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Adam Eastman tackles the argument that Eastern Europeans are the architects of their own backwardness

Who made Eastern Europe?

  • The Making of Eastern Europe, Philip Longworth, Macmillan, £40 hbk

  • Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century, Joseph Held (ed), Columbia University Press, £19 hbk

  • The Other Europe, E Garrison Walters, Syracuse University Press, £7.95 hbk
Eastern Europe is now said to be a prisoner of its past. What's more, its past is now said to have been self-created rather than imposed from outside. News reports of the war in the former Yugoslavia and commentaries upon Eastern European affairs are all framed by reference to the past. The problem is either ancient blood feuds among Slavs, or a historical aversion to democracy in the East. This approach is not just the work of Western journalists, but is beginning to be put forward as a comprehensive theory to explain the peculiarities of this land that time forgot.

The impulse to search back in time for the answer to the problems of Eastern Europe has been stimulated by disappointment at the results of the supposed liberation of the region that took place in 1989. Until recently it has been possible to suggest that the region's difficulties, even its very existence as a distinct 'Eastern' body, were modern products of domination by the Germans during the Second World War, and then by the Soviet Union after 1945. It was only Eastern Europe because the Soviet Union had made it so. In academic terms, this meant that a standard pre-1989 work on the subject could be introduced with the claim that, 'before the imposition of the Soviet template in 1944-45, what is now called Eastern Europe was not usually perceived as a distinct geopolitical entity' (The Other Europe, dustjacket). In more popular terms it meant that the peoples of the region were held up as victims of the Russian bear. As a consequence, they could do no wrong in the eyes of the West.

It was widely supposed that once Soviet domination ceased, and the area was left to its own devices, a renewal could begin, and perhaps even backward 'Eastern-ness' be overcome, as the former Soviet satellites joined the European family. But it is now clear that the collapse of the Soviet bloc has led to no such renaissance. Eastern Europe remains beset by economic and social malaise, and its distance from the body of Europe seems as great as ever.

In many ways, Eastern Europe is seen to be more of a problem now than during the Cold War. Back then, the West depicted Eastern nationalism as an anti-communist force for liberation. Now the apparent revival of explosive nationalist tensions in the East is a source of grave misgivings in the West. The peoples of the region are themselves being held responsible for these problems. The Poles and Czechs are no longer the darlings of the Western media. Even the most incorrigible reactionary would have difficulty in blaming the USSR for the current conflicts. In fact many would almost prefer that the Soviet tanks were back in control, keeping the lid on the ethnic tensions.

In shifting the blame for Eastern Europe's failure away from outside influences and towards the character of the East itself, most commentators emphasise the rise of nationalism. This is generally understood as a historical problem. The argument is that the various nationalities of Eastern Europe are now resuming hostilities which were abandoned because of the imposition of Stalinism; therefore the roots of the problem must lie in the past rather than in the present.

It is not 1945, but 1919, which is now the favourite date for the birth of the modern Eastern problem. The recognised starting point for understanding the issue is the Treaty of Versailles, which led to the creation of most of the states of Eastern Europe after the First World War, rather than the 1945 Yalta agreement between Stalin and the Western Allies, which ratified their incorporation into the Soviet bloc. If the problem of Eastern Europe is seen to stem from an internally generated nationalist intolerance, then it would be consistent to suggest that the region's crisis began in the year that these national claims were officially recognised and endorsed by the victors of the First World War.

Some imply that the problem goes back even further. The Making of Eastern Europe draws out the logic of the new approach to the subject. 'The distinction of East and West is not of recent origin', claims the author. 'Ever since the time of Charlemagne, Westerners have considered Eastern Europe to lie beyond the civilised pale.' It is therefore no coincidence to discover that 'the frontier dividing Charlemagne's Europe from the barbarian East coincides almost exactly with the line along which the Iron Curtain fell'(p8). The inference of the introduction is spelled out by the fact that the book works backwards historically, century by century. The earlier chapters on the twentieth and even the nineteenth centuries are perfunctory and brief. The real meat of the book's analysis, and volume, is pre-modern.

To emphasise that the roots of the present troubles lie in Eastern Europe's ancient past is to suggest that the region 'made itself', rather than being shaped by modern outside forces. The problems of the Eastern peoples are therefore essentially of their own making. If Philip Longworth lays bare the logic of the new view, then Stephen Fischer-Galati's 'Old wine in new bottles', the key chapter of the new Columbia history of the region, is most explicit in attributing blame. For Fischer-Galati, 'the failure of the democratic experiments might be more reasonably attributed to internal factors in all the Eastern bloc countries' (p2).

If we strip away the self-importance of authors who wrap themselves in the authority of the past, the thrust of their argument can be boiled down to one basic proposition. The reason why Eastern Europe is a living nightmare is nothing to do with us, and everything to do with 'history'. It has nothing to do with Western capitalism and everything to do with those people themselves. In so far as the West is handed a share of the blame, it is for recognising the claims of Eastern nations to an independent existence in the first place. Hence the focus on 1919. 'If only we hadn't been so naive as to imagine these peoples could run their own affairs!' is the cry from the West today. Bring back Stalin, even Hitler, the Habsburgs - maybe even Charlemagne!

The problems of Eastern Europe used to be blamed entirely on contemporary Soviet domination. Now they are said to be the product of the dim and distant past. But what happened to the bit in the middle? Might it not have been in this period that the modern East was set apart? In fact the interwar years of the twenties and thirties - the period when the new countries of Eastern Europe made their first attempts at independent development - must be the starting point of any discussion. If we examine this period, we find that these nations never stood a chance.

Brought into existence by the Allied powers in order to form a barrier to German and Soviet expansion, their existence was predicated upon the continuation of the post-First World War balance of power. Countries such as Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia were only as strong as their French patron's guarantees. National concerns were secondary, international considerations were all. That is why politics in a country like Poland did not split along lines of class or political principle, but around the question of which great power the country ought to ally itself with.

The countries of Eastern Europe were at the mercy of great power politics long before a piece of paper signed in Munich by Neville Chamberlain decided the fate of Czechoslovakia. Even before the Second World War, Germany began to displace French influence and turn the region into a colony. This process was speeded up by the Depression of the thirties. The interwar crisis of capitalism had a particularly devastating impact on the countries of Eastern Europe. Their relationship to the world economy had long been established on terms of inequality. Most were agricultural producers, and the collapse of the international market meant they had nowhere to turn but to Germany - on terms of Hitler's choosing.

The countries of Eastern Europe had been created and wrecked by the West in the space of two decades - long after Charlemagne, and years before Stalin got his hands on them. Far from being an indictment of the peculiar history of a peculiar people, the tragedy of Eastern Europe is an indictment of the failures of European capitalism in the twentieth century. The East experienced that failure in a particularly harsh fashion, not because of its history or character, but because of its subordinate position in the Western-dominated world economy.

Factors particular to a single country, such as Hungary's lack of minerals or access to the sea, can explain quite a lot about the problems it might have faced in the Middle Ages. But in the modern age they are pretty irrelevant. Certainly, 'the West' of Europe developed before 'the East', but the question is why was it incapable of generalising its achievements and eradicating any regional differences with the rest of the continent? After all, countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary are a stone's throw from France and Germany. Why was it that any 'historical' inequalities, far from disappearing, grew wider with time?

The arguments put forward to explain the persistence of the division of Europe are fundamentally illogical. The inability of capitalism systematically to develop international society meant it was forced to compound rather than overcome historical inequalities. This is a truth too uncomfortable to face for mainstream historians. So the specific problems caused by the collapse of interwar capitalism are obfuscated into a general problem of 'history'. Now that they can no longer blame communism for the backwardness of Eastern Europe, they have had the cheek to turn around and blame the people themselves.

Eve Anderson reviews the autobiography of General HN Schwarzkopf, and discovers an anti-racist family man with the blood of thousands on his hands

Norman's conquest

  • It Doesn't Take a Hero, General H Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre, Bantam Press, £17.99 hbk
Not since Ike or Monty has a military figure been so popular with the public, or had such a public profile. During the Gulf War General H Norman Schwarzkopf became a media personality in his own right. Now he is retired and flies round the world attending literary dinners and press launches.
The fame that attaches to Norman Schwarzkopf is an expression of contemporary militarism at the end of the Cold War. Who can remember the generals in the Berlin airlift or the Cuban missile crisis, when the world seemed poised on the brink of nuclear destruction? Yet Schwarzkopf is a household name.

Schwarzkopf's high profile reflects two related developments. The first is the enhanced ability of the West to intervene in the third world in the absence of any Soviet influence. The collapse of the Soviet Union has strengthened the authority of the West. Rather than the West being seen as the cause of the problems in the third world, it now appears to many that turning to the West is the only conceivable solution. So the West's military representatives abroad have a new-found legitimacy and prestige.

The second development is the unravelling of traditional Cold War party politics and the growing disenchantment with politicians. The theme of the honest soldier versus the corrupt politician has been around in America since Vietnam, and was more recently popularised in films like Rambo. But at the end of the Cold War it has even greater purchase than before, as the Iraqgate scandal illustrates. Here we have a classic case of venal politicians putting profits before national security and the national interest.

This theme is milked for all it's worth in It Doesn't Take a Hero. Throughout the autobiography, Schwarzkopf rails against the 'ticket-punchers', the careerists and opportunists, sitting behind their desks manipulating their next promotion up the army ladder. And he attacks the meddling politicians who got it all wrong in Vietnam. In the Gulf War he scorns all of the men in Washington, be they hawks who don't know one end of a gun from the other, playing with the lives of the troops, or doves who overreact to every ripple in public opinion.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Schwarzkopf has continued plugging this anti-politics theme by informing his audience that he is apolitical, and sneering at the American elections:

'The current presidential campaign has confirmed for me the wisdom of not being a politician....When you look at the stuff going on over there now, the mud-slinging, the stories that are being fabricated and circulated around, it makes you think, why would anyone want to run for political office?' (Oxford Times, 30 October 1992)

Schwarzkopf, of course, is different. For him, soldiering is a vocation. He cares about his troops and wants to fight for his country. In between times, he muses on the profanity of war and the tragic loss of life it entails. If Schwarzkopf the pseudo-pacifist is a bit rich, then Schwarzkopf the anti-racist will definitely be too strong for your stomach. He recounts his mother's early lecture on 'tolerance'. Kids had laughed at him for giving up his seat on a bus to a black woman. His mother advised him never to look down on other people and that he was lucky because 'you were born white, you were born Protestant and you were born American....But always remember you had nothing to do with the fact that you were born that way' (pp14-15).

Mum's homespun philosophy stood Norman in good stead in Vietnam. There he was popular with the South Vietnamese troops because he insisted that their dead should be returned to base...to save the soldiers from carrying them! In the Middle East he did not mind wearing Arab dress, and whenever he was abroad he always ate disgusting foreign delicacies in the cause of good diplomatic relations. Pull the other one Norman.

While our hero professes to being a loving, sensitive, family man, he makes light of the American atrocities in the Gulf War. He blithely dismisses the Basra High Road massacre, where hundreds of fleeing Iraqi soldiers were caught in open fire as their convoy of retreating vehicles jammed bumper to bumper. One American pilot described it as a turkey shoot. Not Schwarzkopf: 'Though many Iraqis in the convoy had died, most had jumped out of their vehicles and run away.' Schwarzkopf's remedy for Washington's discomfort? Turn off the 'damned TV' and don't watch the war (p468).

The book documents how, in the lead up to the Gulf War itself, Schwarzkopf's professional militarism coincided with the American military establishment's needs of the moment. Schwarzkopf joined Central Command, which covers parts of the Middle East, in July 1988. By July 1989, running short of the enemies a general needs to justify his job, he was pointing the finger at Iraq:

'I was confident of the Middle East's strategic importance and, therefore, of Central Command's reason for existence. Nobody except a few stubborn hardliners believed that we'd go to war against the Soviets in the Middle East....So I asked myself, what was most likely? Another confrontation like the tanker war, one that had the United States intervening in a regional conflict that had gotten out of control and was threatening the flow of oil to the rest of the world. What was the worst case? Iraq as the aggressor....' (p286)

Schwarzkopf worked overtime to throw out the old 'Zagros Mountains plan' which assumed a Soviet invasion and replaced it with 'Internal Look'. The new plan assumed an Iraqi invasion to seize Saudi oil fields.

The telling thing here is that Schwarzkopf, in line with his own career outlook assumes that there must be an enemy, and then goes looking for one. The wish is father to the thought. What is generally true for generals happens to be particularly true for a militaristic society like the USA - first they needed an enemy, then they found one.

Looking back at this episode, it is not hard to see why perceptive commentators believed the Iraqi regime had been set up to invade Kuwait in August 1990. On the eve of the invasion April Glaspie, the US ambassador to Iraq, told Saddam Hussein that the USA had 'no opinion on the Iraq-Kuwaiti dispute' - at the same time that the US military command for the region was actually preparing for a war with Iraq. In late July 1990, Schwarzkopf staged a mock-up of 'Internal Look' just two weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait. As he says himself 'the movements of Iraq's real-world ground and air forces eerily paralleled the imaginary scenario in our game' (p292).

In the aftermath of the war, many who supported the West have questioned the wisdom of leaving Saddam in power. Schwarzkopf plays it both ways. In 'Afterthoughts' he cites the legal reasons for not going the whole hog - the UN resolution did not provide for a march on Saddam. However, in a recent interview with the Oxford Times the legalistic arguments are entirely absent:

'It is too bad everybody tends to focus on one human being. If he was to go, the reality is that he would be replaced by someone worse and someone who would have a voice in the Arab world.' (30 October 1992)

In other words, Schwarzkopf was happy to leave Saddam in power rather than see him replaced by a more popular Arab leader. At least Saddam could be relied upon to put down the Kurdish and Shiite revolts and maintain a modicum of stability inside Iraq. A popular Arab leader could also threaten US interests in the region, mobilising the masses against Western domination in earnest, rather than as a stage army.

More than anything else, Schwarzkopf's attitude to Saddam reveals an underlying cause of the Gulf War. There was nothing special about Saddam; indeed he was just about America's favourite despot in the Middle East until the end of the eighties. But after that, the USA's strategic interests shifted more towards other Arab dictators such as Hafez Assad of Syria; and they became in need of a fall-guy against whom to boost America's flagging standing in the world. Saddam was the perfect patsy.
Schwarzkopf's title is more modest than he intends. It doesn't take a hero to run about in a panda suit barking at the press corps in Saudi Arabia while the troops and their hi-tech war machines butcher up to a quarter of a million ill-defended Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Norman Schwarzkopf was the local architect of a monstrous campaign to present a ramshackle, conscript army as a threat to the world. In the event, American casualties were fewer than one hundred. That adds up to about 2500 Iraqis killed for every dead American. Heroic odds, or what?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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