If there is any place where Skocpol and Pierson‘s assertion that some form of institutionalism and path-dependent analysis have become the norm, then this place certainly is the study of Central and Eastern European welfare states. The common denominator is an unabashed commitment to analyzing legacies of communism extensively and sometimes mentioning perhaps one or two long-standing interwar or 19th century trends. The result is a well-known stalemate – “hybrid regimes” typology (for instance Vanhuysse and Cerami – granted the book does focus slightly on the interwar). My main aim, limitations of space granted, is to give some support for one controversial, but somewhat lesser known hypothesis thrown into Inglot‘s in-depth book on Central and Eastern European welfare states – that the communist regime itself came on top of a pre-existing solid state, with an institutional framework that already had certain specificities, and hence created long duree recurring processes. The core issue here is nation-building qua modernization, a process which under many shapes, but sharing economic nationalism as a doctrine, characterized the post-Versailles young CEE states.

Why the interwar could be a better path-starting moment
The parts of the literature which do include overviews of interwar social policy (Haggard and Kaufman another important name in this field), concur over a Bismarkian origin of CEE welfare states. Atomized benefits such as healthcare and pensions (the latter occupying a very sensitive point on the political agenda according to Inglot) had been established in the late 19th-early 20th century, but became integrated into state-wide security nets under the impetus of nationalizing nationalisms (Brubaker) and the dynamic state stance they implied. Hence the two key processes involved are state-building, which creates the infrastructure necessary for welfare states, and nation-building, which supplies a fundamental ideatic layer (that Xaver Kaufmann considers of prime importance for modern welfare states). As a nexus of industrialization, urbanization, imitative institutional adaptation, nation-building and economic nationalism, interwar modernization in CEE states created a social policy that strived to be a nationalized solution to “backwardness”, tackling nationalized inequalities. This naturally creates hybrid institutional structures from the very path-starting moment. As the nation-state became the key locus of difference production and hence inequality defining (Clarke), atomized benefits become components of wide-scale strategies for counter-acting poverty. This high degree of integrative thinking argues strongly for seeing interwar social policy as a path-starting moment.
Brief case study – Romania
Primary sources are rather vociferous in their claim that interwar Romanian institutions attempted to forge a new social solidarity and to replace charities with a more rational approach to poverty. The teleological aim of creating a “Western nation” contrasted greatly with a country that 80% rural-agricultural, and whose towns were economically dominated by minorities (who also held roughly 42% of the urban-demographic balance; important to note is that comparable figures exist for all interwar CEE states with the exception of Czechoslovakia). This explains how and why nation-forgers opted for a Bismarkian-inspired, pro-urban welfare-system: by lacing it with an ethnic targeting, a coherent strategy was created to consolidate an urban middle class that would serve as a backbone for a modern Romanian nation, modeled on a political template that nation-forgers in the interwar era observed in the Western World. Hence, in accordance with the preference for industrialization inherent in economic nationalism, a teleological understanding of nationhood and stage-development theory as an intellectual tool, interwar Romanian ruling elites sought economic progress and modernization through redistribution system which aimed at strengthening  a thin ethnically Romanian urban class, so as to dilute the overwhelming rural nature (economic and social) of the country. The strategy of economic development and aligning the nation to the putative model of a “Western urbanized, capitalist nation” was multi-layered: firstly, expanding the education system to mass-produce an educated middle-class in order to create a “desirable core” for the nation (that was overwhelmingly Romanian in its ethnic composition through discriminatory laws); secondly, nationalizing the state apparatus and through state-interventionism create a national industry; thirdly, over-protect the “desirable core” so that it can easily displace economically domineering “aliens” in urban settings and thus dilute the rural fabric of the country.
The strategy was coherent and continuous (with few exceptions) regardless which party was in power – continuous decrease of minorities in higher education; protective laws that ensured 80% Romanian personnel in enterprises and closure to foreign capital, mass-recruiting ethnically Romanian bureaucrats, health care (50:1 Romanians to Hungarians in hospitals in 30s for instance, despite a demographic ratio of 10:1) and pension benefits ethnically targeted and with an urban-bias etc. The strategy was successful – economic progress did occur as in 1937-1938 industrial output manages to slightly outweigh agricultural revenues, and primary data confirms the growth (in absolute numbers) of the urbanized population and the ethnically Romanian middle-class.
Quite clearly, this very brief overview has but scratched the surface of the complexities of interwar CEE welfare states. The essential issue it has raised however is that interwar social policy in Central and Eastern Europe is more than a collection of immitative atomized benefits, but a broader political project.If the scholarly stalemate alluded to in the introduction is to be broken then a reconsideration of the path-starting moment seems of paramount importance.
Picture source: TUMEKE!