Dec 6, 2006

Book Review: The Price of Freedom - A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present

The Price of Freedom, Piotr Wandycz Wandycz, Piotr S.

New York: Routledge Press, 335 pages

Wandycz is Professor Emeritus at Yale University, specializing in Central and Eastern European History. He was chair of Yale’s Council on Russian and East European Studies, director of the Language and Area Center, and is a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences; Wandycz was also awarded the Commander's Cross of the Polonia Restituta. The author centered The Price of Freedom on the regions that would become the modern nations of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak republics, the area that historian Timothy Garton Ash has termed the European “heartlands.”

This synthesis follows a chronological progression, tracing the history of East Central Europe from the ninth century through the arrival of the twenty-first. There are relatively few footnotes, and the cited works tend to be of a secondary nature; it appears that the author intended this text for graduate students, non-specialist scholars, and the learned general public, and some familiarity with European history is helpful in order to enhance understanding. Throughout the text Wandycz provided numerous maps, charts, and tables to highlight the material, and he developed bibliographical essays for each chapter. Of particular value is the lengthy chronology that Wandycz included at the end of the book, which is arranged both by individual nation as well as a general chronology for the region.

Map of East Central Europe Immanuel Wallerstein developed a sixteenth century model of the capitalist world economy, and some historians attribute the tendency of the economy in Eastern Europe to lag behind the West to Wallerstein’s concepts of core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral states. Wandycz, however, dismissed this model in its application to the economy of East Central Europe, noting that peak grain exports from the region could have satisfied the demand of no more than one million people in the West, making these states poor sources of agricultural exploitation. Likewise, Wandycz took issue with the ‘second serfdom’ argument put forward by some historians, arguing that the appearance of feudal structures in East Central Europe varied widely, and that peasants in the region possessed greater rights and freedom than did serfs in more restrictive areas, such as imperial Russia. Instead, argued Wandycz, the infusion of cheap silver into Europe from Spanish mines in the New World took a heavy toll on Bohemian and Hungarian silver and gold mines, and this resulted in a deleterious decline in the region’s balance of payments with the West. Still, the author developed a new model of the semi-periphery, focusing instead on the relative backwardness of the region in comparison with the West.

Bohdan KhmelnytskyUkranian hetman Bohdan Khelmnysky

The political and military changes wrought during the period of the Thirty Years War and Northern Wars, according to Wandycz, had profound effects on the region of East Central Europe. Bohemia found itself under complete suzerainty of the Habsburgs after the Peace of Westphalia, and leaders of the Czech uprising suffered executions, confiscated lands, and political marginalization; Wandycz estimated that 150,000 people emigrated from Moravia and Bohemia during the war, while many more died from war-related plagues and famines. Hungary found itself in the middle of a series of protracted battles between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, and the result was a disruption of the Hungarian economy, depopulation, and political instability. Polish involvement in the Northern Wars, coupled with the death and devastation of the Khmelnytsky Uprising, resulted in catastrophic population drops that reached up to 60 percent in some areas of Poland. East Central Europe, thus, was deserving of inclusion in what Parker and Smith dubbed the "General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century".

The text is not without its limitations; one might, for example, quibble with the relative lack of attention given to the history of Jews in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Wandycz tends to highlight diplomatic and political history over other perspectives, and his wordiness might be challenging to some readers. As a textbook, this work would also benefit with the inclusion of art, photographs, and greater use of primary source materials.

Of particular value to Western readers are the chapters Wandycz developed on the interwar, communist, and post-communist eras. As one whose awareness of East Central Europe was largely shaped through Western media, I found quite informative the detailed analysis and indigenous perspectives in The Price of Freedom that offered a refreshing contrast to the propaganda-as-newscast traditions of the West. While certainly not an apologist for the Soviet empire – the author was highly critical of Stalinist totalitarianism - Wandycz is far from being a naïve devotee of the wonders of free market, and the text is relatively free from political bias.

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