Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book is mostly exposition of specific events in the history of the Sovietization of eastern Europe after WWII. It is very matter of fact, and doesn't stretch out too far in passing judgement on what happened, other than weakly conveying a sense that it was bad. I think that was on purpose, as I found the tales themselves did a good job of illustrating the oppression and "badness" resulting.

This is not intended to be a very serious review, more of a free-form stream of thoughts I'm having since finishing the book.

I think what I found most striking was, that whole nations and societies were quickly and (relatively easily) subsumed into a totalitarian regime with lasting impact to personal freedom and even basic mental and physical well-being. Even if your personal story, living within the regime, was rather benign (as a few were), you could still, mentally, feel the weight of the oppression.

What did that take? Really, I think this was an episode of an epidemic. A period of disease passing over the populations of eastern Europe as a kind of virus of pure ideas. A pathology of thought. Force was involved, certainly, but as the events of the fall of the Berlin wall so clearly demonstrated: always and everywhere, governments consist of some minority which imposes its will and authority upon a larger majority. This majority, acting perhaps under notions individual self-interest, tacitly acquiesces to the authority of the reigning minority (seeing no obvious alternative). The resultant state of affairs can be benign or tyrannical, and the critical realization is that there is nothing preordained about the outcome. You can just as easily land in a totalitarian horror show as in a free society, or at any place along this continuum.

Once set, that's a state of affairs which can persist for a surprisingly long time, possibly indefinitely in some cases. Until, all of a sudden it stops working. By the end of the book we have illustrated for us numerous cases of popular passive and active resistance to the regime. All of a sudden, a sort of critical mass is reached, and enough people stop accepting the authority of the people tasked with being the instruments of the regime. And these implementers, individually realize something alike with their fellows on the other side of the baton and shield. They blink, and the collective effect of these individual actions witnesses an earthquake in the political power landscape. The majority reclaim something of their natural human freedom. The upheaval will later settle out, and society will land at some other point on this continuum of free-unfree.

The fall of the wall, though not addressed specifically in the book, represents the ideas of the final chapters, and represents an idea I took away from a contemplation of the book's accounts. The fall was spontaneous, unplanned and unwanted by the reigning minority. A tipping point was reached as a new meme took root in the minds of enough of the public on both sides of the wall. The asymmetry of information in the hours immediately proceeding the mass descent of the public upon the Brandenburg gates served to be the final grain of sand that starts the whole pile to avalanche down toward a new level. The border guards, steeped in the undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the current oppressive state, and cut off from their leadership at this critical moment, were left to operate on their own individual best judgement. The crushing masses of cheering people on both sides were unprecedented, and seemed to suggest an idea in the minds of at least some of the guards, "perhaps these people know something important which I don't." And finally, when the first few brave individuals (possibly not as brave as you might think since they were acting under the belief that cross-border movement was no longer restricted) moved the final yards to cross the line, the guards had a choice: shoot or let-pass. And without specific orders, they chose not to act, just observe. And the massed majority retook possession of their own individual freedom in a brilliant moment.

This notion of how societies allow themselves to become oppressed, and later retake their freedoms, fascinates me. Within this book are stories tracing the descent of several societies of eastern Europe into fealty and bondage to the Soviet regime. It's frightening how easily it happened, and to be successful, how it had to have taken the action of the transmission of ideas as well as a small bit of targeted coercive force. As the wavefront of the Soviet meme spread, the previously infected peoples actively participated in the process of constraining and coercing the submission of people later exposed to the meme. From an active core, the regime oppressed itself into being. The oppression occasionally reflecting back upon the members within that active core, becoming a self-reinforcing situation for a good long time.

A free society or a totalitarian state? What makes either possible seems to come down to the culture of the moment and the ideas which hold the minds of the people therein. The regimes are sticky, though. Once one sort becomes established, whether benevolent, benign, or oppressive, it seems like it takes a outsized communication of ideas to reach a critical mass strong enough to reshape it into something else. But like an earthquake, the tension can seem to build almost completely unnoticed, until all of a sudden, enough people recognize their inner notions are not just their own, but the same as their neighbors, and the earth heaves and the waves sweep over. Cultural consciousness builds up like a pile of sand grains. At some unknown point, the last few grains before the avalanche fall and bring about an awakening. Depending on the ideas represented by those grains, we seem fated to either knuckle-under to an oppressive tyranny, or emerge into a refounding of respect for our own freedom and our neighbors.

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