A Return to Diversity and the Pitfalls of Historical Surveys

By Laszlo Taba

Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II (1999)

Joseph Rothschild’s and Nancy Wingfield’s Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II is well written, though it shares some of the typical problems of historical survey literature. For an area of history that is complex and difficult to explain, they do an admirable job of organizing their subject. The problems with the book predominantly have to do with its structure.

Rothschild and Wingfield organize their book chronologically, beginning with the interwar period to the collapse of the communist regimes in the 1990’s. Each section of each chapter focuses on a different country: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, and, of course, Yugoslavia. Readers may be left, as I am, with the feeling that this narrative lacks something. The authors focus more on some countries than on others, especially on Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Sometimes the sections on Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania seem like almost afterthoughts. The focus on Tito is understandable, given his influence on the region, but Ceausescu gets less attention.

The authors acknowledge that they miss details. In the first preface, they dwell on not discussing East Germany (xi). They also write, “a basic book cannot be a comprehensive chronology, nor a heavily footnoted research monograph, nor a deeply searching analysis” (xi). They, then, ask readers to judge the book by the general criterion of a general survey, not by another genre (xi). This request seems fair to me. For instance, take the discussion of the break up of Yugoslavia in the last chapter. Rothschild and Wingfield devote a mere six pages to it (257-262). After I read that section, I did not feel I understood Yugoslavia much better than I had before I read the book. However, I am not going to fault the whole book. I understand the limitations of the genre. That means, naturally, that I am going to be more willing to avoid survey texts on this topic in the future. Fortunately for me, I have chosen a book specifically on the downfall of Yugoslavia for next week’s readings.

The end of the last quote suggests another issue with Rothschild’s and Wingfield’s book: they write that a basic book cannot be a “deeply searching analysis.” This is likely true, but, nevertheless, they could have included more analysis. They make some good observations, which I wish would have been developed further. One of those is in the last chapter: ”[n]o matter how carefully and benignly maps may be redrawn, East Central Europe will always have ethnic minorities within its states” (263). Unfortunately, the last chapter is only three pages long. Twenty pages and more explanation would have been better.

As a final point, I want to stress that I enjoyed this book. Though my review is mostly negative, I think Return to Diversity is worth reading, and the authors obviously know their topic and write clearly and concisely.

One Response to “A Return to Diversity and the Pitfalls of Historical Surveys”

  1. Gary says:

    Laszlo,

    While I found the book quite readable and concede this is a synthetic survey with a topical analysis versus a deep, focused, analytical work, I must admit after reading your comments on how some of the countries received much less attention, such as Romania, I now wish the authors had added a few pages per chapter on the “other” countries. Perhaps Rothschild did not have enough data in the late 80s for some of the countries, or am I being too kind? Hopefully, Rothschild wrote this survey to provoke further questions and therefore opportunities for future scholarly work that would provide deeper, more specific analysis.