Daily Archives: 6 March 2023

Eastern Europe’s Peasant Problem

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 112-114:

The root of the problem was the gross overpopulation of the Eastern European countryside. Industry and crafts employed only a third of all workers even in comparatively well-developed Czechoslovakia and Austria; in Hungary they accounted for a fifth, in Poland for a seventh, and in Romania and Yugoslavia for a mere tenth of the working population. The great majority lived in the countryside and depended on an inefficient agriculture. The picture presented a stark contrast to that of Western Europe and North America. Speedy industrialization and emigration suggested themselves as potential solutions to the problem. But industrialization was restricted by the limited funds available for investment and the high cost of borrowing, while the escape valve of emigration had been shut off. Successive Immigration Acts in the United States not only imposed very severe restrictions but discriminated against Eastern Europeans; and Canada and Britain had also imposed much more severe immigration restrictions than before.

Two other factors aggravated the peasant problem. Universal conscription during the war had put most able-bodied peasants into uniform, increased their expectation of land as a reward for their patriotism, and taught them how to fight for it. Secondly, as Bethlen realized, the youthfulness of the population was a force for change. Apart from Austria, where the age structure had been distorted by the influx of retired officials from the successor states which refused to pay their pensions, over half of Eastern Europe’s population was under thirty, and in Poland and the Balkan countries the proportion was even higher. Given these circumstances virtually every government in the region felt impelled to concede the peasants’ demand for land reform.

In Hungary it was no more than a symbolic gesture: about 700,000 peasant families were granted an average of two acres apiece, while three million remained landless. In Czechoslovakia reform was a way of expropriating the alien elite rather than of benefitting the peasants. As a result of the measures enacted immediately after independence, citizens of ‘enemy states’ were dispossessed without compensation, but fewer than three million acres were eventually transferred in small plots to the peasants. In Poland, an inadequate reform was finally passed in 1925, in the teeth of opposition from landed interests, and by 1938 about six and a half million acres had been transferred to landless peasants and others with tiny holdings.

In Yugoslavia 200,000 peasants gained an average of four acres apiece, though many more benefited from the abolition of share-cropping rents which had been common in the south of the country. In Romania, by contrast, the 1921 reform, introduced by the Averescu government, expropriated seventeen million acres and had transferred almost ten million of them to nearly a million and a half peasant families by 1929. Even then over half a million families remained landless in Romania. Austria had no serious peasant problem; nor did Bulgaria. But elsewhere the inadequacy of land reform in the period of democracy helped lay the foundations for the victory of the Communists, who promised radical reform, after 1944.

But even in countries where there were no great estates or a substantial industrial sector a peasant problem remained. By 1937 Bulgaria and Greece were each reckoned to have surplus rural populations of a million or more; Czechoslovakia had a surplus of some two millions; Romania three and Poland between five and seven. The average size of peasant holdings over the region as a whole was about half those in Germany and France. In short they were too small, and too undercapitalized, to be efficient or even viable by international standards. Swiss peasants invested more than twice as much in their farms as their counterparts in Czechoslovakia, more than three times as much as the Polish peasants, and ten times as much as the Romanians.

The consequences were predictable. In Hungary, for example, land under wheat yielded half as much as in Denmark, the Dutch farmer raised three times as many cattle and four times as many pigs as his counterpart in Poland, while the Danish farmer raised four times as many cattle and twenty times as many pigs as the Romanian. Such were the differences between capitalized efficiency and undercapitalized inefficiency. In the United States a farmer produced enough to feed six families; in Western Europe enough for four; while the Eastern European peasant produced only enough for his own family, plus a marketable surplus of about half as much again – barely enough for such taxed necessities as salt, matches and paraffin.

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