Iron Curtain; the crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum (Allen Lane, 2012), reviewed by Josh Black
Pulitzer prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum is out to reclaim one of the Twentieth Century’s most terrifying concepts. Totalitarianism, we are told early on in Iron Curtain, is both underused and overexposed today. While sociologists and revisionist historians purport to tell us that the Soviet Union was never truly successful in intruding into every aspect of its citizens’ personal lives, the term is used regularly and thoughtlessly as an insult. Thus, at the same time as Stalin is being exonerated from totalitarian designs on Europe, US politicians are increasingly accused of the exact same thing (even the libertarian ones).
This is the context for a book on the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (specifically East Germany, Poland and Hungary, with elements of the former Czech Republic thrown in) from 1945-56. For such an enormous and daunting project, Iron Curtain gives rise to a number of clear conclusions. Stalin had no fixed plans for Eastern Europe beyond ensuring the security of the Soviet Union – that much has become clear over a number of years. Nonetheless, the Red Army brought in its wake all the ingredients needed for the Sovietisation of Eastern European states, so that by 1948, when it is clear that the ‘consensual’ approach based on elections had failed, a more aggressive approach was instantly enacted.
Communist totalitarianism was built remarkably quickly in Eastern Europe – perhaps because so few believed that it was really happening. As Heda Margolius Kovaly noted in her memoir of life under the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies, it was not until 1956 that people generally began to question the propaganda that they were fed. Rebuilding took priority, and quiescence often brought rewards such as freedom to practice art or to attend church, so long as certain taboos were not spoken.
Nonetheless, these polities were enormously vulnerable – eventually erupting in public displays of civil disobedience so serious that Moscow sent non-Slavic troops to suppress them in a bid to avoid contagion. Given the six years it took for this volume to come to fruition, it may be some time before Applebaum attempts to describe the regimes that followed the High-Stalinist period. Were these totalitarian or merely repressed? The distinction is not clear, and indeed, it remains almost impossible to answer the extent to which citizens of the Soviet bloc were real communists, ‘reluctant collaborators’ or simply self-preservationists.
Many historical disputes could safely be left without answering such a philosophical question. Yet discourses about both the Third Reich and Soviet Union have been so shaped by Hannah Arendt’s On the Origins of Totalitarianism that the viability of totalitarian societies is permanently in question. It is to Applebaum’s credit that even as a fellow-traveller to the 1989 generation she has chosen to highlight the dangers societies face, rather than a narrative of inevitable self-liberation. Her call for vigilance and the preservation of civil society is as relevant today, even if the methods of Soviet totalitarianism are not.