Writing from the multiple vantage points of individuals across Eastern Europe rather than the perspective of governments and political leaders, Anne Applebaum sheds long overdue light on the devastation experienced across the region after World War II in “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956” (Doubleday).
Traditional accounts don’t misunderstand this history. It’s well known how brutal and destructive Stalinism was. But Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for “Gulag: A History,” studied newly public archives and interviewed more than 80 survivors; she also read numerous diaries and personal accounts of the decade following the division of Europe. Her resulting account — centered on East Germany, Poland and Hungary — is singularly detailed, compelling and graphic.
By paying meticulous attention to individual experience, Applebaum offers a unique window into the mechanics of Stalinism’s spread — and how little it had to do with ideology and how much with self-preservation amid economic disruption, geographic dislocation and simple terror. She drills way down to offer multiple, highly tangible views of well-known events, but also to record the massacre of a family and to show why collaborators might live in denial or how a particularly promising grassroots youth group was erased. And her writing is evocative and dense with detail but dispassionate and highly organized.
Applebaum focuses each chapter on one aspect of personal, social or political life: policing, economics, ethnicity, youth, art and entertainment, and so on. She offers new and revealing nuance about apparatchiks’ personalities and motivations, as well as the responses of everyday citizens. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this last-minute project — most of Applebaum’s interviewees were in their 80s and older, and she says several soon died. But readers may feel swamped by the wealth of detail: It might have been easier to assimilate this much information if it were presented with more variety, with an occasional step back to explore ironies like the stark contrast between Stalinists’ dedication to securing ever more power and their naive faith in economic plans that absolutely everyone knew were based on fabricated statistics.
It is abundantly clear how Stalinism dominated reason, culture and even personal action across Eastern Europe. Applebaum’s central thesis is clear: that Stalinism spread because Josef Stalin allowed only those who did exactly as he dictated to succeed — not because regional politicians believed in it or even because they were particularly good leaders. Often, they were not even charismatic. But their devotion to Stalin made them extremely effective.