- Every week, you must respond to two lessons. Check the Plague Syllabus for details! Remember that your posts are due each week by Friday at 5pm.
- You do not need to respond to all of the questions I ask! You can focus on the one that interests you most.
- I will post all my videos on this blog with the title, category, and tag “Euro Vision.”
- As you start working on your final papers, remember to read carefully through the HIS 270 Writing Handout and other resources, which you can find here.
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is post-Soviet Russia, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Tuesday, May 5 at 9:00am Eastern we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. We are going to do two things: first, we’ll discuss Tara Zahra’s article “The Return of No-Man’s Land” and Warsan Shire’s poem “Home.” And second, we’ll have a broader discussion about what we’ve learned together this semester. Please note: You are in charge of this discussion! Please come to class with one question or comment about the assigned reading that you would like us to discuss. We’ll start with those and see where the day takes us. If anyone is not able to access the class by video, please let me know.
Today, we’re looking at developments in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Russia, the first post-Soviet decade was a very difficult one. After Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, Boris Yeltsin became president of the new Russian Federation. Untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. It also turned out that he was not fully committed to democracy. In 1993, facing political opposition, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the parliament. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced the adoption of a new constitution with stronger executive power.
Economically and socially, Russia faced a major crisis. Yeltsin took stabilization loans from the World Bank and IMF, but these organizations required implementation of “shock therapy”: strict austerity measures and privatization of state assets. This basically destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy. A few men with inside connections, soon to be known as “oligarchs,” bought up state assets on the cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. They paid protection money to organized criminals, who operated with impunity. Wealth stratification soared as this rough transition to capitalism threw millions of people into poverty. Russia also experienced a major public health crisis as underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS epidemic fueled by drug addiction. Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed.
As if that weren’t enough, Yeltsin also went to war with Chechnya, an autonomous region in the Northern Caucasus that made a bid for independence. The First Chechen War (1994-1996) was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. After the ceasefire, Russia did not commit resources to rebuilding, and that created an opportunity for Islamist militants to filter in and start recruiting. Consequently, when the Second Chechen War began in the fall of 1999, it took on the character of a “holy war.” Officially, the Second Chechen War ended in 2000, but there’s a sense in which it continues, through low level guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks.
The Second Chechen War was not Yeltsin’s problem, though. By the time it started, he was on his way out. After the ruble’s collapse, he often appeared drunk in public and made embarrassing statements. He cycled through several prime ministers, seeking a successor who ensure a safe exit. Finally, in August 1999, he settled on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who had proved his loyalty as deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg. On December 31, 1999, just four months after appointing Putin and three months before the March 2000 presidential election, Yeltsin made a surprise speech in which he resigned. Putin stepped into the top job and immediately pardoned his former boss for all of his corrupt dealings.
Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down, and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. Foreign policy remained a challenge. First NATO, then the EU moved aggressively to expand into the former Eastern Bloc and erected missile sites there, which Russia viewed as a threat to its traditional sphere of influence and its own safety. Relations became particularly intense during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War, both of which Russia saw as having been encouraged by the West. By speaking aggressively and acting decisively, Putin maintained the image domestically of a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.
While Putin was genuinely popular, he also hedged his bets. Between 2000-2008, he cracked down significantly on freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists, particularly those who reported on corruption and the atrocities of the Chechen Wars. In 2006, NGOs that received funding from international sources were compelled to register as “foreign agents.” This has had a chilling effect on their activities, but they continue to find ways to keep their doors open. Protest leaders also remained vocal, including Boris Nemtsov, a Yeltsin-era politician who became an oppositionist under Putin, and Alexei Navalny, a blogger who has made it his mission to uncover corruption in Putin’s government.
The Russian constitution limits presidents to two terms. Interestingly, Putin has so far respected the letter of this law. In 2008, he stepped down and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When Medvedev won, he appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma voted to extend presidential terms to six years. When Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won that election, and a second term in 2018. But as you read, despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.
This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet. Hopefully today’s sources will help us understand this situation in more depth.
Since Putin returned to the presidency, foreign policy issues have heated up significantly. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Agreement, protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. The protests continued from November 2013 to February 2014, when the parliament deposed the president. He fled to Russia, and Ukraine turned back to the EU. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, which is home to a large population of ethnic Russians, and more importantly, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This sparked a civil war in Eastern Ukraine, which is ongoing. Ukraine expected help from the West, but while there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear the West is not willing to intervene militarily.
Bolstered by this success, Russia has recently made other bold moves on the world stage. In September 2015, Russia intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war, where American troops were already engaged. Putin’s aim seems to have been to demonstrate that Russia has returned to great power status and no longer has to accept terms set by the West, as it did in the 1990s. Both the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria have significantly boosted Putin’s domestic approval ratings. Many Russians feel he has served them well by returned to Russia the dignity it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The other foreign policy event we surely cannot avoid is Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election and 2017 French presidential election. Analysts agree that in both cases, Russian maneuvers had little effect on the outcome. The larger impact has been the damage done to international relationships. Particularly in the US, politicians have been quick to blame everything on Russia, rather than deeper systemic issues, and consequently, bilateral relations have descended into mutual enmity. Clearly, both sides played a role in this breakdown. The real question is not who is at fault, but rather, what it will mean for geopolitics going forward.
There has been one more recent development. Putin’s two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, he announced a referendum on a constitutional amendment to consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Let’s start with Ann Garrels’ book Putin Country. Garrels begins chapter 3 with the story of Irina Korsunova, a magazine editor in Chelyabinsk. Korsunova was educated in the West. She enjoys Western consumer goods and fashions, but she has a real chip on her shoulder about how the West sees Russia. What exactly is Korsunova’s complaint? How does it help us understand Putin’s popularity in relation to international events since 1991?
2. In this same chapter, Garrels interviews three people with different social positions: the middle-class, cosmopolitan Irina Korsunova; the elite former-oppositionist she calls V; and the steelworker Yura Kovach. All thee support Putin. Can you unpack how Putin manages to court each of these constituencies? Based on their reasons for supporting him, do you think Putin will be able to remain popular with such a broad range of people in the long term? How do their responses to the annexation of Crimea help us understand what Putin has gotten right about how Russians feel about their country’s position in the world?
3. In Chapter 10, Garrels writes about students at an elite high school. She is surprised that they are so disengaged from politics. How might the growing importance of money in Russians’ access to education incline them to support the status quo? How are these high schoolers different from the activists Evan Gershkovich profiles in his article? Is the apathy of these students really a worrying sign for Russia’s future? Or is it typical of high schoolers everywhere?
4. We also get a look at the Russian military in this chapter. Garrels describes how wealthier and more educated young men avoid the draft in large numbers, while those without such means suffer under brutal hazing rituals. She also interviews veterans from the Afghan War and Chechen Wars who feel their sacrifice has been erased from public memory. How does the overall situation in Russia—corruption, limits on free speech, etc.—make these problems especially difficult? Are these problems unique to Russia, or do we find versions of them in the American military, as well? Do you think opposition from veterans and their families poses a serious threat to Putin’s hold on power or not?
5. Garrels returns to the issue of how international relations influence Russians to support Putin in chapter 18. This time, she focuses on how the sanctions imposed by Western Europe and the US are impacting ordinary Russians. She notes that the sanctions are restricting their purchasing power, but this has not had the intended effect of turning Russians against Putin, but rather has strengthened their allegiance to him. How does she explain this phenomenon? Do you think Americans would respond the same way, if the situation were reversed?
6. Evan Gershkovich gives us a different perspective, focusing on the anti-Putin protest movement that has been growing since 2012. One of the most significant aspects of this movement is the involvement of so many young people, who have grown up entirely in Putin’s Russia. Can you analyze their participation? What makes it surprising that young people are taking a leading role? On the other hand, why might “Generation P” be especially likely to get involved? You are living though your third American presidency. If there had been only one in your lifetime, would you join a protest movement? Why or why not?
7. Gershkovich notes that while the protest movement has a longer history, many activists in their teens and 20s first got involved in 2018, in a protest against raising the pension age. (Russia has a typical European welfare system in which pensions are paid by the government, rather than employers.) This is an unusual issue for young people. But Gershkovich quotes one activist saying, “[We] have very different political opinions… We are different people with a common problem: We want Vladimir Putin to resign and we want new faces in government.” (Gershkovich, web) What are the pros and cons of a movement built this way? Do you think the shared experience of protesting Putin will encourage them to support each other’s other concerns or will those concerns ultimately divide them?
8. This article highlights the importance of the internet to the recent wave of protests. Anti-corruption bloggers use YouTube to broadcast their messages, while activists use Telegram to organize events and raise money. How has the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia? What new challenges does it present to a government that likes to keep a lid on free speech? Do you think new control measures on the Russian internet will be effective? How does use of the internet change the demographics of likely participants, in terms of age, wealth, location, and more?
9. One of the activists Gershkovich focuses on is the 17-year-old Olga Misik, who has already been arrested several times. Misik is bold, and even her lawyer thinks she ought to be more cautious. What do you make of her risk-taking? Is it a result of inexperience or conscious choice? Do protest movements need fearless young people willing to risk everything in order to achieve their goals?
10. After reading these two different pieces, what are your predictions for Russia in this new decade and beyond? Will Putin remain popular and hold on to power until his death? (Keep in mind that he is only 67.) Will the protest movement grow and eventually unseat him? Can the relationship between Russia and the West be mended?
Maps for today’s video:
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 13, Day 1. Our topic is upheaval in Eastern Europe, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
It was great to meet with all of you last week and talk about your final papers. I hope your work continues to go well. This is a friendly reminder that your final drafts are due on Friday, May 8 at 10pm, and you should submit them on Sakai. If you have any questions between now and then, or if you want to meet with me again, or if you want to send me a rough draft for comments, I’m happy to help with those things. Just let me know by email.
Looking ahead from here, our last day of class is fast approaching. For our final class meeting, I would like us to get together one last time as a group on Teams. We’ll meet at our regular class time (9:00am EST) on Tuesday, May 5. You should get an email about that from Teams, so please look out for that. If anyone is in a time zone that would make that a really early time to meet, please let me know. I don’t imagine we’re going to talk for the whole time, so we could start a bit later. Also, if anyone unable to join a class video meeting, please email to let me know about that. I’ll make sure you have an alternative option.
Today we’re discussing primary sources that address two key moments in late 20th c European history. Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern concerns the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in Warsaw and Berlin. I gave you the context for that in my previous video, so I won’t repeat it here. Feel free to review our video from Week 12 if you could use a refresher. Timothy Garton Ash is a British journalist. He spent the 1980s reporting on Eastern Europe and, as you read, he was an eyewitness to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. He wrote this book in 1990, so it gives us his impressions of those events when they were still fresh.
Slavenka Drakulić’s Café Europa dates from a bit later, the mid-1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a complicated country, and for many of you it’s probably not very familiar. I’m going to give you some contextual history, and I’ll include a couple of maps in the transcript to help you get your bearings. You may remember that Yugoslavia was formed out of a collection of territories after WWI. These territories shared a broad sense of ethnic identity—the name “Yugoslavia” means “South Slavs”—and they had a common history of being subject to the Ottoman Empire for much of the modern period. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Serbia and Montenegro became independent; Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina were taken from the Ottomans by the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and Macedonia remained Ottoman land. After the war, with the two big empires gone, these provinces joined together. They did so more for a sense of security than because they felt a strong affinity for one another. On their own, they were small, and smallness meant vulnerability amidst the uncertainties of the interwar period.
The borders of Yugoslavia remained stable from 1918 until 1990. After WWII, Yugoslavia became a communist country, led by Josip Broz Tito, a war hero who had led the anti-Nazi partisan movement. In 1948, Tito broke with Stalin, and Yugoslavia spent the Cold War as a non-aligned country. During this time, the various populations within the country maintained their separate ethnic and religious identities but continued to live together peacefully, as they had done for centuries. The reason I bring this up is that when war broke out in this region in the early 1990s, much of the coverage in the Western press claimed the war was the result of “age old ethnic hatred” among people who could not overcome their “tribalism.” This framing of the breakup of Yugoslavia is both incorrect and harmful. As Mark Mazower pointed out in his chapters on the interwar period, this is the type of rhetoric Western Europeans use to Orientalize Eastern Europeans—to position them as different, backwards, and uncivilized. In fact, as I hope we’ve learned this semester, ethnic conflicts like the ones that erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s are very much a product of 20th century Europe: its territorial nationalism, its concern with “healthy” and “sick” bodies, and its invention of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The six republics that made up Yugoslavia began to think about separating in the early 1990s, as they witnessed Soviet republics like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia break away from the Soviet Union. In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence. Bosnia-Herzegovina was a diverse republic, containing Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Christian Serbs, who, again, had lived together peacefully for a long time. That doesn’t mean there weren’t tensions between them, but it wasn’t enough to start a war. However, Slobodan Milosević, the president of Serbia, resented this loss of territory and declared that he would “save” Yugoslavia by bringing Bosnia-Herzegovina back into the fold. He sent in the Serbian army, which was joined by ultra-nationalist Bosnian Serbs. Together they committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims, rounding them up into concentration camps and murdering them.
In 1993, the UN sent peacekeepers into Bosnia, but the safe zone they set up was overrun by Serbian forces. The next year, a US-NATO coalition intervened more forcefully with a massive bombing campaign in Serbia. This campaign was effective; it drove Milosević to the negotiating table and ended the war. But if you talk to Bosnians who lived through these events, as glad as they are to be rid of Milosević and his hateful rhetoric and unjust war, they are not grateful to NATO. To them, the bombing campaign felt like another imperialist invasion, in which a foreign power came in, imposed its will by force, and left without cleaning up its mess. The war formally ended with the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995, which created two states: a rump Yugoslavia consisting of only Serbia and Montenegro, and an independent Bosnia.
Shortly after the Dayton Accords, the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has a majority Albanian population, declared its independence. Milosević sent in his army, but NATO launched another bombing campaign, which resulted in the Serbian Army withdrawing and, eventually, Kosovo declaring its full independence in 2008. After this adventure, Milosević was well and truly disgraced. In 2001, he was ousted, and the new Serbian government turned him over ot the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity. He died in prison in 2006, before his trial was complete.
In the aftermath, former Yugoslavs, who were now citizens of seven different countries, had to figure out how to move on and make sense of the legacy of both the communist period and the Yugoslav Wars. This is the subject of Slavenka Drakulić’s essays in Café Europa.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In Timothy Garton Ash’s chapter “Warsaw,” he describes the elections held in Poland on June 4, 1989, the first in which non-communist candidates were allowed to run for office. He explains that both the Communist Party and Solidarity, the independent workers’ party, were completely surprised that Solidarity candidates won a majority. Three unbelievable things happened: the communists lost, Solidarity won, and the communist acknowledged the election results. Can you unpack Ash’s explanation of why these things were so surprising? What does it reveal about both parties’ relationship to the electorate that neither side expected Solidarity to win? Why do you think the Communist Party respected the election’s results? In your analysis, was the actress right or wrong when she said that communism in Poland ended that day?
2. After the election, Ash writes, “As Solidarity leaders began to engage in real politics… there was more than a touch of nostalgia for the simple truths and moral clarities of the marital law period.” (Ash, 32). What do you make of this idea that it’s harder to be in power than to be in opposition? What new issues and difficulties did Solidarity face? What do you make of Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader who pushed for democracy but had a touch of the dictator in his personality? Is a figure like that necessary to make a revolution happen?
3. As Ash relates, being in power forced Solidarity to accept a number of compromises. Chief among these was the presidency of General Jaruzelski, who had been a staunch foe of Solidarity activists in the 1980s, and the adoption of economic austerity measures. Based on Ash’s descriptions, do you think Solidarity made the right choices in these cases? Why or why not? What else could they have done? Did their compromises help to ensure a peaceful transition to capitalism and liberal democracy in Poland, or were they a sell out?
4. Ash’s chapter “Berlin: Wall’s End” takes us back to familiar territory. Like Serge Schmemann, Ash recounts the rise of the weekly protest movement in Leipzig and the East German government’s decision not to use force against them. Unlike Schmemann, though, Ash gives credit first and foremost to the citizens themselves. He writes, “the people acted and the Party reacted” (Ash, 69) and says that the conductor Kurt Masur played a more crucial role than Party security chief Egon Krenz. Can you unpack this situation? Why does it matter that the protesters “led” in this situation? How does that shape our understanding of these events as historians? What role did other factors play in the Party’s decision-making, like Gorbachev’s recent visit and the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to fire on protesters in Tiananmen Square?
5. According to Ash, many East Germans immediately began thinking about reunification. But this was not such an easy issue. What complications did it raise? Why were East German opposition activists loathe to consider this option? Ash calls these activists “emotional,” but could there be something substantive behind their desire not to “sell out” the GDR?
6. Despite the speed with which the two Germanies reunited, they have in some ways retained an echo of their separation. Even now, if you walk through Berlin, it’s easy to tell when you cross into the East, even where the Wall’s former path is not marked. The Eastern districts are poorer and have shoddier infrastructure. Yet, they’ve also become the home to Berlin’s hipsters and rave community. What do you make of the persistence of difference in Belin 30 years after reunification? Do you think the two halves of the city will always feel different, or is it only a matter of time until this history is erased from the physical landscape?
7. Let’s turn to Café Europa. In her essay “My Father’s Guilt,” Drakulić recounts the story of her father’s life. He fought with the partisans during the war and was a true believer in the Communist Party. Why does she consider him “guilty”? In her eyes, what is he guilty of? Do you agree with this characterization? How does Drakulić’s father compare to Rudolf, the husband of Heda Margolius Kovaly, author of Under a Cruel Star? Are they both guilty? Are they both innocent? Or is it more complicated than that? How do these questions help us think about the difficulties of living through a major change in government?
8. Despite her opposition to communism, Drakulić is angry when she discovers that her mother has started covering up the communist star on her father’s grave. She writes, “I could see that someone was stealing the past from my father, from me, from all of us, and we were just letting it happen—more than that, we even eagerly co-operated in this robbery, in order to cover the traces of the recent past in our own lives.” (Drakulić, 147-148) Can you unpack her feelings here? Why is this past important to her to remember, even though she’s not a communist? Why does she feel strongly about acknowledging the good and the bad things accomplished under Tito? What possibilities arise when parts of the past are erased, including Yugoslavia’s history of fascism between the world wars? Does she convince you that every country must confront its past, or is it sometimes better to leave that past behind?
9. In her final paragraphs, Drakulić applies the lens of guilt to herself and her own generation. Make a close reading of pp. 157-159. Why does Drakulić consider herself guilty? What is she guilty of? Is she right, or is she being too hard on herself? We also live in a country with a troubled history. Are we sometimes guilty of tacitly accepting sugarcoated versions of the past? How can we acknowledge our history while still moving forward?
10. In “People from Three Borders,” Drakulić describes the situation of the people of Istria, a peninsula that has been divided between Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy since the collapse of Yugoslavia. What does nationality mean in Istria? How can we make sense of the Istrians’ claim to be Croatian, Slovenian, and Italian all at once? What do these terms mean to them? How does this situation shape your understanding of the issues of nation and nationalism at the end of the 20th century? How have this century’s events influenced the Istrians’ choices when the answer the question “What are you?”?
11. Drakulić relates that recently, residents of the peninsula have started to claim “Istrian” as their identity, as a form of resistance against nationalist pressures. This may remind us of the situation in this same region (and others) after WWI, as Europeans tried to remake Eastern Europe on the principle of the nation-state. In your analysis, is a return to regionalism the right answer for places like Istria? Is it the right answer for everyone? Or should we look ahead to new solutions rather than back to old ones?
12. At the end of this essay, Drakulić goes shopping with a friend who has three passports. But he dreams of not needing any passports, when Croatia joins the EU. In fact, Croatia did join the EU in 2013. But the EU itself is now being strained by nationalist pressures, both in Eastern Europe, and, of course, in Britain, which left the European Union in January. Can you assess Drakulić’s friend’s dream of a borderless Europe in light of these tensions? Is it a pipe dream? Will nationalism continue to assert itself in the European space in the 21st century? Or are we witnessing nationalism in its final throes of dying away?
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 12. Our subject is the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.
As a reminder, this is our ONLY video for Week 12. I canceled one “day” of class this week to give you more time to work on your final papers. That means we are not going to study the film Pride together, though you are very welcome to watch it on your own. Speaking of your final papers, thank you to everyone who has submitted an Introduction and Outline. I’m looking forward to discussing those with you on Thursday! One more announcement: Next week, we are reading Timothy Garton Ash’s eyewitness account of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, The Magic Lantern. You can choose to read either “Warsaw” or “Berlin.” You do not need to read both. Please DO read both essays in Slavenka Drakulić’s Café Europa.
Today we are discussing the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. As Mazower points out, these events were entirely contingent—not the inevitable result of the laws of history (there are none!), and not even something that analysts were able to predict. Rather, these events took place because people made particular decisions at particular moments, which then had further effects down the road.
It’s been a few weeks since we thought about Eastern Europe. We left off with the rise of Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and his use of Warsaw Pact troops to crush the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Brezhnev remained in power until 1982. As you read in Dark Continent, he and his fellow hardliners across Eastern Europe—the “little Stalins” who came to power in the 1940s and 1950s—presided over a period of economic decline similar to the one taking place in Western Europe. In the East, worsening conditions led many citizens who had initially embraced communism as an antidote the liberal democracy that had failed them in the interwar period to begin to lose faith in the Communist Party. To be clear, this is not the same thing as losing faith in communism as a political and economic system. Like the supporters of Prague Spring and the intellectual dissidents who began to speak up across the Eastern Bloc in the 1960s and 1970s, most people still believed in communism and hoped that it could be reformed from within. But the general loss of faith in the existing governments posed a growing challenge.
As I mentioned when we read Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir, the Prague Spring invasion was deeply shocking for Soviet citizens, and it had a strong impact on the Soviet dissident movement. Soviet dissidents first became active in the late 1950s, and they were galvanized in the 1960s by a series of trials in which writers who circulated novels, poems, and memoirs that were not officially approved were sentenced to prison for distributing “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Activists protested these events, and by the 1970s they had evolved into a broader Soviet human rights movement, which the Brezhnev government tried to repress.
Protest movements in the Eastern Bloc followed a similar pattern of beginning among intellectuals and focusing on human rights. For example, in Czechoslovakia, a dissident movement coalesced around the writer Vaclav Havel. In 1977, an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe was arrested for giving an unsanctioned performance. Havel wrote a charter demanding their release. State officials ignored it, but the movement, now known as Charter 77, persisted in its activities right up to 1989. In fact, Havel was elected as the first president of the newly independent Czech Republic that year. Poland presents a similar example. As the economy worsened in the late 1970s, workers embarked on a series of illegal strikes. When the state repressed them, a group of intellectuals and students formed the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR), which soon got the support of the Polish-born Pope, John Paul II, who was elected in 1978. A massive strike at the Gdansk Shipyards in 1980 convinced the Polish government of the need to negotiate. In the process they allowed the formation of an official independent trade union, Solidarity, which became a political party in 1989. That year, Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałesa, was elected the first president of independent Poland. These are just two example of a trend that rose in nearly every country in the Eastern Bloc. Mazower is right that these movements were small, and on their own they could not have overthrown their respective governments. But they provided a moral locus and a sense of direction that helped to keep the events of 1989 largely peaceful.
Meanwhile, back in the Soviet Union, things were not looking great. The economy was tanking due to a failure to modernize, subsidies provided to the Eastern Bloc and to emerging global nations as part of Cold War competition, and the expenses of the arms race. Corruption and black marketeering were on the rise, and citizens were losing faith in increasingly geriatric political figures. Brezhnev and most members of the Central Committee had started their careers as members of Stalin’s “new elite” and held on to power as they rose through the ranks. By the early 1980s, their average age was nearly 70, and like many old people, they resisted change. Brezhnev’s military adventures didn’t help, either. In 1979, against advice from military experts, he invaded Afghanistan to support its failing socialist government. In a situation that may sound familiar from our own experience, Soviet troops quickly got bogged down. Thousands of young men were conscripted and catastrophically injured or killed in a war that it seemed to most people the Soviet Union didn’t need to be involved in.
Brezhnev died in 1982, and in a sign of just how much the senior bureaucracy had aged, the next two Soviet leaders each died after about a year in office. Finally, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary. He was considered a young hotshot because he was “only” 54! But Gorbachev’s real significance is that he envisioned himself as forward thinking radical reformer. He was a child of the Khrushchev Thaw, not Stalinism, and he wanted to create a Khrushchev-like revolution that would get the Soviet Union back on track.
Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since the 1920s, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. Glasnost meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present and granting investigative journalists freedom to dig into previously hushed-up stories.
Gorbachev’s tragedy is that he was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perestroika failed to jumpstart Soviet industry and enabled the election of a large number of opposition candidates. For the majority of citizens, glasnost-fueled revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply unsettling and only undermined their faith in the Party further. At the same time, other events demonstrated the limits of Gorbachev’s reformism. His effort to save face in Afghanistan caused the war to drag on until 1989. And the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in April 1986, in which a nuclear power station melted down, had a major environmental and public health consequences, while the state’s bungling of the relief effort further eroded faith in the state. Many citizens learned about the meltdown from Western radio stations like the Voice of America before their own, and the limited, disorganized evacuation left many people vulnerable.
By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while the limits he imposed when things didn’t go his way alienated progressives. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev initially considered Yeltsin an ally and appointed him to the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic SSRs, which had the most developed nationalist movements, declared their independence, which Gorbachev didn’t contest. Yeltsin, seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, declared the sovereignty of the RSFSR. This was enough to freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.
After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed an agreement forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics joined. That left Gorbachev the leader of a Soviet Union that no longer contained any republics. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned, and the Soviet Union came to a surprisingly peaceful end.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Bloc was undergoing its own “carnival of revolution,” as one historian aptly named it. Gorbachev deserves some credit here. His imposition of reformist policies across the Eastern Bloc, while not exactly a democratic maneuver, bolstered the reform movements that had been brewing since the 1970s. And his decision not to use Warsaw Pact troops as Brezhnev had spared Eastern Europe a great deal of potential violence. But of course, these revolutions were made first and foremost at home, and it was activists in each country who liberated themselves from their oppressive governments and ensured that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc proceeded with remarkably little violence. The events of 1989 started with Solidarity activists in Poland, who won a major electoral victory in that country’s first multi-party elections that summer. Hungary soon followed suit and opened up its border with Austria—literally breaching the “Iron Curtain.” At the same time, activists in East Germany began holding weekly protests, and this takes back to our discussion with Serge Schmemann earlier this semester. Czechoslovakia was next, experiencing its “Velvet Revolution” (and the “Velvet Divorce” of its two component states) in November. Revolution quickly spread through the remaining countries of the Eastern Bloc. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, Eastern Europe faced the challenge of completely rebuilding itself for the third time in the 20th century.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In his introduction to Chapter 11, Mazower emphasizes how blindsided everyone was by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and he advises us to be skeptical of “triumphalist explanations” of these events. Thinking over this chapter as a whole and placing it in the context of our study of Western Europe in these same decades, consider your answers to Mazower’s two main questions on p.362: In what sense did the West “win” the Cold War? Or did it? Was this a glorious triumph for “the people” and for the cause of European freedom over tyranny, or not?
2. As you read about the economic problems of the Eastern Bloc, things might have sounded pretty familiar. Economic decline, inflation, and the crisis of industrial manufacturing were common across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. And as we learned last week, the solutions Western Europe tried were painful and not particularly effective. In your analysis, why did the liberal democracies of Western Europe survive this crisis while the communist party-states of Eastern Europe did not? Is the answer economic, political, or both? Was the pain that Western Europeans endured worth it, or would it have been better if they, too, had experienced a major reckoning with their governments?
3. Mazower argues that the withdrawal of Soviet influence from Eastern Europe and the birth of new, post-communist states in the former Eastern Bloc is best understood through the lens of de-colonization. In this model, the Soviet Union is the Metropole (akin to imperial Britain or France), and the Eastern Bloc countries are the imperialized territories (akin to British India, French Algeria, etc.) Based on our study of de-colonization two weeks ago, can you analyze his use of this model? Do you think it fits? Why or why not? What other framework would you propose?
4. After 1989, Eastern Europe found itself in a similar position to where it had been after WWI and again after WWII. One conclusion we might draw from this is that neither the solutions of 1919 nor the solutions of 1945 were viable for this region. On the other hand, the region itself was significantly changed by these wars and by the reconstructions that followed them. Consider the following: What political, social, economic, and cultural differences can we identify between Eastern Europe in 1914 (at the start of WWI) and in 1989? What are some specific ways that both war and peace reshaped this region? How did that make achieving a lasting, stable peace in 1989 both easier and more difficult? Mazower asserts, “In fact the transition after 1989 was smoother than either of those after the First and Second World Wars, a sign perhaps of the growing political sophistication and experience of the region.” (Mazower, 384) Do you agree? Why or why not?
5. Mazower points out that while Western Europe welcomed the revolutions of 1989, it did relatively little to help with the transition to capitalism. In fact, privatization and austerity measures spearheaded by Western economic advisors may have done more harm than good. Yet, many Eastern Europeans even today look to Western Europe for support and even salvation, which is still not forthcoming. How did the events of the 20th century create that mindset in Eastern Europe? Should the West have done more to help the East in the 1990s? Should it do more to intervene in these countries’ politics now that most of them have joined the European Union? Why or why not?
6. Let’s tun to our primary source, “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost).” Gorbachev has a delicate job here. He has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?
7. You may notice that Gorbachev also talks a lot about Lenin in this speech. What role does Lenin play for Gorbachev here? Why do you think he reaches back to Lenin, instead of keeping the focus on himself? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?
9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?
10. This speech was published in newspapers and read by citizens across the Eastern Bloc. Put yourself in the shoes of various actors in the counties of Eastern Europe. How would you respond to this speech if you were a worker? An intellectual human rights activist? A Party leader? How might speeches like this one act as a destabilizing force across the Eastern Bloc?
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject is Western Europe in the 1970s-1980s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
As you know, we have a deadline coming up for your final papers. Please remember to submit your one-paragraph Introduction and detailed Outline on Sakai by Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. It looks like everyone has signed up for a virtual office hours meeting to discuss those materials on Thursday, April 23, so thank you for doing that. Those meetings will take place on Teams. I’m looking forward to discussing your ideas with you! One more announcement: next week, we only have one day of new material. We are NOT going to discuss the film Pride together. It’s a lovely film, and I’m sorry to lose one of our primary sources. But I think it’s more important for you to have time to work on your final papers. The film is up on the course website, if you want to watch it on your own. I WILL make you a video on chapter 11 of Dark Continent and Gorbachev’s glasnost speech, and I look forward to your comments on those materials, which will take us through the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, we’re examining Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, when the “economic miracle” came to an end and, under the resulting pressures, Western Europeans found themselves renegotiating the social contract within their societies.
Mazower’s chapter is heavy on economic history, because it’s economic questions more than anything else that drove the major political and social developments in Western Europe in this period. The economic slowdown that began in the late 1960s and lasted though the 1980s took Western Europeans by surprise. Things had been so good for so long that they had convinced themselves the boom would last forever. If you ask your parents about the 2008 global financial crisis, they can tell you that America was in much the same position then. But the causes underlying the slowdown in the 1970s and 1980s are more diverse and connected to processes that had been ongoing in the previous two decades.
As Mazower notes, inflation had been steadily on the rise, and as purchasing power declined, unions became more militant in their demands for raises. This inflation was also driven by global developments, including the 1973 oil crisis, which was itself a result of decolonization. That year, Egypt and Syria declared war on Israel in a bid to regain some territory that Israel had claimed in a previous skirmish. When the Western powers supplied Israel with weapons, OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) declared an oil embargo. That lasted for a year and the resulting shortages forced a slowdown in industrial production. Meanwhile, newly decolonized nations in Asia were becoming industrial powers in their own right and creating competition for European producers. The result of these factors was widespread de-industrialization in Western Europe, which was a major shock to countries where industrial labor had been the economic mainstay for well over 100 years.
The transition from industrial economies to the service-based economies of today was a rocky one, and in the process unemployment grew substantially. Short of money, consumers put off major purchases, which only slowed things down further. But inflation kept rising. Economists called this new situation stagflation (stagnation + inflation), and nothing they tried seemed to work against it. Despite high unemployment, though, Europeans did not fall back into the desperation of the 1930s, because the welfare state safety net prevented that, which is what it was designed to do. But as more people drew unemployment benefits than ever before, attitudes started to change. As Mazower details, those who were able to hold on to their jobs began to blame those who were unemployed for their situation, rather than blaming the poor state of the economy. I want you to pay especially close attention to this portion of today’s reading and think about it carefully. Right now, because of coronavirus, we are headed into a steep economic recession, which has already generated record numbers of unemployment claims. It may be affecting some of your families already. How we conceptualize this recession—where we place the blame, where we look for solutions—will have a significant impact on our society. This is exactly why we study history: not because it repeats itself, but so we can learn from the actions others have taken in the past and the outcomes that resulted.
In Europe, the actions of most governments took the form of belt-tightening. The most extreme case was Great Britain, where the conservative politician Margaret Thatcher held the post of Prime Minister from 1979-1990. Thatcher’s neoliberal philosophy led her to prioritize the health of the economy over the health of her citizens. Her government cut welfare benefits, privatized state-owned utilities and industries, and busted unions, most notably in the 1984-1985 National Union of Miners’ strike, where her decision to privatize the coal industry led to mass unemployment and economic devastation of an entire region of the country. As a result of these policies in Britain and elsewhere, European societies became increasingly stratified, which in turn weakened the social bonds that had led to the creation of the welfare state in the first place.
Amidst all this difficulty, Western Europeans once again turned to more radical politics. We saw the start of this trend last time, with the student protests in Paris in May 1968. That wave of activism died down within a couple years, with the exception of a few radical splinter groups like the Red Army Faction in West Germany, which went underground and committed acts of domestic terrorism in an effort to overthrow the government. Spoiler alert: they did not succeed. But at the same time, with the rise of individualism and the new focus on identity that we traced through consumerism last time, this period also saw the rise of political groups demanding better treatment for people based not on their social class—because class had lost its meaning for many people by this point, though certainly not for everyone—but on other forms of identity. The women’s rights movement really picked up steam in the in 1970s, and new movements demanding rights for LGBT people and for people of color also became a force. They even started to move toward intersectionalism, the idea that all of these movements should work together because no one is really free until everyone is free. But that idea was just beginning, and it would not fully bear fruit until the 1990s and 2000s.
Alongside these identity-based movements, Western Europe also developed a politicized environmental movement. Pollution had become a serious issue by the 1970s, and with industry in decline, newly-formed Green Parties pushed for legislation that would create more eco-friendly economic solutions. Unfortunately, the return of radical politics also took place on the right. New nationalist parties pushed back against the rise of multicultural societies and against immigration. But though they continue to exist today, no nationalist party has taken power in a Western European country since the 1930s.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In his analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mazower asserts that “It would… be a mistake to limit the effects of the ‘Thatcherite Revolution’ to economics when its historical significance lay instead in its reappraisal of what the modern state could and could not do.” (Mazower, 332) Can you analyze this claim? How did Thatcher’s economic policies, based in her philosophy of monetarism, change the relationship between the individual and the state? Why do you think this change has been so enduring, though the welfare state continues as robustly as ever? Or do you think current events may change attitudes once again?
2. Mazower notes that the in the 1970s and 1980s, Europeans began to understand their relationship to labor quite differently. Partly, this was because de-industrialization shrank the working class and the power of labor unions. But it was also because work, itself, changed. People were more likely to work on contract and change jobs frequently. They also started to look to private life and leisure activities for their sense of fulfillment and identity, rather than their jobs. Some of these things can be attributed to economic restructuring in response to the recession, while others can be attributed to the successes of the welfare state. In your analysis, which era had a bigger impact on how Europeans’ relationship to labor, the “economic miracle” of the 1950s-60s or the “stagflation” of the 1970s-80s? How has today’s gig economy further altered this relationship?
3. Despite their changing relationship to labor, or perhaps because of it, Western Europeans also began to blame the poor for their poverty. With this new discourse of the “welfare cheat,” poverty was increasingly criminalized, and rates of imprisonment shot up, particularly among minority communities. Mazower points out that this wasn’t really about fraudulent benefits claims or increased criminality, because those things didn’t actually exist. So, what was it about? What contextual factors can you identify that made Europeans more likely to believe that people were cheating on their benefits and committing more crimes than they had been before? How does this relate to changing economic and social factors? What do you make of the comparison Mazower draws between the discourse of “welfare cheats” and interwar eugenics on p.342?
4. Immigration also became a major issue in Western Europe, particularly in the 1980s. Though these countries had previously recruited labor migrants, they now restricted immigration, and after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, they tried to keep refugees out. Take a look at Mazower’s description of the treatment of refugees on pp.345-346. How would Joseph Roth, the essayist from interwar Berlin, respond to this? How do these governments’ actions fit with their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How does their fear of white (or perhaps not quite white?) refugees complicate our understanding of Europeans’ difficulty in creating multicultural societies in the post-WWII, post-imperial era? Do we see parallels to this situation in Europe today?
5. Mazower remarks that no matter how Europeans feel or behave in regard to immigrants and refugees, they will continue to come. The 20 years since this book was written have proved him right. He notes that some commentators have proposed a new model of “belonging” to the national community which encompasses non-citizens by including anyone who pays taxes and derives benefits, rather than only those who can vote. (Mazower, 349) What do you think of this model? Is it a good solution? What are its possible benefits and costs? Can you propose a different model that you think would work better? Or should we stick with the “rights and duties” model after all?
6. A notable phenomenon in this era was the “post-modern existential crisis.” Due to factors like consumerism, the rise of individualism, identity politics, and economic instability, people found themselves feeling alienated and unsure of how they fit into society. These are classic problems of late capitalism and you may even find them familiar. From what we’ve learned about the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, do you think that socialist citizens would feel less alienated? In the Cold War competition for hearts and minds, Khrushchev argued that the “good life” came when everyone had their needs satisfied on an equal basis, rather than having a million choices available only to some, as in the West. Does the post-modern existential crisis prove that he was right? Or do capitalist societies provide other, better solutions to existential crisis?
7. Persistent economic woes, along with the successes of the European Economic Community, convinced Western Europeans that more coordination across the continent would improve everyone’s situation. In 1992, the members of the EEC formed the European Union and adopted a unified currency, the Euro. (Mazower refers to it as the EMU.) What issues did these countries encounter in adopting the Euro? How do these issues shed light on the persistent tension between national sovereignty and strength through convergence in postwar Europe? How do you interpret Britain’s decision not to adopt the Euro, though it became a full member of the European Union? Should we see that as a sign that Brexit was likely to happen eventually?
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our topic today is Consumerism and Radicalism Western Europe in the first couple decades after WWII and our teaching assistant is Dante.
Let’s start with announcements. By now I hope you have given some thought to your Final Papers and chosen a topic. If you’d like to review the assignment and the list of prompts, you can find that on the course website under Assignments. If you want to create your own topic, you need to get my approval, and you should do that by Wednesday of this week at the absolute latest. We’ve got two aspects of this assignment on the horizon. First, your Introduction and Outline will be due on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. You should submit that on Sakai. Your Intro should be one paragraph long and include your thesis statement, which is the answer you will give to the question I asked you in the paper prompt. And your outline should be detailed. Second, I will be meeting with each of you individually on MS Teams on Thursday, April 23 to talk through your materials. I’ll send around the sign up sheet by email, so please remember to sign up for a meeting time, and please let me know if you have access issues and need to do the meeting by telephone.
This week we are returning to Western Europe and exploring the “economic miracle” of the 1950s-1970s. I think this is a particularly interesting period to study, because we’re tracing the beginnings of the period of history we’re still living in today. The Europe of these decades begins to look familiar, and we can see the emergence of ways of thinking and interacting socially and politically that are still with us now.
As we’ve discussed before, and as you gathered from your reading for today, this is a period in which liberal democracy was resurgent in Western Europe. It didn’t look so good for liberal democracy in the interwar period, but as WWII ended and the Cold War began, most Western European nations reaffirmed their commitment to this form of government. They also invested heavily in the creation of welfare states, which we’ll discuss more today. At the same time, even as Europeans once again asserted the value of the sovereign, ethnically homogenous nation-state, this formula was called into question by other global developments. Under pressure from the US and amidst the buildup of the Cold War, Western Europeans drew together through the NATO military alliance and the European Economic Community, which lay the groundwork for the eventual emergence of the European Union. And despite the genocide and massive population transfers of WWII and the forced deportation of ethnic Germans immediately after the war, which made the idea of an ethnically homogenous nation-state more possible than ever, in these decades Western Europe was also becoming much more diverse. Thanks to the influx of refugees, guest workers, and those displaced by decolonization, in the 1950s-1970s Western European nations incorporated substantial new populations from across Europe and around the world—a process that did not always proceed smoothly.
As Mazower explains, the “economic miracle” of these decades went hand in hand with the development of the Welfare State, and these processes reinforced each other. As citizens found themselves with guaranteed access to affordable housing and healthcare and more disposable income, they turned away from radical politics (which we can also see as a reaction against the extremism of the interwar period) and toward consumerism. People began to identify less by class than by lifestyle. Advertisers catered to newly-defined social groups, and especially the new category of “teenagers.”
The idea of the “teenager” was a direct result of postwar historical processes. Of course, this group existed in society before, but before WWII they were conceptualized as “young adults.” Unless they were wealthy, they left school by 14 or 15 and started working. They were expected to contribute their wages to their parents’ household until they got married, and then set up a household of their own. Naturally, these young people had their own interests; dating, politics, even street brawls. But they pursued these things as recently-arrived adults, not as members of a separate social category. Postwar teenagers, by contrast, saw themselves neither as adults nor children. They and their elders saw them as a separate group, and a large one at that, thanks to the baby boom. Many more of them stayed in school, thanks to the welfare state ensuring their family’s income. They also had money to spend, and advertisers soon approached them with a variety of consume-based lifestyle options. They wanted to have fun, have nice things, listen to new music, and most of all, to define themselves as different from their parents, which was something neither parents nor social critics knew what to do with.
For the most part, this first generation of teenagers was harmless, and again, we a lot of their impulses seem familiar to us today. But some in this generation rebelled not only against their parents’ values, but also against their desire for political consensus. This brings us to the context for today’s primary source, Jean-Paul Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Cohn-Bendit was one of the leaders of the student protests that took place in Paris in May 1968. These protesters, along with those who protested the Vietnam War on both sides of the Atlantic and those who fought for the rights of women and minorities in new ways, felt that the self-satisfied postwar world created by their parents’ generation rested on fundamental hypocrisy. They realized that the idealistic promises with which they were raised—the idea that the playing field was level and anyone who tried hard had an equal chance to succeed—were really only intended for white middle class Europeans. They saw the decolonization struggles around the world as righteously undermining that hypocrisy. They turned to communism to find answers for how to create a more egalitarian society.
In Paris, this movement brought together students, who demanded that the universities become more egalitarian and revise their curricula to become more global, and workers, who demanded improvements to their labor conditions. As you can gather from context, this alliance was not an easy one, and it pushed the students to realize some of their own prejudices. In the end, divisions on the Left enabled the Gaullist government to overcome the protest movement. But while they didn’t overthrow the government, they did have a big impact: the universities made major changes to their policies and workers saw improvements in their conditions. It’s worth considering whether this is a type of victory in itself, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit suggests.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. One of the most important aspects of this period in Western European history is the “economic miracle.” European economies grew at a phenomenal rate and functioned smoothly, with both profits and wages increasing for a solid two decades. In fact, it worked so well that European economists got cocky and started to think the boom would last forever. We know it didn’t. But let’s look at the model behind the “economic miracle,” which is essentially one of managed capitalism. Using economic planning, governments invest heavily to promote the development of business and cope with its failures. Capitalism does its thing, but the state provides a safety net to ease the swings of the business cycle. That means the highs are not as high, but the lows are also not as low. What do you think of managed capitalism? Does the experience of Europe after WWII—especially compared to after WWI—demonstrate that managed capitalism is a better form of capitalism? Or do you think Europeans gave up an opportunity for even better economic growth?
2. Mazower also discusses the development of the Welfare State, which we first encountered before spring break, when we read Beveridge’s “New Britain.” Not all of Beveridge’s proposals were implemented. But Western European governments did invest heavily in new housing, guarantees of full employment, and most importantly, healthcare. All of this was expensive, and it was paid for through heavy taxes, but citizens accepted that because the benefits were worth it to them. In fact, they still basically accept that deal in the European welfare states of today. This intersects with a debate we have been having in this country. Several presidential candidates, most notably Bernie Sanders, promised to create a European-style, tax-funded universal insurance program for America. After reading about the creation of such a system in Western Europe, do you think it’s a good idea for America? Why or why not? How has the coronavirus pandemic affected you thinking on this issue?
3. Another factor fueling the postwar economic boom was the rise of consumerism, which in turn was promoted by a new style of advertising that focused on creating desires and aspirational lifestyles. Re-read the section titled “The Individualistic Mobilization of Europe” on pp. 302-308. Consider the types of things advertised, the messages of advertising, and the way the goods and experiences Europeans purchased changed the way they lived. On the whole, do you agree with the pessimists who saw this phenomenon as doing harm to Europeans, tricking them and making them shallow and crass? Or do you agree with the optimists who argued that the new advertising and consumer goods gave people a greater opportunity than ever before to discover and define themselves as individuals?
4. With consumerism and advertising for on the rise, Europeans spent much of the 1950s and 1960s concerned about Americanization. But Mazower argues that this fear was overblown. Europeans usually preferred their own versions of cars, films, and pop music to exports from overseas. In your analysis, what was the fear of Americanization really about? How does it relate to the experiences of WWII, the rise of the Cold War, and decolonization? Is it a similar to fears about globalization today, or is that a different phenomenon?
5. In his section on protest, Mazower details the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s. Some of the issues raised here are familiar to us from our reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was published in 1949. But the issues of the 1960s don’t entirely overlap with Beauvoir’s concerns. Consider the similarities and differences: how does this shape our understanding of the development of the women’s liberation movement in these decades? How did the economic miracle and rise of consumer society affect this moment and its goals?
6. Mazower also discusses the rise of student protest movements. In his analysis, the main thing these protesters achieved was to drive a wedge into the postwar politics of consensus and revitalize political debate. The older generation was averse to extreme politics because they had lived through the 1930s and 1940s. Do you think such cycles are inevitable? Will children always rebel against the political pieties of their parents? Or is that an invention of the 1960s and the mythologization of the protest movements over the last few decades? From your vantage point as grandchildren of the ‘60s generation, do you think consensus or debate is more important in politics?
7. In his final section, Mazower explores the theme of labor migration, which we touched on last week. He points out that racism and prejudice were always a part of Europeans’ interaction with migrant workers, even when their labor was in high demand. He notes that in the 1970s, “Although west Europeans recognized that the expression of racial prejudice was no longer as acceptable as before the war, much of their underlying hostility towards foreigners especially those from outside Europe, remained.” (Mazower, 326). How does this add to what we learned last week when studying decolonization? How do we see this attitude manifesting in contemporary European political issues like Brexit? Can we draw a parallel here to American policy toward immigrants and migrant laborers?
8. Let’s turn to Jean-Paul Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the student protesters in Paris in May 1968. This text gives us a window into the generational difference that became evident as the Baby Boomers reached adulthood. Sartre, who was a leading intellectual alongside Simone de Beauvoir, spent the war years aiding the Résistance and then developed his philosophy of Existentialism. Cohn-Bendit, of course, had no such experiences; he was born in 1945 and grew up during the economic miracle. How do you see this generational conflict playing out in their conversation? Does Sartre treat Cohn-Bendit as an equal or as a child? Does Cohn-Bendit welcome Sartre’s questions or treat them as hostile?
9. For a radical protester, Cohn-Bendit is surprisingly gradualist. He assures Sartre that the revolution cannot be achieved all at once, but must proceed through gradual adjustments. Make a close reading of Cohn-Bendit’s answer on pp.98-99. How would you characterize his perspective? How does it differ from the extreme positions of previous radical leaders like Stalin or Hitler? In your analysis, is Cohn-Bendit’s gradualism a reaction to the tragic outcomes of interwar extremism, a natural result of the postwar consensus, or something else?
10. Cohn-Bendit is also very concerned about the uneasy relationship between the students and the workers. He accepts that the workers don’t entirely trust the students and claims he doesn’t want to direct them or interfere with their revolutionary goals. On p.102, he specifically refutes the idea of the “Vanguard Party,” which was Lenin’s addition to the theory of Marxism. On what grounds does Cohn-Bendit reject this theory? How does he retell the story of the Russian Revolution to fit with his claims? Why is it important to him to re-theorize what happened in another country fifty years earlier? How does that help us understand his vision for his own movement?
11. Not only is Cohn-Bendit against a revolutionary vanguard, he is also against having a firm Party program and established demands. How does he justify this position? In your view, what are the pros and cons of the type of revolutionary movement he describes? Do you think it is a movement that can bring about real change? How does it compare to more recent movements like Occupy Wall Street?
12. Sartre and Cohn-Bendit have their tensest confrontation near the end of the interview, when Sartre asserts that the students’ demands aren’t really revolutionary. Cohn-Bendit asserts, “Purely material demands may have a revolutionary content.” (Sartre and Cohn-Bendit, 104) He gives two examples, university restaurants (dining halls) and Cités Universitaires (dorms), which he wants to be open to all young people, not just students. Do you agree with him that those would be revolutionary changes? If we opened up our facilities at W&J to workers, how would it change your experiences? Would it make us a truly egalitarian institution, or would we remain “bourgeois,” as both men claim?
Hello, Europeanists! This is our video for Week 10, Day 2. We are continuing with the subject of Decolonization, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
I don’t have any new announcements for you today. You should continue to think about your final papers. It would be a good idea to choose your topic this week and start thinking about the argument you want to make. Remember that your one-paragraph introduction and your outline for the paper will be due on Sunday, April 19.
Today we’re looking at the aftermath of Decolonization and how the issues it raised for Europeans about human rights and inclusiveness continue to be negotiated in the 21st century. We’ll be focusing on two sources: Jane Kramer’s article “Taking the Veil,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2004, and the Tumblr “I, Too, Am Oxford,” which was created in 2014.
As we discussed earlier this week, the two decades after WWII saw the disintegration of the European global empires, as colonized peoples in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa waged successful struggles for independence. This was also a period of significant global migration. France and Britain in particular experienced huge waves of immigration from their former imperial territories. Some people came as migrant laborers, recruited by the Metropole to help with reconstruction and economic expansion. Others came as a consequence of Decolonization. Specifically, hose who fought or worked for the Metropole during the period of conflict were granted citizenship and the right to relocate to Europe afterward. This group tended to be more secular and Europeanized. For both groups, the transition was rocky. Immigrants of color faced open discrimination and often could only find low-paying menial jobs and substandard housing that white Europeans didn’t want.
Some immigrants of color managed to prosper and rise into the middle class. But many others were held back by systemic racism. Subsequent generations, those born in Britain and France with birthright citizenship, lost patience with the unfulfilled promises made to their parents and grandparents. Many rejected the immigrant generation’s faith in the government, and some turned to other sources of identity, like religion or cultural movements. One of the themes that I hope comes across in these sources is that the most recent generation of post-colonial European of color is demanding more from their fellow-citizens than before. Like Simone de Beauvoir, they are asserting that legal equality is not enough; true equality requires social and cultural respect, as well.
One more thing that’s important to know for context is that in France, one of the major issues in play is the French government’s commitment of secularity, or laïcité. As Kramer explains, laïcité is a complex concept and its roots go back to the French Revolution, when it served as a way to push back against the power of the Catholic church. But in contemporary context, laïcité is mostly used to argue that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear headscarves outside religious settings. Kramer wrote this article in response to a ban on wearing religious symbols in schools, which France enacted in March 2004. This law was not specifically worded to single out Muslims wearing headscarves, but it did disproportionately affect them. For that reason, French people usually call it “the anti-veil law.” In 2010, France enacted an even more stringent ban. The new law explicitly bans anyone from wearing a veil that covers their face in public, which has a much broader effect. As you read and think through Kramer’s article, it’s worth asking yourself whether you would evaluate the situation differently if the issue was not whether a person like Djamila could work in a school or participate in certain activities, but whether they could leave the house while adhering to their religious principles.
A note of caution: This is a complex topic! I am especially sorry that we are not getting to work thorough it together face to face. As you are reading each other’s comments and thinking about what you would like to write, I urge you to be very aware of your choices of language. “Islam” is a religion, and those who practice it are “Muslim.” “Islamist” is a political term. So, for example, Djamila is Muslim, but she is not an Islamist. Please also keep in mind: our purpose in this discussion is not to define or assess the value of Islam as a religion. We have not read any sources that give us a basis on which to do so. If you make comments of this nature, I will remove them from the blog. That being said, our purpose is to have a vibrant discussion of how France is dealing with the issue of integrating its Muslim citizens. I welcome your thoughts on that!
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Kramer begins by focusing on a woman named Djamila who wears a veil. What is Djamila’s story? Why has she decided to wear a veil? She doesn’t see her veil as a political act, but it becomes political in that it changes her relationship to friends, neighbors, and employers. How does this situation add to our understanding of the multiple meanings that veils can have, which we started developing in our reading of Fanon? What would Fanon say about why France is still so focused on the question of veils in the 21st century?
2. Kramer tells us Djamila’s life “narrows” after she takes the veil. This raises the question of whether others are excluding Djamila or she is excluding herself. How would you answer this question? How does this question itself demonstrate the complexities of building a multicultural society?
3. Kramer devotes time in this article to exploring the frustrations of French-born Algerians, and how that make them vulnerable to radical Muslim preachers. Can you unpack this situation? How do you evaluate it? The French government seems to think that banning prominent religious symbols like veils is a way to combat the spread of radical Islam. Based on your reading, what other policies might you suggest? What can mainstream French citizens do to help integrate Muslims into society?
4. Near the end of p.65, Kramer recounts that the issue of veils is particularly difficult for politicians on the left. What makes this complex for them? What’s the difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion? Where is the balance between free expression and national unity?
5. Kramer interviews a fundamentalist Muslim leader named Fouad Alaoui. He asserts that the French model of girls who stay in school and become professionals is not the only option, and that the French government should respect Muslim girls’ choice to wear the veil, drop out of high school, and live a traditional life. This is a tough one; it’s hard for us to accept this coming from a radical preacher, especially when we know that some women face coercion. But what if a Muslim woman herself told you she had freely chosen this? What if a religious Christian or Jewish woman told you she had chosen to dress modestly, leave school, and live a traditional life? Would you be more likely to accept such an argument in that case? Is it appropriate for the government to get involved in a woman’s personal choices on these issues?
6. Kramer also interviews some French feminist activists, who take different views on this issue. Make a close reading of the section that begins on p.68 and continues to p.70. (The first page is unnumbered, but it has a cartoon on it titled “Napquest.”) Can you unpack the feminists’ arguments for and against the ban on veils in schools? What complicating issues come out in the course of these arguments? Which one do you find more compelling and why?
7. On the last page, Kramer writes about Ghislaine Hudson, the principal of a large high school outside Paris. Hudson is concerned that her students seem to segregate themselves, despite her efforts to promote integration. What is her view of girls wearing veils at school? Do you agree or disagree with her perspective? What other factors might be getting in the way of her students interacting with each other? In what ways is this school a microcosm of France?
8. Let’s return to the principle of laïcité (secularity). After reading this article, what are your thoughts on how to balance respecting the right to religious expression with protecting French secularism? Is it fair to ask Muslims—or any cultural distinct group within French society—to prioritize their French identity over other parts of their identity? In your analysis, does the wearing of religious identity-markers like veils actually present a threat to the French state?
9. This last question is more of a thought experiment. It occurred to me because find ourselves living in a pandemic, being advised by the CDC to wear masks when we go outside. In other words, we are all now in a situation where we must violate France’s 2010 ban on covering your face in public as a matter of good public health. How does this situation affect your thoughts on anti-veiling laws?
Our second source for today is “I, Too, Am Oxford.” This Tumblr deals with the theme of microaggressions. We may not all be familiar with this term, so I’ll define it for you. A microaggression is a statement that does not directly express a discriminatory sentiment (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.), but relies on discriminatory assumptions. For example, the first post you encounter the sign reads, “You’re mixed-race? D’you have identity issues?” This question rests on the racist assumption that a mixed-race person must necessarily be unhappy, because there is something “unnatural” about their parentage.
This Tumblr was created by students at Oxford University who regularly encounter microaggressions in their lives at the university. Their goal is to combat microaggressions by making their colleagues aware of their discriminatory assumptions. Here is what I’d like you to do:
1. Carefully study the images in this Tumblr. Find one image that you find most compelling and explain why it is harmful. Make sure to explicitly identify the discriminatory assumption at work. I think this is a productive exercise, to not only recognize that a statement is harmful, but to be able to explain fully how it does harm.
2. If there is an image that you do not understand, please ask! And please explain to each other in a positive way. A person who is admitting confusion is making themself vulnerable; please respect that vulnerability by replying straightforwardly. That way, we open up conversation, rather than shutting it down.
3. What makes microaggressions so harmful? What makes them hard to combat? In your analysis, is the “I, Too, Am Oxford” project an effective way to combat them? What else can we do, in our college community, to fight microaggressions and make all students feel welcome?
Hello Europeanists! This is our video for Week 10, Day 1. Our subject is Decolonization, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
Let’s start with announcements. Thank you for your good work on the blog these past two weeks. I think we are managing to have good conversations there, despite our difficult circumstances.
Now that we’re in Week 10, it’s time to start thinking about your final papers. I know, it feels quick and we’ve just started to get our bearings with remote learning. But the end of the semester is coming up, so we need to start working on our final projects. I sent out the assignment to you by email on Sunday, and you can find it on the course website under Assignments, too. In this paper, I am asking you to build a historical argument by putting multiple primary sources on context with each other. I’ve given you five topics to choose from. They are meant to be broad and open-ended, so that you can develop your own, unique argument based on your interests. As part of that breadth, the prompts are fairly long. The question you must be sure to answer is the question in bold. Everything else in the prompt is there to help you think through your ideas. You don’t need to respond directly to anything other than the bold question.
I’ve scaffolded this assignment into a few different steps, to make it more manageable. Your first deadline is in on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. That is the due date for your Introduction + Outline. Please review the assignment sheet for details. And remember to carefully read the HIS 270 Writing Handout, which you can find under Writing Resources on the course website.
After you have submitted you Intro + Outline, I will meet with each of you individually on April 23 to talk through your materials. I will create a sign-up sheet as a shared document, so keep an eye out for my email sharing it with you soon. If you’re not able to do a video meeting on Teams, you should still sign up, but let me know your situation. We can do your meeting by phone. If you have any questions about the final paper assignment, please let me know!
That’s all for announcements. Now let’s talk about Decolonization. The partial textbook chapter I gave you (“Decolonization” from John Merriman’s History of Modern Europe) gives you a good overview, so I won’t go into too much detail here. You may have noticed that the way Merriman writes is different from our usual secondary source author, Mark Mazower. Merriman mostly recounts facts, while Mazower works synthetically to build an argument. Hopefully, this comparison gives you an appreciation for Mazower’s writing; it’s often more interesting to see how a historian interprets historical facts than to just get the facts themselves. Unfortunately, Mazower didn’t include a chapter on Decolonization. And since this history is often not taught in high schools, I thought Merriman’s overview would fill in some necessary information to help you think through our primary sources.
You might wonder, Why do we need to learn about Decolonization in this class? It didn’t happen in Europe, after all. That’s true, but Decolonization had a tremendous impact on European history. For major imperial powers like Britain and France, it marked a difficult moment when they ceased to dominate the globe as they had for most of the modern period, and it caused them to rethink their place in Europe and in the world. What’s more, the process of Decolonization became intimately bound up with the Cold War. In Asia, the Western and Eastern Blocs used independence struggles as proxy wars for their own conflicts. And in Africa and the Middle East, they vied with each other for influence in newly independent nations. In the best case scenario, emerging nations were able to play the Superpowers off against each other and benefit from both. But they often found themselves on the losing end all around, subject to dictators propped up by the US or the Soviet Union and waiting for aid that never quite matched up to what they had been promised. In other words, we’re studying Decolonization in this class because even after emerging nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East liberated themselves from colonial domination, they remained substantially at the mercy of Europeans’ own power struggles.
A quick note on terminology: Merriman refers to these new states in the global south and east as “Third World countries.” That phrase is now outdated. We don’t use it anymore, because it implies a hierarchy in which “First World” countries (Western Europe and the US) are at the top, and everyone else is trying to be like them. That is not an accurate or respectful characterization. Instead, we can use terms like “emerging countries” or “developing countries.”
Some maps will also be helpful for you. I can’t show you the maps in this video, because I don’t know how. But I will put links to them in the Transcript:
- You can find a map of global colonial possessions in 1945 here.
- You can find a map of global colonial possessions in 1945 with the names and dates of the post-independence nations here.
Another question that arises when we study Decolonization is: Why was Asia more likely to experience proxy wars, while the Middle East and Africa were more like to experience political interference and influence peddling? Of course, the lines are not always so clear cut. But if we look on a broad scale, we can see that the Cold War proxy wars in Asia had a great deal to do with geography, and particularly with developments in China. China had been embroiled in civil war since the late 1920s, and it became a Soviet aligned communist country in 1949. The Sino-Soviet Alliance only lasted until 1960, but that was long enough to convince the Western Bloc, led by the US, that if they didn’t do something, the Soviet Union would soon control all of Asia, as it did nearly all of Eastern Europe. This, of course, is the famous “domino theory”: if you let one domino fall to communism, the rest will fall, too.
Fears about Soviet and Chinese communist influence fueled three major proxy wars in Asia. In the Korean War (1950-1953), the Western powers used their combined influence to send United Nations forces to ensure that the Korean Peninsula remained divided into two states: North Korea, protected by the Soviet Union and China, and South Korea, protected by the US. In Vietnam, the thing we call the Vietnam War was really two wars. The First Indochina War (1946-1954) was primarily an independence struggle waged by France’s Asian colonies (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) against the Metropole. “Metropole” is the term for an imperial power in relation to its colonies. Because the independence fighters were led by communists, the US contributed weapons and military advisors to the French side. Even so, the Viet Minh beat the pants off the French, and they decided to cut their losses and grant independence in 1954. The peace settlement divided Vietnam the same way as Korea, with a communist north and a liberal democratic south, but the North Vietnamese soon invaded the south. Because they were communist, the US decided on its own to intervene. That started the Second Indochina War (1955-1975), which, as you’ve probably learned elsewhere, ended with the defeat of the South and the entire country becoming a communist dictatorship, which it still is today.
As Americans, we tend to think of these wars in terms of the suffering of American military personnel. That suffering is real, it’s important, and it’s still with us. But it’s equally important for us to consider the long-term suffering of Southeast Asians. One of the major reasons these wars happened at all was that Europeans claimed for themselves the right to determine the fates of emerging nations in this region. And these wars were longer, bloodier, and more devastating because the arsenals of the Cold War Superpowers came into play. Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians are still suffering the social and environmental effects of these wars, alongside the effects of imperialism more broadly.
When we look to the Middle East and Africa, we can see that Decolonization took a different course. For the most part, there is less military action. There are a few major exceptions: British involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Algerian War of Independence against France (1954-1962). Merriman gives you a good overview of these conflicts, which you can read on your own. One more military conflict worth mentioning is the Mau Mau Rebellion, which took place in Kenya while it was still a British colony from 1952 to 1959. Like the French in Algeria at about the same time, the British in Kenya used concentration camps and torture against the independence fighters. This was less than a decade after the end of WWII.
On the whole, however, the independence process in the Middle East and Africa was more peaceful than in Asia. But after independence, many of these new nations descended into civil war and became subject to dictatorships. If you read the international news, you will see that versions of these conflicts continue in many places today. As scholars, we need to be very careful how we interpret this information.
A narrative that we are often given is that these conflicts arose because of deep ethnic hatreds that have been raging since the dawn of time. Middle Easterners and Africans, we are told, are tribal and backward. They are not ready for liberal democracy. They may not even be suited to liberal democracy. Dictatorship is the only thing they understand. If there is one thing I want you to take away from this class, it is that that narrative is absolutely false. The conflicts in former imperial territories around the world were created by Europeans through the process of imperialism. Look at the map I’ve given you and notice how the borders are drawn. These lines only make sense on a map. In real life, they cut through some communities while forcing together others who have little in common. Europeans drew these lines to accommodate their own balance of power. And within the territories they carved up, they pursued a consistent policy of stirring up ethnic and religious differences, turning cultural groups against each other as a method of divide-and-conquer. It’s hardly surprising that those tensions still have effects today.
As for the issue of dictatorship, it’s worth considering that imperial rule is not good training for liberal democracy. And this, of course, sits alongside our knowledge that when emerging nations did democratically elect a new leader, if that leader was socialist or communist, the Western powers often used covert methods to overthrow them and install a Western-friendly dictator instead. I encourage you to look back in your notes to see how similarly negative statements were made after WWI about the capacity for democracy among the new nations of Eastern Europe. Hopefully, putting these pieces together will help us understand the full impact of imperialism around the world and its continuing impact today.
Okay, that was pretty long, but I think it was necessary, and I hope it’s given you a lot to think about. Now we’re going to turn to Frantz Fanon’s essay “Algeria Unveiled,” which is your primary source for today. As the introduction to the document notes, Fanon was a product of French imperialism. He was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique and went to France to study psychiatry. He then set up a practice in Algeria, where he made the observations that underlie this essay. Fanon was an important theorist of African anti-imperialism, and during the Algerian War, he was a leading member of the Algerian National Front, or FLN.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Fanon makes a bold assertion in the very first paragraph: “The way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness.” (Fanon, 43) Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? What might be the danger in identifying a society by its clothing? Can you think of another way to identify a society that is as immediate?
2. Fanon tells us that the French claim they want Algerian women to take off their veils because veils represent oppression. But he doesn’t believe this is their real motive. Really, he says, they want to cause a breakdown in traditional Algerian society. But the French already control Algeria. So, why should they want to destroy traditional society when they already have political power? What else does this give them? And if this is their goal, then why do they want Algerian women themselves to reject the veils? Why not just make a law against wearing them? How does this issue help us think about the subtleties of imperial domination?
3. One of the ways the French coerce Algerian women into taking off their veils is by linking it to food aid. Charitable organizations offered women free supplies, but on the condition that they listen to a lecture on why the veil is a tool of oppression. There ae still versions of this today. In impoverished areas around the world, aid agencies offer food, medicine, and other goods, but recipients must listen to a lecture on religion or democracy or capitalism. How do you assess these practices? Do you think it’s ethical to make aid contingent on listening to a particular message? Or should aid agencies be required to leave their message at home?
4. The French also pressure Algerian men to participate in the unveiling of women. And if a man refuses, they use a particular kind of logic to devalue his choices. Make a close reading of p. 46. Can you unpack Fanon’s argument here? How do the French use Algerians’ refusal to reject the veil as an argument for continued French domination? How does Fanon turn things around by using European ideas and terms to describe Algerians’ reason for their refusal?
When we look at it this way, does Algerian resistance to unveiling become more comprehensible? Would Europeans behave any differently, if Africans colonized them and told them they should no longer wear a piece of traditional clothing?
5. Fanon notes that before the French made a big deal about veils, they weren’t all that important to Algerian women. But they become important when the French begin to demonize them. He explains this in the last full paragraph on p. 50. Can you unpack this dynamic? How does the behavior of the colonizers affect how the Algerians think about the veil? What does the veil come to symbolize to them through this process? Are we willing to accept the veil as a tool of political liberation in this context?
6. Fanon describes the role of women in the resistance movement. Initially, they are able to get past the colonial soldiers by taking off their veils and passing as Europeanized. How does the colonizers’ own rhetoric about veils contribute to the success of this “camouflage”? Fanon gives a long description of how such a woman feels without her veil on p. 52. Read this page closely. Can you unpack what’s going on here? How does it influence your thinking about how clothing shapes the way we understand our place in the world?
7. Eventually, the French catch on to the ruse of the women in the liberation movement pretending to be Europeanized. They start searching Europeanized women, so the fighters put their veils back on and evade the guards once again. At this point, after the veil has gone through several semiotic shifts, can it have a meaning independent of the imperial situation? Can we consider the question of whether veils are “good” or “bad” for women outside of the context of imperialism? How should we think about these questions today, nearly 60 years after Algerian independence?
8. What does the story of the veil in Algeria reveal about how imperialism shapes the traditional cultures of the colonized peoples? How does this shape your thinking about the impact of imperialism beyond the Age of Imperialism?
Hello, Europeanists! This is our second video for Week 9, and our subject today is Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir Under a Cruel Star. Our teaching assistant is Maggie. I don’t have any new announcements for you, except to say: Keep up the good work!
The historical background information I gave you in the previous video pretty much covers the context for this memoir. The sections I’ve assigned you covers the period of Czechoslovak history from the end of WWII until the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. Something important I neglected to mention is that the period of liberalization in 1968 is known as Prague Spring. This period began in January 1968, when Alexander Dubček replaced the old hardliner Antonin Novotny as leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and state, and lasted until August 1968, when the Soviets invaded and ousted him. The word “Spring” here acts as a metaphor for liberalization, just as “Thaw” does when we talk about the Khrushchev Thaw in the Soviet Union.
I’d also like to give you some biographical information about our memoirist, Heda Margolius Kovaly. She had a truly remarkable life. She was born in 1919, just after the end of WWI. At that time, Czechoslovakia was a new country, and as you may remember, it had the strongest and most long-lasting commitment to liberal democracy of any of the new countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kovaly’s family were proud supporters of Czechoslovak democracy. They were also Jews, and they suffered greatly under Nazi occupation. In 1941, Heda, her parents, and her husband Rudolf Margolius, were deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, along with the rest of the Jewish population of Prague. In 1944, they were deported again to Auschwitz, where the rest of her family was killed. Heda and Rudolf were separated, but remarkably, they both survived, and they found each other again in Prague after the war had ended.
As you read in the memoir, Rudolf became a leading official in the postwar communist government of People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia. In 1952, he was arrested in connection with the Slánsky Trial, which was a Stalinist purge. Rudolf was sentenced to death as an “enemy of the people” and executed. These events had serious consequences for Heda and their young son Ivan. They were considered guilty by association, and while Heda was not arrested, she was shunned and had a hard time finding work and friendship for the next decade.
Heda remained in Prague and managed to survive. In 1955, she married her friend Pavel Kovaly, and together they raised Ivan. As you read, Rudolf Margolius and the others sentenced in the Slánsky Trial were finally rehabilitated in 1963. But Heda was not satisfied with the way things were handled, and her experience with the rehabilitation process only confirmed her anger at the government. When Dubček came to power in 1968, Heda participated enthusiastically in Prague Spring. But after the Warsaw Pact invasion, she decided to leave the country. She wrote this memoir five years later, while living in the United States.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In the first chapter that I assigned you (pp. 52-66), Kovaly describes the political debates that went on among Czech citizens after the war. As she recounts, communism was genuinely popular in this moment. What made it so appealing to so many people? What did it offer that liberal democracy did not? How did the experiences of the interwar period and of the war itself incline people to choose communism over liberal democracy? How does this fit with Mazower’s account in chapter 8 of Dark Continent? If you were in Heda and Rudolf’s shoes, do you think you would have been convinced?
2. Kovaly considers herself relatively apolitical. But she chooses to join the Communist Party after witnessing a debate between her friends Zdenek and Franta. Make a close reading of her account of this debate on pp. 57-58. Compare her political awakening and political decision-making to Anna Litveiko during the Russian Revolutions? Do you think personalities are more persuasive than political theories in most cases? Does this happen in American politics, too?
3. Kovaly also notes that Jews were more inclined to adopt communism than others. How did the experience of surviving the concentration camps influence their thinking? How would Primo Levi respond to her account of this on pp. 60-61?
4. In the second section I assigned you (pp. 93-110), Kovaly discusses what it was like to live behind the “Iron Curtain” in the early 1950s. How did Czech citizens understand the Cold War? What was their impression of the West? How did Cold War rhetoric make them more willing to accept the growing Stalinism of their government? If we consider that the West was giving its citizens a similarly skewed impression of the Eastern Bloc, how does her account add a new dimension to our understanding of the ideological side of the Cold War?
5. As Stalinism reaches a fever pitch, Heda and Rudolf begin to argue frequently. She tries to convince him to leave his job in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Even though he acknowledges that things are going crazy, he refuses to quit. Make a close reading of their exchange on pp. 103-104. Can you unpack both Heda’s and Rudolf’s perspectives? Can you sympathize with each of them? What would you do, if you were in Rudolf’s place?
6. On pp. 164-166, Kovaly describes the effects of de-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia. How would you characterize this, in your own words? In what ways was de-Stalinization a success, and in what ways was it a failure? What does she mean when she says that “The country, which had just begun to recover from the paralysis of fear, sank into a morass of unspoken guilt and shame”? (Kovaly, 165) How might the revelations of de-Stalinization be as upsetting as the Stalinism that preceded them? How can a society recover from this kind of trauma?
7. In 1963, after Rudolf and the other victims of the Slánsky Trial were finally rehabilitated, Kovaly tells her son Ivan the full story of his father’s life and death. She recounts that some friends had urged her to tell him sooner, but she wanted to protect him from it for as long as possible. Do you think she made the right decision? What are the consequences of a society in which families keep such secrets?
8. Kovaly’s account of her meetings at the Central Committee and the Ministry of Justice on pp. 169-177 are fun to read. She really lets them have a piece of her mind! But she does so at great risk to herself, and as one of the officials tells her, she is the only wife of a Slánsky Trial victim who behaves this way. Consider her experiences; why do you think she is able to be so bold? Was it wise or foolish of her to take the risk? What do these exchanges reveal about the complications and the limits of de-Stalinization?
9. Prague Spring gives Kovaly a renewed hope in her nation. She is particularly impressed with the younger generation, who prove they are able to think for themselves. When Dubček holds negotiations with Brezhnev in July, many people, including Kovaly, sign a declaration in support of Dubček’s vision of “socialism with a human face.” How can we make sense of the continued popularity of socialism when the majority had turned away from Soviet-style communism? How can we understand this in the context of Czechoslovak citizens’ experiences in the 20th century?
10. Kovaly is very proud of Czechoslovak citizens’ resistance during the Warsaw Pact invasion. It seems to renew her faith even more than their behavior during Prague Spring. At the start of the invasion, Soviet forces kidnapped Dubček, and as Kovaly recounts, he is forced to give a speech on the radio renouncing his reforms. Later that day, she sees a sign: “Dearest Dubček, we understand.” (Kovaly, 191). Why do you think Czechoslovak citizens forgive Dubček? Considering Kovaly’s renewed faith in the people, why do you think she decides to leave?
Hello, Europeanists! Welcome to Week 9. Today our teaching assistant is Dante. I have a few quick announcements for you.
First, thank you to all who posted on the blog last week! I’m recording this on Sunday, March 29, and about half of you have posted your comments. I think it’s going well so far! I appreciate the close reading and critical thinking you all are doing. I think we’re still managing to have a substantive discussion to the best of our abilities, given the limits of this format. For those of you who have not managed to post on the blog yet, I want to reiterate that that’s okay. Whenever you get your comments posted, you will get full credit. But I recommend that you try to keep up with our regular schedule, so things don’t pile up on you. Also, if you opt to respond to my discussion questions, I want to clarify that you do not need to answer all of them. You can just pick one question to focus on. If you have a particular situation that is making it hard for you to post on the blog, please let me know by email.
Also, this week we are reading excerpts from Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir Under a Cruel Star. In case anyone doesn’t have their book with them, I’ve scanned the assigned pages and posted them under Week 9 Reading & Viewing for you on the course website.
Another thing to keep your eye on is that we are coming up on the final paper assignment. Sometime this week I will email the assignment to you and post it on the blog.
So, let’s get to work on chapter 8 of Mazower’s Dark Continent, which is our subject for today. This will be a bit of a long video, since we have so much to cover. Last week, we talked about the rise of the Cold War in the late 1940s, as the wartime alliance between Western Europe, the US, and the Soviet Union broke down and into a situation of mutual suspicion. This week, we’re looking at Eastern Europe during the height of the Cold War, in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not going to give you a full lecture about this era, but I will go over some key events, which will help to contextualize the assigned reading for this week.
Mazower gives you a pretty good overview of the establishment Soviet-friendly regimes in the Eastern Bloc. As he details, this was not the result of a fully worked out master plan. Rather, it was a process. It took time, and its course was altered by events as they unfolded. These new regimes were of course heavily influenced by events in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union, in turn, was influenced by them. I’m going to trace some of those interactions for you now.
As I noted in last week’s video, Stalin remained in power the Soviet Union after WWII until his death in 1953. These years, which we call the Late Stalinist Era, were marked by both sacrifices and successes. Despite the major destruction the Soviet Union suffered during the war, it managed to rebuild its prewar industrial capacity by 1950. But this was achieved on the backs of ordinary citizens, who endured serious deprivation in these years. This era also saw a series of ideological campaigns launched against artists and intellectuals, which disproportionately targeted Jewish citizens. These campaigns drew both on internal concerns about re-establishing the state’s authority and on external concerns as the Cold War got underway. They also introduced a tone of official anti-Semitism that was new in Soviet discourse.
Stalin died in 1953 and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had a very different political style. He was no Stalin, and he knew it. But Stalin’s legacy still had to be dealt with. Khrushchev decided the best way to proceed was through de-Stalinization. The centerpiece of this new policy was Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in which he officially acknowledged and denounced Stalin’s crimes and urged the Party to return to the path of Lenin. At the same time, Khrushchev released many Stalin Era convicts from the Gulag and introduced a new openness into society and culture by reducing censorship and making it more possible for Soviet citizens to interact with the West. Thanks to this change in tone, the Khrushchev era is known as the “Thaw.”
All of this had a huge impact on Soviet society, as well as on the societies of the Eastern Bloc. As in the West, the generation that came of age after the war was less interested in politics than in private life. They wanted to hang out, have fun, dance, go to the movies. They were also really interested in Western music and fashion, which they had more access to under Khrushchev. Their desires dovetailed with Khrushchev’s new emphasis on light industry, new housing, and consumer goods. In the 1950s and 1960s, even as the US and Soviet Union competed furiously in the space race and development of nuclear weapons, a major focus of their Cold War competition revolved around who could best provide “the good life” for their citizens. As Mazower explains, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, this new generation’s materialism worried their parents and governments, even as their desires were shaped by official policy.
The Soviet Union’s radical change of direction under Khrushchev had a major impact in the Eastern Bloc nations, which, as you read, had just survived a tumultuous decade of consolidating new communist regimes, urbanizing and industrializing their economies, and suffering through Stalinist political purges. Serious effects were felt across the Bloc. In June 1956, Polish workers in the city of Poznan staged a protest against their poor conditions, which spread across the country and forced the government to institute Khrushchev-style reforms. Four months later, in October 1956, intellectuals and students in Hungary launched a similar movement. In this case, the hardline head of the Communist Party was ousted and replaced by a reformer, who tried to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev ordered Warsaw Pact troops to intervene, and the revolution was crushed. This was deeply shocking for Soviet citizens and Eastern Europeans. It’s worth considering how Khrushchev’s decision-making here was shaped by his political apprenticeship under Stalin.
Despite generally warmer relations with the West during the Khrushchev Thaw, the Cold War never let up. In fact, some of its tensest moments date to this era. The divided Germanies continued to be a locus of tension, though both countries also benefitted from heavy investment by the superpowers. West Berlin was a particular thorn in the Soviets’ side. East German citizens used the city to flee to the West by the thousands in the 1950s. In 1959, Khrushchev finally demanded that Western forces withdraw from the city, which they refused to do. Tensions ramped up for the better part of two years, until, on the night of August 12, 1961, Soviet troops constructed the Berlin Wall, and the Western powers decided not to fight it. Berliners were the chief victims of this development. Families found themselves separated, and over the next three decades, hundreds of people were killed trying to cross.
By the early 1960s, Khrushchev was becoming increasingly erratic. Famously, he nearly brought on WWIII when, in 1962, he got the bright idea to send Soviet missiles to newly-communist Cuba, which triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then embarrassingly had to back down. Fed up with such missteps, the Politburo ousted him in 1964 and replaced him with Leonid Brezhnev, who remained in power until his death in 1982.
Brezhnev was more conservative than Khrushchev, and also more of a hard-liner. This became clear in 1968, when a Khrushchev-style reformer, Alexander Dubček, became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Dubček wanted to create what he called “socialism with a human face”—to address areas of popular dissatisfaction, open up the political process to multiparty elections, and build bridges across the Cold War divide. In August 1968, Brezhnev decided Dubček had gone too far. Invoking the Brezhnev Doctrine (which was quite similar to the Truman Doctrine), he sent Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia, deposed Dubček, and forcibly installed a new, more compliant government. This was even more shocking to Soviet and Eastern Bloc citizens than the events in Hungary in 1956. The twelve years between these events had featured openness, moderate reform, and hope. The invasion of Czechoslovakia signaled that the Thaw was definitively over.
In the Soviet Union, the Brezhnev Era was one of shrinking horizons. Increases in censorship, cronyism in government, and the beginnings of economic stagnation caused many Soviet citizens to begin to feel disillusioned. A dissident movement began to take root and built a network of citizens who opposed the government’s policies. It’s important to note that the dissidents still believed in communism. They didn’t want to overthrow the government, but they hoped that it could be reformed from within. For them, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was particularly distressing. They thought the Czech reforms were a good idea and hoped the Soviet government might adopt them. Instead, it crushed them.
These developments—corruption, stagnation, and dissidence—were common across the Eastern Bloc from the late 1960s onward. We’ll talk about them more in a few weeks, when we learn about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. But now let’s get to some questions about chapter 8 of Dark Continent.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. When Mazower writes about the formation of the People’s Democracies, he explains that a lot of Eastern Europeans were genuinely enthusiastic to try out communism and the Soviet model of governance. They hoped it would work better than liberal democracy, which had failed them after WWI. Of course, the Soviet Union would not have willingly let these countries escape its authority, and the West had agreed to respect the Soviet sphere of influence. Here is my question for you: Should we understand the Eastern Bloc as a “Soviet empire,” as the West framed it during the Cold War, or should we see it as an arrangement chosen by Eastern Europeans for their own reasons? What factors must we consider in answering this question?
2. The first decade of communist power in Eastern Europe is difficult to assess. On one hand, communism brought these countries the industrialization and modernization they needed, which interwar capitalism had failed to do. But on the other hand, it also brought them Stalinist terror. How can we make sense of these intertwined legacies? Do the successes make the suffering worth it? Can we write off the Stalinism and appreciate the long-term effects of the modernization? Or did the Stalinism have just as lasting an effect? What are the implications of a country having such horrors embedded in its foundational moment?
3. Eastern Europe experienced de-Stalinization alongside the Soviet Union. Mazower argues that this de-Stalinization didn’t go far enough. What is his basis for this argument? Does he convince you or not? Was complete de-Stalinization really possible? Can a country ever leave something like that fully in its past? (This is related to Question 2, and you may choose to respond to them together.)
4. The Soviet Union expanded its economic planning to coordinate with the Eastern Bloc, as well. As Mazower notes, for Eastern European countries this often meant that wealth they produced went to the Soviet Union, rather than staying in the domestic economy. In some ways, this resembles European global empires—but in other ways, it doesn’t. In your analysis, was the Eastern Bloc an economic empire or not? If you think it was an empire, would you extend the same label to other instances of economic coordination like the Marshall Plan in the 1940s-1950s or the European Union today?
5. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, by the 1950s a major area of Cold War competition had to do with which system could most clearly offer “the good life” to its citizens. Consider the communist welfare state as described by Mazower on pp.277-279. Compare it with the postwar welfare states in the West, which we learned about from Beveridge’s “New Britain” speech? Which welfare state would you prefer to live in?
6. In analyzing the postwar generation, Mazower describes a kind of “OK, Boomer” moment. Parents and party leaders kept pushing political ideology on them, but these young people really just wanted to have nice things and enjoy their lives. Even so, Mazower argues that the younger generation’s materialism was based in a worship of modernity, which made them the Party’s children after all. Can you unpack his argument? Are you convinced by it? Why or why not?
Hello, Europeanists! Today we’re going we’re going to turn in a philosophical direction as we discuss Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic feminist treatise, The Second Sex. Our cat today is Dante. Beauvoir was a French philosopher and political activist who lived from 1908-1986. In the 1920s, she studied at the Sorbonne, which is France’s most prestigious university, as a member of the first group of women admitted to universities in France.
Beauvoir graduated second in her class, just behind Jean-Paul Sartre. The two would work together closely for many years. Sartre is most famous for founding a branch of philosophy called existentialism. This is a complex theory, and I’m just going to give you a basic sense of it. Basically, existentialism teaches that we are all entirely free beings. Whatever we do, whatever we become, is up to us. If you don’t achieve what you wanted, you can’t blame God, because he doesn’t exist. You also can’t blame your nature, or your subconscious, or your external circumstances, because these are all things we can overcome. Thinking optimistically,
existentialism teaches that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, no matter what. Thinking pessimistically, though, it also means that if you don’t achieve things, it’s entirely your fault. For existentialists, we are judged solely by our actions, and only those who make authentic choices are worthy of respect.
Sartre developed this philosophy while he and Beauvoir were working for the Résistance during WWII. I encourage you to think about how that experience shaped his philosophical vision, and also how existentialism influences Beauvoir’s work.
There are a couple of existentialist terms that may be helpful to know. For existentialists, existence (how you live) precedes essence (what kind of person you are). The existent is a person in the world (someone who exists). An existent who is in a state of immanence is someone who has not yet defined themself through action. Transcendence is the process of defining oneself through action. To be stuck in a state of immanence is to be completely disempowered. These ideas play a major role in Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy.
Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, which was a transitional time for women in France and in Europe. As we’ve learned, women had been gaining rights steadily over the course of the 20th century. In much of Europe, women gained the right to vote in the 1920s, though in France they got it only in 1944. European women also entered the workforce en masse during WWII and many fought in resistance movements. By the late 1940s, governments and societies in Western Europe were pressuring women to return to homemaking, just as they had after WWI. In keeping with the turn toward private life that Mazower described, many women did so. But a substantial number were not content to return to a subordinate status and began pushing for greater equality. It was in this context of the early postwar negotiation of women’s role in society that Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex.
This is a hard text to discuss not in real time. I’m going to give you some questions that I hope will help you work through it on your own and through discussion on the blog.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Beauvoir starts with the question, “What is woman?” In the first couple pages, she explores the idea that “female” and “woman” are not coterminous and ponderous the role of the ambiguous concept of “femininity” in separating them. Can you analyze how Beauvoir develops separate ideas of gender and sex here? What do those terms mean to her? How are they different? How does her understanding of sex and gender in 1949 compare to our understanding of these terms today?
2. For Beauvoir, it’s also significant that she asks the question “What is woman?” and not “What is man?” She says that in our society, because Man holds all the power, he has set himself up as the subject, the essential, the self (the Number One Person). Meanwhile, he has relegated Woman to the position of the object, the inessential, the other (the Number Two Person). Can you unpack her thinking in this passage? What does it mean for women to live in a world dominated by men, which forces them to think of themselves as an Inessential Other? How does this compare with your own experience, whether you identify as a woman, a man, or a non-binary person?
3. In their role as an Inessential Other, women share some similarities with other oppressed groups. On pp. 7-10, Beauvoir gives the examples of Jews, African-Americans, and the proletariat. Each of these groups has a way to assert a Subject position (to think of itself as a Self), except for women. Why don’t the strategies that work for these groups work for women? What economic, legal, and other factors keep women from asserting themselves as a group against men? Has she convinced you on this point? Why or why not?
4. The next section I asked you to read is the conclusion of Beauvoir’s account of the history of women’s oppression. This might remind you of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and I encourage you to think about that comparison. Like Woolf, Beauvoir points out that women have gained more rights lately. But, she says, they’re still hemmed in by a world created by men. Exceptional women are just that—exceptional. A woman has to be exceptional to have an impact, because ordinary women are too held back by societal norms to take action. Make a close reading of the second paragraph on p.151 and the one after it (in the middle of p.152). Can you restate Beauvoir’s explanation of this situation in your own words? What does she mean when she writes, “[Women] want transcendence to prevail over immanence in themselves as in all of humanity; they want abstract rights and concrete possibilities to be granted to them, without which freedom is merely mystification.” (Beauvoir 152) What would this look like in practice?
5. What Beauvoir is really talking about in this section is structural inequality, which is a term we’ve explored in other contexts this semester. Make a close reading of p.155. What structural inequalities does she highlight, which hold women back from genuine equality with men? Are these issues still with us today? What are some possible solutions?
6. In the section, on pages 266-274, Beauvoir explores what she calls the myth of the “Eternal Feminine.” What is this myth? What are the attributes of the Myth Woman? How does the myth work to keep women subjugated and keep men in a dominant position? How does the myth work to prevent the development of healthy relationships between men and women? Consider your own life experiences: If we accept Beauvoir’s reasoning about this myth, how does it affect the way you interact with your partner, friends, and family members?
7. Now we move on to women’s situation, which Beauvoir argues has a significant impact on the way they behave in their daily lives. She asserts that women tend to be passive rather than active—but this is because they are so disempowered that they don’t think in terms of action. She writes, “It is mainly because she has never experienced the power of liberty that she does not believe in liberation.” (Beauvoir, 643). Make a close reading of pages 643-645. How does Beauvoir build her argument that that women’s “foolish” behaviors are a result of their situation, not their nature? What would Virginia Woolf think of this argument? How does her belief in the supremacy of nurture (the environment) over nature (innate qualities) derive from her existentialist philosophy? Does she convince you of her claim? Or do you think that women themselves bear some responsibility for thinking their way out of subjugation?
8. On pp. 650-654, Beauvoir addresses the hypocrisy that men bring to the table. In public, a man is all about family values, but in private, he cheats on his wife, sleeps with prostitutes, and demands that his mistress have an abortion. She says women know this and basically play along, and she doesn’t blame them, because that’s their only way to survive. Has she convinced you that the game is rigged against women this way? Do we still see elements of this in our society today? If so, how can we change it? What are the implications for society if everyone’s relationships are built this way?
9. Beauvoir also brings economic class into the mix. She says that middle class women actually have at least some sphere of action, because they do real work in taking care of their homes, families, and shops. Upper class women, by contrast, sit around and do nothing. They are willing accomplices in the subjugation of women because they benefit from it. This gets back to her claim in the introduction that women do not feel solidarity with one another across boundaries. If upper class women really are “winners” in this rigged game, why should they fight against it? What reasons does Beauvoir give? What reasons can you think of? Or do you think they don’t need to fight it?
10. Beauvoir spells out her argument for why women must embrace solidarity on p.664. Can you unpack her argument here? Why must there be no compromise? Is such solidarity really possible? Why or why not?
Those are my questions for you. I know this is a heavy reading, and a hard one to do on your own. I hope you will be able to read and consider all of it. But if you’re not able to do that, then please choose at least two of the excerpts I’ve given you and respond to those.