Bloc Heads: Life Behind the Iron Curtain
When Germany invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939, the date that W. H. Auden used for his famous poem—“I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”—Poland had commitments in hand from France and Britain to come to its aid if its independence was threatened. In Warsaw, in the first week of September, enthusiastic crowds gathered outside the French and British Embassies. They expected that Berlin would be bombed and that British and French forces would attack Germany from the west.
But the British and the French did neither of those things, and the war did not take long. On September 27th, Warsaw surrendered to the Germans. Meanwhile, on September 17th, pursuant to an agreement between Stalin and Hitler, Poland was invaded from the east by the Red Army. That campaign lasted less than a month. By October, Poland was in the hands of its two ancient enemies.
For the next five years, those enemies did their best to destroy it. And then, for forty-five years after that, Poland found itself locked in a totalitarian cage whose key was kept in Moscow. No one had come to the rescue of Poland in 1939, and no one came to its rescue after 1945. In the end, Poland had to rescue itself.
The Polish story is the heart of Anne Applebaum’s remarkable book, “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe” (Doubleday), 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.
Although eastern Poland was one of the most impoverished areas in Central Europe, it was better off than the Soviet Union. As soon as the Soviets gained control of it, in 1939, they looted whatever they could get their hands on. Representatives of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (also known as the N.K.V.D., predecessor of the K.G.B.) carried out an extermination program targeting the Polish élite.