We present an extract from William Pelz’s ‘A People’s History of Modern Europe’. From the chapter ‘Europe Falls into the Twentieth-Century’, an insight into the objective of Pelz’s book emerge; to rewrite histories away from the platitudes of the privileged, by focussing here on the position of women in the formerly communist sections of Europe, Pelz shows that unification or demolition of the Soviet Union did not mean freedom from ‘slave psychology’, but its reconfiguration under neoliberalism:
The Berlin Wall came crashing down, albeit while DDR border guards stood around waiting
for orders that never came; the evil Soviet Empire had collapsed into the recycling bin of history. The euphoria of those dancing on the Wall was real—and often enhanced by impressive quantities of drink or something special to smoke. It was, as some said, “the end of history,” where all was right in this best of all possible worlds. The captive Europeans had liberated themselves. No more secret police spying on innocent, ordinary citizens. Freedom combined with unheard-of levels of individual consumption. If it was capitalism, it was to be capitalism with a human face. What could go wrong after that?
Fast-forward a quarter of a century. A poll taken in January 2015, finds that 82 percent of respondents in the old East Germany report that life was better before unification. Quizzed on this counter-intuitive outlook, they said there was ‘more sense of community, more facilities, money wasn’t the dominant thing, cultural life was better and they weren’t treated, as they are now, like second-class citizens.’ Many Europeans were shocked when the Snowden exposé showed that the Americans spied on everyone all the time. It was like the Russian KGB or German Stasi with space age technology. Wasn’t state spying one of the major faults of the old systems? One study even asked, ‘Do Communists have better sex?’ The answer, at least if the DDR is considered a representative sample for Communists, is yes. This research was even made into a documentary film. Of course, save for a handful of die-hard Stalinists, no one truly longs for a repressive state and the denial of freedom, nor do they long for the return of the other horrors of the old system.
The problem appears to be that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, people expected to gain freedom and social security. What they got was ‘actually existing capitalism.’ The philosopher Slavoj Žižek tells of a rumour floating about Germany after the fall of Gorbachev and the USSR. The story, which may or may not have happened, says that Gorbachev went to Berlin to visit Willy Brandt, long-time leader of the German Social Democrats.
When Gorbachev rang his doorbell, Brandt refused to answer. Not because he believed in Soviet-style rule, but because the collapse of the Soviets endangered his life work as a social reformer. As Žižek comments:
‘Brandt knew that the capitalist system is ready to make considerable concessions to the workers and the poor only if there is a serious threat of an alternative, of a different mode of production … the moment the alternative vanishes, one can proceed to dismantle the welfare state.’
The Soviet collapse dismantled not only the welfare state but also entire nation-states. Czechoslovakia broke into two separate nations, while Yugoslavia splintered into numerous small entities.’ Whether the first may be considered a farce is debatable; that the second was a tragedy is not. After World War I, various southern Slavs with different histories and religions had been united in a multicultural country. Partitioned by the Nazis during World War II, Yugoslavia was reborn under the Communist strongman Tito who brought together Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, along with the self-governing provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. The slogan of Tito’s Yugoslavia was “Brotherhood and Unity.” After Tito’s death, nationalism began to resurface and by 1991 Yugoslavia began to break apart with the encouragement of various Western interests. In the civil wars that followed, atrocities that had not occurred on European soil since 1945 became commonplace. In Bosnia-Herzegovia alone, roughly 200,000 people were murdered in the period 1992–95. Finally, NATO intervened, thus ending the civil war, and the various nationalist butchers went to ground or migrated to the West.
Tito’s Yugoslavia had hardly been a utopia, socialist or otherwise. What it had been was a stable, peaceful nation that refused to take sides during the Cold War and allowed citizens to travel abroad. A Yugoslav woman told a British journalist of her longings for the old system. She related, ‘My father is Serb and my mother is Croat. My best friend is Muslim. My nearest neighbours are Muslims, and next to them are Serbs. Why should I fight these people? Like most of my friends, I only wish the Communists were back!’ These seem understandable sentiments in the context of a vicious and bloody civil war. In all the Soviet Bloc nations, people found that most of what was said by the government about ‘actually existing socialism’ was a pack of lies. However, what had been said about capitalism was true. In Bulgaria, almost half the population was at risk for poverty by 2011, according to the European Commission, while 44 percent had experienced ‘severe material deprivation’. Anelia, a Bulgarian woman, remembers all “those years, I was forced to write about unemployment and exploitation and imperialism and neocolonialism and apartheid and military dictator- ships ‘I was a good writer. I could write passionately. But I didn’t believe a word of it.’ As of 2014, this woman who speaks four languages fluently and has years of professional experience cannot find work. Daily she sends out emails to try and get a job interview. She worries about how she will pay her bills or support herself. ‘I thought it was all lies.’ Anelia shook her head, ‘Can you imagine that all that time I was actually writing the truth?’ Even in more prosperous Germany, unification meant a harder life for average women. Of all the groups hit by West Germany’s abortion of the DDR, that is, the destruction of East German Society, women were some of those most negatively affected. Before in the old DDR, working mothers easily reconciled family and professional lives, unlike their sisters in the West. As numerous studies indicate, reunification led to a sharp rise in female unemployment in the East and resulted in drastic changes in their way of life and future plans, as well as a loss of self-confidence. East German workers (male and female alike) were humiliated by their new West German bosses who doubted their qualifications and sneered at the work habits of the East Germans. Women had it even harder, as full female employment was an Eastern, not Western, tradition. As the New York Times admitted with the collapse of the old system, ‘women in the former Communist East seemed to be the big losers.’
Yet, East German women were far from passive in this situation and one sociologist has commented that the ‘East Germany model of gender equality collapsed with the wall, but a quarter of a century later it still shapes the way mothers brought up under it see themselves and their role in society.’ This has resulted in the ironic situation in which women from the West see East German women as pace setters. Ms. Domscheit-Berg, a female former opponent of the old DDR government, still maintains that it was a bad system. Yet, she also admits ‘But on women, the East was ahead. We are still far from where we were 20 years ago, but at least we are moving in the right direction.’ Before, women in East Germany had unheard-of economic independence ‘because they could depend on solid and reliable social welfare. That is an important prerequisite for equal rights, perhaps even the essential one.’ One could easily be forgiven for thinking that these examples concern only older people with difficulty in adjusting to the new.
Still, there is a wealth of evidence suggesting that young people are not all ecstatic about capitalism and market either. Polish-born Agata Pyzik, living in London since 2010, appears to be leading the life of a successful writer, publishing in the Guardian and New Statesman among others—just the sort of successful, English-speaking ‘new European’ that should sing the praises of the market society. Still, she finds much that is wrong (even evil) in the post-Soviet world built by the Western bourgeoisie and their loyal governmental employees. Take, for example, the place of women in the nations of the ex-Bloc, now remoulded by the Western profit motive:
‘What strikes you is the seediness, the astonishing amounts of peep-shows, sex-shops and various strip and “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, and the more one goes east the more sleazy it gets … in a hotel, on the shelf there ’s lots of flyers, totally assuming you’re there to use Eastern girls’ charm. The sex industry that mushroomed in the East is only one side of its capitalist transition.’
Even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Westerners continue to harbour stereotypical prejudices about East Europeans and doubtlessly the reverse is also true. The gap is illustrated by a story told by Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky. He was having an intellectual argument, that he found rather boring, with some young Swedish revolutionaries. After the scheduled lecture/discussion was over, the Swedes wanted to drink bottles of beer in the park. However, upon reaching the park, the Swedish radicals were horrified that they had forgotten a bottle opener. Kagarlitsky proceeded to open the bottles using the table as he explained that there are at least a half a dozen other ways. As the Russian noted, it seemed that the idea of not using the “proper” tool was hard for the Westerners to wrap their brains around. The Eastern intellectual has criticised the fundamentally flawed stereotypes that seem to colour most Western discussion of the ex-Soviet Bloc. For example, to most Westerners, the ‘whole of Russian society is seen as just one reactionary mass with a slave psychology.’ This was never true and is becoming less true as the countries of the former Warsaw Pact nations change.
If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, we recommend:
A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès
Mitchell Abidor’s long-overdue translation and abridgement of Jaurès’ original 6-volumes brings this classic guide to political activism from the French Revolution’s hero Jean Jaurès to an Anglophone audience for the first time.
Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg
Rosenberg sets London’s radical campaigners against the backdrop of the city’s multi-faceted development. Self-directed walks accompany narratives that seamlessly blend history, politics and geography. Specially commissioned maps and illustrations to immerse you in the story of the city.
Work, Sex and Power: The Forces that Shaped Our History by Willie Thompson
Determining the forces that have shaped our history is always a contentious matter. Seen through the work of authors from Jared Diamond to Eric Hobsbawm, people’s fascination with what drives the actions of the human race is inexhaustible. In Work, Sex and Power, Willie Thompson deploys decades of experience as a historian in order to re-establish a materialist narrative of the entire span of human history, drawing on a vast range of contemporary research.
The Second World War: A Marxist History by Chris Bambery
Bambery argues that the Second World War was ultimately about a division of the world between the great powers, as well as a rising of ordinary people against fascism. He offers a complex and radical analysis, that is unique when compared to many modern and conventional histories of the war.
A Peoples History of Modern Europe is available to buy from Pluto here.
William A. Pelz is Director of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago and a Professor of History at Elgin Community College. His recent works include Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy (Greenwood Press, 2015), The Eugene V. Debs Reader (The Merlin Press Ltd, 2014) and Against Capitalism: The European Left on the March(Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).