1990s >> 1990 >> no-1026-february-1990

Nationalism and economic collapse

It is still the conventional wisdom for members of the peace movement to equate the end of the military blocs partitioning Europe with a new era of peace. Individual nations, it is said, freed from the super-powers’ endless games of brinkmanship and mad arms-racing will establish a new era of peaceful co-operation.

This ignores the fact that the Cold War of the last forty or so years simply froze into place the nationalist rivalries between states which had torn Europe apart in two world wars. Now the blocs are crumbling these dangerous rivalries are thrusting themselves once more on to the centre stage.

Poland and Germany

Poland had its western boundaries arbitrarily redrawn along the Oder-Neisse river lines, including the former German city of Danzig, now Gdansk. Fully one-third of Poland is former German territory, and the substantial German minority is now beginning to make itself known again.

When Chancellor Kohl paid an official visit to Poland early in November, he was forced to cancel plans to attend a German-language mass in the country after a furious outburst by the Polish media. The venue was to have been Annaberg in Silesia, which just happened to be the site of the brutal repression by the rightwing Freikorps of a Polish uprising against German rule in 1921. It is now a rallying point for the German-speaking minority in Silesia. Germany has still not renounced its claims to the “lost territories” and has never signed a peace treaty with Poland or Russia recognising the validity of the Oder-Neisse line.

Meanwhile the pent-up frustration of East Germans over economic conditions their side of the border is spilling over into calls for German reunification, while a recent East German law forbids Poles from buying subsidised goods in East German shops. A member of the East German parliament was loudly booed when he warned East Germans to “beware of putting an invisible yellow mark on the backs of our Polish friends”—a reference to the marking of the Jews under Nazism.

The Poles have looked at these developments with increasing nervousness. Polish officials recently met with Gorbachev and displayed a sudden keenness for stressing that Russia remain the most important external guarantee of the security of the Polish state.

Polish fears were put by Russian foreign minister Shevardnadze to the European Parliament in December. Questions remained about the German commitment to its present borders, he said, “will a reunified Germany be ready to accept the existing borders in Europe and renounce any territorial claim? The Federal Republic of Germany has avoided answering that”.

On 3 December the Prussian Iron Cross and Eagle were returned to the Goddess of Victory statue atop of the Brandenburg gate in Berlin for the first time since 1958. In that year they were pulled down as being a “symbol of Prussian-German militarism”.

Hungary and Rumania

To the south of Poland, historic rivalries between the rulers of Rumania and Hungary were also frozen by the Cold War. Two and a half million Hungarian-speakers were locked into the western Rumanian province of Transylvania, where ever more desperate attempts were made by Ceausescu forcibly to integrate them, culminating in the notorious plan for forced resettlement into “model” towns after the razing of the Hungarian-Rumanian villages.

After the fall of Ceausescu there are already signs that the leaders of the ruling National Salvation Front share his views on integration. Istvan Pap. a Transylvanian Hungarian who fled Rumania three years ago. calls the leaders of the Front “little Ceausescus”, while the father of the dissident priest Pastor Laszlo Tokes whose persecution sparked the anti-Ceausescu uprising, warned recently: “After all that has happened the old way of thinking will go on. The people are demonstrating for democracy now, but I fear it may not last”.

One particularly ominous sign is the creation of the National Christian Peasants Party, a religious and conservative oriented party with echoes of the crypto-fascist National Christian Party of the 1930s which had a pronounced anti-semitic programme and established its own para-military organisation.

The newly-formed Democratic Federation of Rumanian Hungarians is now pressing for laws on the rights of minorities to be debated by a democratically-elected government. But the fears of “liberal” Rumanians were summed up by the dissident Hungarian playwright and regional head of the Rumanian National Salvation Front. Andreas Suto: “If Ceausescus policy of romanisation of national minorities is not reversed it will be bad not only for Transylvania but also for the whole of East and Central Europe”.

The Hungarian government also remains fiercely nationalistic towards the border issue. When Ceausescu’s persecution of the Transylvanian Hungarians was at its height last year, it sent furious protests and broke off diplomatic relations, leading the Economist (2 September 1989) to speculate that “if this had been 1914 it would have been war” It should be remembered that it was precisely the pursuit of territorial claims against Rumania which led Hungary to disaster in the Second World War.

The fall of Ceausescu was precipitated by the Hungarian minority in Timisoara defending one of “their” priests against persecution, before being joined by Rumanian workers, and there is growing evidence that a new Hungarian government to be elected later this year will not let the border dispute rest. One of the leading contenders in the elections scheduled for April, the populist and patriotic “Democratic Forum”, has already begun spouting anti- Rumanian. anti-semitic and anti-gypsy propaganda. At the end of December Dr Csba Vass. a founder member of the Forum, visited Transylvania, telling correspondents he hoped to “bring back on to the political agenda the question of the rights of the ethnic Hungarians there”.

Instability and the rise of xenophobic nationalism also marks the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. In the middle of last year one third of a million ethnic Turks in Bulgaria fled the country after an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into the Bulgarian language and suppress their Islamic religion. Bulgaria’s former dictator. Todor Zhikov. actively encouraged anti-Turkish sentiment to bolster his unpopular rule, forcing Turks to adopt Bulgarian names in 1984-5 for example. After his fall, the new government met mass opposition when it tried to restore the Turkish minority’s rights.

“Neo-Monetarist Dictatorship”

No-one is suggesting that all this will lead to renewed hostilities in Eastern Europe—yet. The central point is that a severe economic crisis now threatens to engulf Eastern Europe, creating an explosive situation of social disintegration in which appeals to nationalism are often the last resort of a beleaguered ruling class.

The Hungarian parliament, for example, has just endorsed Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth’s austerity budget which aims to hasten the transition from a state capitalist to a free market capitalist economy. The package aims to cut the budget deficit by one-fifth from its current level of about £500m. The IMF has insisted on at least this before it will release $350m in standby credits and $1 billion in EC funds. The Finance Minister Laszlo Bekesi pulled no punches: “There is no alternative to our programme. What is at stake is the complete collapse of the economy”

In Poland the IMF-sponsored “rescue” package aims to slash inflation from 50 per cent a month to 5 per cent by April, while government subsidies on consumer goods will be cut from 31 to 14 per cent. All wages will be frozen. Unemployment is forecast to rise from virtually zero to 400,000 while the standard of living drops 20 per cent. Already about one million of the 37 million population are acknowledged to be not earning enough to live on, and officials say the figure is probably 10 times as many (Guardian, 18 December). According to the government, “social discipline” is already in disarray, and crime is on the increase: there are rumblings of union discontent and sporadic strikes. Recent reports cite Polish workers complaining that the “Proletarian (Party) Dictatorship” is simply being replaced by the “neo-monetarist dictatorship”

The situation looks as bad in Bulgaria. Although figures are hard to come by, estimates of the country’s foreign debts are as high as $10 billion. The Rumanian government has a little more leeway owing to the former dictator’s fanatical policy of debt repayment. but the underlying economy is in deep trouble.

So we have an explosive mixture of economic collapse and a resurgent nationalism. This feeds on historical divisions and the need of the new ruling classes in alliance with the remnants of the old to legitimise their rule through appeals to xenophobic and racist ideologies.

These ideologies gain their strength through the hard struggle for survival experienced by workers in everyday life under state capitalism, and these struggles are set to become even harsher under the lash of free market forces now being unleashed. East Europe, now manifested in newly assertive, separate states and pulled towards conflict by the capitalist economic development they serve, looks set to enter yet another grim cycle of violence and despair.

Andrew Thomas