608 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385515696
Much has been written about how countries throw off the shackles of totalitarianism and move towards democracy, but few books explain the opposite: how do countries collapse and become totalitarian dictatorships, casting off freedom and democracy? In that respect, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum is a fascinating glimpse into how so many radically different countries wound up being forced into accepting Communist governments at the end of World War II. Many Americans believe this occurred simply because these countries were occupied by Russian troops and that their conversion to Communism was a fiat accompli, but the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. Most monarchs fought to retain their thrones and the reconstituted governments more or less resembled what they were prior to the war, and following Soviet occupation there was a fairly lengthy period of cohabitation where these liberated countries sought to determine their future course of governance; that they would automatically become Russian satellites was not necessarily a foregone conclusion, as witnessed in Austria.
In reality, any one of a number of Eastern European states could have fought more vigorously to have retained a democratic form of government, and Applebaum makes extensive use of recently declassified documents from archives in the former Communist bloc that help round out how events unfolded in this era. The result is both fascinating and shocking, adding further proof disputing the long held belief that somehow Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta. What Applebaum lays out is events as they happened, taking into account the death of Roosevelt, Truman’s utter unpreparedness for assuming the Presidency, voters in the United Kingdom turning Churchill out of office at a critical point, and the general confusion over the political situation on the ground as the war came to an end. Clearly, Stalin had learned from the Communists’ lack of success at seizing control of various governments through armed revolution at the end of World War I; violent overthrow wasn’t going to work, but using political methods to seize the upper hand might, and it would have the added advantage of giving a veneer of legitimacy that he desperately wanted to lend his power grab.
Many of these Eastern and Central European countries were early 20th Century creations, bits of the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires who had asserted their self-determination and ascendant nationalism. Casting off the supranationalism of those former empires they were politically independent, yet dependent-still on support for self-defense and slow in developing strong political and judicial institutions. As most quickly crumbled under German domination when war broke out, they subsumed to that same domination, weakening what little they had developed. Many of these nations were collaborating with the Germans rending their governments discredited when the war ended. The vacuum created in the political sphere war’s end gave an opportunity and opening for Communist leaning or affiliated parties to gain greater dominance. The largess from Soviet Russia during those desperate times of food shortages opened the door for friendlier relations, while paranoid Soviet reaction to U.S. policy following the war created tensions that began to drive a wedge between those Central and Eastern European nations and the West. It is the slow ratcheting up of those tensions that Applebaum captures so well here; the flashpoints and ruptures that created more cracks and breaks between East and West, with Central and Eastern Europe used as pawns between the two.
That these nations’ forged closer ties to Soviet Russia was not inevitable, and although all eventually subsumed their individual, nationalistic ambitions and desires and were forced back into a grand supranational allegiance; this time not to empire, but to global Communism. Applebaum adds greatly to our understanding of this complicated era which has only recently begun to be examined more closely. This book is full of keen insight and sharp prose, and I wish that more historians had Applebaum’s ability to simplify the complicated.