Reading Interesting Times and Iron Curtain alongside each other is very interesting – both books focus to greater (Applebaum’s) or lesser (Hobsbawm’s) extent specifically on communism during pre, during and postwar Europe and the impact it had, what it did to people and countries. Eric Hobsbawm died in October last year, he was a lifelong marxist and communist historian who wrote in a clear and very insightful way about Europe, starting with the Age of Revolution (1789-1848). The ‘Age of’ series consisted of four books, the last one was The Age of Extremes which deals more or less with Europe during the 20th century (1914-1991 to be precise). I read him for the first time as an undergraduate student, the first book in the series, such a long time ago now! Later I acquired the subsequent volumes only to lose them all again whilst travelling the world and unable to ship everything across.
Recently I re-acquired the first book and am also reading, for the first time, his biography ‘Interesting Times (a twentieth-century life)’. And his account of his life is, definitely, very interesting: his closeness to the developments in Germany, Austria and then, just before the second world war started, his move to England where he was one of the many university students to join the communist party. This followed his close links developed in Germany, first hand. Hobsbawm remained a lifelong communist, despite what he saw as the flaws and he was critical.
The Iron Curtain, however, is a real eye-opener on what happened behind the curtain, but summons a kind of understanding as to why people would join the communist party:
‘Disappointment with the failures of capitalism and democracy pushed many Europeans to the far left in the 1930s. Many came to feel that their choices were limited to Hitler on the one hand or Marxism on the other‘, writes Applebaum (p.57), confirming Hobsbawm’s experience.
And until 1939 it seemed that it was quite possible not to think too hard about supporting the Soviet Union as a form of committed anti-fascism. That changed, however, when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler.
Applebaum considers the crushing of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union in dedicated chapters in her book, treating each area in turn: Communists, Policemen, Violence, Ethnic Cleansing, Youth, Etc. She develops these themes in turn for each of the three countries she considers in her book, East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I thought I knew quite a bit about the history of the second world war, but I really did not. This book helps you understand how some of the cruelty that took place, often was so much tit for tat, people becoming dehumanized and you wonder how anyone would fare in such appalling circumstances, during and after the war. Also, of course, countries could remain completely blocked off from the rest of the world, without telephone connections, with a state controlled radio. It’s hard to remember how really cut-off life could be without smart phones, or even mobile phones or landlines, without internet, twitter, etc. And it was not that long ago!
Hobsbawm reminds us how, during and between the world wars, it was easy enough in Europe ‘to conclude that only revolution could give the world a future’. The three elements that distinguished communist utopianism from other aspirations to a new society could be summed up as follows:
1. Marxism – this provided a (scientific) explanation, predicting and testing the certainty of victory
2. The movement was truly international and intended for everyone (without distinction between ethnicity or religious groupings)
3. Finally it involved the tragic element: communists were ready for the worst: the party was born in persecution
These two books are truly fascinating, well written and not to be missed by anyone vaguely interested in Europe and its recent history. It helps to understand how we have arrived at where we are now. In particular of course it helps me understand my own family: With a granddaughter whose other grandparents come from what used to be East Germany, other members of the family rooting from The Netherlands and England and then again Iran. Well, you do really need to understand your history to make sense of it all!
- Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Life Behind the Iron Curtain: The Ultimate Exercise in Big Government (VIDEO) (heritage.org)