Behind the Curtain: Stalin’s Plan Almost Worked

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956
Anne Applebaum (New York: Doubleday, 2012)

History is not always written by victors, but much of it, especially recent history, is written by people with a stake in the events they describe. Even fifty or sixty years after the events, it can be hard to find the needed detachment that makes a dispassionate account possible. Needless to say, dispassionate does not necessarily mean an absence of judgment.

Anne Applebaum, an American writer and historian, though married to a rather prominent Pole, has had the distance, the erudition, and the talent to portray a sweeping panorama of one of the darker periods—there have been quite a few—of European history, the crushing of Eastern Europe from 1944 to 1956, which is also the subtitle of her new book, Iron Curtain. In more than one way she strives for the same exceedingly difficult feat her compatriot and contemporary Timothy Snyder achieved so brilliantly in Bloodlands when documenting an even darker history of the preceding decade.
Like Snyder, Applebaum strives for a picture that combines the political events and official documentation of “high” history with the personal recollections and preserved records of ordinary people who were its objects. Far from making the story seem subjective or fragmented, the anecdotal accounts add to and multiply the weight of the summary evidence, official records, and statistics.

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Like Snyder, Applebaum does not lose sight of the overarching motif under the weight of the myriad examples of human folly, cruelty, and suffering, seeing the story neither as the fallout of a catastrophic global conflict nor as a side effect of the Cold War that started during the period, but as a direct consequence of a deliberate and purposeful undertaking of Joseph Stalin and his minions, based largely on the totalitarian creed of a new kind of society and to a degree also on the Great Russian national ideology. (Applebaum emphasizes the former and somewhat neglects the latter, but in fairness it is hard to categorize the individual elements as purely belonging to one or the other.)

The accomplishment is huge. Drawing on the archives in Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, and other former Communist capitals, and on interviews with both victims and their former oppressors (some of whom are the same people), Applebaum draws a comprehensive picture of the gradual usurpation by Soviet-allied parties and governments of all political power in Central and Eastern Europe and the vast devastation and human suffering that followed. Beyond any doubt, she shows that the transformation of the region, far from being a spontaneous development or a natural by-product of geopolitical tectonic shifts, was engineered by the party and security apparatus of the Soviets and their fellow travelers.

Taking a sociologist’s approach, Applebaum describes the momentous and catastrophic effects of the plan’s execution on every walk of life and stratum of society in the individual chapters of the book. Some of these focus on the deeds of the victors (communists, policemen), some on the victims (ethnic cleansing, internal enemies), and still others on the effects (politics, economics). The division of the text into two parts is somewhat questionable: while the title of the first, “False Dawn,” is highly appropriate, to call the second “High Stalinism” is only possible if one ignores the entire history of the Soviet Union, in which high Stalinism would refer to an earlier period and a different set of events. After the highly illuminating chapters on “reluctant collaborators” and “passive resistance” one could possibly expect a treatment of the isolated, mostly insignificant, and invariably ineffectual albeit heroic instances of active resistance, which nonetheless did occur even after the Communist victory. But history is perhaps better served by the extensive treatment Applebaum gives to the two major examples of popular defiance in the period, the Berlin strikes in 1953 and the Hungarian uprising in 1956.


As in any such ambitious undertaking, the book has a few disputable aspects, and even a few shortcomings, although they do little to diminish the overall achievement. The list starts rather obviously with terminology. Ten years, however dramatic, could hardly change the historical geography of Europe as it had developed over more than a millennium. There are few contexts in which Berlin and Prague can be spoken of as Eastern European cities. In fact, Eastern Europe was not an object of the Communist power grab, as implied by the book’s subtitle, but rather its outcome, exiling Prague to the geopolitical East, just as Vienna, three hundred kilometers east of Prague, gravitated to the West. This subtle reversal of causality led and sometimes still leads other Europeans and Americans to form misconceived stereotypes of Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Czechs. Only the East Germans were lucky enough to switch their geopolitical coordinates overnight, except inside Germany itself.

A second criticism stems from Applebaum’s pars pro toto methodology, using research, collected primarily in the former East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, to draw conclusions about the advent of Communist regimes in the region as a whole. This was perhaps necessary and unavoidable because to do comprehensive research on every single country in the former “camp of peace and socialism” would likely take a lifetime or more. Still, the author might have been a little more careful in drawing general conclusions. Although she is quite right in thinking that the general mechanisms through which the Soviets undermined regimes and democratic structures and gradually attained total control were identical or very similar, emanating from the paranoid mind-set of Stalinism and based on infiltration, intimidation, blackmail, and ultimately violence, there are enough significant differences to warrant a deeper analysis. In particular, Czechoslovakia (I use it as an example simply because it is the country and history I know best; a similar case could be made for other countries) differed from most other future Communist countries in that it was, like Austria, liberated by both the Red Army and the Americans, and that it was not, at the time of the Communist takeover anyway, occupied by the Soviets. The outcome, to be sure, was eventually the same, but the omission suggests that Applebaum puts perhaps too much emphasis on the imported character of communism and its enforcement from the outside, and too little responsibility on the domestic agents of the Communist takeovers, with important moral repercussions. The regimes were no doubt Soviet in origin and character, just as Auschwitz was a German Nazi death camp; that, however, should not absolve Czech, Hungarian, or Polish collaborators of their share of responsibility for the respective histories.

A more comprehensive treatment of individual countries other than the three Applebaum highlights might have also have shed light on some of the secondary—but not unimportant—differences in the specific national trajectories, such as the treatment of religious groups, minorities, or the degree of nationalization. To the best of my knowledge, for example, there exists no satisfactory explanation why private ownership was, to some degree, preserved in Polish and Hungarian service industries and agriculture, while practically eradicated in Czechoslovakia. A comprehensive analysis of this and similar issues would likely show that Applebaum is mistaken in thinking that the countries of the region differed more at the end of the Communist period than at its beginning. In my experience, the opposite was true. But to deal with a multitude of such questions would require a much larger volume, indeed many such volumes.

The only troubling disagreement I have with Iron Curtain is rather marginal to the subject of this remarkable book and regards the story of Solomon Morel, the Holocaust survivor who became a murderous communist henchman. Faced with the moral complexity of this story, Applebaum, who throughout the book strives valiantly at the best approximation of historical truth, suddenly falls back on the rather tired device of “narratives” and misses the point, which is that in situations of extreme pressure unimaginable to most of us, men can truly be victims and villains at the same time.

Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.


Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-11500-0994 / Martin / CC-BY-SA

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