Nationalism, Eastern European Style

Early on in his monumental From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe, John Connelly describes his subject as “a band of countries that runs from the Baltic Sea down to the Adriatic and Black Seas, between the much larger, historically imperial Russia and Turkey in the east, and Prussian and Austrian Germany in the west.” The professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley goes on to characterize this region as “a space where more of the twentieth century happened—for good and for bad—than anywhere else on the planet.” To bring coherence to this territory of astonishing diversity, Connelly centers his work around the issue of nationalism, whose stamp on the region has been significant.

The book’s coverage spans the modern and late modern periods, roughly the past two and a half centuries. Connelly shows repeatedly how nationalism impacted Eastern Europe’s various peoples—from attempts at imperial reform in the late eighteenth century that triggered emerging national resistance, through the national revolutions of 1848-49, 1875-78, and 1918-19, to the region’s twentieth century experiences with the totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Communism, and beyond. Nationalism was entwined with nearly every political system or ideological movement that marked or plagued the region, be it imperialism, liberalism, fascism, socialism, communism, democracy, or neo-liberalism. In affirming nationalism’s importance, Connelly argues for an alternative to the standard “short twentieth century” of 1914 to 1991, advanced by historian Eric Hobsbawm, and conceptualizes a “long twentieth century” beginning in 1875, when revolts and wars in the Balkans led the great powers to agree to the creation of four new nation-states in the region. The collapse of empires at the end of World War I was a continuation of this earlier process, as Eastern Europe got even more nation-states. The new states emerging in both periods had significant numbers of “unredeemed” population living across their borders in neighboring countries, thus building an instability into the international order that Adolf Hitler, among others, could exploit before and during the Second World War.

Perhaps Connelly’s most significant contributions involve his challenge to the leading theoreticians of nationalism, who “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.” Connelly notes that Hobsbawm plays down the importance of language in ways that conflict with the reality of nationalism in Eastern Europe; that the vital role that Benedict Anderson sees as played by “vernacular print capitalism” sheds little light on processes operating in places with little or no capitalism and minimal literacy; and that nations are not simply “imagined” ex nihilo; rather, they must be built out of material that resonates with the population, and are “as close as human communities get to sharing a common fate.” Connelly also argues against the view (popularized by Ernst Gellner) that nationalism is solely a product of modernity. Connelly points to peoples with a strong sense of corporate identity before modern times—the Poles with their constitutional traditions that gave the relatively large noble class a common consciousness, and the Serbs, who assumed a corporate identity thanks to the historical and cultural memory preserved in the Serbian Orthodox Church and tradition of oral epic poetry.

Connelly highlights a number of consistent features of nationalism in Eastern Europe, such as the fusion of social and national grievances, since one’s ethnic enemy and class enemy not infrequently overlapped. Fear also plays a key role in Connelly’s survey—Eastern Europe’s peoples feared national extinction. Hungarians could drown in a sea of Slavs, or Czechs in a sea of Germans. Empires feared their ethnic minorities. Such fears propelled the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, designed in part to keep the Empire’s Slavs at bay, and helped draw Austria into the South Slavic politics that would trigger the war that led to the Empire’s demise. Fear would also drive the ethnic cleansing in the 1990s when Yugoslavia exploded into internecine warfare.

Fascism is given special attention by Connelly, who devotes much attention to examining its origins and the contexts in which it had, or did not have, success. Digging into the nineteenth century for its roots, Connelly shows how fascism grew in places where middle-class liberals displayed a contempt for the lower classes, thereby leaving room for radical elements to take up the fusion of national and social grievances that struck a chord with many of the common people, especially in Hungary and Romania where fascist parties had impressive electoral success.

For anyone who has ever lived in a Communist country (this reviewer included), Connelly’s thick and nuanced depiction of life under that system brings back memories. The author notes the benefits that many saw in Communism, but also the enormous social costs. Among the positives: housing, transportation, and basic foodstuffs were cheap, employment guaranteed, access to health care and education expanded, violent crime and homelessness minimized, and, perhaps most enticingly of all, people did not have to work very hard. But the author also notes the costs—shortages of food, goods, and housing, the burdens of a dysfunctional central planning system, the lack of incentives, disincentives, and flexibility, massive environmental degradation, enormous foreign debt, ubiquitous security services, culture and education saturated with propaganda, and special perks for Communist party members and those citizens who knew how to game the system.

Given the power of nationalism, East Europeans saw human rights as inseparable from national rights, which both strengthened the unifying capacity of human rights and made them an even better instrument for opposing Soviet hegemony.

Connelly pays special attention to the choice of many East European governments in the late Communist period to seek legitimacy through consumerism. This involved these regimes in a game they could not win. Though generally able to provide more consumer goods to the public than during the earlier Communist period, they could not satisfy growing consumer expectations. Moreover, the superiority of Western products was painfully obvious to both state and society, with the products of the socialist economies of limited variety, inferior quality, overpriced, and in short supply. Connelly also points out how impressions of success behind the Iron Curtain can be illusive. For example, Communist East Germany was one of the better performing socialist economies, but crucial contributions to its success came from capitalism—an economic foundation laid before the Communists came to power, favored access to West German markets, and massive borrowing from the West.

If the Communist regimes turned toward consumerism in the late Communist period, the oppositions in those countries turned toward human rights. After the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies crushed the reformist Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in summer 1968, intellectuals and activists across the region gave up, if they had not already, on the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Now, the banner of human rights would replace the red flag. This proved particularly infelicitous for regimes that regularly abused such rights, because, as Connelly shows, human rights could unify the opposition like nothing else. Because human rights connect with each other and come as a package, a writer seeking freedom of expression could make common cause with a bishop desiring religious freedom; workers wanting the right to strike were now linked to students or farmers hoping to form independent associations. Furthermore, given the power of nationalism, East Europeans saw human rights as inseparable from national rights, which both strengthened the unifying capacity of human rights and made them an even better instrument for opposing Soviet hegemony.

Like any work of such magnitude, Connelly’s book leaves some room for improvement. Where he blames Poland’s meat shortages of the 1970s on the Communist Party’s failure to collectivize agriculture, one might better point to the party’s decades-long discrimination against private agriculture, which Connelly also does note. Moreover, Yugoslavia’s Communist Partisans deserve more criticism. Yes, they were able to transcend some of their region’s ethnic animosities, but their leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito was a Stalinist dictator who found plenty of victims on grounds other than nationality, until circumstances forced him to ease up on his population and moderate his regime. Finally, Connelly could explore a bit more something he mentions in passing—the influx of former fascists into Communist parties after World War Two, which was quite considerable, especially in Romania and Hungary. (To illustrate, recent obituaries for deceased Hungarian swimming champion Eva Szekely note that the Communist police official who handed her a medal in 1950 was the same person as the fascist Arrow Cross officer who tried to deport her to Auschwitz during the War).

Connelly’s work is highly recommended. At 800 pages, it presents an enormously complex region of Europe during a series of turbulent periods in a manner that is clear, comprehensive, and gripping. It does credit to a host of key issues and developments, above all nationalism, and is especially commended to those whose understanding of Europe is limited to its Western half. Though Connelly would have liked the region’s post-1989 transition to Western-style systems and integration into the European Union to bring closure to his study, he admits that, given the pressures that the post-1989 order is coming under in recent times, in particular in Hungary, the story is not over.