The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain

Eastern Europe, along with Ukraine and the Baltic States, was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe.  "Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow," writes Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, the definitive history of the mass killing of this period, "but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between."  Stalin and Hitler shared contempt for the very notion of national sovereignty for any of the nations of Eastern Europe, and they jointly stove to eliminate their enemies.

Above all, Eastern Europe is where Nazism and Soviet communism clashed. Although they began the war as allies, Hitler had always wanted to fight a war of destruction against the USSR, and Hitler's invasion Stalin promised the same.  The battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were therefore fiercer and bloodier in the east than those that took place further west. (e-book pp. 54, 55-56, Ch. 1)

Each generation seeks to redefine its own past, or rather to understand through their own concerns what transpired to motivate the previous generation.  In Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, there was a lag of roughly 25 years between the end of World War II and (leaving aside early yet influential works by Alan Bullock and Hugh Trevor-Roper) the first substantive volumes on Adolf Hitler and National Socialism that did not reduce the subject to mere quasi-demonic status.  Even today, the arguments are fierce in support or detraction of the Intentionalist or Functionalist schools of thought regarding the implementation of the Holocaust.  These seemingly (and likely) eternal debates over the past is what makes history a valuable field of study, as frequently new light is shed on past events with each passing generation.

It has been 23 years since the 1989 Revolutions broke out in Eastern Europe (and China's failed uprising; the Soviet Union's dissolution followed two years later) and the time is ripe for more reflective studies regarding the formation of "the satellite nations" of post-World War II Eastern Europe.  There have been a relative dearth of histories on the formation of the communist regimes of the 1945-1948 period, which is a shame, considering how important this era is for understanding not just the successful 1989-1991 revolutions, but also the unsuccessful ones of 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1981.  Journalist Anne Applebaum's National Book Award-nominated Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-1956 provides an extra primer for those who want to learn of the haphazard and often self-conflicting fashion in which communists rose to power in parts of Eastern Europe.

Although communist regimes sprung up over the 1945-1948 period all across Eastern Europe (with the notable exceptions of Greece – which managed to stave off a communist-led civil war after the end of World War II – and Turkey), Applebaum has chosen, minus asides, to limit the focus of her history to three countries:  East Germany, Poland, and Hungary.  In her introduction, she notes that she chose these three not because of their similarities, but because of their very different histories leading up to their communist takeovers and the subsequent approach that the governments there took toward internal and external protest, as well as their divergent leadership styles.  Certainly there are questions regarding this approach.  Are these three nations emblematic of the different politburos that controlled the other communist regimes?  Or could it be argued that each of the eight "satellites" differed too significantly for only three of the eight to be considered at length in a single history?

Applebaum does not come out and say it, but I suspect part of the reason why she focuses on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary is that she is more familiar with the three (and had more available sources, including interview subjects) than she is with the other nations.  It is a shame, because it would have been interesting to read more on her take of Tito's early break with the Soviet Union, which she discusses briefly at a few points in regards to the actions of the leadership in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary (another view of this split is presented within John Lewis Gaddis's 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography of Cold War American diplomat George F. Kennan, George F. Kennan:  An American Life).  This 1948 split, predicated on a more "national" form of communism in Yugoslavia (cruelly ironic, considering the events of the past 21 years), could be viewed as a precursor to the later events that Applebaum covers, particularly the 1956 Hungarian uprising.  Yet this noticeable lack of coverage is perhaps the weakest element in a book that otherwise provides a good blueprint for other histories of the time/region to consider.

Iron Curtain is divided into thematic chapters, with the responses of the East German, Polish, and Hungarian governments covered within.  There are two roughly chronological parts, "False Dawn" and "High Stalinism," within are found chapters with labels such as "Victors," "Violence," Ethnic Cleansing," "Youth," "Reactionary Enemies," "Internal Enemies," and so forth.  A key early chapter would be the one on Violence, which argues that from the very beginning of the Soviet occupation of the former Nazi territories, that the communists' goals originated in their use of violence.  While the indiscriminate decimation that was a hallmark of the Red Army's push westward in 1944-1945 was abandoned after the war in favor of highly-targeted forms of political violence (police crackdowns on demonstrations, arrests at night, show trials, prison camps, and the occasional execution announced to the public), much of Applebaum's subsequent arguments about the problems that the communist regimes perceived centered around elements of violence, whether it be the ways that others sought to protest against them and their responses to them.  While a theorist might have attempted to tie this into Marxist notions of power relationships, Applebaum concentrates more on the personal reactions to communism, including the collaborationist and passive resistance models that archbishops in Poland and Hungary used to blunt or oppose government power.

This focus on selected individuals, both the communist leaders as well as the opposition leaders, makes for an excellent political mass biography.  However, as a history it feels somewhat incomplete in regards to structures.  Of course, this complaint is more the expression of desire that Applebaum had gone further and deeper into exploring the relationships of the regimes with each other, the Soviet Union, and ultimately how the peoples in these three countries (and the other satellite countries) than an argument that her survey of the responses that the East German, Polish, and Hungarian governments had during the crucial 1945-1956 era of political transformation is poorly-written or presented.  Iron Curtain is a solid, occasionally excellent historical survey of how the communist takeovers of 1945-1948 affected the peoples of three Central/Eastern European countries.  Compared to the other National Book Award nominees in Non-Fiction, it is very good, but the few omissions and lack of further development that I noted above make it just slightly less than the best in that category.

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