Among most Cold War scholars, there is agreement that both America and the Soviet Union contributed to the Cold War’s beginnings. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum believes that notion must be revised. “Although Nazi-occupied Europe was eventually liberated, [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin never gave back the territories he occupied in the first phase of the war,” she writes in her deeply researched, exciting new book. The Soviet Union was intent on maintaining domination in Eastern and Central Europe from the outset of World War II. No amount of goodwill from the West could have changed that view, she claims.
Iron Curtain opens with an interesting tale, culled from the author’s interviews. In 1945, a charitable organization called the Polish Women’s League assisted refugees returning to the country after the devastation of World War II. The members were independent, unpaid, and apolitical. Five years later, the group had become an organization parroting the views of the Polish Communist Party, celebrating Stalin’s birthday, and attacking Western imperialism.
In Applebaum’s telling, the swift rise and fall of the Polish Women’s League was a microcosm of the transformation all of Europe to the west of Russia underwent. Stalin “impose[d] his particular vision of communist society on his neighbors,” she writes. "Iron Curtain" explains how this process occurred. It describes how the Soviets instituted domination in every country, of the local police, radio stations, political parties, economic systems, youth groups, and even artists’ organizations. Millions were ethnically cleansed and persecuted when they even remotely deviated from Communist orthodoxy.
Among the most interesting segments of the book are those that describe individuals who simply tried to lead normal lives as much as possible. The chapters called “Reluctant Collaborators” and “Passive Opponents” show the lives of those who disliked subsisting under totalitarian systems but were unwilling or unable to outright defy their masters. It is a reminder that, even in what appears to the most closed of societies, individuals will find a way to subvert the system in which they live. No government can entirely extinguish the personal lives of its citizens, no matter how powerful and vicious it is.
"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.
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.