Little Stalins

Iron Curtain
The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956
Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, $35, 566 pp.

Karl Marx was wrong: Wars, not revolutions, are “the locomotives of history.” Like a devastating storm, war sweeps away the people, institutions, and attitudes that stand in its path, and on this wreckage-strewn landscape, war creates opportunities for the leaders, organizations, and ideas that promise to master its destructive fury. Nowhere was the interplay of war’s destructive and creative energies more apparent than in Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

The First World War destroyed the German, Austrian, and Russian empires and in their place created a new configuration of independent states stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Politically fragile, economically weak, and ethnically divided, these states were swiftly caught up in the maelstrom of the Second World War, sometimes as Nazi Germany’s victims, sometimes as its allies, and often as one and then the other. In 1944, Soviet forces began to take control of the ruins left in the wake of the German army’s slow and painful retreat westward toward the Reich.

The “crushing of Eastern Europe,” therefore, was first and foremost a product of how and where the war was fought. Applebaum begins her splendid new book with a moving account of the conflict’s final months, which reminds us of the tragic contrast in the war’s impact on Western and Eastern Europe. In France, 590,000 people were killed by the...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.