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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Iron Curtain

Anne Applebaum of Gulag: A History fame - within certain circles in any case - has recently published another historical account Iron Curtain - The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 - 1956. As Eastern European history has been one of my more current fads - following Snyder's Bloodlands and Mink's Vie et mort du bloc soviétique, I am currently reading Tony Judt's Postwar - her new book fits right in. It helped to peak my interest of course that Applebaum is married to one of the more impressive European statesmen of the day, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski - check out his great speeches at the DGAP in Berlin and at the Blenheim Palace in the UK if interested.

Back to the Iron Curtain though, in it the author attempts to explain how a whole region, Central and Eastern Europe, but heavily concentrating on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, came not just under the sway but the totalitarian control of the USSR. Applebaum's book ends where Mink's process of désoviétisation sets in with the uprisings in East Germany (1953), Poznan (1956), and Hungary (also 1956). Her focus lies on the preceding soviétisation then, the establishment of national Communist regimes subservient to the USSR.

Applebaum's book sets in with the conquest of the Red Army of Poland, where it allowed the remnants of the Wehrmacht to crush the Warsaw Uprising killings hundreds of thousands and indirectly undercutting any sizable armed opposition to Soviet-instilled rule. She moves on to the raping and pillaging of Eastern Germany followed by the creation of ethnically homogeneous nation-states in the geographically newly established Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, et al. What follows is the sly takeover of national Communist parties dominated by Moscow cadres and thus to the detriment of not only non-Communist politicians of all colors but also oftentimes of convicted Communists having spent the war in their home country or in Western exile. Early post-war all-party coalition governments were often led by non-Communist leaders, while the Communists concentrated on strategically important régalien ministries such as defense, justice, interior, et al. Direct Soviet control was usually exerted over the most important propaganda tool of the day, radio, and the swiftly established repressive secret police force. A number of disappointing electoral results led to the forceful establishment of totalitarian Communist power involving a whole number of show trials diminishing opposition politicians ranging from the far-right (fascist collaborators) to social-democrats and even non-Stalinist Communists.

All in all a fascinating account of a history whose outlines one might be familiar with but whose details provide interesting insights into the emptiness of Stalinist propaganda, its excessive economic and political failures, but also the naivety of national as well as Soviet cadres, and finally their nonetheless successful - if temporary - establishment of totalitarian regimes.

Once again reviews abound (the New Yorker's might be the best, the Washington Post also had one, here is the Telegraph, the New York Times and the Guardian).

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