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Thoughts on IRON CURTAIN by Anne Applebaum

When I was twelve years old, the water polo teams of Hungary and the USSR fought, quite literally, a brutal match during the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. I asked my father why there was such hatred in the pool and he told me a little bit about the failed Hungarian revolution earlier in that year. A decade or so later, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to put an end to the Prague Spring. Shortly after that there were TV, radio and newspaper reports of prolonged anti-Soviet demonstrations in Prague following the victory of the Czech ice hockey team over the USSR in the World Championships.

Over the years, a picture had built up in my mind of the horror of living in the Soviet bloc but I never knew the full story until I read Anne Applebaum’s superlative history of the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 IRON CURTAIN.

The book gives clear answers as to how Stalin managed to achieve almost total control over eight Eastern European states during the final year of the war and the early years following the German surrender. That control lasted in six of them; East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Rumania, until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Yugoslavia, and later Albania, followed different paths. Applebaum chose to focus on Poland, Hungary and East Germany in IRON CURTAIN, although she does refer to the other countries from time to time. None had much in common, but by the time Stalinisation was complete, they shared many similarities. Each had a centrally planned economy, was ruled by a single party, shared a common political ideology, the lives of the citizens were controlled by a brutal secret police force and a Russian dominated media. Their towns and cities were pock-marked with ugly buildings designed by Stalinist architects.

How all this came about is described by Anne Applebaum in her carefully planned narrative in which each chapter deals with a different aspect of the changes each country went through following occupation by the USSR but combines to make a completely believable picture of life behind the iron curtain. Amongst these changes are the establishment of the secret police, the use of targeted violence against potential opponents, ethnic cleansing, control of the media, political and economic planning, collaboration and opposition. Stalin, like Hitler before him, recognised the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of young people and so, throughout the Soviet bloc, existing organisations for the young were either abolished or incorporated into the state machinery. It reminded me of reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich many years ago when documents unearthed post-war indicated the Boy Scouts would be amongst the organisations supressed when the Nazis conquered the UK.

Anne Applebaum deals with each change in a totally non-judgemental way. She tells in great detail what happened and leaves the reader to make up his or her mind about the moral legitimacy of these events. The narrative is backed up with exhaustive research which provides compelling evidence of the horrors of these regimes.

Several people who have read my own novel The Blue Pencil have complimented me on the amount of research I undertook but that was a tiny pin prick compared with the work that Anne Applebaum put into Iron Curtain. The book took six years to research and write. The author consulted about four hundred secondary sources and a huge mass of primary sources including twenty nine archives (none of which would have been available before 1989), thirty three document collections and carried out interviews with ninety eye witnesses who told of their lives behind the iron curtain. At the end of it all, the reader is left with only one conclusion; Stalin, and his successors Kruschev and Brezhnev,wished to completely subjugate the peoples of Eastern Europe, destroy their national identity and control every single aspect of their daily lives.

Early on in the book, Applebaum tells us that Stalin was planning the sovietisation of Eastern Europe long before the war’s end and had already carried out dry runs in Eastern Poland in 1939, following the Nazi-Soviet pact of August of that year, and in the Baltic states after their annexation by the USSR in 1940. She also explains, convincingly, why there was so little internal and external opposition; post-war exhaustion and initial disinterest from the allies, especially Roosevelt. By the time the west woke up to what was happening, it was too late. Applebaum sees the cold war as a separate issue;  battles of ideologies and technologies. 

In 1965, I attended to first European Athletics Cup in Stuttgart. The stadium was packed but the huge ovation given by the West German crowd to their own team (FRG) at the opening ceremony was almost matched by that given to the athletes from East Germany (GDR). To the West German crowd these weren’t East Germans, they were Germans. I was quite shocked when I saw the East German athletes’ enthusiastic response to the crowd’s support. These athletes, I could see, believed they were Germans too.

I never ventured behind the iron curtain but in the 1990s I visited a small town in eastern Germany. At that time, jobs were scarce but I didn’t speak to one single person who yearned for the old days. Not long after this, I was in Riga, a beautiful city. In the suburbs, however, I spotted several ugly Stalinist tenement blocks covered in expletive laden graffiti aimed at the USSR. Perhaps a tiny number of eastern Europeans look back at the iron curtain days with a tinge of nostalgia, but not many I guess.

This period was never something I taught but I was always aware that what went on behind the iron curtain represented a savage imposition of dictatorship and the destruction of the right of free thought for its citizens. The extent of this remained a mystery until I read Iron Curtain, the finest piece of modern historical writing that I’ve experienced. This is a major work of scholarship with a depth of research that leaves you in no doubt that forty four years of Soviet rule in the iron curtain counties has left nothing but bad memories. But this is no dusty volume. Iron Curtain simply and brilliantly written and constructed. Thank heaven for the collapse of the Berlin Wall. 

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