IRON CURTAIN by Anne Applebaum
“This book is dedicated to those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.”
History of World War II during my academic years has always been compiled of how the war began, who where the enemies and allies, and how the West saved the world,—forget colonization, forget imperialism, forget the East, forget the rise of Communism—fast forward and now we’re on the Cold War. When the West abandoned the East—the Western betrayal, as they call it—at the hands of the Soviet Regime, Communism took over. A silent and deadly enemy that at first gave the East hope given that the Nazis had already destroyed half of their worlds, but quickly became their new threat to freedom.
“The people of the region were not faced with a blank slate in 1944 or 1945, after all, and they were not themselves starting from scratch. Nor did they emerge from nowhere, with no previous experiences, ready to start fresh. Instead, they climbed out of the basements of their destroyed homes, or walked out of the forest where they had been living as partisans, or slipped away from the labor camp where they had been imprisoned, if they were healthy enough, and embark upon long, complicated journeys back to their homelands.”
This book not only covers the political events of the time, but also the cultural influences of the media on the Eastern cultures (specific portions of the book dedicates itself to explaining how the Soviet regime tried to censor radical movements of freedom of expression pouring from the West). The consistent ban over the idea of freedom of expression is something, if you look close enough, is still a tactic utilized by many Middle-eastern totalitarian regimes today. History, as they say, repeats itself.
A massive advantage I had whilst reading this book was that I already knew a lot of material Applebaum covers in this book. In fact, my sole interest in this book was due to having studied Eastern European countries my third year of University and being completely amazed at how much Western Europe dominated my history textbooks.
Applebaum focuses on Hungary, Germany, and Poland specifically in this book and while I wished we get more from other regions of the East, I was amazed at the density of the history. Eastern Europe is an area more diverse then the West so while I was happy to read German and Polish history (both of these I would consider Western nations), I also wanted to hear from the Eastern/Central countries (ex. Serbia, Croatia, etc.) where a lot more tensions remain today because of what happened 60+ years ago. Both in terms of how the West made bad decisions on behalf of people they knew nothing about but also how they were abandoned after the “victory” of WWII, I wanted to enlighten myself with the perspective of the other side of the world.
I loved that not only is Applebaum thorough in her research but also privately blunt about what happened after WWII ended. She frequently quotes the average person observing the changes in history and not only are many of these words razor-sharp and chilling, but her own observations of listening to these accounts are eye-opening. Of course I knew of the brutality that Communism opposed on it’s neighboring nations, but to hear about how people coped in this barbaric environment was frankly too much at times.
For instance, in “Ideal Cities,” Applebaum quotes Ryszard Kapuściński—a writer himself—going to observe a neighbor on behalf of his newspaper(Sztandar Młodych):
“Not long ago, a fourteen-year-old girl infected an army of boys [with venereal disease]. When we met her, she described her achievement with such vulgarity that we wanted to vomit. She isn’t alone. Not all of them are so young, but there are many. Go to the Mogilski forest, to “Tajwan,” to “Kozedo” [names of pubs]…In Nowa Huta there are apartments where in one room the mother takes money from men, and in the other the daughter makes it up to them. There is more than one such apartment…
And now look at the life of a young man here in the factory. He gets up early, he goes to work. He comes back at three. That’s it. At three, his day ends. I’ve walked around the dorms where such men lived. I’ve looked inside: they are sitting. Actually that’s the only activity they do. They don’t talk, what is there to talk about? They could read, but they aren’t used to it; they could sing, but that would bother others; they could fight, but they don’t want to. They just—sit. The more active wander around the streets. Hell, maybe there is somewhere to go[…]”
The author generally writes in a reader-friendly style but it definitely will not read as easy as fiction. Take notes. Highlight. If you don’t like to do either in your copies, buy another copy. Don’t just “wing it,” because the history narrated here is incredibly important.
On a final note, I think the book also ends on an incredibly powerful Epilogue:
Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how that was destroyed in the first place: how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated. They need to know particular details, not general theories, and they need to hear individuals stories, not generalizations about the masses. They need a better grasp of what motivated these predecessors, to see them as real people and not as black-and-white characters, victims, or villains. Only then is it possible, slowly, to rebuild.
Rating – ★★★★★