June 02, 2016

When Central and Eastern Europe Led the World

Writing about web page https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7VJ1wykdp_YdXBiT3ZCT3FKNGM/view

Last week I spent a few days in Regensburg, a pretty town in Bavaria. The subject of our conference was the economic history of central, eastern, and southeastern Europe since 1800. The meeting was convened by the excellent Matthias Morys of the University of York; Matthias is editing a book on this theme for Routledge. The general standard of the chapters is going to be exceptional. (I’m not an author; I went along to hear and discuss.)

An important theme of the book will be how central and eastern Europe lagged behind western Europe in productivity and social well-being, and the varying successes and (mostly) failures of the region in closing the gap. This raised a question: Should central and eastern Europe always be judged against western European countries, as though we (the West) set the only standards that count? Shouldn’t everyone try to understand that region in its own terms, without negative preconceptions?

We had reached the interwar period of 1918 to 1939 when a commentator raised this question sharply. It’s a good question, and it brings us in a surprising direction. Think about it: what were the standards that the nation states and regimes of Central and Eastern Europe set themselves, whether in the interwar period or over the last two centuries? Often enough, the answer turns out to be, the goal that they set was to catch up with Western Europe.

At first sight this takes us back to where we started, to the standards of productivity and social well-being set in Western Europe. But this would not be strictly accurate. When the states and rulers of central and eastern Europe set out to catch up, it was not so much in average incomes or welfare, which were not even measured systematically until the middle of the twentieth century. The dimension in which they aimed to catch up was that of national power.

As it turns out, the first decades of the twentieth century were a time of great success for two of the countries of central and eastern Europe in the race to catch up and overtake western Europe in national power. These countries were Germany and the Soviet Union.

National power can be measured, although imperfectly. The scholars of the Correlates of War project set out to measure the global distribution of national power with a “composite index of national capability” (CINC) designed to capture “the ability of a nation to exercise and resist influence.” A country’s CINC score combines six indicators of its relative weight in the international system, year by year: total population, urban population, iron and steel production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military expenditure. On this measure, in 1871, the Russian and German Empires together accounted for one fifth of the total of power in the world (12 percent for Germany and 8 percent for Russia). By 1914, through industrialization and rearmament, they had pushed up their combined weight to more than one quarter (14 percent to Germany, 12 percent to Russia). And by 1940, after more expansion and more rearmament, when Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes were temporarily in alliance, their share had risen to nearly one third (17 percent to Germany, 14 percent to the Soviet Union).

(For data sources and more context, look at Table 1 of this paper.)

Within 70 years, in summary, the two great powers of central and eastern Europe transferred more than one tenth of global power into their own hands. This was a dramatic shift in the balance of power, and a stunning achievement.

Thinking about this, I said in the conference: You want us to celebrate the aspects in which the countries of eentral and eastern Europe led the world at the time? OK, let’s hear it for autocracy, aggression, and mass killing. I was trying to be ironic, but I wasn’t sure if something got lost in translation.

Of course, you could be central or east European and be happy. Anywhere in the region, most of the time, you could live, love, carry on a trade, make a family, make art, make science, teach, and build. You could try to lead a good life, a life no worse than the lives led by anyone to the West. Bad things might happen to interrupt these efforts anywhere in Europe, west or east. For centuries, however, if you lived to the east of the Rhine, the probability that your efforts would be cruelly ended by young men in uniform under orders from above was much, much greater.

To understand why is the challenge for Matthias and his co-authors..


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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