Category Archives: democracy

Homesteaders vs. Land Speculators

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 8-10:

A second pressure forcing the government to divest itself of its land were speculators, or less pejoratively, land investors, who were a continual presence. Squatters took action right on the land, but speculators operated everywhere, not only on the ground but in nearby cities like Omaha and Denver, in fashionable New York and Boston offices, and in the halls of Congress. The Nebraska City News in September 1867, for example, noted that “seven thousand acres of land lying west of Lincoln were entered by a gentleman from Pennsylvania” and the Kansas Farmer groused that the worst land monopolists used agricultural college scrip to gobble up vast tracts. Although it was (and is) easy to focus on the few immensely successful and therefore notorious speculators, the truth was that nearly every landowner tried to profit from rising land prices. Indeed, many players both large and small invested in land, a long-established activity that was hardly dishonorable. Aside from Henry George and the Single-Taxers, no serious effort was made to prevent people from profiting from the rising value of their land, for the simple fact that it was widely assumed to be the landowner’s right, and besides, so many hoped to benefit.

Stories of speculators profiting from insider dealing, fraud, and outright theft provoked great outrage because most people distinguished between those landowners, labeled “speculators,” who were only interested in profiting from the rising value of their holdings, and the quicker the better, and other landowners, “actual settlers” in the words of the Homestead Act’s title, who wanted land as a long-term holding on which to build a farm and create a lifetime livelihood. The St. Paul Weekly Pioneer, observing that two whole counties had nearly been gobbled up by speculators using agricultural college scrip and military bounty warrants, thundered, “These two counties had far better have been visited by the locusts of Egypt or the grasshoppers of the Red River than by these speculators.” The fact that some actual settlers did not succeed, and others changed their plans after the hard experience of trying to make a farm in hostile conditions, did not change matters. Moreover, as Gilbert Fite has noted, “Despite the fact that millions of acres fell into the hands of corporations and speculators who held them for profitable prices, there was no real lack of good land on the Minnesota, Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas frontier in the late 1860s and early 1870s.” Nineteenth-century farmers were said to be perpetually overinvested in land, betting that land prices would rise, and as historian Roy Robbins explained, “Many settlers had invested in lands on credit hoping to pay out of the increase in the value of their holdings. . . . Some were able to do so but many were not.” Investors who grabbed title to public land simply to profit from its rising price were widely disliked, although they had much influence in the halls of Congress and other power centers.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S., democracy, migration, labor, economics

Preemptive Homesteaders: Squatters

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 7-8:

Even if the federal government had not wanted to distribute its land, it would have found it nearly impossible to avoid it—indeed, in those instances where it tried to restrict settlement, it almost uniformly failed. The first pressure it faced was the constant rush of squatters onto public land. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many people eagerly sought land in the unsettled regions of the public domain to make farms for themselves. Like the flow of illegal immigration today, squatting was pervasive, insistent, unstoppable, and enjoyed considerable public sympathy. Attempts to hold off unauthorized settlement proved futile, whether in the Military Tracts, the Black Hills, or Indian lands elsewhere. The modern eye might see nineteenth-century government land programs as similar to today’s real estate projects, say, a new housing development where interested buyers show up to consider purchasing property that has been clearly defined and laid out. But squatting meant that the process occurred in reverse order: settlers moved into an unorganized region and claimed land, and the laws and surveys and titles raced to catch up.

The long history of preemption mapped this phenomenon. “Preemption” was simply a euphemism for legalizing squatters. Starting in 1830, Congress periodically passed preemption acts which, recognizing the reality on the ground, forgave intrusions by squatters and allowed them to legalize their claims. These bills in effect said that squatting was wrong, but as with medieval papal indulgences, the sin could be forgiven by payment, in this case usually $1.25 per acre. Preemptors had the first right to purchase land once it was surveyed, and since squatters typically arrived first to stake the best land, the preemption price was often a bargain. In the 1841 Preemption Act, Congress abandoned the idea that squatting was trespass and wrong and authorized (future) preemptions, but attempted to restrict them to already surveyed lands. By 1853 Congress had abandoned this restriction, too, in recognition of the fact that squatters just moved in wherever they wanted, whether or not the land had been surveyed. Many factors contributed to the momentum to legalize preemptions, but the most basic was simply the impossibility of stopping the flow of people onto the land.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, labor, migration, U.S.

How the U.S. Disposed of 1.4B Acres

From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 6-7:

Homesteading was one way in which the federal government transferred parts of America’s enormous public domain to private ownership. The U.S. government acquired nearly 1.5 billion acres in the lower forty-eight states between 1781 and 1853, through the Revolutionary War treaty, the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War cessions, the settlement of boundary disputes with the British over Canada, and a few other minor acquisitions. From the outset many individuals, whether landless or the mightiest land barons, mining companies, and speculators, eagerly looked on public land as a source of potential riches for themselves. But the government was also interested in moving public land into private hands for a variety of motives that shifted over time. Initially it sought to use land sales to fund the federal budget, but later it distributed land to stimulate canal and railroad growth, to occupy remote regions and thereby forestall threats from foreign powers, to populate the West in order to foster private economic development, and to create a land-owning, small-farmer middle class that would sustain a democratic society.

We can trace in broad terms the disposition of this 1.442 billion-acre public domain. The national government today continues possession of about 26 percent (380 million acres). It transferred approximately 22 percent (328 million acres) to individual states, most of which was sold, and homesteaders claimed about 19 percent (270 million, or possibly as much as 285 million, acres). The balance, roughly 32 percent (between 449 and 464 million acres) was transferred to private owners through sales, grants to railroad corporations, veterans’ bonuses, agricultural college grants, and other distributions, or it was stolen, misappropriated, reserved, or otherwise caused to disappear from the public land rolls. Homesteading accounted for between a quarter and a third of the public land transferred by the federal government to private owners.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S., war, democracy, migration, labor, nationalism, education, economics, industry

Little Ice Age Effects in North America

From Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Liveright, 2022), Kindle pp. 21-23:

IF THE LITTLE ICE AGE posed daunting challenges to North America’s agricultural societies, it was a boon for the continent’s hunters. The cool and wet conditions favored buffalo and grama grasses, the bison’s preferred forage, and the springs were wet, supporting crucial early growth of grass after the winter’s deprivations. Now the sole surviving species of megafauna, the supremely adaptable and prolific bison faced no serious competitors, and the herds expanded their range all the way from the Rocky Mountain foothills to hundreds of miles east of the Mississippi River, and from the subarctic to the Gulf of Mexico. And where bison herds thinned out, thriving deer herds took over, their domain covering much of the eastern half of the continent.

The majority of North American Indians became generalists who farmed, hunted, and gathered to sustain themselves. Instead of striving to maximize agricultural output—an aspiration that had animated Ancestral Puebloans, Cahokians, and other early farming societies—they sought stability, security, and solidarity. Instead of priestly rulers, they preferred leaders whose principal obligation was to maintain consensus and support participatory political systems. Power flowed through the leaders, not from them. Most North Americans lived in villages rather than cities. Ancestral Pawnees, Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas were typical. They settled along the upper Missouri Valley, where capillary action drew groundwater to the surface. They lived in dome-shaped earth-lodge villages that housed hundreds rather than thousands. They were horticulturists and built fortifications only rarely. This sweeping retreat from hierarchies, elite dominance, and large-scale urbanization may have turned North America—along with Australia—into the world’s most egalitarian continent at the time.

The collective mindset that prevailed, reflecting broad-based and carefully balanced economies, also distinguished North America’s Indigenous peoples. The continental grasslands—the Great Plains—were teeming with tens of millions of buffalo. Huge herds blackened the flat plains to the horizon, pulling humans in. The Shoshones moved east from the Great Basin, the Blackfoot came from the northeast, and the Crows, Omahas, Poncas, and Kansas abandoned their villages and fields along the Missouri Valley. The Kiowas migrated south from the upper Yellowstone Valley and forged an alliance with the resident Apaches. Former farmers did not give up tilling, but all of them now hunted bison, surrounding them in large communal hunts and felling them with spears and arrows, chasing them into concealed corrals in riverbeds, or driving them over cliffs to their deaths. In the Black Hills, hunters stampeded bison herds, driving the panicked animals into a corridor marked by stones that channeled the beasts toward a buffalo jump, a steep sinkhole where the high fall did the killing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, democracy, economics, labor, Latin America, migration, North America, religion

Simplifying Chinese Characters

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 170-171, 174-175, 177-178:

Mao did not speak a word of Putonghua, the common speech derived from the northern-based Beijing Mandarin. Yet Mao went down in history as, among other things, the political figure who guided the Chinese language through its two greatest transformations in modern history. The first was character simplification, which would reduce the number of strokes in more than 2,200 Chinese characters. The second was the creation of pinyin, a standardized phonetic system using the Roman alphabet and based on the pronunciation of Putonghua (“pinyin” means “to piece together sound”). Mao would lead the country through these dramatic changes, but not by example; he would never get used to writing simplified characters in his lifetime, or even Roman letters. Following Mao, the Communists had fought and won a civil war in the name of the people—workers, peasants, and every member of the exploited underclass. At the founding of the PRC, more than 90 percent of the country was still illiterate and communicated in regional dialects. Romanization would be Mao’s way of delivering his promise to the people, and the people to their linguistic destiny. It would be a new bridge to learning Chinese characters, employed in aggressive anti-illiteracy campaigns. The Committee on Script Reform was appointed to orchestrate the effort.

While the Nationalists dawdled, the Communists took up the cause of simplification and made it their own. During the War of Resistance against the Japanese, they began to print simplified characters in the local newspapers that were circulated in the areas under their control. The use of these characters fanned out into the rest of the country after 1949. Simplified writing attracted more and more attention as discussions and debates grew. Eventually the Ministry of Education selected around five hundred simplified characters to be reviewed by experts and linguists. The task was handed over to the Committee on Script Reform for further investigation once it was established in 1952.

The committee completed the first draft of the official simplification scheme by late 1954. A list of 798 characters was formally introduced the following January to great enthusiasm. The Ministry of Education delivered three hundred thousand copies of the Preliminary Draft of Han Character Simplifications to various cultural organizations and educational institutions around the country for comment and feedback. More than two hundred thousand individuals weighed in with opinions. The Committee on Script Reform alone received more than five thousand letters. Up to 97 percent of those polled approved of the preliminary simplification scheme.

While there were reservations and objections to the simplified script—largely for cultural and aesthetic reasons—the rate of illiteracy began to decline under the twin implementation of character simplification and pinyin. By 1982, the literacy rate for people over age fifteen nationwide had risen to 65.5 percent, and it reached 96.8 percent in 2018.

Whatever support there was for character simplification among the Nationalists dwindled after 1949. After losing the mainland to the Communists and retreating to Taiwan, the Nationalists appointed themselves the true guardians of traditional culture and have kept the traditional written characters intact to this day. By distancing themselves from character simplification, they left room for the Communists to claim it as a central platform for New China.

The wounds of this contentious past are still fresh and reopen from time to time. The political weaponization of simplified scripts since 1949 on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which divides mainland China from the proclaimed Republic of China in Taiwan, has only sharpened the differences between the old and new scripts. Proponents and opponents of simplification continue to hurl jabs and insults at one another. The character for “love” (愛 in traditional form and 爱 in simplified form) is a favorite example. The simplified version replaces the component for “heart” 心 with “friend” 友. What is love, the champions of traditional characters ask, with no heart? One online critic argues that “since the simplification of Han characters, one can no longer ‘see’ one’s ‘relatives’ (親 vs. 亲). . . . The ‘factories’ are ‘emptied’ (廠 vs. 厂 ), while ‘flour’ is missing ‘wheat’ (麵 vs. 面). ‘Transportation’ has no ‘cars’ (運 vs. 运). . . . ‘Flying’ is done on one ‘wing’ (飛 vs. 飞).”

Advocates of simplified characters, in turn, have come up with their own character tales to tell. They argue that simplified “love” is more expansive and modern, extending generously to friends and comrades rather than being narrowly guided by the selfish heart. Another case is “masses.” After some strokes were judiciously pruned away, the character is now composed entirely—and rightly—of “people” (眾 vs. 众). “To destroy” no longer has the superfluous radical of “water” (滅 vs. 灭), which served no semantic or phonetic purpose. And as for the character for “insect,” who wouldn’t want to avoid the creepy-crawly pests as much as possible? At least one is better than three (蟲 vs. 虫).

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, education, labor, language, nationalism, philosophy

How Mandarin Became the Standard

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 37-39:

As for the best model of this everyday speech, each delegate [to the 1913 Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation] could only see the merits of his own spoken version. They all had a stake in promoting the dialectal or topolectal variant from their home provinces. The Guangdong delegates wanted Cantonese, while those from Sichuan fought hard for Sichuanese. The odds were stacked in favor of the southern speakers. Proportionally speaking, they had more representatives across similar dialect groups.

After the careful inspection of more than 6,500 samples collected from all over the country, factions emerged as the members moved to the more sensitive question of which geographical area would lead the standard pronunciation. Attendance dwindled as the deadlock persisted. It was not a contest for the fainthearted. Those with slightly weaker constitutions or who suffered from tuberculosis—a common affliction at the time—endured a few weeks of contentious lobbying before their health gave out. Some delegates fell ill from exhaustion and had to withdraw from the congress. Others spat up blood during the heated debates, unable to carry on after being cornered and humiliated by their opponents. Wang [Zhou] barely grunted through a violent flare-up of hemorrhoids from sitting for days on end. Blood, he later recalled proudly, soaked through his pants and trickled down to his ankles. Eventually, only the diehards remained.

One of the southern representatives made the appeal that no southerner could go about his business for a single day without using a particular inflection. To be a truly national pronunciation, then, his southern colleague argued, the standard had to bend toward the south. To prove his point, the man broke into an operatic demonstration. Wang had little patience for such theatrics. There was no way that the north, the seat of the nation’s capital, would cede to the south on the national tone question. Wang called a separate meeting less than half a mile away at the oldest Anglican church in Beijing. Inside those thick walls, under the famous three-tiered traditional pagoda bell tower sitting atop the sparse lines of Anglo-Saxon architecture, he carried out his mutiny. He instituted a new rule that carefully rearranged how the votes were counted. Each province would now cast only one vote, regardless of the number of delegates it sent. This maneuver didn’t just level the numerical advantage of the south, it transferred the advantage to the northern vernacular Mandarin-speaking provinces, which were greater in number. The other delegates protested when they found out what Wang had done on the sly, but it was too late.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, language, nationalism

Heyday of Heyduks, c. 1600

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 269-271:

This malaise was associated with the onset of the ‘Little Ice Age’, the resumption of war between the Habsburgs and the Turks (1593–1606), and a severe economic recession. At the same time there was a great welling-up of social discontents and political upheavals. The entire frontier zone from Ukraine to the Adriatic was affected by the troubles as well as Russia and the Ottoman Balkans; and there were reverberations in Poland and for the Habsburgs. The crisis was the confluence of many streams and was expressed in many forms, but one of its most frightening manifestations were the bands of undisciplined and ruthless soldiery who plagued both sides of the frontier in Hungary.

The Turks had long used a variety of paramilitary forces (armartolos, derbentsy, akinji, vojnuki, etc.) as auxiliary troops, frontier raiders, mountain-pass guards and the like; as we have seen, the Hapsburgs had followed suit; and the Cossacks constitute a parallel in Ukraine and southern Russia. Such troops usually received some pay and also rations or plots of land, but by no means always. There was an Ottoman category known as deli, young men noted for their dare-devilry who would take part in campaigns and sieges for no reward whatsoever, except the opportunity to share in any plundering. Another such type of predatory soldiery was known as haramia. These had an equivalent on the other side of the frontier in the unpaid heyduks and uskoks (venturini) attached to the ‘official’ groups of heyduks and uskoks employed by the Habsburgs to garrison frontier forts and stations, and the unregistered Cossacks of the Ukraine who were to play such a prominent role in the Khmelnytsky rising of 1648.

Evidence from a wide variety of sources suggests that the numbers of such freelance warriors increased sharply in the later sixteenth century, despite a general increase in the numbers employed not only by governments but in the private armies of noblemen, like the Wisniowieckis in Lithuania, the Bathorys in Transylvania or the Frankopans in Croatia.

This increase in the soldiery, both freelance and employed, and the tumults they promoted were linked to the endemic warfare of the frontier, which created both a demand for such troops and, by disrupting the economy of entire districts, a supply of them from among the ranks of the homeless and indigent. But the phenomenon was also related to the huge increase in the population of the Balkans and to the imposition of serfdom. The demographic explosion which doubled the population of Balkan cities also fed migration northwards and eastwards across the frontier, mostly, it seems, through the gap of Timisoara.

The subsequent economic difficulties and the onset of disorders no doubt increased the flow. In any case the numbers of heyduks called ‘Racz’ registered in Eastern Hungary (and there were units in which nearly two-thirds of the men bore that name) points to a sizeable migration northwards from the Balkans, for racz in Magyar (rat in Romanian) means ‘Serb’. Their names also indicate that, although most were or became linguistic Hungarians, some heyduks had originated in Slovakia (toth), Romania (vlach, olah) and Ukraine (kozak, rusnak) as well as in Hungary and the Balkans. And there were Hungarian, Romanian and Tatar names among the Zaporozh’e Cossacks, though most had migrated from Belorussia, Ukraine and Russia. Circumstances suggest that a proportion of these were peasants escaping serfdom, and this was also the case with the recently enserfed Szekels whose support for Michael ‘the Brave’ when he invaded Transylvania regained them their freedom as frontier servicemen.

As late as the 1580s heyduks are reported in groups of up to a few hundred, or, occasionally, of a thousand; but by the turn of the century no fewer than 8,000 unpaid heyduks were reported to be serving Michael ‘the Brave’, Prince of Wallachia, alone. The growth of the phenomenon is suggested by the extremity of their behaviour as well as increasing numbers. Compared with them, Elizabethan England’s problem with sturdy beggars pales into insignificance. In some areas heyduks claimed to be Calvinist, yet they would kill Calvinist priests without compunction; and the Transylvanian Saxons have left matter-of-fact, but eloquent testimony in their memoirs and diaries to the heartless bestiality of the heyduks.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, language, migration, military, religion, war

Eastern Europe’s Failures in 1848

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 134-137:

At the beginning of March 1848, as news of a revolution in Paris seeped in about a week after the event, crowds took to the streets of Vienna, and before long the entire Empire, from Bohemia to northern Italy, was in turmoil. In the months that followed there were uprisings in Prague, Lemberg [Lviv] and several other cities besides Vienna; Hungary and Venice declared themselves independent; the imperial army was driven out of Lombardy by local insurgents supported by invading forces from Piedmont, and Vienna itself had to be abandoned to the revolutionaries. Within the imperial administration there were six changes of government; two ministers were lynched; another went mad; and the Emperor abdicated. Yet by the autumn of 1849 the old order had been resurrected and the cause of revolution seemed utterly lost. What had the revolutionaries stood for? Why did they lose? And what influence did the events have both on the Empire itself and on the rest of Eastern Europe?

The Revolutions of 1848 are commonly represented as nationalist, and so to a great extent they were. Yet the call for ‘freedom’ as if it were a single entity embraced a variety of aims. Middle-class liberals wanted the abolition of censorship, freedom of speech and assembly, and a judicial system that dispensed justice openly; radicals demanded the replacement of monarchical government by a democracy based on wide suffrage; peasants, and all progressives, wanted the abolition of serfdom; workers protested against unemployment and for more pay. After the first, heady, stages, even more interests forced themselves to the surface. Tenants struck against high rents; artisans took to the streets because new, cheap, factory-produced goods were already threatening their livelihoods; students saw an opportunity for activism, and in Prague there were anti-Jewish riots. Among the educated strata, some, like the great Hungarian landowner Szechenyi, wanted change on the lines of the British model, with economic development as the motor of social and political change. However, the slogans of the French Revolution and of the Romantic movement tended to predominate, and in particular calls for national self-expression.

The demands for national freedom, however, also took different forms. Some were founded on constitutional precedents, such as the ancient powers of the Hungarian Diet or of the Bohemian Estates, which had been sapped or overborne by imperial power. Others were based on what appeared to their proponents to be the self-evident claims of a common language and the national community which it created. And there were further divisions both within the various nationalist camps and between them. Frantisek Palacky, promoter of the Czech national revival, thought in terms of a union of all the Slav peoples of the Empire, predicated on the view that, for all the myriad differences of dialect, they all spoke the same beautiful language.

This, however, was unacceptable, among others, to the Polish nationalists, who, roused by emigres returning from France, wished to resurrect the ancient Polish Republic which had been wiped off the map only half a century before. Furthermore, the claims of one nationalist group encouraged others to assert themselves. Romanians, Serbs, Croats and Slovaks did not take kindly to the prospect of inclusion in a state dominated by Hungarians. The Ruthenes (Ukrainians) resented the Polish claims to domination in Galicia. German Bohemians feared the Czechs and some Austrians were attracted by the idea of a greater Germany.

The fast-declining sense of equality and fraternity among the revolutionaries themselves, a growing popular reaction to their extremism, and the discipline of the imperial army all helped the government to reassert its authority. The promise made on 25 April 1848 to provide a democratic constitution for Austria, and the subsequent undertaking, in response to public demand, to widen the franchise, assuaged the feelings of many democrats; the emancipation of the peasants of Bohemia and Moravia in March, and those of Galicia and the Bukovina later the same year, bought off much social discontent; and the authorities experienced little difficulty in encouraging the Croats, Serbs and Slovaks to attack the Hungarian rebels who had cavalierly rejected their modest claims to linguistic autonomy. For the rest it was a matter of suppression. On 7 June the insurrectionaries in Prague were crushed; Vienna was recaptured at the end of October, and a rising in Lemberg put down two days later. General Windischgraetz was the imperial hero of the hour. Only the Italians and Hungarians held out. The crushing defeat inflicted by General Radetzky on the invading Piedmontese at Novara in March 1849 spelt doom to the revolution in the Italian provinces, though the resurrected ‘republic’ of Venice survived until August. The Hungarian rebellion lasted only a few days longer.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, education, industry, labor, language, nationalism, war

Eastern Europe After World War I

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 99-101:

The consequences of the war were grievous. The loss of manpower in this overpopulated region was the least of them. A large proportion of the survivors were exhausted, ill-clothed and had forgotten the skills they had possessed before the war. They were also ill-fed. Losses of livestock were to take twenty years to make up. Partly as a result of the dearth of draught animals, cereal production everywhere except Bulgaria had diminished by between a quarter and a half by comparison with 1913. Even if this had not been the case, the earning potential for agricultural exports, which had been very considerable before the war, especially from Romania, Hungary and Ukraine, had fallen sharply, for, thanks to the war, the United States and Canada had become the world’s granary instead of Eastern Europe. And increased production in the West had caused world prices to slump. Czech industry, among the least affected, was producing 30 per cent less than before the war; in most of the other countries production was halved. The war had also dissipated savings, so funds available for investment were scarce. Inflation grew apace, ruining many members of the middle classes; so did interest rates. Business confidence was very low.

Matters were made worse by the Peace Settlement, which allowed other criteria to override the concern to draw frontiers that made economic sense. As a result towns lost their agricultural hinterlands; villagers found their access to mountain pastures, on which they traditionally grazed their cattle, suddenly blocked by frontier posts; the headquarters and branch offices of many a firm found that, overnight, they were in different countries where different laws and taxation systems applied. Railways lines were cut off from their former termini and cities from their railway stations. Romania’s newly-acquired port of Bazias had no communications to link it with the rest of the country. Hungary’s second city, Szeged, once a thriving regional emporium, became a sleepy frontier town. Grass was soon growing on the once busy docks of Trieste, now part of Italy, which had no need of another port.

The new frontiers cut across communication systems in a way that made nation-building the more difficult and expensive. Resurrected Poland found herself with parts of three different railway networks, each with different gauges and signalling systems; and, since they had been built with military purposes rather than international trade in mind, they did not usually meet up with one another. In Czechoslovakia all the main lines ran north-south, radiating from the old centres of Vienna and Budapest, whereas the new country’s axis lay east-west. Her predicament led to a bitter struggle with Poland for possession of Tesin (Polish Cieszyn), whose stretch of line was the only link between the head and the tail of Czechoslovakia, although Tesin’s population was predominately Polish and its mines a hotly disputed prize for both countries.

Such predicaments encouraged the continuation of a ‘war psychosis’. There was not only a desperate concern to protect one’s territory against one’s neighbours (and, if possible, to acquire more from them), but a willingness to wage economic warfare and, when opportunity offered, to loot. When, with the encouragement of the Powers who wanted to see Bela Kun’s Communist regime brought down, Romanian troops occupied Budapest in August 1919, they carried away as much of the telephone equipment and railway rolling stock as they could, even if they could put it to no use. Hungary retaliated later by cutting Romania’s telephone access to the West. When Romania was in dispute with Yugoslavia, she closed the locks controlling the flow of water from the Danube and so brought river traffic on the Yugoslav side to a halt. The Czechs refused to supply Hungary or Austria with coal, or to allow Polish coal to be shipped to them across her territory. The frontiers between Poland and Lithuania and between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were repeatedly closed, and it was to take fifteen years to repair a two-mile gap in the telephone line between Belgrade and Sofia. The beggar-my-neighbour attitude was also reflected in fierce tariff wars.

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, industry, labor, language, migration, military, nationalism, war

Eastern Europe’s Stalinist Years

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 86-89:

What does the balance-sheet of the Stalinist years add up to? A collection of Eastern European states had been converted into ‘people’s democracies’ in which, however, elected assemblies had virtually no political importance, and in which high-profile ‘popular councils’ were but appendages to the Party. The Party itself, which had absorbed the Socialists and much of the peasant parties, enjoyed a complete monopoly of political power. Purged of the dissidents, it was an instrument in the hands of a tiny elite, and it operated through a series of bureaucratic structures, most of whose functionaries, whether Party members or not, had been frightened into obedience, terrified of losing the perks and privileges that went with their jobs. The political edifice was supported by a propaganda machine which had monopolized the media and which blared out the party line.

This political system had one major weakness, however: every grievance, every mistake tended to be blamed on the regime. The presentation of scapegoats to the public, the periodic admission of ‘mistakes’ and fierce anti-Western propaganda helped to deflect some of this discontent for a time, but time was to prove these measures to be no more than temporary expedients. The Kremlin kept the leaderships in line formally through the Cominform and other joint bodies, and informally through the debts of gratitude many of the leaders bore the Soviet Union, the operations of the secret police, and the ill-disguised presence of Soviet troops in all but Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Nevertheless they were not quite Soviet clones. Yugoslavia had defected, Poland had not collectivized, and persistent nationalism and the differing conditions in each country demanded variations in both the content and the pace of the economic, social and cultural re-structuring which Stalin’s ‘Road to Socialism’ called for. The achievements of this programme were not negligible, however.

Between 1948 and 1953 industrial production more than doubled in many countries of the Bloc. In the Soviet Union itself it rose by almost 50 per cent, and it is curious that deviant Yugoslavia achieved the least increase, though at a little over 25 per cent it was impressive enough. The East German economy had recovered better than the West German, Bulgaria had outpaced Greece. The successes gave rise to hopes of catching up with the West and eventually overtaking it. But the bare production statistics disguised grievous economic flaws and imbalances. The Stalinist recipe had fended off recession and laid the foundations of industry on the basis of a war economy which neglected the production of consumer goods and the short-term interests of the worker, whether rural or urban. Moreover the planning was too rigid to accommodate new technology or changing management requirements. It was in this period that the imbalances and inefficiencies, so much decried since, were built into the system. The achievements of those years were to hold the future hostage.

In social terms there was a revolution which also turned out to be flawed. Society was levelled, millions gained self-respect and opportunities that had formerly been denied them; and unemployment was eliminated, though at the cost of feather-bedding. Yet despite the deliberate social engineering, a new elite was arising in place of the elite which had been eliminated; new vested interests were created in place of the old; and the proliferation of bureaucracy not only entailed inefficiency but had the effect of nationalising endemic corruption which had formerly operated in dispersed networks. Not least, the crude social propaganda of the Stalinist years succeeded all too well. Many of the region’s subsequent troubles stemmed from an innocent belief in the truth of all those slogans.

The achievements of Stalinist educational policies were also mixed. Systems of universal education were set up and literacy was brought to the masses (though in several countries this had been in train beforehand). Scientific education saw a marked expansion at all levels while the classics and the law, formerly major features of elite education, declined sharply. Technological training received great emphasis, but succeeded in producing too many workers who could not adapt to new methods and technologies. The higher flights of scholarship suffered from their subjection to both Party ideology and bureaucratic control. On the other hand, women were given equal educational opportunities. This however, bore some unexpected fruit. As women came to occupy a high proportion of posts in medicine and the legal profession, these ceased to be premium professions in terms of pay and status.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, education, industry, labor, nationalism, USSR