Why Globalise? 1989 in Eastern Europe and the Politics of History

East and West Berliners gathering at the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989, one day after the wall opened. Source: britannica.com

Zoltán Ginelli

Excerpted from LeftEast

In this three-part interview, conducted, transcribed and edited by Zoltán Ginelli, history professor James Mark talks about his latest book.

James Mark is a British Professor of History at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the history and memory politics of state-socialism in East Central Europe from the perspective of broader global histories, transnational processes and comparative methods. In 2019, James finished leading two 5-year international research projects: 1989 After 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective and Socialism Goes Global: Cold War Connections Between the ‘Second’ and ‘Third Worlds’. The two projects focused on how to reinterpret state-socialism, the Cold War, the 1989–91 system changes and the postsocialist period in Eastern European history as part of global processes and in the histories of colonialism and anti-colonialism. The titles of the two projects came from two published articles.[1] In 2019, these projects published several books, such as 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, and Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, but three further volumes are in also production, one of them entitled Historicizing Whiteness in Eastern Europe. Readers might also be interested in the exhibition Tito in Africa: Picturing Solidarity organised as part of the second project and bearing an exhibition book (The Wende MuseumPitt Rivers MuseumMuseum of Yugoslavia). The exhibition presents the African round-trips of Yugoslavian president Tito in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of the development of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Third World.

PART I – Socialist globalisation and 1989

ZG: As mentioned in the introduction, the 1989 After 1989 and the Socialism Goes Global projects focused on reinterpreting the Eastern European histories of state-socialism, the Cold War, and the 1989–91 system changes from a global historical perspective and as part of the histories of colonialism and anti-colonialism. Could you introduce us to these projects, their main concepts and aims, and the specific contexts they emerged from?

JM: Well, I guess the first thing to say is that this is not only an Eastern European issue. There is a broader issue of how we write European histories, and over the last decade more and more historians have called for the decentring of Europe and the writing of European history through decolonial and postcolonial approaches. And we’ve started to get such works now over the last fifteen years, which, whilst recognising the immense role of Europe in global history, do not use that as an excuse to write histories of the continent ignoring how its identities and institutions have also been shaped from the outside. Particularly, the impact of empire and its end has been a fruitful way of rethinking European history ‘at home’. How genocide in Europe was conditioned by the European exercise of colonial violence in Africa, how the European Union is shaped through decolonisation and an engagement with Africa,[1] or how neoliberal Europe is a product of a counter-revolution against the threat of decolonisations according to Gurminder Bhambra.[2] You can also think of Elizabeth Buettner’s work on postcolonial migration and the reshaping of European cultures,[3] or the recent work of Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch on the unresolved legacies of the British Empire in Brexit.[4]

Scholars of Eastern Europe have been slower off the mark, but excellent work has been done recently. I think this is partly the result of the increasing critique of the idea of “transition” as an inevitable, relentless and endless convergence towards Western liberal capitalism, which has come under serious critique most powerfully from the populist right, but also from the left. But of course quite self-contained national and regional histories still dominate. [continue reading at LeftEast]