Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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The Last Frontier by Alistair Maclean (1959)

The Hungarian Uprising against the communist government and rule from Moscow took place in October 1956, so MacLean was writing this spy story set in Hungary just a few years after it was brutally crushed, while the memory was still fresh, while the harsh repressions, imprisonments, tortures and executions were recent events. It was his first foray into writing an espionage thriller as opposed to war stories, with mixed results.

As usual the hero has a bland, everyman sort of name – Michael Reynolds – and is an unspecified age, maybe mid-30s. He is a highly-trained British special agent, smuggled into Hungary to retrieve an idealistic British rocket scientist who has defected in the naive belief that the Soviets will use his knowledge to bring about world peace. Things go wrong from the start, and our hero is thrown into a series of tense and dangerous situations.

First or third person narrator

Unlike the later novels a) it is told in the third person b) the protagonist, Reynolds, is a rather unrealistic character – he is, at least to start with, just a bit too much of a cold, calculating espionage machine. Possibly the two are connected. Describing someone else allows you to romanticise or exaggerate their abilities, possibly a little too far. Inhabiting a character in the first person:

  • Tends to bring them more down to earth – as author you can express, as reader you can experience, their worries and calculations.
  • Allows you to be aware of their mistakes – it seems to be a characteristic of the thriller genre to insert regular ominous proleptic comments – ‘If I hadn’t forgotten that key fact, lives wouldn’t have been lost later that could have been saved. I’ll have to live with that knowledge.’ This conceding of mistakes makes more of a psychological impact if done in the first person. It adds greatly to the sense of realism (we all make mistakes) and to the tragic, gritty, it’s-a-man’s-world ideology which is what these books are for.

So the switch to first-person narratives after this novel may have come because MacLean realised the advantages it gave in terms of psychological impact and narrative flexibility.

Physical trials and tragedy

A key characteristic of the thriller is the extreme physical trials the hero must undergo. In HMS Ulysses and Night Without End and even the Guns of Navarone and in the hurricane scenes of Fear Is The Key the protagonists fight not just the enemy but really extreme weather conditions. The elements, the very universe, is against them in a King Lear kind of a way.

It was hopeless, he told himself, worse than hopeless. With a steadily increasing wind gusting up to forty, perhaps even fifty miles an hour and the train doing the same speed diagonally into it, the combined total strength of that now howling wind outside was that of a whole gale, maybe a little more – and a whole gale that was no gale at all, just a screaming white wall of almost horizontally driving snow and ice. (Ch 10)

And the enemy fights them. They are always getting beaten up and injured, pretty badly. Shot, beaten, broken nose, broken limbs, smashed teeth, pumped full of mind-bending drugs to drive you insane or having headphones clamped to your head which play the chimes of massive bells at earsplitting volume, designed to kill (Puppet on a Chain).

And almost always a close colleague dies:

  • making the danger seem real and close
  • giving the hero and the reader an opportunity to deal with his emotions in a tight-lipped, tough guy manner (‘I pulled his coat up over his face, but there was no time to lose…’)

The intensity of these physical and emotional trials connects them with the literary tradition of tragedy, where men are stripped back to their raw essence in face of a cruel world; and back beyond that, to rites of passage and trials of manhood or to earn kingship, which are routinely found in pagan, ancient or primitive societies. The hero is put through a physical wringer but also learns about the world and emerges dis-illusioned, with clearer insight into Life, Humanity, the World as, of course, we the reader, the vicarious partaker of these extreme experiences, also does.

But, completely unlike tragedy, there is a conventional love component i.e. the (always) male protagonist, almost always stumbles across an eligible, single, child-rearing-age woman in the course of his adventures and, whatever else the mission started off being about, now at least part of it ends up being about saving the girl. Thus the air stewardess in Night Without End, the heiress in Fear Is The Key, the girls in Puppet on a Chain and When Eight Bells Toll.

Against this background, then, it is no surprise that in The Last Frontier the hero is arrested several times, badly beaten (face smashed, lips burst, loses some teeth) and undergoes experimental chemical treatment designed to drive him out of his mind, along with torture based on extremes of heat and cold, plus the basic challenges of surviving the intense cold of the Hungarian winter. All of which he walks away from to still, single-handedly, save the day. One of his closest colleagues ‘tragically’ dies but, of course, our man saves the girl, and they both eventually make it back to Austria and ‘freedom’.

Overdoing the enemy

And then there is the wickedness of their human opponents, who often have superhuman attributes such as: computer-like rationality, imperviousness to pain, complete absence of empathy as they torture or kill innocents. Literature is (meant to be) interested in subtlety, and is capable of investigating great psychological subtlety and complexity: the descriptions of people in these thrillers lack subtlety, they make a merit of going to extremes, of using hyperbole.

Reynolds stared at him and had to force himself not to shiver. There was something evil, something abnormally wrong and inhuman about the quiet-talking commandant with the gently humorous professorial talk, all the more evil, all the more inhuman because it was deliberately neither, just the chillingly massive indifference of one whose utter and all-inclusive absorption in an insatiable desire for the furthering of his own particular life’s work left no possible room for any mere consideration of humanity. (Chapter 8)

In my opinion MacLean routinely overdoes this. The German commandant in Guns of Navarone was described in similar terms, the baddies in Puppet On A Chain ditto, when Doc Morris looks into the eyes of the reverend Smallwood in Night Without End MacLean goes into a dithyramb about evil.

Whereas everything we have learned about evil over the past hundred years is how squalid and banal and everyday it is. It is only presented in the form of highly intelligent, suave and polite psycho masterminds who enjoy having long civilised chats about just how clever you’ve been to get this far, in this kind of over-wrought thriller and James Bond movies.

In fact, the ‘Ah, Mr Bond, we meet at last….’ moment occurs in this novel not once but several times as Reynolds is (very believably) caught and (wildly improbably) escapes – several times. Thus the commandant of Szarháza, Hungary’s most feared prison, is no thug (‘Gentleman, please take a seat’) but a refined and educated man, ‘reckoned the greatest expert on psychological and physiological breakdown procedures outside the Soviet Union’.

‘This, gentlemen, is the moment, if ever there was a moment, for gloating: a self-confessed British spy – that recording, Mr Reynolds, will create an international sensation in the People’s Court – and the redoubtable leader of the best-organised escape group and anti-communist ring in Hungary, both in one fell swoop…It is, incidentally, a pleasure to deal with intelligent men who accept the inevitable and who are sufficiently realistic to dispense with the customary breast-beating lamentations, denials and outraged expostulations of innocence.’ (Ch 8)

In Night Without End there are a lot of paragraphs repeating just how evil, wicked, cold and heartless the two baddies are: ‘I was looking into the eyes of ultimate evil…’ etc. The cheesiness of this is quickly and easily ignored because the plight of the heroes, struggling against the terrifying Arctic storm conditions, has a truly epic feel, is all-encompassing, and you skip the commentary to find out what happens next.

However, in The Final Frontier, Reynolds is confronting the entire communist system in Eastern Europe, specifically the feared secret police, or AVO, in Hungary, backed by the looming menace of the USSR. This is a big enemy, a big subject to define and describe, and in my opinion the more MacLean stops the plot to describe the AVO in detail and fill us in on the background of the Hungarian Rising, and then the background before that – the sufferings of Eastern Europeans under the Nazis, how the Russians were initially and mistakenly greeted as saviours etc – the less successful he is.

Certainly, fear and dread have to be created in a thriller to raise the stakes, in order for the events in the novel to have a high-wire, edge-of-your-seat quality – ‘Oh my God, what will happen to them if they’re caught?’ To scare the reader into turning each page with white knuckles.

Which is why although slowing the flow of events to a standstill while, for example, the underground leader’s daughter describes in some detail the harrowing suffering of her father before, during and after the war certainly adds detail and background and lays on the atmosphere of fear and menace, it also undermines the pace.

In this respect The Last Frontier is an interesting experiment, an attempt to give historical and psychological background to a story, but I’m guessing MacLean realised it was a mistake and got in the way of the main purpose of his novels – Pace: the relentless unfolding of high tension events, which the immediately following novels, Night Without End and Fear Is the Key, have in spades.

Philosophy and politics

Something else MacLean tries out here and never tries again, is long philosophical and political speeches. The venerable, white-haired underground leader, Jansci, builds up respect as we learn more about his appalling sufferings before, during and after the war, which have conspired to turn him into a quietly-spoken saintly figure. Towards the end of the book he is given a speech which lasts 4 or 5 pages pleading for better mutual understanding between eastern and western blocs. Only by ceasing to hate and fear each other, only by meeting and talking and understanding each other, can we overcome the fear that threatens the existence of the world, in an era of superpowers with huge arsenals of thermonuclear weapons.

‘There is no certainty that it will come in our time. It’s a gamble, it must be a gamble, but better surely a gamble from hope, however tenuous that hope, than a gamble from despair and pressing the button that sends the first intercontinental missile on its way. But for the gamble to succeed, understanding comes first; mountains, rivers, seas are no longer the barriers that separate mankind, just the minds of mankind itself. The intolerance of ignorance, not wanting to know – that is the last real frontier left on earth.’ (Ch 11)

The novel has unusual complexity for a MacLean thriller because there are counter-threads, different characters represent different views, and the plot regularly stops so they can fill in historical background or have political debates:

  • The rocket scientist the whole plot was meant to be about goes on a journey from his early position of even-handedly debating the relative rights and wrongs of East or West (i.e. he naively believes the Soviets want peace, which is why he has defected) to witnessing the brutality of the secret police against his friends and against himself, before arriving at a much chastened view.
  • The Count, the Zorro-like dashing trickster who impersonates a high-ranking AVO officer and saves the day more than once, has also experienced the brutality of the inter-war years and his more jaundiced view is set against Jansci’s idealism.
  • And Reynolds, the hero, is confused enough by the complexity of the society he is infiltrating and especially by the subtlety and forbearance of Jansci’s philosophy, to swear that this will be his last mission for the Secret Service.

Cold War, old war

The arguments of the various characters about the political situation of East and West and how to handle communism were probably current and relevant in the late 1950s. Now, even for someone interested in history like me, they seem antiquated in a way the plot isn’t. The thriller, with its primitive ethos of testing manhood, will never go out of date. Whereas the arguments about whether to try to outgun the Soviets or engage at cultural and economic level are over 50 years-old and belong to a vanished world. I have to explain to my children what communism was and how the world was split into two power blocs – and they don’t believe me. Why didn’t they just agree to live by their different systems, my son asks me.

This is a good and interesting read, but not a classic MacLean.


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Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

Early 1970s Fontana cover of The Last Frontier

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrators

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First-person narrators – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Still pretty good

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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