Long Teaching Module: Economies in Transition in Eastern Europe, 1970-1990
It is well known that the East European Communist governments were unable to provide their citizens with a standard of living comparable to that of the West. This fact is often held up by scholars as an important underlying cause of the widespread discontent with Communism that swept through the region in the late 1980s.
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, essay prompts, and guidance for including the eight primary sources.
When those living east of the “Iron Curtain” had to stand in line for hours to purchase low-quality food or consumer products, when their apartment buildings were often grim and sometimes poorly heated, and when Western television broadcasts showed Americans and West Europeans driving expensive cars and wearing expensive clothes, it seemed only natural to observers in the West that the upsurge of popular discontent in 1989 had at least some basis in the economic failings of the Communist regimes. After all, who wouldn’t be unhappy or even angry living in economic circumstances like those in Poland or Bulgaria?
But to view the economic situation in Eastern Europe through this prism is to impose a particular viewpoint on people whose motivations may well have been quite different. First of all, it assumes that people in Eastern Europe were very unhappy with the economic system under which they lived. It also assumes that this unhappiness led to revolt. As Padraic Kenney argues in his interview for this project, it doesn’t make sense that, after having endured decades in an inefficient economic system, people would suddenly throw down their newspaper and say “That’s it. I can’t stand in line for stringy chicken one more time! I’m going out into the streets to demonstrate against Communism!” Thus, the economic problems of the Communist states played a role in the events of 1989, but were probably not the most important factor for most people who helped bring down the regimes.
If we are going to make sense of the role that economic factors made in the events of 1989, it is essential that we take a broader view of just what the economic situation actually was.
When we think about what went wrong with the economies of the East Europe states in the late 1980s, the first thing to consider is the larger historical context. Prior to the Second World War the region that encompassed Communist Eastern Europe was largely on the periphery of European economic development, with only the most Western regions (East Germany, the Czech portion of Czechoslovakia, and portions of Western Poland and Northern Yugoslavia) reaching anything like the level of modern economic development experienced in countries such as France or Britain. The rest of the region was largely underdeveloped, with most employment tied to inefficient forms of agricultural production.
The Second World War devastated much of the region, both in terms of population losses and in terms of the destruction of infrastructure (roads, buildings, rail lines, and industry). The Communist regimes that took power after the war were very successful first in rebuilding the economic infrastructure that had been destroyed during the war and then bringing about a rapid transformation of the local economies from their dependence on agriculture to economies based in heavy industry. In fact, from 1950-1973, the countries of Communist Eastern Europe had the highest rate of economic growth of any world region, including Western Europe and the North America.
After 1973 those significant successes began to fade and by the early 1980s governments across the region were struggling unsuccessfully to stave off the recession that had hit the non-Communist economies. In addition to the world recession of the early 1980s, three significant issues specific to Eastern Europe made it that much more difficult for the Communist regimes to improve or even maintain their economic situation. First, the economies of all of these countries were centrally planned, which meant that government ministries strictly controlled the allocation of resources—money, raw materials, employees, and so on. This system limited the ability of the managers of individual enterprises to respond quickly to opportunities presented by changing economic conditions. Instead, they continued to produce whatever the Communist government's economic plan called for, regardless of whether or not there was any demand for their products. The result was oversupplies of some goods and undersupplies of others—in other words, significant amounts of time and money were wasted on products no one wanted, while consumers and businesses couldn’t get much of what they (em>did want.
The second issue, which appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was that the economies of Eastern Europe had maximized their ability to supply one another with the raw materials, goods, technologies, and services that they needed to sustain economic growth. This meant that East European states had to turn to the world market in order to acquire these essential components of future economic growth. Taking part in the world market, something the Communist regimes had largely (but not completely) resisted for decades, meant they had to be able to manufacture goods that countries outside of the Communist bloc would actually want to buy. If such goods could not be manufactured, the East European governments would have to borrow money on international capital markets to pay for their economic growth. Eventually such loans had to be repaid and repaid only in currencies convertible on the world financial markets. Central planners in these states therefore had to either find ways to sell products that would generate earnings in hard currencies like the Dollar or the Deutschmark, or they had to raise prices on goods and services at home, which often led to discontent among the population.
The third issue that made it difficult for the East European Communist governments to respond to the world wide economic slow-down of the 1980s was the fact that all of their economies were firmly tied to the Soviet economy, both through trade and the joint ownership of enterprises. The East European states were especially dependent on the Soviet Union for oil and natural gas, both of which they purchased from Moscow at below market rates. In exchange, much of their industrial production went to the Soviet Union at below market prices. When President Ronald Reagan launched his military build-up in the early 1980s, Soviet military and economic planners attempted to keep pace, forcing their East European allies to do the same. For example, one of the largest tank factories in the Soviet empire was in eastern Slovekia; a large drain on production and resources yet whose product was sent almost entirely to the Soviet Union. The communist Czechoslovakian government experienced large difficulties meting its own requirements that the diversion on these resources to military production only made worse. These tangled economic pressures were intensified after Gorbachev's policy of perestroika began to introduce some elements of a market economy into the Soviet model. Perestroika called for more local decision-making in the economic sphere along with more sensitivity to consumer demands: both of these pressures called into question the kind of arrangement typified by the large Slovekian tank factory.
One of the essential bargains between the Communist governments and their peoples was that basic goods and services would remain affordable to all. These goods and services might be scarce or even unavailable, but when available, they would be affordable. The economic problems of the 1980s put significant pressure on price controls, sometimes forcing the Communist governments to raise prices suddenly and significantly. For instance, it was a sudden increase in the price of food in Poland that helped set off the first round of strikes that resulted in the creation of the independent trade union Solidarity in 1980.
On the other hand, it must be kept in mind that the East European Communist regimes were able to provide many social goods, even if at standards below those in the West. For instance, homelessness was largely unknown in Communist Eastern Europe at a time when it was becoming endemic in the United States. Infant mortality rates dropped by more than one-third in most of the region between 1970 and 1989, while that same figure dropped by only 19 percent in the United States, albeit at a level well below that in Eastern Europe. These two examples do not mean that the Communist regimes were more successful at providing social goods than were the capitalist economies of the West. Rather, they are meant to indicate that the economic picture in Communist Eastern Europe was not universally bad. At the same time, the decisions of central planners regarding what would and would not be produced had direct consequences for individual citizens, often requiring them to make choices about things like family size, career, and location of residence based on what the government believed was best for the country.
One area where the economies of Communist Eastern Europe were universally bad was the environment. Prior to the mid-1980s these governments paid little or no attention to the environmental consequences of industrial production. The result was a level of industrial pollution and environmental degradation that is almost unimaginable today. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in April 1986 led to a sudden and surprising upsurge in environmental activism across the region. Many of these environmental protests began to take on an overtly political character as the years passed and some of the main opposition movements in Eastern Europe in 1989 emerged from the environmental movement.
Another factor to keep in mind when we think about the economic situation in Eastern Europe in 1989 is that there were often substantial differences in economic conditions within particular countries. For instance, by 1988 macroeconomic indicators in the Czech and Slovak halves of Czechoslovakia were essentially the same, but this finding obscures the fact that in the Czech portion of the state most workers were employed in smaller, more nimble enterprises, while in the Slovak portion of the state, most workers were employed in huge and inefficient enterprises employing many thousands, if not tens of thousands of workers. For example, in Yugoslavia, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the northern republic of Slovenia was more than double that of the southern republic of Serbia and more than five times that of the southern republic of Macedonia. When the Communist regimes fell and these states began to transition to a capitalist economic system, these regional differences played an important role in the break-up of each country.
When you examine the primary sources that are included here, ask yourself what these sources reveal about the economic situation in the region in 1989 and how you can make explicit connections between the evidence in the sources and the events on the ground in 1989. Remember that economic realities often imposed important limitations on what governments could and could not do in the face of political problems. Finally, remember that just because people are dissatisfied with their economic situation, they do not automatically want to change the form of government they live under.
GDP in Eastern Europe: 1980-1989
Infant Mortality: Eastern Europe: 1970-1989
Fertility and Abortion in Czechoslovakia, 1950-2005
Macroeconomic Indicators in Czechoslovakia 1970-1990
GDP in Yugoslavia: 1980-1989
Is Poland Lost?
Price Increases in Eastern Europe with Special Regard to Hungary
Four to five 90 minute class periods and a DBQ
1) Class set of the primary sources:
Document 1- Overall Gross Domestic Product per capita in selected countries, 1980-1989
Document 2- Infant Mortality Rates in selected countries
Document 3- Fertility and Abortion Rates in Czechoslovakia
Document 4-“Is Poland Lost?”
Document 5- Czechoslovakia Macroeconomic Indicators
Document 6-“Radio Free Europe”
Document 7- Trabant photo
Document 8- Yugoslavia GNP by region
[note: to access these materials, go to the primary source link to the left or primary sources]
2) Students will need to read any World History and European History textbook which contains a solid section on the Eastern and Western Europe during and after the Cold War.
The Eastern European countries that will be used in this lesson as case studies will be Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
The Western European countries that will be used in this lesson as case studies will be Greece, Portugal and Western Germany.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
1. Identify the factors affecting a country’s infant mortality rate and a country’s life expectancy rate
2. Analyze how a country’s political and economic systems (communist, capitalistic or a combination/mixture) can affect a country’s GNP and infant mortality rates
3. Compare and contrast the differing infant mortality rates and GNPs between Western and Eastern European economies between 1970 up until the fall of communism
4. Predict how the fall of communism may affect GNP and infant mortality rates in both Eastern European countries, Western European countries and the USA
In the students’ World or European History survey textbook prior to the start of the lesson, students will read the chapter or chapters which contain the basic political and economic background history of Eastern and Western European countries during the Cold War with a special emphasis on the 1970’s to the late 1980’s.
Day One: Economic and Political Surveys of Eastern Bloc Countries
1) Share the photo of the Trabant with class without the car’s explanation which accompanies the source. Ask the students what they think of the car. Would this be their idea of their ideal car? Would they be okay with it if it was given to them at a very cheap price? What are their expectations for their first car? Would this be it? Where and when do they think this car was made? Then share with the students the background information given in the source. Show a couple of BMW models from West Germany at this time. Ask the same questions.
2) Ask the students the following questions as an overview for the next 3-4 block periods. Assign each group one of the introductory questions. Tie these questions into the class discussion of the Trabant car.
What did the countries on both sides of the political fence promise to offer to their citizens? (Day One)
How did the East promote they would deliver the lifestyle of communism? How did the West project it would offer a better way of life for its citizens? (Day One)
What would be the factors, records, statistics would you would want to analyze to see how well the competing political and economic systems were actually doing? (Day Two)
What type of sources would you want to look at? When looking at official government documents from both the Eastern bloc and Western countries what would you be careful to analyze? Why? (Day Two)
What factors do you think will be the most important in leading to the differences between economic and political stability in the East and the West? (Day Three)
Will all the Eastern bloc countries’ statistics be the same? Why or why not? What could lead to these differences in growth patterns? (Day Three)
How about the Western countries? What could possibly account for the differing rates of economic growth in the West? (Day Three)
3) From the information in their textbooks students will complete a comparison chart between Eastern and Western European countries based on political, economic, and social differences. The countries to be analyzed for this activity will be Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Portugal, West Germany and Greece. Student groups will be matched as an expert group for both one Eastern and one Western European nation. The following pairings are suggested.
Group 1 Hungary (Radio Free Europe)
Group 2 Czechoslovakia (Czech Macroeconomic Indicators)
Group 3 Poland. (“Is Poland Lost?”)
Group 4 Yugoslavia. (Yugoslavia GNP by region)
Group 1 Portugal
Group 2 West Germany
Group 3 Greece.
Group 4 West Germany.
4) After the students have shared their chart information on the differences between the East and the West, each group will be assigned to read the next work day the primary source article which corresponds to their country. Each Eastern European country will have two groups researching and analyzing documents pertaining to that particular country.
Day Two: Research and Data Collection
1) Reinforce the two guiding questions which will be the focus of Day Two:
What would be the factors, records, statistics would you would want to analyze to see how well the competing political and economic systems were actually doing?
What type of sources would you want to look at? When looking at official government documents from both the Eastern bloc and Western countries what would you be careful to analyze? Why?
2) All of the student groups will analyze Document #2 Infant Mortality Rates. Students will be asked what factors will contribute to a lower infant mortality rate and student will be asked to compose a list of those factors. Next as a class students will analyze the data in the chart, and each group will pay close attention to their selected Eastern European country.
3) After analyzing the differences between the Eastern and Western infant mortality rates, students will then analyze the Document #1-Overall GDP in selected countries. Students will use APPARTS for their analysis, and the students will analyze data for their paired Eastern and Western European countries. A definition of how GNP differs from GDP will be explained before students start working. Students will be asked how any political and economic data from their textbooks may explain the information in the chart.
As this activity will take place at the end of the year, students will be quite familiar with analyzing documents. They will be using APPARTS.
A-Author: Who created the source? What do you know about the author? What is the author’s point of view?
P-Place and Time: Where and when was the source produced? How might this affect the meaning of the source?
P-Prior Knowledge: Beyond information about the author and the context of its creation, what do you know that would help you further understand the primary source? For example, do you recognize any symbols and recall what they represent?
A-Audience: For whom was the source created and how might this affect the reliability of the source?
R-Reason: Why was the source produced at the time it was produced?
T-The Main Idea: What point is the source trying to convey?
S-Significance: Why is this source important? What inferences can you draw from this document? Ask yourself, “So what?” in relation to the question asked.
4) Students will then read in class and APPARTS the document which comes from country of expertise. Students will also be asked how the source would add to their analysis of their country’s GNP and/or infant mortality/life expectancy rates. [note: see above list, Day Two, for Eastern Country's respective document]
Day Three: Comparisons Between the East and the West
1) Review the focus questions with the students for this day’s lessons.
What factors do you think will be the most important in leading to the differences between economic and political stability in the East and the West?
Will all the Eastern bloc countries’ statistics be the same? Why or why not? What could lead to these differences in growth patterns?
How about the Western countries? What could possibly account for the differing rates of economic growth in the West?
2) Students will share their data from the articles read the previous day. Each group will report how the article and data may explain their Eastern European country’s economic growth, infant mortality/life expectancy rates and GNP. Then students will share any insights about their Western country’s same data and compare.
3) Students will be asked to research at the school’s library two more sources that might contribute to understanding the infant mortality rate, life expectancy and/or GDP of their Eastern European country and their Western European country. They will be asked to make fifteen copies of each resource. Students may want to find documents about the infant mortality rates for Greece, West Germany and Portugal; these statistics are not found in Document #2.
1) Students will distribute a copy of their new sources to each group. Students will be asked to APPART three to four new documents.
2) As a group, the students will use 6-7 sources to create a DBQ question about the economic growth rates of the Eastern European countries. They will have the eight sources used during the lesson and four new sources from their classmates to choose from for the assignment. Students will be asked to compose the question, create an acceptable thesis and explain groupings the documents could be placed.
3) As closure for the lesson unit, the class will predict which Eastern and Western European countries will be the most successful economically and politically after the fall of communism. Students will also be asked to predict how these countries will compare to the United States.
Tesoro High School
Santa Margarita, California
Document Based Question
Using the primary sources in this module, answerONE of the following prompts:
1. Some historians argue that economics can explain any change that has occurred in history. Economic historians of 1989 argue that this is especially true in the crises that sparked the fall of communism in eastern Europe. Using these sources, analyze whether economic factors best explains the collapse of communist rule in 1989.
2. The Trabant is often used to symbolize the “quality” of life under communist rule during the Cold War period, before the establishment of democracies in those countries. Discuss the accuracy and relative merits of the Trabant as a symbol for the economic health of communist rule leading up to 1989?
About the Author
Mills Kelly is Associate Director of the Center for History and New Media and an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and his doctorate from George Washington University. He is the author of Without Remorse: Czech National Socialism in Late-Habsburg Austria and is the principal investigator or co-director of three National Endowment for the Humanities exemplary education projects that provide digital resources to students and teachers of world and European history. In 2005 he received the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award, the state’s highest honor for faculty excellence, and was the first recipient of this award in the category “Teaching with Technology.”.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Laura Thompson teaches AP European History and AP Art History in the Capistrano Unified School District. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as a history major and then went on to earn her Masters in History at Cal State Fullerton in Early Modern European History and 19th Century American History. She has received two Fulbright Awards to study in Japan and Latin America and was awarded two National Endowment for the Humanities grants for studies including: the Industrial Revolution in England and the Miracles of 1989, the Fall of Communism.
This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.