H-Diplo Review Essay 514: Bartel on Romero, eds., _European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West_

christopher ball Discussion


20 April 2023

Angela Romano and Federico Romero, eds., European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: National Strategies in the Long 1970s (London: Routledge, 2021).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Fritz Bartel, Texas & AM, University

Historians live for agency. In explaining events large and small, we are always on the lookout for moments when individuals escaped the grasp of circumstance to alter the course of events. Our accounts of the end of the Cold War have hewed closely to this line. Over the past three decades, seemingly everyone and everything in the late 1970s and early 1980s has had their agency checked: Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President François Mitterrand, Pope John Paul II, his cardinals, their diplomats, atomic scientists, human rights activists, border guards at checkpoints, and masses of people in the streets—each have had their moment in the sun as scholars have painted a picture of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in which a thousand flowers of explanation rightly bloom.[1]

At this point, only Communist leaders not named Gorbachev have escaped attention. Amidst the tsunami of scholarship on the late Cold War, the agency of those who actually governed the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Eastern Europe, has been noticeably absent. Assumed to combine systemic sclerosis with strategic ineptitude, the leading cadres of late socialism have most often been an object rather than a subject in their own demise. As one powerful prevailing narrative goes, these states were ‘kissed by debt’ in the 1970s, and then collapsed in a political ‘bank run’ at the close of the 1980s.[2]

Angela Romano, Federico Romero, and the contributors to European Socialist Regimes’ Fateful Engagement with the West aim to rectify this omission. The product of a five year collaborative research agenda funded by the European Research Council, the book seeks to recover “the strategies, expectations and predicaments” of the European state socialist governments as détente opened “a space for pan-European cooperation” in the 1970s.[3] The socialist state leaders were not, in this telling, hapless dupes who ignorantly indebted their countries to West, but were instead serious statebuilders who sought to overcome their semi-peripheral position in the world economy through ambitious modernization strategies. Recovering the internationalist agendas of the late socialist elites and taking them seriously is important, the authors contend, because it was the Eastern Bloc’s political and economic engagement with the rapidly coalescing European Economic Community (EEC) that left its leaders materially dependent on—and ideologically defenseless against—the West by the 1980s. Because of the socialist elites’ “fateful engagement” with the West in the 1970s, Romano and Romero write, they slowly “discarded notions of alternative global alignments pivoted on anti-imperial positions” and instead came to view integration with Western Europe “first as the most preferable and then as their only conceivable horizon.”[4] Economic internationalization produced ideological Westernization, which in turn ended the Cold War. These are high interpretative stakes indeed.

Across ten chapters that effectively blend conceptual and contextual framing with archival depth, the book succeeds in recapturing the world of the socialist elites in the late 1960s as they set out to modernize their domestic economies by engaging with their Western neighbors.[5] The onset of European détente and the EEC’s decision to broaden and deepen integration in 1969 made clear to socialist elites that avenues of international economic engagement beckoned just as the crushing of the Prague Spring foreclosed all possibility of systemic domestic reform. From that shared starting point, many different national strategies for achieving economic growth, domestic stability, and access to the EEC’s enormous market emerged. Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia imported both consumer and investment goods from the West to pad their domestic living standards and spur growth, while Bulgaria and Romania focused their imports much more heavily on investment goods alone. Alone among bloc countries, Czechoslovakia largely abjured Western imports and debt, while the GDR used its special access to West Germany to balance imports with the development of a robust domestic social policy.[6]

The Soviet Union tried to impose a modicum of discipline on the bloc’s dealings with the West by demanding that bloc countries refrain from recognizing the EEC (a manifestation of capitalist imperialism) and support trade negotiations only between the EEC and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). But the mandates from Moscow flew in the face of formidable economic forces pulling bloc states to the West, as the need for finance, technology, consumer goods, and increasingly energy kept the gaze of socialist elites pointed westward. So, over the course of the 1970s, many states in the bloc began to pursue their own agreements with the EEC, weakening socialist solidarity and destroying any collective leverage the bloc might have wielded in pursuit of access to markets in the West.

These national strategies are laid out in standalone chapters on each bloc country (and Yugoslavia) which are written by experts with the requisite linguistic skills to make extensive use of the available archival record. These chapters will be of great interest to regional and national specialists, and they contain many sweet fruits of archival labor. We read, stunningly, for instance, of a 1972 Polish internal memorandum that advises the country to “take advantage of this time…to get indebted as much as possible” to Western European countries before the EEC unified its commercial policy in 1975.[7] We observe the Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivkov, without any hint of irony, meet with West German business leaders from Krupp to drum up commercial interest in Bulgaria, and then turn around and tell West German officials that elections in the FRG did not matter because no matter who won “the boss of Krupp, who represents capitalism in Germany, will remain in place.”[8] And we are privy to the strident debate between state technocrats and party reformers in the Hungarian leadership over whether any potential agreement with the EEC should be purely commercial in nature or should, instead, aim to be a “political agreement…to prove Hungary’s goodwill and commitment to its most important European commercial partners.”[9]

Time and again, we see the diversity of opinion that prevailed both within and between socialist states about how to engage with the Western world.[10] Historians have long granted this level of detail to states in the West, so it is only fitting (indeed, imperative) that we do the same for the socialist states of the East. Establishing the many possible paths that socialist states could have taken is the first step in recapturing the agency of those elites who ultimately determined the course of policy. In this way, the volume succeeds handsomely in achieving its primary goal of recapturing socialist elite agency. In the conclusion, Romero and Romano write that they have provided the first “detailed historical catalogue” of the various factors and actors that contributed to the rise and decline of “socialism’s Western strategy,” a claim that rings particularly true when one considers their book alongside the outstanding interactive website their team put together to illustrate the history of late socialist elites and institutions for general and classroom audiences (253).[11]

Amassing a catalogue is, of course, an interpretive exercise in its own right. Decisions about what to include, what to leave out, and what to focus on, affect the overall portrayal of the process in question. And in this respect, I came away from the volume with three reservations that also serve as avenues for future research. First, although the Soviet Union is ever-present in the volume as the background force that conditioned and limited its allies’ behavior, its strategy for how the bloc should engage the West does not receive its own treatment in a standalone chapter. Romero and Romano excluded Moscow because, they write, “the role, self-perception, predicaments, and interests of the superpower were quite different from those of the smaller European regimes” (5). That may be true, but Soviet leaders were no less consequential for their difference. The Eastern Europeans’ fateful embrace of the West in the 1970s was really only one-armed; the other remained firmly tied behind their back by a Soviet prohibition on recognition of the EEC that seems, after reading this volume, to have been quite obviously a combination of short sightedness, selfish interest, and ideological blindness.

Moreover, the bumbling negotiations between the EEC and CMEA hover just off this book’s pages like a specter haunting each national government—ever present as an obvious impediment to their own progress, but never directly addressed so that the reasons for the negotiations’ decay and failure might be fully understood. Why, if Soviet leaders simultaneously embraced détente for the economic benefits it might bring and abhorred their allies’ growing indebtedness to the West, did they take such a casual, callous, or counterproductive approach (it remains difficult to tell which combination of the three it was) to the one diplomatic solution that might actually have improved their allies’ balance of payments—trade agreements with the ECC? Recalcitrant allies like Romania, which refused to trust Moscow and the CMEA with its trade policy, no doubt made the Kremlin’s job very difficult. But Soviet policy still remains a puzzle.[12] Sources in Moscow from the 1970s surely hold the answer; now we need to bring them to light. Having restored agency to Eastern Europe, Romero and Romano’s volume makes clear that we now need to return to archives in Moscow with a new set of questions.

As the volume beckons us back to the east, it also forces us to ask what exactly is meant by ‘the West.’ The book is framed around the socialist states’ engagement with ‘the West’ writ large, but it is at its foundation really about the socialists’ diplomatic engagement with the EEC. This has the significant advantage of giving the volume a tight analytical and empirical focus, no small accomplishment for an edited volume. But it also sets up a particular event as the key to the state socialists’ economic future: namely, gaining improved access to the Common Market. The fact that this did not happen leaves the impression that it was primarily EEC protectionism that caused the failure of the bloc’s ‘Western strategies’ via sustained trade deficits and subsequent debt problems. But was EEC protectionism really to blame? Perhaps a counterfactual sheds light on this question: what if the bloc had achieved better access to the Common Market early in the 1970s? Would that have prevented their ‘Western strategies’ from failing?

My sense is no, and a number of socialist leaders at the time appeared to share this view. Hungarian (65), Czechoslovakian (149), and Bulgarian (168) officials all placed more blame for their countries’ inability to generate exports on the low quality of their goods than on EEC tariffs, and Romano and Romero echo this as one of their conclusions (253). Contingency and agency, then, lay not with the Eastern European diplomats trying to gain access to the EEC, but rather with the countless state planners, enterprise directors, and workers who actually determined the quality of what the bloc produced. Trade deficit socialism was bound one day to end up under the thumb of the West, and the cause of those deficits, it seems to me, was only partially, perhaps even minimally, a result of the EEC’s policies. This volume gives us ample reason to examine the actual practice of Eastern Bloc enterprise in the 1970s and ask how and whether it might have been different. After The Socialists’ Fateful Engagement, we can do so confident in the conviction that it was the actual (and contingent?) processes of socialist production that ultimately determined the fate and failure of state socialism.

Finally, the volume’s strong focus on the bloc’s diplomatic relations with the EEC gives the reader only glimpses into what is perhaps its most intriguing conclusion: that economic engagement produced ideological Westernization among the socialist elites; that Handel really did produce Wandel. Romano and Romero powerfully conclude, “the regime’s economic strategies had internalized an assumption of Western superiority” (256). By 1989, “even the core communist party leadership could no longer envision, much less credibly propose, a different prospect” than rejoining the West (256). This sounds very plausible, and in my own work I reach much the same conclusion.[13] But with its focus on the nuts and bolts of trade negotiations, the volume is very light on evidence of this transformation in the socialist elites’ Weltanschauung. Therefore, in the wake of this edited volume, as we dig deeper into the workings of socialist business practice, we must also pursue the elusive but essential transformation in socialist elites’ thinking much further.

In sum, then, the editors and contributors to The Socialists’ Fateful Engagement have done outstanding work to bring the late socialist regimes back to life, and have also made clear that there is much more work left to do. One can only hope that their volume garners a wide readership and spurs others to take up the many tasks they have laid before us.


Fritz Bartel is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. His book, The Triumph of Broken Promises: The End of the Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism, was published with Harvard University Press in 2022. As a dissertation, it won the 2018 Oxford University Press USA Dissertation Prize in International History from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Along with Nuno P. Monteiro, he also co-edited Before and After the Fall: World Politics and the End of the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2021).



[1] Among an enormous literature, see: William Inboden, The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, The End of the Cold War, and the World on the Brink (New York: Dutton, 2022); Archie Brown, The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, Thatcher and the End of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: US Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Robert Service, The End of the Cold War, 1985–1991 (New York: Public Affairs, 2015); Jeffrey Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); Simon Miles, Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020); James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); William Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017); Sarah Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Net­work (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Mary Sarotte, Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

[2] Stephen Kotkin, “The Kiss of Debt,” in Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent, eds., The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective, ed. et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 80–96; and Stephen Kotkin and Jan Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (New York: Modern Library, 2009).

[3] Angela Romano and Federico Romero, “Introduction,” in Angela Romano and Federico Romero, eds., European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: National Strategies in the Long 1970s (London: Routledge, 2021): 1-11, 1. Hereafter Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West.

[4] Romano and Romero, “Conclusions,” in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: 249-257, 256.

[5] The conceptual and contextual framing is particularly well laid out in Romero and Romano’s individual chapters at the start of the volume. See Federico Romero, “Socialism Between Détente and Globalisation,” 11-30, and Angela Romano, “Pan-Europe A continental space for cooperation(s),” 31-49, in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West.

[6] Pavel Szobi, “Czechoslovakia’s Pan-European Relations During the “Long 1970s,” 134-158, and Maximilian Graf, “Drifting Westward? East Germany and Integrated Europe,”107-133, in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West.

[7] Aleksandra Komornicka, “From ‘Economic Miracle’ to the ‘Sick Man of the Socialist Camp’: Poland and the West in the 1970s,” in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: 78-106, 90.

[8] Elitza Stanoeva, “Balancing Between Socialist Internationalism and Economic Internationalisation: Bulgaria’s Economic Contacts with the EEC,” in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: 159- 189, 159.

[9] Pal Germuska, “Attraction and Repulsion: Hungary and European Integration,” in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West: 50-77, 68.

[10] The respective chapters on Romania and Yugoslavia’s “Western strategies” bring this diversity into full view. See Elena Dragomir, “Romania Turns West: National and International Rationales,” 190-220, and Benedetto Zaccaria, “From Liberalism to Underdevelopment: The Yugoslav elites facing Western European economic integration in the ‘long 1970s’,” 221-148, in Romano and Romero, European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West

[11] For the interactive website see https://paneur1970s-map.eui.eu/.

[12] One important, and profitable, attempt to understand Soviet policy toward the EEC is Suvi Kansikas, Socialist Countries Face the European Community: Soviet-Bloc Controversies over East-West Trade (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2014).

[13] Fritz Bartel, The Triumph of Broken Promises: The End of The Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).