Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Doubleday, RRP$35, 656 pages
As Poland emerged from the destruction of the second world war, the YMCA restarted its activities in the ruins of Warsaw, distributing food, clothes and books, and organising social activities for the city’s shell-shocked young people.
The Christian charity’s headquarters rapidly became popular for its library and swimming pool and for putting on jazz concerts. But in 1949, the Polish YMCA was declared “a tool of bourgeois-fascism”, communist thugs descended on the building with hammers and smashed all the jazz records. The premises were handed over to a little-known group called the League of Soldiers’ Friends.
The YMCA’s destruction is one of the many stories that Anne Applebaum weaves together in The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, a history of the imposition of Soviet rule on the region.
When the Red Army drove the Nazis out of eastern Europe, its soldiers were often welcomed as liberators. Joy turned to horror as reports spread of mass rape, violence and the theft of everything from watches to whole factories. The NKVD launched waves of arrests of potential enemies, starting with leaders of the Polish underground Home Army.
The US and Britain knew what was happening. As early as April 1943 Churchill said at a meeting with the exiled Polish leaders in London: “The Bolsheviks can be very cruel.” Exhausted by war and mindful of the Soviet Union’s wartime sacrifices, the western allies chose not to intervene.
Applebaum, a journalist and author, won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for her second book, Gulag. Here she argues that Stalin laid the plans for taking control of eastern Europe long before the war ended. He retained the territories incorporated by the Soviet Union in 1939 – when still in alliance with Hitler – and he secured Moscow’s dominance over other states as far as the banks of the Elbe.
The author rightly has no truck with the view that a more conciliatory approach from the west might have saved the world from the cold war and eastern Europe from the worst of Soviet hegemony. William Appleman Williams and other historians have argued that the US, rather than the Soviet Union, was responsible for starting the cold war through its expansionist policies.
According to this argument, after the brutal early excesses, Stalin took a gentle line in eastern Europe, giving some space to non-communist political parties and to civil society. It was the west’s cold war warriors who drove Moscow to break the bonds of wartime co-operation, divide Germany and reinforce its authority in eastern Europe.
Applebaum’s well-researched account – focused mainly on events in eastern Germany, Poland and Hungary – argues, convincingly, that Moscow aimed, from the outset, at complete domination but did not rush into imposing full-blooded totalitarianism because it made sense to proceed cautiously in order to keep the west guessing and to recruit local support for communist rule.
The Moscow-trained communist leaders to whom power was nominally entrusted really believed they could win over their citizens. People wanted a new future, and the communists offered one. These postwar leaders were horrified to discover how little they were trusted: in the 1946 Polish referendum, a complex vote designed to favour the communists, only a quarter of voters backed the party.
The communists reacted by increasing the pressure, eliminating or taking control of sources of independent power. The radio and newspapers, scouts and music clubs, farms and steel mills – all came under state control. The Red Army remained firmly in place – as it did until the 1990s.
People compromised, because most decided they had little choice. But there was staunch resistance, notably from the Polish and Hungarian catholic churches. Others found small ways to demonstrate their independence, through jokes, jazz or wearing jeans.
These were grim times. A yawning economic, political and social gap split Europe and its consequences persist today. Applebaum ends her account with the rebellions that followed Stalin’s death – mass strikes in East Germany and Poland, and the violent 1956 Hungarian Uprising. The Soviet Union put down these challenges, deploying the Red Army in East Germany and in Hungary and coming close to doing so in Poland. The west stood by, increasingly convinced that Soviet rule in eastern Europe would last a long time. And so it did.
The cold war is familiar territory to historians, but Iron Curtain breaks new ground with its fascinating account of events in eastern Europe.
It is not perfect, however. There is too little about the economic failure of Soviet rule, which rapidly exposed its weaknesses and contributed to the revolts after Stalin’s death.
Applebaum’s fact-checkers should also have paid more attention: Stalin did not, as is suggested, attend the 1949 Cominform meeting in Czechoslovakia. The paranoid Soviet dictator left the Soviet Union only twice, for the Tehran and Potsdam summits. The defenestration of Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister, took place not in Prague Castle but in his ministry.
Applebaum concludes: “If civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic and as culturally rich as those of eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere. If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinisation proves just how fragile ‘civilisation’ can turn out to be.”
It is an argument that applies today as much as it did 60 years ago.
Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor and a former eastern Europe editor