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290 of 308 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Evils and Brutalities of Communism
As a child living in Romania, I remember that my parents used to do everything so that the infamous Securitate would pry into our lives as little as possible. In the sixties, the Romanian dictator Dej did everything in order to please his Russian masters. His menu included a variety of things, such as beatings, torture, incarcerations, threats, illegal deportations and...
Published on October 30, 2012 by Paul Gelman

141 of 155 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Makes the case--and I mean that literally.
I greatly admired Ms. Applebaum's "Gulag", and was looking forward to reading this work. She has done an excellent job of research--thorough, painstaking, a work of great scholarship from beginning to end. And the story she tells is fascinating and tremendously informative.

But that said, I had to stop about halfway through--I simply grew weary of reading it...
Published 23 months ago by Michael Engel

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most objectives achieved, but the focus is narrower than the title might lead you to expect, December 1, 2012
Lost John (Devon, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Iron Curtain (Hardcover)
Concentrating on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, the focus of this book is not as wide as might be presumed from either the Iron Curtain or the Eastern Europe of the title. Ann Applebaum explains her reasoning in the introduction and writes that she chose those three countries not for their similarities but for the sharp contrasts between them. Their national experiences before 1944 were markedly different, and that had an important bearing on their different experiences and reactions after they were taken into the Soviet empire.

Applebaum also helpfully sets out her objectives for the book:-

* To gain an understanding of totalitarianism, not in theory but in practice, and how it shaped the lives of millions of Europeans in the 20th Century.
* To seek evidence of the deliberate destruction of civil society and small business.
* To investigate the phenomenon of social realism and communist education.
* To gather information on the founding and early development of the region's secret police.
* To understand how ordinary people learned to cope with the new regimes; how they collaborated, willingly or reluctantly; how and why they joined the party and other state institutions; how they resisted, actively or passively; how they came to make terrible choices that most of us in the West, nowadays, never have to face.

Generally speaking, the end result matches-up to those objectives very well. I do have a few reservations, however. Despite the huge amount of information included, the bitter hatred of many East Germans for the Stasi (secret police) and all its works is not, I feel, fully communicated to the reader. Neither am I sure that readers with no other information on the education system (which had merits as well as faults) would come out with a very full picture. Similarly with the process of joining the Communist Party - which in practice was not open to all, even though all were expected to enthusiastically subscribe to its objectives.

Social realism is well covered, as is the destruction of civil society and small business. Especially sad was the destruction of the church and youth groups, including the YMCA, that sprang back up almost spontaneously as soon as the Nazis were defeated.

The understanding and new information on totalitarianism in practice that we gain from the book comes largely through stories such as those of the suppression of independent civic and social groups; of failed enterprises such as the training of factory workers to be theatre critics; and Applebaum's clear-sighted account of the realities of the Stakhanovite and Shock Worker movements, work targets and norms, and all that went with them.

Ultimately, whole nations were living an all-embracing tissue of lies. Included were lies about their belief in the system and enthusiasm for their leaders, and lies about their true thoughts. Indications of their thoughts were carefully graded between different audiences and environments - home, family, school, work, etc. The situation relaxed a little after Stalin died in 1953, but not tremendously. As ever, jokes were a notable form of subversive but relatively safe comment; Applebaum provides some examples.

When mass dissent broke out, in East Germany in 1953, Poland in 1955 and in Hungary in 1956, the leaders and heads of state institutions were shocked and scared, and turned immediately to Moscow for direction and support, resulting in tragedy in each case.

The archival evidence marshaled by Applebaum is usefully augmented with information on personal experiences gained from interviewees in each of the three countries examined.

The book has a detailed index, an extensive bibliography, many notes, and 46 photographs.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book - worth the kindle price, December 9, 2012
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I enjoy reading history about the events that have occurred during my lifetime. This book was right up my alley - but was almost swayed by reviews taking issue with the kindle price. I am glad I ordered the book. The detail was fantastic and the level of effort exhibited by the author clearly supports the price. I am an advocate in paying what things are worth and in this case the book is well worth the price. Resist the complaints about the price - buy the book, read it, enjoy and be far better acquainted with the important events in post WWII Eastern Europe.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting in parts, but not great, January 1, 2013
This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
This book attempts a history of eastern europe between the arrival of the Red Army and the uprising in Hungary in 1956. One part of the book is exceptional writing but the rest of it isn't very good at all.

The good part of the book deals with the unraveling of the communist system in Eastern Europe following the death of Stalin. Its a very well written and very compelling narrative. It connects a wide series of events and personalities in what seems a very original way. The author makes the excellent point that marxist state propaganda, especially that directed at the young, ended up undermining the system rather than supporting it. They were promised utopia and when it failed to materialize, their education had taught them that revolution was the only answer.

The account also made it clear (at least to me) how fragile and how dependent on the autocratic whims one man (Stalin) the whole system was. It was also good in showing how dependent Stalin's system was on isolation and how that isolation wasn't possible in Eastern Europe.

The rest of the book is very much of a mixed bag. Rather than cover all the countries, the author has a focus on Hungary, East Germany and Poland. But there is a massive attachment in the book to Poland. Poland gets a disproportionate share of coverage and a constant outpouring of sympathy. It also disorts the books perspective. Far too often she treats the rest of Eastern Europe as if it were as rural and undeveloped in an industral sense as Poland.

The early parts of the book build up a narrative by subject areas. Always a difficult way to tell a story. She talks about police, economics, media, youth movements and so on. The anacdotes are mostly interesting but it doesn't really tell a clear history of these states as a whole and jumps around constantly. The end of the book doesn't have this problem.

The books coverage of the years 1944-1948 are flawed by a lack of context. Those years were often as horrible in western europe as they were in eastern europe. There was rationing, there was hunger, there were people kept in the military. There was also socialism, the appropriation of private businesses and many (but not all) of the things she looks on with horror in the east. There was of course not the political oppression of the east, but things were still a mess all over Europe. Especially before the Marshall Plan.

The blatent politics of the author also let the book down.

* The author defends the postwar european black market as happy self-organized "traders" solving problems through "messy and uncontrolled capitalism" (p. 230). Her understanding of those matters is very poor. To suggest that the black market was an effective solution and that there was no rationing going on and no rationing possible is more than a bit much.

* The author talks about a "battle for trade" in terms of high taxation, rigid price regulations, massive licensing requirements and penalties for not filling out forms properly. The problem is that those policies were hardly unique to Eastern Europe at the time. They could also be found in places like Italy, France or Britain. By her argument, the author doesn't make a case for Eastern Europe being worse in that regard.

* On p. 382, she calls the reputation that the industrial "new cities" built in eastern europe after the war had for lawlessness "mythology" and compares it to the regime stories about industral sabotage told by the governments. But they were boom towns and there neither anything incredible or unexpected about them being lawless. The author provides no citation for her claim of "mythology".

* She greatly misrepresents the nature of some of the pre-war eastern european governments. Neither Poland nor Hungary between the wars could be considered examples of social democratic government or capitalism or much of the time even democratic government.

She also fails to come to much of a conclusion about what went wrong in eastern europe. She makes much of what she calls "civil society" by which she means private charitable groups and how they were shut down. But its hard to see how scouts, masons, religious charities and the YMCA would have made any difference in the outcome.

She hints at an interesting subject: The "war" after the war in Poland and Ukraine. She only talks about it briefly but it seems like a really interesting topic.

She covers some interesting personalities. There was a designer who tried to get postwar Polish industry to innovate in areas of design but was unsuccessful despite a great amount of effort. The author's implicit suggestion that the design innovation is impossible without a profit motive is open to serious question. But this case is an interesting study in the small decisions that led the system in Eastern Europe to fail.

After reading the book, the conclusion I've come to is that these governments failed for multiple reasons:

a) Stalin's decision to *pretend* to honor the Yalta agreement and establish sham democracy created fatally weak states. The opposition was never destroyed to the degree it was in the Soviet Union.

b) The decision to move Poland "westward" won the Soviets no friends in eastern europe and created enemies everywhere.

c) The states of eastern europe were never able, by geography, to accomplish the isolation that the soviet union developed under during the 1920s and 1930s. The truth about their backwardness could not be kept from East Germans or Poles the way it was kept from most of the Soviet population.

d) The behavior of the Soviet Army in 1945 posioned relations with most of these countries after the war.

e) The Soviet Union treated countries with existing sophisiticated industral economies (East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia) as if they were backward pre-industral countries like Russia in 1917. They adopted policies of rapid industralization that made little sense in industralized countries. Those policies alienated the "workers" in the workers state.

f) The reason that Western Europe economically surpassed eastern europe in the 1950s is probably best explained by the Soviet Union's postwar industral looting, reparations and the lack of anything like a Marshall plan.

I can find a whole lot in the book to fault. But the last 70 or so pages are very interesting. While flawed, the rest of the book builds by starts and fits does build up the full picture necessary to appreciate that conclusion.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good account of the creation of high Stalinism, November 19, 2012
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This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
Using extensive material newly available since the end of the Warsaw Pact, the author asserts a new model of the coming of the Cold War to Eastern Europe and the rise of the high Stalinist state type. Western histories tend to treat the war as a separate entity from the Cold War. The Allies beat Hitler. The West falls out with Stalin. Stalin creates what become the satellite states of the east. This book asserts that from the Soviet side it was a seamless process, with the core elements of a slavish Stalinist party and an extra-constitutional security police arriving with the Soviet military. Ms. Applebaum, a journalist who covered the region as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, sees the core of the Stalinist apparatus [a party apparatus totally under Moscow's control, a security police run by this party outside legal norms and with direct KGB control and both party and police firmly joined to the Soviet occupation authority via crossposting of Soviet military and police officers] as a direct Soviet template with only minor variations from local conditions. She shows the constitutional fan dances and elections as the smoke screen they were. Stalin was determined to have friendly regimes. In Stalinist logic all those not creatures of the SU were objectively fascist. Therefore Western pushes for democracy and sovereignty were simply outside the mental horizons of both the rulers in the Kremlin and the Soviet minions on the ground. The three test cases offered are Poland, Hungary and East Germany. Regrettably she has simplified the German situation considerably but the treatment remains valuable. Recommended for those interested in the end of WW2 and the first phases of the de facto World War 3 in Europe.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you want to know what it was really like to live in the Soviet Bloc - this book is for you, September 10, 2013
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I was born in the USSR in the early 1960's, and though I thankfully emigrated as a child I had sufficient exposure to that culture and to my traumatized parents and their friends to appreciate how well researched and deeply truthful this book really is.The author's descriptions of the "soft" corruption of the System, always backed up by the threat of very real violence are right on the money. So are her descriptions of the truly ideologically dedicated few leading the masses who have been beaten into apathy by WWII ever deeper into quiet compliance and at least some degree of collaboration. The process, which is undoubtedly part of human nature, of incrementally surrendering one's fundamental freedoms for the sake of expediency is not only a part of the history of the peoples of the ex-soviet Bloc; it is happening to the people in the West, right now. We have already surrendered our right of free speech for the expediency of political correctness, our right of free contract for the expediency of a social "safety net", and the list goes on. This makes Anne Applebaum's book very relevant indeed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reflections On The Cruelty of the Soviet Union Empire, April 27, 2013
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This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
The author spent years writing this book. It is so well researched. It is the most serious historical account of Eastern Europe under the fist of the Soviet Union and all of their allies in Poland, Hungary, Czekoslavakia (sp) and Germany. It was a cruel time and Applebaum researc bring this whole era to life todayl Highly recommend, but it is not an easy read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rock Solid History and Pretty New to My Eyes, December 18, 2012
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This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
I'm a huge history buff and a World War II buff in particular so I'm always on the lookout for new books concerning that era. This one though fills a definite need. I'm pretty well-versed on military scholarship from 1939-1945, but realize that a weakness in my knowledge base is the period right after the war. Thus, Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 offers up a timeframe in which I was largely ignorant. Applebaum's emphasis on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary was excellent and very thorough. One learns the political history of the era here but also gets a sense of what life was like for those who suffered as citizens under totalitarian leadership. What I like best about Applebaum as a narrator as you never get a sense of any bias from her. This history is objective and of high value. The text is concise and clear but devoid of slant in my opinion. She offers up rock solid history and its an ideal length (450 or so pages of narrative). I had not planned on reading the author's Gulag but now plan to based on how much I enjoyed Iron Curtain.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eastern Europe Post WW II, November 18, 2012
Brian Lewis (Ridgefield, CT) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
This is a thoroughly researched analysis of "the crushing of Eastern Europe" in the years after World War II. It was a little too much like a sociology textbook for my personal taste and there is no single character or group that really takes center stage. Of course, in fairness, Ms Applebaum never promised this would be a popular narrative history.

It does seem to me that this whole era is due for a re assesment with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And she does deal with a topic that is not often addressed - while we often have books about revolutions and fights for freedom, it is rare that we take a serious look at the counter trend.

The author also shows us there was more variety behind the Iron Curtain than I think we in the West would have expected.

While I enjoyed this, and recommend it, I think ultimately I was hoping to this would be a companion book to Tina Rosenberg's The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism but this book takes a wholly different approach.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-researched, ambitious history, January 30, 2014
Anne Applebaum's "Iron Curtain" deals with the first years of communist rule in East Germany (DDR), Poland and Hungary, mostly during Stalin's regime in the USSR.

I would say that for a student of the region or a specialist, this work is a four-star book. For a generalist, it is perhaps three stars.

Applebaum's research is unimpeachable. She works through a vast amount of sources in German, Polish and Hungarian, and also conducted a large number of interviews with survivors and figures from the period.

Her scope is ambitious, and this is perhaps where some of the issues begin.

It is, first off, not really a history of "Eastern Europe" per se, as Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia and (perhaps crucially) Czechoslovakia are not covered. Even Hungary feels a bit like an afterthought, most likely as it is not a working language of Applebaum's. The DDR, Poland and Hungary are taken as case studies, and given Applebaum's close connections with Poland (she speaks the language and is married to the current Foreign Minister) means that Poland takes center stage in this history.

Nor is this a history of the Cold War: a strong knowledge of that subject, its chronology, and the major international and national actors is already assumed.

The first half of the book is very engaging, as it describes how communists and their Soviet advisors established control in the three countries studied, and how opposition and independent organizations and movements were persecuted, dismantled or co-opted. While other commenters have noted that this section feels a bit like a court case (which is not necessarily a bad thing), I think that this section is well paced, given the serious material.

The "High Stalinism" section switches the focus mostly to aesthetic issues (youth, civil planning, film, writing, etc.) and here I thought the pace bogged down. This section did feel a bit repetitive, and included a lot of Applebaum's commentary (a DDR mural is "childlike", communist prose is "turgid" and my favorite, "constipated"; Polish author Tadeusz Konwicki's debut socialist realist novel "On the Construction Site" is "possibly his worst novel", etc.). Applebaum is certainly entitled to her opinion, but I feel that if so much space was devoted to cultural criticism of socialist realism, she should have explained a little more clearly *why* such artworks were so bad, and why they are uniquely so. There is a lot of terrible, committee-designed art in the West, and turgid governmental prose, and bad writing, after all. This is not to equate the Cold War's West to the totalitarian East, but this kind of commentary without explanation felt like easy, cheap shots.

Finally, the "revolutions" chapter felt rushed, with odd choices of focus. The DDR strikes in 1953 and the actual Hungarian uprising of 1956 is discussed quickly (and given less space than post-Stalin debates among Hungarian writers in 1955), and the 1956 Polish demonstrations, surprisingly, barely discussed at all (compared to pages about young people dancing the jitterbug at the 1955 Warsaw Youth Conference.

So all together, it feels like Applebaum combined two different ideas into one book: the establishment of communist rule in three of the Eastern bloc countries, and a cultural and oral history the Stalinist period in those three countries with a focus on Poland. Both are insightful and well-researched stories, but they don't quite fit together, and will be a bit overwhelming for the general reader. Definitely read the first part, but feel free to skim the second.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the Evil Empire Subjugated Eastern Europe, April 22, 2013
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This review is from: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Hardcover)
Anne Applebaum's "Iron Curtain" is the first volume-length full treatment of the crushing of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. It is vital to the preservation of liberty to understand what liberty's absence means in concrete terms, and this well-researched account, which includes maps and great pictures, of the establishment of totalitarianism focuses on East Germany, Poland, and Hungary in the first decade or so following World War II.

Applebaum notes that there were significant differences between the nations that fell under Communist control, but that in each country subdued the common methods used by the Communists were the establishment of a secret police force (the author informs the reader how the secret police forces operated), the use of radio for propaganda purposes, and the banning of independent organizations. Other tragic outrages of the time included ethnic cleansing and forced population transfers, liquidation of potential counterrevolutionaries, and show trials with bogus, fabricated evidence.

Totalitarians demand just that--total loyalty, and early on the Communists sought to crush civil society to eliminate any rival sources of thought or community. Free speech and free press rights were smothered, the arts were corrupted, religion was banned or greatly undermined from within, established holidays were replaced, and even apolitical organizations were banned. The Communists especially focused on youth, attempting to mold and shape their characters via propaganda while manipulating those who would not conform with ostracism. Adults were kept busy with Party activities and gatherings, likely to deprive them of free time that they could have used to consider their actual condition under Communism.

The author describes how taxation and regulation were introduced to strangle private enterprise, and how the obvious poor performance of the economy in the wake of these disastrous policies only led the Communists to double down on economic statism. In both the economic and social spheres, people were not free to speak their minds, and Applebaum limns the resulting psychological consequences to ordinary Eastern Europeans that resulted as they felt that they had to lead double lives to survive.

People with even a modicum of knowledge of the human condition would expect Communism to be about as popular as gangrene, but the Soviets actually expected their system to be affirmed in the first elections after the war in the Eastern bloc countries. When it was not, the Communists could not believe it, and in their tantrums that followed their rejection they labeled those who saw through them as "ignorant" and "too autonomous" (viz., wise enough to know that apparatchiks and central planners never have their best interests at heart). When the Communists failed in convincing the people of their right to rule, they knew their only route to power was naked imposition of their system, and when the failures of that system became manifest, they simply and ham-handedly doubled down on their propaganda efforts.

Marxist regimes, be they economic or cultural, decide issues and resolve conflicts on the basis of power instead of by reason and truth, and expect those on the business end of those movements to live a lie of one form or another; as surely as spring follows winter, active and passive opposition rapidly arise, and both did so even in an environment like mid-twentieth century Europe in which people did not have the Internet to find unauthorized opinions about news and politics and to locate and connect with other dissidents.

If everyone under a totalitarian regime decided to resist either actively or passively the regime would disappear in about ten seconds, but there are always varying responses to totalitarianism--everything from support to resignation to resistance. The author describes the quislings who submitted in order to flourish in a society in which certain careers were closed to those who held forbidden opinions on social or economic issues, and also noted the honest differences of opinion by resisters on the degree to which they should rebel--some limited their subversion to jokes that highlighted the absurdity of the Communist system. Applebaum also lists some of the true heroes of the book--those who voted with their feet, got out of Dodge, and sought a new life in a non-Communist country. The author closes by recalling some of the riots and revolutions that erupted in the Eastern bloc during the Communist era.

This volume recounts great brutality on the part of Communists, but the book is ultimately reassuring. Applebaum asserts that people are not as stupid and easily manipulable as totalitarians think--she quotes a sniveling East German Leftist who wailed that "We've done so much education and training, but none of it was absorbed." "Iron Curtain" documents the amorality, brutality, and hauteur that resided in the corroded "souls" of the totalitarian rulers, but also spotlights the resisters' courage, wisdom, fierce intelligence, resilience, and love of liberty as well.
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Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum (Hardcover - October 30, 2012)
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