Politics without a Past

The Absence of History in Postcommunist Nationalism

Politics without a Past

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 1 table Published: November 1999

Author: Shari J. Cohen

European Studies > History of Europe, History > European History, Politics > Political Science

In Politics without a Past Shari J. Cohen offers a powerful challenge to
common characterizations of postcommunist politics as either a resurgence of
aggressive nationalism or an evolution toward Western-style democracy. Cohen
draws upon extensive field research to paint a picture of postcommunist
political life in which ideological labels are meaningless and exchangeable
at will, political parties appear and disappear regularly, and citizens
remain unengaged in the political process.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which locates the roots of widespread intranational strife in deeply rooted national identities from the past, Cohen argues that a profound ideological vacuum has fueled destructive tension throughout postcommunist Europe and the former Soviet Union. She uses Slovakia as a case study to reveal that communist regimes bequeathed an insidious form of historical amnesia to the majority of the political elite and the societies they govern. Slovakia was particularly vulnerable to communist intervention since its precommunist national consciousness was so weak and its only period of statehood prior to 1993 was as a Nazi puppet-state. To demonstrate her argument, Cohen focuses on Slovakia’s failure to forge a collective memory of the World War II experience. She shows how communist socialization prevented Slovaks from tying their individual family stories—of the Jewish deportations, of the anti-Nazi resistance, or of serving in the wartime government—to a larger historical narrative shared with others, leaving them bereft of historical or moral bearings.
Politics without a Past develops an analytical framework that will be important for future research in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and beyond. Scholars in political science, history, East European and post-Soviet studies will find Cohen’s methodology and conclusions enlightening. For policymakers, diplomats, and journalists who deal with the region, she offers valuable insights into the elusive nature of postcommunist societies.


“[A] provocative study of post-Communist politics in Slovakia. The author asks important questions and addresses significant approaches to the politics of transition.” — Martha Lampland , CSSH Notes

“[A] thoughtful and well laid out study of postcommunist Slovakia . . . . Although it is primarily a case study of Slovakia, Cohen’s findings have much greater significance for all the former Leninist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. . . . Readers with an interest in Eastern European history, political science, or nationalism in general will find this book a quick and valuable read.” — Jonathan Grant , The Historian

“[A] welcome contribution towards the understanding of political developments in the early years of postcommunism in Central Europe. Particularly impressive is her treatment of socio-psychological effects that communism bequeathed on the populations of these countries.” — Erika Harris , Extremism and Democracy Newsletter

“Cohen has written what is essentially an accessible student text of considerable detail. It is well worth reading as it signals the predicaments and uncertainties of leaders struggling to adapt new political structures to the demands of the post-Soviet world. The book is well documented and, for anyone interested in the current travails of eastern Europe in general, and Slovakia in particular, this is a valuable source text.” — Geoff Simons , Morning Star

“The most refreshing aspect of this book is its refusal to explain the Meviar phenomenon as the result of a Slovak rebellion against the federal economic reform programme. Cohen, has an acute sense for the ideological porridge that was both the Prague Spring and the subsequent ‘normalization,’ which indeed left many disoriented and open to the reassuringly centrist synthesis of HZDS. Even better, perhaps the strongest feature of the book, is her account of Ján Carnogursky and his Christian Democratic Movement; she captures marvelously the awkward position and limited electoral prospects of a committed, clerical but non-l’udák nationalist in post-Communist Slovakia.” — Kieran Williams , Slavonic and East European Review

"[A] timely study. . . . Hopefully, this interesting and well-written study can read a wider academic community beyond those interested in Slovak history and politics." — Gwendolyn Sasse , Nations and Nationalism

“A pioneering study. This book should be required reading for journalists and diplomats who deal with postcommunist Europe.” — James Felak, University of Washington

“Cohen's deft and ingenious examination of the historical, political, biographical, and moral features of Slovakia's present and recent past, in particular the peculiar and powerful quality and impact of the Leninist legacy, contributes substantially to our grasp of this area's novel political sociology.” — Ken Jowitt, University of California, Berkeley


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Shari J. Cohen, a political scientist, is currently Senior Research Fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2399-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2378-5
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