- Polio across the Iron Curtain: Hungary’s Cold War with an Epidemic by Dóra Vargha
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, xi + 254 p., $121
Medical internationalism during the Cold War has become a rich area of historical study in the past few decades. Nonetheless, historians of Cold War international relations often portray the division between [End Page 500] East and West as concrete, or iron. Dóra Vargha’s Polio across the Iron Curtain seeks to add complexity to this narrative, demonstrating how, despite the growing division between East and West after World War II, the global threat of poliomyelitis epidemics led Cold War enemies to collaborate for the collective good. Vargha aims to decentre the traditional USA–USSR dyad and focuses instead on a “peripheral” nation: Hungary. The monograph is transnational, demonstrating how goods, ideas, and people travelled across state borders. The introduction lays out ambitious goals, identifying three central problematics for Vargha’s text to analyze: how international relations shaped and were shaped by an epidemic disease that refused to respect borders; how the Hungarian national government and institutions used healthcare to try to gain public support for the communist project; and how communist healthcare projects and the politics of the Cold War were experienced on an individual level. Spanning a decade of political and epidemiological turmoil in Hungary (1952–1963), the six body chapters weave together a narrative of how a particular form of communist modernity “was co-constructed in a tumultuous time of political upheaval” (7) by the state, medical practitioners, and the families affected by poliomyelitis.
Polio across the Iron Curtain seeks to contribute to several emerging historiographical fields. First, it broadens polio from a narrative of the United States, as in David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story (2005), to a global phenomenon requiring international collaboration in the context of Cold War division. Here, Vargha draws on Erez Manela’s 2010 article “A Pox on Your Narrative: Writing Disease Control into Cold War History,” in which he argues that the threat of disease made such collaboration across the iron curtain through the World Health Organization (WHO) politically appealing. In Vargha’s narrative, however, the International Committee of the Red Cross plays a larger role than the WHO, organizing an international network of iron lungs when the WHO fell short. Vargha’s major contribution to the historical literature is at the national and individual level, adding depth to our understanding of the historiography of public health in Hungary under communism, which she aptly identifies as sorely neglected. Vargha represents Hungary not as a totalitarian dictatorship, as previous historians have done, but rather as a country rebuilding from World War II, which sought to create strong foundations for future citizens.
Drawing on a wealth of archival sources and oral interviews conducted by the author, Vargha’s work describes efforts to combat and [End Page 501] cure polio that “overarched regime changes, revolutions, and retributions” (21). Healthcare was a matter of public good and was able to contravene established political barriers where needed. Using oral interviews with polio patients, the author humanizes the victims and brings them to the foreground, whereas previous studies of health-care and international relations have often taken a bird’s eye view. To the author, it is important to recognize how the fight against polio in Hungary “was initiated – and carried out – on the ground, and its history remains invisible when studied from above” (59). The gripping narrative of two-time polio victim Katalin Parádi seeking to recover from paralysis despite the tumult of the 1956 Revolution shows how political events interfered with individual lives, and really humanizes a global ideological conflict. Vargha is not just discussing the ideological Cold War and its effect on nations; she is discussing individuals, whose lives were forever altered by contexts they did not choose and could not control.
The monograph raises several fascinating questions for further study. At the end of the first chapter, Vargha identifies the communist focus on productive bodies, and the ways in which disability resulting from paralytic polio were...