Top critical review
33 people found this helpful
Good start, expectedly mediocre ending
on September 30, 2007
Having grown up in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, I appreciate the author's attempt at reviewing a chapter of European history that even to Europeans is often set aside. If the immediate years after the war are not looked at carefully in Europe, so much less are they taught in the US where most people may now be familiar with the Marshall plan and little else.
As such the beginning is very interesting. There are a few annoyances such as the consistent use of a particular transitional phrase. Briefly, the author discusses an issue in a country during a set period (such as labor movement in France in the sixties) and then looks at the same issue in another country. The problem is that the author consistently uses the same transitional phrase. It looks something like:
In (country A) (restate thesis of the above few pages). The same could (or could not) be said of (country B). It takes a few moments to find an example of this - see Page 429 - ...Kadar's Hungary-'the best barracks int he laager'-was much envied, though only fitfully emulated. The second model, Tito's Yougoslavia had managed to avoid the problems of its neighbors...
This approach is repeated endlessly throughout the book. While analyzing each issue country by country is easy for the author from an organizational standpoint, it prevents the author from going deeper into cross national patterns. While not a weakness per se, this literary device gets distracting especially when one reads the book as I did - in just a handful of sittings.
The book really goes downhill when the author gets to recent history - i.e. the transition from communism to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Like most left-leaning liberal historians, the author gives too much credit to their hero, Misha Gorbachev. In doing so, the author makes some (almost) laughable statements. For example, he claims that Gorbachev's attempts at finding a "third way" between communism and capitalism were doomed and upon realizing this and he allowed the transition from communism to democracy as the sole alternative. This is boulderdash as the "third way" exists in many places throughout the world. One obvious example is China which has implemented a working capitalist market while retaining communist authoritarian control over the populace. Garbo wanted exactly this - to stay in power while introducing elements of capitalism. In order for this to succeed in Europe as it has in Asia all that needed to happen was cooperation from the world's capitalist markets. It is this support and cooperation that allowed China to adapt itself. What prevented Eastern and Central Europe from becoming a totalitarian state is not Gorbachev but rather national opposition movements. In Poland especially this meant the Catholic Church. In places that had no pro-democracy movements, the "third way" of authoritarian capitalism established itself just fine. It's not even necessary to look to Asia to find examples of this, Belarus and for a while Ukraine both settled into "the third way" of capitalist reforms coupled with repression almost as a reflex. In whatever way local communists cooperated in the dismantling of communism they did so not because of their inner greatness but because they saw the transition period as the best way to enrich themselves through shady deals in public property.
Lastly, in the Epilogue, the author writes about Europe's collective forgetting of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Of course, every conquered nation cooperated to some degree with the Nazis in their pursuit of Jews and other Nazi-chosen "undesirables." Extremely annoyingly (page 808) the author equates Poland's guilt over the Holocaust with that of Austria (of all places!) In support of this he provides one example of religiously motivated violence in Poland - the pogrom in Jedwabne as told by Gross's "Neighbors". Of course he fails to mention that many of the claims of Gross's work were subsequently debunked (such as the number of victims or the presence and active role of German security forces). This is particularly strange as the author praises the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, but then proceeds to ignore its findings.
Lastly, even though the author spends a significant portion of the book on the transition from communism to democracy he discusses Pope John Paul II only a handful of times. At the very least he could have discussed the Papal visits to Poland (all of which had an enormous impact on the anti-communist movement) or the attempt at the Pope's life. Again, the Pope's contribution, along with that of the US, was at least as important as Gorbachev's.
All and all, a worthwhile read, but don't expect a literary masterpiece. Nor is this without obvious bias.