1 Last updated 8 August 2011: added review of Poland Betrayed: the Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939.


Eastern Europe 1939-1989: The Fifty Years War, Patrick Brogan, Bloomsbury, 1990

A fairly straightforward guide that covers the Warsaw Pact countries plus Yugoslavia, Albania and the Baltic republics (plus Mongolia gets a mention). Brogan takes each country in turn, describing its origins and recent history but concentrating on events from the Second World War onwards, showing how the catastrophe of the war years, particularly for those countries that had allied themselves with Hitler, shaped the next fifty years until Mikhail Gorbachev from above and discontent from below showed the authoritarian governments of these lands to be ultimately hollow.

Embarrassingly for many Westerners, Brogan shows how many Western leaders cosied up to the iron-fisted Romanian dictator Ceausescu in a belief that they would gain some sort of diplomatic advantage within the Warsaw Pact:

"Ceasescu, that megolamaniac Stalinist, was received with all honours in Washington by a series of American presidents, by the Queen of England and by an array of Western presidents. It was all very gratifying..... [He had] all the tacky trappings of an instant billionaire."

This book is now nearly a decade old, and in fact the climactic events in the book (the fall of the Wall and the disintegration of Communism) are now a decade behind us. One prescient warning sounds out in the chapter on Yugoslavia:

"Slobodan Milosevic put himself at the head of a xenophobic Serb movement and won a degree of popularity that no Yugoslav leader had enjoyed since Tito."

Even at this early date Milosevic was demanding the complete reintegration of Kosovo and Vojvodina into Serbia, and in October 1988 organised a mass demonstration of 100,000 Serbs in Vojvodina which degenerated into violence. Thus the pattern was set which would culminate in the NATO bombing campaign of 1999.

Yugoslavia aside, however, with hindsight it can be said that history has been kinder to Eastern Europe than the cautious summary of Mr Brogan's book would suggest. Even Albania has managed to shake off its Stalinist shackles and move to some semblance of democracy, despite the various crises that have seized the country, while Romania and Bulgaria, two of the more doubtful cases mentioned in the book, have also managed to secure a peaceful transition of party government, the authoritarian nature of the post-Ceausescu National Salvation Front notwithstanding. Paradoxically the former East Germany has not managed to make the transition as well as the author expected, with a huge industrial slump, heavy taxes on the grumbling West Germans and racial intolerance and crypto-fascism running high among the young underclass in the East. Nevertheless this is a good and highly readable introduction to the historical events that have shaped Eastern Europe.

The Life and Evil Times of Nicolae Ceausescu, John Sweeney, Hutchinson 1991

Nicolae Ceausecu was in his own lifetime a man courted almost sycophantically by the West while feared and hated by his own people, a figure both evil and laughable. As a dictator he was more in the brutish league of Idi Amin than Hitler or Stalin, who could at last claim some modest successes in their own sphere and who, as Bernard Levin once noted, were fairly incorruptible compared to the Romanian strongman.

John Sweeney was a writer for the Observer and brings a journalistic raciness and at the same time depth of research to his grotesque subject. His book starts off during the chaotic events of the revolution, with him and his Turkish companion driving through the night and being menaced by soldiers, revolutionaries and possible Securitate thugs. He then takes us through a potted tour of Romanian history, a bloody affair, before starting on the early years of The Carpathians' Most Famous Son (or some similar platitude that he liked to be called). The young Nicolae apparently started out as a revolutionary cobbler before being imprisoned under the old Romanian Axis government, although Sweeney notes that the conditions of his confinement were idyllic compared to those he later imposed on thousands of political prisoners, many of whom he used as forced labour to build the Black Sea canal. Riding into favour along with the rest of Romania's Stalinist communist party in the wake of the Red Army in 1944-45, the former jailbird rose through the ranks before being chosen, ironically, as a compromise candidate for the leadership, a mistake his peers were to bitterly regret. What followed was a tragic descent into megalomania, deceit and ruin, not only for the dictator and his wife but for the whole country.

Sweeney takes his chapter titles from chess, and thus we start with "Pawn" (the early years), go through "Castle" and "King" before we reach "King Goes Mad" (the seventies) and finally "Endgame", "Check" and "Checkmate", when after their travesty of a trial the old couple are shot dead and buried in graves under pseudonyms. The author conducted a good many interviews for the book, including with such people as Silviu Brucan and the three children of the Ceausecus, one the playboy son, the other a shadowy and somewhat ambiguous figure. Nevertheless there are times when the reader must despair, with Mr Sweeney, of knowing just who is telling the truth. Certainly the author does not take the word of any of his subjects for reliable, especially those close to the inner circle of the dictator. As he candidly says, Romanian politics is a mire. The Epilogue of June 1990, with miners loyal to or bribed by Ion Iliescu's National Salvation Front government beating up political opponents in the goonish way that Nicolae Ceausescu would have approved of, is also somewhat depressing. Since then, however, Romania has followed a peaceful path, with a new government and reasonable transition to a market economy. The deep wounds of the country may be healing at last.

The Year That Changed The World, Michael Meyer, Simon & Schuster 2009

Michael Meyer was Newsweek's Bureau chief for Germany in the years 1988-1992, and had the opportunity to interview or take part in the interviews of many East European leaders, both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book consists of much material garnered from those interviews, some with the painful hindsight of the years, and gives a fascinating insight into how the largely peaceful changes of 1989 occurred as seen by many of the key players and individuals on the ground. The conventional wisdom in some circles is that by standing firm and boosting arms spending, the West forced the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, but Meyer disputes this, pointing out that Gorbachev was actually cutting defence spending during his tenure in office, and that Reagan came to trust the Soviet leader and moved from a hawkish to a cooperative position, as did George Bush Snr after a shaky start. Apart from the powerful and influential Gorbachev, there were other leaders in Eastern Europe who could see which way the wind was blowing, or more presciently, that Communist society as it stood was facing stagnation if not imminent collapse. These included Miklos Nemeth, who became Hungarian Prime Minister and outmanouvred the hardline Karoly Grosz before dissolving the Communist Party, and several members of the East German Politburo, notably Egon Krenz, who became increasingly aghast at Erich Honecker's handling of the crisis of GDR citizens openly leaving via Hungary's now open border to the West. General Jaruzelski, who had a somewhat dark history of collaboration with the old Soviets, also presided over a period of peaceful transition as Communist support collapsed in Poland's free elections. Quiet diplomacy by German officials and US ambassadors also helped behind the scenes. And then there were the heroes, such as Vaclav Havel, a man only a year before imprisoned by the Czechoslovak regime, or Pastor Laszlo Tokes whose outspoken sermons continued in the face of harassment and beatings by Ceausescu's police, and (if one can be judgemental) the villains such as Milos Jakes, Erich Honecker and of course Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Yet Meyer's book is not mere hagiography, showing for example the less likeable side of Lech Walesa once his raison d'etre appeared to have been removed, while the somewhat coup-like nature of the Romanian revolution is discussed.

One thing that becomes clear in the accounts is how unprepared virtually everybody was for the pace of events, from Washington to Moscow and down to street level. Even many of the reformers were thinking in terms of change in years rather than months, while some Western hawks were still viewing Gorbachev with suspicion at the beginning of the year. The events of November 9 1989, when the Berlin Wall began to be demolished as East Berliners climbed over it, appear to have been precipitated by a communications failure between two members of the East German Politburo, following which one of them read from a prepared statement that citizens were free to go "Ab sofort" - from immediately, which of course was interpreted as "right now". Meyer discusses briefly whether individual choices made historic events possible, but it is clear that once fateful choices were made, consequences followed with dramatic swiftness. If Western hawks and watchers of Eastern Europe were taken unawares, the same is true of many of the nominal leaders of the Warsaw Pact, Honecker and Ceausescu being portrayed as particularly lost in their own worlds. Honecker was ousted in a meeting that has a touch of the tragicomic about it and died of cancer in exile in 1994, while the Ceausescus met an altogether more violent end. But another group of leaders are given equally short thrift, namely the US neocons that were later to gather around George W Bush. In particular Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice are shown as still believing in a Red Peril before being sidelined by Bush Snr, whose caution is praised. Meyer concludes the story with a discussion of the influence of the events of 1989 on the presidency of George W Bush and in particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At less than 250 pages, this is an easily readable but not lightweight book, with plenty of further references in the sources at the end.

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