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History Derailed: Central and Eastern Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century

Author(s):Berend, Ivan T.
Reviewer(s):Schulze, Max-Stephan

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Ivan T. Berend, History Derailed: Central and Eastern Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. xx + 330 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-520-23299-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Max-Stephan Schulze, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Following his earlier Detour from the Periphery (1996) on the post-World War II period and Decades of Crisis (1998) on the inter-war years, the publication of History Derailed completes Ivan Berend’s impressive trilogy of Central and Eastern Europe’s history from the nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century. This book aims for a broad historical synthesis that traces the interrelations between economic, social, political and cultural factors, which, in turn, shaped the region’s societies before the First World War. The author’s key concerns are the origins of ‘backwardness,’ its pervasiveness and only partial diminution in the lands between Germany and Russia. Berend loses no time in setting out the standard of comparison: the successfully transforming societies of Western Europe. They serve both as the ideal pursued by contemporary reforming elites in East-Central Europe from the late eighteenth century and his choice of a model of modernization in action. Berend sees the region’s comparative backwardness defined by the lack of the nation-state, a lack of industrialization, the absence of modern, urbanized society and the preservation of traditional agricultural economies and rural-peasant societies. It is, then, the East’s non-conformance with the development patterns characteristic of the West that calls for explanation. Conceptually, such western perspective may seem old-fashioned to some, yet it makes for coherent reflection on the historical evidence within a clearly formulated analytical framework. Likewise, individual country-specialists may find Berend’s ambitious coverage of Central and Eastern Europe as, more or less, one whole difficult to take. However, cognizant of national differences he makes a broadly convincing case for regional comparisons and generalizations on the grounds of similarities in societal structures and challenges faced, as well as shared historical experiences across the region (even if the locus of this region lacks precise definition). Ultimately, the argument runs, it was Central and Eastern Europe’s deviation from the path of the West that made for its history becoming ‘derailed’ — incomplete socio-economic modernization and unfinished nation-building had dramatic consequences in the longer term, such as, in particular, the failure of parliamentary democracy to take firm root. History Derailed explores these core themes and develops the argument in a sequence of six chapters organized around topics rather than countries. These chapters assess the challenge of the ‘rising’ West to the ‘sleeping’ East, ponder the role of romanticism and nationalism in the region, trace the struggles for independence, map patterns of economic modernization in the later nineteenth century, identify the problem of ‘dual’ and ‘incomplete societies,’ and, finally, examine the evolution of the political system.

Berend starts off with a comparative sketch of historical development from the early sixteenth century when the Continent’s central and eastern regions began to diverge from Western Europe and shifted progressively to the periphery. The Central and East European countries lost their independent statehood and became ‘absorbed by huge, mostly despotic empires’ (p. 20), i.e. Tsarist Russia, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, during the early modern period just when the West experienced the emergence of strong absolutist states, foreshadowing the modern nation state, and the beginnings of capitalist transformation. Berend argues, though, that however damaging the regimes imposed on the region from outside were (and he offers a particularly damning assessment of the long term impact of Ottoman rule in the Balkans), the East’s failure to take on the challenge of the ‘rising (North) West’ also had a lot to do with internal social and institutional weaknesses that predate foreign rule. Demographic decline, peasant labor scarcity and the opening up of international trade triggered an altogether different response than in the West — a ‘second serfdom’ as the re-institution of (or regression to) earlier feudal structures. This was a world were the spirit of the Enlightenment and the dynamic of capitalism would not flourish for a long time. Thus the ‘dual revolution’ — the French political and the British industrial — met with no immediate and broad echo in the East. The stimulus to modernization and the spread of Western values in East-Central Europe, Berend maintains, came through nineteenth century romanticism that, in the region, combined romanticist ideals with the ideas of the Enlightenment. Strongly influenced by German concepts of ‘national individuality’ that expanded the notions of freedom and individuality beyond the realm of the person, romanticism became a vehicle of nation-building and fostered the creation of national myths and the formation of national identities (p. 43-45). The educated elite in East-Central Europe associated the nation state with socio-economic and political progress. Yet the nation had to be (re-) created first for the nation state as agent of modernization to follow. Nationalism, then, arrived in the region before the nation was actually born and it became ‘the paramount driving force of modern history’ (p. 88) in the region. Berend points to the fundamental problem of belated nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe: it became exclusionary, increasingly xenophobic and ‘genuinely antidemocratic’ (p. 119). In a region where historical state borders did not broadly coincide with cultural and linguistic boundaries, claims to national self-determination became de facto mutually exclusive. In parts, nationalism assumed such potency in the region since social and political conflicts between nobility and peasantry, rural landowners and urban industrialists, the emerging proletariat and the bourgeoisie were construed in terms of ethnic and religious differences. Yet romantic nationalism and ideas of national self-determination played a key role in triggering a series of uprisings, revolutions, wars, and reforms that not only signalled ‘national awakening’ but also helped pave the way for at least partial modernization during the nineteenth century. Even if the struggles for independence failed in most cases, political compromises created space for reform: the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of modern property rights, legal systems, parliamentary institutions and elections. Many of the institutional changes remained controversial, contested and severely restricted in scope. But they nevertheless marked an important step towards realizing the ‘requirements of the dual economic and political revolution of modernity’ (p. 133).

Structural change in society and economy from the mid-nineteenth century was limited in extent overall and extremely uneven across the region. Berend distinguishes the ‘dual’ societies and economies of East-Central Europe from their ‘incomplete’ counterparts in the Balkans. Here the reader finds the familiar theme of a development gradient (declining from the West and North-West of the region to the East and South-East) examined in terms of technology and skills transfers, international and inter-regional trade, the onset of industrialization in the west of the Habsburg Empire, foreign capital and the build-up of infrastructure, and a ‘belated agricultural revolution’ in most parts of the region. On the eve of the First World War, the region’s western rim, i.e. the territories of modern Austria and the Czech Lands, came fairly close to Western European levels in terms of per capita income, employment structure and industrialization (and probably did so already in the early nineteenth century, one might add). Likewise, it was in these areas where a modern middle class emerged first. Hungary and Poland, while remaining essentially agricultural economies, started out on the road to industrialization, though ‘their success was painfully limited’ (p. 179). Here some qualification and comparative standard are required: for instance, over 1870-1913 Hungary (or Transleithania) did measurably better than Cisleithania in terms of growth in per capita income, aggregate productivity and industrial output. However, the Balkans and the Habsburg Empire’s easternmost and southernmost provinces remained virtually unindustrialized — they did not even reach the degree of duality characteristic of East-Central Europe where a predominant and largely traditional agricultural sector coexisted alongside significant urban industrial centers. The differences in economic structure, wealth and income between the major parts of the region are mirrored in regional differences in social structure and the distribution of political power. Berend argues that social transformation (just like economic modernization) remained partial and unfinished in Central and Eastern Europe. Even after 1860, by which time the serfs had been liberated, noble privileges had been abolished and most feudal institutions dissolved, the old nobility remained the dominant social class even in the most advanced western provinces of Austria-Hungary. The reforms were extremely cautious — they neither threatened the socio-economic position of the noble elite as owners of large estates and latifundia nor seriously undermined its hold on political power — because ‘they were introduced from above either by the old elite itself or by the absolutist governments of the Habsburg and tsarist empires’ (p. 184). In Hungary, the economic and political position of the aristocracy remained even stronger than in Cisleithania. The survival of the old elites extended to the gentry and petty nobility. However, unlike the aristocracy, the gentry was hit hard by the emancipation of the serfs (which deprived them of free labor and tax exemptions) and saw its position as landowners progressively weakened by competition of the large modernized estates and the impact of the agricultural depression. Here status preservation came through absorption into the expanding state bureaucracy and army. The survival of the ‘old regime’ provided the basis for the continuing predominance of gentry values and attitudes. In most parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the process of embourgeoisement of society remained severely curtailed. With both upward and downward social mobility rigidly contained, Berend observes that a gap characterized the middle layers of the former noble societies. This gap was filled by ‘non-indigenous’ Germans, Greeks and, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, Jews who formed the new business and middle class elite. Towards the end of the century political anti-Semitism, though, became an increasingly powerful and vocal force. Ethnic-religious divisions, Berend argues, deepened the conflict between the surviving ‘old’ establishment and the emerging ‘modern’ society. ‘The influence of the rising modern elite was profoundly weakened by its strong nonindigenous contingent’ (p. 204). The Balkan countries, which gained political independence before the lands under Habsburg and Russian rule, emerged as ‘incomplete societies’ without a traditional elite, which had been driven out or physically eliminated under the Ottomans. They began establishing their own new ‘bureaucratic-military-merchant elites.’ The political consequences of the nineteenth century failures of industrialization and social modernization were serious indeed: the continued role of the landed nobility, the rise of a bureaucratic-military elite, the political and social weakness of the bourgeoisie and the survival of large uneducated peasant societies created formidable obstacles on the road to parliamentary democracy, augmented by hostile, fundamental nationalism.

The originality of this volume springs not from its exploitation of sources unused so far or historical ‘facts’ not discussed before. What is genuinely novel is the thought-provoking, skillful analysis of the relationships between nationalism, social structure, political power and economic change over more than a century and across a large part of Europe. This is a fine book that speaks both to the general reader and the specialist historian.

Max-Stephan Schulze teaches at the London School of Economics. His recent publications include “Austria-Hungary’s Economy in World War I,” in S. Broadberry and M. Harrison, editors, The Economics of World War I (2005, forthcoming) and “Patterns of Growth and Stagnation in the late Nineteenth Century Habsburg Economy,” European Review of Economic History 4 (2000).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century