Assembling the Post-Liberal Order in Central and Eastern Europe (1920-1956)

On June 26/27 2015, Pasts Inc. in collaboration with CEU’s History Department organized the workshop Assembling the Post-Liberal Order in Central and Eastern Europe. Labour, Welfare and the Governing of Economic Life during and after the Great Depression (1929-1956). The workshop featured seven participants from five countries, and a keynote lecture delivered by a senior historian - Dr. Katherine Lebow of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. The workshop was conceived as a preliminary meeting seeking to establish a research agenda on Central and Eastern European societies which would prove sensitive to the impact of the Great Depression and to the transformations coming in its aftermath. It also sought to reevaluate the relationship between the post-Depression period and the first years of state socialism by challenging the sharp dividing line that historians commonly draw between two. At the same time, the workshop tried to question the enormous epistemological leverage assigned by historians of Central and Eastern Europe to the phenomenon of nationalism. By contrast, the workshop attempted to reconsider the ways in which nationalism interacted with other social processes such as the bureaucratization of social life, the developmental language of the period or the proletarizanization of rural enclaves.

The vast majority of the papers not only took up these challenges but also managed to rethink their cogency. Dr. Alina Cucu (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) marshaled a plethora of rich archival evidence in support of the argument that Stakhanovite workers during the postwar period found themselves caught up in a troublesome temporality. Cucu pointed out that postwar state socialism relied on a specific organization of time which imbued the everyday life of socialist institutions and of their practices. Assist. Prof. Natalija Perisic (University of Belgrade) explained the making of the socialist welfare state in Yugoslavia by reviving the riches of classical social theory, in particular the notion of path dependency. The paper tried to show how the social policy articulated during the interwar period proved both constraining and enabling for the development of the welfare regime enacted by Tito. Dr. Raul Cârstocea (European Center for Minority Issues) pleaded for reinterpreting the history of Romanian fascism during the interwar period as part of a larger history of civil society. Cârstocea forcefully argued that hitherto ignored social practices such as voluntary work proved paramount for the fascists in their pursuit of societal integration and the nationalist language they developed. Justin Classen (University of Pittsburgh) pushed this line of reasoning ever further and sought to document the relationship between mass mobilization, authoritarianism and industrial rationalization. Classen illuminated the efforts undertaken by Carol II in late 1930s Romania to enlist the majority of the country’s youth into structures of civic disciplining. Dr. Anders Blomqvist (University of Stockholm) moved our discussion into the realm of political theory by exploring the social implications of the shift in property relations during the middle decades of the twentieth century in an inter-ethnic context. Dr. Mara Marginean (Romanian Academy, George Baritiu Institute of History) shed light on the emergence of socialist subjectivities among industrial workers in Transylvania. Marginean examined an impressive number of employment records of a former steel mill in order to decipher the panoply of linguistic tropes workers used in order to secure a job. Finally, Dr. Corina Doboş (University of Pharmacy and Medicine Carol Davilla) detailed the fascinated trajectory of neurasthenia from a bourgeois symptom during the early years of the past century to a socialist pathology affecting working people. Doboş made the case that the history of medicine might open up yet another window into the everyday dynamics of state socialism. In her keynote speech, Dr. Kate Lebow touched on many of the topics discussed during the workshop, notably the limits of the concept of post-liberalism and the stakes behind our effort to frame the aftermath of the Great Depression in these terms. Lebow discussed the ways in which Polish sociologists during the interwar period and under state socialism came to terms with the experience of unemployment and the types of biographical illusions workers were able to construe upon request.

Further information about the workshop, including an informed Project Statement setting up the research agenda of the meeting, can also be found on the weblog of the event