Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 7, 2013

Interesting Times (Hobsbawm) and Iron Curtain (Applebaum)

Cover of "Interesting Times: A Twentieth-...

Cover via Amazon

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!






  1. Interesting. I understand there’s a book written by an Ex-communist Russian who held an important post in the party, that explains in his opinion how World War II was concocted. In my opinion (?) WWII occurred as did WWI (or the Great War as it was called). Economies in the world needed a readjustment and wars were then thought to be ideal for this purpose. Now wars are ideal for economies but, please?, outside interested countries’ frontiers, that’s why this crisis – always in my opinion – has been concocted. That is one of the resources of Ultra-Capitalism, or of Communism (I believe Communism is another form of Capitalism), or of whatever economic ideology that happens to be. When social advances have been attained too much and people start to believe they are rich, then it’s time to recommence. Else, continual inflations in normal times are no good for the value of money: that is the cause of social cuttings, etc. The buying power of money must be reduced at all costs.

    Sorry for being a bore.

  2. I’m very interested in this time period and topic. I’m currently taking a Modern World History (since 1750) course so am pretty inundated with history reading at the moment. However I will definitely have this series on my list for future.

  3. Jose – apologies for late response! I have been on the road quite a bit recently (work purposes). I think we can agree that wars are often caused by economic interests, from whichever part or party. I am interested in these books because they unravel what in fact happened as a consequence of wars, how freedom was further eroded. It is also interesting to note (with hindsight) how difficult it was for people at the time to understand what was really going on. I think a lot of this would be much more difficult to hide nowadays becasue of modern media, blogging, twitter, and other social networks, vis what’s happening in Syria, Iran, and other places. Whether it helps make a difference is another matter!

  4. Hi Kathleen – It is an absolutely fascinating era and as mentioned above these books reveal so much that I simply did not know. I envy your course: it’s comething I will do (recent history) once I retire (the number of things I will do is astronomical – too much to do, too little time). But yes, these books are excellent.

  5. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, Corri. I’m trying to find out about that Russian I referred to in my first comment and will not fail to send as much info as I can to you as soon as possible. I’m also interested in reading it, although prudent reservations should have to be made in this case owing to the long known maxim that history is written by winners. What is absurd, in my opinion, is that history attaches, for instance, WWI to the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, as may be said of other circumstances in WWII, too long to explain here, but which are known to many of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: