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.

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.

"Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956" by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday/Doubleday)

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.

Though Applebaum does not mute the rage felt by Poles at the destruction of their national institutions, she reminds us of a simple fact: After six years of fighting, Eastern Europeans longed for some semblance of normal life, no matter what the regime. Millions made their peace with communism — marching in parades, keeping opinions to themselves, joining communist organizations — in order to have all the things the new state controlled: housing, education, employment and a measure of personal freedom.

But the new regime was not built simply on fear and opportunism. The mystery confronting historians is that hundreds of thousands passionately supported the communists in a region where communism had traditionally evoked horror scenarios of revolutionary chaos as well as the destruction of churches, private property and national independence. Romanian communists numbered fewer than 1,000 in a nation of 16 million in 1944. Within three years, their ranks had swollen to more than 800,000. How do we explain this?

Applebaum, a Washington Post op-ed columnist, likens early party cohorts to generations produced in rapid succession. Key was a first group of Soviet communists who were ethnically Polish, Hungarian, German, Romanian or Czech. During the war, these “double citizens” organized special camps on Soviet territory to train a second group of Eastern Europeans who had fallen into Soviet hands — Hungarian, Romanian or German POWs, or Poles from parts of Poland that Stalin had seized in 1939. In 1944 and ’45 these cadres followed Red Army troops advancing upon Vienna and Berlin and began setting up new “democratic” institutions in their native countries, primarily police forces, but also schools, courts, banks and public administration.

They then recruited a third generation consisting largely of uneducated and impressionable young men and women from the working classes. Before the war, such people had little hope for elite status, yet now all manner of advance was open to them. Flattered by attention, these recruits helped shape a society based on “scientific” planning, where fluctuations of the market — and thus the causes of want and misery — would become things of the past. A utopian mission like this held special appeal for thousands of young Germans who felt remorse for idolizing Hitler.

With extraordinary gifts for bringing distant, often exotic worlds to life, Applebaum tells us that Sovietization was never simply about political institutions or social structures. Young communist cadres absorbed from their teachers the thinking of a new civilization, where anything not under the party’s control was suspicious, probably hostile. Because the party represented the majority of society — workers and peasants — building socialist democracy meant eliminating rival sources of power, real and imagined. Soviet officials in Eastern Europe were therefore perplexed when Western governments accused them of crushing democracy. In their view, only their methods could establish it.

If the Bolshevik point of view was so simplistic, how could it gain adherents among not only unschooled workers but also leading writers, such as Bertolt Brecht, Vitezslav Nezval and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz? The question is difficult, and as with other issues that interest her — the rebuilding of cities, socialist humor, secret police, ethnic cleansing and much else — Applebaum treats it with sophistication. When Eastern European intellectuals looked to the West, they discerned leaders who considered liberal democracy a privilege for the few. Surveying their region’s recent past, they saw that democracy had given way to fascism (in Germany in 1933 for instance) and that fascism had now been subdued by socialism.

And when they gazed toward the East, they witnessed a self-confident power that had borne the brunt of defeating Hitler and claimed to be on the cutting edge of history. They may not have liked the despotic face of this regime, but it seemed forward-moving, the unquestionable verdict of history.

Still, for many the new faith was hard to swallow. History for socialists turned out to be as inscrutable as divine will seems to many religious believers. In the stories Applebaum recounts, young cadres received party orders that made no sense (they were routinely slotted for positions for which they had no experience) or witnessed arrests of comrades known to be loyal. At the same time, their new party lenses made the society that surrounded them inscrutable: They knew that the enemies who plotted against them wore masks to seem the opposite of their true selves.

What kind of organization was this — uncomprehending and incomprehensible, blind to its surroundings, yet essentially invisible to the societies it purported to rule? Historian Jan Gross called the Stalinist regime a “spoiler state,” capable of destroying but not generating real power.

Within weeks of Stalin’s death in March 1953, workers took to the streets of Czechoslovakia and East Germany to demand free elections; three years later, their counterparts in Poland and Hungary followed suit, accompanied by intellectuals. In Budapest ironworkers set their torches to the base of an immense Stalin statue, and the dictator tumbled to Earth. The world has perhaps never seen a more compelling international workers’ solidarity — aimed against the regimes that claimed to rule in their names. Before an invasion by Soviet armored columns in November 1956, Hungarians controlled their own destiny for a few short weeks.

How did Eastern Europe’s communist regimes recover and continue to 1989?

Readers will hope that Applebaum provides the answers in a companion volume. Few authors successfully mix the methods of journalism and history, and only a handful take each to its highest level simultaneously. Though omnivorous in her appetite for knowledge, Applebaum never simply balances her findings: Truth is not suspended somewhere between the perspectives. Even in the midst of exhaustive explanations of the period’s many mysteries, she never lets Eastern Europeans’ outrage slip from view.

This book made me recall a transcript from the summer of 1956 that I once read in the Czech archives. For a few weeks, Czechs were able to speak freely at public meetings, and out rained the scorn. Behind veils of inscrutability, human consciences had remained alive and recorded everything: the regime’s hypocrisies, its leaders’ petty arrogance, the institutionalized injustice. One speaker noted that the communist elite, like the Nazi occupiers before them, had reserved a special quarter of villas. Yet unlike the Nazis, the leaders of the working class had surrounded themselves with a wall.

In her relentless quest for understanding, Applebaum shines light into forgotten worlds of human hope, suffering and dignity. Those who know little of Europe behind the Iron Curtain will find themselves edified; those who know much will learn much more. Others have told us of the politics of this time. Applebaum does that but also shows what politics meant to people’s lives, in an era when the state did more to shape individual destinies than at any time in history.

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.”

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.”


The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

By Anne Applebaum

Doubleday. 566 pp. $35