Reviews — From the February 2013 issue

Red States

The Soviet Attempt to Export Communism

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Discussed in this essay:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum. Doubleday. 608 pages. $35.

One of the twentieth century’s most significant innovations was the concept of world war, and it managed to stage not one but two, as if the first weren’t good enough and had to be perfected. Figures for the death toll in these wars vary widely, but whereas World War I (“the war to end all wars”) notched up something like 20 million deaths, World War II (“the greatest man-made disaster in history,” according to Antony Beevor in his new book, The Second World War) did much better, with 60–70 million deaths. After this Armageddon, Europeans longed for a permanent peace and a chance to recuperate; Western Europe for the most part got both. The eastern half of the continent, however, was forcibly separated from the western half by the forces of the Red Army, who arrived as liberators and stayed as occupiers. Cut off by a military shield that came to be known as the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe was subjected to a raft of both violent and peaceful operations designed to transform the countries of the region into model communist states. This war by other means led to another twentieth-century innovation, the Cold War, and is the subject of Anne Applebaum’s impressive new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956.

Was the eastern half of Europe “sacrificed to the Stalinist maw to save the other half,” as Beevor puts it? Western leaders claimed surprise at Soviet tactics, but they knew much more about the impending changes than they were prepared to reveal. At the Tehran and Yalta conferences of the “Big Three” held in 1943 and 1945 to plan a postwar settlement, Britain and the United States had colluded in this division of the continent. True, Roosevelt and Churchill had extracted from Stalin promises for democratic elections, but Stalin’s idea of democracy was managed democracy, and the results of his planned elections would be determined in advance. The ailing Roosevelt may not have fully realized the implications of the settlement, preoccupied as he was with the continuing war in Asia and with getting the United Nations off the ground. Churchill (who coined the term “Iron Curtain”) certainly did realize — and regret — what was happening, but, all too aware of British and French weakness after the war, he accepted that there was little the West could do short of fighting another war.

The enormity of this sudden loss of half a continent was overlooked at the time by the Western public, whose capacity for horror had been consumed by the newly discovered atrocities of the Holocaust and the scorched-earth policies of the war. The idea that so recent an ally in the struggle to overcome the evil of fascism could so quickly turn into an aggressor and enemy was hard to grasp — especially in Europe, where there was popular disgust with the appeasement policies of prewar governments and, shaped by the rise of the left, widespread sympathy for such progressive ideals as class equality, the creation of a welfare state, and nationalization of the economy. The British Labour Party had won power in 1945; the French Communist Party was the strongest political force in that country.

Meanwhile, Soviet forces lost little time importing key elements of the Soviet system into each of the eight nations they occupied, many of which fiercely resisted the new order. Local communist parties backed by Moscow regularly lost elections in the first two years after the war, and though there were violent revolts well into the 1950s, the Soviets and their collaborators eventually prevailed by force of arms. Hannah Arendt, one of the foremost theorists of totalitarianism, remarked that “it was as though the Russian rulers repeated in great haste all the stages of the October Revolution up to the emergence of totalitarian dictatorship.” She concluded that the story of the Eastern European countries, “while unspeakably terrible, is without much interest of its own and varies very little.”

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is the author of Solzhenitsyn: A Biography and Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic.

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