Barn doors and banjos

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topograp...

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topographic Maps. Series N501, U.S. Army Map Service, 1954 Русский: Лист из набора карт Восточной Европы Картографической военной службы США. Серия 501. 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56

At the very end of this book Anne Applebaum says there is a need to tell the story of the Stalinist take-over of Eastern Europe without resorting to caricature or a tale of villains. She is right. Yet she fails to do it.

In writing this I want to make clear my complaint is not that she attacks the Communists. It is that in her determination to show the (leading) Communists as uniformly, consistently, inflexibly and completely evil she lets them off the hook. And they certainly do not deserve that.

Once or twice in the book she comes close to letting the Communists speak in their own terms and then the effect is far more devastating than the vast majority of the book where she just piles on her pre-determined narrative. Here are people talking of “democracy” while building a police state – we do not need to be reminded they are criminals, their own words reveal them to be so.

Here and there a junior figure in the Communist world – the ultimately heroic Jacek Kuroń is one example – is allowed to express their doubts and their uncertainties, to have a conscience – but such moral greyness is not permitted for the top leaders: but surely they too were once sincere in their hopes?

And so, for instance, the brutality of the regimes – which must have become increasingly horrific and shocking to those who lived under them – is portrayed as a constant as opposed to a ratchet (as Applebaum seems unwilling to concede that the regimes degenerated as they were always so evil or at best on a pre-determined path to full, brutal, dictatorship).

That said it is also seems obvious that Applebaum has difficulties in being objective. Her refusal to list the Soviet Union’s casualties in the second world war while discussing those of everyone else sticks out like a sore thumb. The Soviets may have been paranoid and vicious in their treatment of people they thought to  be a threat to “peace” but it is surely also important to examine why they might have been so. As I have seen another reviewer remark, she treats the Soviet anxiety to conquer Berlin as quickly as possible as though it was a fault: when surely it was both right and natural to want to see the Nazis utterly crushed as rapidly as was feasible?

Similarly there is no consideration of the politics of the West and indeed the whole European dynamic and its impact on Eastern Europe. Applebaum more or less dismisses the idea that Cold War politics made things worse in the East early on in her book, but it is also plain, from reading it, that in some way 1947 did mark a crucial break year. Whether an attempt at “detente” would have made any difference in the long run is another question – and it is difficult to be optimistic – but don’t Finland and Austria (both ignored here) show that the Soviet response was not necessarily monolithic?

Further she seems reluctant to discuss the legacy of pre-war politics in any of the countries she discusses. Maybe those claims that opponents of Soviet occupation were “fascists” had some basis in truth? Or at least enough basis in enough cases to persuade a big enough minority in the countries of Eastern Europe to agree that the ruling regimes had a point?

It’s all a great pity because in here there is a great book struggling to get out. Once or twice we glimpse it – she is particularly good in her discussion of socialist realism, for instance. But most of all we get a mess – a readable mess, for sure – but in the space of a few pages we are first told that the “Moscow Communists” (those who spent the 1930s and the war in the Soviet Union) had long had plans for a takeover, then that they did not plan to make their countries miniature Soviet Unions, and then that they did not know what to do. One of these three is right, but they cannot all be.