New Looks at Europe Post-Communism

Book review: Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic

What a weird day to be writing about a book on democracy in Europe, as it teeters precariously in the United States. But I think Americans would do well to consider democratic processes and totalitarian histories in Europe, because it’s abundantly clear that we don’t have a good grasp on what democracy actually is. It’s not throwing a dangerous fit when you don’t get what you want — Democrats didn’t do that in 2016. Democracy is imperfect, it has fits and starts and stumbles. Examining and learning from errors and missteps is how you build a better democracy, and ensure that you keep it in the first place. Not with domestic terrorism.

Despite transitioning from Communism to democracy in 1989, many countries in Eastern Europe continue to falter in their connection to Western Europe and roles in the European Union. Croatian journalist and author Slavenka Drakulic wrote Café Europa: Life After Communism in 1997, a collection of pieces based in the immediate years following these major political and social changes on the continent.

In the 15 essays of Café Europa Revisited, she returns to similar topics from the perspective of more than two decades passed since totalitarianism fell and democracy was instated. Yet implementation of democracy has yet to be entirely successful or transformative in Eastern Europe. Even Western Europe was challenged, plagued by controversy and ugly behavior around immigration in 2014-2015, as waves of Middle Eastern refugees forced Europeans to consider their stance on immigration — a thorny topic even for many who had benefited from the EU’s open borders and policies themselves in the aftermath of Communism’s demise. And, of course, Brexit, with all it says about European unity and identity or lack thereof.

Drakulic looks at the refugee crisis and brilliantly analyzes Angela Merkel and her role, positing that Merkel’s openness towards accepting refugees in Germany may have contributed to her decrease in popularity. I love any portrait of Merkel because she’s such an interesting figure, and one of the most pivotal politicians of the modern era. She reminds Drakulic of her aunt, and in the hilariously titled essay “When Aunt Angela Met Donald Trump,” she examines similarities between Merkel and an Eastern European mother-figure, while deftly analyzing Trump’s rudeness and overt disrespect towards Merkel, in part because she’s a woman he’s not attracted to who wields a great deal of power.

Questions of assimilation are a major topic, including how assimilated any immigrant can ever be, using as an example a seemingly well-integrated Serbian shopkeeper in Sweden. Drakulic is especially adept at using such highly specific, personal stories as representations of greater issues and themes, and nowhere is this more effective than in humanizing the faces of immigrants and refugees and the particular challenges these groups face.

It’s also interesting because I think many non-Europeans tend to believe that immigration within Europe isn’t so massively different as moving outside of it, but any observation of the distinct cultures and understanding of what it’s taken, especially in the decades of the 21st century, to create a united European continent, however it currently looks, should put paid to this notion.

Some of the essays flagged a bit, like one about property inheritance in Croatia, but when they’re good, they’re fantastic — incisive and well argued, and revealing not only of cracks within Europe but on a far broader and troubling scale. It’s also an informative look at issues of equality within the EU, including how much is tied to ideas of national identity (not to mention the growing trend towards nationalism — see Brexit again).

For example, one standout piece covers suspicions of whether food products of lesser quality from the same major brands (Nutella, Leibniz cookies, Coca-Cola) are intended for the markets of Eastern European countries like Poland and Bulgaria, while western nations like Austria and Italy receive higher quality ones — more hazelnuts in the Nutella, more strawberries in the yogurt and fish in the fish sticks. This all seemed like weird speculation until an official investigation proved it.

Integration or lack thereof, feelings of nationalism that either linger or grow stronger, suspicion of outsiders or “others” and elements that are strongly tied to very recent history all crop up in these pieces. Drakulic’s writing is stellar and such a wise voice from the Croatian diaspora is a unique and welcome one.

Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism
by Slavenka Drakulic
published January 5, 2021 by Penguin

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

16 thoughts on “New Looks at Europe Post-Communism

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  1. First of all, that cover is just great🙂 Thanks for featuring it because I never would have considered this title and it’s quite intriguing. I had to stop and reflect on that reality that major brands consciously delivered inferior products to certain European regions. Given what happened yesterday to our government experiment, this is a timely topic.

    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it a fab cover? I mean it’s so early but I’m almost positive I won’t see a cover I love more this year 😂

      And so crazy that major brands did this on purpose. Some justified it by saying that they adjust their products per market tastes, but come on. It’s clearly to save money at the expense of people they think deserve less and won’t complain about it.

      And very well put — we still have a government “experiment” and we’re not conducting it well at all. To echo what many commentators have already said, I’m shocked by what I saw but not surprised.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The only thing I was surprised about was how unprepared our law enforcement was in protecting the Capitol. But, you know, it’s had the opposite effect of what he wanted. Now, he’s an embarrassment to support for most people. The disgraced emperor now clearly has no clothes on, bared to the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think it was more deliberate than unprepared. Look how they didn’t hesitate when it came to BLM protests, or to tear gas the crowds when the idiot needed his bible photo op. He can’t be out of there soon enough, his behavior yesterday made me sick!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is absolutely fascinating! I’ve been reading quite a lot of fiction around this subject recently, so this is definitely going to the top of my list as a great companion piece. I also find Angela Merkel a very interesting figure so am particularly looking forward to that essay.

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  3. This sounds fascinating and I’ll definitely be putting a request in at the library once it reopens! I also find Merkel fascinating, if only for her extreme political longevity – I was learning about her in German lessons when I was twelve or thirteen and she’s still in the news nearly two decades later. There are not a lot of European political figures that you can say that about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I could put it on your list! She really is such a fascinating figure, and her longevity is for sure unusual. I think only Putin can compare, but of course under very different circumstances and effect…

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  4. Interesting! One of my friends is from Czech and we were once discussing the after-effects of communism (on how managing those are a feat of their own kind). I’ll let her know about this book!

    Liked by 2 people

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