Regions and Regionalism, Eastern Europe

views updated


It would be difficult to find two people todayeven two historians or political scientistswho would completely agree on the meaning of the phrase Eastern Europe. Unlike such phrases as Great Britain, the former Yugoslavia, or the Baltic states, Eastern Europe varies widely in what it denotes. The variation occurs in part because what the phrase denotes has changed frequently over time, and in part because in any given era it has carried a multitude of different meanings depending on a host of factors, from the intellectual context to the political orientation or ethnic identity of the speaker. Finally, it occurs because Eastern Europe refers not to an accepted geopolitical reality (like the collection of territories, with recognized boundaries, that used to be included in an entity called "Yugoslavia") but rather to a region. Regions, which enjoy no formally, legally recognized geopolitical status, are notoriously slippery in their definitions. Eastern Europe serves as an excellent illustration of the dynamics of the concepts of regions and regionalism.

During the Cold War period, the phrase Eastern Europe was commonly used in political discussions to refer specifically to Yugoslavia plus the Warsaw Pact countries (that is, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania), excluding the Soviet Union. But in the years since World War II, it has also been used variously to refer to all of Europe east of East Germany, excluding the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, and Greece; to all of Europe east of East Germany, including Russia but excluding Greece; and to a number of other collections of nations and territories. In Jewish studies, Eastern Europe can mean (among other things) Hungary and the primarily Slavic-speaking areas between, but not including, modern-day Germany and the former Soviet Union (roughly corresponding to what is today Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary); it can mean those same territories plus modern-day Russia; it can mean those same territories, modern-day Russia, and such territories of the former Soviet Union as once held significant Jewish populations (Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova); and it can mean various other combinations of territories without Russia.

The broadest definition of Eastern Europe may well be the one that the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London, uses to describe the region to which its activities are devoted. That institution's Web site includes this definition: "all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from Finland in the north to the Balkans in the south [inclusive], and from Germany and Austria in the west to Russia in the east [inclusive]."

Regions and Nations, Regionalism and Nationalism in Modern Europe

There are at least two histories of the concept of Eastern Europe, both holding important implications for the broader concepts of regions and regionalism. The first imposes on Europe a regional division that is modern in design but that attempts to describe a historical reality dating back many centuries. The other recounts the emergence and development of the consciousness of Eastern Europe as a region.

The first history was told originally by the Hungarian historian and social theorist István Bibó in an article titled "The Distress of East European Small States" (1946). More recently, in 1983, the historian Jenő Szűcs revised his compatriot's ideas and wrote a revised account in "Three Historical Regions of Europe: An Outline." Szűcs's implicit view of regions is devoid of ethnic or national considerations, resting instead on an observation concerning attitudes toward political power and its application in Europe. Western Europe, in Szűcs's view, has been characterized for almost a millennium by the "structuraland theoreticalseparation of 'society' from the 'state.'" Despite what we are commonly taught, the notions of natural law, the social contract, and popular sovereignty first appear some five centuries before Thomas Hobbes (15881679) and John Locke (16321704), and they derive, surprisingly, from western European feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church. By the twelfth century, a distinctive political and social culture had set apart a region known as Europa Occidens, whose eastern boundary runs from the lower Danube through the Eastern Carpathians and into the Baltics. West of this line, Szűcs says, society was subordinated to the secular state (that is, the secular state asserted power over society but left it with some measure of freedom); east of the line, society was nationalized (in the sense in which modern totalitarian regimes nationalized industries by incorporating them into the state). In this formulation, what makes a region is primarily the relationship between governing power and the governed, and though religion and social mores clearly have something to do with this relationship, Szűcs treats these factors as mere data and is reluctant to use them as a basis for broad judgments of ethnic or national groups.

The second history is far more complicated because it involves popular attitudesat various educational and social stratatoward cultures and toward categories (ethnic, national, religious) of people. Larry Wolff's Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994) approaches the topic of regionalism in Europe from a postcolonial perspective heavily indebted to the work of such theorists as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said. Gramsci and Foucault gave Wolff his understanding of power hierarchies; Said (who drew heavily on the first two) gave him his understanding of the cultural myth called "Orientalism," by which the West (in its broadest sense, not confined to Europe) has allegedly investigated, classified, and subjugated any number of regionseither inside or outside Europe and generally but not always lying literally to the eastthat it regards as other.

Whatever one might think of the charge that the West's attitude toward what it has regarded as the East has been founded on domination or a desire to dominate, Wolff offers a compelling account of the emergence and subsequent history of Eastern Europe as a regional concept. In his view, the emergence takes place in the Enlightenment. The northsouth axis, separating Europe into a culturally superior West and a culturally inferior East, Wolff says, replaced the Renaissance's eastwest axis, which separated Europe into a culturally superior South and a culturally inferior North.

The "invention" of Eastern Europe may well have been the work of Voltaire (16941778). His History of Charles XII (1731) gives an account of the Swedish monarch's wars with the Russian tsar Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. As Wolff sees it, Voltaire's contribution to regionalism was to emphasize Russia's position astride Europe and Asia. It would become increasingly clear during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Asia was primarily the source of Eastern Europe's "easternness" and that the two poles of Asia in Europe were Russia and the Ottoman Empire (together, at any given moment in history, with the Ottoman Empire's former and then-current territorial possessions in Europe). To the extent that Orientalism in Europe was associated with the Ottoman Empire, it gave rise to a fascination with Islam and with the exotica connected in the western European mind with that religion. Such fascination tended to focus on the Balkan Peninsula. The enormous complexity of the Balkans as a regional construct is the subject of Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans (1997). Todorova places particular emphasis on the Ottoman Empire as a source of Eastern cultural elements that, in the minds of western Europeans, characterize the Balkan region. To the extent that Orientalism was associated with Russia, it gave rise to a fascination with things Slavic, encouraging some adventurous and moneyed western Europeans to travel to points east (and northeast) and other less adventurous souls (Voltaire, for example, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau [17121778]), who wrote an important book on the Polish constitution) to write about eastern lands without ever bothering to visit them.

In the early to mid-eighteenth century, a trend arose in European thought that would develop side by side with the trend toward regionalism. It began with the scientific classification of living things, developed into the concept of race, and culminated in the nineteenth-century geopolitical theory of nationalism. By 1735, Carolus Linnaeus (17071778) had recognized the existence of physical and mental variations within the human species, though he attributed such variations to environmental factors rather than to heredity. In midcentury, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (17071788) defined species as the smallest groups whose individual members could produce offspring and subdivided the human species into smaller groups to which he applied the word race.

It was Immanuel Kant (17241804) who introduced scientific rigor into the subclassification of species. In three articles published between 1775 and 1788, he provided a definition of race that recognized the principle of interfertility among members of various races, he offered a division of the human species into four original races, and he asserted that racial characteristics are hereditary, not acquired. Though Kant regarded skin color as the most reliable indicator of racial origin, he did not hesitate to describe the four races according to their moral characteristics.

Kant's taxonomy was necessarily broad and classed all Europeans in a single race (the "whites"). Not until later in the nineteenth century, with the advent of Darwin's theory of natural selection and a rudimentary theory of genetics, was racial thinking given the elaborate scientific (some would say pseudoscientific) basis that led to the detailed classification of groups within Europe's borders. But even as Kant was publishing the last of his three essays on race, his countryman Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), in Ideas Toward a Philosophy of the History of Man (17841791), was explicitly rejecting the category of race, proposing instead a classification of peoples (Völker) by nation, a concept based on spiritual rather than on physical heredity. In Herder's eyes, the dominant factors in the formation of nationhood are "national formation" (National-bildung ) and language (which he describes as "the peculiar means for the formation [ Bildung ] of man").

All that remained was to link nation in this spiritual sense to nation in the political sense. This fell to Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814), who in 1807 and 1808 delivered his Addresses to the German Nation in French-occupied Berlin, describing to his beleaguered compatriots the nation as the ultimate expression of the character of a people (Volk) and pointing to the features of the German people that set it apart fromand abovethe other peoples of Europe, particularly the French. These addresses firmly established the basis for European nationalism, defined by Ernest Gellner in 1983 as "a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state should not separate the power holders from the rest" (p. 1). It was not until much later in the century, of course, that this concept arose with such consequential force in lands to the east and south of where Fichte stood as he rallied his countrymen.

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries thus show an oddly split attitude on the classification of people and places in Europe. As Wolff shows, when western European writers turned their attention eastward in the eighteenth century, they had a marked tendency to see ethnic and even linguistic homogeneity spread out over broad areas where the more discriminating outlook of nineteenth-century nationalism would judge that such homogeneity did not existthus regions rather than nations. A case in point is the common use of the proper adjective Slavic (Sclavic, Slavonic, Sclavonic) to designate the people and languages in Russia and virtually all European territories east of present-day Germany and Austria, including the Balkans (but not Greece). Visitors to Poland, Bohemia, Russia, and even Hungary commonly referred indifferently to the languages spoken there as Slavic, as if they were all identical. At the same time, however, writers in the West had discovered two criteria, inherited physical traits and common language, that would increasingly encourage the division and narrower classification of people within broad regionsthus nations.

Central versus Eastern Europe

To confuse the regional issue further, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries presented the competing concept of Central Europe, itself almost as fluid and unstable as Eastern Europe. As is well known, the rise of nationalism and the corresponding ideal of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state gave rise to centripetal and centrifugal geopolitical forces in nineteenth-century Europe. The final unification of Italy in 1870 and of Germany in 1871 represented the culmination of a centripetal process of unification, while events in the Balkan Peninsula and the non-German territories of the Habsburg Empire led to a centrifugal process of secession and fragmentation. One result was the broad regional configuration that would remain in existence until the end of World War I. From the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, "Central Europe" (Mitteleuropa in German) referred essentially to the German Confederation (created at the Congress of Vienna and corresponding in its borders very roughly to present-day Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia). This was the Austrian prince Metternich's dream of a Europe dominated by a central core of German-speaking territories. In 1915, in the middle of World War I, the German theologian and liberal democrat Friedrich Naumann published a work titled Mitteleuropa, in which he called for an economic federation to be established after the war. Naumann's idea was that the federation would have at its center Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire but would also include all European nations outside the Anglo-French alliance, on one side, and Russia, on the other. This large territory would be Mitteleuropa.

Naturally the political settlement at the end of the war, in particular the division of Germany into two separate pieces divided by the Danzig Corridor, made Naumann's plans unrealizable. But events in European intellectual life in the early 1980s revived the concept of Central Europe and the debate about its definition and its broader significance. The process began in 1984, with the publication of Milan Kundera's "The Tragedy of Central Europe" (though Kundera had written some pieces on the topic as early as 1981). It culminated with the publication of two collections of writings, immediately before the downfall of Soviet Communism in 1991: In Search of Central Europe (edited by George Schöpflin and Nancy Wood) in 1989 and a special issue of Daedalus, titled "Eastern Europe Central Europe Europe," in the winter of 1990. Curiously, the principal actors in the resurrection of Central Europe, Kundera, Václav Havel, and Czesław Miłosz, were not from Germany or Austria but from areas that might just as easily be classified as Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia and Poland. But in his 1984 essay, Kundera seemed to have in mind territories that, with respect to the Mitteleuropa of Metternich and Naumann, were marginal (which is to say, non-German speaking): Central Europe, he thought, was a region "culturally in the West and politically in the East," and the nations he referred to were Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

There can be no doubt that this debate over Central Europe was largely motivated by the social and political consciousness of groups living between the two Germanys, on one side, and the Soviet Union, on the othergroups, in other words, mindful of their exclusion from the ranks of historically more prominent and powerful neighbors. As Patrick Hyder Patterson put it, "Mitteleuropa emerges as a means for a people worried about their own European credentials to retrieve a place at the heart of European politics and culture" (p. 128). The Hungarian historian Péter Hanák, in 1989, dealt with the regional/definitional issue by simply declaring Eastern Europe to be Russia and then comparing the historical progress of Central Europe with that of the West. In the same year, the Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kus" got around the regionalism issue by speaking wryly of "Central-European East Europeans," a group that included East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and Estonians.

Such reflections on Central Europe took on an entirely new meaning, of course, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. For many observers, they simply became irrelevant. But they serve as a good reminder of the considerable extent to which regional categories in Europe at any given moment are tied to power configurations.

The Future of Eastern Europe

The geopolitical conditions that have had such a profound impact on the regional concepts of Central Europe and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuriesessentially the political fallout of the Napoleonic era and the two world warsare now a thing of the past, and some specialists today think that Eastern Europe has outlived its usefulness as a phrase. The expansion of NATO in 1999 to include Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, and in 2004 to include Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia has erased boundaries that appeared fixed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to at least a temporary reconfiguration of relations between the United States and various European NATO members. The traditional Cold War Continental allies, France and Germany, found themselves brushed aside by the United States in favor of Eastern European nations more supportive of American foreign policy.

To put it very simply, Eastern Europe began in the eighteenth century as something defined by contrast with England, France, and, to a lesser extent, the German-speaking territories. It then came to be something defined by its position between these same Western powers, on the one side, and Russia (and subsequently the Soviet Union), on the other. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO, the Cold War dynamic that made it possible for Eastern Europe to denote "Warsaw Pact Countries plus Yugoslavia but not the Soviet Union" ceased to exist, and the concept lost the small measure of precision that, at least in certain contexts, it had enjoyed for a half century.

See also Europe, Idea of ; Maps and the Ideas They Express ; Nationalism ; Orientalism ; Other, The .


Bibó, István. "The Distress of the East European Small States." In Democracy, Revolution, Self-Determination: Selected Writings, edited by Károly Nagy and translated by András Boros-Kazai, 1886. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 1991.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Graubard, Stephen R., ed. "Eastern Europe Central Europe Europe." Special issue, Daedalus 119, no. 1 (winter 1990).

Hanák, Péter. "Central Europe: A Historical Region in Modern Times: A Contribution to the Debate about the Regions of Europe." In In Search of Central Europe, edited by George Schöpflin and Nancy Wood, 5769. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1989.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Translated by T. Churchill. 1800. Reprint, New York: Bergman, 1966.

Kant, Immanuel. "Of the Different Human Races." In The Idea of Race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and Tommy L. Lott, 822. Indianapolis and Cambridge, U.K.: Hackett, 2000.

Kundera, Milan. "The Tragedy of Central Europe." The New York Review of Books 31 (April 1984): 3338.

Kusy Miroslav. "We, Central-European East Europeans." In In Search of Central Europe, edited by George Schöpflin and Nancy Wood, 9196. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1989.

Patterson, Patrick Hyder. "On the Edge of Reason: The Boundaries of Balkanism in Slovenian, Austrian, and Italian Discourse." Slavic Review 62 (2003): 110141.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Schöpflin, George, and Nancy Wood, eds. In Search of Central Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1989.

Szucs, Jeno. "Three Historical Regions of Europe." In Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives, edited by John Keane, 291331. London and New York: Verso, 1988.

Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Steven Cassedy

About this article

Regions and Regionalism, Eastern Europe

Updated About content Print Article Share Article