Sifting Through History’s Dustbin

Literature detailing the Soviet Experiment of the 20th century is enjoying a renaissance of late. From Yegor Gaidar’s “Russia: A Long View” and the theatrical efforts “The Party Line” by Sheryl Longin and Roger L. Simon and Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” to the previously reviewed whack-a-doodle revisionism of Oliver Stone’s Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States,” the 1917 Russian Revolution and its woeful 70-year aftermath  — marked by famines, show trials, Cold War spy-vs.-spy espionage, domino- and game-theorizing — 2012 is a watershed of (given the dismissal of Mr. Stone’s sweepstakes entry) thoughtful analysis and critique.

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Perhaps most thoughtful in the historical category is Anne Applebaum’s follow-up to her 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History.” As your writer began this review, The Wall Street Journal had already placed Applebaum’s latest — “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-1956” — on its annual “10 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year” list, and deservedly so. Nowhere in recent memory has a historian delved so deeply into newly available sources to present the horrors of life in a world devoid of color, joy or even the faintest whiff of liberty. Only “shades of gray” as The Monkees once sang.

Recognizing that even 12 years of Iron Curtain analysis may be a bit cumbersome, Applebaum focuses on three specific East European arenas to detail how Soviet expansionism in the wake of World War II resulted in the oppression of millions of people unfortunately inhabiting the wrong piece of sod. That would be the sod, by the way, not privately owned and maintained under the collectivized Soviet umbrella. Certainly there existed far more territory behind the Iron Curtain, but Applebaum wisely focuses on the Soviet sphere’s domination over Hungary, East Germany and Poland to avoid the repetition of the bleakness enforced en masse upon Eastern Europe.

In her Introduction, Applebaum outlines “Iron Curtain’s” thesis, which is the rapidity by which unchecked Soviet expansionism transformed all matters of public and private life into a narrowly defined totalitarian bureaucracy, a tortuous statism that relegated, in Mussolini’s words, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Applebaum continues: “A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media, and one moral code.” She concludes: “Mussolini and his favorite philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, once wrote of a ‘conception of the State’ that is ‘all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.’”

In order for communism to remain in effect after the Iron Curtain was established, local governments needed to resort to the same tactics employed within the Mother Ship of the USSR. These tactics are detailed in the book’s second section, and include the implementation of labor camps; jettisoning probable cause as a prerequisite for arrest and subsequent trial; government suppression of alternative points of political view; tighter government controls over the broadcast and print media as well as the arts; quelling religious dissent; and, in extreme cases, ethnic cleansing.

Taking advantage of a trove of recently released documents of this dark chapter of world history, Applebaum is well-armed in her reconsideration of the assessment made by many previous historians that the main interests of study concerning the Iron Curtain involved only the division of Germany into East and West; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Warsaw Pact; and the general conflict of the Cold War. She quotes Hannah Arendt as dismissive of the Eastern European history following World War II: “It was as though the Russian rulers repeated in great haste all the stages of the [1917] October Revolution up to the emergence of totalitarian dictatorship; the story, therefore, while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.”

Applebaum counters Arendt’s argument by declaring the USSR strategy in Eastern Europe implemented with far more precision only a portion of the same tactics employed in the Soviet Union. “They applied only those techniques that they knew had a chance of success, and they undermined only those institutions that they believed absolutely necessary to destroy.”

According to Applebaum: “This is why their story is so full of interest: it tells us more about the totalitarian mind-set, Soviet priorities, and Soviet thinking than would any study of Soviet history on its own. More importantly, a study of the region tells us more about the ways in which human beings react to the imposition of totalitarianism than would a study of any one country on its own.”

All this but scratches the surface of an amazing read that is riveting without succumbing to an overwhelming dump of details and research data; told in a clear, crisp prose that somehow makes the 500-some pages fly by in fashion that could be described as entertaining were it not for the gravity of the subject matter. History buffs and lovers of freedom would be equally delighted to find a wrapped copy of Applebaum’s book this holiday season. But perhaps the statists on readers’ respective gift-giving lists might be better served. 


Bruce Edward Walker is an editor-at-large and former managing editor of MichiganScience at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.