How Nationalism Overcame History In Eastern Europe

How Nationalism Overcame History In Eastern Europe

If one had to come up with a single sentence to sum up all of the brutality, folly, tragedy, chaos, villainy, and occasional moments of heroism that John Connelly surveys in From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe, you could boil it all down to this: too much history and not enough real estate.

While Connelly singles out Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as case illustrations, he considers the individual paths followed from the eighteenth century to the present day by Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the eastern regions of Bismarckian Germany, which were subsequently lost to a reborn Poland after World War I, regained by the Nazis, and then lost again at the end of World War II, although partially reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of his most acute—and amusing—analysis deals with the Soviet-created satellite state of East Germany. If ever there was a caricature of an ideology-driven state riddled with self-contradictions, it was the German Democratic Republic, starting with its very name: democratic it was not, and only a republic by the broadest possible definition. Depending on how you looked at it, East Germany was either the worst-case scenario for post-Nazi German reconstruction—keeping the goosestep and the secret police, but getting rid of prosperity and prestige—or a shining example of how much more efficient a Stalinist police state run by Prussians and Saxons could be than one run by Russians.

Compared to Russia, East Germany’s senior communist apparatchiks were “more catholic than the pope.” Erich Honecker and his fellow gerontocrats even kept on towing the militant party line long after Gorbachev’s ussr and most other Soviet satellites tried to salvage what they could of a bankrupt system through radical reforms.

CONNELLY HAS assembled a remarkable amount of detailed information and analysis on a vast and fascinating subject. His lengthy introduction is particularly well-written and summarizes many of the most important lessons to be gleaned from his tour-de-force study of a part of the world that has played a pivotal role in modern history. He divides his book into five sections: The Emergence of National Movements, The Decline of Empire and the Rise of Modern Politics, Independent Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe as Part of the Nazi and Soviet Empires, and From Communism to Illiberalism. This is followed by a clear, forceful, terminal essay which, along with the introduction, is crisp, concise, and convincing historical writing at its best. 

In between the introduction and the conclusion, there are a few passages that read as if they were pulled together by graduate student research assistants, sometimes from hastily translated foreign sources. Thus, in one passage, victims of ethnic cleansing atrocities are described as being “shot into” rivers—certainly not an English idiom—to cite one of many small examples which, while mildly annoying, do not detract from a generally excellent narrative.

From Peoples into Nations is a big book on an even bigger subject, and the author is not exaggerating when he asserts that:

[It] is not a simple heroic story of self-assertion: the anti-imperial struggle often made national movements imperialist, and the fight against oblivion involved driving others—during World War II, the region’s Jews—into oblivion. Nationalism asserted itself beyond innumerable obstacles, from the wars of 1849 to the compromise between the Habsburgs and Hungary in 1867 and the sudden proliferation of new states in 1918. Up to and beyond 1945, it swallowed liberalism whole, sidetracked socialism, begat fascism, colonized Communism, and is currently doing things to democracy for which the word “populism” may be a weak placeholder waiting for some more chilling descriptor. If the region has produced indelible works of literature—the writings of Kundera and Milosz are examples—that have given witness to suffering that is not exclusive to Eastern Europe, it still belongs to an experience that defies the imaginations of people in the West.

There are more villains than heroes in this long and winding saga, but there is a heroic leitmotif that rises, fades, and rises again through all the Sturm und Drang of this gripping tale in which even many of the heroes assume varying shades of gray. I myself recall a meeting that a few other writers and I had with Gyula Horn in November of 1989 in Budapest. Hungary was still a communist state at the time, but the handwriting was already on the wall. Horn was then foreign minister, but in our conversation, he laid more stress on internal than diplomatic affairs. A soft-spoken and dignified man, he emphasized the fact that, in Hungary, there really had been a strong, post-1956 tradition of trying to make the best of a very painful, vulnerable position. Figures such as Horn devoted their lives to trying to humanize what, unfortunately for them, was an essentially inhumane system of government—one based on a distorted view of human nature and a total misreading of the laws of economics.

Happily, in Horn’s case, there was even a final curtain call when he headed a makeshift government dominated by former communists that came to power democratically at a particularly difficult moment in the transition from a Marxist to a market economy. Far from trying to unravel the reforms and restore the bad old days, the Horn government did its best to work within a parliamentary, democratic framework to continue the transition to free institutions while also combating corruption. 

Poland’s Wladyslaw Gomulka, and Hungary’s Janos Kadar, and, even more so, Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek were earlier examples of such “gray heroes” who did their best to make things livable for their fellow citizens while being forced to work within the failed framework of Marxist-Leninism. But, without a doubt, the brightest heroes were ordinary people like the Polish students and workers who, while still facing the very real danger of Soviet intervention, poured into the streets “singing patriotic songs and waving flags, including the powerful image of a red and white banner [Poland’s historic national colors] besmirched with blood.”

In the eyes of Western intellectuals of a Marxist bent, that sort of thing was not supposed to happen in a workers’ paradise. Connelly pokes a bit of well-deserved fun at scholars to whom “these workers carrying national flags” seemed exotic and were “poorly understood”:

Well-known treatments, even of authors from Central Europe—like Ernst Gellner or Eric Hobsbawm—whittle down the specificity of the region’s nationalism beyond recognition as they shave off edges to fit it into a global definition of the term. Hobsbawm’s idea of the nation was to apply to every corner of the earth, but in this book, we have paid attention to what people in one corner meant by this word. In that corner, the coordinates of the global story as told in Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism are either irrelevant or secondary: for example, John Stuart Mills’s idea that a national state had to be “feasible,” or that nationalism required a particular threshold of size before it could be properly launched. Czechs or Slovenes knew nothing of such parameters and made their history without and against them.

As for Hobsbawm, his

idea that language and history were not decisive criteria would have struck virtually everyone in East Central Europe as nonsensical—though it may very well apply to the phenomenon of nationalism as observed from a satellite high above the earth.

Language alone cannot make a nation, but having a shared one is a highly desirable—if not downright necessary—component of most smoothly functioning nation states. Words, and the language in which they are spoken, really do matter in the extended social fabric where family is woven into community and community is woven into state. A shared language makes it easier to shape shared laws, articulate a shared sense of the past, and build a shared future. It certainly offers a preferred alternative to the Tower of Babel or an artificially imposed multiculturalism that seeks to replace rather than complement the core values of any nation.

ONE OF Connelly’s strengths as a historian is his ability to recognize both the similarities and dissimilarities of parallel historical developments, rather than trying to totally isolate them or make them all fit into a pet theory. A good example of this is his evaluation of the “Prague Spring” of 1968, that led to a severe, Russian-imposed crackdown in Czechoslovakia after Alexander Dubcek’s short-lived attempt at “Communism with a Human Face.” “Was the Prague Spring part of the democratic mobilization that swept across Europe? Like students in Paris and West Berlin, Czechs and Slovaks rose up against multiple alienations of modern society, challenging the presumptions of bureaucrats and administrative machines that controlled their lives.” But there was this important difference:

...Czechs and Slovaks also agitated for things the French or West Germans had come to take for granted: the right to form one’s views without fear, to read and write books of one’s choosing, to travel, and to be able to hold rulers accountable to the laws of their country. Such basic rights, gained by earlier generations under Habsburg rule, had been lost under the Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat imported by Moscow. This was something that Czech intellectuals increasingly recognized and regretted in the 1970s, part of a growing appreciation of “civic” and “human rights,” which had been smothered and compromised in a regime that claimed to enforce social rights—the rights of the working class as the embodiment of History—above all others.