Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 608 pp., $35.00.
THE IRON Curtain is one of those metaphors that continue to chill the spine. Winston Churchill famously used it in his Fulton, Missouri, speech in March 1946, and he often is credited with inventing it. In fact, the Nazi ideological leader, Joseph Goebbels, had used it in the previous year as the Red Army sped toward Berlin, and the Nazis sought to instill a determination among Germans to resist until the bitter end. But Goebbels was not the inventor either. As far as can be established, the first use of this figure of speech occurred in 1920, in a book by British Labour Party luminary Ethel Snowden. She had gone to Soviet Russia on a fact-gathering mission and returned to London with a harrowing account of conditions there. The Russian Communist regime was not the superpower it was to become by the end of the Second World War. Its economy was in ruins, and its armed forces would have lost any war with Western nations. Snowden’s Iron Curtain was a reference to the barrier of communication between Russia and the West. On both sides there was a shortage of information, and she hoped to fill the void with her book.
Anne Applebaum writes about a curtain that was manned by tanks and held in place by walls and barbed wire. And by 1949, the Soviet Union had acquired atomic weapons and rapidly was developing aircraft that could deliver them deep into the Continent. One of the merits of her book is her theme of ideas and their dissemination. Studies of communization in Eastern Europe have traditionally focused on political manipulation, deceit and terror. Applebaum does not stint in exploring these phenomena. But she goes beyond them, also discussing subjects that often get overlooked, including radio, the press, churches and recreational clubs. Even the YMCA and the Boy Scouts get attention.
Her purpose is to show that the imposition of Communism in the countries she studies—East Germany, Hungary and Poland—started as soon as the Red Army and the Soviet technical staff arrived. The process was intensified in 1948, as Hugh Seton-Watson’s classic account, The East European Revolution, points out. The catalyst for Stalin’s command that the USSR’s outer empire should undergo a thorough political transformation, in Seton-Watson’s view, was the American decision in 1947 to offer massive financial assistance to those European states willing to accept a few basic conditions. Chief among these was a commitment to the rule of law, free trade across frontiers and access for American businesses. Stalin could see that the Marshall Plan was designed, effectively if not expressly, to exclude the Soviet Union. Now that he clearly was never going to obtain the loan he had desired for the postwar economic reconstruction of Russia and Ukraine, he laid down the rule that no country in Eastern Europe should take up America’s aid offer. When the Czechoslovak cabinet went to Paris and talked to American officials about how to receive the money from across the Atlantic, a summons arrived from Moscow. Stalin personally growled his displeasure at this impertinent lapse from usual procedures. Everything in Prague must be coordinated with the Kremlin dictator’s wishes.
Applebaum’s analysis coincides with the Seton-Watson thesis that Stalin and his stooges always had plotted to accomplish the reproduction of the Soviet model across the region. Seton-Watson harbored Communist sympathies in his youth and gained some experience of Soviet-style procedures. But he soon abandoned Communism and at war’s end observed with horror the military and political subjugation of Eastern Europe. He concluded that communization had been organized according to a staged pattern. Moscow’s thinking was discernible behind veils of subterfuge as coalition governments and pseudodemocracy gave way to one-party police states. Seton-Watson reported the ineffectual protests of Western officials in the Allied Control Commissions and surveyed the imaginative pretexts for repression adduced by national Communist leaders such as Hungary’s Matyas Rakosi, East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht and Poland’s Boleslaw Bierut. The march on power followed a carefully prescribed route.
This analytical framework explaining communization in Eastern Europe fell under criticism as contradictions in the empirical data emerged. The processes were not the same in all countries, and they did not unfold in the same time frame. For example, some countries acquired collectivized agriculture, but Poland didn’t. Whereas the Catholic Church was systematically pummeled in Hungary, the Polish Communist authorities preferred to compose a concordat with the nation’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. In Czechoslovakia there were show trials of leading Communists unmasked as spies. This did not happen in East Germany or even in Poland, where the first postwar Communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was arrested and beaten up but not dragged into court and forced to confess to fictitious charges.