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Iron Curtain

You won't find a better book about the beginnings of the Cold War than this National Book Award-nominated study by Anne Applebaum.

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"Iron Curtain" ends on a hopeful note. In March of 1953, Stalin died, instantly dampening the control that the Soviet Union had accrued. Communist propaganda raised the Georgian-born dictator to so exalted a status that his death left an emptiness that citizens tried to fill. In June, tens of thousands of East Berliners staged the first mass strike since the war. The first uprising against the Soviet Union was underway. It was swiftly crushed, but it influenced subsequent revolts in Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Poland in 1981. When the Soviet Union finally died in the late 1980s, its demise owed something to those brave Germans from the 1950s.

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Applebaum has written a masterful work that will be read profitably by both laymen and scholars. She possesses four assets that make "Iron Curtain" essential to those interested in the establishment of communism in postwar Eastern Europe. First, she is an established expert on the region, having written a prize-winning book on the Soviet Gulag. She speaks French, English, Polish and Russian, allowing her to read sources in their original languages. Second, she is a terrific writer, rare among regional experts. Third, she is familiar with nearly all the relevant scholarship on she matters she is covering. Finally, Applebaum possesses an overarching vision of what occurred in Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1953, which allows her to write a remarkably coherent book.

That is not to say that "Iron Curtain"’s vision is entirely convincing. “The harsher policies imposed upon the Eastern bloc in 1947 and 1948 were therefore not merely, and certainly not only, a reaction to the Cold War,” reads the book. No, they weren’t – they were partly a reaction to the Cold War. Stalin’s motives and behavior cannot be divorced completely from his fear of American power, especially its nuclear capabilities. Applebaum does not cite "A Preponderance of Power" by the historian Melvyn Leffler, the preeminent book on America’s contribution to the Cold War’s origins. She would have benefited from doing so. By ignoring American actions in the mid- and late-1940s, she misses what somewhat led Stalin to impose total control on the countries that would form the Eastern bloc. As Joseph Heller put it, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.   

Still, these are minor complaints. What is wrong in "Iron Curtain" is more than outshone by what is right. It is the best book on its subject, and will remain so for quite a while.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.

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