with his father for owning a shortwave radio and imprisoned until 1955, and Ernst Benda, a law student and chairman of the Christian Democratic students’ association at Humboldt University in East Berlin, whose conflict with the Communist Party forced him to flee in 1946. Each chapter is enriched with such stories, often drawn from first-hand accounts. It is an immense achievement to interweave so many fine threads into a dynamic, gripping narrative.
The story begins with zero hour, the end of the war in 1945 and the start of the “new dawn” for what was to become a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Applebaum depicts the human devastation after the war, with its starvation, homelessness and displacement of whole populations. Unrelenting in her depiction of cruelty and suffering, she lays out the horrors of poverty, theft, rape and violence. She describes how from these ruins the project of Communism gave many people hope, but it was a hope betrayed by Stalin and his paranoid and brutal regime. While he promised much-coveted security, he delivered control, persecution, fear and greater violence instead. In tracing the destruction of civil society, from churches and civil organisations to the media and education, Applebaum shows the dismantling of national autonomy in the region, and her narrative is not for the faint-hearted.
My only criticisms of this majestic project would be Applebaum’s occasional eliding of the term “Stalinist regime” with “communism”. It might be pertinent to make a distinction between the ideal of communism and the reality of the Stalinist totalitarian state. Criticisms could easily be levelled at Stalinism and communism more broadly as practised under the Soviet regime from within the framework of the communist ideal. Clearly that is not Applebaum’s project, and she does not wish to rescue communism from its corrupt manifestation. Furthermore, she sometimes drifts into generalisations about communism and capitalism, notably in the introduction and conclusion, obscuring what is otherwise a meticulously factual account. In her conclusion, for instance, she offers off-the-cuff generalisations about other communist or leftist regimes, for example those of Latin America. A historian needs to consider each manifestation of “communism” in its own right, within its own history, culture, complexity and merits.
These criticisms aside, Iron Curtain is a great read. Applebaum’s accuracy is a marvel and the book is accessible to all, from the novice or student keen to come to grips with this important era, to specialists looking to enrich their knowledge with an on-the-ground perspective. The pleasure in the read is not just the compelling subject matter, nor simply the individual stories or gripping historical detail; the language, too, is a joy. The simplicity, rhythm and flow of Applebaum’s prose makes you want to turn the page.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956
By Anne Applebaum. Allen Lane, 656pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780713998689. Published 4 October 2012