A. Romano u.a. (Hrsg.): European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West

European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West. National Strategies in the Long 1970s

Romano, Angela; Romero, Federico
Cold War History Series
London 2021: Routledge
290 S.
open access
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Max Trecker, Leibniz-Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), Leipzig

Within the last years, the 1970s have increasingly attracted attention by researchers working on contemporary history who focus primarily on Western history. The decade of the 1970s has been associated with titles like “The Shock of the Global” 1 or “Since the Boom” 2. The authors of the edited volume under review here try to write Eastern Europe into the history of the 1970s in Western Europe and North America. The book is the outcome of the “PanEur1970s” project based at the European University Institute (EUI) from 2015 to 2020 and funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme. In the framework of the Cold War the 1970s were a decade of détente that enabled a higher quantity and quality of mutual exchange between East and West. At the same time, the 1970s saw a push towards more regional integration in Western Europe under the umbrella of the European Economic Community (EEC). The authors of the edited volume focus primarily on economic exchange and its political implications. They investigate how the East looked at economic and political integration in the West and reacted to these developments.

The first two chapters are provided by the editors and deal with the geopolitical framework of the “long 1970s” in East and West. The next seven chapters are devoted to one particular country each. With the exception of Albania all socialist countries of Central Eastern and Southeastern Europe are included. The Soviet Union is lurking in the background in each chapter and the views of Soviet representatives are filtered from the archival records of the country at the center in the respective chapter. While all authors focus on the 1970s, most start their analysis in the 1960s and use different end dates varying from 1980 to the late 1980s. They book analyze the views of the “socialist elites” on their exchange with Western Europe. The concept of what constitutes a socialist elite and who is included and excluded remains a bit blurry. Nevertheless, the authors shed light on relevant persons and institutions below the level of the politburo which is a laudable undertaking.

The chapters are well researched and allow for fruitful comparisons. While the elites of all countries under investigation wanted to profit from their developing relations with Western Europe, they pursued at least gradually different strategies to achieve their goals. All had in common that they had to find some form of “minimax-algorithm” which could maximize their gains from dealing with the West while minimizing the fallout that stronger dependency on the West necessarily caused for their relations with Soviet elites. A comparison between the strategies employed by different socialist regimes is particularly promising if one forms groups of countries on a similar economic level like Czechoslovakia and the GDR or Bulgaria and Romania. The two pairs shall be discussed in greater detail to give an overview of the particular strengths of the volume.

Neither the GDR nor Czechoslovakia could satisfy their demands for sophisticated technology and machinery for their rather advanced economies on the CMEA market. They were thus “forced” to look to the West to satisfy their needs. At least in the case of the GDR, the Honecker regime communicated this quite openly vis-à-vis Moscow. However, the strategy to import and subsequently to increase exports to pay back the loans taken to finance the import of modern technology failed and created ever higher piles of debt. Despite a similar economic structure and the need to import modern technology to maintain the industrial base of the country, Czechoslovakia managed to keep its debts under stricter control than GDR elites. This was partially related to the consequences of the violent end of the Prague Spring which made the new Czechoslovak leadership adopt a conservative approach to taking up debts and trade liberalization in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore, economic decision-making rested on more shoulders than in the GDR and incorporated the diverse opinions of several institutions. To make a case in point, this allowed for a stronger influence of the National Bank which put a lid on borrowing in the late 1970s when cheap credit would have been available for Czechoslovakia. Consequently, Czechoslovakia faced lower debt levels than the GDR in the 1980s at the cost of a comparatively strong loss in the competitiveness of its manufacturing sector.

The comparison between the Bulgarian and Romanian leadership is particularly interesting. In contrast to the prevailing narrative in the literature both wanted to profit from increased exchange with the West economically without damaging relations with Soviet elites beyond the point of no return. Apparently, the Bulgarian leadership managed this task much better than their Romanian counterpart. Nevertheless, the Bulgarian leadership found itself confronted with a trade-off: the more it was perceived as loyal to Moscow on the international stage, the more favors it could expect from Moscow while facing a cold reception at negotiations in the West. In general, the authors do a good job in explaining the particularities of the relationship between national state socialist elites and the West in the form of the EEC. All chapters show how limited the influence of Soviet elites on decision-making in Berlin, Prague, and Budapest actually was. In this regard, the volume can contribute to the debate on the character of Soviet dominance and influence in Central Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

The editors sum up the most important findings of the chapters in their conclusion and try to go one step further by interpreting the findings and drawing general conclusions from them. This endeavor, however, backfires and puts the conclusion occasionally at odds with the introduction written by them. In their conclusion, the editors fall in the same teleological trap they stated they wanted to avoid in their introduction by claiming that there was no alternative to the Western model. Next to being very Eurocentric, such a notion turns a blind eye to the latest research on “alternative globalizations” 3 as well as the remarks made by Stephen Kotkin on the demise of state socialism in his book “Armageddon Averted” 4. From a objective standpoint, the East’s most important and most time-consuming point of reference at any given time period between 1947 and 1989 were neither East-West- nor East-South-relations but East-East interactions. The West and South could hope for the second place at best. This fact is often forgotten in contemporary research which hints at methodological difficulties in interpreting source material. A notable part of the socialist elites may have fancied Western consumer culture or at least importing Western machines. Nevertheless, they had to deal with the sober reality in which the West never filled the role that some might have imagined. While historians can rightfully investigate the imaginations of historical actors, they should avoid confounding them with the “sober” reality. This issue is a feature of a considerable part of the literature published after 1989, although the trend started petering out in the last decade. If one keeps these methodological issues in mind, the reader will find the volume worthwhile reading and filling an important gap in the historiography on East-West interactions in the Cold War.

1 Niall Ferguson et al. (eds.), The Shock of the Global. The 1970s in Perspective, Cambridge 2010.
2 Sebastian Voigt (ed.), Since the Boom. Continuity and Change in the Western Industrialized World After 1970, Toronto 2021.
3 James Mark et al. (eds.), Alternative Globalizations. Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, Bloomington 2020.
4 Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted. The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, Oxford 2008.

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