Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe. Challenges to Communist Rule

TitleRevolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe. Challenges to Communist Rule
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialand(eds.), Kevin McDermott Matthew Stibbe


PublisherBerg Publishers: Oxford, New York
ISSNSBN: 1845202597
Review year


Full Text

Revolution and resistance in Eastern Europe. Challenges to Communist Rule is a succinct and concise collection of essays on those landmarks in the history of the Cold War when indigenous Eastern European citizens rose against Communist rule, be it against their native leaders or rule from Moscow. The compilation convokes younger as well as long-established academics. While the territorial limits are clearly defined, based on the former geopolitical concept of Communist Eastern Europe comprising Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, the terms revolution and resistance are applied in the widest possible sense. The editors argue for a flexible approach, defining the chosen examples as cases of 1. national communism, 2. intellectual dissent, 3. armed peasant resistance, and 4. popular protest (p.3).
The contributions vary in approach, depth and perspective giving the authors the chance to present their matters from the point they deem most enlightening. All of the articles prove highly sensitive towards the specific national context as well as to the numerous twist and turns of historical narratives throughout the 20th century. Entirely, this collection galvanizes the latest discoveries of long-inaccessible Cold War archives. In sum they show that arbitrariness, personal characteristics or relations and oftentimes mere coincidences reigned over the course of events and that the Eastern bloc was far from monolithic, thus, refuting the persistent yet premature earlier notion of historical inevitability. Following, I will address those four outstanding essays that excel in approach, novelty and scholarly brilliance in more details while I will refer to the other contributions more briefly.
After the editor’s general introduction (pp. 1-13), Leonid Gibianski dismantles former myths about the split between Stalin and Tito in 1948 commonly cherished by Yugoslav as well as many Western historians (“The Soviet-Yugoslav Split”, pp. 17-36). The idea that the split presented the culmination of continuous disagreements between Belgrade and Moscow is still widely believed. However, lately recovered primary sources reveal that until the spring of 1948, Tito and the CPY had proven loyal and subservient followers of the Soviets. The author details the turn of events and correspondence during the war; he shows that “up to 1948 there were no critical comments on the CPY’s wartime policies” (p.19). Still in the immediate and uncertain post-war period, “Belgrade was simply following, in a disciplined manner, all the twists and turns of Moscow’s changing line” (p.22). Even on the crucial question of Trieste Tito – though recalcitrant – bowed to Stalin’s decision. Nevertheless, foreign policy eventually provided the ground for discord: Tito sought independent arrangements with the leaders of Bulgaria and Albania to expand the Yugoslav sphere of influence in the Balkans. Gibianski convincingly argues that it was Tito’s strive for power and regional leadership that outraged the Kremlin. Belgrade’s overzealous ambitions would have questioned the hierarchy in Eastern Europe and slowly undermined Moscow’s hegemony, Gibiansky explains today. These were the factual reasons which in mid-1948 abruptly ended a formerly stable relationship.
Dennis Deletant’s accurate knowledge of Romania and its history was paradoxically reflected by the regime’s imposition of a ban on him in 1988; in “Romania, 1945-89: Resistance, Protest and Dissent” he once more proves his precise cognizance (pp.81-99). He alleviates the general notion of Romanians’ fawning obsequiousness by arguing that the regime’s control over the people and the media was highly efficient; the notorious Securitate directly silenced any dissonance and the dominant Orthodox Church was quickly co-opted. Deletant highlights the media’s persistent failure to report (see the immediate news blackout in the fall of 1956). Nonetheless, the author detects cases of resistance, collective protest and dissent. First, partisans in the mountain ranges recurrently managed to deliver painful attacks on the Communists. However, their actions were isolated and vanished completely around 1960 (later on, only a minor like-minded uprising surged in Cluj in 1976). The broader public only learned about these after 1989.
While the permanent and increasing deprivation of basic needs – such as heating, food or electricity – in this pernicious dictatorship is widely acknowledged, the workers’ strikes in the Jiu Valley in 1977, in Cluj 1983, in Iasi and later Brasov in 1987, remain mostly unknown. The author detects a repeated failure of intellectuals to side with the workers in any of the strikes. Doinea Cornea, the outspoken Cluj resident, appears as a brave and singular exception. Additionally, Paul Goma’s singular challenge of the regime deserves attention: encouraged by the Helsinki Accords he called on Ceauşescu to support the Czech Charta 77 protagonists. In return for this effrontery and public enumeration of human rights violations in Romania, Goma and his few supporters suffered drastic attacks. After violent harassments and imprisonment, Goma left or rather was forced to leave for Paris. Furthermore, the ethnic Hungarian pastors István Tőkés’ and his son László’s dauntless steadfastness triggered such a popular solidarity in Transylvania, that in mid-December 1989 the armed forces, losing nerve, resolved to open fire on peaceful demonstrators – and thus the Romanian revolution began in Timisoara. In his concluding words, Deletant provides a cognizant and excellent balance sheet which includes cases of resistance as well as the behavior of the majority of Romanians.
James Krapfl’s literary analysis in “Revolution and Revolt against Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1989” (pp.175-194) excels at academic cognizance and presents a unique, exhilarating approach: based on Northrop Frye’s plot structure theory, Krapfl retraces the narration of the events in Czechoslovak in 1989/90. First, he says, they were constructed as romance, in which the demonstrations of November 1989 and its suppression represent the archaic fight of good versus evil. However, the romantic quest for transcendence was halted by the idea of reconciliation, as reflected by the newly elected President Havel’s call for unity and united combat for the betterment of the country, and thus turned into comedy. But a number of problems remained until the federal election in June 1990. Krapfl shows how the mere announcement of the failure of the revolution, turned its narration into a tragedy. After its election, parliament went on vacation, which deliberately enraged its constituents. The first Slovak opposition party split over this tragic notion of a stalled revolution. Václav Klaus emerged as populist leader and gathered Slovak dissatisfaction with what appeared as Czech Prague-centrism. At last, Krapfl presents the emplotment of a satire: the tragic hero is doomed by nature and circumstances. Conspiracy theories, even the full denial of a revolution, surfaced in the fall of 1990. Today, Czech discourse diminishes 1989 to a low-key ‘upheaval’; though the Slovaks preserve the notion of a ‘Gentle’ or ‘Velvet Revolution’ (p.189). Remarkably, Krapfl concludes that “[narrations] by their very structure carry political implications, such that they not only reflect reality, but also create it. There are no objective reasons to choosing one plot structure over another; the choice is fundamentally moral” (ibid.).
Johanna Granville provides a concise and cohesive comparative study of the Polish 1956 as different from the Hungarian 1956 (pp. 57-77). Granville delivers a convincing analysis on this issue that continues to cause confusion and controversy. So far three theses have been put forward aiming to explain why in the case of Poland the Soviets did not while in the case of Hungary did opt for a military intervention: Granville tests the 1. ‘divergent historical experiences’-thesis, 2. the ‘leaders’ personality’-thesis and 3. the neutrality-thesis. She reflects on these older theses with regard to recent archival findings and points out that each of these maintain an element of truth, yet only in their combination can they elucidate the decisive differences sufficiently. Additionally, the author underlines that for long Gomulka’s position was not as secure as previously assumed. Nevertheless, the Muscovites were less dominant in Warsaw than in Budapest, wherefore the Politburo did open up to changes sooner. On the contrary, Rákosi – though removed in July 1956 – kept intriguing and Muscovite rule continued in the person of Ernő Gerő. Moreover, the June events in Poznań had not only cautioned the Polish leadership, but also proved them apt at dealing with crisis situations. While the armed forces stayed loyal in Poland, the Hungarian ones largely defected. As opposed to Gomulka who was aware of the various problems and took a more pragmatic approach, Nagy was ill-fit to handle the situation, notwithstanding some similarities with his Polish counterpart. Since Nagy could not gain control, the decision to invade was already made before Hungary’s declaration of neutrality. Thus, Granville summarizes, “while Gomulka was careful to walk a fine line between appeasing Polish officials and the population and reassuring the Soviet Presidium members, Nagy apparently believed that appeasing the population was the best way […]” (p.72).
In “Negotiated Revolution in Poland and Hungary, 1989” Nigel Swain offers a telling contrast between Poland and Hungary for 1989  (pp.139-155) – two cases that have often been contrasted, as Granville’s article illustrates. He discusses the differences in outlook and intentions of all participants, the content and the developments during the Round Table Talks which took place in both states. The Polish “bore the imprint of the past’s tragic defeats and were premised on compromise and co-option, while [only] a few in the party accepted a reform agenda” (p.153), Swains claims. Hungarians, on the other side, appeared more radical and committed from the outset; apart from the premature compromise between populist and the reforming party, the situation radicalized in face of the international events.
Kieran Williams distinguishes three phases of the Prague Spring in his “The Prague Spring: From Elite Liberalisation to Mass Movement” (pp.101-117): the run-up to the invasion, the intended agenda of the communist reformers (?), and the auto-normalisation after August 1968. It is noteworthy that “[out] of the transcripts steps Dubcek different from the one mythologised in the West and in post-1989 Slovakia […], a career functionary, emotionally very attached to the USSR […] and sincere in his promises to do something about the developments that displeased the Soviets” (p.102). Bartosz Kaliski focuses on Solidarność in the 1980s in “Solidarity, 1980-1: The second Vistula Miracle?” (pp.119-139). Despite being remembered as “the mythological founder of the Third Republic” (p.134), he critically scrutinizes the entanglements of Solidarity with the regime, its inner struggles as well as its askew negotiation policies, which have been mostly left to oblivion.
In “The SED, German Communism and the June 1953 Uprising: New Trends and New Research” (pp.37-55), Matthew Stibbe explores the developments prior, on and after 17 June 1953 in East Germany. Although Stibbe supports his arguments about the scope of the uprising and people’s reactions while displaying impressive familiarity with the inner party struggles as well, it seems that the general framework to understand the events has been already established and its future revision appears unlikely. Peter Grieder deals with the dissolution of the East German regime, the “most stable of Moscow’s satellites” (p.157) (“‘To Learn from the Soviet Union is to Learn How to Win’: The East German Revolution, 1989-90”, pp.157-174). Grieder stresses particularly the long-term success of Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’ and the enormous contribution of Gorbachev towards the collapse of the regime, which seems a more exclusive than encompassing essay.
Last but not least, Tony Kemp-Welch considers the role of the two poles in this bipolar Cold War, the USA and the USSR (“Afterword: East or West?”, pp.195-203). This brief overview focuses on the main shifts of the US foreign policy towards its opponent, which he depicts as just as inconsistent, arbitrary and unpredictable as the Soviets’ policies seen in the preceding essays. Moreover, he uses the theme of decolonization, to explain the USSR’s need to liberate itself from its burdening satellites in order to prevent its own devastation.
In conclusion, Revolution and resistance is a necessary entry point for all students of and those generally interested who wish to engage in the recent history of Eastern Europe. Despite all notable differences between them, most case studies stress the impact of the Helsinki Final Act, the omnipresent fear of a Soviet intervention as well as economic adversity as a major mobilizing factor. Quality, depth and scholarly strive vary, but generally all essays are well-written, cohesive and enlightening. Most importantly, all essays maintain a scholarly and critical distance towards these at times rather sensitive, politically and nationally relevant topics. They address the many misperceptions and obscurities that have reigned concerning these issues throughout the past. The majority of contributors emphasize the impact of primary sources that have become accessible only recently. Finally, each essay confirms the introductory assertion of the heterogeneity of Eastern Europe during the Cold War and single out the nationally very different patterns of resistance and revolutions.