From the Publisher
Praise for Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain
“Applebaum shines light into forgotten worlds of human hope, suffering and dignity. . . . One of the most compelling but also serious works on Europe’s past to appear in recent memory. . . . With extraordinary gifts for bringing distant, often exotic worlds to life, Applebaum tells us that Sovietization was never simply about political institutions or social structures.”
—The Washington Post
“Remarkable . . . a book that reanimates a world that was largely hidden from Western eyes, and that many people who lived and suffered in it would prefer to forget.”
—The New Yorker
“Epic but intimate history . . . [Applebaum] eloquently illuminates the methods by which Stalin’s state imprisoned half the European continent. . . . Applebaum offers us windows into the lives of the men and sometimes women who constructed the police states of Eastern Europe. She gives us a glimpse of those who resisted. But she also gives us a harrowing portrait of the rest—the majority of Eastern Europe’s population, who, having been caught up in the continent’s conflicts time and time again, now found themselves pawns in a global one.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Iron Curtain is a superb, revisionistic, brilliantly perceptive, often witty, totally gripping history. . . . The book is full of things I didn’t know—but should have.”
—London Evening Standard
“Illuminating. . . . Human beings, as Ms Applebaum rousingly concludes, do not acquire ‘totalitarian personalities’ with ease. Even when they seem bewitched by the cult of the leader or of the party, appearances can deceive, she writes. When it seems as if they buy into the most absurd propaganda—marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right—the spell can suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically be broken.”
“A tragically intimate account of the imposition of communism in Central Europe. Here is a world in which political authorities shut down choral singing societies, bird-watching clubs, anything that might nourish an independent social sphere. The story is told both with artistry and scholarship.”
—David Frum, The Daily Beast, Favorite Books of 2012
“A meticulously researched and riveting account of the totalitarian mind-set and its impact on the citizens of East Germany, Poland and Hungary. . . . Even as it documents the consequences of force, fear and intimidation, however, Iron Curtain also provides evidence of resistance and resilience.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Deeply researched, exciting. . . . A masterful work that will be read profitably by both laymen and scholars. . . . It is the best book on its subject, and will remain so for quite a while.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Disturbing but fascinating history. . . . With precision in her narration and penetrating analysis, Applebaum has written another masterful account of the brutality of Soviet rule.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review, Best Book of 2012
“A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity’s worst can fracture and fall.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review, Best Book of 2012
“Magisterial . . . Anne Applebaum is exceptionally well qualified to tell [this story]. Her deep knowledge of the region, breadth of view and eye for human detail makes this as readable as her last book, on the Gulag.”
—Daily Mail (UK)
“A true masterpiece. . . . Impressive. . . . Applebaum’s description of this remarkable time is everything a good history book should be: brilliantly and comprehensively researched, beautifully and shockingly told, encyclopedic in scope, meticulous in detail. . . . First and foremost of [the book’s achievements] is Applebaum’s ability to take a dense and complex subject, replete with communist acronyms and impenetrable jargon, and make it not only informative but enjoyable—and even occasionally witty.”
—The Telegraph (UK)
“A masterly synthesis in English of recent research by scholars in these countries, and of the range of memoirs by participants and survivors.”
—The Guardian (UK)
“Applebaum’s excellent book tells with sympathy and sensitivity how unlucky Eastern Europe was: to be liberated from the Nazi dictatorship by the only regime that could rival it for inhumanity.”
—The Independent (UK)
“So much effort is spent trying to understand democratization these days, and so little is spent trying to understand the opposite processes. Anne Applebaum corrects that imbalance, explaining how and why societies succumb to totalitarian rule. Iron Curtain is a deeply researched and eloquent description of events which took place not long ago and in places not far away - events which contain many lessons for the present.”
—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World
“Iron Curtain is an exceptionally important book which effectively challenges many of the myths of the origins of the Cold War. It is wise, perceptive, remarkably objective and brilliantly researched.”
—Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad and The Second World War
“This dramatic book gives us, for the first time, the testimony of dozens of men and women who found themselves in the middle of one of the most traumatic periods of European history. Anne Applebaum conveys the impact of politics and ideology on individual lives with extraordinary immediacy.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
“Anne Applebaum’s highly readable book is distinguished by its ability to describe and evoke the personal, human experience of Sovietisation in vivid detail, based on extensive original research and interviews with those who remember.”
—Timothy Garton Ash, author of The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague
The Washington Post
…one of the most compelling but also serious works on Europe's past to appear in recent memory…In her relentless quest for understanding, Applebaum shines light into forgotten worlds of human hope, suffering and dignity. Those who know little of Europe behind the Iron Curtain will find themselves edified; those who know much will learn much more. Others have told us of the politics of this time. Applebaum does that but also shows what politics meant to people's lives, in an era when the state did more to shape individual destinies than at any time in history.
According to this disturbing but fascinating history, the U.S.S.R.’s 1944–1950 subjugation of Eastern Europe was a brutal process. With other priorities in the forefront at Yalta and other wartime Allied summits, FDR gave Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe short shrift, according to Pulitzer Prize–winning author Applebaum (Gulag). In this account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe during and after WWII, Applebaum concentrates on events in Poland, Hungary, and what became East Germany, all of which unroll with depressing sameness. The Soviet army arrived in 1944–1945 with enormous destruction. There followed an orgy of arrests, trials, executions, and deportation of “fascists,” a broad category that included noncommunist anti-Nazi resistance groups. Expulsions of ethnic Germans was also carried out on a mass scale. Faithful Marxists, the Soviet leaders knew that the masses would prefer communism, so they initially allowed political parties, churches, newspapers, and even elections, assuming the people would naturally vote for a proletarian state. When that didn’t happen, democracy was quickly shut down. Applebaum delivers a gripping if unremittingly painful account of the period during which Communists, astonished at losing every election, steadily suppressed civil society, whereupon darkness descended for 40 years. With precision in her narration and penetrating analysis, Applebaum has written another masterful account of the brutality of Soviet rule. Illus., maps. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Nov.)
Slate and Washington Post columnist Applebaum won a Pulitzer for Gulag, so you can bet that a lot of folks will be anticipating her next book. Here she explains how the Soviet Union, suddenly in control of the countries of Eastern Europe after World War II, turned them into communist regimes. Applebaum not only dug into newly opened archives but conducted interviews, which should give this book a personal feel. Exciting!
A Pulitzer Prize–winning author returns with the story of those dark decades in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union slammed the prison doors on people, cultures and countries. Realizing she could not tell the whole story in one volume, Washington Post and Slate columnist Applebaum (Gulag: A History, 2003, etc.) focuses on Poland, East Germany and Hungary and shows how their stories were representative. She begins as World War II was ending. The Russians were plowing through Eastern Europe on their way to Berlin. While many of the Allies were thinking of home, the Soviets had grander and grimmer ideas. Applebaum shows how the communists gained political control of individual countries (they were sometimes surprised in "elections" how unpopular they were), then charts how--in the service of their iron ideology--they systematically destroyed economies, organizations, the arts, education, the press, the judiciary, the church, the entertainment industries and every other social institution. Internment camps and prisons became the true growth industries. Applebaum also explores the tactics employed to keep people in line: fear and intimidation, of course, but also a massive propaganda industry that sought to convince everyone that things were better than they were, but not nearly as good as they would be in five years or so. They invested much hope in education, believing they could indoctrinate an entire generation. It didn't work. Periodically, the author chronicles what was happening in the West (the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift). Beginning with the death of Stalin, Applebaum shows how and why things slowly began to change. The emerging youth culture, the resurgence of religious belief, the rise of a new generation of writers and artists--these were among the factors that energized the 1956 uprisings, which, of course, the Soviets temporarily crushed. A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity's worst can fracture and fall.
The New York Times Book Review
Having brilliantly documented the horror of Stalin's Soviet terror machine in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, Anne Applebaum now offers…Iron Curtain, about the brutal effort of that same machine to crush and colonize Eastern Europe in the first decade after World War II. Her evidence, once again drawn from archival research and some survivor interviews, is overwhelming and convincing.
Read an Excerpt
The mad orgy of ruins, entangled wires, twisted corpses, dead horses, overturned parts of blown-up bridges, bloody hoofs which had been torn off horses, broken guns, scattered ammunition, chamber pots, rusted washbasins, pieces of straw and entrails of horses floating in muddy pools mixed with blood, cameras, wrecked cars and tank parts: They all bear witness to the awful suffering of a city . . .
—Tamás Lossonczy, Budapest, 1945
How can one find words to convey truthfully and accurately the picture of a great capital destroyed almost beyond recognition; of a once almighty nation that ceased to exist; of a conquering people who were so brutally arrogant and so blindingly sure of their mission as a master race . . . whom you now see poking about their ruins, broken, dazed, shivering, hungry human beings without will or purpose or direction.
—William Shirer, Berlin, 1945
It seemed to me that I was walking on corpses, that at any moment I would step into a pool of blood.
—Janina Godycka-Cwirko, Warsaw, 1945
Explosions echoed throughout the night, and artillery fire could be heard throughout the day. Across Eastern Europe, the noise of falling bombs, rattling machine guns, rolling tanks, churning engines, and burning buildings heralded the approach of the Red Army. As the front line drew closer, the ground shook, the walls shivered, the children screamed. And then it stopped.
The end of the war, wherever and whenever it came, brought with it an abrupt and eerie silence. “The night was far too quiet,” wrote one anonymous chronicler of the war’s end in Berlin. On the morning of April 27, 1945, she went out of her front door and saw no one: “Not a civilian in sight. The Russians have the streets entirely to themselves. But under every building people are whispering, quaking. Who could ever imagine such a world, hidden here, so frightened, right in the middle of the big city?”
On the morning of February 12, 1945, the day the siege of the city came to an end, a Hungarian civil servant heard the same silence on the streets of Budapest. “I got to the Castle District, not a soul anywhere. I walked along Werbõczy Street. Nothing but bodies and ruins, supply carts, and drays . . . I got to Szentháromság Square and decided to look in at the Council in case I found somebody there. Deserted. Everything turned upside down and not a soul . . .”
Even Warsaw, a city already destroyed by the time the war ended—the Nazi occupiers had razed it to the ground following the uprising in the autumn—grew silent when the German army finally retreated on January 16, 1945. W³adys³aw Szpilman, one of a tiny handful of people hiding in the ruins of the city, heard the change. “Silence fell,” he wrote in his memoir, The Pianist, “a silence such as even Warsaw, a dead city for the last three months, had not known before. I could not even hear the steps of the guards outside the building. I couldn’t understand it.” The following morning, the silence was broken by a “loud and resonant noise, the last sound I expected”: the Red Army had arrived, and loudspeakers were broadcasting, in Polish, the news of the liberation of the city.
This was the moment sometimes called zero hour, Stunde Null: the end of the war, the retreat of Germany, the arrival of the Soviet Union, the moment the fighting ended and life started up again. Most histories of the communist takeover of Eastern Europe begin at precisely this moment, and logically so. To those who lived through this change of power, zero hour felt like a turning point: something very concrete came to an end, and something very new began. From now on, many people said to themselves, everything would be different. And it was.
Yet although it is logical to begin any history of the communist takeover in Eastern Europe with the end of the war, it is in some ways deeply misleading. 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 afresh. Instead, they climbed out of the basements of their destroyed homes, or walked out of the forests 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 embarked upon long, complicated journeys back to their homelands. Not all of them even stopped fighting when the Germans surrendered.
As they crawled out of the ruins, they saw not virgin territory but destruction. “The war ended the way a passage through a tunnel ends,” wrote the Czech memoirist Heda Kovály. “From far away you could see the light ahead, a gleam that kept growing, and its brilliance seemed ever more dazzling to you huddled there in the dark the longer it took to reach it. But when at last the train burst out in the glorious sunshine, all you saw was a wasteland full of weeds and stones, and a heap of garbage.”
Photographs from across Eastern Europe at that time show scenes from an apocalypse. Flattened cities, acres of rubble, burned villages, and smoking, charred ruins where houses used to be. Tangles of barbed wire, the remains of concentration camps, labor camps, POW camps; barren fields, pockmarked by tank tracks, with no sign of farming, husbandry, or life of any kind. In the recently destroyed cities, the air was suffused with the smell of corpses. “The descriptions I’ve read always use the phrase ‘sweetish odour,’ but that’s far too vague, completely inadequate,” wrote one German survivor. “The fumes are not so much an odour as something firmer, something thicker, a soupy vapor that collects in front of your face and nostrils, too mouldy and thick to breathe. It beats you back as if with fists.”
Provisional burial sites were everywhere, and people walked through the streets gingerly, as if traversing a cemetery. In due course exhumations began, as bodies were removed from courtyards and city parks to mass graves. Funerals and reburial ceremonies were frequent, though in Warsaw one was famously interrupted. In the summer of 1945, a funeral march was slowly wending its way through Warsaw when the black-clad mourners saw an extraordinary sight: “A living, red Warsaw tram,” the first to run through the city since the war’s end. “The pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped, others ran alongside the tram clapping and cheering loudly. Extraordinarily, the funeral march stopped too, the mourners accompanying the dead, captivated by the general mood, turned to the tram and began to clap too.”
This too was typical. At times a weird euphoria seemed to grip the survivors. It was a relief to be alive; sorrow was mixed with joy, and commerce, trade, and reconstruction began immediately, spontaneously. Warsaw in the summer of 1945 was a bustling hive of activity, Stefan Kisielewski wrote: “In the ruins of the streets, there’s commotion like never before. Trade—buzzing. Work—booming. Humor—everywhere. The mob, teeming life, flows through the streets, nobody would think that these are all victims of a massive disaster, people who have scarcely recovered from a catastrophe, or that they are living in extreme, inhuman conditions . . .” Sándor Márai described Budapest in one of his novels at this same period:
Whatever remained of the city, of society, sprang to life with such passion, fury, and sheer willpower, with such strength and stamina and cunning, it seemed as if nothing had happened . . . out on the boulevard there were suddenly stalls in gateways, selling all kinds of nice food and luxury items: clothes, shoes, everything you could imagine, not to mention gold napoleons, morphine, and pork lard. The Jews who remained staggered from their yellow star houses and within a week or two you could see them bargaining, surrounded as they were by the corpses of men and horses . . . People were quibbling over prices for warm British cloth, French perfumes, Dutch brandy, and Swiss watches among the rubble . . .
This enthusiasm for work and renewal would last for many years. The British sociologist Arthur Marwick once speculated that the experience of national failure might have given the West Germans an incentive to rebuild, to regain a sense of national pride. The very scale of the national collapse, he argued, might have helped contribute to the postwar boom: having experienced economic and personal catastrophe, Germans readily threw themselves into reconstruction.14 But Germany, both East and West, was not alone in this drive to recover and to become “normal” again. Over and over, Poles and Hungarians in memoirs and conversations about the postwar period speak of how desperately they sought education, ordinary work, a life without constant violence and disruption. The communist parties were perfectly poised to take advantage of these yearnings for peace.
In any case, damage to property was easier to repair than the demographic damage in Eastern Europe, where the scale of violence had been higher than anything known on the western half of the continent. During the war, Eastern Europe had experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. By 1945, most of the territory between Poznañ in the west and Smolensk in the east had been occupied not once but twice, or even three times. Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Hitler had invaded the region from the west, occupying western Poland. Stalin had invaded from the east, occupying eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and Bessarabia. In 1941, Hitler once again invaded these same territories from the west. In 1943, the tide turned again and the Red Army marched back through the same region once more, coming from the east.
By 1945, in other words, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of not one but two totalitarian states had marched back and forth across the region, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. To take one example, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów; it was no longer in eastern Poland but in the western part of Soviet Ukraine; and its Polish and Jewish prewar population had been murdered or deported and replaced by ethnic Ukrainians from the surrounding countryside.
Eastern Europe, along with Ukraine and the Baltic States, was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe. “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow,” writes Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, the definitive history of the mass killing of this period, “but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between.”15 Stalin and Hitler shared contempt for the very notion of national sovereignty for any of the nations of Eastern Europe, and they jointly strove to eliminate their elites. The Germans considered Slavs to be subhumans, ranked not much higher than Jews, and in the lands between Sachsenhausen and Babi Yar they thought nothing of ordering arbitrary street killings, mass public executions, or the burning of whole villages in revenge for one dead Nazi. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, considered its western neighbors to be capitalist and anti-Soviet strongholds whose very existence posed a challenge to the USSR. In 1939, and again in 1944 and 1945, the Red Army and the NKVD would arrest not only Nazis and collaborators in their newly conquered territories but anyone who might theoretically oppose Soviet administration: social democrats, antifascists, businessmen, bankers, and merchants—often the same people targeted by the Nazis. Although there were civilian casualties in Western Europe, as well as incidents of theft, misbehavior, and abuse perpetrated by the British and American armies, for the most part the Anglo-Saxon troops were trying to kill Nazis, not potential leaders of the liberated nations. And, for the most part, they treated the resistance leaders with respect and not suspicion.
The East is also where the Nazis had most vigorously pursued the Holocaust, where they set up the vast majority of ghettoes, concentration camps, and killing fields. Snyder notes that Jews accounted for less than 1 percent of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and many of those managed to flee. Hitler’s vision of a “Jew-free” Europe could only be realized when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, and eventually Hungary and the Balkans, which is where most of the Jews of Europe actually lived. Of the 5.4 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, the vast majority were from Eastern Europe. Most of the rest were taken to the region to be murdered. The scorn the Nazis held for all Eastern Europeans was closely related to their decision to take the Jews from all over Europe to the East for execution. There, in a land of subhumans, it was possible to do inhuman things.
Above all, Eastern Europe is where Nazism and Soviet communism clashed. Although they began the war as allies, Hitler had always wanted to fight a war of destruction against the USSR, and after Hitler’s invasion Stalin promised the same. The battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were therefore fiercer and bloodier in the east than those that took place further west. German soldiers truly feared the Bolshevik “hordes,” about whom they had heard many terrible stories, and toward the end of the war they fought them with particular desperation. Their scorn for civilians was especially profound, respect for local culture and infrastructure nonexistent. A German general defied Hitler’s orders and left Paris standing out of sentimental respect for the city, but other German generals burned Warsaw to the ground and destroyed much of Budapest without thinking about it. Western air forces were not especially concerned about the ancient architecture of this region either: Allied bombers contributed to the toll of death and destruction too, conducting aerial bombardment not only of Berlin and Dresden but also of Danzig and Königsberg, Gdañsk and Kaliniñgrad—among many other places.
As the eastern front moved into Germany itself, fighting only intensified. The Red Army focused on its drive to Berlin with something approaching obsession. From early on in the war, Soviet soldiers bade farewell to one another with the cry, “See you in Berlin.” Stalin was desperate to reach the city before the other Allies got there. His commanders understood this, and so did their American counterparts. General Eisenhower, knowing full well that the Germans would fight to the death in Berlin, wanted to save American lives and decided to let Stalin take the city. Churchill argued against this policy: “If they [the Russians] . . . take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” But the American general’s caution won out, and the Americans and British advanced slowly to the east—General George C. Marshall having once declared he would be “loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes,” and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke arguing that “the advance into the country really had to coincide to a certain extent with what our final boundaries would be.”18 Meanwhile, the Red Army charged directly toward the German capital, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.