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CZECH CURTAIN: Prague, 1988
AFP/Getty Images
CZECH CURTAIN: Prague, 1988

Ashes to ashes

Books | Lessons from Europe’s totalitarian era and a warning about America’s possible future

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 was on our recent Book of the Year short list (see “Terrific and timely,” June 29, 2013). I suspect Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (Crown, 2013) will be on next year’s. The two books have in common a geographical area and good writing, but Applebaum’s tone is objective, while Shore begins her acknowledgments by saying, “This is a deeply subjective book.”

That it is, the story of a young woman trying to come to grips with old hatreds. The Taste of Ashes works because Shore’s subjectivity is not navel-gazing: She uses all her senses to accumulate evocative specific detail about others. Explaining how a red-diaper baby grew up, she notes that the first word Pani Ryszarda learned was revolution, and Ryszarda’s father only “sat and read. He went into the bathroom with a book, he went on a walk with a book. When I would go on a walk with him, he would read the paper. I would hold his hand, looking around.”

Shore brilliantly quotes former propagandists such as Aleksander Wat concerning the guilt they felt: “I never allowed myself to forget my basic duty—to pay, to pay for those two or three years of moral insanity. And I paid, and paid.” She also finds wonderful columns, such as one by Antoni Slonimski criticizing a right-wing, anti-Semitic publicist: “Mr. Piasecki claims that Jews invented communism. If one considers the fact that Jews invented capitalism as well, it could seem that in relation to us their accounts are all squared. We could likely add that Jews also invented Christianity, but let’s not complicate Mr. Piasecki’s ideological situation, which is already so complicated as is.” 

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The United States was an exception to the international growth of tyranny in the 1930s and 1940s, but may not be so blessed in the 2030s if debt cascades, inflation becomes uncontrollable, and despair grabs our hearts. That’s one reason why libraries should purchase The Black Book of the American Left (Encounter), a multivolume collection of the conservative writings of David Horowitz, the 1960s radical who saw close-up the left’s bonfires and the ashes that remain. Horowitz for decades has fought the left emphatically: More Americans need to learn from his experience.

Jayhawk power

University presses for many years were pits of literary depression, turning out unreadable tomes that facilitated professorial tenure-seeking but did not serve readers well. Driven by creativity or financial necessity, some now pick specialty areas and produce books that are readable. Noteworthy among the up-and-coming: University Press of Kansas, which has had the good judgment to turn out books about political campaigns that are reportorial rather than propagandistic.

For example, W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Real Making of the President (2009) is a readable debunking of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President 1960, which began not only White’s series of romanticized presidential campaign books (1964, 1968, 1972) but dozens of others in which liberals are almost always heroes and conservatives villains. Rorabaugh writes fluently about John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the 1960 election, showing how the Kennedy juggernaut rolled over Hubert Humphrey and others who didn’t know what was about to hit them until they were flattened. 

University Press of Kansas has also published books about the elections of 1796, 1896, and 1912: R. Hal Williams’ Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896 provides an incisive portrait of William Jennings Bryan in his first national campaign, and also explains how anti-inflation Republicans picked up workers’ support. (The 1896 McKinley coalition was Karl Rove’s model of what he hoped George W. Bush would accomplish, and now I know why.) Kelly J. Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, which shows that racism once had a solid footing among some conservative Christians, is also instructive. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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