Do you know what’s the most powerful weapon a dictatorship can use against the people it wants to rule? It’s fear. People have written poems about it, and Natan Sharansky wrote his excellent book “The Case for Democracy”, about which I have written before.
With communist dictatorships, that’s the most often used weapon of all. Starting from the Soviet Union, moving on to Eastern Europe, to China, to North Korea and to Cuba. All these dictatorships could never have emerged if these regimes hadn’t started with instigating fear in people—so that they wouldn’t dare to fight back.
Anne Applebaum’s book, “The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56”, dissects thoroughly the dictatorial regimes in Eastern Europe that took power after the Second World War, by hook or by crook. Mostly by crook, but apparently the hook worked as well. She explains clearly how the Soviet Union, the communist superpower, both incentivised and scared people into “believing” in communism, made it clear to people that “the party is always right”, and jailed or murdered anyone who dared to think otherwise, or, heaven forbid, fight back.
Concentrating mostly on East Germany, Poland and Hungary, Applebaum conducted several interviews with people who saw these countries’ transition from war-torn, nazi-occupied former democracies into depressing Stalinist regimes. Having spent months in archives (truth be told, 1/3 of the book is the index of notes!), she tells the story of oppressed people with no realistic hope of freedom learning to cope with their new reality, of the youth that were specifically raised to be loyal to communism, and of what happened to the people who resisted the regimes.
It’s a sad book, it’s a heart-breaking story of millions of people being stripped of their liberty. I don’t think I hate anything more than taking away people’s freedom—and that’s why I loved this book. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, remembering this horrid regime and its oppression, it would be impossible for me to feel otherwise.
Yes, I remember. Hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe remember. But hundreds of millions elsewhere don’t. There are hundreds of millions of people who don’t even realise that living on the other side of the Iron Curtain had been something completely different from what people had in the West. We know from history that there were thousands of people in the West who admired the Soviet Union and its regime. Some were disillusioned after they had visited the Soviet Union, or its satellites in Eastern Europe. Some were impressed. And some didn’t see it with their own eyes, and therefore continue to this day assume that communism is the perfect governing model. Believe me, I know some of these people!
I think the main purpose of Anne Applebaum’s book is to tell these people how wrong they are. Even the blindest of the blind must see through this book that communism always equals oppressions and murder.
And the other purpose, in my opinion, is so that people wouldn’t forget.
We, humans, have this nasty habit of dying, and once there will be time when all the people who remember this terrible injustice brought upon them by those murderous regimes are gone. Unfortunately, we’re prone to repeat our mistakes—and if there’s nobody left to remember that these really were mistakes, the easier it is for the human kind to repeat them.
This book will keep the memory alive.