East Central Europe

views updated


Steven Béla Várdy and Emil Niederhauser

The four states that make up East Central Europe appeared in their current form only in the twentieth century, but the political history of three of them—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—reaches back to the tenth century. The fourth state—Slovakia—had no separate identity until 1918, and even then only as part of Czechoslovakia until the end of 1992. It had been part of Hungary from the tenth century until after World War I. Thus, Slovakia's social development has to be discussed within Hungary's and Czechoslovakia's historical evolution. This essay uses the term Czechia (Česky in Czech) to refer to the Czech state.

East Central Europe was for centuries a transitional region between western Christendom and the Orthodox Christian world (Russia, Ukraine, and the Balkans), although because it was Christianized by Rome (not by Constantinople), its countries always constituted what the Polish historian Oscar Halecki called the "borderlands of Western civilization." As such, its political, constitutional, and social development had much more in common with western than with eastern Europe and the Balkans. At the same time, from the western European point of view the region represented the "eastern frontier," beyond which lay the lands of "invisible Barbary."

The region's most important characteristics that distinguished it from both western and eastern Europe included:

  1. its relative backwardness as compared to western Europe and its relatively advanced development as compared to eastern Europe and the Balkans
  2. its persistent agrarian socioeconomic structure, and the resulting preponderance of the peasantry, which did not really change until the nineteenth century
  3. the large size of its nobility (5 percent in Hungary and perhaps 10 percent in Poland), compared to less than 1 percent in many of the western countries, which had an impact even upon developments in the age of nationalism and
  4. its highly mixed ethnic composition, wherein ethnic differences often manifested themselves as class distinctions, and vice versa (e.g., Polish nobility versus Lithuanian and Ruthenian peasantry, and Hungarian nobility versus Slovak, Romanian, and Serbian peasantry)


The social structures of the region's three longstanding states—Poland, Czechia, and Hungary—were similar. This was the result of a number of factors that affected them simultaneously. All three emerged from tribal federation into feudal statehood simultaneously, accepted Christianity in its western form about the same time, and fell under German socioeconomic influences. As a result, most of the local peasantry acquired their own plots of land and moved from collective to individual cultivation. Following this transformation, only the meadows, grasslands, and forests were held in common.

The landowning classes came from the nobility divided into two categories: the higher, or titled, nobility (usually called barons, magnates, or pans) and the lower nontitled nobility. The relationship between these two subclasses resembled western feudal relations, the lower nobility serving the magnates in various civil or military capacities.

By the end of the fifteenth century, the nobility's political organization had been fully formed in all three countries. Poland and Hungary were divided into smaller administrative units called comitats (counties) or voivodships, each having considerable autonomy. The members of the nobility were represented in their respective feudal diets, which had evolved in the course of the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. The representatives of the clergy were likewise present. In all three countries Catholicism was the established state religion, but Poland's eastern provinces (modern Ukraine and Belarus) were populated mostly by Orthodox Christians. To a lesser degree, this was also true for Hungary's eastern provinces, particularly among the ancestors of present-day Rusyns and Romanians.

At the end of the fifteenth century, all three countries had a significant number of cities and towns. In Poland-Lithuania their number reached five hundred, while in Czechia and in Hungary they numbered about half as many. The majority of the walled cities had been established by western (mostly German) settlers, who had migrated during the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries. Originally these cities were regarded as royal property and were classified as "royal free cities." Their founders had acquired directly from the king privileges that included city autonomy, the right to live under their own laws, and the right of taxation. These privileges had been incorporated into their founding charters. Only a minority of the inhabitants held full citizenship rights, and only "citizens" had the right to vote. Even fewer were the number of those who could run for office, a right usually reserved for affluent citizens.

The royal free cities were free from all feudal control, and at times they could also send representatives to the feudal diets. Not so the "agricultural towns" (oppidum, pl. oppida), whose inhabitants, well-to-do peasants, had been given limited autonomy by their lords. They paid their feudal obligations collectively in money. In appearance they were more like overgrown villages. Most of the royal free cities, and occasionally even the oppida, controlled a number of villages in their vicinity. Serving in effect as their feudal lords. The city of Prague, for example, controlled over one hundred villages beyond its walls. Prague in those days was the largest city in East Central Europe, and at times also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.


At the end of the fifteenth century Poland was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formed by the Union of Krewo of 1385 and consolidated fully by the Union of Lublin of 1569. It was a federated dual state of about 315,000 square miles, whose territory also included what in the twentieth century became Belarus and Ukraine. Only one-third of this vast country was Poland proper, but it held 60 percent of the country's population of six million.

The Czech Kingdom, or Czechia, was the smallest of the three states of East Central Europe. Its territory was only one-seventh and its population only about one-third of that of Poland-Lithuania. It consisted of the core provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (30,000 square miles) and, since the mid-fourteenth century, also of Silesia (15,000 square miles). In contrast to Poland and Hungary, however, the Czech Kingdom was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and its rulers were among the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperors. Its membership in the Empire had placed limitations upon Czech sovereignty, but it also held certain advantages. By virtue of being part of the Germanic world, Czechia became the most urbanized, most industrialized, and most advanced of the three states, although much of this urbanization and industrialization was in the hands of German settlers.

With a territory of about 130,000 square miles, Hungary was two-fifths the size of Poland-Lithuania but almost three times the size of Czechia. Around a. d. 1500 its population was between 3.5 and 4 million. It had two autonomous regions, Croatia and Transylvania, as well as a few frontier banats (provinces) in the northern Balkans. Croatia was an associated kingdom in personal union with Hungary. Transylvania was a province with minimal autonomy under an appointed governor called vajda or voievod. The small defensive banats in the northern Balkans were buffers in Hungary's struggle against the Byzantines, the Venetians, and later the Ottoman Turks. Today's Slovakia was also part of Hungary, but it had no separate identity. This also holds true for Carpatho-Ruthenia (now part of Ukraine) and Voivodina (now part of Serbia).

None of the countries was ethnically homogeneous, and each was inhabited by a number of nationalities. The citizens of the most important royal free cities were mostly Germans. In the Czech Kingdom, the inhabitants of many of the mountainous mining regions were also Germans—the ancestors of the Sudeten Germans. In the case of Poland, the most numerous of the non-Polish nationalities were the Lithuanians and the east Slavs (ancestors of the Ukrainians and Belorussians). Hungary also had a significant non-Hungarian population. In addition to the Croats, who had their own associated kingdom, these included the ancestors of the Slovaks in the north, the Rusyns in the northeast, the Vlach (the ancestors of the Romanians) in the east, and various south Slavic elements.


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought many political and territorial changes to East Central Europe. The Union of Lublin of 1569 merged Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania into a single state, the Czech Kingdom became an autonomous part of the Habsburg Empire, while Hungary fell victim to Ottoman Turkish expansion and was divided between the Turks and the Habsburgs.

The late fifteenth and the sixteenth century witnessed a major economic transformation of East Central Europe. It became an exporter of agricultural products to western Europe, a role that profoundly altered the region's economic life and social relations. This situation was the direct result of Europe's expansion into the Americas and Southeast Asia, which also increased western Europe's needs for agricultural products. This need was filled with Polish-Lithuanian grain and Hungarian cattle.


Around 1500, the average peasant plot in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was about fifteen hectares, while in Czechia and Hungary it was only slightly smaller. The serfs paid their feudal obligations both in kind and in money. In the Czech Kingdom, many of the serfs held their lands in perpetuity, which was not the case in Poland-Lithuania and Hungary. Agricultural lands were divided into two categories: dominical lands (terra dominicalis) and rustical lands (terra rusticalis). The former were held by the lords and the latter by the serfs. In practice, however, many of the dominical lands had also been parceled out to the peasants. The legal differences in ownership rights, however, had no significance until serf emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century. Originally, all peasant families had enough land to supply their needs, but the growth of population soon necessitated the division of the original plots into smaller entities, which gave rise to the category of increasingly impoverished half-plot-peasants and quarter-plot-peasants.


In addition to Prague (Praha) in Bohemia and Breslau (Wroclaw) in Silesia, whose population may have been close to 100,000, East Central Europe's largest cities around 1500 included Cracow, Buda (later part of Budapest), Brünn (Brno), Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava), and Kassa (Kaschau, Košice), with populations ranging between 7,000 and 25,000. Most of the other cities with urban characteristics and urban governments had populations of 3,000 to 5,000. Among the villagelike oppida it was not uncommon to find some with a population of over 8,000. The best example of this is Szeged in southern Hungary, which—although one of the country's largest settlements—retained its rural appearance right into the late nineteenth century.

The resulting economic boom was more beneficial to the lords than the peasants. The former took direct control over most of the lands and extended their power over the peasants. The latter's right of free movement was terminated and their work obligations (robot) increased. Obligatory robot varied from region to region and from time to time. Most commonly, however, it amounted to three days per week for a full peasant lot (the total area allocated to the peasant family by the lord), two days per week for a half lot, and somewhat less for a fragment lot. Laws binding the peasants to the land were passed in the Czech Kingdom in 1487, in Poland in 1498, and in Hungary in 1514. The latter came in the wake of the region's most violent peasant war under the leadership of György Dózsa (c. 1470–1514), himself a member of the Hungarian lower nobility. Known as the "second serfdom," this bonded serfdom survived until the mid-nineteenth century.

The nobility and the burghers. The nobility became increasingly polarized, as the higher nobility acquired more land at the expense of the lower nobility. In early-seventeenth-century Bohemia about 150 families (fifty aristocratic and one hundred noble families) owned most of the large estates. In Moravia eighty aristocrats owned half of the land and 58 percent of the serfs. After the Battle of White Mountain secured both Habsburg domination and the victory of the Counter-Reformation in the Czech lands in 1620, however, the old Czech aristocracy and nobility disappeared. Those who did not fall in the battle left the country permanently. Their estates were appropriated by the Habsburgs and then distributed to a new pro-Habsburg nobility, recruited from the empire's multinational armies. At this time the title "count" became commonly used by the aristocracy.

The role of the higher nobility remained unchanged in seventeenth-century Poland and Hungary. Their numbers also remained small. In Hungary the number of aristocratic families varied between forty-nine and sixty-four. In contrast to the aristocracy, the lower nobility increased significantly. This was the result of perpetual warfare on the southern frontiers and the consequent growth of military forces. A significant number of these fighting men were ennobled, although only a few of them received grants of land. In Hungary these newly ennobled landless elements were known as the armalists (armalisták), and their numbers soon reached 4 to 5 percent of the population. By 1840 they numbered 680,000 out of a population of 13 million. They were even more numerous in Poland, where they constituted 8 to 10 percent of the population.

In addition to these ennobled servicemen, there were also various freebooters, who reached a seminoble status. Among them were the Cossacks of the Polish-Lithuanian state and the hajdús of Hungary. The former were escaped serfs, who constituted themselves into Cossack hosts, and then entered the services of the Polish-Lithuanian state. Later, many of them were acknowledged, as of a seminoble rank. This was also true for the hajdús, who were given collective nobility and then settled on the Great Hungarian Plain by Prince István Bocskay of Transylvania (ruled 1605–1606).

Changes also took place in the ethnic composition of these countries after the Battle of White Mountain. Poland saw the influx of many Ashkenazi Jews from the Holy Roman Empire. In the Czech lands, the population of Germans increased markedly, both in the cities and in the mining regions. Turkish Hungary saw a progressive influx of South Slavic elements, and Transylvania witnessed a similar influx of Vlachs from the Balkans. This process continued into the eighteenth century, ultimately altering Hungary's ethnic composition.

The Protestant Reformation had a significant impact on all three countries. The urban centers, with their large German population, gravitated toward Lutheranism, while the nobility favored Calvinism. In Poland, anti-Trinitarianism (known as Arianism) became popular, as it did in Transylvania under the leadership of Ferenc Dávid (c. 1510–1579), the founder of Unitarianism.

Led by the Jesuits, the Counter-Reformation was able to reconquer much of the population for Catholicism. In the Czech Kingdom the Counter-Reformation triumphed after the defeat of the Hussite nobility in 1620. In Hungary, it was somewhat less successful. Among the ethnic Hungarians in the country's eastern regions, Calvinism remained the dominant religion.

The Reformation had a positive impact on education in all of East Central Europe. Its emphasis on literacy in the vernacular languages necessitated the establishment of a great number of primary schools headed by the clergy. In Poland, the number of parish schools rose to four thousand. The number of secondary schools, usually under the control of the Jesuits, also increased. A number of new institutions of higher learning were also established.


The Union of Lublin of 1569 merged the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into a single state. This restructured Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (commonly referred to simply as Poland) became a significant regional power. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century it was a powerful rival of the rising Muscovite state. Although weakened in the 1650s, it survived in this form until the late eighteenth century, when is was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria (1772–1795), and then wiped off the map of Europe until 1918.

The fortunes of the Czech Kingdom and Hungary were somewhat different. Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526—which witnessed Hungary's defeat by the Ottoman Turks and the death of Hungary and Bohemia-Moravia's common ruler, King Louis II (ruled 1616–1526)—both of these states lost some of their full sovereignty. By electing Ferdinand of Habsburg (ruled 1626–1564), the Czech and the Hungarian kingdoms became component units of the ever-expanding Habsburg Empire. In 1547 the Czech nobility was forced to give up its right of free election, and had to accept the Habsburg dynasty's hereditary right to the Czech throne. They rebelled against this in 1618, but after their defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, they lost even more of their sovereignty. The Czech nobility was decimated, expelled, and replaced by a new pro-Habsburg nobility, and the Czech state was relegated to the position of autonomous province of the Habsburg Empire. It remained in that position right up to the end of the nineteenth century.

The case of Hungary was complicated by the Turkish conquest of the country's central regions and the election of John Zápolya (ruled 1526–1540) as a rival to King Ferdinand. The result of this situation was the country's fragmentation into three parts, which lasted until the early eighteenth century. Hungary's eastern third developed into the principality of Transylvania, nominally under Ottoman suzerainty, but actually headed by Hungarian princes, who were elected to their post by the principality's three recognized nations: the Hungarians, the Székelys (another tribe of the Hungarians), and the Saxons (Germans who had settled there in the thirteenth century). The Vlachs (later called Romanians) did not have a role in this selection process, because, lacking a nobility, they had no political elite to represent their cause.

Hungary's central section, including the capital city of Buda, was conquered by the Turks and then integrated into the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire. Its western and northern sections developed into Habsburg-controlled "Royal Hungary," where the city of Pozsony (Pressburg) served as the kingdom's temporary capital until the mid-nineteenth century. Only the expulsion of the Turks in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries brought about the reestablishment of the country's unity, but even then only as a component state of the Habsburg Empire. Hungary retained that autonomous position until 1867, when it became a partner in the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary (1867–1918).


Through much of the eighteenth century the Habsburgs engaged in settling southern Hungary with German, Dutch, and French peasants of the Catholic faith. These western settlers—whose numbers reached 200,000 by the end of the century—were enticed by grants of land, houses, draft animals, agricultural implements, and temporary exemption from taxation. At the same time the Habsburgs also encouraged a large number of Serbs to settle in the Hungarian territories freed from Turkish control, thereby changing the ethnic composition of the area later called Voivodina. A similar population change also took place in Transylvania with the rapid influx of Vlach peasants and shepherds from the Balkans, who came because of better economic opportunities. There were also population shifts within Hungary itself, manifested by the movement of many Slovaks down to the Great Hungarian Plain. In 1781 the population of the Czech lands was about 4 million (2.5 in Bohemia and 1.5 in Moravia). At the same time, according to the census of 1784–1787, the population of the kingdom of Hungary was 9.3 million (6.5 million in Hungary proper, 1.45 million in Transylvania, 650,000 in Croatia, and 710,000 in the Military Frontier District).


Up to the early sixteenth century—when the Protestant Reformation altered the situation completely—education in East Central Europe was controlled by the Catholic Church. On the lower and the middle levels, teaching was in the hands of religious orders and larger parishes, many of which had their own schools. By the end of the fifteenth century Poland had over three thousand parish schools. The number in the Czech Kingdom and Hungary was somewhat smaller.

Several universities had also been established before the end of the fifteenth century—usually at the initiative of the ruling monarchs. The earliest of these institutions of higher learning were founded in the middle of the fourteenth century in Prague (1348) and Cracow (1364) as well as in Pécs (1367) and Óbuda (1388/95) in Hungary.

In the sixteenth century they were followed by numerous other institutions of higher learning, largely in consequence of the spread of Protestantism and the resulting Catholic Reformation. These include the famed Calvinist colleges of Sárospatak (1531), Pápa (1531), Debrecen (1538), and Gyulafehérvár (1629) in Hungary, as well as a few new universities. Among the latter were those of Vilna (Vilnius; 1578) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Olmütz (Olomouc; 1576) in Moravia, and Nagyszombat (Tyrnau; 1635) in Hungary. The latter eventually evolved into the University of Budapest.

It should be noted here that in the Middle Ages and early modern period all universities used Latin as their language of instruction. This makes it difficult to classify them by their language, and makes it possible for the University of Prague to be claimed by both the Czechs and the Germans. In contrast to the universities, Hungarian Calvinist colleges functioned only in Hungarian from the very start.

By the end of the seventeenth century, about 70 percent of the nobility and 60 percent of the burghers of East Central Europe were able to read and write.

Progress in education also continued in the eighteenth century. In Poland a college for the training of noble military officers was founded in 1740 (Collegium Nobilium); and in 1773 a National Educational Commission was established as Europe's first Ministry of Education. At the same time the Jesuits began to revive their schools first established in the sixteenth century.

In Hungary, Maria Theresa promulgated the Ratio Educationis in 1777. This law called for the establishment of a series of basic schools for the teaching of the trivium (reading, writing, and arithmetic) and several normal schools for the training of teachers. In light of the absence of the needed funds and teaching personnel, however, compulsory mass education had to wait for another century.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, the position of the serfs generally improved as a result of reforms instituted in the spirit of enlightened absolutism under Maria Theresa (ruled 1740–1780) and Joseph II (ruled 1780–1790). These reforms, most of which followed peasant uprisings in Hungary (1735, 1767), Silesia (1771), and the Czech lands (1775), gave the state a basis for intervention into the relationship between lord and peasant. Initially, the state separated the rustical lands (the lord's own lands, sometimes parcelled out among the serfs) from the dominical lands (the lands allotted by the lord to peasant families for their own use), defined the serfs' specific obligations, and adjusted these obligations to the size of the peasants' plots. The work obligations of serfs with full plots was set at three days per week; a landless serf with a houses had to work twenty-six days per year, and those without houses only thirteen days. Moreover, if the stipulated robot was not sufficient to complete the needed labor, the serfs were also obliged to work for wages, which amounted to seven to fifteen kreutzers per day. Previously, they had often been obliged to work with no compensation. The next step in this process of improvement of the peasants' lot was Joseph II's peasant reforms, promulgated in 1781 and then gradually implemented throughout the Habsburg Empire. The serfs became personally free and could also hire themselves out for wages. Joseph II was planning additional reforms that would have abolished work obligations altogether, but he died before he could implement these reforms.

After the Jesuit Order was dissolved in 1773, their lands in the Czech kingdom were parceled out among the peasants, who, it was hoped, would eventually purchase them. This experiment resulted in a significant increase in the productivity of the former Jesuit estates. The government hoped that this experiment would serve as a model for the noble landowners.

In Poland-Lithuania agricultural conditions changed very little during the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the century a new wave of western settlers arrived from the Low Countries called holender (Holländer). They brought with them the newest methods of land cultivation, but their impact on Polish society was minimal. In 1768 there was a major peasant rebellion in the country's Ukrainian-inhabited eastern provinces. At the end of the century, about 70 percent of the country's population was still engaged in agriculture. Only 20 percent of the serfs possessed full plots, while nearly one-third of them were completely landless.

The most significant event in eighteenth-century Polish history was the partitioning of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire. While the first partition of 1772 still left the Poles with a sizable state with nine million inhabitants, the second and third partitions of 1793 and 1795 wiped the country off the map of Europe. The three sections of Poland became part of three different socioeconomic systems. The northwestern section came under the influence of advanced German socioeconomic developments. Habsburg-controlled Galicia remained backward until the very end of the empire. The largest and least developed eastern part of Poland was integrated into the even more backward Russian Empire.

During the late eighteenth century the Czech lands experienced a government-inspired industrialization drive. The loss of most of Silesia in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) prompted the Habsburgs to develop Bohemia-Moravia as the new center of their manufacturing industry. Many of the factories were established by Habsburg aristocrats, who recruited their workers from the ranks of the landless peasantry.


The Military Frontier District (Militärgrenze, Határrvidék) was an anti-Ottoman defensive belt established by the Habsburgs between 1699 and the 1760s. Its inhabitants consisted of free peasants, who, in return for their plots, were obliged to perform military service. Most of these peasant soldiers were south Slavs, but in the mid-eighteenth century a number of Hungarian and Romanian Vlach districts were also established in southern and eastern Transylvania. Those who were settled there or who remained in these military districts received free lands. Their tax obligations were also reduced by two-thirds, and in times of war they were free from all taxes. In return for this, all healthy adult males were obliged to participate in military training on a regular basis. In case of a war, they were the first to be mobilized. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish danger, the military districts lost their usefulness. Those in Transylvania were disbanded in 1851, while those in Croatia-Slavonia and southern Hungary were liquidated between 1871 and 1885. Following their dissolution, all of the military districts were integrated into the regular civil administration system of the Kingdom of Hungary.


The nineteenth century saw the transformation of a feudal society into a civil society in East Central Europe. In light of the region's fundamental agrarian nature, this transformation affected most of all the peasants. In the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1807–1815) the emancipation of the serfs occurred in 1807. The serfs received their personal freedom, but the lands remained in the hands of the nobility, and the peasants were obliged to pay for their use with money and agricultural produce.

At the Congress of Vienna (1815) Poland was partitioned again, with most of its territories (including the autonomous "Congress Kingdom") going to Russia and the rest to Prussia and Habsburg Austria. Of these three sections, Prussian Poland had the most progressive social structure. Serf emancipation was begun there in 1823 and completed in 1850. All serfs received their personal freedom, and the landlords were compensated for the lost services with government bonds. In the Austrian Empire, including Czechia but excluding Hungary, serf emancipation was carried out by the Act of the Imperial Council on 7 September 1848. The serfs were personally freed and received the plots they had been cultivating. In the Czech lands, one-third of the compensation was paid for by the peasants, one-third by the government, and one-third was abolished in lieu of the termination of the lords' obligations to the serfs.

Serf emancipation in Russian Poland came after the anti-Russian Polish Revolution of 1863–1864. The Russians wished to turn the peasants against their Polish lords, so they carried out this emancipation under generous terms. In addition to personal freedom, the peasants also received the lands under their cultivation, plus an additional one million hectares taken from the nobility. Redemption payments made by peasants to the Russian government, which in turn paid the lords in government lands, were extended through many decades, and then abolished in 1905.

Hungary had a much broader autonomy within the Austrian Empire, wherefore the serf question was solved internally. The emancipation decree was passed by the last feudal diet and made part of the so-called April Laws of 11 April 1848. The serfs received their personal freedom and all the rustical lands in their possession. The lords were compensated by the government. But, as many of the serfs held dominical lands—which legally belonged to the lords—two-thirds of the Hungarian peasantry became landless. The outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848–1849 intervened, and much of the emancipation was carried out by the imperial government in 1853.

Serf emancipation was the most important development in the birth of a modern civil society, going hand in hand with industrialization and the rise of the factory system. This was particularly true for Prussian Poland and the Czech lands, both of which developed a large textile industry. The textile workers of Prague were in the forefront of collective action when they protested against the lowering of their wages in 1844.

The modernization process produced two new classes: the bureaucracy and the proletariat. Bureaucracy was a necessary byproduct of the administrative efficiency and centralization aspired to by enlightened absolutism. The growth of bureaucracy was paralleled by the rise of a new intelligentsia, consisting of the clergy, educators, lawyers, physicians, and engineers. The last of these professions was particularly present in Hungary, where it was needed for large public projects, such as the regulation of rivers, land reclamations, and the construction of dams, dikes, and railroad lines. The latter activities also gave birth to the category of ditchdiggers (kubikusok), whose number reached 100,000 by the end of the century.


Only twelve years after the final partitioning of Poland in 1795, Napoleon established the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which survived for less than a decade (1807–1815). After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna (1815) partitioned Poland again, with most of its territories of about 227,000 square miles going to Russia. This included the autonomous Congress Kingdom, with about 49,000 square miles and a population of 4 million. Habsburg Austria received 30,000 square miles of Galicia with a population of 4.2 million, while Prussia received 11,000 square miles of Pomerania with 776,000 inhabitants. The city of Cracow and its vicinity was made into a free city of 444 square miles and 88,000 people until 1846, when it was attached to the Austrian Empire. The autonomy of the Congress Kingdom was cut down after the anti-Russian uprising of 1830–1831 and then completely eliminated—creating the Warsaw Province—after the second anti-Russian uprising of 1863–1864.


From the mid-nineteenth century to the end of World War I, the borders of the East Central European states did not change, but in 1867 the Austrian Empire was transformed into Austria-Hungary, with an additional dualistic arrangement between Hungary and Croatia in 1868. Transylvania was fully reintegrated into Hungary, but the future Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia still had no separate identity. Lands of the Czech Crown (Bohemia, Moravia, and portions of Silesia) remained autonomous within the Austrian half of the dual monarchy. After 1864, the Congress kingdom of Poland was reduced into the Warsaw Province of the Russian Empire.

If national borders did not change during this period, population did grow markedly. In 1870 about 10 million Poles lived on the territories of the tripartitioned Polish state. By 1914 their numbers had increased to 18 million, with nearly 16 million of them living within the Russian Empire. During the same period, the population of the lands of the Czech crown increased from 7.6 million people to 10.3 million. Of these, however, close to one-third were Germans. During the same period, Hungary's population increased from 13.3 million to 21.5 million, but of these only sightly over half were Hungarians. The rest were Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Rusyns, and Germans.

During the same period ethnic conditions changed only slightly. The most important change was the migration of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Galicia to Hungary. In the period between between 1780 and 1840, their number increased from 78,000 to 250,000, and by World War I it reached 911,000. The Jews gradually replaced the Greeks and the Armenians in commerce, industry, and the development of the market economy. They were able to do so partially because they filled a void that the peasants were unable, and the nobility unwilling, to fill.

Migration within the region had been going on for many centuries, but intercontinental migration was a new phenomenon. It was the result of new economic developments connected with the rise of capitalism. In the period between 1870 and 1914, 3.5 million Poles, 2 million Austrian citizens (among them 50,000 Czechs), and 1.8 million Hungarian citizens emigrated to America. Of this 1.8 million over one-third were Hungarians, under one-third were Slovaks, and the remaining one-third was divided among the Rusyns, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, and Germans.

The region's growing population was divided into several social classes: The peasantry, the new industrial working class (proletariat), the growing professional middle class, and the still prominent nobility. Numerically the largest social class was the peasantry, but it was not evenly divided among the various countries and provinces. In 1870 peasants made up 65 percent of the population of Russian Poland and 42 percent in Prussian Poland. The peasant population of the Czech and the Hungarian lands was somewhere between these two extremes. Population growth compelled peasants to divide their lands, until many holdings were not large enough to support a family. These peasants were forced to supplement their income by becoming seasonal workers in the better-endowed provinces (e.g. Prussian Poland), by turning into industrial workers (in Prussian Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary), or by emigrating to America. The Hungarian scene was slightly different. There, two-thirds of the serfs (those on dominical lands) were emancipated without land. From their ranks came the abovementioned ditchdiggers and agricultural laborers. Some of the latter were seasonal workers (napszámosok), while others became attached to large estates (cselédek).

One of the most significant developments in the second half of the nineteenth century was the appearance of the modern industrial working class. Small-scale industry and handicrafts continued to survive, but their place was increasingly taken by large-scale industry. By World War I, the number of factory workers in Prussian Poland reached 350,000. In the Czech lands, they and their families numbered around 3.1 million, or about 600,000 workers. In Hungary their number was 1.4 million, of whom 500,000 worked in large-scale industry.

The new industrial working class derived its membership from two sources: the peasantry and the lower urban classes. Among the latter were those artisans who had lost their traditional livelihood in consequence of industrialization. In the Polish territories, they were joined by the lower members of the rural nobility, who were simply too numerous to maintain their noble status.

Working conditions in industry were harsh and dangerous. But the social welfare measures introduced by Bismarck in Germany also affected conditions in East Central Europe. Thus, in the western half of Austria-Hungary a number of protective laws were introduced after 1884, including a ten-hour work day and obligatory health insurance.

The coming of capitalism signaled not only the birth of the proletariat, but also the genesis of labor movements and political parties, often divided along ethnic lines and over the complex relationship between socialist and nationalist politics. Polish socialists in the last decade of the nineteenth century founded two separate Marxist parties, one placing social revolution before national independence. Both were legalized only after the Russian Revolution of 1905. In the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, the Social Democratic Party, founded in 1888–1889, soon splintered into several "national" parties, although outwardly retaining its unity. After the introduction of universal manhood suffrage in 1907, it was represented in the imperial Parliament. The Socialist Party of Hungary was founded in 1890 and immediately established several nationality divisions, although officially it favored unity and assimilation. As Hungary did not introduce universal manhood suffrage until 1919, the Socialist Party failed to become a parliamentary party. But it did direct labor activism and was also involved in the great labor strike of 1912. The turn of the century also saw the rise of several peasant parties in all of the countries under consideration. These parties were more traditional and closer to established religions than the socialists.

At the pinnacle of East Central European society stood the members of the landed aristocracy. Following serf emancipation, most of them retained their estates, and controlled about one-third of the land in each of the three countries. In the Czech lands and Hungary, the members of the traditional aristocracy were joined by newly titled industrial magnates, many of them with the rank of baron.

Under them was a middle layer. In Russian Poland, the members of this class came almost exclusively from the ranks of urban merchants and artisans, and perhaps a few were well-to-do farmers. In the Czech lands, this middle layer was made up of civil servants and white-collar workers in private enterprises. In Hungary, it comprised rich merchants and artisans. By the turn of the century they and their families numbered about 100,000. They were joined by an equal number of professional intelligentsia, and also by about 30,000 to 35,000 nontitled middle nobles who owned moderate size estates (200–1,000 holds = 284–1,420 acres). These sublayers collectively made up the Hungarian gentry class. Their mentality and attitude displayed many features of the bygone feudal age. As such, notwithstanding their middle-class status, in mentality they were close to the Polish nobility.

National consciousness and national assimilation. The rise of national consciousness in East Central Europe was the direct result of the impact of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic wars that spread this ideology far and wide. National revival began among the region's "historic" nations—the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs—in the second half of the eighteenth century. It gradually spread in the nineteenth century to such nationalities as the Slovaks, Romanians, and various southern and eastern Slavic peoples.

At the start, these national revivals were elitist movements, for only the intelligentsia were involved. Among the Poles and the Hungarians this intelligentsia came from the ranks of the nobility, among the Czechs from the ranks of the burgher class, and among the rest of the nationalities from the ranks of the clergy, with peasant roots. Historians of East Central Europe tend to distinguish between "aristocratic nationalism," "middle-class nationalism," and "peasant nationalism."


Most ethnic Poles were Catholic, but historical Poland also contained large Orthodox Christian and Jewish populations. The Czechs were 95 percent Catholic, although they were much more lax in their beliefs and practices than the Poles, as many of them perpetuated certain Hussite traditions.

The population of historical Hungary was about 50 percent Catholic, 14 percent Calvinist, 13 percent Orthodox Christian, 11 percent Greek Catholic (Uniate), 7 percent Lutheran, 5 percent Jewish, and 0.4 percent Unitarian. The ethnic Hungarians themselves were two-thirds Catholic, and the remaining third Calvinist, Lutheran, Jewish, and Unitarian. The Slovaks were about 80 percent Catholic and 20 percent Lutheran. The Rusyns and the Romanians were evenly divided between Orthodox Christianity and Greek Catholicism (Uniates). The Serbs were all Orthodox Christians, while the Germans were two-thirds Catholic and one-third Lutheran.

The situation in Hungary changed significantly after World War I, when the country, reduced in size by the peace settlements, lost all of its Orthodox Christian population. Two-thirds of the remaining citizens were now Catholic, 20 percent Calvinist, and the remaining 14 percent divided evenly between Jews and Lutherans.

In general, these national revival movements remained confined to the literate classes until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Then they were spread by mass education and mass journalism to the ranks of the peasantry. In the case of the Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles, however, the mid-nineteenth-century revolutions (1848–1849 and 1863–1864) had already aroused national consciousness in a sizable segment of the rural classes.

As national consciousness spread, late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century East Central European society also underwent a process of national assimilation. This occurred throughout the whole region, although there were individual differences, which depended on the historical past and the social makeup of a particular nationality, as well as on its position within the hierarchy of nations. For example, the Slovaks lacked traditions of independent statehood, and most of them were peasants, with only a smattering of artisans and merchants. They also lacked an aristocracy, nobility, and even upper-level urban elements. A number of Slovaks had been ennobled in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries by the Habsburg kings of Hungary, but by this act they immediately joined the ranks of the Natio Hungarica (in effect, the Hungarian nobility). They thereby lost touch with their own ethnic group, and following the rise of modern nationalism, virtually all members of the Natio Hungarica opted to become members of the Magyar-speaking modern Hungarian nation.

When the Austrian Empire was transformed into Austria-Hungary, the successive Hungarian governments engaged in various levels of Magyarization through administrative means. This was done in violation of the progressive laws passed during the early years of the Dual Monarchy (e.g., Law of Nationalities and the Education Law of 1868). Much of the success of Magyarization, however, was not due to administrative pressures. Rather, it was the result of rapid urbanization and industrialization affecting primarily the country's inner regions. Slovak peasants, turned into construction workers, were heavily involved in turning Buda and Pest into the modern metropolis of Budapest. But once they settled in the interior, they remained there and became assimilated into the Hungarian majority. By 1914, as many as 100,000 had changed their nationality.

During the same period, the Russian imperial government also pursued a policy of Russification in Russian Poland. In contrast to Hungary, however, where thousands of primary schools functioned in several languages, the Russians did not tolerate the existence of Polish schools. This extreme policy produced a widespread reaction, which ultimately undermined Russification. Assimilation was much more successful in Prussian Poland, in spite of the constant influx of Polish Peasants in search of better working conditions. This success was due to the improved quality of life in German society.

In contrast to the other governments, the Austrian Imperial Government did not pursue a policy of Germanization in the Czech lands. For this reason, and because of the spread of Czech nationalism, in many of the Bohemian and Moravian towns it was the German burghers who became assimilated into the Czech nation. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Prague was virtually a German city. By the end of the century, however, it already had a Czech-speaking majority. A similar process occurred in Hungary, where in the course of the nineteenth century, the city of Budapest (until 1872 Buda and Pest) was transformed from a German into a Hungarian city.

The process of modernization also produced a new intelligentsia, many of whose members had non-noble roots. In Russian Poland, a Polish intelligentsia hardly existed. Most of them were concentrated in Austrian Galicia, where two Polish universities (Cracow and Lemberg/Lwów) and a Polish Academy of Sciences functioned, as well as a whole series of Polish primary and secondary schools. Moreover, in the province's eastern section, there were also Ukrainian schools. As a result, Galicia became the main breeding ground for Polish and Ukrainian nationalism.

The birth of modern society also sped up the spread of literacy. During the first half of the nineteenth century, literacy was still limited in the region. Progress was made only by the Polish and Hungarian nobility, and the Czech burghers. The situation changed in the second half of the century, when in Bohemia and Moravia education in Czech and German was made available at all levels. True, until 1882 the University of Prague functioned only in German. But in that year a Czech-language university was also established. A number of specialized colleges were likewise founded, which after World War II developed into full-scale universities.

The situation was similar in Hungary. The Education Law of 1868 introduced compulsory universal education, and by 1912 there were 16,861 elementary schools, of which 3,408 functioned in Romanian, German, Slovak, Serbian, Rusyn, and Italian. Secondary schools were more elitist and fewer in number. In 1879, the study of Hungarian was made mandatory in all non-Hungarian secondary schools, and then in 1907 in all primary schools. The non-Hungarian nationalities resented this, leading to increased nationality squabbles. In contrast to Bohemia-Moravia, higher education in Hungary was available only in Hungarian. In addition to the University of Budapest (1635), three new universities were established: Kolozsvár (1872), Pozsony (1912) and Debrecen (1912).


World War I had a very disruptive impact upon the region, breaking up old empires and creating several new and small states. Although established in the name of national self-determination, with the exception of the rump Austrian and Hungarian states, all of the new states were multinational. Poland was reestablished after 123 years, put together from Russian, Prussian, and Austrian-held territories. It became a state of 150,000 square miles, with a population of 27 million, of which nearly one-third were Ukrainians, Jews, Lithuanians, and Germans. Czechoslovakia was formed from the three Czech provinces (Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) plus the Slovakand Rusyn-inhabited regions of Hungary. It became a state of 54,000 square miles, with a population of 13.6 million. It had no majority nationality, for the Czechs and the Slovaks together made up only 64 percent of the population. The remaining 36 percent included Germans, Hungarians, and Rusyns.

Hungary suffered the most in this new arrangement, losing 71 percent of its territory and 63 percent of its population. It became a small state of 36,000 square miles with a population of only 8 million. At the same time 3.5 million Hungarians were left on the other side of the new borders, creating unending conflicts with its new neighbors.

In addition to nationality conflicts, the most pressing issue faced by the new or reestablished states was their outdated agrarian structure. Czechoslovakia introduced the most comprehensive land reform, but it was motivated partially by the desire to undermine the German and Hungarian landed nobility. About 4 million hectares were nationalized, of which 1.2 million were divided among 634,000 peasants. After Slovakia's separation in 1939, all lands in Jewish ownership were likewise nationalized and distributed, but only to former Slovak legionnaires and bureaucrats.

Polish land reform was less drastic because it was directed against Polish landlords. All landholdings above three hundred hectares in western Poland, or five hundred hectares in eastern Poland were nationalized and distributed. But implementation was so slow that it was still in process when World War II broke out.

Land reform in Hungary was first initiated by the Hungarian Socialist Republic in 1919, but the regime's rapid collapse ended these plans. On the basis of the new land reform law of 1920, 640,000 hectares were nationalized and 400,000 hectares were distributed among 427,000 peasants. Completed in 1929, this reform altered very little about Hungary's traditional social structure.

There were many similarities and dissimilarities in the social makeup of these states. In the early 1920s, 63.8 percent of Poland's population worked in agriculture, in contrast to Hungary's 55.7 percent and Czechoslovakia's 37.2 percent. But in the two northern states there were major regional differences: the agricultural sector in eastern Poland engaged 87 percent of the workforce, and in eastern Czechoslovakia (Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia) 58.5 percent.

The Czech provinces of Czechoslovakia had the most advanced social structure. In 1921, the industrial sector in the country as a whole was 34 percent, the commercial sector 5.5 percent, transportation 3.7 percent, and the bureaucracy and professionals 4.3 percent. Naturally, the situation was much worse in the eastern provinces.

Czechoslovakia was followed by Hungary, where in 1920 the industrial sector embraced 19.1 percent of the population, and the bureaucracy and professionals 4.6 percent. The nonagricultural economy was less developed in Poland, where the industrial sector was 16.5 percent, and the heavy industry only 4 percent. By the end of the interwar years, however, these ratios had risen significantly.

The upper middle class constituted a relatively small portion of the population of these countries. In 1930 it was about 1 percent in Poland, 5.8 percent in Czechoslovakia, and 8 percent in Hungary. This higher percentage is derived from the fact that many of Hungary's lower nobility became integrated into the gentry-dominated bureaucracy. But of this middle layer only about 2,200 families belonged to the "historic middle class" that consisted of well-to-do noble families. Above them were the landed aristocracy (745 families) and the nouveaux riches leaseholders (350 families), who had acquired their wealth from various commercial and industrial activities.

Jews in interwar East Central Europe. The Jews occupied a special position in interwar East Central Europe, although there were considerable differences in their position in these three countries. Whereas in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia they were considered Hungarians or Czechoslovaks of the Jewish faith, in Poland they were treated as a distinct nationality. For this reason, in Hungary it is not even possible to tell the exact number of Jews. In the period between 1867 and 1938 (from the Law of Jewish Emancipation to the First Jewish Law) census takers counted practicing Jews as Hungarians of the Jewish faith. Their number in 1925 was 477,000. Along with the converts and the nonpracticing Jews, however, their numbers may have been as high as 600,000, or close to 8 percent of the population. After the the territorial revisions of 1938–1940 their numbers grew to nearly 800,000.

After Poland's reestablishment as an independent state, its Jewish population numbered over two million, or about 8 percent of the population of twenty-seven million. At the same time they numbered around 250,000 in Czechoslovakia, half of whom were former Hungarian Jews who had been attached to the new state after World War I.

A significant portion of the Jews in these states were involved in business activities and thus made up a major portion of the commercial middle classes. This was more true in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia than in Poland. In each of these states Jews also made up a major portion—perhaps as much as one-third—of the intelligentsia, including physicians, lawyers, journalists, and literary and cultural figures. Their role was even more pronounced in Hungary, where in some professions they constituted half or more of the practitioners. Not even the quota law (numerus clausus) of 1920, which limited their number at the nation's colleges and universities to their ratio in the population, altered the picture. Thereafter, many Hungarian Jews simply went abroad to study and returned with highly rated western European degrees to join the Hungarian labor force.

In contrast to the Jews of Hungary and of the Czech lands, those in Carpatho-Ruthenia (within Czechoslovakia) and Galicia (within Poland) were much poorer and much less educated. They were generally engaged in handicrafts, small-scale industry, shopkeeping, and peddling.

Just before and during World War II, Jews were singled out for persecution in all three (after 1939, in all four) of these countries. In German Poland, Bohemia-Moravia, and Slovakia they were liquidated during the early phase of the war. In Hungary—although their rights had been curtailed by three separate laws in 1938, 1939, and 1941—they were able to survive until after the country's German occupation on 19 March 1944. Among them were also many Polish, Czech, and Slovak Jews who had fled to Hungary's relative safety in 1939. Following the German occupation, however, most of the Jews were collected and taken to German death camps.


As in industrialization and modernization, so in the development of democracy, Czechoslovakia was the most advanced among the states of East Central Europe. Universal suffrage for those twenty-four years of age or over was introduced after the establishment of the state. In Poland and in Hungary the right to vote was limited not only by age, but also by property and educational qualifications. Whereas in Czechoslovakia even the Communist Party was permitted to function until October 1938, it was outlawed both in Poland and in Hungary. Moreover, whereas in Czechoslovakia the Social Democratic Party was a member of the ruling coalition, in Poland and in Hungary it remained permanently in opposition.

As beneficiaries of post–World War I territorial changes, Poland and Czechoslovakia wished to preserve the status quo. Hungary, on the other hand, had lost territories inhabited by Hungarians and therefore advocated revisionism. Thus, while the first two states became victims of German expansionist agression in 1938 and 1939, Hungary was a temporary beneficiary of those territorial changes. In return for its gains, however, it was bound to Germany in a master-vassal relationship.

In September 1939, Poland was again partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. Both conquerors aspired to eradicate the Polish military and political elite to prevent the resurgence of the Polish state. Under German rule even Polish secondary schools were disbanded, and university personnel were interned. Under Russian rule Polish elites suffered persecution, incarceration, and extermination—as was the case with the thousands of Polish military officers who were massacred at Katyń. The eastern segment of the interwar Polish state remained under Soviet rule even after World War II, and Poland was compensated with eastern German territories.

Like Poland, Czechoslovakia was also dismembered in 1938 and 1939. German-inhabited Sudetenland was annexed to Germany, and the remaining Czech lands were made into the German protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia. Slovakia emerged as a German vassal state, while Carpatho-Ruthenia was returned to Hungary.

According to recent estimates—which vary significantly—the Jewish population of Poland was completely annihilated. Those killed in Czechoslovakia numbered between 233,000 and 260,000 (90,000 Slovakia), those in Romania between 215,000 and 530,000, those in Hungary between 220,000 and 450,000. In all probability, the higher figures are closer to the truth.


World War II produced significant changes in all three countries. Hungary lost all the territories it had regained in the course of 1938–1941, plus three additional Hungarian villages in the vicinity of Bratislava. Czechoslovakia was reestablished, but had to relinquish Carpatho-Ruthenia to the Soviet Union. Poland was shifted westward at the expense of Germany. This resulted in massive population shifts, with many millions of Germans expelled from the ceded territories. Their place was taken by Poles who left the eastern territories given to the Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics of the Soviet Union. Germans were also removed from Czechoslovakia, which expelled about 3.5 million of them. Czechoslovakia also wished to expel its nearly one million Hungarians, but the victors agreed only to a voluntary exchange of population. About 70,000 Slovaks left Hungary and 100,000 Hungarians left Czechoslovakia—a third of the latter having been evicted.

In consequence of these massive population shifts, all of these countries had lost much of their multinational character. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary remained with 3 to 4 percent minorities, and Slovakia with about 14 percent—most of them Hungarians. These calculations do not take into consideration the special case of the Gypsies (Roma), who were never counted as national minorities until after the collapse of communism.

The war's impact on the region's population was harsh and all-embracing. It made no difference whether the individual countries were victims (Poland and the Czech Republic) or "unwilling satellites" of Nazi Germany (Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania). Poland and Hungary, in particular, became major battlegrounds for the German and Soviet armies during the latter phase of the war. Most of the cities, towns, industrial establishments, livestock, and rollingstock were destroyed and the population terrorized and decimated by both combatants. The two capitals were nearly totally annihilated during the Warsaw uprising (1 August–2 October 1944) and the siege of Budapest (25 December 1944–13 February 1945). A large percentage of the women were raped (according to one source, 600,000 in Hungary alone), and a sizable percentage of the male population was taken to the Soviet Union. Many of them never returned. Others did so after several years of slave labor in Siberia.

East Central Europe under communist rule. Next to the territorial changes and population displacements, the most significant factor in the region's post–World War II history was that all three countries became part of the Soviet bloc. For about three years all of them had coalition governments and nurtured the hope for democracy, but by 1948 they had all become communist-dominated Soviet satellites. The parliamentary system and some of the elements of democracy (including universal suffrage above age eighteen) were preserved, but these turned out to be meaningless trappings in these one-party states.

The initial steps of postwar social transformation included the elimination of the former elite and upper-middle classes. Through radical land reforms, landed estates and later even small farms were nationalized. These were distributed among the peasantry or made into state farms. Peasant lands were later collectivized. In Czechoslovakia and in Hungary, this collectivization began soon after the communist takeover. In Hungary, the Revolution of 1956 reversed this process temporarily, but in the 1960s collectivization was resumed. By 1970, 82.9 percent of Hungary's agricultural lands were either collectives or state farms. In Czechoslovakia this figure was 85.1 percent. Poland followed a different path. In 1970 only 15.6 percent of the Polish lands were collectives or state farms.

As a consequence of the economic liberalization (New Economic Mechanism) initiated in 1968, Hungary introduced private ownership of household plots. These plots constituted less than 10 percent of the agricultural lands yet produced one-third of all agricultural goods and one-half of all the produce going to foreign markets.

Land reform was paralleled by the nationalization of all financial institutions, industrial establishments, and commercial concerns. By 1948 even small-scale industry, handicrafts, and retail were nationalized. This process was most thorough in Czechoslovakia. Initially, Poland and Hungary also moved in that direction, but later they gradually restored the autonomy of the small craftsmen and shopkeepers.

With the disappearance of the old elite (whose surviving members either emigrated or were declassed), the communist-controlled governments began to reshape society. They emphasized social egalitarianism and industrial development. The former resulted in a thorough social transformation, while the latter brought about the artificial development of heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods and agriculture. The consumers were simply forgotten, and the agricultural sector declined to the point where by the 1980s it encompassed only about 10 to 15 percent of the population (higher in Poland than in Hungary or Czechoslovakia). The majority of the peasantry was transformed into the industrial proletariat.

In light of the need for an expanded bureaucracy, the number of white-collar workers also increased significantly, but their overall quality declined. Traditional elitist education was rapidly transformed into mass education. Literacy increased radically, more in quantity than in quality.

By 1948, Marxism-Leninism became the only acceptable ideology in communist-dominated East Central Europe. This destroyed the position and influence of the established churches. In Czechoslovakia and Hungary the majority of the population was alienated from mainstream denominations and became skeptics or even atheists, but few of them became dedicated marxists. The situation was different in Poland, where the majority of the people remained faithful Catholics; the Catholic Church there retained its influence over society and played an important role in the opposition movement.

The communist regimes were more successful in popularizing social welfarism than communist ideology. In point of fact the most positive feature of communist rule was the creation of the welfare state, where a citizen was taken care of by the omnipotent state from birth until death. Initially, the most important social welfare measures affected only industrial workers. By the early 1970s, however, this system was also extended to the rural population. By that time, education, health care, social care, and all the other social welfare measures (including the right to a job, the right to an apartment, and the right to a state pension) were free and available to all, although their quality was increasingly questionable. Even so, both literacy and average age increased significantly, while the retirement age was kept low (55 for women, 60 for men). This policy brought many benefits, but also resulted in an inactive aging population. Moreover, full employment (the right of every adult to a job) resulted in hidden unemployment and much inefficiency in the industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors, as well as in the burgeoning bureaucracy. In consequence of rapid and massive industrialization, the number of unskilled and semiskilled workers increased markedly. The full employment policy worked for a while, but by the 1970s it began to fail. Rapid technological innovations and automatization made the unskilled and semiskilled workers increasingly superfluous.

The size of the state and party bureaucracy also increased manifold. Along with the administrators of large industrial establishments, party and state officials made up the highest level of the nomenklatura that had replaced the old elite and came to constitute what the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas called the "new class."

Quality of life began to improve during the 1960s, but per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and living standards were still far below those of the West. This, of course, did not apply to the members of the nomenklatura, who enjoyed much higher incomes and many privileges, including the right to buy in special stores and to travel abroad.


Following the communist takeover, the educational system of East Central Europe was transformed in accordance with the Soviet model. The German-influenced gymnasium system, which emphasized classical studies, languages, and the natural sciences through eight years of study (ages ten through eighteen), was abandoned. It was replaced by a four-year high school type of education that rejected cultural elitism and geared the curriculum more to the needs of modern socialist society. The new secondary schools concentrated on specific practical fields and became so specialized that they began to approximate the trade schools of the interwar years. The goal of producing well-rounded, cultured individuals was replaced by the goal of teaching useful practical skills.

This also applied to a large degree to institutions of higher learning. Their number and size increased significantly, due in part to new foundations and in part to the dismemberment of comprehensive universities into numerous specialized institutions. Students gained a thorough knowledge of certain limited fields, but they acquired less general knowledge. Progress in education was more quantitative than qualitative. In point of fact, the introduction of mass education, without making some universities into intellectually exclusive institutions on the American model, lowered the overall quality of education. This applied both to secondary schools and to institutions of higher learning. Moreover, in spite of this mass education, functional illiteracy remained a major problem in the increasingly industrialized societies of East Central Europe.

Following the collapse of communism, some of the Soviet-inspired experiments ended, while others continued. There was a partial return to precommunist models, but at the same time there were also borrowings from the West, especially from the United States. At the end of the twentieth century, the educational infrastructure of East Central Europe was in a state of flux.

The Polish and Hungarian Revolutions of 1956—although suppressed—ultimately had an ameliorative effect upon conditions in those two countries. Political control and ideological rigor eased and life generally improved. Eventually even Western travel became easier. At the same time, the population was firm in its belief that Soviet control was there to stay. Thus, while paying lip service to the Soviet Union and to communist ideals, they concentrated on improving their personal lives. This was particularly true for Hungary under the Kádár regime, but less so in Poland, where the late 1970s and the 1980s witnessed a clash between the Solidarity labor movement (led by Lech Wałȩsa) and a political regime, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, that feared Soviet intervention.

The situation was different in Czechoslovakia, where strict political control and ideological orthodoxy continued. The Prague Spring of 1968, only a momentary break in this orthodoxy, was followed by a more severe regime in which all dissent was stifled. Progressive party leaders, such as Alexander Dubček, and liberal intellectuals, such as Václav Havel, who had been leaders in the events of 1968 and in the dissident movements that followed, were barred from public life and often forced to make their livings through physical labor.

The collapse of communism and the transition to capitalism. Convinced of the indestructibility of Soviet communist control, the people of East Central Europe were not prepared for the radical changes of 1989–1990. Nor were they ready to deal with the intricacies and challenges of true democracy. Consequently, the euphoria that accompanied the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was followed by a short period of great expectations followed by a longer period of disenchantment. By the mid-1990s, this disenchantment had reached the point where people began to vote the restructured and renamed communist parties back into power.

The change of political regimes was followed in all three (since 1993, when Slovakia became an independent state, all four) countries by a massive privatization of state assets. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, this was done by giving the population shares in the former state-owned enterprises. In Hungary, however, state-owned companies were sold off to private investors—many of them Westerners with little appreciation for the social problems faced by the population. By virtue of their social connections, the members of the former party elite were able to seize the lion's share in this privatization process. Many of them transferred themselves from the political elite to the new financial elite. At the same time they also avoided being called to account for their past deeds.

This fact alone would have been enough to produce mass disillusionment. But even greater was the disenchantment with the economic and social developments. The formerly all-encompassing social welfare network collapsed. This was accompanied by mass layoffs, growing unemployment, pressure to produce more, and also an end to the notion that having a job is everyone's natural right.

The coming of capitalism also produced an increasingly visible social and economic polarization. By the late 1990s, this process had reached the point where the average income of the lowest tenth of the population was only one-sixth of that of the highest tenth. Those who were able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by raw capitalism became wealthy and openly flouted their newly won social and economic positions. At the same time, the standard of living for the population declined. This was particularly true for the large number of pensioners and fixed-income employees, who became pauperized and dreamed about the "good old days" of socialism.

These changes were most drastic in Poland, whose postcommunist leaders adopted policies of rapid transition to a free market economy, or "shock treatment." The result was temporary despair, but the promise of a more rapid solution. This path may have paid off, because at the end of the second millennium, the Polish economy appeared to be healthiest. At the same time, however, Western assessments judged Hungary's economy to be the most promising.

Privatization of industry, banking, and trade was accompanied by the privatization of agriculture. This affected Hungary and Czechoslovakia more than it did Poland. In the first two, one-third of the agricultural lands remained in the hands of the restructured cooperatives, one-third went into the hands of private owners (peasants or speculators), and one-third was acquired by agricultural corporations.

The collapse of communism also affected the region's educational system. During the 1990s, much of the Soviet system was dismantled. There was a partial return to the precommunist system, and a partial adjustment to the American educational system. This applied both to the universities and to the secondary schools. Many of the former religious schools were restored to the churches or religious orders, and several new institutions of higher learning were also established. These included a number of Catholic and Protestant universities, as well as private institutions. Among them were a few business schools and the Central European University, based in Budapest and Prague (1991). Sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, this English-language postgraduate institution espoused the principles of "open society."

The emergence of the English language as the region's dominant international language was another important byproduct of the collapse of communism. English replaced Russian almost immediately, and several secondary schools and universities created programs in English, and in a few cases also in German. As an example, by the late 1990s, one could acquire an M.D. degree in English at all four of Hungary's traditional universities (Budapest, Debrecen, Pécs, and Szeged).

Soon after the collapse of communism, Czechoslovakia fell apart, giving birth to two distinct states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia (1 January 1993). Following their divorce, the difference between these two parts of former Czechoslovakia became immediately apparent. The Czech Republic emerged as a more uniform and balanced country, with a strong industrial base, and a cadre of skilled workers and bureaucrats. Slovakia, on the other hand, sank back into the position of an agricultural-industrial state. Of the four countries in today's East Central Europe, Slovakia is the most multiethnic, with a minority population of 14 percent, of whom most are Hungarians who live next to the Hungarian borders, with all the problems which that entails.

In 1999 Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic became members of NATO, with the hope that they soon would also be admitted into the European Union. Slovakia trailed significantly behind them. With the strong support of the other three, however, it may also make it into NATO and the European Union during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

See also other articles in this section.


Bak, János M., and Béla K. Király, eds. From Hunyadi to Rákóczi: War and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Hungary. New York, 1982.

Berend, T. Iván, and György Ránki. Economic Development in East-Central Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York, 1974.

Berend, T. Iván, and György Ránki. The European Periphery and Industrialization, 1780–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Deák, István. Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918. New York and Oxford, 1992. An excellent study of the role of the military elite.

Dillon, Kenneth J. Kings and Estates in the Bohemian Lands, 1526–1564. Brussels, 1976. A detailed study of the relationship between the Czech estates and their first Habsburg ruler, Ferdinand I.

Fél, Edit, and Tamás Hofer. Proper Peasants: Traditional Life in a Hungarian Village. Chicago, 1969. A synthesis of peasant life by two noted scholars.

Fischer-Galati, Stephen, ed. Man, State, and Society in East European History. New York, 1970. Includes primary sources, as well as short selections from synthetic works.

Fügedi, Erik. Kings, Bishops, Nobles, and Burghers in Medieval Hungary. Edited by János M. Bak. London, 1986. A collection of path-breaking essays on early Hungarian society.

Glatz, Ferenc, ed. Ethnicity and Society in Hungary. Vol. 2 of Etudes historiques hongroises. 7 vols. Budapest, 1990. Essays on national and ethnic minorities in modern Hungary.

Jȩdruch, Jacek. Constitutions, Elections, and Legislatures of Poland, 1493–1977: A Guide to Their History. Washington, D.C., 1982. A useful guide to Polish constitutional history.

Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974. A standard political history that can serve as a good background.

Kerner, Robert Joseph. Bohemia in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Political, Economic, and Social History, with Special Reference to the Reign of Leopold II, 1790–1792. 2d. ed. Orono, Maine, 1969. A classic and still very useful study of eighteenth-century Czech developments.

Király, Béla K., and András Bozóki, eds. Lawful Revolution in Hungary, 1989–94. New York, 1995. Contains some very useful studies on the social implications of the collapse of the communist regime.

Komlós, John. Nutrition and Economic Development in the Eighteenth-Century Habsburg Monarchy: An Anthropometric History. Princeton, N.J., 1989. Examines the relationship between the availability of food, physical stature, and population health.

Kosáry, Domokos G. Culture and Society in Eighteenth-Century Hungary. Budapest, 1987. An abridged English version of a comprehensive survey of eighteenth-century Hungarian society.

Landau, Zbigniew, and Jerzy Tomaszewski. The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century. London, 1985. A competent and clear survey of modern Polish economic developments.

Lukács, John. Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture. New York and London, 1988. A brilliant portrait of an emerging capital city.

Magocsi, Paul R. The Shaping of a National Identity: Subcarpathian Rus', 1848–1948. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. A good treatment of the Rusyns of former northeastern Hungary.

Marczali, Henrik. Hungary in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1910. Reprint, New York, 1971. A still-useful survey of Hungary's society and institutions.

Mazsu, János. The Social History of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, 1825–1914. New York, 1997. A pioneering study.

McCagg, William O. A History of the Habsburg Jews, 1670–1918. Bloomington, Ind., 1989. A very readable and useful survey.

Macartney, C. A. The Habsburg Empire, 1790–1918. New York, 1969. The most comprehensive treatment in English of nineteenth-century developments.

Marcus, Joseph. Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919–1939. Berlin, 1983. A comprehensive, but somewhat opinionated account.

Myant, Martin R. The Czechoslovak Economy, 1948–1988: The Battle for Economic Reform. Cambridge, U.K., 1989. A comprehensive survey of economic developments under communism, as well as some of the attempts at reform.

Niederhauser, Emil. A jobbágyfelszabadítás Kelet-Európában (Serf Emancipation in Eastern Europe). Budapest, 1962. Still the most comprehensive treatment of serf emancipation.

Niederhauser, Emil. The Rise of Nationality in Eastern Europe. Budapest, 1981. Treats all the nationalities from the Baltic down to the Balkans.

Rothschild, Joseph. Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe since World War II. 3d. ed. New York and Oxford, 2000. The most popular synthesis of the recent history of East Central Europe.

Subtelny, Orest. Domination of Eastern Europe: Native Nobilities and Foreign Absolutism, 1500–1715. Kingston, Ontario, 1986. Discusses the role of the nobility in Poland-Lithuania, Hungary, Ukraine, and Moldavia.

Taylor, Jack. The Economic Development of Poland, 1919–1950. Westport, Conn., 1970. Particularly useful for interwar economic developments.

Várdy, Steven Béla. The Hungarian-Americans. Boston, 1985. Discusses the social and economic causes of emigration and the immigrants' fate in the United States.

Várdy, Steven Béla, and Agnes Huszár Várdy. The Austro-Hungarian Mind: At Home and Abroad. New York, 1989. A collection of two dozen essays on social and cultural developments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Várdy, Steven Béla, and Agnes Huszár Várdy, eds. Triumph in Adversity: Studies in Hungarian Civilization. New York, 1989. A collection essays by over two dozen scholars on Hungarian social, cultural, and intellectual developments.

Wandycz, Piotr S. The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795–1818. Seattle, Wash., 1974. An exhaustive survey of Polish development during the period of partitions.

Wright, William E. Serf, Seigneur, and Sovereign: Agrarian Reform in Eighteenth-Century Bohemia. Minneapolis, 1966. Discusses attempts at agrarian reform under Maria Theresa and Joseph II, and the reasons for the failure of some of these reforms.

About this article

East Central Europe

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


East Central Europe