Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe
Two of the 20th century’s iconic moments took place within a few hundred yards of each other in the German capital, Berlin: the storming of the Reichstag by Soviet troops in April 1945 and the scaling of the Berlin Wall by East Germans 44 years later. We sense that the two are related — Soviet troops brought the communism that East Germans toppled in 1989 — but the years between those events are a vacuum in the minds of most Americans.
Even a quarter-century after the opening of Eastern Europe’s archives, we know virtually nothing about how people lived behind the Iron Curtain, though billions of U.S. tax dollars were spent to keep that kind of life from being exported further west. How was it that Eastern Europe — a mostly agricultural region, deeply conservative and religious, historically hostile to Russia — was made by 1949 to look much like Stalin’s heavily industrial and atheist Soviet Union? Surely the outcome had much to do with the Red Army. Yet after Iraq, most will agree that occupation troops do not create political regimes.
In her new book, “Iron Curtain,” one of the most compelling but also serious works on Europe’s past to appear in recent memory, Anne Applebaum begins constructing an answer. The initial conditions for building Soviet power were far worse than most readers can imagine.
In the course of freeing Eastern Europe from Nazi rule in 1944 and 1945, Red Army soldiers pillaged, raped and killed thousands of Germans, as well as many Poles, Hungarians, Romanians and Serbs. The situation in Poland was so dire that entire villages went into hiding when they heard that the Red Army was passing through again on its way back to Russia. Soviet secret police accompanied the fighting troops and destroyed the Polish anti-Nazi underground, sending thousands who had risked their lives fighting Hitler to languish in the Soviet gulag.