Free Life 22, April 1995, Two Books on Eastern Europe Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life No. 22, April 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112

Central Europe Since 1945
 Paul G. Lewis
 Longman, London and New York, 1994, 352 pp., 13.99
 (ISBN 0 582 03608 9)

Hopes and Shadows: Eastern Europe after Communism
 J.F. Brown
 Longman, London and New York, 1994, 367 pp., 12.99
 (ISBN 0 582 24407 2)

I do not recommend the first of these books. Though its title suggests otherwise, it is not a narrative history. No effort is made to describe the long progress from the Yalta Conference to the knocking down of the Berlin Wall. Names and events are mentioned in the text, but without any explanation of their significance, and wrapped in page after page of windy generalisations.

The book might at best suit one of its author's Open University students – that is, the sort of person who can only contemplate the fall of socialism when the story is given all the richness and dramatic force of a politburo speech on agriculture. It will never suit the readers of Free Life.

Dr Brown's book in incomparably better. It is an interim report on the progress of the East and Central European mind since 1989. The revolutions of that year happened in a region that had never experienced full liberalism, and from which every trace of liberalism had been erased after about 1935. So far from being a liberal rebirth, the revolutions were at best a precondition for one. In themselves, they did no more than expose a mass of national and other grudges.

Certainly, there is a nearly universal desire for prosperity. But there is little corresponding belief in limited government and the rule of law. Indeed, the democratic institutions that in the West legitimise and sustain the legal order tend here to undermine it. The Czech Republic aside – and then not wholly – every one of the post-Soviet countries of the region is ruled by socialist or national socialist demagogues, or is likely soon to fall under their sway.

Perhaps it will all turn out for the best. Dr Brown clearly hopes so. But hope is not the same as optimism.

Sean Gabb

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