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Historians have difficulty defining Eastern Europe, questioning whether it should be considered a fundamental piece of Europe or part of the western frontier of Asia. Overlapping religions, economics, and cultural themes have led some to consider these countries “less European” than other European countries. Experts estimate that four more decades may be needed for Eastern Europe to catch up economically with its western neighbors.
Eastern Europe has been termed the heart of Europe and Europe’s suburb—both the crossroads of the continent and the borderland of Western civilization. The debate over Eastern Europe’s proper definition—an integral part of Europe or the western frontier of Asia?—illustrates the region’s historical place as a march land: an area where religions, empires, economic spheres, and cultural zones have overlapped and conflicted. Some view the term Eastern Europe as a relic of the Cold War division of Europe—hence its use as a formal capitalized term here, as opposed to western Europe, which is meant more as a geographic location. Other designations have also been proposed. Central Europe, which suggests the region’s vital contributions to Europe, is proposed for the region as a whole or in part (usually Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary). And because the term Balkans connotes backwardness and ethnic strife, Southeastern Europe is offered as a designation for the lands south of the Danube. In these terms, we see the disputed notions of the region: is it an integral part of democratic, capitalist Europe, or an area that is “less European”—culturally, economically, politically—than its western neighbors?
Defined as the nineteen post-Communist states between the Russian Federation and the German and Italian states (including six former Soviet republics and seven states of the former Yugoslavia), Eastern Europe is a region of 190 million people and over thirty ethnolinguistic groups. Diversity of languages, cultures, and religions is a primary characteristic of this region, one that has had both positive influence on the region’s history and, as shown in the wars of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, devastating consequences.
Geography and Population
Eastern Europe has no definite geographic boundaries. The North European Plain stretches from northern France across Poland, the Baltics, and Belarus, and into the Eurasian steppe. A spine of mountains—running from the Alps, through southern Germany and the Czech lands, to the Carpathians—separates the North European and Hungarian plains. South of the Danube, crisscrossing chains of mountains divide the region into remote valleys. Coastal areas are limited. The principal navigable rivers—the Oder, Vistula, Dnieper, Dniester, and Danube—flow to enclosed seas (the Baltic and the Black). South of the Danube, there are no major waterways, and the Adriatic coast is separated from the arid interior by the Dinaric Alps.
Riverine and maritime transportation have not been decisive factors in Eastern Europe’s history, compared to the western part of the continent; the overland movement of peoples, goods, and ideas has been the essential factor in the region’s development. As the trunk connecting the European promontories to Eurasia, Eastern Europe was the path of migration for Germanic and Hunnic tribes in the fourth and fifth centuries CE; Bulgars and Slavs in the seventh and eighth; Magyars in the ninth; and Germans and Jews, migrating eastward, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the Middle Ages, major overland trade routes crossed Eastern Europe, connecting the German and Italian states with Constantinople and the Baltic Sea. And the region has been devastated by the epic conflicts of western Eurasia, from the ravaging of Attila in the fifth century to the Nazi–Soviet campaign in the twentieth.
The lands of Eastern Europe have offered a variety of natural resources. The plains of Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine are areas of abundant agricultural production, supplying grain for centuries to western Europe, Constantinople/Istanbul, and Moscow. During the medieval centuries, mining was an important activity throughout the region, with gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, and salt extracted from the mountains of the Czech lands, Slovakia, Transylvania, Bosnia, and Serbia. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, coalfields were mined in the Czech lands, Poland, and Ukraine, and oil and gas deposits were tapped in Romania and Ukraine.
Although some of these mineral and agricultural resources were processed and consumed within the region, for the most part Eastern Europe has produced raw materials for neighboring states. A principal reason for this disparity in consumption was the low population density in Eastern Europe. In the eleventh century, the estimated population density of Italy was 24 people per square kilometer, and in France, 16 people per square kilometer. In the Czech lands, in contrast, population density was only 7.8 people per square kilometer; in Poland, 5 people per square kilometer. By the late Middle Ages, when cities were emerging as economic and cultural centers in Western Europe, only a handful of cities in Eastern Europe had populations over 10,000: Prague, Wroclaw/ Breslau, Gdansk/Danzig, Krakow, Kiev, and Smolensk. Contemporary capitals such as Ljubljana (Slovenia), Zagreb (Croatia), and Sofia (Bulgaria) had populations under 25,000 until the early twentieth century. At that time, population density across much of Eastern Europe was still less than 100 people per square kilometer. In most areas south of the Danube, it was less than 50 people per square kilometer. Marked increases in population and urbanization did not occur until after 1950.
Other demographic indices further illustrate Eastern Europe’s standing as a march land. The British demographer John Hajnal has drawn a line demarking the “European Marriage Pattern” through Eastern Europe, from St. Petersburg to Trieste. To the west of that line, Hajnal and others have observed, medieval Europeans married later than people in most other world regions (the average age of first marriage was in the mid-twenties, while some 10 to 20 percent of people remained single) and established single-family households. To the east of that line, and in most areas of the world, marriage was nearly universal, couples married at a young age (late teens to early twenties), and multifamily households were organized along patrilinear lines. In the lands that Hajnal’s line crosses (the Baltics, Poland, the Czech lands and Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia), patterns of medieval marriage and household composition followed both western and eastern models.
This same line also serves as a boundary in mapping indices of economic and social modernization: in the mid- to late 1800s, levels of gross domestic product (GDP), industrial output, and density of rail lines were far higher to the west of the line; by the 1930s, there was also a large disparity in literacy rates and infant mortality. As with Hajnal’s mapping of the European Marriage Pattern, areas of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia were a transitional zone. In terms of demographic and economic measures, the Czech lands in the 1930s were most like western Europe: the literacy rate was 96 percent, and over half the population lived in urban areas and was engaged in industrial or commercial activity. Furthest removed from western European indices were Bulgaria, Albania, and the southern regions of Yugoslavia. In Albania, in the 1930s, only 12 percent of the population lived in urban areas, and the literacy rate was only 30 percent . In her studies of Albania and Montenegro from the early 1900s, the anthropologist M. E. Durham observed patriarchal tribal societies, a justice system based on blood vengeance, and cultural practices that blended Islam and Catholicism with belief in vampires and the evil eye.
Eastern Europe offers a classic example of a peripheral economic zone, a region that is dependent upon more populous and developed areas—in this case, for the export of raw materials and the import of capital and technology. Eastern Europe has been in a peripheral relationship not only to the western European core, but also to Constantinople/Istanbul and Moscow. At various times, these imperial powers competed with each other or with western European states for control of the region’s resources. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks vied with Venice for silver and other resources in Bosnia and Serbia, leading to a series of wars. The Ottomans were forced to surrender the agricultural areas of Ukraine and the Danube delta in wars with Russia in the 1700s. And imperial and Soviet Russia sought to offset Austrian and German influence in southeastern Europe and Poland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A consequence of these overlapping economic interests is that, from the later medieval period through the twentieth century, Eastern Europe’s natural resources have been extracted largely for the benefit of its neighbors to the west, east, and south. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, foodstuffs from Ukraine and metals from Bosnia and Serbia fueled the capital’s rebuilding. North of the Danube, the Austrian Habsburgs and their German bankers gained control of the mineral resources of the Czech lands and Slovakia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word dollar is derived from Joachimsthaler, a silver coin minted in present-day Jachymov, Czech Republic, that the Habsburgs circulated in the seventeenth century. This export of natural resources did generate some prosperity in the region. But, for the most part, because of its dependence upon or exploitation by neighboring states, the economic development of Eastern Europe was stunted. In the late medieval period, landowning nobles in Poland and Hungary seized upon high profits to be gained in the export of grain and cattle to German and Italian markets. This export of foodstuffs resulted in the gradual transformation of the agrarian system from a tenant economy, in which peasants paid rent to the lords, to a feudal structure that restricted peasant mobility and obliged them to work the lords’ estates. Thus, at the same time parts of western Europe transitioned from a feudal to a market-based economy, Eastern Europe experienced a “second serfdom.” Economic power remained in the hands of the landed nobility, who invested their profits in manors and luxury goods.
Banking, industry, and commerce were limited in the late medieval and early modern periods. Jews, Armenians, and Germans scattered in the region controlled most commercial and industrial activities. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, caravans along the trade route between Akkerman on the Black Sea and L’viv/Lwow (Ukraine) were always under the direction of Armenian merchants. Merchants in L’viv—whether Armenian, Jewish, German, Tatar, Polish, or Italian—traded wheat, fish, caviar, and cattle for pepper, cotton, and silk. Slaves were also important commodities: between 1500 and 1650, some ten thousand slaves—seized in Poland, Ukraine, and southern Russia—were exported each year to Istanbul.
Lacking a prominent middle class and domestic markets, Eastern Europe’s economy was slow to industrialize. By the late 1800s, isolated areas of industrialization had emerged: the Czech lands were an important manufacturing area in the Habsburg Empire; the region around Lodz, Poland, produced 40 percent of the Russian Empire’s coal and nearly a quarter of its steel; and Budapest was one of the world’s largest centers for milling flour. For the most part, however, industrialization was limited. In the 1930s, over 75 percent of GDP in Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, and Yugoslavia was agriculture; after Czechoslovakia, the largest industrial sector was in Hungary, where industry was only 24 percent of GDP. Development of industry, transportation, and communications in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was generated largely through foreign investment. Austrian, German, and French firms owned factories, railroads, and shipping lines in the region. Foreign companies owned 95 percent of Romanian oil deposits. The other driving force behind the region’s economies was state interference in or direction of development. Thus, the economic central planning of the post–World War II Communist regimes was not a great departure from the pattern of preceding decades. Under the Communist regimes, the Eastern European economies were tied to each other and to the Soviet Union in the COMECON trading bloc. Industrialization advanced rapidly in the region, although at a steep cost: resources and finished goods were exported, below market value, to the Soviet Union, while factories scarred the landscape of the region, particularly the northern Czech lands, southern Poland, and Romania.
Frontiers between Religions
The indistinct boundaries of the Catholic patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople also met in Eastern Europe, and missionaries from both cities brought Christianity into the region. Both the Roman pope and the patriarch in Constantinople recognized the early mission of the brothers Cyril (c. 827–869) and Methodius (d. 885). Sent from Constantinople, Cyril and Methodius carried the Christian faith north of the Danube, together with a Slavic literary script to be used for liturgy. Even in areas that were loyal to Rome after the Great Schism of 1054, this liturgy and script, known as Glagolitic, continued to be used: in Poland and the Czech lands, the Slavic rite persisted until the twelfth century; in Croatia and Dalmatia, Glagolitic was the script for liturgical texts into the twentieth century. This script became the basis for the Cyrillic alphabet used today in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, and other nations.
Following the mission of Cyril and Methodius, competition arose between the Latin Church, with its German allies, and the Greek Church, which was backed by Byzantine power. Local princes looked both to Rome and Constantinople. Duke Borivoj (d. 889), founder of Prague, was baptized into the Slavic rite, while the Bulgarian czar, Boris I (d. 889), exchanged letters on theological questions with the Roman pope. Their choices, and the success of one rite or the other in a particular principality, resulted more from political exigencies than religious conviction. The expansion of the Roman church in the Czech lands and Poland during the ninth and tenth centuries was due largely to German bishops and the emperors Otto I and Otto III. In 917, the patriarch in Constantinople established an independent patriarchate for the Bulgarian church. Although independent, this new church followed the Slavic rite and maintained loyalty to Constantinople—thus remaining free from Rome. This competition between the ecclesiastical authorities, and local princes’ strategies of playing Rome off against Constantinople, continued after the Great Schism of 1054 separated the patriarchates into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the two churches vied for converts in the last pagan areas of Europe: an arc from Lithuania through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. At the same time, in mountainous Bosnia, a church emerged that was independent of the two authorities and combined elements of both Latin and Slavic-Greek traditions. By the mid-1400s, though, this Bosnian church was broken, largely through the efforts of Franciscan missionaries, and both Catholic and Orthodox churches competed for its former adherents.
The religious map of Eastern Europe was further colored by migrations, invasions, and reform movements of the late medieval and early modern periods. Ashkenazic Jews, speakers of Yiddish, migrated from the Holy Roman Empire into Poland in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, and into Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. Of the 7.5 million Jews living in Eastern Europe in 1900, 70 percent lived in these areas. The Sephardic Jews of southeastern Europe, distinct from the Ashkenazim in custom and language, were descendents of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and welcomed into the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardim numbered 193,000 in 1900, most in cities such as Sarajevo and Salonika. The Ottoman expansion into southeastern Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries also brought Islam into the region. According to the Ottoman census of 1520–1530, Muslims were 18.8 percent of the population in the empire’s European lands. Muslims also congregated in towns: the population of Sofia, for instance, was over 66 percent Muslim, while the surrounding district was only 6 percent Muslim. These Muslims included Turkish officials, soldiers, and artisans, as well as converted Greeks, Albanians, and Slavs. Conversions were due largely to Islam’s adaptability to local folk religion, rather than firm conviction, and many Muslims of southeastern Europe maintained ties to Christianity. In some rural areas, peasants went to the mosque on Friday and church on Sunday.
The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation further stirred the region’s religious waters. Martin Luther acknowledged the influence of early reformer Jan Hus (c. 1372–1415), a Czech priest and critic of Catholic doctrine. Although the church executed Hus as a heretic, Catholic armies failed to suppress his followers in the Czech lands. With the ground prepared by the Hussite challenge, branches of the Protestant Reformation found adherents in the Czech lands, as well as in other areas of Eastern Europe, in the early 1500s. Lutheranism advanced into the Czech lands, Slovenia, and Poland in the 1520s. The Reformed (Calvinist) movement spread rapidly in Hungary and the Ottoman vassal state of Transylvania. Calvinism also gained adherents in Poland and Lithuania, where Reformed universities were founded in the 1620s. Anabaptist and Anti-Trinitarian (Unitarian) sects also took root in Poland, Lithuania, and Transylvania. In Transylvania, Prince Istvan Bathory (reigned 1571–1586) recognized the Unitarian, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed faiths as accepted religions of the state. This toleration was unusual in Eastern Europe—and in Europe as a whole. By the late 1500s and 1600s, in the Czech lands, Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia, Jesuits and Catholic nobles succeeded in reestablishing Catholic dominance and outlawing Protestantism throughout much of Eastern Europe.
During the medieval period, independent kingdoms in Eastern Europe rivaled states to the west and east. Under Czar Simeon (reigned 893–927), Bulgaria dominated the lands south of the Danube, from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. During the reign of Charles IV as Holy Roman Emperor (reigned 1346–1378), Prague became the leading city of the region, and the site of the first university north of the Alps. And the Hungarian court at Buda, under Matthias Corvinus (reigned 1441–1490), was a center of art and learning in the early Renaissance. In the early modern period, however, the independent states of Eastern Europe ceased to exist, as the region came under the political control of rival empires. The threat of Protestantism in the Czech lands and the Ottoman Turks in Hungary led to the consolidation in the early seventeenth century of an empire ruled by the Catholic Habsburgs. In 1683 the Ottoman Turks’ final advance into Europe was halted at the Habsburgs’ seat, Vienna, and, less than two decades later, the Habsburgs had seized Hungary and Transylvania from the Ottomans. At the same time, new expansionist powers were emerging in the east (Russia) and the northwest (Prussia). In the early 1700s, under Peter the Great (Peter I, reigned 1682–1725), Russia pressed south into Ukraine; and at the end of the century, under Catherine the Great (Catherine II, reigned 1762–1796), the empire partitioned the territory of the weakened Polish kingdom among Habsburg Austria, Prussia, and itself. Following the Napoleonic wars, these imperial powers—Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire—claimed all the lands of Eastern Europe.
Yet, at the same time as the neighboring powers culminated their advance into Eastern Europe, local movements began to challenge imperial power. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these initiatives developed into mass nationalist movements. Motivated by ideas imported from western Europe—the French idea of the nation as a source of sovereignty and the German conception of the nation as a community united by language and culture—regional elites assembled the components of national communities: codified languages, books and periodicals in those languages, national histories, and institutions for education and culture. From the mid-nineteenth century, national movements demanded linguistic and educational rights and administrative autonomy. Violent confrontations with imperial authorities erupted in several areas: Poland (1830, 1846, 1863), Hungary (1848), Bosnia (1875), Bulgaria (1876), and Macedonia (1903). While the Russians suppressed Poland and the Austrian Habsburgs granted autonomy to Hungary, the emerging national movements of southeastern Europe embroiled the region into the early twentieth century. Ottoman weakness and the scheming of the independent states of Greece (independent in 1830), Serbia (1878), Romania (1878), and Bulgaria (1878) stoked the incendiary situation in the region. Bloody wars in 1877–1878 and 1912–1913 and other economic and diplomatic crises drew the major European powers—Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Germany—into a complicated tangle in the region. A Serbian student’s assassination of the Habsburg heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914, precipitated the unraveling of that tangle and led to the start of World War I.
World War I brought the creation of new independent states in Eastern Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia), but the process of building ethnically homogenous polities out of the former empires continued throughout the twentieth century. “Ethnic cleansing,” a term that entered the universal lexicon during the wars of the former Yugoslavia (1991–1999), has been a stain on the region’s history since the wars of 1877–1878 and 1912–1913, when Slav, Romanian, and Greek armies expelled thousands of Muslims. The expansion of Nazi German military power into the region, followed by the Soviet Union’s devastating victory, accelerated the segregation of national groups. In addition to the 4.5 to 5.4 million Jews of the region who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their local accomplices, another 9 to 10 million people— mostly Poles, Belarusans, and Ukrainians—were killed during the German advance of 1939–1941. The Soviet regime deported some 1.5 million Poles and Ukrainians to Asia, while 5.5 million people from throughout the region were forced into labor in Germany. Following the war, over 18 million people were resettled, including over 8 million Germans expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
After the collapse of the Communist regimes in 1989 and 1991, the efforts at creating nation-states continued, with the establishment of independent post-Soviet republics (the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova) and the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia in 1993. The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (1991– 1999) showed that nationalist identities, when mixed with economic decline and political provocation, remain a deadly force in the region.
The Twenty-First Century
Over two decades after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, the region is again a march land of economic, political, and cultural spheres. In 2004 and 2007, ten former communist states join the European Union. Yet the former Yugoslav states of Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo remain unstable after the wars of the 1990s, and the former Soviet republics of Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus are beset by economic and political problems. Eastern Europe remains an exporter of natural resources. The principal resource now is labor: industrial workers find jobs throughout western Europe, while educated young people leave for universities—and jobs—in western Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the financial crisis that began in late 2007 revealed how incomplete and fragile were the economic changes of the immediate postcommunist period. The road of economic and political transformation is long. According to estimates, even the region’s most advanced countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic) will not reach western European economic levels for another three to four decades.
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