Book Review: Iron Curtain

In Iron Curtain, journalist Anne Applebaum documents the crushing of Eastern European civil society from 1944 to 1956

TVR Books | Justin McCauley | April 2013

Perhaps what is most often forgotten in the more intellectual-inclined discourses of political theory and Marxism is the basic fact that civil society – that sphere that is organically nongovernmental and, if desired, apolitical – is the vibrant lifeblood that allows discourse, and culture, to arise. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci long held that it was the capitalist’s hegemonic control over civil society that stifled the enlightened socialist man.

In reality, however, while vocal advocates of Communism such as Jean-Paul Sartre found a platform in the public forum of the West, it was the systematic destruction of civil society in all its forms by postwar Stalinism in Eastern Europe that stifled progress and robbed people’s lives of meaning beyond cogs in a machine.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, is an immaculately well-researched magnum opus, which documents in considerable detail the manner in which the nations of Eastern Europe – historically conservative, religious and hostile to Russia – were brought under the control of the Soviet totalitarian juggernaut.

Applebaum, an American journalist and scholar, won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous work, the equally magnanimous Gulag: A History.

In many ways Iron Curtain is a companion piece, as both books deal with the question: why did so many people go along? But the central narrative – the planned takeover by Soviet and Communist forces of civil society in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania – contributes greatly to Cold War historiography.


Refuting revisionist Cold War history

While Applebaum is light on analysis, her meticulous and comprehensive research carries the book. The extensive archival work, which spans six languages, produces an arguably definitive refutation of the so-called revisionist school of Cold War history – those who argued that it was the Truman Doctrine committing the U.S. to support of Greece and Turkey, that forced the otherwise recalcitrant Soviet Union into an aggressive defensive posture in Eastern Europe, where Stalin would have otherwise let democracy flourish.

Applebaum documents that, to the contrary, the takeover of the region pre-dated the end of the war and was very much premeditated. Eastern European Communist agents trained in NKVD (­Soviet secret police) camps crossed the borders with Red Army units and immediately began organising in recently liberated cities.

Thus, even before VE day, Stalinist forces began implementing the seeds of control – Communist thugs beat up Christian and Social Democrats alike, bullied the clergy, ransacked jazz clubs and youth centres, took over the radio and rigged elections.

By 1949, through a systematic assault on social and civic organisations, the media and democratic institutions, Communist dictatorships had been established in Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.

With the onset of what Applebaum calls "high Stalinism", there emerged "Little Stalins" – Walter Ulbricht in East Germany, Bolesław Bierut in Poland, Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary, Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia – complete with their own personality cults, who implemented Soviet-style multi-year economic plans, conducted Koestlerian purges, and infiltrated and often liquidated independent institutions of any kind.

A particular method was corrupting civil organisations from within. Instead of open combat with the churches, Stalinists chose instead to co-opt them – quietly intimidating them and indoctrinating their members into mass organizations, as vehicles for state propaganda.

While state-run economies and extensive state ownership would remain endemic in the Ostblock until 1989, the high watermark for Stalinism was its efforts to obtain total control over the citizenry, to have complete influence in all matters of life, public or private, to completely remake not just society, but behaviour and personality.

Based in part on Soviet pseudo-science, which maintained that acquired traits could be inherited, the era of High Stalinism was one that sought to create Homo sovieticus – the Soviet man.

This included the purging of intellectuals from academia, who were deemed too bourgeois to educate the future heroes of the working class. Absurd attempts were made to reconcile Goethe and Freud with Marxist theory, all in an effort to "proletariatise" education. In fact, it did nothing but dumb it down.

Massive "socialist cities" were built around sprawling steel mills. Because there was no hope of wage increases or advancement, quota competitions were created and "Heroes of Labour" icons contrived to inspire the young workers to be more productive. These efforts systematically failed, and the Soviet bloc lagged sorely behind the West – leading to more purges and show trials, never a reassessment of Marxist dogma.

The "reluctant collaborators"

Of course, as with so many events of this era, the question emerges: why did people passively go along? Applebaum refers to this silent majority as "reluctant collaborators", people who, after the horrors of the Second World War, just wanted a decent life – to feed their family, have a job, enjoy their free time. Absent deep political convictions, the system didn’t matter. They hoped only for a measure of happiness.

But this characteristic was also why the destruction of civil society and the elimination of the private individual were ultimately unsuccessful. Though the Soviet system was accomplished at getting "apolitical people to play along without much protest," the necessity of making everything political in a Stalinist system ensured its eventual defeat, Applebaum argues.

The myth of the socialist populace as more politically conscious than their Western counterparts was a farce. The pretentiousness of thinkers like Sartre – as well as the Stalinists’ own expressed goals of mass politicisation – cloaked the Communist experience with an air of avant-garde intellectualism; something that, in reality, did not really exist outside the ivory tower.

The average Czech, Pole or Hungarian was as disinterested in politics as the average American, Briton or Italian. What they all really wanted was to get by.

Lurching from crisis to crisis

As Applebaum concludes, the Communist regimes lurched from crisis to crisis, because every deviation, no matter how arbitrary or personal, is a crisis in totalitarianism. Ultimately, Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a period of confusion, where Stalinists and liberalisers geared up for a fight.

But the population had its own moment of clarity, taking to the streets in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and, most fatefully, Hungary, where in 1956 dreams of uprooting totalitarianism were crushed under the tracks of Soviet tanks.

Iron Curtain avoids the historian’s temptation towards extended analysis, and in this, it will likely draw fire from academic circles.

However, it is impeccably researched, and remains a scholarly and invaluable contribution to the study of the region and the era. But Applebaum also does something else, a subtle service to those who endured this massive, tragic human experiment.

She documents the jokes – the Orwellian "tiny revolutions", what Havel called "living in truth", –  of millions who were just trying to get some pleasure out of life.                                   ¸

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

by Anne Applebaum

Doubleday, October 2012,

pp. 608

Order at:

Other articles from this issue