Michael Cox praises a masterful account of the rise of communism throughout eastern Europe after the Second World War
As someone who began academic life in Soviet studies in the 1970s, and has previously learned much from Anne Applebaum’s earlier work on the USSR, this is a book that I was much looking forward to reading. I have not been disappointed: her latest study is beautifully written, the research is outstanding, and the story she tells is a deeply important one. You also know where you stand politically with Applebaum. She never minces her words. Stalin was a ruthless dictator – albeit a shrewd and sometimes cautious one. He never had any intention other than bringing the whole of eastern Europe under Soviet control once the area had been cleared of German armies. And anybody who thinks that the west may have contributed to the division of Europe is plainly wrong. Revisionists beware. Applebaum is on your case!
In short, this is traditional history in the most authentic sense. It is critical of the ideological left; it uses the archives to good effect; it does not much bother with complex theory; and it allows real people their voice.
Applebaum’s history of eastern Europe is also a history of a tragedy – of peoples who got trampled underfoot and whose dreams of independence and liberation were cast aside and crushed by a ruthless Soviet state supported by their local henchmen. And in the telling of what is, by any measure, a terrible story, she spares neither the sensibilities of the Russians, nor the feelings of those who may still think there was something ‘progressive’ about the construction of “actually existing socialism”.
It began with the Red Army’s march into eastern Europe, accompanied by the rape of thousands of women. It continued with the brutal ethnic cleansing of millions of Germans from the eastern lands. And it ended with what Applebaum calls the “astonishing transformation” of one part of Europe and its forcible incorporation into the Soviet sphere of influence.
Furthermore, there was little that the western powers could do, or were even willing to do, to prevent this happening. Nor did they do a great deal to change the status quo once it was established: eastern Europe was just not that important. When forced to choose between a united Germany seeking hegemony over the whole of Europe (the problem before 1945) and a USSR controlling just part of it (the reality afterwards) it was clear where London, Paris and even Washington stood.
Yet it would be remiss of me here not to raise at least one critical question, not so much about the facts themselves, and certainly not with Applebaum’s obvious sympathy with the victims of Stalinisation – but rather about her analysis of Soviet motives. We can all agree that the USSR was a totalitarian state. But in of itself this hardly ranks as an explanation of why the USSR chose the path it did after the Second World War knowing, as it presumably did, that by absorbing eastern Europe completely this would leave it trying to manage countries deeply hostile to its rule. In a purely rationalist sense, this was not necessarily the wisest thing to have done; it also turned out to be the USSR’s very obvious Achilles’ heel.
Secondly, though her history begins very well and continues brilliantly, I was left somewhat disappointed by the amount of space devoted to the years from 1953 to 1956. It might have also been helpful for Applebaum to have completed the wonderful story that she tells with a brief overview of the slow but sure disintegration of Soviet rule after 1956. It is now said (with a great deal of justification) that experts failed to predict the end of the Cold War. But one is still left wondering why they failed so badly. After all, the way in which this forced ‘marriage’ between eastern Europe and the USSR was first put together, the many revolts it had to deal with up to the late 1970s, and the sheer economic inefficiencies in eastern Europe (even Soviet Russia may have lost as much as it gained from colonising the region) suggested that the whole edifice was anything but stable.
Stalin may indeed have imposed his model on eastern Europe but, in the end, his nightmare vision of a new kind of society marching to Moscow’s orders proved that the totalitarian control he sought was always likely to fail.
Professor Michael Cox is a founding director of the IDEAS think tank, based at LSE