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The Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century
edited by Joseph Held
Columbia University Press, 435 pages, $29.95

Toward the end of this collection of essays, Professor Iván Völgyes gently chastises his brethren in the history and political science confraternities for the fact that “all too frequently … many of us in our profession … made compromises with the Communist regimes” of the old Warsaw Pact. It is a welcome confession, but playing games with the Communist managers of the academic research and exchange apparat is merely one of the failures with which Professor Völgyes and his legions of American and European colleagues have to contend these days. Indeed, if this handsomely printed and bound volume is any indicator, Eastern European studies in much of the Western academy has moved from the intensive care unit to the hospice, and the death watch is now being mounted.

The problem is not (as sometimes asserted) that Western scholars of Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR failed to anticipate the rapidity of the Communist crack-up. No one, not even the people on the ground, predicted that. The problem is that many, perhaps most, of our academic scriveners remain sublimely oblivious to the ways in which their secularist-positivist assumptions about man and society, their soft-Marxist notions of the relationship between economics and politics, and their enthrallment to “methodology” (as understood by empiricist social science) have blinded them to the deeper realities of the phenomena they are describing and analyzing.

To begin with the most obvious example: In the Columbia History’s 400 pages, there is virtually no grappling with Communism as an ideology, indeed as an ersatz religion. Nor do the authors (all doubtless distinguished scholars within their fields) describe in any detail the effects of Communism on the moral-cultural texture of Central and Eastern European societies. Nor do they analyze the complex patterns of acquiescence and resistance that formed the dialectic of political life in the Communist culture of the lie. Major dissident texts, including seminal works by Adam Michnik and Václav Havel that decisively shaped the politics of 1989, are strikingly absent from the bibliography, which “represents those sources the contributors to this collection have relied on most heavily.”

Little wonder, then, that these essays barely mention, let alone attempt to explain, the widespread conviction among the people who made the Revolution of 1989 that a moral revolution—the reconstitution of civil society—was the necessary antecedent to the political overthrow of the Yalta imperial system. (Astonishingly enough, and in what is, on balance, one of the more thoughtful essays in the book, there is no serious analysis of the role of the Catholic Church in the rise of Solidarity and the collapse of Polish Communism. To illustrate the tone-deafness another way: Pope John Paul II has one entry in the book’s index; King Zog of Albania has nine. Here is secularism reduced to self-parody.)

Then there are the volume’s problems of tone, which in fact embody the analytic flaws most characteristic of this kind of political “science.” Take, for example, the ways in which scholarly “neutrality” and “objectivity,” misconstrued, serve the ends of obfuscation in dealing with the linguistic ecology of Communist societies. As most sensible people with any experience of Communism recognized long ago, the pervasive use of the language of euphemism was one of the more repulsive characteristics of the culture of the lie in Communist Central and Eastern Europe. What has been less remarked is the way in which euphemism’s seepage into the lingua franca of Western political science and international relations theory has systematically distorted the reality of the situations being investigated.

Thus Professor Sharon Wolchick describes what some would once have called the “correlation of forces” in postwar Czechoslovakia in these gelded terms: “From the beginning of the post-World War II period, however, the Communist party enjoyed certain advantages over its democratic opponents. These included the … presence of the Red Army.” (An “advantage” indeed!) Then we are informed that Czechoslovakia’s Communist rulers, after seizing power, “stepped up” their “efforts to discredit and reduce the power bases of non-Communist actors.… This process … included the political use of judicial and propaganda campaigns against leaders of other parties.” (Among the unnoted refinements of those “efforts” and “campaigns” were a ubiquitous and fearsome secret police apparatus; judicial murders under trumped-up charges of treason; and the widespread use of concentration camps, prison camps, and slave labor camps, including the notorious uranium mine pits in Bohemia to which numerous Catholic clergy and lay activists were consigned.) Professor Wolchick does report that the Czechoslovak Communists “mounted a concerted campaign against religion” and that the number of priests in the country was “reduced”; that these “reductions” were effected by brutalitarian means is wholly unremarked.

And so it goes. Why did the Prague Spring of 1968 and its attempts at reform Communism fail? Because Alexander Dubček couldn’t reassure Czechoslovakia’s “external allies” that things wouldn’t get out of hand. Did everybody in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia sign on to the post-Dubček program of Communist “normalization” enforced by Gustáv Husák? We are told that “many groups in the population continued to hold values at odds with those of the leadership.” What about the mass purge that followed the collapse of the Prague Spring? Well, the universities suffered because of the “personnel changes made at this time.” The examples could be repeated virtually ad infinitum (and certainly ad nauseam). Whether it was deliberate or, more likely, unwitting, the adoption of the Communist language of euphemism by Western political scientists in the name of a scholarly “objectivity” that transcended the “Cold War mentality” not only masked the full squalor of life within the Communist web of mendacity; it obscured (or just plain missed) the heroism and the political impact of those who steadfastly chose to “live in the truth,” as Havel described the moral resistance movement that ultimately made possible the political overthrow of Communism.

Given the aridity of this kind of analysis, one begins to grasp what Artur Miedzyrzecki, a Polish poet of the resistance, meant when he mourned the vacuities of the Western poli-sci world in these winsome terms:

What does the political scientist know?
The political scientist knows the latest trends
The current states of affairs
The history of doctrines

What does the political scientist not know?
The political scientist doesn’t know about desperation
He doesn’t know the game that consists
Of renouncing the game

It doesn’t occur to him
That no one knows when
Irrevocable changes may appear
Like an ice-flow’s sudden cracks

And that the natural resources
Include knowledge of the venerated laws
Ability to wonder
And a sense of humor.

Some years ago, a young American social historian told Gertrude Himmelfarb that he and those of his methodological persuasion could not “get to” the American Revolution from their painstaking research into late-eighteenth-century New England life. In a similar way, although because of different methodological biases, the authors of the Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century cannot really “get to” the most important event in the history of Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century: the Revolution of 1989, which restored Central and Eastern Europe to Europe. That would seem an analytic failure of rather gigantic proportions. It might even be thought to require some serious critique of the ideological assumptions and scholarly procedures that produce such garbled and frequently misleading results.

The Columbia History begins with a detailed and useful chronology of political life in the region from 1918 through 1990. The failure of this book—a failure common to the academic guilds that produce such books—is that the essays that follow the chronology do so little to illuminate it.

George Weigel, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.