Allen Lane £25

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56

Communism's end was in its beginning

It is known as Ostalgie in Germany: "nostalgia for the East", a longing for the "guaranteed future" supposedly offered by communism. For those who still hanker after the "good old days", Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 will make uncomfortable reading. Analysing the processes involved and injustices endured, Anne Applebaum expertly dissects the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe post-1945 and arrives at devastating conclusions.

The writer employs a broadly thematic approach and focuses on Hungary, Poland and East Germany. Weaving first-hand testimony and archival material, she lays bare the mendacity and naked brutality by which Moscow's communist "empire" in Eastern Europe was constructed and maintained.

In the process, a few myths are demolished, including communism's spurious pretensions to "internationalism" and the supposed prevalence of Jews within its ranks. Applebaum also disproves the suggestion – still present in university syllabuses the world over – that the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern and Central Europe was in some way a reaction to the outbreak of the Cold War. Soviet gradualism after the Second World War was, she maintains, only ever tactical; a ruse to soothe Western and domestic sensibilities. As far as Moscow was concerned, the end result – Stalinist dictatorship – was never in doubt.

In Applebaum's clear-eyed assessment, communism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, not only in its disastrous economic performance, but also in its relentless desire to control every aspect of human activity, making even the pursuit of moral and intellectual honesty an act of dissent. The book ends with the brave, futile revolts against communist rule in Berlin in 1953 and in Hungary three years later, which so dramatically disproved Western assumptions that "mature" Stalinism would make resistance unthinkable.

Iron Curtain is modern history writing at its very best; assiduously researched, it wears its author's considerable erudition lightly. Pending large-scale revelations from still-closed Soviet archives, it sets a new benchmark for the study of this vitally important subject.

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