[This review was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 105-116.]


Book Review


Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

Anne Applebaum

Doubleday, 2012


          The “empty spaces” that exist in our knowledge of peoples and places are sometimes startling.  When we see the photographs taken from space that are shown in Google’s “World at Night,” one thing stands out more strikingly than any other: the complete absence of light from North Korea, a blackness in sharp contrast to the illumination coming from South Korea, Japan and China.

          This image is an apt description of the picture most Westerners, we might suppose, have of “life behind the Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe following World War II – that is to say, pretty much of a void.  When the peoples of Eastern Europe during that time are thought of at all, they are known generally to have become the drones eking out an existence within the “captive nations” caught within the Soviet sphere.  The details of those millions of lives are little known.   And yet, those nations were far from empty space.  There’s a complex human narrative that deserves to be known, since life did go on.

          Anne Applebaum spent six years doing the research and writing that went into Iron Curtain so that she could tell the detail of that time.  Because she worked extensively in the many archives that are now open for inspection[1] and interviewed a broad sample of the people who struggled to survive and cope under the communist incubus,[2] she fills in a gap in the average reader’s comprehension – and, just as importantly, adds newly available material to the scholarly literature that is accumulating about that time.  She has helped preserve the history, and because of that, this book has a certain role as an historical document in its own right.

          This is not to say that her book is an exhaustive history.  It needs to be read in conjunction with many others.  The landscape spread out before her – of World War II itself and of all that went into its precursors and aftermath – was vast beyond anything the imagination can grasp.  That fact by itself precludes anyone’s having the final word.  But because we feel that the omissions go beyond those that will inevitably occur, we will later comment on a few important facets that should have been brought in because they deal so directly with what she discusses.

          The Red Army occupied eight Eastern European countries[3] in the final year of World War II.  Significant portions of its conquests – eastern Poland, eastern Finland, the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Bukovina and Bessarabia (“now called Moldova”) – were made part of the Soviet Union itself, losing, for a time, their distinct national identities.  The others fell under the control of puppet regimes.  Of these, Applebaum chose to center her study on the Central European regimes in Hungary, Poland and East Germany.  Her coverage starts in 1944 and extends through 1956.

          It is helpful to divide the history into phases.  First, it is worth noting the extent to which non-communist elements were removed, by execution, imprisonment or deportation, even before the end of the war.  Applebaum tells us that “between 1939 and 1941 [i.e., during the period of the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland pursuant to the Hitler-Stalin Pact]… half a million Poles had been deported into Soviet exile and concentration camps.”  She speaks of the 1940 Katyn massacre: “The violence culminated in the infamous mass murder of at least 21,000 Polish officers [to which she ascribes special significance as “the Polish patriotic and intellectual elite”] in the forests of western Russia, a tragedy known as the Katyn massacre, after the village where the first mass grave was discovered.”  Later, “between 1944 and 1947…, the NKVD conducted group executions of thousands of people in the forests outside the city [Poznan].”  In the late summer/early fall of 1944, the Poles rose up in the Warsaw Uprising to expel the German forces, only to be utterly crushed, while “the Red Army, by then just across the river, stationed itself in the eastern suburbs and did nothing.  Stalin refused permission for Allied planes carrying aid to land on Soviet territory.”  The eradication of potential opponents didn’t end with the conclusion of the war, but continued through the years Applebaum describes.  She says that “of some 150,000 people who were incarcerated in NKVD camps in eastern Germany between 1945 and 1953… about a third [i.e. 50,000] died from starvation and illness” because “there were no medicines and no doctors” (and presumably, in light of the starvation, far too little food).  So far as Hungary was concerned, “between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were arrested and deported to the USSR after 1945… Most… to the Gulag.”  And, of course, what is now called an “ethnic cleansing” of vast proportions occurred when “some 12 million Germans [the “Volksdeutsche” of German descent, many of whom had lived in eastern Europe for generations]” were expelled to Germany under ghastly conditions.[4] 

          Much, although not all, of this precedes what Applebaum calls “the standard historiography,” which “usually divides the region’s postwar history into additional phases.  First there was genuine democracy, in 1944-45; then bogus democracy…; and then, in 1947-48, an abrupt policy shift and full-fledged takeover.”  Getting into the heart of her book, she casts light on each of these phases.

          The early period of “genuine democracy,” she says, wasn’t quite what the standard view originally thought it was.  “New sources have helped historians understand that this early ‘liberal’ period was, in reality, not quite so liberal as it sometimes appeared in retrospect.”  Except in East Germany where the Soviet occupation regime had control from the start, it was a period in which “Stalin’s initial policy was to tread softly, not to upset the Allies.”  Hungary held free elections; “some independent political parties were tolerated”; and there was talk of “coalitions, alliances, and democracy.”  The communist parties themselves “were under strict instructions to disguise or deny their Soviet affiliations, to behave as normal democratic parties.”  This allowance of political competition, albeit qualified, stemmed from the fact that, at first, “both the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe thought that democracy would work in their favor.”  They were soon disabused of this notion, however, and the phase came to an end.  We are told that “the first round of free and semi-free elections proved catastrophic for the communists in much of the region.”  “Communist parties lost early elections in Germany, Austria, and Hungary by large margins.”  In fact, this occurred quite soon, with the elections in Hungary in the fall of 1945 [just months after the end of the war] making the communist leader, Rakosi, “pale as a corpse.”

          The period of “bogus democracy” was just a brief transition to no democracy at all, since what mainly resulted was that the communists “resorted to harsher tactics… a new wave of arrests; the expansion of labor camps; much tighter control over the media, intellectuals, and the arts.”  This was followed by “first the elimination of ‘right-wing’ or anticommunist parties, then the destruction of the noncommunist left, then the elimination of opposition within the communist party itself.”  By the end of 1948, the process of communist consolidation had ushered in the period of “High Stalinism.”

          The span from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953 provides almost a test tube-like demonstration of the Orwellian nature of totalitarianism.  There was “the cult of Stalin” that persisted until Stalin’s death on March 6, 1953.  His death led eventually to Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the Soviet Union’s Twentieth Party Congress on February 24, 1956, denouncing “the cult of personality.”  The puppet regimes in Eastern Europe had their own revered “little Stalins,” – such men as Ulbricht (East Germany), Beirut (Poland), Rakosi (Hungary), Gottwald (Czechoslovakia), Dimitrov (Bulgaria) and Tito (Yugoslavia) – who had been active in the Comintern as far back as the 1920s.

          In the Soviet Union, the NKVD eventually became the KGB, and Applebaum speaks of the puppet regimes’ having had their own “little KGBs.”  The secret police were aided by a ubiquitous net of informers.  Periodic purges -- such as of the anti-fascists in Hungary who were considered “too independent,” the social democrats in East Germany, and in 1950 “hitherto loyal party members and decorated generals [who] were ‘revealed’ to be traitors and spies” – served as instruments of control and terror.

          Cultures of all kinds build and struggle to reinforce a mental consensus, usually by a slow accretion of generally-accepted ideas.  Eastern Europe during those years provides an example, however, of an attempt rapidly to force a mindscape on the millions of people within an area of diverse and historic cultures.  The aspiration was to remake man into a Homo sovieticus, a “new socialist being [who] should,” according to Walter Ulbricht, “think like Lenin, act like Stalin, and work like Stakhanov.”  Applebaum recounts that “not only would Homo sovieticus never oppose communism; he could never even conceive of opposing communism.” 

To this end, propaganda in many forms was pounded home.  At work, there were “Heroes of Labor,” whose model in the Soviet Union was the Alexi Stakhanov referred to by Ulbricht.  Stakhanov was made a model in the Soviet Union for having in 1935 spectacularly exceeded his coal-digging quota.  This was extended, of course, into Eastern Europe, where the coal miner Adolf Hennecke was the East German Stakhanovite and Wincenty Pstrowski the Polish.  New holidays were observed, such as the Anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7 and Stalin’s birthday on December 21, with each of the puppet regimes adding days of its own.  The holidays “were marked by parades, often including floats, music, and gymnastic displays, as well as flags, banners, and speeches….”  Pre-communist holidays continued to be celebrated, too, “with an aim to winning over a wider public and appealing to national pride.”  As the world community knows, there was “propaganda value,” also, in the communist regimes’ sponsorship of highly disciplined and often drug-enhanced teams in international sports competitions.

Of course, control over education was an integral part of the total effort.  “Politics was to lie at the center of the curriculum for every child, from kindergarten onward.”  Children’s stories and textbooks were “rewritten to reflect the new reality.” In the universities, “history became Marxist history, philosophy became Marxist philosophy, law became Marxist law,” in response to which “dozens of German professors” fled to the West.  “Political correctness” was insisted upon, enforced by “students’ ‘courts,’ which began to expel those who failed to meet the ever more drastic standards of political correctness.”  Needless to say, “factories and workplaces were turned into centers for ideological education.”  The education featured Orwellian language, such as when people who had long been prominent opponents of fascism came to be included within the communists’ all-encompassing “fascist” epithet. Special emphasis was placed on youth movements; “there was no social group that the communists considered more important.”  Gigantic youth festivals were used as “vast propaganda exercises.”

The chief educational theorist was the Soviets’ Anton Makarenko, “a particular favorite of Stalin,” who stressed “peer pressure, repetition, and indoctrination.”  It is interesting that this flew in the face of the left-wing “progressive education” advanced by John Dewey in the United States.  A similar deviation from what the Left in the West had come to champion occurred in the art world.  Although right after the war an effort was made through a “Kulturbund” to create an artistic “national front” that would “attract the ‘bourgeois intelligentsia,’” featuring art that Hitler had “scorned as ‘degenerate,’” this was soon overtaken by “Socrealismus, socialist realism.”   There was a “sustained attack on abstract and modern art of all kinds,” based on the premise that “form without content means nothing.”  What, exactly, was “socialist realism”?  Applebaum tells us that there was a “constantly evolving definition of what was ‘good’ socialist realism,” since it was whatever the communist party at any given time said it was to be.  Consistently with communist ideology, it was centered on proletarian themes and was one of the media of propaganda. 

          Applebaum discusses at length the absorption of all activity into the state, with the elimination of private associations.  “In the end, the fate of the Polish Scouts, the Hungarian People’s Colleges, the German Christian Democratic youth, and a vast range of other institutions… was the same.  The nascent totalitarian states could not tolerate any competition whatsoever for their citizens’ passions, talents, and free time.”  As to churches, Applebaum quotes a “senior Polish secret service officer who defected in 1953” to the effect that the effort was not to remove them entirely, but to “penetrate them from inside” and “slowly make them into a tool of Soviet politics… – as happened in Russia before 1929.”                           

          Throughout Eastern Europe, the economic program included the nationalization of the retail and wholesale industries.  In Hungary, the coal mines and industrial conglomerates were nationalized first, followed by the banks and all factories except the smallest.  In Poland, “land reform” included the nationalization of “all land within… Warsaw, homes and factories included.”  In Hungary, large estates were expropriated and the land “redistributed to some 750,000 landless Hungarian peasants and farmworkers.”  Anyone familiar with the Soviet hatred toward successful farmers (“kulaks’) won’t be surprised, however, to learn that in most places this redistribution was “a prelude to the collectivization of all land.”   Multi-year Plans were adopted, such as the six-year plan in Poland.  Several “socialist cities” were built to speed up industrialization and “create a working class.”

          The results of this economic program were dismal.  Ration cards were issued for basic goods.  Applebaum reports “chronic shortages in everything,” and “the rapid development of black markets.”  Even in the model socialist cities, a few people lived well, while slums developed for the others, with terrible overcrowding (such as ten to a room).  Construction was of the shoddiest sort, partly because rewards were given for cutting corners and doing the work quickly, one of the pay-offs of the Stakhanovite incentives.

          Things looked up after the death of Stalin in 1953.  In effect, an economic liberalization akin to Lenin’s “New Economic Program” (NEP) of the 1920s was adopted, this time called a “New Course.”  The move toward collectivizing land was cancelled, as was East Germany’s plan for “full socialism.”  In Czechoslovakia, at least until the Soviet crushing of the “Prague Spring” in 1956, there was “a real cultural flowering.”   The directors of Stalinist films disavowed them, and “the crudest High Stalinist paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction, and architecture met the same fate.”  In the Soviet Union, a majority of the political prisoners were let out of the Gulags, although we are told that Bulgaria kept its “sadistic labor camps” in operation “long after the majority of Soviet camps had been disbanded.” 

          Her account takes us no further than 1956, when the Prague Spring and Hungarian Revolution brought on violent reprisals.  Nevertheless, she mentions that in Hungary, Janos Kadar went on to “rule the country for the subsequent three decades” after having prime minister Imre Nagy executed.  Nagy, though a communist, had led toward liberalization and eventually “switched sides” against the Soviet Union during the Revolution.

          In giving her narrative of those years, Applebaum paid close attention to the psychology of the people who lived through them.  We see a variety of responses by those seeking to cope.  Passive opposition took the form of jokes (some visual but non-verbal), insults, rhyming couplets, and a “youth rebellion” featuring jazz, swing, big band music (heard over Voice of America), rock and roll, and an odd form of non-conformist dress made up of “narrow trousers and thick-soled shoes.”  Others chose silence, including parents who feared one of their children might say something amiss at school.   The disjunction between inner and outer life is captured expressively by Gyorgy Faludy’s paraphrase of Jan Masaryk: “smiling only with the wrinkles in our bottoms.”   Of course, there were the careerists, those who grapple upward no matter what the price to their integrity.  And a great many people pitched in to be as productive as they could be in an apolitical yearning to rebuild their war-torn societies.  Despite the regimes’ usurpation of religion, the people’s continuing fervor erupted from time to time in spontaneous outbursts.  In 1949, “pilgrims from all over Poland” flocked to a cathedral in Lublin to see “the miraculous weeping virgin” in a cathedral where a Virgin Mary icon “appeared to be weeping.”  All told, however, Applebaum says “the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism… was the system’s ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest” – a phenomenon she attributes to “the devastation of the war, the exhaustion of its victims, the carefully targeted terror and ethnic cleansing.”

          Those millions were people, after all, acting as people do.  This reviewer was struck by how similar the psychology was to what one sees in the United States (where, of course, people are under far less stress).  When we are told that “everybody was supposed to think identically, act identically,” we are reminded of the “political correctness” that causes an American sports commentator to be fired for a remark about so many blacks’ remarkable athletic ability.  When Applebaum tells how the communist universities rewarded “social activism,” it is hard not to think of what American high school students find it necessary to do to build a resume that will appeal to the pro-feminist or multicultural preferences of college financial-aid committees.  When she relates how news of the “weeping virgin” episode was initially kept out of the Polish newspapers, we are reminded of the selectivity that goes into so much news reporting in the United States.  When on the Iron Curtain’s Flypage Vaclav Havel is quoted as saying that “individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but must behave as though they did… [T]hey must live within a lie,” we can’t help but think of how much blanking out of reality goes into such a thing as the United States’ annual Martin Luther King holiday.[5]

College professors will be amused by how certain behavior at faculty meetings matches something mentioned by Hungarian sociologists George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi in their book The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power.[6]  They said “In his every gesture the successful member of the ruling elite combines with instinctive flair a smooth pliability and a forceful independence.  He can even sense when to contradict his superiors…” [which turns out all right for him when it becomes apparent that “his obstinacy has served the interests of the ruling elite over the long run”].  “To find your bearings in this way you must have a special internal compass; you must have the ethos of the ruling elite under your skin.”  In an American university, a professor will often hold forth powerfully as if angry at everyone around him, all the while saying exactly what he knows his colleagues and even the administration agree with.  This conformist independence seems not to require any premeditation, but to come naturally.                 

Similarities such as these may reflect rather surprisingly on people in what is known as one of the freer societies, but a student of human behavior going back over the millennia will likely see, in many contrasting situations, how much people are alike, even given all their differences.

          Earlier, we mentioned that there are things Applebaum doesn’t mention that one would expect to be brought forward.  She explicitly limited her investigation to East Germany, Poland and Hungary, then generalizing about the other Eastern European puppet regimes, but some explanation would be in order about how Stalin’s backing off of Austria was consistent with his drive to expand communist hegemony.  His forbearance there stands in contrast to his other actions, and calls for explanation if we are to understand, in context, his repression in Eastern Europe.  On another point, Applebaum mentions that the Hungarians had “expected a British invasion of the Balkans well into 1944,” but tells nothing about Churchill’s repeated efforts during the war to talk Franklin Roosevelt into adopting a strategy of attacking Germany through the Balkans as a way of getting to Eastern Europe before the Red Army.  Such a strategy would have prevented the de facto Soviet grip on Eastern Europe that put it in a position to impose its regimes.  Accordingly, nothing could have been more to the point for the book to mention.  One way of seeing Iron Curtain is as a case study in what happened because Churchill’s Balkans strategy was brushed aside.

We find a similar silence when Applebaum discusses the Katyn massacre.  She gives the details, but doesn’t mention the Allies’ duplicity in having charged the Nazis with the slaughter in the Nuremberg indictment (and then in having dropped it down a memory hole when it came to writing the judgment).  Further: when she used Churchill’s famous 1946 “iron curtain” phrase as the title for her book, can she have been unaware (perhaps she was) that Joseph Goebbels used the same phrase (with the same meaning) in a speech a year earlier, on February 25, 1945? [7]  We don’t mention this because we want to give Goebbels plaudits for something usually credited to Churchill, but because a selective telling gives rise more to “history as mythology” than to an honest grasp of reality.  Among the other incongruities is her lack of curiosity about why the Polish communists felt it necessary to create, in effect, a Potemkin village in the early 1950s (which was at the peak of “High Stalinism”) to disguise from Soviet advisers the harshness of the Polish Gulag.  This suggests that the advisers wouldn’t have approved of the harshness, which is surely something that calls for explanation.

It has probably never entered the mind of Applebaum or her publishers at Doubleday that she might be considered a “Holocaust revisionist,” since she speaks of the Holocaust and accepts the existence of gas chambers.  Certainly Applebaum seems not to have read any of the literature, much of it very scholarly, questioning the conventional account.  Nevertheless, she cites the number of Jewish dead as 5.4 million, which is off by 600,000 from the commonly accepted six million figure.  When we think how (only) some 3,000 people died in the horrific events of 9/11, we get an idea of how significant a 600,000-person discrepancy can be.  One wonders: has the world arrived at a consensus about what it takes to be a “Holocaust revisionist”?        

The few criticisms we have made here are appropriate, but a reader of this review knows that our overall assessment is that Iron Curtain is much to be commended.  It helps that, despite the book’s being so loaded with names and events, it is easy and engaging reading.  As always, there’s much more in the book than the review has been able to cover.


Dwight D. Murphey

[1]  Applebaum speaks particularly of the Hoover Institution Archives, which she calls “the world’s best place to study the history of communism.”  Her study took her, of course, to a number of other archives as well, which we notice included those of the Stasi, East Germany’s erstwhile secret police.  She lists the archives at the end of Iron Curtain. We find reference, among others, to the secret police archives of Hungary,  the German broadcasting archives, the Polish radio archives, and the “archive of suppressed literature in the GDR” [East Germany].

[2]  She lists the interviewees, all of whom come from the three countries she focused on: Germany (36), Hungary (23) and Poland (37).

[3]   She lists them as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, eastern Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia.  Collectively, they came to be known as a “bloc” that made up “Eastern Europe.”

[4]  The author of After the Reich, Giles MacDonogh, gives a higher figure: “As many as 16.5 million Germans were driven from their homes.”  He writes that “some two and a quarter million would die during the expulsions.”  In our review of his book in this journal’s Spring 2009 issue, we noted that “this is at the lower end of such estimates, which range from 2.1 million to 6.0 million” [the latter of these figures coming from none other than Konrad Adenauer].  The review of MacDonogh’s book can be accessed free of charge at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as A99 [i.e., Article 99]. 

[5]   The American media hype the holiday without  mentioning King’s having plagiarized his doctoral thesis and even his famous “I have a dream” speech, his serial adulteries as reported by his close associate Ralph Abernathy, and his support for communism’s several “national liberation movements.” Most people seem not to know those things about King, and if told about them choose quickly to forget.  For details about them, see this reviewer’s article in the Fall 2003 issue of this journal, and his review of Theodore Pappas’ book The Martin Luther King, Jr., Plagiarism Story in our Spring 1994 issue.  These may be accessed free of charge at the website cited in Footnote 4 here, as Article 86 and Book Review 25.

[6]   Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1979, p. 183.

[7]   Here, in part, is what Goebbels said: “If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich.  An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered.”