Research on the global history of Cold War Eastern Europe is flourishing.1 This edited volume stems from two home-bases of the endeavour, Exeter and Leipzig, where most of the editors as well as the series Dialectics of the Global were or are based.2 It presents eight case studies of “technical assistance” and economic projects between socialist Eastern Europe and newly independent countries in the Near East and Sub-Sahara Africa. Together, the chapters make a strong case for a more complex and heterogeneous understanding of economic globalization in the second half of the 20th century, which contrasts neoliberal master narratives of this process.
Whether economic interactions between socialist Eastern Europe and socialist-leaning countries of the postcolonial world actually resulted in something like “alternative globalization” or “socialist globalization” is the question brought up in the editors’ introduction. Their answer remains ambiguous. Economic East-South interactions were both, they state, “a contribution to capitalist globalization as well as [sic!] efforts to create an alternative globalization project along ideas of socialist internationalism” (p. 31). In order to reveal the heterogeneous rationales within East-South collaboration the volume aims at studying “spaces of interaction” between Eastern and Southern actors, which implies analysing global interactions on a “local level” (p. 5). Most contributions do not reach this local level, however, but remain on the firm ground of diplomatic exchange reconstructed from government files. Nonetheless, they convincingly argue for the ambiguity of rationales behind the economic East-South projects.
Max Trecker presents the interplay of economic and political reasoning by GDR officials in their endeavour to build several cement plants in Syria in the first half of the 1970s. The GDR had won the Syrian tender together with a Bulgarian state construction firm. However, collaboration did not go well and the GDR decided to look for a new partner. Cost efficiency played a crucial role in its considerations. When collaboration with a Lebanese firm did not come into effect, the GDR returned to the Bulgarians and they eventually built the cement plants together. Still, as Trecker argues, the political alliance within the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) could indeed have failed if the Lebanese deal had worked.
A mostly economic rationale is highlighted by Pavel Szobi in his overview of Czechoslovak economic activities with Angola in the 1970s and 1980s: Czechoslovakia disregarded Soviet interests and explicitly welcomed Angola’s trade relationship with capitalist countries for its economic benefits. Limited Soviet dominance over the foreign policy of its European socialist allies in the Global South can be regarded state of the art in the field for a decade.3 It is underlined once more by Jun Fujisawa’s description of fruitless efforts by the Soviets to make their CMEA partners import oil from the newly nationalized Iraq Petroleum Company in the late 1960s. A similar argument is at the base of Chris Saunder’s overview of interactions between the GDR and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which fought for the independence of Namibia.
Some contributions observe a shift in Eastern European attitudes towards the Global South from political (international solidarity) to economic reasoning. Anne Dietrich argues that the “shock of the global” of the 1970s as well as GDR consumer expectations were the main driving forces for the GDR to enter into barter agreements with Cuba (citrus fruits) and Ethiopia (coffee) – with differing success. Bogdan I. Iacob and Iolanda Vasile trace a similar development with regard to Romanian experts in Mozambique’s oil and healthcare sectors. Their approach gets the closest to the local level by examining the motives and mind-sets of Romanians interacting with Mozambicans on the ground. Their analysis is based on contemporary reports by these experts as well as on so-called “discussion interviews” conducted with them in 2017. Iacob and Vasile argue that political aspects were a prime motive for Romanian experts when they arrived in Mozambique in the late 1970s. However, politics did not necessarily mean “solidarity”. Rather, the experts’ attitudes were framed by cultural categories such as civilizational superiority and Romanian exceptionalism in overcoming “backwardness”. In the 1980s, the notion of a Romanian civilizing mission was increasingly subordinated to an economic rationale. If payment in hard currency did not meet Romanian expectations, the country immediately withdrew its personnel. While the considered time frame is short, and one might wonder, whether economic reasoning has been part of the Romanian endeavour already since the 1970s, Iacob’s and Vasile’s contribution makes a convincing case for a different form of globalization: As Romania considered itself a developing country in Eastern Europe, the Romanians required adequate payment for their services by stressing the mutuality of the cooperation. They also transferred their Mozambican modernization mission to rural Romania after returning home.
In many chapters, the often stressed agency of the Southern partners becomes apparent: For instance, when East German and Bulgarian state firms performed poorly on Syrian cement plant construction sites, Syria decided to take on Indian consultants, who strongly recommended to drop the Bulgarian partner. Iraq and Angola denied socialist countries their oil as soon as they saw better options in trading with the capitalist West, Namibia did not turn socialist despite considerable GDR support in SWAPO’s fight for independence, and Ethiopia withdrew from its barter trade agreement with the GDR because East German trucks, delivered in exchange for coffee (next to military equipment), broke down on Ethiopian streets.
Eric Burton’s contribution on GDR-Zanzibari interactions after the Zanzibar revolution in 1963 stands out for providing the most thorough analysis of Southern agency. By exploring the tensions between Zanzibari leftist-revolutionary and nationalist-reformist politicians in the process of building an independent state (which would soon be united with Tanganyika to form Tanzania), he explains emerging frictions between the GDR and Zanzibar on the ground of differing visions of socialism and modernity. While the most influential Zanzibari political camp attributed a crucial role to race (Zanzibar’s population being made up of a heterogeneous mixture of “Africans”, “Asians” and “Arabs”), GDR experts and officials retained their understanding of society as divided by “class”. However, Burton argues that Zanzibar’s eventual turn to China was not only motivated by ideological closeness, but also by pragmatic considerations: China’s industrial and agricultural projects in Zanzibar simply worked better than the GDR endeavours.
In his concluding chapter, James Mark places the thriving research on Cold War East-South entanglements in the context of the current crisis of the neoliberal master narrative of post-1989 transformation. While Eastern European leaders first believed in the triumph of Western capitalism, new narratives about alternative places of Eastern Europe in the world emerged by the end of the 2000s. Western institutions such as the European Union, NATO, or the IMF came to be criticised from both the right and the left for colonizing the East. When several Eastern European governments turned to new partners, especially China, during the 2010s, they framed this new connection in tropes well-known from the pre-1989 era.
The volume clearly shows that the history of the global circulation of goods, people, and knowledge in the Cold War era needs to take both Eastern European and Southern agency into account. Most chapters would have benefited from stricter copy-editing as arguments often lack rigour. Nevertheless, the book provides another incentive for redrawing our mental map of the contemporary history of global entanglements and it deserves readership especially from scholars not specializing in Eastern European History.
Bringing home the point that there was no pure form of “socialist globalization”, the book provokes further questions about how to frame our historical understanding of globalization in general. Since there is little reason to assume that there was a pure form of “capitalist globalization”,4 we should take the next step and try not to think of globalization and “alternative” globalizations as separate developments. Instead, it might be more adequate to devise an integrated history of globalizing forces that includes heterogeneous actors from all possible backgrounds and multiple interconnections on all levels of social life. This way, established ideas of “proper” globalization could be historicized. “Spaces of interaction”, understood as concrete localities, physical or imagined, most likely provide a good starting point for this endeavour.
1 See e.g. Tobias Rupprecht, Soviet Internationalism after Stalin. Interaction and Exchange between the USSR and Latin America during the Cold War, Cambridge 2015; James Mark / Péter Apor, Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956–1989, in: The Journal of Modern History 87 (2015), 852–891; Małgorzata Mazurek, Polish Economists in Nehru's India: Making Science for the Third World in an Era of De-Stalinization and Decolonization, Slavic Review, 77 (2018), 588–610; James Mark / Artemy M. Kalinovsky / Steffi Marung (eds.), Alternative Globalizations. Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, Bloomington 2020.
2 Collaborative research project “Socialism goes global” based at the University of Exeter: https://socialismgoesglobal.exeter.ac.uk/ (24.03.2021); Leibniz Science Campus “Eastern Europe Global Area” based in Leipzig: https://www.leibniz-eega.de/ (24.03.2021) and the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 at the University of Leipzig: https://research.uni-leipzig.de/~sfb1199/ (24.03.2021).
3 David C. Engerman, The Second World's Third World, in: Kritika. Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 12 (2011), 183–211.
4 See, among others, Johanna Bockman, Markets in the Name of Socialism. The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, Stanford 2011.