Understanding Borders and ‘East Central Europe’ in the 19th and 20th Centuries

A narrower concept of “East Central Europe” remains the dominant one in the German-speaking countries.

By Dr. Joachim von Puttkamer / 11.11.2015
Professor of Eastern European History
Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies


“Central and Eastern Europe” or “East Central Europe” in its usual sense encompasses the countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, which share certain historical commonalities and connections. Specifically, these were extraordinary – at least by European standards – ethnic and religious diversity, the geopolitical context between Germany and Russia, the involvement of the region in imperial contexts over a number of centuries, the subsequent emergence of independent nation states, as well as cultural transfers and concentrations. The term “East central Europe” is itself a source of much debate, as are the borders of the region which it refers to. In its broadest sense it also includes the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine, as well as southeastern Europe and the Balkans, Brandenburg-Prussia and – for the second half of the 20th century – the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). However, the narrower concept of east central Europe referred to above remains the dominant one in the German-speaking countries.

East Central Europe as a Historical Space

East central Europe can be understood either as a border region of the west, beyond which is the European east, or as an intermediate space between east and west, between Germany and Russia or the Soviet Union. These perspectives are complementary, and both imply characteristics which can be viewed as being specific to the region.

German-speaking academia differentiates between the historical region of eastern central Europe and the regions of eastern Europe proper (with its East Slavic peoples) and southeastern Europe, and furthermore identifies a separate northeastern European region. According to this perspective, east central Europe emerged as a historical space as a result of the influence and involvement of the neighbouring great powers over a long period of time – through colonisation in the high medieval period, which first gave rise to east central Europe as a region of German-Slavic overlap beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire which was culturally bound to the west, and through centuries-long imperial rule in a region with its own specific order of estate-dominated states, which formed the basis for the subsequent patchwork of nation states.1 As early as the 1950s, east central Europe was discussed as a historical region, the essential characteristics of which were all heavily influenced by western Europe. These discussions focused on traces of an orientation towards Jagiellonian2 Poland and ideas of an “Intermarium”, a region between the seas, or an “Antemurale Christianitatis” (bulwark of Christianity).3 The idea of a zone of overlap between east and west, the democratic potential of which was blocked by autocratic deformities, also proved to be influential.4

These historical and political concepts of east central Europe as a border region or an intermediate space can be traced back into the 19th century, and were reformulated during the course of the First World War. Ideas of a German-led central Europe were a central theme. They informed the book Mitteleuropa published by the politician and theologian Friedrich Naumann (1860–1919) in 1915, in which he argued that a central European economic region under German hegemony should be a war aim of the central powers. This trend continued in the Ostforschung of the 1920s and 1930s with its ideas of a German expansion zone which would utilize the German minorities and German cultural traditions in the east, before ultimately culminating in the Generalplan Ost of the National Socialists. Opposing this trend on the British side were the geopolitical ideas of the British geographer and politician Halford Mackinder (1861–1947), who viewed the existence of independent nation states in eastern Europe as being key to the balance and stability of the whole continent.5

Another trend viewed east central Europe as a zone of small nations, which guaranteed the liberal and democratic development of the region. This trend can be traced back to the Czech politician František Palacký (1798–1876). In 1848, he defended the Habsburg Empire as a protector of its constituent nations against the imperial ambitions of Germany and Russia. In a work published in 1915, Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850–1937), who subsequently became the first president of Czechoslovakia, updated Palacký’s ideas and removed their Austro-Slavic undertones.6 The debate about central Europe in the 1980s also stood in this tradition. East central European writers and intellectuals, most notably Milan Kundera (born 1929)György Konrád (born 1933) and Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004), again promoted the idea of east central Europe as culturally and politically part of the west and suggested that the region was both an intermediate space and a field of experimentation for the peaceful ending of the confrontation between the two blocs.7

These historical concepts of the region lost most of their political relevance with the accession of all the states of the region to the European Union in 2004. The Visegrád Group, which was founded in 1991 to coordinate the economic and security-policy integration of Poland, the Czech RepublicSlovakia and Hungary, has since become all but superfluous. On the other hand, the “imperial turn” in historical studies over the past decade has rediscovered east central Europe with its position between empires as a laboratory of European modernity. This trend is conspicuously demonstrated by the concept of a central Europe in which urban milieus were culturally closely connected with one another and crisis experiences were made intellectually productive. The heterogeneity of the region, which was long viewed as ethno-cultural fragmentation, now appears in a different light as a space for multiple public spheres. The new imperial perspective has thus created a receptiveness for precarious and controversial cultural ideas which go beyond national bias, including postcolonial discourses.8

Conversely, the concept – based on the global historical perspective – of the region as a “shatterzone” enabling the emancipation of nation states from competing and ultimately disintegrating empires depicts eastern and southeastern Europe as the incubator of efforts to establish ethnic homogeneity and of ethnic violence. The closely associated discourses of national victimhood have been powerfully described in the “Bloodlands” concept, which focuses on Poland and Ukraine as the arena in which the violence of Stalinist and National Socialist rule overlapped and reached its most extreme forms.9 With its primary interest in the productive and destructive dimensions of cultural entanglements in imperial and post-imperial contexts, a historiography of east central Europe has emerged which goes beyond political biases and has a cultural studies orientation, and which views itself as owing much to the paradigm of transnationalism.10

Political and Social Order

The foundations of the subsequent state order in east central Europe can be traced back to the kingdoms which formed as a result of the spread of Christian missionary activity and the institutional Christian church beyond the eastern borders of the Franconian Empire and its successor, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, to Slavic and Magyar territories. What had long been the core of “barbarian Europe”, the Germanic and Slavic legal traditions and social order of which can be viewed as the third root of Europe beside Latin and Greek culture, now became a region in which the influence of these three roots overlapped.11

The link to the west was cemented in the second half of the 10th century. The dukedom of Bohemia, which had emerged from the Great Moravian Empire, recognized the authority of the German king and subsequent emperor Otto I (912–973) in 950. The bishopric of Prague, which was established in 973, played an important role in the establishment of the institutional church in east central Europe. Saint Adalbert of Prague (956–997) baptized the Hungarian duke and launched the mission to the Baltic Prussians. During a pilgrimage to his grave in Gnesenin the spring of 1000, Emperor Otto III (980–1002) established an independent Polish archbishopric and enabled Duke Bolesław I Chrobry (ca. 967–1025), who he elevated to the status of “brother and helper of the empire” (fratrem et cooperatorem imperii) and who he referred to as his friend and confederate (populi Romani amicum et socium),12 to establish a Polish kingdom. In August 1000, Stephen I (ca. 974–1038) of Hungary accepted the title of king from a papal nuncio. Thus, within the space of just a few decades an independent system of rule had emerged which was connected to Latin Christendom.


[LEFT]: The famous Lithuanian grand prince Jogaila, who subsequently became King Władysław II Jagiełło (ca. 1348–1434), was crowned king of Poland in 1386 after his marriage to Hedwig of Anjou (ca. 1374–1399), the daughter of the king of Poland, Hungary and Croatia. The marriage of these two figures, who are depicted in the painting kneeing beneath Christ’s cross, led not only to the conversion of Lithuania to Christianity, but also to a union of crowns between Poland and Lithuania which was to endure for four centuries. In 1569, the two states entered a union of states due to the lack of a successor to the throne. This union remained in existence until 1795. / Muzeum Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego Collegium Maius
[RIGHT]: The Battle of Mohács 1526: As part of its expansion, the Ottoman Empire of Sultan Suleyman I (1494–1566) launched a campaign against Hungary, which had been weakened by the peasant revolt of 1514. Hungarian resistance was crushed in the devastating Battle of Mohács (1526). As a result of the battle, the young Hungarian king Ludwig II (1505–1526) died and about 100,000 Hungarians were taken into slavery by the Ottomans. The battle subsequently became a Hungarian national legend. / Ungarische Nationalgalerie


[LEFT]: Riga, a Trading City in Livonia, 1702: The city of Riga, initially a commercial centre on the River Dvina and subsequently the capital of Livonia, was founded in 1201 by the bishop of Bremen and was increasingly settled by German merchants. The city was part of the Hanseatic League. It was captured in the 16th century by Poland-Lithuania, and in the 17th century by Sweden. In the 18th century, the Russian Empire conquered the city, which continued to flourish economically, and made it one of the most important Russian ports, though German remained the official language of the city until 1891. When the independent republic of Latvia was founded after the First World War, Riga became its capital. In the aftermath of the Second World War, during which the territory changed hands between German and Soviet occupying forces, Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, which it remained until 1991. / Deutsche Fotothek Dresden
[RIGHT]: Prague, Little Quarter and Old City, 1607: The city of Prague, the Slavic-Germanic origins of which can be traced back to the 6th century, became the seat of the Bohemian monarchy in the 13th century. The city’s Jewish, German and Czech population made Prague a meeting point of cultures and the intellectual centre of the region. The first university of eastern and central Europe was founded in Prague as early as 1348, bringing together academics and artists from throughout eastern Europe. Prague belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and subsequently to the Habsburg Empire. It then became the capital of the state of Czechoslovakia, which was founded in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War. / Wikimedia Commons


[LEFT]: Lviv (Leopolis) around 1618: The city of Lviv in present-day Ukraine (Lemberg in German, Lvov in Russian, Lwów in Polish) was founded in 1256 by a prince of the Kievan Rus and became part of Poland in the 14th century. During the first Partition of Poland in 1772, Lviv was transferred to the Habsburg Empire. In 1918, Poland took possession of the city by military means. In 1941, it was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the context of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Due to this repeated change of owners, the city has been influenced by a variety cultures. Up to the Second World War, numerous Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians and Germans shared the city with the Polish majority. The city is currently predominantly inhabited by Ukrainians, though there are also groups of Russians, Belarussians and Poles. / Herzog-August-Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel
[RIGHT]: The Confessions in Europe: Even on a simplified map which only shows majority religions, Europe in the 16th century appears confessionally very diverse. / Klett Verlag

Subsequently, the death without heir of the last representatives of the founder dynasties – the Piast dynasty in Poland (1370), the Přemyslid dynasty in Bohemia (1306) and the Árpád dynasty in Hungary (1301) – and the transition to elected monarchies strengthened the position of the nobility and its collective rights, while also resulting in a series of dynastic connections between kingdoms. Three of these connections proved to be long-term and had a profound effect on the political order of east central Europe: the union of crowns between Hungary and Croatia of 1102, the Jagiellonian union of crowns through marriage between Poland and Lithuania in 1386, out of which emerged the Union of Lublin in 1569, and the link between Hungary and the Bohemian lands and the Habsburg hereditary lands as a result of the Hungarian defeat to the Ottomans at the Battle of Mohács in 1526. Gdansk (Danzig) and Riga Cracow and PragueVilna and Lviv (Lvov/Lemberg) extended the network of European trading centres eastward, binding the new kingdoms more closely to the west. As a result of the Polish acquisition of the dukedom of Halych in the second half of the 14th century, and, in particular, as a result of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, Polish Catholic and Russian Orthodox influences overlapped on the eastern edge of east central Europe. This had long-term effects on confessional as well as social and political conditions in the region.

The weakness of elective monarchies and the region’s position on the periphery of the Kievan Rus and the principalities which emerged from it, and, in particularly, on the edge of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the emergence of a particular political order in east central Europe, which was dominated by the noble estates. Wars of varying sizes resulted in the emergence of a petty nobility that was numerically stronger and structured in a militarily useful clientele system. Continuing contact with the Ottomans also defined the early modern aristocratic culture of Poland and Hungary and its concept of itself as the Antemurale Christianitatis. The intellectual core of this culture was an independent attitude based on the estate, which included a high degree of regional self-administration for the nobility and the guarantee of participation in the legislature. The respective “nation of the nobility” (Adelsnation) gathered together in the respective legislative assembly epitomized state continuity. The kingdom of Poland even explicitly defined itself as a republic of the nobility.

Seventeenth century Poland with its proverbial “Golden Liberty”13 and autocratic Russia, which was only freed from centuries of Mongol rule by Ivan III of Muscovy (1440–1505) in the late-15th century, can be viewed from the early modern period onward as diametrically opposite, but also interlinked, political orders. While the possibility briefly arose during the “Time of Troubles” in the early-17th century that the Polish republic of the nobility could extend its rule far to the east and establish its constitutional model in Muscovy, the consolidated militarized Russian state was able to impose its hegemony on the Polish state just one century later in the aftermath of the Northern Wars (1560–1721), and, from the “Silent Sejm” of Grodno in 171714 onward, Russia used its position to block the consolidation of monarchical power in Poland.15 The contradiction between freedom and autocracy which emerged during this period has remained a feature of the Polish-Russian relationship through the Partitions of Poland and the period of Soviet hegemony right up to the present. On the other hand, the legal status of the peasants was something that Poland and Russia had in common. Indeed, throughout the whole of eastern Europe, peasants largely remained in conditions somewhere between seigneurial subservience and serfdom until the 19th century.

It is more difficult to make the case for the existence of such a contradiction in forms of political rule in the relationship between Habsburg Hungary after 1526 and the Ottoman Empire. In 1541, the Ottomans brought central Hungary under their direct rule with the conquest of Buda. The principality of Transylvania which had previously belonged to the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom, was forced to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Sultan, as had the Danubian Principalitiesbefore it. In the Kingdom of Hungary, which now belonged to the Habsburg Empire and which extended from Croatia through western Hungary to present-day Slovakia, the Sultan repeatedly supported the opponents of Habsburg rule in the confessional infighting between the estates during the 17th century, thereby serving as a powerful support for the estate order. Consequently, until the 19th century it was only possible to partially integrate Hungary into the absolutist militarized and tax state which was developed in the Austrian and Bohemian hereditary territories and which shifted the balance in the relationship between empire-wide connections – primarily among the nobility – and the strong regional consciousness of the nobility.16


Maps of the three partitions of Poland in the 18th century – 1772 (left), 1793 (center), and 1795 (right). / Library of Congress

Austria-Hungary after the Compromise of 1867: After its defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, the Austrian Empire was converted into the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867. From that point on, there was an Imperial-Royal (kaiserlich-königliches) Austrian part and a Royal Hungarian part of the empire. The Hungarian part received autonomy with regard to its internal affairs, and the foreign and fiscal policy of the two parts was the responsibility of joint ministries. The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I (1830–1916) had himself crowned king of Hungary also in 1867. This map from 1899 shows the Austrian territories on the left side, which from the Austrian perspective were also referred to as Cisleithania (this side of the river Leitha), with the Hungarian part (Transleithania) coloured in red on the right. / Wikimedia Commons

In Poland, by contrast, the neighbouring great powers of Prussia, Austria and – in particular – Russia thwarted the expansion of state structures throughout the entire 18th century. It was only the constitution of May 3 1791, which became famous as the first written constitution in Europe, that bound the king and the nobility together in a progressive, parliamentary order and raised the prospect that Poland could renew itself under its own steam and free itself from Russian hegemony. However, the great powers intervened and another Partition of Poland occurred. The negative Polenpolitik (negative policy towards Poland), which had united Brandenburg-Prussia and Russia in controlling Poland in the 18th century, now continued in forms of direct political rule over the partitioned republic of the nobility.17

The incorporation of the kingdoms of east central Europe into imperial conglomerates drew in the case of the Habsburg Empire initially on the early modern model of the composite state, which was managed by the monarch and his chancelleries, but the political and social conditions of the individual territories remained largely unchanged. This was not the case in the Polish territories which fell to Prussia, but it was the case in the Baltic Provinces and subsequently – albeit to a somewhat lesser extent – in the parts of Poland which were incorporated into the Russian Empire during the first three Partitions of Poland. The more the respective rulers developed common and – increasingly – uniform administrative structures from the mid-18th century onward, the greater the tension became between the imperial collective and the individual territories. These tensions then – in the case of Bohemia and Hungary, but also in the case of the divided Poland – increasingly provided a focus for ideas of national renewal.

The Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire and Prussia – and later the German Empire – by no means blocked the emergence of modern economic and political conditions within east central Europe. Instead, they shaped these developments to fit into the broader imperial context. This is evidenced not least by the fact that the Czech and Hungarian nationalist movements by no means called into question the legitimacy of the Habsburg Empire itself, but instead strove for a constitutional order which would guarantee to the historical kingdoms the greatest autonomy possible, thereby enabling them to progress into liberal nation states within the empire. The initial close contact between the Czech, Slovenian, Croatian, Slovakian and Ukrainian nationalist movements in the spirit of Slavic solidarity resulted in the Prague Slavic Congress in 1848. It was envisaged as a counterpoint to the assembly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, though it immediately highlighted considerable tensions between the respective interests. The Czech section of Charles University in Prague, which was opened in 1882, subsequently became an important institution for southern Slavic intellectuals also. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 was viewed by the Slavic nationalist movements as blocking their own ambitions, but for the Czechs and Croats it became a blueprint for internal autonomy placed on a constitutional footing. Up to that point, only Polish-dominated Galicia had been granted that level of autonomy within the Austrian Empire.

The challenges which the transition to a constitutional parliamentary order presented were already clearly demonstrated in the Habsburg Empire and the former Polish territories of Prussia by the revolution of 1848, and by the aftermath of the revolution of 1905 in the former Polish territories in the Russian Empire. In the politicized public sphere, competing nationalist demands emerged in all political fields. In particular, the education system, local politics, the economy and ultimately also the army became the arenas of nationalist conflict, though the broader imperial context remained unchanged until the First World War. It was the gradual disintegration of the armies of all three imperial powers involved in east central Europe and the political mobilization which the war brought about that facilitated the emergence of the nation states which have since defined the political order of east central Europe. National independence brought democratic and social emancipation, though authoritarian trends soon emerged. What was initially looked upon as a stable bulwark or cordon sanitaire between Germany and the Soviet Union, and as an additional support for the new continental order sponsored by France, became a crisis region which ultimately succumbed to National Socialist aggression.

The Second World War manifested itself as a radical destruction of existing social and political structures in Poland in particular. In addition to the German occupation, the annihilationist aims of which became increasingly apparent in retrospect, the Soviet occupation has been identify in the past two decades as bearing some similarities.18 While the differences between German occupation policies during the Second World War in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (which was allied with Germany) need little explanation, the consequences of these policies for the establishment and development of Communist dictatorships after 1945 remains to be systematically researched. These regimes pushed through a broadly based transition to a society based on industrial labour. Industrialized labour had remained largely restricted to the large cities in the first half of the 20th century. This process was experienced as more of an upheaval and a violent intervention from the outside here than in any other region of Europe, though the changes in the everyday patterns of life have been romanticized in retrospect.19 Differences between nations can be identified particularly in the different forms of opposition to Soviet hegemony in the years 1956 and 1968, as well as in the varying degrees of repression and the forms of opposition and dissent. These differences had the result that close transnational contact and links (the officially prescribed friendship within the Soviet sphere), the shared experience of the scarcity of consumer goods and even contact between intellectuals if anything strengthened the perception of differences between the nations. This perception persisted through the transformations which occurred in 1989 and beyond.

With accession to the EU in 2004, east central Europe has again for the foreseeable future become the eastern edge of the west, with a clear demarcation between it and the east. The cautious optimism that this would result in parliamentary democracies with stable institutions and that the crisis-ridden peripheral position would be replaced by a normality characterized by parity of esteem within Europe has been somewhat dampened by developments in Hungary since 2011. However, the primacy of the nation-states in the political order in east central Europe appears – particularly after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – to be more secure than ever.

Ethnic Diversity and the National Question

Linguistic diversity and nationalist conflicts are for better or worse viewed as hallmarks of east central Europe. East central Europe was indeed characterized by a high degree of linguistic and religious diversity up to the Second World War. This diversity was by no means a stable condition but was constantly being reconstituted by political and religious conditions. The interplay between the cultural and political aspects of the resulting nationalist conflicts has been summed up using the term “community of conflict”(konfliktní společenství). What was initially intended to demonstrate the close links between Czech national emancipation and its German counterpart became a topos referring to long-standing conflicts in which the opponents are very dependent on one another. The topos contained and contains the understanding that such conflicts were contained and controlled for long periods, and that they need not necessarily result in catastrophes like those witnessed in the 20th century.20

Ethnic diversity in the region can be traced back to Slavic settlement in the early medieval period, which affected every part of east central Europe except the Baltic with its Estonian and Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian and Baltic Prussian) populations. The separation between Latin and Greek Christendom and the separation between the East and West Slavs were concomitant processes. Slavic settlement was weakest in the Carpathian basin. The fact that the Magyars who claimed the land there were able to establish the Hungarian language there from the 9th century onward can be attributed to the conversion to Christianity and the concomitant emergence of stable rule around the end of the first millennium. This development was further assisted by the arrival and assimilation of Pechenegs and Kumans, who also came from the Steppes. Linguistic conditions underwent lasting change as a result of German eastward migration in the high medieval period, which extended the region of German-Slavic overlap a considerable distance eastward. Relatively compact regions of German settlement emerged in East PrussiaPomeraniaSilesia and northern and western Bohemia, as well as pockets of German-speaking population in Moravia, Hungary and Transylvania, often with vague geographical boundaries, which resisted assimilation. The arrival of the Mongol invaders in 1240–1242 with the attendant massive loss of population accelerated this development considerably, particularly in Silesia, and also transformed the ethnic composition of the population in Hungary. The migration of Jews primarily from the German-speaking territory to Poland also occurred during the 12th and 13th century, as did the migration of Orthodox Rumanians from the territories south of the Danube, and the migration of Roma and Armenians primarily to the Carpathian region. On the eastern edge of Latin Christendom, religious and linguistic differences were often coterminous even before the Reformation and they were stabilized by legal privileges and provisions for self-administration.

This trend was strengthened by the Reformation. To the extent that the political order was based on estate-based liberties, it facilitated forms of guaranteed tolerance, which were furthest developed in Hungary and Transylvania. In contrast to Poland and the Bohemian lands, the Counter-Reformation was only partially successful here. In places where Catholicism was extended to the Orthodox population, such as in eastern Poland, in Hungary and in Transylvania, it resulted instead in the emergence of new separate population groups in the form of the Greek Catholic churches. Within the corporations of the privileged nobility with their concept of the equality of members, and within the corporations of privileged townspeople, a homogenizing pressure emerged which resulted in a clear differentiation between these groups and the largely enserfed peasant population.

This divide also manifested itself in linguistic conditions, with the landowning nobility and the urban estates in parts of Poland and Hungary differing markedly from the majority of the population in this regard also. For example, in eastern Poland the nobility was Polish, the townspeople were predominantly Polish or Jewish, but the rural population was Lithuanian or East Slavic. In Hungary, the nobility spoke Hungarian even in regions that were predominantly Slovakian, Rumanian or German, while in many cities in Upper Hungary the German language enjoyed an equally high status as Hungarian or Slovakian. Up to the 18th century, ethnic diversity existed primarily in the form of the collective religious, political and social privileges of legally recognized corporations, which existed in parallel to one another and frequently gave rise to conflict. The settlement of groups of Germans and Serbians in Central Hungary in the aftermath of the Turkish wars made the picture even more diverse in the respective regions.

This ethnic diversity assumed a new quality with the rise of nationalist ideas from the middle of the 18th century. As the spread of the political public sphere and demands for political participation undermined the estate privileges of individual groups within the population under the banner of the nation as a whole, they created a homogenizing pressure which soon became linked to movements for linguistic renewal on the basis of the vernacular and a usually romanticized, if not entirely invented popular culture. The Polish nationalist movement was an exception in this regard. Until the second half of the 19th century, its romantic concept of the nation was less focused on the establishment of a written Polish language, which had already existed for a long time, than on heroic resistance to the partitioning powers.

This photograph of a street in Warsaw in May 1905 shows not only the turmoil after the explosion of a bomb, but also demonstrates the multilingualism of daily life in Poland. The signs over the shops are not only in Polish, but also in Cyrillic script, while the names of some of the ship-owners – such as Karol Sommer and J. Schatzschneider – are evidence of their German ancestry. / The National Digital Library Polona

In Poland, as elsewhere in east central Europe, the segmentation of the population into separate public spheres along linguistic lines created a pressure to assimilate, which in the transition to modern industrial societies was initially most conspicuously felt in the cities and which dominated an ever increasing portion of daily life, even reaching into the private sphere. It should be possible to recognize a real Pole, Czech, German, Hungarian or Slovak by the language he used, the school he sent his children to, and the shops he patronized. Invented pasts vouched for the transition to modernity. The transition from inclusive to exclusive, from political to ethnic nationalism, which was such a widespread phenomenon in the 19th century, was a trend which began earlier. However, this is no more a peculiarity of east central Europe than the accompanying transition from participatory to authoritarian forms of nationalism or the turn towards anti-Semitism.


[LEFT]: With its 3000 seats, the Large Synagogue in Budapest is the largest in Europe. It was designed by the Viennese architect Ludwig Förster (1797–1863) and built in the years 1854–1859. The Moorish architectural style is intended as a reminder of the oriental origins of Judaism. The Jewish population, which had lived in Buda (and later also in Pest) from the 11th century, grew rapidly during the 19th century, creating the need for a new, larger synagogue. / Photo by OsvátA, Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: The Shtetl Łachwa in 1926: The small town of Łachwa in present-day Belarus had a Jewish community from the 17th century onward. In the 1930s, the Jewish community made up more than half of the total population of about 3,800 inhabitants. After the German Wehrmacht occupied the town in 1941, a ghetto was set up for the Jewish inhabitants. One of the first ghetto revolts of the Second World War occurred there in 1942. About 1000 Jews died during this resistance while another 1000 were able to flee. / Wikimedia Commons

In east central Europe, where the overwhelming majority of Europe’s Jewish population had lived since the 14th century, anti-Semitism met with an enormous diversity of Jewish movements, which pursued differing paths to Jewish modernity. In Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Budapest with their young and dynamic middle classes, the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, led directly to assimilation, though this assimilation remained incomplete due to constant contact with eastern European Jewish culture. Beyond the urban centres in the small shtetls with their mixture of traditional and Hassidic Jews, emancipation led instead to different variants of Zionism or to an independent Jewish socialism, and frequently directly to the emerging communist parties. The direct confrontation between modernity and tradition also resulted in an independent Jewish orthodoxy, initially in Hungary.


[LEFT]: The Settlement of Germans in Occupied Poland 1939–1944 / Atlas zur Geschichte Ostmitteleuropas
[RIGHT]: Expulsion of Poles from the German-occupied territories in 1939: Expelled Poles are travelling under armed guard by German army officers to the train station in Schwarzenau (Czerniejewo) near Gnesen (Gniezno) / Wikimedia Commons

The democratic nation state of the 20th century was based on the expectation of ethnic homogeneity, which often had to be obtained through force. This phenomenon is particularly conspicuous in the case of east central Europe and it was to an extent only formulated in this way as a result of the study of east central Europe and southeastern Europe.21 This realization has not totally obscured the emergence of national and international minority rights, but has altered the view on it. Both – displacement and minority rights – are two sides of the same coin to the extent that minority rights were not infrequently formulated with the expectation of linguistic assimilation over the long term and population displacements after the First World War and particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War received international approval as a supposed long-term guarantee against genocide. The resettlement which occurred in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the National Socialist war of annihilation and the subsequent displacement primarily of German, Polish and Ukrainian populations have created a comparatively high degree of ethnic homogeneity. This process included the murder of the east central European Jewish population in the Shoah.

Aj, tumé piskárja (“Come on, servants”)

The title of this traditional song of the Lovara-Roma, which was recorded in 1968 in Vienna, may be translated as “Come on, servants”. The group of the Lovara-Roma (hungarian for “horse traders”) formerly came from Moldavia and Wallachia. The singer is singing in Romanes, an Indo-Aryan language. In English the lyrics are as follows:

Come on, servants!

My servants, as you work for me!

Bring me, he said,

the grey horse.


Ah, the grey one,

the long‐maned grey one, too scraggy,

it can fly, it can run

accurately like a clock.


Come on, servants!

My servants, as you work for me!

Bring me, he said,

that grey horse.


Aj, not far from the railway station,

not far from the station, Roma, I have arrived,

and all the screws of my carriage

are truly broken.


Not on brandy

have I got so drunk,

but, Roma, I’m drunk

out of wrath!

However, ethnic and nationalist conflicts were only partially resolved in the aftermath of the Second World War, particularly since the principle of the homogeneous nation state remains dominant. In particular, nationalist tensions have arisen in connection with the Hungarian minorities in Rumania and Slovakia, as well as increasingly in relation to the Roma population. However, in the two and a half decades since the disintegration of the Communist dictatorships, the level of violence arising from nationalist conflicts has been considerably less than initially feared.

Entangled Cultures of Memory

In spite of their great historical depth, the cultures of memory in east central Europe are, as a result of the experiences of violence and dictatorship in the 20th century, strongly influenced by recent history, and in spite of all their similarities they are specific to the individual nations. Memories of the Second World War and of Communist dictatorship, which are presented as being closely connected or even being of a piece, have a central place in this culture. There is the demand that the continuation of dictatorship after 1945 be recognized by the European public. This desire not only focuses on differences in historical experiences within Europe but also on the parity of esteem between the crimes of the National Socialist and of the Stalinist occupation, between the Holocaust and the Gulag. The European Parliament has assisted these efforts through its efforts to establish August 23rd, the date of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, as a European day of commemoration for the subjugation of Europe by the two main dictatorships of the 20th century.22 The change in perspective in the newly established museums of modern history in Warsaw, Cracow, Gdansk, Budapest and Sighet in Rumania are a further example of this joint or shared approach to history and its commemoration.

In the countries themselves, these initiatives have prompted controversies which are indicative of a polarization in attitudes regarding the recording and commemoration of history. These initiatives to establish museums of contemporary history correspond to a no less entangled public memory of Jewish history and the Holocaust in the respective countries. This includes critical questions regarding the part played by the respective majority population in the persecution and murder of the Jews, as demonstrated in particular by the solemn debates within Poland regarding the massacre of Jews in Jedwabne.23 The displacement of the German population of east central Europe has also been debated in a controversial and nuanced manner for some time now. In this way, it has become possible in retrospect to thematise the traumatic experiences of an overwrought, decades-long existence between two overbearing hegemonic empires.

Since the end of the Communist dictatorships in the revolutions of 1989, a European normality has begun to establish itself in east central Europe. Some elements, such as the strong position of the landowning nobility in politics and society and the high degree of linguistic and religious diversity have already largely disappeared. Many western Europeans may still perceive the countries of east central Europe mainly as a space of transition before the European east, especially in view of the strangeness of the languages spoken there and the conspicuously lower standard of living. This has given rise to a new kind of labour migration, which has seen many Poles in particular moving to EnglandIrland and Germany. At the same time, a high degree of mobility has become a characteristic of the whole of Europe, and east central Europe hardly stands out from the rest of Europe in this regard.



  1. Zernack, Osteuropa 1977.
  2. The Jagiellonian dynasty, which was originally Lithuanian, ruled Poland and Lithuania from 1386 to 1572.
  3. Cf. Conze, Ostmitteleuropa 1992; Halecki, Grenzraum 1956; Troebst, “Intermarium” 2002; Morawiec, Antemurale 2001.
  4. Szűcs, Die drei historischen Regionen 1994.
  5. Naumann, Mitteleuropa 1915; Mühle, “Ostforschung” 1997; Mackinder, Democratic Ideals 1919.
  6. Palacky, Eine Stimme 1866; Masaryk, The Problem 1917 [1915].
  7. Busek, Aufbruch 1986.
  8. Csáky, Das Gedächtnis 2010; Ther, Vom Gegenstand 2006; for example, see: Wolff, The Idea of Galicia 2010.
  9. Bartov, Shatterzone 2013; Snyder, Bloodlands 2011.
  10. Hadler, Verflochtene Geschichten 2010.
  11. Modzelewski, Das barbarische Europa 2011.
  12. Gesta Principum Polonorum 2003, p. 36; Bujnoch, Polens Anfänge 1978, p. 58.
  13. This term refers to the unrestricted right to freedom of speech and the right of objection enjoyed by all members in the Sejm, the Polish parliament, which also granted to every single member a veto right. Even the king was dependent on the decisions of the parliament, which resulted in many stalemate situations.
  14. On February 1 1717, a sitting of the parliament occurred in which the members had no right of objection, and therefore had to remain silent. The sitting endorsed the treaty between the rebels of the Tarnogród Confederation, who had been in communication with Tsar Peter I (1672–1725), and King August II of Poland (1670–1733).
  15. Zernack, Polen und Russland 1994.
  16. Evans, Austria 2006.
  17. Cf. Zernack, Negative Polenpolitik 1974; Schulze Wessel, Russlands Blick 1995.
  18. Baberowski / Döring-Manteuffel, Ordnung durch Terror 2006; Snyder, Bloodlands 2011.
  19. Todorova, Post-Communist Nostalgia 2010.
  20. Křen, Die Konfliktgemeinschaft 2000.
  21. Naimark, Flammender Hass 2004; Ther, Die dunkle Seite 2011.
  22. Cf. Troebst, Gedenktag 2011.
  23. Dmitrów, Beginn der Vernichtung 2004.



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