'Iron Curtain': How It Crushed Churchill Coined the Phrase. Anne Applebaum Brings a Deeper Understanding to the Tragedy That Its Reality Brought to Millions Living Behind It

By Barcousky, Len | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Iron Curtain': How It Crushed Churchill Coined the Phrase. Anne Applebaum Brings a Deeper Understanding to the Tragedy That Its Reality Brought to Millions Living Behind It


Barcousky, Len, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"IRON CURTAIN:

THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956."

By Anne Applebaum.

Doubleday ($35).

In the topsy-turvy world of postwar Eastern European politics, the fact that the Polish YMCA had no obvious political agenda made Communist officials even more suspicious of its intentions.

In 1947, its dormitory offered young men a clean, quiet, if not especially well-lighted, place amid the ruins of Warsaw. The building was also the site for jazz concerts, billiards matches and self-improvement classes.

All those activities worried a government minister named Stefan Jedrychowski, according to historian Anne Applebaum. He recommended an immediate audit of YMCA finances and surveillance of all its lectures and programs, especially the potentially subversive jazz performances.

By 1949, Polish authorities concluded the Y was a "tool of bourgeois-fascism." Its building was confiscated, and water and electricity were periodically cut off in efforts to get the original occupants to leave. "Eventually the young communists threw everyone's possessions out of the windows ... and removed their beds," Ms. Applebaum writes.

The story of the Polish YMCA was repeated over and over again in the countries "liberated" by Soviet forces from the Germans at the end of World War II. Local Communists, much more beholden to Moscow than to any grass-roots support, followed a Soviet model for remaking their diverse societies.

In "Iron Curtain" Ms. Applebaum takes an exhaustive look at how those plans were carried out in Poland, Hungary and East Germany. The result is a well-written book that tells dozens of mostly sad, often tragic and usually little-known stories about how Eastern Europeans found one set of oppressors replaced by another.

Ms. Applebaum has traveled widely in and written previously about this part of the world. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize- winning "Gulag," a narrative history of Soviet concentration camps. (And she is married to Radoslaw Sikorski, a prominent Polish politician who is currently the nation's minister of foreign affairs.)

Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all were totalitarians, Ms. Applebaum writes, with the Italian dictator providing the best definition of the system: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." Hitler and Stalin took those words to heart and millions suffered and died. Their efforts meant bad news for groups and individuals as disparate as Boy Scouts, Masons, Orthodox and Catholic churches, artists, writers and, of course, the YMCA. …

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