'Iron Curtain': How it crushed

Churchill coined the phrase. Anne Applebaum brings a deeper understanding to the tragedy that its reality brought to millions living behind it.

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In the topsy-turvy world of postwar Eastern European politics, the fact that the Polish YMCA had no obvious political agenda made Communist officials even more suspicious of its intentions.

In 1947, its dormitory offered young men a clean, quiet, if not especially well-lighted, place amid the ruins of Warsaw. The building was also the site for jazz concerts, billiards matches and self-improvement classes.

All those activities worried a government minister named Stefan Jedrychowski, according to historian Anne Applebaum. He recommended an immediate audit of YMCA finances and surveillance of all its lectures and programs, especially the potentially subversive jazz performances.

By 1949, Polish authorities concluded the Y was a "tool of bourgeois-fascism." Its building was confiscated, and water and electricity were periodically cut off in efforts to get the original occupants to leave. "Eventually the young communists threw everyone's possessions out of the windows ... and removed their beds," Ms. Applebaum writes.

By Anne Applebaum.
Doubleday ($35).

The story of the Polish YMCA was repeated over and over again in the countries "liberated" by Soviet forces from the Germans at the end of World War II. Local Communists, much more beholden to Moscow than to any grass-roots support, followed a Soviet model for remaking their diverse societies.

In "Iron Curtain" Ms. Applebaum takes an exhaustive look at how those plans were carried out in Poland, Hungary and East Germany. The result is a well-written book that tells dozens of mostly sad, often tragic and usually little-known stories about how Eastern Europeans found one set of oppressors replaced by another.

Ms. Applebaum has traveled widely in and written previously about this part of the world. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gulag," a narrative history of Soviet concentration camps. (And she is married to Radoslaw Sikorski, a prominent Polish politician who is currently the nation's minister of foreign affairs.)

Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all were totalitarians, Ms. Applebaum writes, with the Italian dictator providing the best definition of the system: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." Hitler and Stalin took those words to heart and millions suffered and died. Their efforts meant bad news for groups and individuals as disparate as Boy Scouts, Masons, Orthodox and Catholic churches, artists, writers and, of course, the YMCA.

Since the countries occupied by the Red Army at war's end had little in common, Stalin's iron will was central to their conversion into an outwardly monolithic Eastern Bloc. "The speed with which this transformation took place was, in retrospect, nothing short of astonishing," she writes. "Iron Curtain" describes how it was done and how great were the economic and human costs.

Drawing examples from each of the three countries in turn, she demonstrates how Stalin and his acolytes relied on four key tools:

• Liberal use of shadowy secret police to cow the population.

• Control of mass media, which in the 1940s meant radio.

• Persecutions of and, ultimately, bans on independent organizations.

• Mass ethnic cleansing, which created millions of refugees who "were easier to manipulate and control."

Stalin, unlike Hitler, was not fundamentally genocidal. The German dictator believed his enemies, especially the Jews, were bacteria that had to be destroyed to stop them from infecting others. Stalin, by contrast, largely sought to apply just enough random terror to get his way. Anti-Nazi partisans were shot if captured or forced to surrender. Some anti-Soviet partisans could and did surrender and live, albeit after imprisonment and exile.

Still, Ms. Applebaum's book finds enough points of similarly between the Nazi and Communist systems. German concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, were renamed and repurposed after the war to hold the enemies of the new democratic people's republics. Like their Nazi predecessors, they were "extraordinarily lethal," Ms. Applebaum writes. About a third of the 150,000 people held in Soviet camps in eastern Germany died from starvation or illness.

While these postwar re-education efforts appeared to have worked in the medium term, they ultimately failed. Unsuccessful uprisings in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland in 1976 offered evidence of widespread discontent. What was not so clear at the time was how many apparently true believers were simply keeping silent.

Then came 1989, when millions of people in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union, including the Baltic states, rose up and brought down the system. After 45 years of tragedy and waste, it turns out that there was no "Homo sovieticus," the new breed of communist human being, after all.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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