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Austerities and Aspirations: A Comparative History of Growth, Consumption, and Quality of Life in East Central Europe since 1945

Author(s):Tomka, Béla
Reviewer(s):Piatkowski, Marcin

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Béla Tomka. Austerities and Aspirations: A Comparative History of Growth, Consumption, and Quality of Life in East Central Europe since 1945. Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2020. xii + 445 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-386-351-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marcin Piatkowski, Kozminski University in Warsaw.


Béla Tomka’s book is a welcome addition to the underdeveloped and often neglected study of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Tomka documents the evolution of incomes, patterns of consumption, and quality of life in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as proxies for the whole CEE region, and juxtaposes them against the same changes in Western Europe. The book mostly focuses on the 1950-1990 period of communism in CEE after World War II but covers the years after 1990 as well.

There is much to like about the book, including its approach to going beyond GDP and focusing on the evolution of consumption and quality of life; its wealth of detail on the changes of well-being during the communist period, which are little known outside the region; and its long-term and pan-European perspective, which is often missing in the standard Western-oriented telling of European economic history. The book also provides a useful literature review of the causes of economic divergence between the two parts of the continent. It combines historical statistics on income, consumption and quality of life with a largely convincing narrative. As such, the book would be an excellent reading for scholars interested in the CEE region, idiosyncrasies of real socialism, and the interplay of growth, consumption, and the quality of life.

However, the book would benefit from focusing less on Western Europe and more on CEE, better explaining how it contributes to the existing literature, and elaborating on many important questions that it raises but then often leaves unanswered.

First, the book covers a lot of ground that is already well known, such as the story of the economic development of Western Europe in the 20th century. The economic development of CEE is less well known—which is where the book provides value—but the author’s verbatim use of widely available historical statistics and on the whole unsurprising narrative make it difficult to inspire a new perspective. Historical data on incomes from, for instance, the Maddison Project Database 2020, is just one click away and there is little need to reproduce it. Three charts on changes in GDP, consumption, and quality of life across the continent during 1900-2015 could have easily replaced dozens of pages of tables with (most already outdated) data. The book could have summarized the well-known history of Western development in just a few pages and focused more exclusively on CEE to explain what all the differences in data meant and what drove the changes.

Second, it is not clear what the book adds relative to the scholarly consensus. After reading through the book’s 300 pages and almost 150 pages of notes and references, one may struggle to find what is new, beyond a few intriguing statistics (such as that “in Czechoslovakia, the upper decile’s share of total personal income was 14 percent in 1962, which was the lowest level of income concentration in Europe and probably in the entire world,” p. 160). The lack of original approach is well reflected in the author’s own largely rhetorical research questions about whether CEE’s economic development and quality of life lagged behind Western Europe during the 20th century (yes, it did!) and whether there was any period of convergence and divergence (yes, there was!). It would have been useful for the author to clearly state up front what he is trying to say and how it may be different from what we already know.

Third, the book asks, explicitly and implicitly, multiple important questions but largely does not elaborate on the possible answers. For instance, the author notes that levels of consumption and quality of life in communist CEE were lower than in Western Europe, as would be expected given the large differences in the levels of incomes, but then argues that they should be adjusted for multiple factors that made communist CEE peculiar. These included, on one hand, in-kind services delivered for free or at rock-bottom prices by the communist state (such as nurseries, healthcare, winter and summer holidays and even tickets for theaters and recordings of classical music), high job security, and low inequality. On the other hand, citizens of communist countries in CEE suffered much lower quality of products and services, permanent shortages and long wait lines and lower incomes than what would be suggested by the often inflated production and growth statistics. However, on balance, did these differences increase or decrease the gap relative to Western Europe?  How shall we account for the lack of freedom of speech, restrictions on movement, and lack of free political representation in CEE in the measurement of well-being? How can these factors affect the assessment of well-being in autocracies today? While it is not easy to tackle such questions, it would have been useful for the author to provide even incomplete answers than not to deal with these questions at all.

In addition, the author’s choice of Western Europe as the benchmark for communist CEE overshadows the fact that while communist countries lagged behind Western Europe in practically every facet of development, they nonetheless scored much higher on education outcomes, mortality, gender equality and many other key elements of development and well-being than what would be suggested by their levels of income. Does it mean that under communism CEE countries “punched above their weight” in well-being? Are there any lessons from this experience for developing countries around the world today?

Finally, the book fails to mention that by now all four countries analyzed in the book—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary—as well as the rest of the CEE region from Estonia down to Bulgaria—are all living through their Golden Age, defined as the shortest distance in history between their levels of incomes and quality of life and those in Western Europe. This is surprising in view of the book’s generally useful coverage of the post-1990 period of CEE’s economic resurgence (although somewhat inexplicably for a book completed in mid-2018 it uses data that often end in 2005 or 2010). The book does not mention that the average GDP per capita PPP is now higher in Czechia than in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and is just about to catch up with Italy; or that Poland’s GDP per capita is higher than Portugal’s and is just about to catch up with Spain’s. For a book that focuses on the quality of life, it surprisingly fails to mention that Czechia’s level of well-being, as reflected in, for instance, the OECD Better Life Index, is now higher than Italy’s or that Poland’s well-being is not only higher than Portugal’s but also higher than Japan’s and South Korea’s, even though GDP per capita in the two latter countries is almost one-third higher. Does this mean that CEE countries have been able to transform growing prosperity into higher well-being more efficiently than others? If so, why and how? And more broadly, does their economic success have anything to do with their inclusive communist legacy, as some others, like myself, would argue?

Overall, Tomka’s book is an excellent addition to the small, albeit growing literature that takes a pan-European approach to economic history and goes beyond GDP to also focus on well-being. Many scholars, especially those not familiar with Central and Eastern Europe, will benefit from reading the book. Future research could focus on comparing the developmental experience of CEE not with Western Europe, which has always been well ahead of CEE in development, but with Southern Europe (Greece, Spain and Portugal), which throughout centuries shared similar growth drivers and constraints as CEE. Using an automotive analogy, it could be more illuminating to compare Skoda to Fiat rather than to Porsche. Insights from such an analysis would make CEE’s experience relevant not only to the region’s cognoscenti, but also to a global audience.


Marcin Piatkowski is Professor of Economics at Kozminski University in Warsaw. His book Europe’s Growth Champion: Insights from the Economic Rise of Poland (Oxford University Press, 2018) received the 2019 Polish Academy of Sciences’ prize for Best Book in Economics.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Income and Wealth
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century