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The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, by Marci Shore (Crown, 384 pp., $27)


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It is widely recognized that war and Nazi misrule were critical in clearing a political, military, and (perversely) moral space for Eastern European Stalinism, and the link between the war and the troubled decade that preceded it is hardly a secret. The connection to the “unhinging” 1920s is more novel. Shore uses the microcosm of a group of 20th-century Polish poets as a window into the revolutionary fervor that enveloped large sections of the European intelligentsia in a decade happier, luckier Americans remember for jazz and Al Jolson.

Those poets — many of them of Jewish descent — dominated her book Caviar and Ashes and crop up again in The Taste of Ashes. From the later 1920s onward, they exchanged the (to them) ultimately unbearable uncertainties of nihilism for the messianic determinism of the far left, a faith that they — and a number of their associates — were eventually, and crucially, to put at the disposal of Stalin’s Poland. That’s a timetable that suggests to me that the original sin from which the nightmares Shore describes were to flow was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. After all, it was Lenin’s blood-soaked millennial upheaval that frightened many into Fascism as a supposed last bulwark of civilization. And it was Lenin’s revolution that drove its followers worldwide into a Communist cult that became dangerously intertwined with Stalinism years before the alibi that was Auschwitz.

To attribute so much of the blame to Lenin fits awkwardly with the emphasis that Shore’s narrative places on Hitler. The Holocaust is justifiably central to our reading of Eastern Europe’s dark 20th century, but its role as Stalin’s enabler needs more nuance than Shore gives it. Equally, notwithstanding the pantomime anti-Semitism (a gargoyle hounding of phantoms) that still, shamefully, persists in these lands, the horrors of the Shoah are less critical — other than for the hideous absence that it left behind — to our understanding of the region today than Shore appears to suggest. In a book billed as wide-roaming, she devotes perhaps too much space to what is now, tragically, only a tiny, introspective, often conflicted minority of Polish Jews. A minority of a once slightly larger minority (the Communists arranged a final anti-Semitic purge in 1968), they stay put in a country that groups of visiting Jewish teenagers — there to mourn at the death camps — regard (Shore recalls) “as a cemetery.”

Theirs is a disturbing, compelling story, but it crowds out a broader discussion of the encounter with a Communist past in which so many Eastern Europeans were profoundly compromised and then, “in a world where all the rules had changed,” left exposed by the opening of files that were either devastatingly ambiguous or, worse, all too clear.

There could have been more too in this book on the appeal of totalizing ideology to so many intellectuals. It is a topic that obviously interests Shore (it surfaced in Caviar and Ashes), but she gives too little attention to a phenomenon that still endures, if more benignly, even in the attitude of those such as the former dissident and Velvet Revolutionary who opts out of the, yes, normal politics of the new era: “To be engaged” is, in his view, “to forgo clean hands,” an abdication that is itself a declaration of absolutist thinking. Shore notes that “dissidence . . . had often been born of communism”: Once a believer, always a believer — all that changes is in what. That dangerous thrill remains.

Shore concludes the book with a tale of meeting a “bright young” member of the Polish new Left, who thanks her for Caviar and Ashes — a work he regards as rehabilitating those Marxist intellectuals of seven decades ago. Shore contradicts him, explaining that their fate is a “tragedy.” “But I didn’t read it as a tragedy!” says the bright young man. “I read it as a romance.”

We have been warned.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.


Contents
April 22, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 7

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