“Teaching people not to think”

This is my review of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum.

Would Eisenhower have allowed the Russians to take Berlin in order to spare his troops if he had foreseen that the Soviets would go on to impose Communism on Eastern Europe for almost half a century? With a focus on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, Anne Applebaum draws on the memoirs of people who lived through the period, to dissect the evidence for how the USSR managed to crush opposition: mass deportations to fit nationalities within the "correct" boundaries, promotion of "Moscow men" into key positions, indoctrination of the young, suppression of the Catholic church, control of the media, to name a few aspects. Repression grew under the "High Stalinism" of the early 50s once the complacent belief that east Europeans would vote for communism was seen to be a delusion.

The chapters take a thematic approach, working logically from such topics as communists and policemen through politics and economics to issues of "socialist realism", "ideal" planned cities, and reluctant collaborators. So, you can pick out what catches your interest, although it is most valuable to follow the author's train of thought. With the clear aspiration to be taken seriously as an academic work, this may contain too much detail for the general reader to retain, and the unpronounceable Polish names do not help, but Anne Applebaum is always cogent and relevant.

I was particularly interested in the exploration of how "the need to conform to a mendacious political reality left many people haunted by the sense that they were leading double lives". Freudian psychoanalysis was taboo in the USSR, and therefore in due course banned in, for instance, Hungary as well, because it was "too focused on the individual", eventually dismissed in the chillingly humourless jargon of the regime as "the domestic psychology of imperialism". We read of a boy's terror when his father angrily pointed out that the arrest of a general in a show trial did not mean that he was guilty. This "banal truth" felt "like an earthquake" for if his father was right, the authorities must be arresting innocent citizens, but surely, only an enemy could think this was the case……

The helpful glossary of abbreviations and acronyms of the often suppressed political parties and of the notorious secret police organisations could have been supplemented with a reference list of the main individuals mentioned, and a timeline of events. The chapter on the abortive revolutions of the mid-fifties could have been expanded, although perhaps they are dealt with briefly since already well-covered elsewhere. Yet these are minor criticisms of a fascinating analysis which merits being kept on one's shelf as an ongoing reminder of the folly of the attempts to develop a "perfect" society through the exercise of unquestioned, unbending authority, not to mention the dangerous cult of the "supreme leader" in a society which ironically suppresses individuality.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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