Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

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In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen ...

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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

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In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union to its surprise and delight found itself in control of a huge swath of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to Communism, a completely new political and moral system. In Iron Curtain, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. She draws on newly opened East European archives, interviews, and personal accounts translated for the first time to portray in devastating detail the dilemmas faced by millions of individuals trying to adjust to a way of life that challenged their every belief and took away everything they had accumulated. Today the Soviet Bloc is a lost civilization, one whose cruelty, paranoia, bizarre morality, and strange aesthetics Applebaum captures in the electrifying pages of Iron Curtain.

2012 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Anne Applebaum (Gulag; Between East and West) zeroes in on what could be the most neglected story of the Cold War: The brutal subjugation of Eastern Europe by Stalinist Russia. Rendered with the drama and detail that make her works so fascinating and authoritative, Iron Curtain is a rare treat for serious readers.

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.
—John Connelly
Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
Praise for IRON CURTAIN:

“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.”
Washington Post

“In this epic but intimate history, Ms. 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.”
Wall Street Journal

“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….Iron Curtain gives us some idea of what it was like to be trapped in the Soviet experiment, to be a witness to the demolition and reconstruction of one’s environment.”
—Louis Menand, The New Yorker

“Bracing, important…Applebaum is unafraid of complexity; she traffics in exceptions. She names names.…Iron Curtain is essential reading.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Illuminating…Human beings, as Ms Applebaum rousingly concludes, do not acquire ‘totalitarian personalities’ with ease.”
The Economist

"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
Iron Curtain is a superb, revisionistic, brilliantly perceptive, often witty, totally gripping history, filled with colorful character sketches of Stalinist monsters, based on Soviet and local archives, on hundreds of interviews with survivors, and on the widest reading, that tells the dramatic, unknown and terrifying story of the Stalinization of eastern Europe….The book is full of things I didn’t know — but should have.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, London Evening Standard
“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.”
—Orlando Figes, Daily Mail

"The Communist takeover of Central and Eastern Europe has waited a lifetime for its historian. A tenacious researcher, an eloquent writer, but above all a passionate—and compassionate—judge of the human condition, Anne Applebaum has written a masterly account. It is a timely reminder of how swiftly liberation can be turned into slavery."
—Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money

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

"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
“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 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.
—Max Frankel
Kirkus Reviews
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.
Library Journal
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!
The Barnes & Noble Review
Imagine yourself at a summer soccer game. The day is fine, the play is lively, and 20,000 fans cheer alongside you. Halftime arrives. Instead of a marching band or cheerleaders, a handful of politicians takes the field. In stiff, bureaucratic language, they urge all present to vote in tomorrow's three-part referendum on parliamentary reform, the nationalization of industry, and changes to the country's borders. They say that voting is every citizen's patriotic duty, imply that there is only one correct answer — "three times yes!" — and hint that they will know how each person casts his ballot. The crowd, bored by the jargon and angry that the game has been co-opted by hacks, begins to jeer.

This scenario played out in Poland on June 29, 1946. The politicians were members of the country's Communist Party, acting at Moscow's direction. The referendum was an important test of their new puppet government. But party leaders were forced to falsify the following day's results to show victory: recently unsealed archives show that only a quarter of the population voted "three times yes," while the rest rejected at least one of the referendum questions, dealing a major blow to Moscow. Having learned its lesson, the Party used a different approach six months later in a Polish parliamentary election. State security arrested the leadership of the opposition party, struck its candidates from the ballot, falsely reported that the opposition leader had been killed in a plane crash, and sent armed guards to march citizens to polling places and ensure that they voted correctly. This time, 80 percent of voters cast their ballots for the Party's bloc of candidates.

The 1946 Polish referendum plays a pivotal role in Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956. Through this and similar defeats in the 1940s, the Soviet Union and its proxy regimes learned to their horror that they were not popular. Applebaum writes that Moscow and the local parties had genuinely thought they would win elections: the undeniable historical laws of Marxism would persuade the public and give Soviet communism a mandate in Europe. But Poland was not the only setback: the Communist parties in Hungary and East Germany also lost thumpingly in 1945. And elections were not the only means for citizens to register discontent. Minor rebellions like one's choice of music, clothes, and social associations became subversive political acts for those citizens disinclined to risk open defiance: Applebaum writes that "by trying to control every aspect of society, the regimes had turned every aspect of society into a potential form of protest."

Many studies of Eastern Europe under communism dwell on the years after 1947: the time of the Cold War, "high Stalinism," purges, show trials, and vicious repression. But Applebaum devotes fully half of her outstanding book to the immediate postwar years, when the Iron Curtain was still descending and had not yet touched rubble. She reminds us that the Soviets first occupied the Baltic countries, as well as parts of Poland, Romania, and Finland, in 1939 and simply declined to return them. Applebaum contends that the Soviets did not seize Eastern Europe in response to the West or the Cold War; they were imperialists revealing the rotten core of communist ideology. The word totalitarian, Applebaum writes, "has lost its capacity to shock." But as she painstakingly demonstrates in her outraged yet scholarly work — both Iron Curtain and its predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag (2003) — totalitarianism in action remains shocking.

The Soviets stayed behind the scenes in Eastern Europe during the early postwar years. Applebaum writes:
Stalin's initial policy was to tread softly, not to upset the Allies, and to win people over by persuasion or stealth. This is why free elections were held in Hungary, why some independent political parties were tolerated elsewhere, and why, as late as 1948, Stalin told the East German communists to follow an "opportunistic policy" which would entail "moving toward socialism not directly but in zigzags and a roundabout way."
Guided by Soviet advisers, local party leaders tried to co-opt political and cultural institutions like scouting groups, social democratic parties, and youth organizations. When this failed, the party banned those groups and imprisoned their members. The party also targeted the media. Applebaum quotes a hopeful East German apparatchik who justified an early (and temporary) decision to allow a free exchange of views on the radio: this would "provide a mirror for the masses in an interim period, while they were developing a democratic understanding." But this type of leniency ended when electoral losses and Stalin's growing paranoia sparked an increase in the pace of "reform." As propaganda began replacing classical music on the radio, listeners tuned out. One wrote in a letter to the editor in 1947: "Dear Radio, you have slowly started to become boring."

The Stalinization of Eastern Europe featured scenes straight out of Orwell. Members of the Catholic Church in Hungary who refused to sign an ominous "peace petition" were branded warmongers. Secret police forces appeared, searching out enemies, and local parties repurposed Nazi concentration camps in emulation of the Gulag. Communists rewrote textbooks and scrubbed a beloved children's story by changing lines about a child looking out over Warsaw and seeing the spire of a church; the new version had him observing "the Palace of Culture, a towering monument to Stalin." Socialist realism infected and stultified the arts, producing banal murals and wooden films. Meanwhile, the promises of Marxism never materialized, and economic growth trickled. Bosses drove workers to meet production quotas, causing them to sacrifice quality for quantity, and nationalizations were met with labor unrest. Black markets flourished. Dissenters were shot.

The tragedy of the era that Applebaum captures so well is that the collapse of a monstrous system bent on self-destruction seemed inevitable — but was still decades away. Stalin's death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing him heralded change; but when change came too quickly, in the form of riots in Berlin in 1953 and revolution in Budapest in 1956, the Party crushed it. Decades of grim industrial repression lay ahead. These harsh years are often lost in the fog of the postwar period, when Western Europe took center stage and the Soviet Union hid its machinations in the East. Iron Curtain is a valuable reminder that the menace of Stalinism knew no borders.

Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Reviewer: Michael O'Donnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385515696
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 484,981
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Applebaum

ANNE APPLEBAUM is a columnist for The Washington Post and Slate. Her previous book, Gulag, won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and was a finalist for three other major prizes. Her essays appear in The New York Review of Books, Slate, and The London Spectator. She lives in Washington, D.C., and Poland with her husband, Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician, and their two children.


Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.

She began working as a journalist in 1988, when she moved to Poland to become the Warsaw correspondent for the Economist. She eventually covered the collapse of communism across Central and Eastern Europe, writing for a wide range of newspapers and magazines.

Returning to London in 1992, she became the Foreign Editor, and later Deputy Editor, of the Spectator magazine. Following that, she wrote a weekly column on British politics and foreign affairs, which appeared at different times in the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Evening Standard newspapers. She covered the 1997 British election campaign as the Evening Standard's political editor. For several years, she wrote the "Foreigners" column in Slate magazine.

Her first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, described a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence. Her second book, Gulag: A History, narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camp system and describes daily life in the camps. It makes extensive use of recently-opened Russian archives.

Over the years, her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, The Boston Globe, The Independent, The Guardian, Commentaire, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Newsweek, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The National Review, The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review, among others. She has appeared as a guest and as a presenter on many radio and television programs, among them BBC's Newsnight, The Today Progamme, The Week in Westminster, as well as CNN, MSNBC, CBS and Sky News.

Anne Applebaum was born in Washington, D.C. in 1964. After graduating from Yale University, she was a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics and St. Antony's College, Oxford. In 1992 she won the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust award for journalism in the ex-Soviet Union. Between East and West won an Adolph Bentinck prize for European non-fiction in 1996. Her husband, Radek Sikorski, is a Polish politician and writer. They have two children, Alexander and Tadeusz.

Author biography courtesy of Anne Applebaum's official web site.

Good To Know


"I met my husband because he and I decided to drive to the Berlin Wall on the night that it was first opened -- we drove there, together with another friend. Since he's from the East -- he grew up in Poland -- and I'm from the West, we've always liked the symbolism of that encounter."

"It was my foreign husband who finally persuaded me to move back to the United States, in 2002. After 16 years, I'd already reconciled myself to living abroad and had acquired dual citizenship in Britain. I thought of myself as a British journalist -- I'd never worked in the U.S. Now people seem surprised to learn that I was gone for so long." [Note: In 2006, Applebaum moved back to Poland with her husband.]

"If it were practical, I'd probably live in a Polish country house -- it's a 19th-century manor house that my husband and his parents have been restoring for the past decade. It isn't near anything -- it's provincial in the best sense of the word -- so is therefore impractical, but it is enormously satisfying to spend time in an old place that is nevertheless designed the way we wanted it designed. Although it has no architectural or historical significance, it is a house with an unusually calm aura, one that has inspired others -- while researching his own book about the place (The Polish House), my husband discovered that a novel had been written about it in the early 20th century.

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    1. Hometown:
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 25, 1964
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1986; M.Sc., London School of Economics, 1987; St. Antony’s College, Oxford
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Zero Hour

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. Władysław 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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2012


    This book held my attention the entire way through. The way that it was broken up enhanced how thorough the Soviet domination of Eastern European life was in the Stalinist Era.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2013

    Superb history of primarily Poland, East Germany and Hungary fro

    Superb history of primarily Poland, East Germany and Hungary from 1944-1956, with some information about other Eastern Bloc countries during that period and until 1989, written in a very readable and engaging way.

    I visited Eastern Europe in 1990 and again in 1994, right after Communism, and the book didn't make out life there as nightmarish as it seemed to me (and as described by some people I met in Romania), but it seemed accurate; maybe I'm just desensitized to it after so many years.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 12, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    A well-research and well-written account of how the Soviet Union

    A well-research and well-written account of how the Soviet Union turned East Germany, Poland, and Hungary into satellite states in the decade after World War II. Accounts by people who lived these days enliven the account. A marvelous account of the changes to these societies--political, economic, cultural, and belief--during this period and the long-term consequences of these actions. A must read for anyone interested in the Cold War period.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2013

    Soviet Domination - One Step At a Time

    This book brings a tragic period of history to light. From the hope of peace and prosperity to the grinding reality of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the years immediately following WW II are brought to life by the author. As the drama unfolds one cannot help but wonder at what might have been had the Western powers not been so completely fooled by Stalin.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2013

    So dull. Well researched bur so slow! 700 pages! Really?!

    Actually only about 550 pages as 150 pages of notes and bibliography. That should have been a giveaway.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    dull reading. 

    dull reading. 

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 15, 2014

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    Posted December 26, 2012

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    Posted November 19, 2012

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    Posted January 25, 2013

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    Posted January 8, 2013

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    Posted December 23, 2012

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