Dieter Segert. Die Grenzen Osteuropas: 1918, 1945, 1989 - Drei Versuche im Westen anzukommen. Frankfurt/M. u.a.: Campus Verlag, 2002. 339 S. EUR 39.00 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-593-37020-0.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kopstein (Department of Political Science, University of Toronto)
Published on HABSBURG (May, 2003)
If At First You Don't Succeed
If At First You Don't Succeed
In one of the great one-liners of the 19th century, the Pole Jan Dombrowski is rumored to have said, "I would gladly give my life for my country any day, so long as I could spend my remaining days until then in Paris." Whether or not Dombrowski ever uttered these words matters little; for their resonance lies in what they capture about the East European experience. The profoundly felt desire to join the "West" and the analysis of why this has been so difficult to do have shaped both scholarly work on and public discussion within the region for the past century and a half. Even if some of this discussion reflects an internalization of a western "orientalist" discourse on Eastern Europe, it is hard to dispute the facts: sham elections and petty dictators, economic backwardness and rural poverty, comically corrupt bureaucracies and strutting nationalists are not simply the inventions of western intellectuals. They are real and they constitute some of the primary themes that drive the analysis of the region we call Eastern Europe.
Dieter Segert's book lies firmly within this tradition. He rejects the new subregionalizing adjectives of Central or East-Central to describe the Europe that interests him, preferring simply the designation Eastern. Not only does the term Mitteleuropa harbor a political program, Segert argues, but it harbors a political program that is utterly unrealistic, namely a return to an idealized past. Many of the traits of the pre-communist Central Europe, such as Kundera's "greatest diversity in the smallest space", were leveled out in the communist period or wiped out by the invading Germans even earlier. Whatever Mitteleuropa was and however ideal it may have been, there is no going back to it. Hence Eastern Europe.
After this short terminological discussion, Segert's book proceeds conventionally. The second chapter is an analysis of interwar Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia. It follows a familiar narrative of political and economic dependence. After World War I, having imported the institutions of western liberal democracy after the collapse of the Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian and German empires, with the exception of Czechoslovakia these countries could neither construct stable democracies nor could they close the preexisting gap in economic development with the West. Confronted with a declining native middle class, bloated state bureaucracies staffed by armies of overly educated "lawyers", dire rural poverty, and an urban population that defined its own consumption standards by levels established in the west on the basis of much higher productivity, the democracies of these states did not last long. They degenerated into the corrupt "managed democracies" of Poland and Hungary and the royal dictatorships of Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania.
Even corrupted, however, the elites of these societies did not cut all moorings to the institutions of liberalism. This did not come until the 1930s, and only in a subset of cases, when the German and Italian models provided an alternative to the restraint imposed by the liberal international order. It should be noted that although the author cites a number of sources to support his interpretation, this line of argumentation is best known from the work of Andrew Janos whose books and articles on this era should certainly have been acknowledged.
Segert then turns to an analysis of communist Eastern Europe, the ground for which he maintains was prepared not only by Soviet bayonets but also by the interwar dictatorships and state-party regimes. The analysis is competent. After the ritual criticism of totalitarian theory, Segert draws the reader through a number of approaches to the study of state socialism. The list is not exhaustive but it gets him to where he wants to go. The book, after all, is a study of attempts to enter the west. But, as we all know, the point of communism was not to join western modernity but to construct an appealing alternative to it. In this regard Segert notes that it failed.
But Segert quite correctly points to a number of respects in which the Soviet model did succeed in modernizing these societies. In Poland and Hungary, where pre-modern elites held the bulk of power before 1945, these elites were quickly stripped of all power and privilege. In Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland, where the peasantry lived in pitiful conditions, illiteracy was eliminated and public health greatly improved. Throughout the region the lower classes gained access to vocational training, higher education, and even public office. Most importantly, in societies that were deeply unjust in both material condition and in cultural ethos, the communists created a rough and ready equality. Such a transformation provided much more fertile soil for democracy than the clubbish and exclusionary societies of pre-1945 Eastern Europe.
At a time when most scholars of contemporary post-communist Europe point to the negative impact of Leninist legacies for the consolidation of democracy, Segert's discussion of the positive legacies is useful and interesting. Segert does not shy away from discussing the terror of the communist years and the systematic violation of human rights that occurred in every country of the region. Still, his analysis is firmly in the modernization tradition. Such a discussion implies that, despite the terror, what communism was really about was modernization. In fact, there is more than a bit of sympathy for the communist project in Segert's analysis.
Yet one need not praise odious regimes in order to recognize the ironies of history. In this respect it is worth recalling Ralf Dahrendorf's analysis of the Nazi dictatorship, which, he maintains, prepared the ground for post-war German democracy by destroying the political power of traditional social groups that had dominated German politics for the 60 years before the Nazi seizure of power. In fact, Dahrendorf goes so far as to say that had the aristocratic opponenets to Hitler succeeded in one of their multiple attempts to assassinate him, Germany would have been simply been back in the socio-political position it was before 1933.
The point is that a bad regime can produce unintended good consequences. One place it did not, however, is Czechoslovakia, a case that does not fit Segert's model. Whereas one can reasonably make the case for the "positive" legacies of communism for democratization and economic change in Hungary and Poland, it is much more difficult to hold this position for Czechloslovakia. Democracy already worked reasonably well in the first Czechoslovak republic. It collapsed only under under external pressure. Even the interwar economy, despite the huge challenges posed by new borders, falling commodity prices, and the worldwide depression, stayed afloat through a combination of clever economic management and hard budgeting at the center. Communism, it appears, brought to the Czech lands nothing more than economic stagnation and political dictatorship. It was at best a waste of precious developmental time. It therefore makes sense to speak of both positive and negative legacies of communism. In developmental terms, some countries "needed" it; others certainly did not.
Even where communism produced positive developmental legacies, in the end, Segert notes, it failed everywhere because it never succeeded in closing the economic gap between East and West. Despite the endless cycle of economic reforms, communist elites were never able to devise a unique communist path to a high growth economy. The slow growth alternative sustained a shabby sort of equality but it could not secure the affection of the masses, who came to understand just how inauthentic their cars, clothes, and cutlery actually were. In explaining the final collapse of the system, Segert sides with those who credit the reformist leaders rather than the dissident counter-elites. Not much evidence is provided to back up this interpretation but it is difficult to gainsay that Gorbachev and all the little Gorbachevs in the region pushed the process along more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
The final section in Segert's book is a consideration of the post-communist period. Here he paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, having benefited from communist modernization, the societies of the region seem ready to support democracy as a form of government, at least as long as there is no coherent ideological alternative. On the other hand, Segert maintains, the record on economic transformation has been disappointing. Most of the countries in the region have not fully recovered from the post-communist recession and even those that have turned the corner are not much better off than where they were in 1990. Segert's data is less than ideal. No interpretation based on these data could really be convincing and one could easily paint a far rosier picture than Segert does. Even so, there is enough here to say that the economic transition from plan to market has not been an easy one.
Segert does not predict that the East will become a new third world; the East will not become the "South" because its economies are already far stronger than those in the developing world. There remains, however, the danger that the region could become a permanent economic periphery of the West, thus returning to the pattern that had characterized the region in the century before communism. Like many of us, Segert places faith in an enlarged European Union, the last best hope of Eastern Europe to join the West. In the end, then, it is up to countries of Western Europe to define the East out of the periphery by granting membership to as many of the formerly communist countries of the region as possible.
Segert does not claim that the borders of Europe should be discarded altogether. In his scheme Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have scant chance of admission to the new club of the rich. Yet even if the borders of Europe cannot be eliminated altogether, what constitutes the periphery can be moved, both in our imaginations and in reality, a bit farther to the East.
. See, for example, Andrew C. Janos, East-Central Europe in the Modern World: The Politics of the Borderlands from Pre- to Postcommunism (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2000).
. Ralf Dahrendorf, Society and Democracy in Germany (Garden City, NY: Double Day, 1967), German original Gesellschaft und Demokratie in Deutschland (Munich: Piper, 1965).
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Jeffrey Kopstein. Review of Segert, Dieter, Die Grenzen Osteuropas: 1918, 1945, 1989 - Drei Versuche im Westen anzukommen.
HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.