During the time when the Soviet Union firmly dominated all of Eastern and much of Central Europe, primarily through military force, there was a popular saying that “socialism was the long, hard road from capitalism to communism.” After 1989, as the Soviet empire collapsed and client states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany emerged from the ruins of imperialism into the light of an uncertain freedom, that saying was revised. Now, it turned out, “socialism was the long, hard road from capitalism to capitalism.”
In other words, socialism, far from leading upward and onward to the promised Marxian utopia, had been a long and dismal detour to a sour and dysfunctional dystopia. Dreams and aspirations had been stifled, economies had been misdirected and wrecked, families had been separated literally or figuratively, millions had suffered, millions others had died—and seemingly for nothing. Nothing except the chance, after half a century of wasted time, to begin anew.
Or so it seemed to many, especially those in the West, at the time. As Tina Rosenberg’s survey of Europe after communism makes clear, however, the truth was far more complex and the past infinitely more tangled than either the active participants or the more removed commentators could either admit or imagine. Such intricate and convoluted histories as those of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe could not be cut by a single action, however dramatic, and the past refused to die. Its stubborn, lingering—even triumphant—life has shaped European existence since the vaunted “fall of communism” and seems likely to do so for decades to come.
Rosenberg begins by dispelling the myth that communism was imposed upon all Soviet Bloc nations unilaterally and impartially by the might of the Red Army. During the years prior to World War II, communism enjoyed or suffered a varied reception among the nations bordering or near the Soviet Union. Some, such as Czechoslovakia, had strong and vibrant Communist parties that more or less enthusiastically embraced the socialist doctrine and sought to implement it through democratic means. For many Czechs, communism was simply a political and economic theory that held the promise for a better life. Even after a Communist government was imposed largely through Soviet force following World War II, there was the hope that the official doctrine could be modified into something more tractable and reasonable. This was the underpinning to the “Prague Spring” of 1968, which brought Alexander Dubček to the world stage; Soviet Bloc tanks canceled that hope. A little more than thirty years later it was revived in the “Velvet Revolution.”
Other countries, in particular Poland, rejected communism as an alien (Russian) philosophy that threatened their always precarious national integrity by undermining their strong, if often ineffectual, sense of national identity. Imbued with an intense Catholicism that allied naturally and powerfully with nationalism, the Poles rejected communism on multiple levels. Nevertheless, communism was imposed upon them after World War II simply because the Red Army was present in Poland in enormous numbers. After that, it was simply a matter of Poland once more enduring its fate. Some Poles believed that the best that could be done was to placate and distract their Soviet masters. It was this line of reasoning that caused then-President Wojciech Jaruzelski to declare martial law and ban Solidarity during the period of unrest. He thought that it was the only way to prevent a Soviet military takeover of the nation. In Rosenberg’s account, Jaruzelski’s argument carries some weight; she certainly conveys the man’s conviction. It is an interesting comment on the power of the Communist hold and the plight of captive nations that Wojciech Jaruzelski does seem to have acted as a true Polish patriot, at least according to his lights.
Meanwhile, other persons in other nations, such as many in Germany, saw communism as the only effective or even possible response to the rise of fascism and Nazi tyranny. The Communist Party line became less a blueprint for the future (although it always remained that, at least in theory) than a practical here-and-now strategy for fighting the forces of the extreme Right. For many during the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic, the path sought was not the “long hard road from capitalism to communism” but a road away from capitalism to fascism. When the war ended, the Soviet armies remained where they were, and where they were became the satellite state that...
(The entire section is 1877 words.)