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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 311-313

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Book Review

East Central Europe in the Modern World:
The Politics of the Borderlands from Pre- to Postcommunism

East Central Europe in the Modern World: The Politics of the Borderlands from Pre- to Postcommunism. By Andrew C. Janos (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000) 590pp. $65.00

This book is the culmination of a lifetime of academic research and thinking by one of the most prominent scholars of East Central European politics. Janos employs an exhaustive historical survey of the region (including present-day Albania, Serbia-Montenegro, Macedonia, Slo- venia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and the former German Democratic Republic) to develop a grand theory of political and economic development of the countries on Europe's periphery. Ambitious in scope and engagingly argued, Janos' book is well worth reading by any serious student of East European or postcommunist politics.

After a slow beginning--consisting of a tedious review of development theory, as well as a detailed overview of the region's demographics--Janos begins to flesh out his thesis, which draws heavily on "core-periphery" theories of relative backwardness to explain endemic political and economic underdevelopment of East Central Europe. 1 In the introduction, he asserts that the book is (1) an illustration of the persistence of East European backwardness through centuries of successive regimes, [End Page 311] and (2) an attempt to strike a needed balance between overly deterministic structural theories, which rely on international variables as an explanation of underdevelopment, and institutionalist theories, which over-state the role played by state structures in the perpetuation of backwardness (1).

What comes across, however, is that East Central European backwardness is almost entirely attributable to international forces. Janos begins his story with the medieval period, tracing the history of East Central Europe through the "rise and fall of liberalism" (from the early nineteenth century to World War II) and the "rise and fall of communism" (from World War II to the present). He argues that nineteenth-century gentry in Eastern Europe reacted to the "international demonstration effects" of Western prosperity by clamoring for the material advantages enjoyed by their West European counterparts. Public pressure to keep pace with Western patterns of consumption ultimately led to the adoption of authoritarian structures in an effort to cope with mounting state debt and trade deficits. These paternalistic institutions kept East Central Europe in a position of endemic political and economic underdevelopment.

Twentieth-century East European states dealt with the problem of relative backwardness by popularizing communism as an ideological alternative to Western consumerism and by restricting communication with the West. These policies broke down in the 1980s, as the impoverished communist states finally buckled under popular demand for the material advantages enjoyed by Western societies. Indeed, the most striking point made by this book is the stubborn persistence of inter- and intraregional disparities in East Central Europe. Janos notes that "a trip undertaken from Vienna to Moscow or Istanbul in the 1980s would thus lead through the same way stations of progressively deteriorating material standards, agriculture, roads, accommodations, and public facilities as those encountered by a traveler 200 years before" (352).

Janos paints a gloomy picture of postcommunist East Central Europe. If international influences are the primary determinant of East European development, and if these influences have changed little during the past 200 years, why believe that the situation will be different in the postcommunist period? Further, in making this argument, Janos has largely failed to achieve his goal of striking a balance between structural and institutionalist theories of East European backwardness, arguing for international factors and the actions of great powers as the primary determinants of the region's development. He qualifies this hypothesis by saying, "The more general lesson taught us by the world is that relative [End Page 312] deprivation alone may not abort the take-off of development. But when it is combined with adverse market trends in historical moments of great vulnerability it is...


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