John Connelly is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965.”
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.
(Doubleday/Doubleday) - \"Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956\" by Anne Applebaum
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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.
In the most egregious instance, Soviet Gen. Ivan Serov invited the commander of Poland’s underground army, Gen. Leopold Okulicki, for talks at his headquarters in Pruszkow, a suburb of Warsaw, on March 27, 1945. Yet instead of consulting with Okulicki on establishing order in recently liberated Polish territories, Serov had the Pole disarmed and flown to Moscow for a show trial, where Okulicki and 15 other Polish underground leaders were accused of fantastic crimes such as plotting an alliance with Germany.
At this point the United States was the greatest power in human history. Though Okulicki, as military representative of Poland’s London government, was our ally, U.S. leaders registered no protest.
Those who study these matters through the cold lenses of public policy will ask what the alternative was. Should the United States have upset the Soviet Union for the sake of a weak and distant ally, perhaps risking World War III? This is not the view of Applebaum in “Iron Curtain,” which was just nominated for a National Book Award, prompting the publisher to accelerate its release by about a month, to this Sunday. Having read an immense literature in six languages, consulted long-closed archives and spoken to scores of Eastern Europeans, Applebaum re-creates the mind-set of millions who endured the terror of Nazi occupation and then lived through the unsettling early days of communist rule.