Great essay on the Iron Curtain countries

Here’s a great review essay by Louis Menand on Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe”. Below the fold are a few snippets of what were highlights for me, but read the whole thing if you have time – it’s full of remarkable facts about the the end of WWII in the East where over four fifths(!!) of the casualties took place and its long sad and dangerous aftermath:

“Iron Curtain” is a post-Cold War book. . . . It was made possible by the opening, after 1989, of archives in Russia and former countries in the Eastern Bloc. . . .

Two discoveries are especially striking. The first is that Stalin had no plans for an invasion of Western Europe. A war with the United States seems to have been something he dreaded. The Soviet Union was extraordinarily weak in 1945. In addition to the loss of infrastructure—Chris Bellamy reports, in his history of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, “Absolute War” (2007), that seventeen hundred towns, seventy thousand villages, twenty-five thousand schools, thirty-two thousand industrial plants, and sixty-five thousand kilometres of railroad track were destroyed—Soviet military and civilian deaths in the Great Patriotic War exceeded twenty-six million, almost fifteen per cent of the population. . . .

The other revelation from the archives is that, as the historian Vojtech Mastny has put it, there was no double bookkeeping. Marxism-Leninism was not a cover story or an ideological fig leaf for a bunch of power-mad gangsters (though gangsters they were). It was the Soviet leadership’s world view—what they really believed.

That world view is one reason that there were no immediate plans to attack Western Europe. Soviet Marxism—that is, Marxist theory as it was interpreted and dogmatized by Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin—held that capitalist states will always go to war with one another, and these wars will be a danger to socialist states like the Soviet Union. This was exactly how Stalin understood the Second World War—as a fight between capitalists.

Stalin required a security buffer on his western borders and a large military, armed with nuclear weapons, because he believed that when the capitalist countries went to war again, as the theory said they would, they would attack the Soviet Union. He also believed, as taught by the theory, that a world revolution leading to universal socialism was inevitable: it was the direction in which history was headed. The Soviet Union should be opportunistic while it awaited this great consummation; but, sooner or later, history would do the work. . . .

Should the United States have intervened before 1989 to end the partition of Europe? In 1958, during a symposium held under the auspices of the C.I.A.-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom, in Paris, the French political theorist Raymond Aron argued that partition was a solution less dangerous than any other. What happened on one side of the wall stayed on that side of the wall. It had no effect on the other side. Few officials in the West really wanted to see the Iron Curtain lifted, as long as the Soviet Union existed. They did not want to go to war, in a nuclear age, on behalf of Polish strikers. At a minimum, the wall was a permanent advertisement for the carceral nature of Soviet Communism. It’s just that, as Applebaum has documented, the geopolitics, prudent and logical as they might have been, carried a human price. ?


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paul walter
paul walter
9 years ago

Interesting to watch the narrative change slowly over time, seventy years now since ww2, twenty since the fall of the Wall. The early soviet leadership were of course born into an era when serfdom was a living memory or, if old enough, a lived reality.
The West hated the Soviets, from the beginning, so the Soviets decided to wait things out, but they misunderstood that Soviet Russia was eventually relapsed to feudalism rather than being the inevitable end-game predicted by Marx and Lenin.
There is no doubt the Left are right. There is a Capitalism, it is wasteful and oligarchic, but the Soviet experiment of the twentieth century, demonstrates that regardless or not of whether a time for change is ripe or not, there is no guarantee that it will be engineered to success just on what appears to be the possible existence of certain presumed preconditions.
If folk were capable we’d live well under all systems, but that’s not how people work and how “it” works, yet.

9 years ago

The early soviet leadership were of course born into an era when serfdom was a living memory or, if old enough, a lived reality.

Nyet. Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861. Lenin was born in 1870, Stalin in 1878, Trotsky in 1879 i.t.d. With the notable exception of Stalin all the members of the first Politburo were from comfortably middle-class backgrounds.

There is no doubt the Left are right.

Heh. J’en doute.

9 years ago

It’s also worth remembering that in 1958, when the CCF symposium addressed by Raymond Aron took place, there were significant signs of liberalisation (although obviously still within the limits of the overall framework of the Leninist-Stalinist state) in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Also, given that a US (or NATO) military intervention before 1989 which seriously aimed to end the partition would have had a non-trivial probability of turning into a serious nuclear exchange embroiling all of Europe, the human price of the prudent and logical geopolitics of the time was, on the balance of probabilities, less than the hawkish alternatives.

In a chapter on the collapse of European communism in Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History, the neo-realist international relations scholar Mark Almond argues that as late as the late 1980s most Western governments and politicians weren’t champing at the bit for the Iron Curtain to be lifted, and were taken somewhat unawares at the speed with which Gorbachev’s reforms brought the house down.