When Evil Was a Social System

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BOOKS JULY 13, 2013

When Evil Was a Social System The moral burdens of living under communist rule in Eastern Europe

“Do not save me,” read the note that the Polish poet Aleksander Wat left by his Paris bedside in 1967, after taking the overdose of sleeping pills that would kill him. The twentieth century was unkind to Wat. As a Jew, and as the onetime editor of the Marxist Literary Monthly, he was unlikely to flee westward when Nazi armies and their Soviet allies converged on his country in 1939. But he found no welcome either when he fled eastward to Lwów. He was arrested by the secret police and exiled with his family to Kazakhstan. Wat was a man of conscience. Although among the twentieth century’s victims, he would be racked with guilt over the part he had played as a perpetrator—as one who had made the intellectual world safe for Stalinism.

Wat had a sense of what made totalitarian ideologies hard to see through. This sense inspires historians even after the ideologies themselves have withered. A passage from his autobiography—“the loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people”—serves Anne Applebaum as an epigraph for her new history of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Marci Shore has written much on Wat and his circle, and in her new book she describes being among the last to interview some of Wat’s contemporaries—and among the first to read that chilling suicide note, which was removed from Wat’s bedside and ordered sealed until the twenty-first century.

Applebaum and Shore are among the historians who have shown that there is much to know about communism in this century that was not obvious to everyone in the last. They are both polyglot and well-
traveled writers of regional history, and both have been especially captivated by the variety, the indomitability, and the energy of Polish (and, in Shore’s case, of Polish-Jewish) culture. Both regard Soviet communism as more intertwined with the history of Nazism than most historians did before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Applebaum’s book is social history rather than narrative history. It does not survey Eastern Europe from the heights of the State Department, citing cables and monographs, and judging whether it was Roosevelt or Churchill who sold Poland out at Yalta or whether it was Truman or Stalin who started the cold war. Instead Applebaum provides us with an intimate and claustrophobic impression of how Stalinism functioned on the ground in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany.

Stalin’s project to reshape Eastern Europe by force began in collaboration with Hitler. After signing a pact to divide up the region between them, both dictators invaded Poland in September 1939. Stalin’s defenders claim that he was cannily playing for time against a German invasion of the Soviet Union that he knew to be inevitable. Applebaum does not buy it. Had Stalin really suspected a double cross, he would not have sent so many German communists back to Hitler, prison, and death. In this period, the Soviets committed Nazi-style mass murders, most infamously the Katyń Forest massacre, which saw 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war executed in half a dozen far-flung spots. “The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were, for twenty-two months, real allies,” Applebaum writes. That period ended when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

This chronology creates a confusion that any history of postwar Eastern Europe, and especially Poland, must reckon with. For when the Red Army came roaring back westward across Poland in 1944 and 1945, it was engaged in two wars at once: a wholly legitimate defensive war against the Nazi aggressor, and a thoroughly illegitimate continuation of a war of conquest begun in collaboration with the Nazi aggressor. The Allies were involved in the Soviets’ defensive war but not in their imperial one. This explains how they could betray Poland a second time without ever, then or now, allowing their consciences to be troubled that they might have done otherwise.

The Soviets thrived in the mayhem that the Nazis left. 

It was hard for the Russians to keep the two wars separate. An occupying power in a just war is due a certain freedom of maneuver. When the Potsdam Conference in August 1945 granted allies the right to intern not just Nazis but also “any other persons dangerous to the occupation or its objectives,” it opened the door to many Soviet abuses, but Applebaum does not claim that there were any serious alternatives. When the Soviets reopened the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, using them as POW camps, they intended, in Applebaum’s words, to “cut dubious people off from the rest of society, at least until the new Soviet occupiers had got their bearings”—not an unreasonable aspiration.

The problem is that it is difficult for a large and unsophisticated army, one that has been engaged for several years in barbarous combat, to make fine distinctions. The Russians treated their Polish vassals like their German enemies. Actions that would have been defensible on military grounds in Germany—confiscating all radios, for instance—were outrages in Poland. Notoriously, the Russians waited across the Vistula during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, while the Germans reduced the city to rubble. The Polish Home Army, the main Polish resistance, with 300,000 men under arms, offered to subordinate itself to the Soviet high command in the fight against the Nazis, but the Russians tricked, disarmed, and arrested its officers and—in many cases—sent them to the gulag. The Polish communist Jakub Berman, Stalin’s Polish adviser and later the boss of Poland’s secret police, instructed his cadres on how to outmaneuver the Home Army, as if they were so many Nazis themselves.

The Soviets thrived in the mayhem that the Nazis left. Twenty percent of the Polish population was dead, including the great majority of its Jews. Parts of pre-war Poland were grafted onto Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine and were “replaced” with German territory. Applebaum sheds no tears for the 7.6 million Germans expelled from Poland—their goal had been Lebens
raum, colonization, and the destruction of Polish civilization—but she is appalled by the way the Germans were removed. Institutions created to manage their removal were used later to harass other groups. Russians took over property that the Nazis had stolen from Poles and, especially, from murdered Polish Jews. The communists’ justification was to blame the property itself: “These companies belonged to the German war machine, and served its goal of destroying the Soviet Union.”

 

Hannah Arendt once said that the story of the communist takeover of Eastern Europe has no intrinsic narrative interest, because it had all happened in the Soviet Union before. Applebaum strongly disagrees. She sees what was imposed on the East as the essence of Stalinism, a set of dark “best practices” distilled over the years. The postwar show trials of Hungarian and Czechoslovak officials accused of “Titoism” and “Zionism” were patterned on those carried out in Moscow between 1936 and 1938. This, for Applebaum, “proves that Stalin judged those trials to have been a political success, a tactic worth repeating in his new client states.”

In all countries, the communists followed a simple formula. Even before any provisional government was in place, they would set up a secret police apparatus along Soviet nkvd lines. They meant business. The Hungarian census bureau, which had successfully resisted German demands to identify the country’s Jews, quickly surrendered data on those who had registered as Volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans, under the occupation. Next, the Soviet authorities took over the organs of information, starting with the radio, but eventually extending to all other media.

The Soviets believed—sincerely, in Applebaum’s view—that behind-the-scenes control, along with the natural affinity of workers everywhere for their ideology, would allow them to take power while respecting democratic forms. Electorates were more hostile than anticipated. In Hungary in November 1945, the conservative Smallholders’ Party got an absolute majority running against communists and four other parties. Applebaum’s telling of the “extraordinarily brave and amazingly blunt” campaign of Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) is the narrative highlight of the book. It ended in the murder of party members, a stolen election in June 1946, a sabotaged one in January 1947, and the exile of Mikołajczyk. A partial exception to this democratic repugnance was Czechoslovakia, which gave Communists 38 percent of the vote in 1946. But there was never any possibility of a repeat, once Stalin forced the Czechs to reject the financial aid that the United States was offering under the Marshall Plan. By the time leaders of the Communist Bloc met in 1947 to discuss what to do about Marshall aid, Applebaum notes, “almost every one of the communist parties present at the meeting already had a stranglehold on power.”

 

It is impossible for a people to resist tyranny without a clear idea of who “we the people” is. The highest priority of the Soviet occupiers was to keep such an idea from emerging spontaneously. Applebaum credits the historian Stuart Finkel with the insight that communists have always acted more forcibly to undermine free association than to undermine free enterprise. Even when Lenin launched the New Economic Plan in the 1920s, she notes, the “systematic destruction of literary, philosophical, and spiritual societies continued unabated.” The Soviets’ worries were not misplaced: the Armageddon of Eastern European communism in the late 1980s was brought about not by plutocrats but by Czech intellectuals, Polish labor unions, and various church groups.

Rather than content herself with generalities, Applebaum chooses a few small organizations and shows in detail how they were subverted. Her book opens with the Polish Women’s League, a group of earnest volunteers set up to feed refugees in train stations, which bureaucrats infiltrated and turned into a mouthpiece for party dogma. The dingy Warsaw ymca was closed down because its large collection of jazz records (which communist youth would eventually smash with hammers) made it a hangout for young people. There was suspicion of pub owners, tobacco sellers, and barbers who “due to their regular contacts with the public were the primary disseminators of fascist propaganda.” But Soviet communism did not permit even independent “anti-fascist” groups. The Polish Boy Scouts were targeted because they had made the decision to join the armed anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. It was not enough that an individual be open to the new regime or hostile to the old. The person who did not make an outright, preemptive demonstration of his servility might cause you trouble later on.

“Every public holiday became an occasion for teaching,” Applebaum writes, “and every organization, from the Konsum food cooperative in Germany to the Chopin Society in Poland, became a vehicle for the distribution of communist propaganda.” Today it seems almost comic to read of an East German communist cultural bureaucrat saying, “If you look at Goethe’s work, you can see that he always worked toward dialectical materialism, without realizing it.” It did not seem comic then. This was a society in which everything had to yield before the state’s definition of reality. “We need support by our satirical press in the republic,” a member of the German Central Committee explained when the government shut down a mild humor magazine.

In all three countries that Applebaum surveys, destroying Catholic Church groups was a high priority, partly because the Church disposed of such talkative, energetic contacts abroad. In 1950, Caritas, the Catholic charity, which operated orphanages and soup kitchens, came under fire for having connections to “aristocrats” and Nazi sympathizers and misappropriating funds. It was nationalized, and priests were fined for alluding to it in sermons. Breaking the Church also allowed the state to seize useful booty that they, like Henry VIII, could place under the authority of “patriotic priests” and leaders of the official “opposition.”

The Soviets wanted to corral young people into mass state-run organizations. Habits inculcated by the Hitler Youth made this task easier in Germany than elsewhere. Young German communists favored torchlight parades reminiscent of Riefenstahl, and Christian groups were broken up with public shaming ceremonies reminiscent of Mao. Church authorities responded to such intimidation in different ways. The Hungarian Catholic Church took a hard line. Its cardinal, József Mindszenty, spent the last fifteen years of his life holed up in the American Embassy in Budapest. But the Hungarian Church had been crushed by the time communism fell. Poland’s hierarchy was more accommodating: they can be faulted, but the Polish Church did survive to lead the anti-communist resistance in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sovietized Eastern Europe was not pure evil or futility or mediocrity. But it was unfree.

Sovietized Eastern Europe was not pure evil or futility or mediocrity—one need only listen to a symphonic recording from the 1960s or peruse the questions asked of students in an East bloc high-school math olympiad from the 1970s to see that. But it was unfree. Poland had a program called awans społeczyny, a sort of affirmative action for the children of working-class parents. Its worthy-sounding goals (“to deepen and broaden education obtained in school”) resembled our own rhetoric about diversity. The problem is that the state had a political interest in awans społeczyny quite independent of the public’s educational one, and when Poland’s leaders were being picked and promoted, it was the state’s interest that was uppermost.

The school system, too, was far from pointless. In Poland, a communist “battle to liquidate illiteracy” had been made necessary by the closure of schools under Nazi occupation. But, again, educational results were subordinated to ideological conformism. Applebaum mentions a girl sent home from school for saying, “my grandfather says Stalin is already burning in Hell”—sent home not because the teacher disapproved, but to protect the girl, her friends, her grandfather, her school, and the people who ran it. In such circumstances, propaganda can be a balm. It provides a way for men to lie to themselves, to rationalize submission to the strong, to save face. “I don’t like everything Stalin says,” you could mutter (quietly!) to your wife, “but someone has to do something about the illiterate.”

 

Applebaum is ambivalent about the responsibility of those who had to make their peace with communism under such circumstances. She is unforgiving when it comes to Stalinist architecture in modern-day Warsaw. Polish architects, she believes, brought much of this on themselves. She writes that they “resembled German painters, none of whom had been forced at gunpoint to paint cartoonish works of propaganda either.” (This seems questionable. Even if there existed a space of artistic freedom under Stalinism, it would have been hard to tell exactly where that space was, and reckless to use it until one knew.)

At other points Applebaum empathizes with people of genuine talent who would, in ordinary times, have been an embellishment to their societies. Instead they became cogs in inhuman machinery—whether 
“willing” or “unwilling” was hard even for them to say. The composer Andrzej Panufnik had to join the Union of Polish Composers in order to sell his music. Required, like his fellow union members, to submit a “Song of the United Party,” he dashed one off and was mortified to see it picked as the winner. Needing to support a family, loath to compromise himself further with the regime, Panufnik abandoned composing and took up the scholarly study of sixteenth-century music. A woman named Halina Bortnowska, a leader in the Polish scouting movement, left her job to teach religion to elementary school students in Silesia. It was not much of a career. “But for six years,” Applebaum writes, “she survived in communist Poland and did not collaborate.” That was not nothing.

 

There is a theme that stands outside Applebaum’s time period but lowers over it all the same: the diabolical nature of Germany’s war aims, particularly in Poland. “The object of the German occupation of Poland,” she writes, “had been to destroy Polish civilization.” Much of the country’s upper class was executed or sent to concentration camps. At the end of the war, there was almost literally nothing left of Warsaw. What the Nazis did succeed in destroying was Poland’s millennial Jewish civilization. One might imagine that shared agony at the same hands would bring Poles and those Jews who survived closer together. Nothing like that happened. In fact, Poland in the months and years after the war saw a wave of deadly anti-Semitic riots and pogroms, including a few that involved medieval-style blood libels.

In these episodes, communists were prominent as both perpetrators and victims. Applebaum notes that communists were “ambivalent about Jewish history and Jewish identity.” In 1948, the communist leader Władysław Gomułka opined that “some of the Jewish comrades don’t feel any link to the Polish nation or to the Polish working class.” Applebaum also notes, though, that “all of the leading Hungarian communists—Rákosi, Gerő, Révai—were of Jewish origin.” One of Rákosi’s priorities was to “Hungarianize” the party—that is, to give it a more gentile public image. Stalin was probably thinking along these lines when he assumed that the newborn state of Israel would join the communist bloc. In communist Poland, Applebaum notes, the stereotype of an S. B. (Służba Bezpieczeństwa) secret policeman was that of “a diabolically well-trained fanatic, highly educated, probably Jewish.” In Poland after the war, Jews are estimated to have made up 30 percent of secret-police leadership.

But this does not mean that stereotypes about secret policemen were true. As of 1947, Applebaum reports, 99.5 percent were ethnic Poles. Perceptions of Jewish involvement in communism were exaggerated by a cruel kind of selection. Fewer than a tenth of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews survived the war. The great majority of survivors spent the war in the Soviet Union. Those who fled to the Soviet Union were more likely to have been communists beforehand. Those who survived thanks to the Soviet Union were more likely to become communists afterward. And those who did not feel that ideological affinity were the least likely to return to live under Stalinism in Poland. Pre-war Eastern European Jews were certainly more sympathetic to communism than other peoples, but the Holocaust, on top of everything else it did, effected a sorting that made Jews, especially in Poland, look dramatically more sympathetic to communism than they ever actually were. Communists became adept at using Jews as scapegoats. The villains of the Hungarian and Czechoslovak show trials of the early 1950s were mostly Jews, and in 1968, the Polish government led an “anti-Zionist” campaign that resulted in the exile of thousands of Jewish Poles.

 

“There is almost no greater emotional minefield,” Applebaum writes, “than the history of the Jews in postwar Eastern Europe, and especially of the Jews in postwar Poland. The tangled relationship of the Eastern European Jews to Eastern European communism is a large part of it.” That minefield, that tangled relationship, is the subject of Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes.

 If you stopped reading The Taste of Ashes 
after 119 pagesyou would have no idea what it is about. Shore calls it a “deeply subjective” book. It is also very poetic. There is a studied euphony to its language, almost a meter (“and straw chairs wobbled on the cobblestones”). It is an intellectual autobiography covering the first two decades of Shore’s career as a scholar of Eastern Europe: travels (Prague in the 1990s, Romania to study minority policies, and finally Poland), languages (Czech, Polish, Yiddish), and characters (from the right-wing Slovak parliamentarian who loves Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to the Czech friend who, after a sex-change operation, writes to Shore that “the revolution has not ended, it’s only begun!”). You might compare it to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, a wonderful book on Russian literature, in that Shore lays out a very serious subject by introducing us to various eccentrics from whom she learned about it. The subject that seizes Shore not long after she arrives in Poland, on page 120, is the memory of Stalinism and how to allot blame for it.

Shore was a teenager when the Berlin Wall came down. By the time she got to Europe, she writes, “the fall of communism had opened a Pandora’s box.” All sorts of people had found communism a useful tool for taking advantage of others. To get rid of that tool was to invite the settling of scores. But there was an additional complication. It was Paul Berman who first noted—in a magisterial essay on revolutionary Czechoslovakia, in 1990—that the anti-
communist tumult was set in motion not by anti-Marxists but by Marxist revisionists and others on the left. Shore agrees. She notes that Charter 77, the Czech dissident document, “was not anti-Marxist.” True enough, but this is not necessarily to the left’s credit. Much as we would like to think that Eastern European leftism (in its oppositional guise) was more polymorphous and pluralistic than we realized, it may also be that Eastern European leftism (in its ruling guise) was more brutal than outsiders commonly understood. Maybe the children of Stalinists were over-represented among the opponents of Stalinism because they alone understood the rules well enough to know which ones could and could not be bent. Shore had the good fortune to fall in with some of the more introspective members of this group, including Adam Michnik and Konstanty Gebert.

It was the historian Jan Gross who steered Shore to the archives of the postwar Central Committee of Jews in Poland. There she began to research the remarkable Berman family, who figure prominently in Caviar and Ashes, her book on Wat and his circle. There were five Berman children, two of whom were murdered at Treblinka. One of the survivors was Jakub, the “little Stalin” of Poland who, as Applebaum tells us, plotted to help the Soviet army mislead the Polish Home Guard. His younger brother Adolf was a Zionist politician who was ousted from the Central Committee of Jews for “right-wing deviationism” and emigrated to Israel thereafter. 

Having been scolded once in Hebrew school for asking whether a kibbutz was like communism, Shore expected to find the brothers at loggerheads. She found, to the contrary, that postwar relations between Zionists and communists had been “warm.” Adolf was no anti-communist: In 1952 in Israel (where he is as often known as Avraham Berman), he broke with his 
Zionist Left Party over its condemnation of the Stalinist show trial of Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia and joined the Communist Party of Israel. Nor was Jakub hostile to Judaism, a hundred-year-old childhood friend tells Shore. Shore calls this “my first glimpse into how the Jewish question was hopelessly entangled in the communist question.”

Shore is an admirer of Jan Gross’s method of creating “a dialogue between the author and his sources,” and such a dialogue emerges as Shore discusses the memory of communism with every historian, old communist, child of communists, and Polish-Jewish friend she can find. She discovers a bifurcation in the understanding of Stalinism between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. “Kostek [Gebert] told me that for the Polish Right the war was a war between nations,” she writes. “For the Left it was a war between ideologies.” The Jewish mathematician and moral philosopher Stanisław Krajewski—whose parents remained communists even after his grandparents were liquidated by Stalin—believes that “Judeo-
Bolshevism” is not just a stereotype but something to acknowledge guilt over. “I did not use the word apologize,” he tells Shore, “but perhaps acknowledgeengage in dialogue....” Henry Dasko, son of Jewish communists, who left Poland during the anti-Zionist campaign of 1968, tells Shore on his deathbed that, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, Jewish Poles were happy to see them. He says, “For the Jews, September seventeenth was nothing.” Shore’s Jewish friends Bogna and Lea resent having been baptized two decades before by zealous parents who had done it as a gesture of solidarity with Solidarity—“in rebellion against, and perhaps atonement for, the choices made by their own parents, who had been among the builders of Polish communism,” Shore writes. Her book thus brings us to a shocking place. It is a dialogue, all right—a dialogue over Polish Jews’ historical guilt. Not survivors’ guilt: guilt.

“The whole stereotype of Jews supporting the Bolsheviks and communists is nonsense,” said Shore’s mentor Gross in the midst of a furious public debate over Neighbors, his book about a pogrom carried out by Poles in the village of Jedwabne in 1941. Gross’s colleague Tomasz Strzembosz had argued: “It was understandable that in 1941 the Poles in Jedwabne resented the Jews. After all, twenty-one months earlier the Jews had not mourned the end of the Polish Republic. On the contrary, they had welcomed the Red Army, they had collaborated in deporting Poles to Soviet labor camps.” Shore persistently conveys her admiration for Gross’s patriotism and especially for his moral project, calling it an attempt to assure that the Polish intelligentsia remain, as it always was, the “conscience of the nation.” Gross was right to worry in Gazeta Wyborcza that to evoke mitigating circumstances in Jedwabne, whether intimidation by Germans or the political leanings of Jews, “would allow us in conclusion to say something in the way of ‘Aha, I understand,’ or ‘It was a monstrous crime, but after all ...,’ or ‘It’s terrible, unforgivable, well, but yet....’ ”

This leaves Shore at an impasse, because a historian can run the same risk with Stalinism, too. Just as persistently, she piles up testimony to convey that denying the link between Jews and communism is a polite convention. And Shore mentions a letter that she herself sent to Gross, in which she tells him that where he saw “widespread collusion” by Poles in the Holocaust, she suspects only “indifference, or passivity.” For most Poles, Stalinism was a continuation of Nazism. For some Polish Jews, it was an escape from Nazism. Konstanty Gebert, describing his mother, who joined a Polish division of the Red Army, put it bluntly: “For her the choice was clear: the gulag or the gas chambers. And people came back from the gulag....”

Of course, few people had any effective choice. More often, as Shore puts it (writing of Czechoslovakia), such choices ended in people “going to their deaths in Theresienstadt with Stalin’s name on their lips.” Heda Margolius, whose husband, Rudolf, had been executed in the Czech show trials of 1952, told Shore that she had not been a communist when she got to Auschwitz, but the communists she met there

were in fact the best people in those camps, ... the only ones who didn’t think only of themselves and of the horrors confronting them personally, but actually about what kind of world there would be when the war was over. And that gave them such strength and they were such wonderful people, they simply enraptured everyone around them.

The first thing she and her husband did when released was join the Communist Party. Pani Irena, the third of the surviving Berman children, put it most simply: “If someone was a communist, he wasn’t an anti-Semite.”

Shore is puzzled by one episode in the Polish resistance to Nazism. After escaping the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, Adolf Berman and his friend Władysław Bartoszewski, a Catholic resistant who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, helped to found a secret group called Żegota, the Council for Aid to the Jews. Bartoszewski was jailed for seven years when Jakub Berman headed the security apparatus. Why didn’t Jakub Berman do something to help a man who had done so much for his brother, for his people? Or why didn’t Adolf himself intervene with Jakub on Bartoszewski’s behalf? When Shore poses the question to Bartoszewski in 1997, he seems sincerely not to understand what she is getting at. What could the Bermans have done? They were caught in the same trap as everybody else. Jakub Berman himself was too circumspect even to write to his brother in Israel to console him when his wife died. Later Shore sees a secret-police file on Jakub Berman dating from 1968. It included a forged document dated April 1945, meant to be a communication from Berman to his fellow Jews that they “have the chance to take the whole of state life in Poland into their own hands and extend their control.” It was doubtless meant to be released in case the Communist Party ever had to take extreme measures against him.

Jakub Berman’s daughter, Pani Lucyna, accuses Shore, when they meet, of being “ahistorical,” of failing to realize the narrowness of alternatives, “especially for Jews.” If this was ever a failing of Shore’s, it is one that she remedied in the course of her research. One of the best things her book does is to convey how very narrow were the options for Polish Jews, even under communism. As Aleksander Masiewicki, a communist student of Adolf Berman exiled to Brooklyn in 1968, wrote in a letter to Berman:

Zionism didn’t constitute any alternative. At present it’s able to RESOLVE the problem of tens or several tens of thousands of Polish Jews, but at that time it was powerless with respect to Russia’s three and a half million. It gave possibilities to individuals, but the fate of a whole nation had to be determined in that land which revealed itself to be inhospitable.... As in the great Greek tragedies, we stood before dilemmas, each of which portended disaster.

 

These two books are a sign that something is changing in our understanding of the twentieth century. Applebaum and Shore, while close in age, are on opposite sides of a generational razor’s edge. Applebaum, born in the 1960s, has adult memories of the Cold War; Shore, born in the 1970s, does not. Applebaum speaks to, and in the idiom of, those who survived totalitarianism. She dedicates her book to “those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.” Her big, resolute book gives us the most authoritative knowledge we have about communism, and only the most authoritative knowledge.

The Taste of Ashes shows what erudition looks like in the Internet Age.

Shore is engaged in a different project. Her book shows what erudition looks like in the Internet Age. Like a blog string, it records every false step she makes on her way to understanding. Shore almost never writes about important matters in her own voice. This means a loss of authority compared with Applebaum’s more classical style, but it allows her to share more with the reader. It frees her of the historian’s superego. The question of whether the reader can handle certain of the explosive things she has to say about Jews and communism appears not to have occurred to her.

Some readers might consider it unsavory to travel the world eliciting the opinions of exiled centenarians about whether or not Jakub Berman was a “good Jew.” Others might see in the gathering of such personal reminiscences a mitigation of what Jakub Berman did to Poland. Reasonable historians may differ about whether this sort of history-through-memoir is more honest (transparent) or more cowardly (non-
committal) than the standard kind. But it will be clear to any reader of good faith that Shore has chosen historical guilt as her subject in order to deepen our understanding, not to sow discord or rile anyone up. She has found a way to illuminate certain Polish and Jewish ideas about the worst episodes of the twentieth century that is frank, fresh, and gripping. Guilt, after all, is not just self-inflicted injury but productive moral work. At any time, “guilty” will describe almost any conscience functioning as it should.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at TheWeekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.

 

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