18.3.14

Anne Applebaum - Iron Curtain

Rating 7.4

First things first. The title of the latest book by Anne Applebaum is slightly misleading. Iron Curtain - it reads - The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.

Very well, then. Be prepared to walk hand in hand with Mrs Applebaum to former East Germany, Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Save that you won't.

Anne Applebaum's Eastern Europe has interesting and somewhat limited borders. The American journalist focuses her book on only three countries: East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. The reason why Applebaum feared to tread on Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are not explained here. And that's a pity.

Given that the author is such a brilliant historian and an engaging (hi)storyteller who does know something on Soviet Union and the nations formerly grouped under the 'Iron Curtain' label, the omission of three countries is a puzzle.
I reckon how including thirteen years of political and cultural vicissitudes of the aforementioned troika would have doubled the size of this 613 paged book, but still.

Having said that, Iron Curtain is in many ways another significant accomplishment by Mrs Applebaum handling three nations which shared a good deal of things between 1944 and 1956 falling under the influence of Moscow.
The book is divided into two parts titled False Dawn (1944-1947) and High Stalinism (1948-1956) and subdivided into eighteen chapters. Each chapter delves into a specific aspect of social, cultural, and political life in East Germany, Poland and Hungary finding differences and similarities.

No matter Bierut and his footmen, the Polish jazz scene kept going 
Personally, I've found the first part more interesting than the second one chiefly thanks to the compelling depictions of life in Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest inbetween the end of World War II and the establishment of new Communist-led governments by means of Soviet interference. Those where the brief chaotic but dynamic years when Eastern Germans, Poles and Hungarians had hope and creativity soon to be crushed by disillusion and uniformity.

Mrs Applebaum is certainly a strong backer of economic liberalism and cultural diversity and she might be accused of being partial to some of the topics she writes about (the YMCA, scoutism), but nobody could ever accuse her of not knowing how to make her own research. And it's from an effective mix of documents, interviews and quotes from authors (Gyorgy Faludy, Arthur Koestler, Tadeusz Konwicki, William Shirer, Leopold Tyrmand) who lived and witnessed the period that comes out a brilliant book.

The romantic side of socialism staring in proud awe at the Iron Works in Sztalinvaros
The problem here is that some chapters of High Stalinism read more like a chronicle of the local Communist parties' feuds in a blooming of cadres and apparatchiks which I couldn't always follow as I wanted. Nevertheless,  Ideal Cities - one of the chapters in the second part of the book - is particularly good by comparing the unfulfilled utopias behind the construction of three new socialist towns: Nowa Huta (Poland), Stalinstadt (East Germany) and Sztalinvaros (Hungary).

Where the American journalist shines and excels is in writing about Poland, but this doesn't mean that the East Germany as well as the Hungary bits here are not well-crafted. It's just that Mrs Applebaum (who has just become a Polish citizen) must have had access to more personal first hand accounts on the Polish side and it shows.

Peeping at a scale model of Nowa Huta must have been so exciting
What I missed here is more contextualization on the situation of the USSR between 1944-1956. This aspect would have been particularly important in order to understand why the Soviet Union played such a role in determining the political, cultural and social life of three sovereign states which were treated by Moscow as three satellites (an extremely topical subject, I reckon).

What I liked is how Mrs Applebaum went behind the curtains of the Iron Curtain casting a spotlight on the peculiar rise of puppets and puppeteers such as Bierut, Ulbricht, and Rakosi who embodied the apparent banality of power in those postwar years.  

Good stuff, then. And yet, to be honest with you, Iron Curtain turned out to be not as engaging a book as I expected. Still, I learned a lot and will go back to these pages for further references in the future.

In praise of the dear leader Rakosi Matyas

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