Refugee History in 20th Century Europe: A Brief Primer

A lot of smart people are discussing the current refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian Civil War.  Much of this commentary is critical of European states and asserts that Europe should look to a kinder gentler past when refugees were treated with dignity.  One of these commentators is Emily Bazelon of the New York Times. She is a extremely intelligent women, and I find her discussions on Slate’s Political Gabfest to be insightful, especially when clarifying legal issues in the United States Supreme Court.  There are few who can break down such complicated legal arguments and present them to the to the informed layperson.  Nevertheless, I find her recent attempt to delve into the refugee crisis in the New York Times Magazine an oversimplification of history.

Bazelon makes the case that during the 1920s  and after the Second World War the world was much more receptive to refugees.  In the 1920s, she emphasizes the care given to refugees of the Russian Civil War and other unstable regions who were issued Nansen Passports by the League of Nations.  She asserts that those who received these passports were quickly resettled in other countries belonging to the League of Nations (and therefore not the USA).  However, this is a major misinterpretation.  As Jay Milbrandt makes clear in his article Statelessthe Nansen Passports were not identical documents and issued haphazardly, leading some countries to rejected them.  Moreover, the passports had to be renewed every two years or they became invalidated.  As time went on, many states stopped validating the passports and started questioning the motives of those holding them.  In fact, Milbrandt suggests that those designated stateless faced a significant burden:

Although these documents [Nansen Passports] served to facilitate cross-border travel for many refugees, it provided no guarantees of protection from the state in which these individuals settled. In effect, although these individuals were granted increased freedom of movement through the Nansen Passport, they did not assure the protection enjoyed by citizens or nationals of the state in which they settled, such as personal welfare, access to employment, protection against expulsion, and other protections and liberties traditionally preserved through the state.

Therefore, simply because these refugees were permitted to flee their home countries did not mean that they were treated with dignity or accepted.

Next, Bazelon discusses the situation after the Second World War.  She seems to posit that was a period when refugees were gladly accepted by the nation’s of the world, especially the victims of the Holocaust.  However, this is flat out wrong.  In fact, in the case of the United States, the Congress only grudgingly passed legislation to aide postwar refugees.

In 1946, as camps in Germany began to swell, some European countries and the United States did began accepting refugees, but not enough to alleviate the problem. President Harry Truman’s special directive in December 1945 giving Displaced Persons (DPs) the first positions on the annual immigration quotas failed to alleviate the problem; moreover, the quota for Eastern Europe was only 13,000, leaving millions in camps. The situation was further aggravated in 1946 when thousands of Jews fled postwar Poland, following continued discrimination and pogroms.[1]  Unwilling to return home, the DPs presented a significant problem for the occupation forces that demanded a solution.  The result was the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (DPA) which allowed 200,000 DPs to enter the United States; however, the legislation that emerged from the Congress specified quotas for each nationality, including the Jews.[2]  The DPA’s inherent problems were evident in Truman’s statement that the “bill was flagrantly discriminatory,” “mocks the American tradition of fair play,” and “discriminates in a callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.”[3]  But, the bill passed on the last day of the 80th session. Truman only signed it because refusal meant, in his words, “there would be no legislation on behalf of displaced persons.”[4]

Passed in 1948, the DPA lasted for two years and allowed 200,000 DPs into the USA, and was restricted to only 10,000 Jews.  Further, in crafting this bill, the Congress called for strict investigations into refugees backgrounds.  The first step involved certification by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), a United Nations agency created in 1946, which screened refugees.  However, a former IRO official before the Congress described the IRO process as fraudulent stating that employees refused to check documents and were more interested in filling quotas then inspecting an individual’s background.[5]  The second step in the screening process called for an investigation of each individual by the Displaced Persons Committee (DPC), but the DPC delegated its responsibility to the U.S. Army which conducted neighborhood spot checks and examined German military records, UN camp records, and records in the Berlin Document Center.[6]  Eventually the DPA was renewed in 1950 and expired in 1952; however, with thousands of DPs still in camps, the 83rd Congress approved the Refugee Relief Act in 1953 allowing 200,000 more European DPs into the country.  Together, these two pieces of legislation permitted nearly 600,000 immigrants to enter the United States.[7]

As the case of the USA after the Second World War indicates, there was hardly a welcoming of refugees and much debating over quotas, something that Bazelon identifies as a problem in Europe today. After the war, Britain, in fact, sought every means to prevent Jews from migrating to the Palatinate Protectorate.   Yet, these actions demonstrate that not much has changed.  All nations remain protective of their boarders and want to make sure they know who is crossing their borders.  This is particularly difficult in Europe where the Nazi genocide removed the most persecuted minority and the Cold War basically froze borders, making nation-states rather homogeneous.  Yes, countries had minority populations, like the Turk guest workers in Germany, but most states had a dominant majority.

However, the opening of borders, the wealth of the European Union, and opportunities for immigrants has created new problems, leading to the increasing racism and right wing political parties like UKIP in Great Britain and the NPD in Germany.   The problem facing Europe, as many have pointed out, is that for centuries the continent was a net exporter of individuals, but now it’s wealth is making it a net importer.  Furthermore, the Syrian crisis partially stems from Europe and the USA’s decision to remain hands off, even after the use of chemical weapons.  Perhaps the best way to solve the refugee crisis is to solve the crisis, but geopolitical situation grows ever more complicated.

What we are witnessing is Europe coming  to grips with the challenge of being a net importer of individuals, and it will not be easy or simple.  One can criticize Europe and say that refugees were treated better in the past, but this is ahistorical.  One can say that Europe should open its borders and aid refugees, but a commentator must also consider history and domestic politics.  One can point to the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, but one must consider the Vietnam War and American’s moral responsibility.  History, especially the history of refugees, is complicated.  Anyone providing a simple narrative has overlooked the extreme complexity and grayness of the past.  Does the crisis need solved? Yes.  Should refugees be treated with dignify? Yes.  But, looking for some romantic past doesn’t solve the current problem.

[1] Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, (New York: Random House, 2007).

[2] Leonard Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 163-182.

[3] Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President Upon Signing the Displaced Persons Act,” June 25, 1948. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ ws/?pid=12942.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edward M. Glazek, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Amendments to the Displaced Persons Act, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 81st Congress, 1st and  2nd Session, February 3, 1950, 490-495.

[6] Allan A. Ryan Jr. Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1984), 20-22.

[7] Ibid., 26.

Review – Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia by Gabriel Gorodetsky

Gabriel Gorodetsky’s study Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia examines the foreign policy of the Soviet Union from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  In this study, Gorodetsky asserts that Stalin’s foreign and military policy were non-ideological and based on realpolitik whereby Stalin carefully calculated the rapidly shifting power within Europe and worked to prevent the Soviet Union from being drawn into war.  Moreover, Gorodetsky strongly argues against the interpretation advocated by Victor Suvorov and others that Stalin was planning to attack Nazi Germany which forced Germany into a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union.  Instead, Gorodetsky shows Stalin working vigorously to keep the Soviet Union from being dragged into war and attempting to make territorial gains in the Balkans while his enemies the Germans and British were fighting each other.  To support his argument, the author utilizes documents from numerous archives including the old party archive, the Soviet foreign policy archive, the Russian Military Archive, the Presidential Archive, and archival material from Great Britain, Germany, Bulgaria, Sweden, and the former Yugoslavia.  By incorporating these sources into his study, Gorodetsky’s study of Soviet foreign policy is comprehensive and able to depict the many nuances of the diplomacy between these European states.

According to Gorodetsky, Stalin interpreted the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact not as a commitment to Germany but as neutrality for the Soviet Union; moreover, the agreement secured a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Europe in the north and center.  For Gorodetsky, the south remained a problem for Stalin and he feared an agreement between Turkey and Great Britain which might create a location for the Allies to attack Russia.  This concern led Stalin to pursue complete security around the Black Sea while Germany’s focus was on defeating Great Britain.  Stalin’s initial overtures were made towards Romania and he ultimately forced Romania to give up control of Bessarabia which gave the Soviet Union access to the Danube.  However, this event drew Germany’s attention to the Balkans as this region was essential to Germany’s oil supply.  This led Germany to continue pressuring the Balkan countries to join the Tripartite Pact, a Nazi defense alliance, which eventually muscled the Soviet Union out of the Balkans.  The author views the diplomatic disputes between Germany and the Soviet Union in Balkans as the key to understanding Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s realpolitik practices to create a security zone in the south angered Hitler who ordered his military staff to draw up the invasion plans.

Throughout these diplomatic disputes between Germany and the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky also describes the interactions between Great Britain and the Soviet Union.  In discussing Great Britain, Gorodetsky downplays Churchill’s April 1941 warning to Stalin of a looming German strike and musters evidence showing why Stalin rejected this warning.  Examining the diplomatic interactions between Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky argues that British policy was constantly antagonistic towards the Soviet Union and was consistently trying to drag the Soviet Union into war with the Germans.  Since British attempts to thwart the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin never trusted the British and always viewed them with suspicion.  Gorodetsky specifically emphasizes Great Britain’s refusal to commit to a defense pact, support of Finland during the Winter War, and plans to bomb Baku oil fields as actions that reinforced Stalin’s suspicion of the British.  By presenting Britain actions towards the Soviet Union, Gorodetsky depicts numerous reasons for Stalin to remain wary of British warnings.

Although Stalin’s paranoia of the British remains explainable, Stalin’s refusal to believe Soviet intelligence sources concerning the German build-up is characterized as a failing in Stalin’s foreign policy.  Herein lays Gorodetsky’s grand delusion.  Stalin ignored the overwhelming information provided by his own intelligence sources because he deluded himself into believing that the massing of German forces was not going to result in an attack.  Instead, Stalin dismissed the German build-up as posturing to pressure the Soviet Union into further negotiations over Germany’s need for raw materials.  In fact, Gorodetsky shows that Stalin’s anger towards his subordinates concerning the German build-up resulted in the tailoring of intelligence reports to meet Stalin’s preconceived understanding of the situation.  This resulted in an intelligence failure only because Stalin refused to accept the accurate information provided by his intelligence services. Rather, he deluded himself by believing that Germany did not want war only further economic and military agreements.

Overall, Gorodetsky’s study is well researched and provides significant insights into Stalin’s foreign policy in the twenty-two months between the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the beginning of Operation Barbarossa; however, the author’s argument that Stalin’s foreign policy lacked ideology remains suspect.  Stalin’s domestic policies, particularly the ending of NEP, the collectivization of agriculture, and the drive for industrialization, demonstrates that Stalin was a believer in Marxist-Leninism ideology.  If Stalin’s actions domestically were ideological, why would his foreign policy be any different?  Stalin’s efforts to supply weapons to the communist forces during the Spanish Civil War, to establish communism in Soviet occupied Poland and the Baltic States, and his attempt to invade Finland depict ideological motivations in foreign policy.   Thus to dismiss ideology altogether from Stalin’s foreign policy is an inaccurate approach as ideology always played a role in Stalin’s thinking and worldview.  Instead of dismissing ideology, the author needs to demonstrate how ideology played into Stalin’s foreign policy decisions.  This approach to Soviet foreign policy places Gorodetsky within the orthodox interpretation according to Teddy Uldricks because Gorodetsky supports the idea of mutual security. Gorodetsky asserts that Stalin desired mutual security with Britain but was rebuffed by Britain’s staunch anti-communist ideology which blinded them to a potential alliance with the Soviet Union.  This ultimately led Stalin to reach a security agreement with the Nazis creating the conditions for the beginning of the Second World.

Charter 77

In January of 1977, Czechoslovakian dissidents composed a document entitled Charter 77 which sought to hold the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic government responsible for human rights violations.  The document’s architects included prominent Czech dissidents Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka, and Jiri Hajeck; however, only 230 signatures initially appeared on the charter and by 1989 included merely 1,864 signatories out of a population of over fifty million.[1]  Charter 77’s objective was to organize an informal network of citizens to hold the Czechoslovakian government publically accountable for frequent human rights abuses which the government had declared to uphold by signing the Helsinki Accords in 1975.  The charter advocated for the universal recognition of human rights specifically citing suppression of civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the blacklisting of dissidents and their families from employment and educational opportunities.  While the charter was political in nature, the crafters and signatories never sought to advance a mass movement so as to prevent violent repression against the charter’s supporters, and instead relied upon informal associations to report the government’s human rights abuses.  Though Charter 77 was a Czechoslovakian dissident movement, this essay will examine the charter’s emphasis on human rights and how human rights developed into an important factor in post war Eastern Europe on the international, national, and individual levels.

Internationally, Charter 77 demonstrates the importance of human rights in foreign relations during the Cold War specifically between the Soviet Union and United States.  In Vladislav Zubok’s Failed Empire, he states that, “the commitment to human rights embedded in the [Helsinki] act proved to be a time bomb under the Soviet regime.”[2]  The Helsinki Accords, signed by thirty-five nations including the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, was initially hailed as a foreign policy victory for Leonid Brezhnev as the agreement recognized long term Soviet goals of non-intervention in domestic affairs and territorial integrity; however, as Zubok points out, the human rights articles of this agreement developed into a rallying point for Eastern European dissidents.  The Charter 77 dissidents specifically cited the Helsinki Accords to criticize the Czechoslovakian government stating that since the signing, “our citizens have the right, and our state the duty, to abide by them,” but that these rights “exist on paper only.”[3]  Dissident criticism of the Soviet state through the frame of human rights developed into a point of contention between the United States and the Soviet Union.  During the Carter Administration, his National Security Advisor Zbrigniew Brzezinski, a native of Poland, fiercely insisted that the Soviet Union uphold the Helsinki Accords perplexing the Soviets who believed arms control was more important than human rights.  The promotion of human rights under the Carter Administration factored into détente’s unraveling and the hardening of relations as dissidents, journalists, and Carter perceived détente as an appeasement policy.[4]  With the rise of dissident movements clamoring for human rights, especially in Poland, the United States continually insisted that the Soviet Union respect human rights which Zubok describes as, “the most important criteria for the president’s assessment of Soviet intentions.”[5]  Zubok’s emphasis on human rights in US-Soviet relations reveals that dissident movements like Charter 77 advocating for human rights, though small, profoundly influenced high politics and the foreign policy strategy of the United States towards the Soviet Union.

While Zubok describes human rights as a time bomb, he fails to discuss why they were a bomb and when, if ever, this bomb exploded.  By examining the rights demanded by Charter 77, such as civil liberties and freedom of expression, and observing when the Soviet Union began recognizing these rights exhibits why human rights were a bomb and how it detonated.  According to Zubok, the catastrophe at Chernobyl, the decline of oil prices, and the development of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” resulted in the liberalization of Soviet human rights.  Following the disaster at Chernobyl, Gorbachev realized that nuclear war was undesirable and parity with the US was unattainable; furthermore, with the decline in oil prices, reducing arms spending would provide hard currency for the dilapidated economy.  However, the failure of negotiations with Ronald Reagan persuaded Soviet officials, “that the persecution of dissidents and religious groups presented a major obstacle for negotiations with the United States.”[6]  The failure of negotiations compelled Gorbachev to seek the support of Western Europe in the hopes of pressuring the US into arms agreements yet European support remained contingent upon recognizing human rights as well.  These demands by Western Europe and the United States coerced Gorbachev and the KGB to free political prisoners and reduce arrests for political crimes which furthered the growing influence of enlightened dissidents.[7]  Ultimately, while dissident movements clamoring for human rights remained small, they were an important negotiation tool for the West, and Gorbachev’s liberalization of Soviet society and suspension of the Brezhnev Doctrine to gain Western European support for arms reduction agreements exploded into mass movements that demanded autonomy from the USSR.

On the national level, Czechoslovakia and the Charter 77 dissidents conform to the paradigm presented by Stephan Kotkin in his study Uncivil Society.  Czechoslovakia, like the case studies of East Germany and Romania, was governed by a ruling clique that complied with Kotkin’s term uncivil society, remained economically dependant upon Western loans, and experienced spontaneous mass mobilization in 1989.  Within this paradigm, Charter 77 emphasizes and supports Kotkin’s understanding and differentiation between civil and uncivil society.  While some scholars have suggested that dissident movements represented an emerging civil society, Kotkin understands their arguments as “profoundly misleading” and “falsely generalizing,” and instead argues that though dissident movements were morally important they did not, “constitute any kind of society.”[8]  Kotkin’s argument that civil society failed to develop in Eastern Europe is supported by Charter 77 which states, “Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies, or formal membership . . . It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity.”[9]  The authors of Charter 77 explicitly denied formal organization because political opposition was illegal in a single party state; furthermore, if the creation of political opposition remained illegal, the dissidents could not constitute a civil society as this required the protection of civil liberties, private property, and the ability to self organize; all unattainable in the communist system.  Therefore, Charter 77 dissident criticized the government through the language of human rights provided by the Helsinki Accords; however, they denied political organization as it was illegal and, by denying this, Charter 77 confirms Kotkin’s argument that dissident movements were incapable of forming civil societies or a significantly influential movement.

However, while Charter 77 supports Kotkin’s argument concerning civil society, there is a vast divergence concerning human rights.  For Kotkin, human rights and international agreements such as the Helsinki Accords are quickly dismissed to explore uncivil societies’ ossified bureaucracy, ineffectual governance, and financial mismanagement.  He posits that though dissidents appealed to the Helsinki Accords and Communist regimes’ own constitutions to demand recognition of human rights, their appeals were unheard and unattainable due to the nature of communist rule.[10]  The exclusion of human rights from his analysis allows Kotkin to support his argument that the failure of uncivil society resulted in “bank runs” whereby the unorganized panicking masses run to the bank (the national government) to withdraw their personal deposits (governmental legitimacy) causing the bank to default (the failure of the communist government).  However, this metaphor fails to persuade concerning Czechoslovakia and instead reveals that dissident movements, while not widely influential, represented embryonic civil societies which the masses organized around especially in Czechoslovakia.  This is supported by the fact that many of Charter 77’s architects formed the Czechoslovakian political organization Civic Forum which negotiated with the communist regime to secure the transfer of power and the creation of a new government.  The representation of dissidents as embryonic civil societies is particularly evident when examining Vaclav Havel who drafted Charter 77, was president of Civic Forum, and elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989.  Thus dissident movements advocating for human rights, though small, should not be dismissed as ineffectual as they played a key role in the collapse of communism on the national level: they symbolized an emerging civil society that grasped authority in the tumultuous days of 1989, organized the masses against the communist regimes, and negotiated the transfer of power.

While the Czechoslovakian dissident movement remained small, in Poland the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union developed into a national phenomenon; however, unsanctioned trade unions like Solidarity were illegal under the communist regime and fell into the basket of human rights advocated by Charter 77.  The charter states that communist governments’ prevent “workers and others from exercising the unrestricted right to establish trade unions and other organizations to protect their economic and social interests.”[11]  The charter advocated for the establishment of independent trade unions because all organizations in a communist nation were sanctioned by the party and therefore supported the state’s interests and not those of workers and individuals.  The inability of workers to promote their own demands led the establishment of Solidarity in 1980 during a general strike over an increase in food prices.  Unable to suppress the strikes, the state relented and allowed for the establishment of free labor unions and, on November 10th 1980, Solidarity became the first independent trade union in a communist country.  Nevertheless, viewed from Warsaw and Moscow, these concessions were deemed unacceptable and Poland’s new Prime Minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared marshal law arresting Solidarity’s leaders.[12]  The pronouncement of marshal law and the imprisonment of dissidents violated not only the human rights of the workers but also those of the nation as marshal law led to increased censorship and violent clashes between protestors and the government.  This catapulted the national to the international as world leaders and Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, expressed outrage at the human rights abuses carried out by the communist Polish government.  Hence, the Polish situation in the early 1980s reveals the importance of free trade unions to the concept of human rights and why dissident movements like Charter 77 supported them.

Nationally, Charter 77 also advocated against the, “inference in the private life of citizens exercised by the Ministry of Interior.”[13]  The intrusion of private life by state security forces occurred in all Soviet states, whether the KGB, StB, or the Stasi, and resulted in numerous arrests for subverting the state.  The East Germany Stasi were the most prominent of the secret police forces in the Eastern Block and their violations are describe by Tony Judt in Post War.  The Stasi employed 85,000 full time workers and collected information on over 6 million of its citizens revealing the vast web of information that the state collected on its own citizens; furthermore, the state used illegally collected information to force citizens into collaboration against their families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.[14]  Collaboration by citizens with the security apparatus also garnered Charter 77’s attention; “setting up networks of neighborhood informers (often recruited by illicit threats or promises).”[15]  The formation of collaboration networks further emphasizes the states intrusion into the lives of private citizens but also how the violation of human rights affects the individual.  Tony Judt states that these collaboration networks created, “devastating domestic consequences,” as, “[h]usbands spied on wives, professors reported on students, priests informed on their parishioners.”[16]  By intruding into its citizens’ private lives, the state violates their basic human rights to personal property and freedom of speech that Western nations take for granted.  The dissidents of Charter 77 also understood these violations as they occurred in Czechoslovakia as well, and they sought to draw Western attention to the communist regime’s violation of rights and the inability of citizens to defend themselves against the government’s clandestine actions.

While examining the role of dissident movements on the international and national levels reveals dissidents’ political influence, Slavenka Drakulic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed demonstrates how individuals’ human rights were violated and why they developed into important points for dissident movements like Charter 77.  The demand that the government cease discriminating against those holding dissenting views appeared first in Charter 77’s list of human rights abuses.  It stated, “citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from officials ones . . . [they] live in constant danger of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions.”[17]  This type of suppression is demonstrated in Drakulic’s anecdote concerning Tanja, a Yugoslavian journalist, who wrote an article arguing against nationalizing pinball machines.[18]  While her article appeared innocent, she actually utilized the pinball machine to present a much broader argument concerning the absurdity of dismantling small private business.  As a result of this articles renunciation by the communist regime, Tanja’s colleagues disregarded her and her editors refused to publish her work.  Now labeled a dissident, Tanja could no longer work in her chosen field because she had proposed alternative ideas differing from the official government line.  Tanja’s story exhibits the dangers and penalties of proposing ideas counter to the official line and demonstrates the realities of the human rights violations that Charter 77 emphasized.  Furthermore, Drakulic underwent this type of scrutiny herself when a government censor requested a meeting with her.[19]  Prior to her meeting with the censor, Drakulic racked her brain thinking of articles she had written that may have drawn the censor’s attention but she recalled none.  However, she came to the revelation that censors applied this subtle pressure to internalize auto-censorship within journalists thus causing the journalist to modify their own behavior so as prevent them from writing anti-government material.  The communist regimes’ blacklisting of intellectuals and intimidation of journalists reveals why Charter 77 advocated for the freedom of expression and the ability to hold dissenting views.

Another source of repression cited by Charter 77 was the freedom of religion and the communist regime’s interference, removal, and threatening of church officials.[20]  The Czechoslovakian dissidents argued that citizens should be able to freely and indiscriminately practice their religion without government intrusion.  In examining the church, Drakulic recalls her childhood in which her grandmother continued religious holidays and traditions such as giving gifts on Christmas and dying eggs for Easter but that she did not discuss these activities with her father a communist partisan which reveals the suppression of religion under communism.[21]  Furthermore, this shows a divergence between the public and the private sphere concerning religious practices within the communist system.  Publicly, the nation disregarded church holidays and participated in replacement public holidays imagined by the communist regimes.  The participation in replacement holidays is displayed by Drakulic’s reminiscence that as child she received a song book titled Partisan Songs instead of learning hymns and carols.  However, privately citizens continued practicing traditional church customs as shown by Drakulic’s story of her grandmother.  This reveals that even though the public participated in new imagined communist holidays, the traditional religions remained influential.  Thsi is demonstrated when Drakulic recounts attending a Christmas Eve mass shortly after the reinstitution of the church and discovered that it was overflowing with people who can still recite prayers and sing the hymns.  This relates to Charter 77 because it shows that religion remained an important factor in citizens’ lives and that suppressing peoples’ ability and choice to practice religions violated their human rights.

Ultimately, Charter 77 demonstrates the importance of human rights to the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, and an examination of the historiography of post war Eastern Europe displays the significance of dissidents and human rights on the international, national, and individual levels.  On the international level, human rights developed into a crucial negotiating point between the United States and the Soviet Union especially after the signing of the Helsinki Accords.  As Zubok shows, the United States ceased détente policies and consistently based arms negotiations strategies around the Soviet’s adherence to human rights coercing Gorbachev into liberalizing aspects of Soviet society.  Nationally, after the communist regimes’ recognized human rights agreements, Kotkin and the authors of Charter 77 both demonstrates that small dissident networks utilized the language of human rights to expose the communist system’s hypocrisy.  In Poland, the Solidarity movement proved the exception to Kotkin’s paradigm as the trade union represented an organized mass movement; however, the suppression of this movement by marshal law reveals the importance of human rights in a national context.  While small networks of dissidents, never exercised any real power, they represented emerging or embryonic civil societies.  In Czechoslovakia, the organizers of Charter 77 negotiated the transfer of power in 1989 and were elected into national governments while the same is true of Solidarity’s leaders in Poland.  Individually, Charter 77 recognized that the machinations of the communist regimes’ profoundly affected individuals’ lives.  This is evident in Drakulic’s book which examines individuals and demonstrates how the communist system prevented people from working in their chosen profession, censored ideas that challenged the official line, and suppressed religious practices that were integral to community traditions.  The peoples’ anger towards government repression eventually boiled over with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika which allowed for the liberalization of society and they rallied behind the dissidents that had long agitated against the communist regimes.  Thus, by influencing all levels of society, Charter 77 and its appeal to human rights formed the foundation of dissident activism and played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s dismantling.


[1] Jan-Werner Müller, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 174; Charter 77 Declaration, The Global Revolutions of 1968, ed. Jeremi Suri, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), 284.

[2] Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire, (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2009), 238.

[3] Charter 77, 285.

[4] Zubok, 192.

[5] Zubok, 286

[6] Zubok, 298.

[7] Ibid, 301.

[8] Stephan Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, Uncivil Society, (New York: Random House, 2009), 10.

[9] Charter 77, 289.

[10] Kotkin, 9.

[11] Charter 77, 287.

[12] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 588, 589

[13] Charter 77, 287.

[14] Judt, 697, 698.

[15] Charter 77, 287.

[16] Judt, 698.

[17] Charter 77, 285.

[18] Slavenka Drakulic, House We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 2.

[19] Ibid, 78.

[20] Charter 77, 286.

[21] Drakulic, 152

Gale Stokes – The Walls Came Tumbling Down

In Gale Stokes book The Walls Came Tumbling Down, the author examines the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe from 1968 to 1989 with a brief epilogue that explores the transition of these nations from communism to pluralism between 1989 and 1992.  For Stokes, the twentieth century tried three political experiments, the antirational or fascism, the hyperrational or communism, and the pluralism or democracy, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union represented the triumph of pluralism.  With pluralism’s success in Eastern Europe, Stokes sets out to demonstrate how pluralism overcame hyperrationalsim by focusing on the people and ideas that were the most influential and prominent in antigovernment and dissident organization.  In this context, Stokes reveals how the ideas and individuals constituted a growing civil society within the Eastern Block.  While the majority of the narrative demonstrates the success of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, the author also shows that the collapse of communism can lead to violence by briefly narrating the events in Romania and the deterioration of Yugoslavia.

Stokes begins his narrative with the year 1968 as opposed to 1945 because this earlier period is well documented by historians and because the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to stamp out the limited liberal reforms permitted by Alexander Dubcek in 1968.  This invasion, which suppressed the Prague Spring, “marked the end of the era when serious people could hope that it would be possible to change the socialist system from within, either economically or politically.” (11) Following 1968, the author narrates the development of opposition groups within several Eastern European nations including the Solidarity trade union in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the New Economic Mechanisms introduced in Hungary, and the Monday demonstrations in the East German city of Leipzig which depict how the opposition slowly whittled away the power of the ruling regime.  However, Stokes also reveals that the communist regimes in place were not out maneuvered in every instance and at times successful at stamping out dissident behavior which is especially evident in Poland where General Jaruzelski’s government suppressed Solidarity throughout the mid-1980s.  Yet, even with their success in maintaining power, these regimes ultimately capitulated giving way to new pluralist governments.

Stokes interpretation of communism’s defeat in Eastern Europe is heavily focused on the ideas and people involved in the antigovernment and dissident movements and how these organizations developed into legitimate oppositions to the communist regimes.  By focusing his narrative on these dissident movements and what he sees as a burgeoning civil society, Stokes overlooks two important features in the collapse of communism.  First, as Stokes acknowledges, communism’s retreat from Eastern Europe is not possible without Mikhail Gorbachev’s relaxation of the Brezhnev Doctrine yet, after introducing Gorbachev and his policies, the Soviet Union plays only a marginal role in Stokes study.  This then suggests that the Soviet Union and Gorbachev played almost no role in communisms collapse whereas in many cases the leaders of the Eastern European communist regimes often appealed to Gorbachev for aid and advice.  By marginalizing Gorbachev, Stokes suggests that his role was not as important as the dissident movements and also ignores the fact that those who held the power in Eastern Europe also played an important role in the demise of communism.

The actions of the leaders of the East European regimes are important as well because, except for Poland where Solidarity encompassed the entire nation, the opposition groups that Stokes examines were small.  As the author states “Charter 77 was never a large movement” but, by focusing on small dissident organizations in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria, the author contends that these movements encompassed much of the population.  (149) This interpretation then appears to mythologize these small dissident organizations and discounts how those that held the levers of power in the communist nations slowly, but eventually, relinquished power to the leaders of dissident movements in peaceful negotiations (except for Romania).  By incorporating how the leaders of the Eastern Europe regimes understood the dissident movements and eventually entered negotiations with them into his narrative, Stokes study would demonstrate that the fall of communism was not a one sided event and present a much broader understanding of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Peter Gatrell – Russia’s First World War

Peter Gatrell’s book Russia’s First World War explores the social and economic developments that occurred in Russia during the First World War.  This short overview of the war and its affects within Russia is a synthesis that combines the existing research along with selected archival documents.  In examining the economic and social aspects of Russia, he explicitly focuses on “poverty, policy options and choices, and social faultlines” as “the threads that connect the narrative.” (3) Organized into a combination of chronological and thematic chapters from the outbreak of war to the summer of 1918, Gatrell explores several topics including mobilization, financing the war, food supplies, and the collapse of the tsarist regime.  Yet, as one might expect from the author of studies on refugees in Russia during WWI, the tsarist economy, and the rearmament of Russia prior to the Great War, this study places significant emphasis on refugees and economics and shows how these issues played a significant role in the collapse of tsarist Russia.

During the initial chapters, Gatrell examines how mobilization and war in general created great disruption throughout Russia.  The government implemented conscription without taking into account men’s professions thus famers and factory workers were drafted indiscriminately leaving holes in armaments and agricultural production which led to shortages in both munitions and foodstuffs.  In order to replace factory workers, Russian industry attracted women and unskilled migrants in the workforce resulting in massive migrations from the country to the city.  On the frontlines, war and military defeat dislocated thousands who travelled eastward to find food and shelter.  These refugees interacted with civilians realizing that they all shared the common experiences of outrage and senseless sacrifice.  Furthermore, as Gatrell contends, the rallying of Russian patriotism, the deportation of ethnic Germans, and the Kazakh’s revolt in 1916 created an economic nationalism which resulted in attacks on ethnic groups and led ethnicities within the empire to recognize their otherness and need for solidarity.

Not only did the regime receive criticism for the displacement caused by the war but also, as Gatrell stresses, it failed to implement policies to alleviate its own problems.  The tsarist state chose not to introduce a nationwide rationing system fearing a lack of public support and chose not to create a nationwide economic policy at the war’s outset fearing this would give the educated elite a platform to intervene in the decision making process.  The failure to create a nationwide economic policy led to bottlenecks and poor material quality as the indiscriminate conscription policy created an unskilled workforce.  Moreover, to pay for the war, the Russian government borrowed significantly from France and Britain and printed money which resulted in inflation.  These economic and social problems were sharpened by the war leading to social conflict and the February and October Revolutions but, while the Bolsheviks ended the war, they did not bring peace as their program remained a set of proposals without details.  Instead, suggests Gatrell, they adopted the economic apparatus of the old regime in order to implement their social transformation, they sustained the idea of government intervention, and they continued to utilize the military language of the tsarist state.  Most importantly, the Bolsheviks obliterated the memory of the Great War and instead emphasized the memory and experience of the Revolution and Civil War.

While the author demonstrates many of the social and economic aspects that affected Russia during the First World War he fails to discuss the political options available to decision makers and why they made certain choices.  For example, it is only noted that they chose not create a nationwide rationing system for food but there is no summary of the debates for this decision only that occurred and that it contributed to the famine of 1916.  By ignoring the debates and why decisions were made, Gatrell fails to fulfill one of his stated objectives – “policy options and choices.”  Moreover, military leaders’ decisions are also ignored by the author.  While the military is not the focus of his study, the war and military decisions must have affected the economic and social fabric of Russia life and by overlooking these problems the author fails to address the root of many of the Russia’s social and economic problems.

In a final concluding chapter, the Gatrell takes a more scholarly approach and compares Russia’s wartime experience with other European nations to suggest that Russia’s experience was not that distinctive.  To make his case, Gatrell point out that armaments and manpower shortages plagued all nations, that military leaders were also influential in many nations, that industrialization advanced throughout Europe, that the private sector mobilized for arms production, and that other nations faced revolutionary and class upheavals.  For Gatrell, the Russian experience was unique because it was the only nation to face a large population displacement and because the tsarist regime failed to unite the war effort with social reforms to secure political accommodation.  However, while accurate, his analysis is problematic.  In comparing the Russian experience with other European nations, Gatrell picks and chooses events from several European states to compare with the singular Russian state.  For revolutionary upheavals, food shortages, and significant military influence on policy makers, he singles out Germany; for accumulating loans to pay for the war, he looks at France and Great Britain agreements with the United States; and for dealing with multiethnic populations, he focuses on Austria-Hungary.  Thus, instead of showing that Russia’s experience was similar to other European states, the author shows that while some countries faced several of these issues, only Russia faced all of them within in three to four years emphasizing Russia’s unique experience.