Iron Curtain, a review

Review – Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum (2012)

icWas the Red Army’s incursion into Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War a national liberation or a continued occupation? Anne Applebaum weights both of these versions of reality, yet her historical account affirms the latter view. Iron Curtain depicts the Soviet takeover in Hungary, Poland and East Germany in detail, and it draws more general comparisons with other Eastern European countries that suffered a similar fate. Soviets’ road to total regional control lied in its intimidation, manipulation and polarization. Iron Curtain achieves its aim, that is, to study Soviets’ totalitarianism. Hence it shows how totalitarian rule was imposed on Eastern Europe, and the ensuing political transformation in Hungary, Poland and Eastern Germany. In the process, the book illuminates how Soviet developed from ‘Socialism in One Country’ to realizing its imperialist endeavors, enabled by the war’s destruction.

Applebaum thoroughly portrays the creation of the Soviet bloc through a combination of Red Army’s violence, theft and rapes, and Soviet official policies of mass ethnic transportation, systematic obliteration of civil organizations and democratic pluralism, Moscow-instructed secret police, radio and media takeover, and election fraud. The rich use of primary sources alongside thoughtful observations illuminates the diminishing expectations in Eastern Europe’s post-war years. Anti-Soviet defiance, from religious clerics to spontaneous youth movements, is indeed present in this narrative. Despite these accounts, Iron Curtain disproportionally portrays Soviet authorities as the sole forceful actor and most Eastern Europeans as bystanders. This widespread political apathy is more thoroughly explained than the appeal of communism in the region, which surely was a necessary condition for Soviet rule. In Applebaum’s account, the leaders of Hungary, Poland, and East Germany were merely “Little Stalins” and their secret police were “Little KGBs” above being self-serving demagogues and institutions.

Iron Curtain describes Soviets’ nascent Eastern European strategy after defeating the Nazi occupiers, and subsequently the realization and eventual breakdown of “High Stalinism”. The account of the process toward “High Stalinism” is nonetheless approached with a non-divisive outlook of the period before and after 1948, when Stalin’s complete regional control was realized. Soviets’ influence before 1948 was hence not “liberal” only “less autocratic”. Applebaum’s significant contribution is exposing Soviets’ systemic aim of exporting communism to Eastern Europe – a process that was well underway before the war – while simultaneously showing the improvised nature of the Red Army’s initial regional manifestation. Accordingly, the takeover was carefully envisioned yet chaotically executed. Insofar as post-war Eastern Europe had free and tolerant elements in their public life, it was either against Soviet’s will or merely a part of their preliminary strategy of legitimizing their ambition of total power. As Soviet failed to attain full control persuasively, their methods became increasingly authoritarian.

Yet Iron Curtain does not begin its historical account with the Red Army’s concluding regional advances in 1944. Instead it furthers the thesis of Jan Gross and Bradley Abrams that the roots of the communist takeover lay in the war’s major destruction, which was relatively more damaging in Eastern Europe than in the West. The major difference, though, is Applebaum’s emphasis on how post-war conditions made it possible to impose a Soviet-style system on reluctant populations, whereas Gross and Abrams mainly argue that the traumatic war experience made communism attractive for Eastern European citizens. Correspondingly, Applebaum denounces innate cultural-historical explanation – for example Eastern Europe’s lack of democracy and sovereignty – for the relative ease of Soviets’ political invasion as “post-hoc rationalizations”. On the same note, she rejects various suggested historical roots because they do not apply to all Eastern European countries.

Here, in Applebaum’s apparent attempt to avoid oversimplified explanations of political theorists, she does not sufficiently empirically tests theoretical explanations, despite their lack of regional coherence. Timothy Snyder and Mark Mazower have, for example, argued that that Eastern Europe’s historically lagging industrial capacities created suitable conditions for establishing communism in most countries in the region. Opposing cases, i.e. that Czechoslovakia was comparatively industrialized, problematizes but hardly dismisses such historical suggestions. Iron Curtain’s methodology thus risks neglecting unique factors that impacted Soviets’ takeover of various Eastern European nations, which sometimes coincided and at other times differed. Relatedly, Applebaum’s interwar discussion focuses on the seeming failure of capitalism and democracy, but it do not sufficiently clarify Soviets’ sweeping communist triumph in the region.

Overall, Iron Curtain’s detailed step-by-step account of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe shows how Soviets’ post-war aggression underpins the Cold War. Applebaum convincingly elucidates how the subsequent post-Stalinist upheavals increased the legitimacy of Western democracy, due to the false promises of the material realities of “scientific Marxism”, and how this functioned as the preliminary demise of the totalitarian Soviet bloc. Yet it would take another three decades before the conclusion of the Cold War.

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