Central Europe, Relations with

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CENTRAL EUROPE, RELATIONS WITH. The concept of Central Europe evolved only in the twentieth century. When the United States was first forming, the Austrian empire controlled most of what is now Central Europe.

Many people in Mitteleuropa, as Central Europe was known, saw America as the hope for liberation of oppressed peoples. For Austria this created very strained relations with the United States. When Hungary revolted against Austrian rule in the 1848, America sympathized with the rebels and supported liberation movements within the Austrian empire.

In the late nineteenth century, millions of "Eastern Europeans" (people from areas east of Switzerland) migrated to America. Poles, who had already come in large numbers to the United States, were joined by Ukrainians, Gypsies, Slovaks, and especially Czechs. Czechs settled in the Midwest and made Cleveland, Ohio, a city with one of the world's largest Czech populations. These immigrants, often unwelcome, were characterized by some Americans as mentally and morally inferior to Americans of Western European ancestry. Nevertheless, America offered opportunities that were hard to find in Europe.

Creation of New Nations

During World War I the U.S. government favored the Allies (Russia, France, Britain, and, later, Italy), but many Americans supported the Germans and Austrians. Thus, President Woodrow Wilson was cautious in his support of the Allies. By 1917 conclusive evidence of Germany's effort to persuade Mexico to go to war against the United States made America's entrance into the war inevitable. By the summer of 1918 America was sending 250,000 troops per month to France and England. On 16 September 1918, at St. Mihiel, France, an American army of nine divisions fought and defeated the German forces, ensuring the eventual victory of the Allies.

Woodrow Wilson wanted to create a new Europe in which democracy would be brought to all Europeans, and it was through his efforts that Central Europe became a concept. It was a vague concept, however. Some political scientists saw its limits as Poland to the north, the Ukraine to the east, the Balkans to the south, and the eastern border of Switzerland to the west. Others saw it as consisting of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, western Ukraine, and sometimes Romania.

Woodrow Wilson argued that "self-determination" should govern the formation of new nations in Central Europe, although he agreed to cede Austria's German-speaking southeastern territories to Italy. Some historians regard this as a mistake, because it denied the people of those provinces their right to choose—the assumption being that they would have chosen to remain part of Austria, with which they had more in common than with Italy. But in 1918 Italy, though it had been the ally of Germany and Austria, had chosen to join the effort to defeat them, and the area ceded to Italy had been the site of horrendous battles in which the Italians had lost many lives. Making the region part of northern Italy seemed to be the only right choice. Thus on 12 November 1918 the Republic of Austria was established, minus its northern Italian holdings, Bohemia, Hungary, and parts of the Balkans and Poland.

With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Hungary, Poland, Transylvania, and Yugoslavia were established as independent nations. (Transylvania eventually became part of Romania.) Between the world wars Central Europe often was of little interest to America. Although Woodrow Wilson had pushed for the United States to be actively international in its outlook, many Americans believed that the best way to avoid being dragged into another European war was to stay out of European affairs. Meanwhile, the Central European nations dealt with the worldwide depression of the 1930s, as well as with an aggressive Soviet Union that was busily gobbling up its neighbors (e.g., Finland), and a resurgent and militaristic Germany that regarded all German-speaking peoples as properly belonging to Germany. Czechoslovakia fortified its borders against the possibility of a German invasion, hoping to hold out until Western European nations such as the United Kingdom could come to its aid. Instead, Britain and France gave the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany to buy peace. Germany swept into Austria in March 1938, and in August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that included dividing Poland between them and giving Germany a free hand throughout Central Europe. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and many of the battles were fought on Central European land.

When the United States entered World War II, the Soviet Union hoped America would open a second front in Western Europe, taking on some of the Soviet Union's burden of fighting the war. That second front did not open until the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. By May 1945 the American army reached Plzen (Pilsen) in Czechoslovakia, helping the Soviet Union to drive out the Germans.

On 27 April 1945 the Allies restored Austria to its 1937 borders. From 17 July to 2 August 1945, while meeting in Potsdam, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed to treat Austria as a victim of the Germans rather than as a Nazi collaborator. The United States did not protect Central Europeans from Soviet domination. In early 1948 the Czechoslovakian Communist Party won a small plurality in elections, formed a multiparty government, then staged a coup in February; soon thereafter it began to execute thousands of possible anticommunists.

Blighted Lives

By 1955 almost all of Central Europe was under the control of the Soviet Union, and the United States and its World War II European allies had formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to counter the Soviet military threat. The Central and Eastern European communist governments were tied together in the Warsaw Pact, a military arrangement intended more to formalize those nations as part of the Soviet empire than to counter Western European military threats. Austria, the lone holdout against communism in Central Europe, on 15 May 1955 ratified the Austrian State Treaty, which declared its perpetual neutrality in the Cold War.

During the Cold War, which lasted until 1989, the Central European states were expected to maintain harsh

totalitarian states that served the interests of the Communist Party. In 1956 Hungarians revolted against their communist government. When the Soviet Union invaded to suppress the rebellion, Hungarians held them at bay in heavy street fighting, in the hope that the United States would come to their aid. But the United States did not, and the revolt was suppressed.

In 1968 Czechoslovakia tried another approach to liberation. In the "Prague Spring," the communist government tried easing restrictions on dissent. The result was a short flowering of the arts, but the Soviet Union was intolerant of dissent, and in August 1968 it and the Warsaw Pact nations, especially Poland and Hungary, invaded Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, ordered his troops to surrender. There had been a faint hope that America might intervene, but America was embroiled in the Vietnam War and was not prepared to risk a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

The Romanian government tried a dangerous diplomatic course. It created a foreign policy independent of the Soviet Union while maintaining a strict communist dictatorship as its domestic policy.

Modern Complexity

During the 1980s the Soviet Union's economy floundered. By 1989 the Soviet Union was nearing collapse, and the nations of Central Europe were able to negotiate peaceful withdrawal of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops from their territories. The Warsaw Pact itself disintegrated in 1991.

The American government sent billions of dollars in medicine, food, and industrial investment. The Central European governments regarded this aid as owed to them for their forty years of oppression. For example, Romania's government remained both communist and suspicious of American motives. America's persistent support of the formation of opposition political parties in Romania was inevitably seen as hostile to the government. The nation experienced a health care crisis including an epidemic of AIDS among children, and sought medical and humanitarian aid to stabilize the situation before developing freer elections.

After years of oppression, Hungary seemed eager to embrace Western-style democracy. There and in Czechoslovakia, this created misunderstandings between America's intermediaries and the developing governments that favored parliamentarian governments in which the executive and legislative branches were linked (rather than three-branch democracy). Further, after decades of show trials, the new governments found the concept of an independent judiciary hard to understand. When the genocidal wars in Yugoslavia broke out, Hungary invited the United States to station troops near Kaposvar and Pecs in its south. This gave Hungary a chance to show that it belonged in NATO, boosted its local economy with American dollars, and created a sense of security.

Czechoslovakia came out of its communist era seemingly better prepared than its neighbors for joining the international community and building a strong international system of trade. The eastern part of the country had factories, but there was difficulty converting some military factories to other uses. Burdened with a huge military, Czechoslovakia freed capital for investment by paring back its army. There was unrest in eastern Czechoslovakia, where most of the Slovaks lived. The Slovaks believed most of the money for recovery was going to the western part of the country instead of to theirs. In what was called the "Velvet Divorce," the Slovaks voted to separate themselves from the Czechs. On 1 January 1993 Czechoslovakia split into the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic.

The Slovak Republic, suspicious of Americans, was not entirely happy with American aid that was intended to help form a multiparty, democratic government. Part of this may have stemmed from a strong desire to find its own solutions to domestic challenges. On the other hand the Czech Republic privatized much of its industry, and America became an important trading partner. Americans invested in Czech industries, and America proved to be eager to consume Czech goods such as glassware and beer. The Czech Republic became a magnet for American tourists because of the numerous towns with ancient architecture. In 1999 the Czech Republic was admitted to NATO.


Brook-Sheperd, Gordon. The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1997.

Burant, Stephen R., ed. Hungary: A Country Study. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.

Cornell, Katharine. "From Patronage to Pragmatism: Central Europe and the United States." World Policy Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 89–86.

Knight, Robin. "Does the Old World Need a New Order?: No Longer Part of the East but Not Yet Part of the West, Central Europe Yearns for Security." U.S. News & World Report, 13 May 1991, pp. 42–43.

New berg, Paula R. "Aiding—and Defining—Democracy." World Policy Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 97–108.

"U.S. Assistance to Central and Eastern Europe." U.S. Department of State Dispatch 6, no. 35 (28 August 1995): 663–664.

Kirk H.Beetz

See alsoCold War ; Immigration ; World War I ; World War II .

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Central Europe, Relations with