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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
by Anne Applebaum
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Reviewed by: Paul Markowitz

The Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe from the end of WWII until the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1989. However, after the death of Stalin in 1953 a series of rebellions would strain the cohesiveness of the countries in this political pact. What Anne Applebaum has accomplished in Iron Curtain, this well-researched and beautifully written history, is to explain the how and why the Soviet Union was able to utterly crush Eastern Europe and so masterfully dominant it from 1944-1956.

Since the Baby Boom generation grew up with the specter of Communism looming over them on a daily basis, this history is both immediate and pertinent of much of our citizenry. And since the techniques used by the Soviet Union have been and could well be adopted by some future power, the lessons learned from reading this history could be of great significance to the rest of us.

Hannah Arendt, the eminent political theorist, best defined totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union. She declared that they shared five things in common; a dominate ideology, a single ruling party, a secret police force prepared to use torture, a monopoly on information, and a planned economy. Applebaum uses these elements to show in detail how the Soviet Union was able to impact and ultimately control those aspects specifically focusing on Hungary, Poland and East Germany. She chose these three countries because their histories were so decidedly different yet the outcome remained largely the same.

Initially the Communists let things occur naturally believing the inevitability of their political and economic theories, but as things began to stray from their predicted course, the iron fist of Stalin began to be felt. The second half of the book describes the various techniques--the arrests, the labor camps, the control over media, the crack down on intellectuals and artists--that began to be widely instituted over much of Eastern Europe. Thus the story of The Polish Women's League, for instance, becomes a fascinating and instructive morality tale.

Applebaum believes that this cruel experiment was bound to fail in that Communist ideology and Marxism contained the seeds of their own destruction. Government claims to legitimacy were based on the promise of future prosperity and high living standards that were guaranteed by Marxism. As time went on the comparisons with Western Europe were increasingly apparent and were ultimately the death knell for this experiment gone awry.

This history is a valuable contribution to the story of the Cold War, but it has a more universal importance in addition. It gives us great insight into the totalitarian mindset, it tells us what the Soviets priorities were and what they were thinking. But maybe most importantly it tells us how humans react to the imposition of totalitarianism and sadly how fragile civilization can be. We should always remember the words of George Santayana, those that forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

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