Excerpt from Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Iron Curtain

The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

By Anne Applebaum

Iron Curtain
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Oct 2012,
    608 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2013,
    640 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Because American Cold Warriors openly positioned themselves as opponents of totalitarianism, Cold War sceptics naturally began to question the term, and to ask what it meant. Was 'totalitarianism' a real threat, or was it merely an exaggeration, a bogeyman, an invention of Senator Joseph McCarthy? Throughout the 1970 s and 1980s, revisionist historians of the USSR argued that even Stalin's Soviet Union had never really been totalitarian at all. They claimed that not all decisions in the Soviet Union were really taken in Moscow; that local police were just as likely to initiate terror as those at the top of the hierarchy; that central planners were not always successful in their attempts to control the economy; that mass terror had created 'opportunities' for many in society. Among some, the term 'totalitarian'came to be seen as crude, imprecise and overly ideological.

In fact, many of the 'orthodox' theorists of totalitarianism had made a number of the same points. Few had claimed that totalitarianism worked. On the contrary, 'because totalitarian rule strives for the impossible and wants to place at its disposal the personality of man and destiny, it can be realized only in a fragmentary manner,' wrote Friedrich: 'This is precisely why the consequences of the totalitarian claim to power are so dangerous and oppressive, because they are so hazy, so incalculable, and so difficult to demonstrate . . . This contortion follows from the unfulfillable aspiration to power: it characterizes life under such a regime and makes it so exceedingly difficult for all outsiders to grasp.'

Political theorists in more recent years have taken this revisionist argument further. Some have argued that the term 'totalitarian' is truly useful only in theory, as a negative template against which liberal democrats can define themselves. Others find the word altogether meaningless, explaining that it has become a term which means nothing more than 'the theoretical antithesis of Western society', or else simply 'people we don't like'. A more sinister interpretation holds that the word 'totalitarianism' is self-serving: we use it only in order to enhance the legitimacy of Western democracy.

In popular speech, the word totalitarian isn't so much self-serving as overused.

Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g. 'Rick Santorum's Totalitarian Instincts'), as are governments or even companies (one can read of 'The US 's march towards totalitarianism' or learn that Apple has a 'totalitarian approach to its app store'). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand onwards, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

Yet although the very idea of 'total control' may now seem ludicrous, ridiculous, exaggerated or silly, and although the word itself may have lost its capacity to shock, it is important to remember that 'totalitarianism' is more than an ill-defined insult. Historically, there were regimes which aspired to total control. If we are to understand them – if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century – we need to understand how totalitarianism worked, in theory and in practice. Nor is the notion of total control completely old-fashioned. The North Korean regions set up along Stalinist lines, has changed little in seventy years. Though new technology now seems to make the notion of total control harder to aim for, let alone achieve, we can't be certain that mobile phones, the internet and satellite photographs won't eventually become tools of control in the hands of regimes which also aspire to be 'all embracing'. 'Totalitarianism' remains a useful and necessary empirical description. It is long overdue for a revival.

Excerpted from Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum. Copyright © 2012 by Anne Applebaum. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Tenets of Communism

Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Hundred-Year House
    The Hundred-Year House
    by Rebecca Makkai
    Rebecca Makkai's sophomore novel The Hundred-Year House could just have easily been titled ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Valley of Amazement
    by Amy Tan
    "Mirror, Mirror on the wall
    I am my mother after all!"

    In my pre-retirement days as a professor ...
  • Book Jacket: A Man Called Ove
    A Man Called Ove
    by Fredrik Backman
    Reading A Man Called Ove was like having Christmas arrive early. Set in Sweden, this debut novel is ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Arsonist
by Sue Miller

Published Jun. 2014

Join the discussion!

  1.  131Tomlinson Hill:
    Chris Tomlinson

All Discussions

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist


Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.