From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. – Winston Churchill
A few posts back, I mentioned that Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai stood a very good chance of making my personal year-end best of list. Of course I use the words “a very good chance” because who knows how many excellent books will I encounter before the end of the year. Encounter enough of them and before I know it The Sisters of Sinai ends up being knocked off its pedestal and relegated to the honorable mention list. But don’t lose any sleep Janet Soskice. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
However, I feel confident making one particular prediction: when 2013 comes to a close Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 will be on my personal year-end best of list. I can say this without hesitation because Applebaum’s 2012 book is by far the most intelligent and incredibly well-researched book I’ve read this year.
A good history book will tell you what happened. A great history book will tell you both how and why things happened. So it is with Iron Curtain. We all know that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe for over 50 years. But in her book Applebaum, thoroughly and methodically shows the reader how and why the Soviet Union ruthlessly and systemically destroyed (or at the very least co-opted) the governing organs and public institutions of Eastern Europe in order to remake the region into its own repressive image. The result would be a collection of Soviet vassal states (Yugoslavia and Albania, even though not directly aligned with the USSR, would nevertheless remain Socialist dictatorships) until the Fall of Communism.
My only knock on this book is a slight one. Sometimes there’s so much information that one just has to take a break from reading Iron Curtain. But after a brief decompression I was back at it full throttle. At first I felt Applebaum should not have restricted the book’s scope to almost exclusively East Germany, Poland, Hungary and to a lesser degree Czechoslovakia. (Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia are mostly ignored. Albania is completely left out.) But the more I read, the more I quickly realized that this a terrific book. So who cares.
All excellent books should inspire one to read more, and Applebaum’s book is no exception. The obvious choice would be her prize-winning Gulag, which fortunately for me is sitting on my desk awaiting to be read. Another logical choice would be The Savage Continent, especially after I enjoyed hearing its author interviewed on Fresh Air. Even though it’s a tome I’d also like to give the late Tony Judt’s Post War a try. Lastly, inspired by Iron Curtain, this also might be a good time to read my copy of Bloodlands since it also deals with the same geographic area. (Any of these books, along with Iron Curtain make great choices for Joy’s Back to School Reading Challenge.) Sounds like I have my work cut out for me!