18 February 2013

Monday Book (and Lecture) Review

This week's review is a double.  I wanted to review the lecture I attended at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs back in early December, but I didn't think it made much sense to do so without including the book.  I saw Anne Applebaum speak about her new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 - 1956 at CCGA.  I bought the book at the event since I had read glowing reviews and I totally jive with the subject matter.  I find the era leading up to the establishment of communism in Europe really fascinating (which was my favorite part of this book, actually) primarily because it was such a tumultuous time period.  The geo-political landscape had fundamentally altered after the most (up to that point) devastating war and there was a lot of assumptions, grievances, and fears thrown into the pot at once.

This is particularly evident with the "German question", as it is called, since West Berlin was this bizarre island of democratic capitalism in the sea of communist sea.  The fact that the western powers did not push harder for a unified Germany points to a lot of the deeper troubles with Europe historically and politically.  Mitterand and Thatcher were famously against unifying Germany for fear of reprisal and the Soviet Union was also ambivalent about the policy on unifying Germany, but strong on keeping their claimed territory.*  The book focuses mainly on Hungary, Germany, and Poland for the span of those 12 years and it largely focuses on High Stalinism.  The time period covers the death of Stalin and the subsequent presidents of Malenkov and Khrushchev, though their roles are considerably diminished in the narrative.  The cult of Stalin had a lasting legacy and was a major foundation for the crushing of Europe.  I like to call it the "iron fist of Stalin".

The book is eminently readable.  Unlike a great deal of books I read, it is accessible for the less obsessed or knowledgeable.  Since the focus is so concentrated both in terms of the nations (3), the years (12), and the leaders (1), a detailed recounting of events is possible.  The beginning of the book concentrates rather heavily on the recognizable name of politics and how the Yalta Conference betrayed Europe, while also paying due attention to the aftermath of WWII.  1945 was a wild time and nothing can quite capture the ending of a war that engulfed all of Europe and proved to be a messy end.  What I especially liked about the book was the very concise use of chapters.  While sections in the chapters bounced between countries and periods in time, it was comprehensible.  Though the parameters are still quite limited, it covers 3 nations and that itself is a tripping point if not handled well.  There is enough back story and repetition to keep the reader easily transitioning between the three.  The chapters also help the reader understand the careful (yet at times haphazard) destruction of cultural institutions done by the Soviets in the late 40s, which was then replaced by new ones.  Careful supplanting of cultural institutions allowed the regime to construct a new hegemony almost entirely from scratch, but there were elements of national history drawn in.  Each nation faced a revisionist history, particularly Germany, and the revolutions in 1956 drew heavily on national history that didn't make the cut since they believed the propaganda's face value message of worker-borne change. 

The recorded aspects of history are woven with the personal, which gives the book a human touch.  Like many who study the era of communism of Europe, Applebaum finds the personal account to be as, if not more, telling than the records of history.  Leadership is certainly not neglected, particularly as the stage is set in 1944, but it often takes a backseat to what actually happened.  Plans are purposefully contrasted with reality and the reality is always confirmed by a personal anecdote.  Applebaum is careful to keep the personal political because, as the book progresses, it shows how intensely political all actions were.  This was a double-edged sword for Soviet propaganda, since it both shoved people out and kept them in; people started to disassociate themselves while also taking propaganda at face value.  This is addressed in chapters 16 -18, about the reluctant collaborators, passive opponents, and the revolutions of 1956.  I find these aspects to be the most fascinating overall; much like the Nazi Germany, the Soviet era makes us wonder, how did it go on?  Why didn't people stop it?  The moral quandaries of that time are an endless source of wonder.  The more one studies, the more they understand the time needed to heal from those wounds and undermine that hegemony.

In Applebaum's CCGA lecture, she focused on three aspects: 1) the secret police, 2) associations, and 3) radio.  These three aspects receive the heaviest focus throughout the novel.  The radio's importance is evident since it was the only form of mass communication available at the time and an important propaganda tool.  The Hungarian revolution of 1956 underscores this--the primary target of the students was the radio station.  In some cases, the Soviets realized the lack of efficacy in their propaganda, but overall they believed it was their most effective form of persuasion in the national consciousness.  Associations was a catch-all term for the control of social life, both in leisure clubs as well  The secret police is an aspect that would seem to be an obvious talking point, but I think it's often dismissed since there are striking similarities to secretive agencies in democracies.  The only country whose secret police gets the attention it deserves is Germany, but this glosses over countries that have the same level of cooperation and coercion through secretive, and targeted, violence.  Germany was certainly one of the most efficiently run agencies, particularly in administrative matters, but one only needs to read The Haunted Land to realize the full scale of its impact throughout eastern Europe.  Targeted violence and the careful calibration and censorship of personal, yet political, behavior is the most pervasive hangover of the Soviet era.

There is a great deal of distrust towards state institutions throughout the post-Soviet bloc, but there is a lack of clear expectations of the state as well.  The strain of paranoia in politics and reactions to corruption were brought up, which rang a few bells in my head: the Gorilla Operation in Slovakia, Romania's hullabaloo over Ponta, and Orbán (too many articles to bother linking).  These are serious problems that were brought on by the Soviet push on those three fronts.**  It's not a legacy that is easily lost.  I actually got to ask a question after the lecture (nobody ever picks me! but they did!) and I asked if there was a legacy of the minor subversive acts in politics today.  She answered that it did not have much relevance, but I kind of wonder if the exact phrasing didn't get to my point.  I wanted to know if politics are still marked by a passive resistance and not a strong push for active involvement.  Considering the general distrust of state institutions, it seems that active involvement would be a dubious prospect and why there is very little in the way of victories for David and Goliath political races (see Romania for an example).  It's not unique to the region, but it speaks to a level of distrust that almost pushes voters to trust the devil they know instead of the poor sap who stepped into the pool.  There's a palpable sense that they almost trust corrupt politicians more since they believe the institution to be corrupt.  This joke created a bit of a stir in the Czech Republic, so I had this in mind when I asked the question.  Do they approve of the corrupt legacy in public, but quietly jest in reproval?

These three particular points brought up by Applebaum in the lecture and elaborated upon in the book, really strike at the heart of why the iron fist gripped eastern Europe for so long and why it's hard to shake off.  It's an important read both for understand history and understanding the present and it's accessible for the neophyte, but has enough teeth and depth for the learned veteran.***

*The German question will be the subject of a future book review.  Look forward to a book of political analysis of German-Soviet relations!
**I wanted to reference Russia's "this-is-not-the-EU" trade union, but I'm going to leave that alone for now.
***I can't end this without mentioning my embarrassing nerdy girl crush on her.  Her husband is Radek Sikorski, whose speech I enjoyed so very much.

I will keep up book reviews on a weekly basis, so check in every Monday for a review on a book that Stalin wouldn't want you to read.