Thursday, December 20, 2012

What We're Reading: New History

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

Anne Applebaum is the author of Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Iron Curtain was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. We previously reviewed in this blog a major new history on the state of Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Savage Continent, by Keith Lowe. Lowe’s book was a broad look at conditions throughout the European continent just after the war, both east and west, and was organized around themes that he found to be important and characteristic of the period and common to the experience of countries throughout Europe. Iron Curtain, by contrast, focuses specifically on the countries in Eastern Europe just after the war, those that were occupied by the victorious Red Army and were soon to fall behind what Winston Churchill, during a famous speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, called the “iron curtain.”

Applebaum examines in detail the Soviet Communist domination of three countries in Eastern Europe: Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. She argues that what happened in these three countries was characteristic of the mode of Communist takeover in most of the other countries of Eastern Europe. Iron Curtain is an exposition of how a small minority was able to seize dictatorial powers in a state, create a totalitarian system of government, and maintain its position of power. She examines the functioning of these states during their most oppressive period, the period known as “High Stalinism” between 1944-1956.

There is a tremendous amount of original historical research in this book, enriched in particular by a multitude of interviews with those who were witness to events during this period. The book took six years to research and write. This history of Communism in Eastern Europe is heavily informed by the access the author had to the growing number of declassified records and archives that have become available to scholars since the fall of Communism in the region and in the Soviet Union in 1989. These records have been especially important in reconstructing the roll of Soviet Union’s military, political, and secret police organizations in placing its protégés in power in Hungary, Poland, and East Germany. Although it has been long suspected, scholars are now able to document a heavy Soviet involvement both in the establishment of Communist regimes in these countries and in the control the Kremlin long exercised in directing the everyday details of politics and policy in all of these nations. Certainly the chaos and psychological damage of the war, the conditions that Lowe described in Savage Continent, played into the hands of a well-organized grab for power by the small and relatively unpopular Communist parties of Eastern Europe. The Communists were patient and established coalitions with other liberal and leftist parties until they could outlaw them one by one; they effectively identified themselves with anti-fascist sentiment, and sought popularity by supporting anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, and land reforms. The support that came from a continued Soviet military presence was critical to their triumph. Applebaum wants us to understand that what happened in Eastern Europe suggests how fragile a civilization can be. The Communist “… 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, and religious institutions, sometimes for good.”

Perhaps most of us developed what understanding we have of what it means to live in a totalitarian state from George Orwell’s 1984. Dystopian fantasies, many of which describe totalitarian states, are popular with the present generation of young readers. In Iron Curtain you will learn more than you might from novels about how a totalitarian state establishes power and how it intrudes upon and manipulates the smallest details in the life of its polity. The reading may be tougher than that of a novel, less compelling, but Iron Curtain delineates not a future or fantasy world, but one that actually existed, and it does so in a way that is thorough, evidentiary, and methodical.

The “building of socialism” in Eastern Europe was a revolutionary undertaking that entailed the destruction of those independent institutions that de Tocqueville had identified as the elements of civil society. The Soviet-sponsored governments sought the elimination of all political opposition and the complete state control of economic, social, cultural, legal, and educational institutions. All of these institutions were to conform to Communist ideology and to serve as organs of propaganda that supported Communist ideology and the state. Applebaum argues that a totalitarian system is unstable by definition, that “By trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest.” Some of the most interesting passages in Iron Curtain are illustrations of this point: the defiant assertions of religious belief that surfaced in popular rumors of miracles, the adoption by young people of certain forms of Western music and fashion that were viewed by the regime as deliberately nonconformist, the rejection of the state’s insistence upon the aesthetic of “Social Realism” in literature, architecture, and the arts, and the way state-staged propaganda events and mass rallies became objects of rote participation and quiet derision. There were also gestures and jokes that demonstrated a weariness with the personality cults of leaders and the daily encounter with ubiquitous Communist sloganeering banners (my favorite is “Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of Imperialist warmongers.”).

The Communist governments of Eastern Europe eventually collapsed because their economic system, inextricably bound up with regulation and repression, failed to deliver on its raison d’être, significant economic growth that would improve the condition of its citizens. The economic growth of democratic Western Europe far outstripped the modest gains of the Communist states of Eastern Europe. The gap between government ideology and propaganda and the plainly discernable reality produced a political situation that was no longer sustainable. But Applebaum’s concern here is to explain not only how a totalitarian state comes to power, how it governs, and what are its inherent (and ultimately fatal) flaws, but also what challenges its legacy of damage present to the countries that are now trying to rebuild themselves after its fall: “Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how it was destroyed in the first place.” The realization of these hopes are predicated on reestablishing those institutions of civil society that were systematically destroyed--something not easy to do--and of varying difficulty from country to country depending on how effectively these institutions had been disassembled or co-opted by their Communist regimes. Iron Curtain is a portrait of the totalitarian state, a naked and instructive look at its ambitions and character; but it also serves to remind us of the fragility and requirements of a free society.

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