In This Review

East Central Europe in the Modern World
East Central Europe in the Modern World
By Andrew C. Janos
Stanford University Press, 2000, 488 pp

In an immense yet utterly lucid argument, Janos attempts to explain fundamental political outcomes in east-central Europe from the early nineteenth century to the present. For the smallish states of this region (from Albania to Poland), geography is destiny. Their corrupted move toward liberalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the failure of liberalism and the rise of fascism in the interwar period, the ascent of communism, and now the renewed experiment with liberalism all reflect external influence far more than internal characteristics. Theirs is the "politics of backwardness," driven by perennially ill-fated efforts to close the economic gap between Europe's advanced "core" and its disadvantaged "periphery," a gap that is larger today than ever before. Culture plays a role -- but only as a third-level filter. So stark a thesis requires an incisive reading of history, and Janos' reading indeed is both incisive and extensive. Applied to the present, however, his thesis turns watery. One is not sure what causes what: whether change, good or bad, owes to an externally imposed Western model or whether the model is only as potent as (half-sketched) forces within these societies allow it to be.