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Review December 2023

Remembering post-socialist economic transformation

Review by Veronika Pehe
Till Hilmar, 2023
ISBN 9780231209786
272 Pages
Published by: Columbia University Press
Fortepan / Urbán Tamás

In the past years, social scientists and journalists have been busy attempting to explain the populist turn. In the case of the states of the former Eastern Bloc, such explanations have frequently turned to the 1990s and the time of political and economic upheaval Eastern European societies experienced in the wake of the collapse of socialist regimes. In the introduction to Deserved, Till Hilmar frames his book as a contribution to this debate. And while it lives up to this promise, the book is also much more: it is a novel and conceptually rich take on the history and memory of the post-socialist transformations. Deserved thus presents a significant intervention in two inter-related topics: the history of the post-socialist transformations itself, and how these processes are remembered today. 

The field of transformation history has been rapidly expanding in recent years. While the economic and political histories of the changes, as well as the histories of elite groups between late socialism and post-socialism, have now been relatively well mapped, we still lack bottom-up histories of transformation that focus on the everyday experiences of different social groups. In his exploration of how East German and Czech engineers and healthcare workers remember the impact of economic change on both their work and their private lives, Hilmar joins a recent body of historically-oriented sociological work employing biographical research to give us a deeper, qualitative insight into the experience of transformation.1

As the chapters in the book document, a central theme for the respondents is work and its recognition as productive by society. From this crucial insight, Hilmar expands to theorize the ways in which people remember economic change. This in itself is an important intervention: memory studies as a field of study, particularly in relation to Eastern Europe, has largely been concerned with questions of trauma stemming from the experience of war, genocide, and politically-motivated violence. Even if oral histories of everyday life have also focused on less difficult topics, the economy has rarely made it into memory studies. And yet, arguably, the question of work and economic standing is central to people’s understanding of their own worth and position within society, and their sense of recognition for their work has political consequences. The question of the economy should thus not be overlooked when studying memory.

in post-socialist societies, ideas of meritocracy and individual deservingness are pervasive in people’s accounts of recent social and economic change. 

In approaching economic memories, Deserved provides readers with several useful conceptual tools that will doubtlessly be applied in future research on the memory of economic transformations not only in Eastern Europe. Hilmar asks: “What makes a person feel that he or she is a worthy member of society?”, noting that “in our contemporary world, the answer to this question has a lot to do with economics” (p. 17). Understandings of economic matters are embedded in social relations, cultural expectations and morality – what Hilmar calls the “moral framework”. The author proposes that the memory of disruptive economic change is closely linked to concerns about social inclusion and ideas of justice. At the core of the book lies the idea that “people think of their economic outcomes as deserved” (p. 3). One of the book’s major conclusions is that in post-socialist societies, ideas of meritocracy and individual deservingness are pervasive in people’s accounts of recent social and economic change. 

Particularly useful for further research is the author’s typology of accounts of deservingness. Here, he distinguishes between accounts of deserved economic success, accounts of deserved economic failure, accounts of undeserved economic failure, and accounts of undeserved economic success (p. 97). Although he illustrates this typology on the accounts of engineers and healthcare workers, these categorizations will prove useful when analyzing the memories of other social groups, or indeed, they might be productively applied to examples of cultural memory, as well refine our understanding of the uses of memory in political discourse.

The final chapter then offers insights into how the findings of the book relate to the current crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. Because the book does not focus on social groups that were obviously disadvantaged by neoliberal restructuring – such as, say, heavy industry workers – but rather on professional groups who faced mixed success in the new conditions, it does not provide an easy answer that would repeat the rather simplistic thesis on the economically disadvantaged voting for populists. Hilmar’s account is more nuanced. He traces how people felt to be worthy members of the new order by analyzing the value they consider to be attributed to their and others’ work. Subjective perceptions of resentment stemming from a perceived lack of recognition are found among all strata of society and do not easily correspond with one’s “objective” economic position, as the book shows. 

As with any book, Deserved also has its weaker points. The historical contextualization of East German and Czechoslovak/Czech developments is at times somewhat sweeping, making big claims leading to simplification, exposing that the author is clearly more familiar with the German than the Czech context. Somewhat loose referencing at times prevents readers from looking up relevant literature on major factual claims (for instance, the rising violence against Roma and Vietnamese minorities in Czechoslovakia). Some arguments are only sketched out briefly, including the fascinating gendered reading of the masculine discourse of the Czech transformation in the first chapter, which certainly merits further elaboration. The author also spends some time justifying his German-Czech comparative design, arguing that the two countries experienced a “shared historical trajectory”, with, however, a very different course of economic change in the 1990s. This, Hilmar not so convincingly argues, “sheds light on different objective parameters of change as well as on the ways in which people subjectively relate to them” (p. 13). In my opinion, the extent to which the two cases are comparable is not crucial for the study; the author could have also chosen countries historically and geographically further apart, as the framework the book offers provides widely-applicable insights into the remembrance of economic change, regardless of its particular course and the historical conditions that led to it. And this is its major strength. Deserved is a book about Eastern European transformations, but not only. Its accomplishment is that it takes the example of a particular historical moment of economic upheaval and uses it to ask universal questions about how people remember and experience changes in the economy in their everyday lives.

Veronika Pehe is a historian based at the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where she leads the Research Group for Historical Transformation Studies. She is the author of Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture (2020), and co-editor (with Joanna Wawrzyniak) of Remembering the Neoliberal Turn: Economic Change and Collective Memory in Eastern Europe after 1989 (2023).


1 This body of work has emerged mostly from Poland and includes: Adam Mrozowicki, Coping with Social Change: Life Strategies of Workers in Poland’s New Capitalism (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2011); Alexandra Leyk and Joanna Wawrzyniak, Cięcia: Mówiona historia transformacji (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2020); Kaja Kaźmierska and Katarzyna Waniek, Telling the Great Change: The Process of the Systemic Transformation in Poland in Biographical Perspective (Łódź:Wydawnictwo Uniwersystetu Łódzkiego, 2020).