Eastern European Studies: History
Author: Tomasz Blusiewicz
PhD Candidate, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA
[email protected], 773 724 0862
Keywords: Area Studies; Communism; Stalinism; Nazism; Holocaust; Iron Curtain; Eastern Europe;
Empire; Soviet Union; Nationalism; World Wars; Cold War; 1989; Memory; Politics; Totalitarianism;
Imperialism
Abstract: This article is a brief survey of the current state of and trends in academic historical scholarship
on Eastern Europe, mainly in North America, but also in Europe. It presents several traditional methods
of defining Eastern Europe, discusses main features of its historiography and some of its recent research
directions. The article offers both a chronological and thematic narratives concerning the field’s origins,
its major developments and shifts as well as a reference guide for further research and reading.
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The field of Eastern European historical scholarship has undergone dramatic changes since the
collapse of communist regimes in 1989. Eastern Europe as a distinct geopolitical region has never been
more sharply delineated than between the late 1940s and 1989, when its primary reference was
essentially synonymous with the non-Soviet, European part of the ‘Soviet Block’. In the West, ‘Eastern
Europe’ as an intellectual concept had its origins in the Enlightenment vision of the world; it referred to
a transitory space between the civilized ‘West’ and the exotic ‘Orient’ (Wolff, 1994). As a scholarly
discipline it began to emerge only in the interwar period – it dealt with the newly-organized space that
appeared on the map as a result of the fall of four empires: Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and
Russian. It was the Cold War and its geopolitical pressures, however, that led to the emergence of
‘Eastern European studies’ as an institution well-established in the academic world. Many historians of
the region were émigrés and not infrequently - as they were collectively labeled in the West ‘dissidents’, who through their research, writing, teaching and government advising were involved in the
process of ‘liberating’ Eastern Europe from the Soviet domination (Brzezinski, 1956; Pipes, 1976).
Contributing to the Cold War confrontation was not the only preoccupation of historians of Eastern
Europe, but nonetheless the field has been faced with a need to reinvent its basic framework after the
dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many scholars, including the author of the previous article in this encyclopedia (Blackwood,
2001), predicted that such a redefinition would be extremely difficult and the field would eventually
dissolve and/or integrate with the broader European narrative. This process is far from complete and
while the field has been shifting in that direction, it still retains its specificity and can be approached as a
separate unit. This article focuses on two related themes. First, it examines what criteria are used by
historians to define what counts and what does not count as ‘Eastern European history’. Secondly, it
surveys new work in the field, outlines how it is related to older historiography and how it
communicates with new trends in historical scholarship. In conclusion, it offers several reflections on
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what kind of light some of recent geopolitical shifts such as the EU enlargement (in the 2000s) and the
Ukrainian crisis (2013-2014) shed on Eastern Europe as a concept and what they portend about its
future.
The chief difficulty facing historians who insist on the validity of Eastern Europe as a historical
term is the lack of Eastern European identity among the peoples of the region. This obstacle is much less
pronounced for nation-state (German, Polish, Hungarian, etc.) or imperial (British, Soviet, Habsburg,
etc.) historians where the domain of study is much more clearly defined through subjective identities
and/or political boundaries. Eastern Europeans rarely think of themselves as Eastern Europeans per se;
all studies show that this identity is either non-existent or insignificant in comparison with national,
religious or pan-European identities. In this sense, the field of Eastern European historical studies can be
seen as ‘inorganic’ – its origins are rooted in global conditions largely beyond Eastern Europe’s control
(imperial rivalries, World Wars, the Cold War, etc.). In other words, the field owes its existence largely
thanks to an outsider ‘gaze’ cast upon the region.
One of the most authoritative surveys of the region’s twentieth century history (Rothschild and
Wingfield, 2007) is entitled Return to Diversity. The title unequivocally implies that the region has
returned to its historical ‘norm’ (diversity) after half a century of ‘forced’ convergence in the Soviet
Block. Eastern European ‘return to diversity’ is tied with one of the original lenses through which the
region has been perceived – the allegory of a bridge between East and West, a place where cultures
meet and give birth to numerous mixed formations. The validity of the ‘return to diversity’ thesis is
implicitly confirmed by recent developments in political science and in the new sub-field of ‘transitology’
in particular; one of transitology’s chief aims is to explain the diverging trajectories of states that
seemed so similar politically prior to 1989. Many scholars search for deeper historical causes such as
early modern democratic experiences to account for this phenomenon. What are the main features
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amidst this newly reconstituted diversity that form the common denominators large enough to validate
speaking of a common regional history?
Perhaps the oldest division line separating ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Europe is of religious nature.
Starting with the split of the Roman Empire into two halves, through Byzantine-Greek Christianization of
much of the Balkans or the Kievan Rus, the Great Schism of 1054 or the Muscovite ‘Third Rome’
ambitions, the rift between Latin and Greek Europe has always been noticeable and usually deep. In
1983, the Hungarian historian Jenő Szűcs suggested that parts of what was then known as ‘Eastern
Europe’ (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) were miscategorized. These areas have always been, he
argued, a part of the ‘Western civilizational sphere’ since their adoption of Christianity from Rome and
not from Constantinople. The Orthodox faith and administration, the Cyrillic alphabet or the
absence/weakness of Protestant Reformation are thus posited as the original and decisive factors
explaining the differences between the two parts of the continent. In Poland and Hungary, the image of
these two countries being the ‘bulwarks of Christian faith’ containing the Orthodox and (more typically)
Islamic element has become a part of national consciousness in the Early Modern period. In general, this
basic distinction is rarely questioned, but there is little new scholarship that would operate within
religiously defined frameworks, especially after the ‘atheistic’ communism cast aside what had been
earlier perceived as a defining feature of Russianness – Orthodox religiosity.
Another frequently drawn and almost as old a distinction is of economic character. The ‘Iron
Curtain’ ultimately did not fall between the ports of Stettin and Trieste as Winston Churchill announced
in 1946, but closer to the ports of Lübeck in Germany and Burgas in Bulgaria. This seemingly incidental
detail of geography must have intrigued many historians. The border between West and East Germany
eventually materialized very close to the Elbe River – one of the major fault lines drawn by economic
historians. It separates the world of nascent commercialization of agriculture in Western and the second
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wave of feudalism in Eastern early modern Europe. Naturally, the final course of the border between
East and West Germany had nothing to do with economic history and a lot to do with where the Allied
and Red Armies met in 1945. Still, the next four decades made the Elbe River divide, already bleak in
1945, plainly visible again. Eastern Europe, besides being popularly and somewhat stereotypically
viewed as Western Europe’s poor relative, is understood by some economic historians to be a region
where the second wave of feudalization and de-urbanization took place just when Western Europe
began to urbanize and ready itself for the industrial revolution. Both the forced Soviet-style
industrialization and the current EU-integration are sometimes framed as attempts to close this old gap.
The initial advancements achieved by the Soviet Block economies between 1945 and mid-1970s have
been interpreted by an historian of the region, Ivan Berend, as the region’s temporary ‘detour from
periphery’, a detour brief in its promise since the region returned to its point of departure after the
stagnation and collapse of the 1980s (Berend, 1996).
Jenő Szűcs has also pointed to the spread of civil and municipal liberties in the late Middle Ages,
exemplified, for instance, by urban settlement based on the German (Magdeburg) law as a factor with
momentous political consequences for where the border between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Europe
eventually crystallized in political terms. The substantial experience with (qualified) democracy, civil
rights and the rule of law in, e.g., the early modern Habsburg Empire or the Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth, were occasionally cited by cold war era historians as features distinguishing
‘democratic’ and ‘Central European’ parts of the Soviet Block from the ‘despotic’ territories traditionally
administered from Moscow and Istanbul. In this context, the stable Czechoslovak democracy of the
interwar period was frequently seen as evidence that this state was firmly in the ‘Western’ sphere while
all the other ‘children of Versailles’, who eventually drifted toward various forms of authoritarianism,
were truly in ‘Eastern Europe’ (Seton-Watson, 1945). This way of viewing Europe became more popular
especially after the suppressed ‘pro-democratic’ unrest in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland (1956,
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1968, 1970, 1980) and after the ‘successful’ democratization in those countries and ‘problematic’
democratization in Belarus, Ukraine or Russia after 1989/91.
Religious, economic or political are merely three among numerous other ‘macro’ lines according
to which the map of Europe can be divided. As Larry Wolff points out, before Peter the Great’s
introduction of Russia onto the European diplomatic scene, the division of Europe into ‘north and south
of the Alps’ had been much more firmly embedded in the European mind. All lines of this type are of
course arbitrary and depend on the kinds of questions asked and the historical period studied; no
serious historian argues that one can define what Eastern Europe is and what its borders are precisely
and conclusively. Nevertheless, the region’s entanglement with communism in the twentieth century is
a part of its heritage of that cannot be overestimated. Judging by volume alone, the twentieth century
communist experience, with all of its extensive and complex tropes, is currently the main subject of
study for historians of the region. This experience is strongly intertwined with more pan-European topics
such as totalitarianism, World Wars and superpower confrontation. If one adds the Holocaust, ethnic
cleansing, forced population transfers and all other ‘terrible things that happened in the twentieth
century’, what emerges is singlehandedly the most extensive subject of the region’s historical research
and the cornerstone of its historical memory.
Before surveying some of the major trends in historiography, it is worth mentioning that Eastern
Europe borders with several well-established regions of historical scholarship: Russian/Soviet,
Ottoman/Middle Eastern, German, Italian, Scandinavian, etc. The borders between them will never be
rigid and the very impossibility of drawing even tentative lines in some areas lead to a new sub-field of
scholarship which focuses precisely on these mixed, ambiguous and contradictory areas often called
‘borderlands’. This field is of course not limited to Eastern Europe, but some of its provinces such as
Galicia (Frank-Johnson 2005), Transylvania (Case, 2009) and towns such as Lvov (Amar, 2008) or Salonica
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(Mazower, 2006), due to their ethnic, religious or cultural diversity, have by now become recognized as
exemplary cases demonstrating just how immensely complex and difficult to disentangle borderland
territories can be. It has to be kept in mind, however, that what might be described as a ‘typical’ Eastern
European borderland by an outsider might be considered to be an integral element of a core ethnic area
by a local nationalist (Transylvania for some Hungarians or Romanians, Galicia for Poles and Ukrainians).
While historians rarely argue about whether a given region or topic belongs to, for example,
Eastern European or Russian studies, what did emerge as an important contender for Eastern European
studies is the idea of Central Europe and the scholarly movement it inspired. This term has its roots in
the imperial German concept of Mitteleuropa, but it reemerged in a different context half a century
later. It was re-invented and re-fashioned by anti-communist dissidents such as Milan Kundera, Czesław
Miłosz and Danilo Kiš. Kundera’s essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ (1984) is often perceived as the
moment when the idea was reborn. In essence, the argument was that Central Europe (by which
Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary were usually meant) has always belonged to Western Europe in
civilizational terms, but has been ‘kidnapped’ and politically imprisoned in the Eastern European sphere
by the Soviet power. While the political implications of this intellectual movement became largely
irrelevant after 1989 and certainly after the EU extension in 2004 and 2007, a new wave of scholarship
inspired by them emerged and found institutionalization in, e.g., the Central European History Journal.
This new ‘Central European wave’ is located in an intermediate position between the old
German and the dissident ideas; the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its cosmopolitan and culturally
vibrant cities of Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Cracow, are painted as ‘archetypically’ Central European
sites. Scholars who identify themselves as Central Europeanists come from various backgrounds; not
infrequently they are historians of German-speaking lands who reach out to areas that had a rich record
of contact with German culture and administration. While this field does not compete with Eastern
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Europe in any direct sense, its position has been steadily ascending vis-à-vis its neighbor for several
reasons. The late Habsburg Empire has enjoyed a remarkable reputational renaissance, largely because
its many imperfections do not stand a comparison with all the tragic events that befell the region after
the Empire disintegrated. The Empire has been portrayed as a kind of a proto-EU project where many
ethnicities and languages coexisted relatively peacefully within one political unit for centuries (Oscar
Jászi, 1929). Furthermore, fin-de-siècle Vienna or Prague with world-class artists and intellectuals such
as Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein or Kafka, are commonly seen as manifestations of European cultural
vibrancy at its best (Schorske, 1979). But most importantly, the inhabitants of Prague or Cracow virtually
universally prefer being spoken of as Central Europeans rather than Eastern Europeans. The success of
the Central European University in Budapest shows that there is plenty of willingness to cooperate and
produce knowledge under a common Central European banner.
Central European scholars such as Pieter Judson or Rogers Brubaker have been at the forefront
of the study nationalities and nationalism - a traditional Eastern European topic - and the late AustroHungarian Empire has been one of the main case studies used to address issues such as national identity
formation, national cohesion and indifference, bilingualism or mixed families (Judson 2006, Brubaker
1996). Following Eugene Weber’s groundbreaking book Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), historians of
the Austro-Hungarian Empire demonstrated how a nineteenth century region inhabited largely by
villagers and small town folk with local (geographical, tribal, familial) or religious identities turned into
region as we know it today - inhabited by Germans, Czechs, Slovaks or Croats (King, 2005). One of the
leading questions still to be answered is ‘when (and why) nationalism began to hate’ – i.e. how an
initially ‘progressive’ ideology of intellectuals intent on helping the ‘small peoples’ suffering under
oppressive imperial government transformed itself into one of the main sources of conflict in twentieth
century Europe (Porter, 2000). In this context, the transatlantic gaze of ‘outsiders’ and the multi-ethnic
composition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire helped to avoid the trap into which many native nation8
state historians fell – writing biased national histories favoring one particular ethnicity and contributing
to keeping the flame of nationalism alive. This type of approach to the study of nationalism has seen
fruitful application to the Soviet area as well. Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001)
demonstrates how illusory was the Soviet (and global) conviction that the so-called ‘nationalities
question’ had been solved in the borderlands of the Soviet Union and why this issue came back with a
vengeance in the late 1980s as the Union disintegrated along its ethnically defined internal borders.
How the relationship between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Central’ European fields is going to evolve is
impossible to predict; both are products of a unique set of circumstances and both are likely to find their
place within a larger European or global framework. Immediately after 1989, the traditional Eastern
European (and to some extent Soviet) field was supplied with new materials accessible at the local
archives. The first wave of research focused on the early period (1945-1956) around the theme of
communist takeover and Stalinization (Kenney 1997, Connelly 2000). The current consensus on the
subject has been well summarized by Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield:
“Today we recognize that many of the Western academic analyses of the 1950s and 1960s
subscribed to exaggerated images of a rigid blueprint that supposedly guided Moscow and the
local East Central European Communists in implementing the procedures and arrangement that
Stalin eventually selected to give effect to his perception of Soviet hegemonial requirements. But
while correcting this early presumptions, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water.
For though there probably never was a rigid uniform Stalinist plan to be imposed in cookie-cutter
fashion on every state and society of East Central Europe without regard to diverse national
histories, institutions and complexities, the general overall similarities in Soviet and local
Communist behavior throughout the area in the first decade after World War II strongly suggests
a unified conceptual framework – more flexible at the beginning than toward the close of that
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decade, never entirely absent yet also never absolutely rigid.” (Rothschild and Wingfield, 2007,
75-76)
A lot had been known about Stalinist terror and crimes, but new evidence allowed scholars to
present detailed findings and provide more accurate statistics (Naimark, 1995). Documenting and
making sure the memory of various types of transgressions committed by the Soviet and puppet
regimes does not disappear became the main preoccupation of many locally-based historians
(Applebaum 2012, Kusnierz 2013); special national institutes (e.g. the Institute of National
Remembrance in Poland) were established also with such an aim in mind. The same observations apply
to issues such as Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, most of which had been if not explicitly
suppressed, than not very thoroughly explored by historians under communism, especially the period
between September 1939 and June 1941, when Hitler and Stalin were allies (Gross, 1988). Continuing
the tradition exemplified by writers such as Czesław Miłosz (1953), intellectual historians maintained
their interest in the strength of communism’s ‘Hegelian bite’– trying to understand why Marxism
appealed to so many Eastern European (and not only) intellectuals and what was their relation with the
regime and its ideology (Shore, 2006).
One aspect of the Stalinist period in Eastern Europe (1945-53) in particular that could not have
been explored earlier was the issue of forced population transfers and deportations. While historians in
the West could argue to what extent these transfers were voluntary or not, historians in Eastern Europe
had to accept the official party line that spoke of their voluntary nature. Czechoslovakia, Poland and East
Germany were in an ambivalent position due to the way the Germans were deported (1945-1948) on
the one hand and due to the ‘alliance’ of ‘brotherly nations’ that was now imposed on them by their
Soviet supervisors on the other. Hence the spike in research on this topic after 1989 (Ther and Siljak,
2001). Overall, the findings shows that the scale and brutality of post-1945 deportations has been much
greater than it had been suspected. The ironically disturbing conclusion is that it was eventually Joseph
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Stalin who helped to bring the old nationalist fantasy of ethnically pure states to fruition while where no
clear ethnic separation took place (e.g., Eastern Ukraine, Southern Slovakia) – tensions are still high
today, not unlike in the interwar period.
The semblance of uniformity within the Soviet Block did not mislead too many observers.
Already in the 1950s, the term ‘national communism’ was coined to capture the developments in
Yugoslavia and then it was aptly transferred to describe post-1956 Poland, Hungary and Ceaușescu’s
Romania in particular (Verdery 1991). Not unlike the ‘varieties of capitalism’ literature in the West,
experts on Eastern Europe were quick to discern the characteristics of each ‘national communist’
system. Hungary became known for its relatively open and prosperous economy, Poland for its mild
censorship, East Germany for the secret police, Romania for its familial nepotism. After 1989, historians
could start examining how much of ‘block’ there really was in the Soviet Block beyond prima facie
political, military or economic ties and similarities; the more research is carried out, the less the
appearances seem to correspond to the underlying reality.
With the Cold War still in full swing in the 1980s, it was difficult for the scholars of the region to
avoid a bipolar division of the field into anti- and pro-communist camps, often one could not escape
being labeled either a ‘cold warrior’ or a revisionist with crypto-communist sympathies. This
characterization is no longer valid. The revolutions of 1989 were immediately followed by a wave of
scholarship that sought to understand why the system collapsed so quickly. The ‘history of the present’
written by Timothy Garton-Ash immediately after the events of 1989 (Garton-Ash, 1990) has addressed
many puzzles and new equally insightful research soon followed (Maier, 1999). But after the initial
astonishment subsided, scholars reversed the question and asked: what made the system survive for so
long despite its seeming incompatibility with the region’s societies? Thus the earlier scholarship on the
establishment of communist power (1945-48) was recently complimented by studies of the Brezhnev
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era of zastoy (stagnation) and looked for deeper sources of the regime’s stability. Many younger
historians study the patterns of consumption (both material and cultural) in communist societies and
arrive at intriguing findings highlighting just how little was understood about how the system worked
internally on an everyday basis (Mazurek, 2010). Various polls conducted after 1989 consistently show
that there exists a large amount of nostalgia for the bygone days, which suggests that the regimes must
have enjoyed some real support. Studies of the ‘gray economy’ demonstrate that reliance on official
figures on the planned economy can be misleading as they capture merely one aspect of a more
dynamic and complex economic reality.
Already in the eighteen century, the image of Eastern Europe was often associated with
backwardness. Poor sanitary conditions, underdeveloped infrastructure, general poverty and disorder
were impressions often conveyed by eighteen century ‘Enlightened’ travelers. In German vocabulary,
the term Polnische Wirtschaft became synonymous with a badly managed economy. But it was also,
among others, Eastern European émigré scholars who were instrumental in developing a comparative
method of developmental studies, sometimes given an overall heading of ‘modernization theory’. The
acute awareness of their country’s industrial weakness was one of the factors that propelled the Soviet
leadership, and Stalin in particular, to launch a program of rapid state-sponsored industrialization in the
1930s. This method of economic development has then been transplanted onto Eastern Europe,
especially between 1948 and 1956. There has been an ongoing debate among historians to what extent
the communist experience can be understood as a modernization process. There is no consensus, but
certainly an agreement that any evaluation depends on the country - underdeveloped countries such as
Bulgaria or Romania benefiting more, more developed, as Czechoslovakia, less - and the field of human
endeavor (culture, gender relations, economic, politics, etc.) in question. Many historians do agree that
the dramatic socioeconomic transformation of the 1950s and 1960s could be characterized as a
breakthrough in areas such as public education, social security and welfare, gender equality,
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urbanization, industrialization, etc. The debate continues whether the human cost of these
transformations was acceptable while some historians reject the modernization framework altogether.
Especially those influenced by postmodern critiques of the modernization paradigm, such as Maria
Todorova (1997) or Kate Brown (2005), argue that it is in the often self-serving eye of the beholder that
ideas of superior or inferior development originate and should be rejected as both uninformative at best
and prejudiced at worst. Scathing critique of the Western ‘colonizing’ gaze on Eastern Europe has been
voiced especially by Todorova, who also expressed well-taken criticism of the idea of Central Europe as a
project meant to include some in the elite ‘European’ club at the exclusion of the others – in particular
the Balkans.
World War II is an important chapter in any region’s history, but it left a particularly heavy mark
in Eastern Europe. In his recent book entitled Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder (2010) documents just how
much the region squeezed between Russia and Germany suffered, not only during World War II, but also
in the 1930s (Holodomor in the Ukraine, Stalinist Purges) and after the war. The region is located
precisely at the fault line between the two most murderous regimes in history and this basic fact has to
be comprehended by anyone who studies it. The role of Eastern Europe as a victim of forces beyond its
control has been a recurrent motif in the region’s literature and historiography. According to Milan
Kundera, the experiences of World Wars and imperial domination molded a unique national subjectivity
in the region, a subjectivity constantly aware of its very existence being fragile, in danger and at the
mercy of larger powers. Poland has been portrayed already by early nineteenth century romantic
writers as a ‘Christ of the Nations’ redeeming the transgressions of other nations. The traces of this
tradition has remained alive in popular historical consciousness. While Snyder and other scholars use
different language and metaphors, their writings remain within the tradition of writing about the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth and its peoples from a victimized perspective – one of the definitive works
on Polish history, written by the British historian Norman Davis, is entitled God’s Playground (1979).
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The history of Ukraine in the twentieth century is often written from a similar perspective – as
primarily a victim of two regimes, Soviet and Nazi. Karel Berkhoff in Harvest of Despair (2004) provides
an in-depth narrative of how the experience of Nazi occupation looked for the ‘ordinary’ Ukrainian,
what were its daily dangers and deprivations. Mark Mazower’s (2008) comprehensive survey, Hitler’s
Empire, is the first comparative account of the Nazi occupation in the entirety of Europe. Mazower
demonstrates that the term ‘occupation’ did not entail an even remotely similar set of experiences for
‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Europeans, with the General Government and the territories of today’s Ukraine
and Belarus being the most brutalized and exploited of all. This victimization narrative has been recently
challenged and problematized, however. Works of Jan Gross (2001), starting with Neighbors: The
Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne - a depiction of how local Polish population organized
the killing of several hundred of their Jewish neighbors in the summer of 1941 - have made it impossible
to hold that local populations were merely passive bystanders. The categories of resistance and
collaboration have been recently revised and nuanced by numerous authors and the topics of postwar
popular justice, retribution and memory have seen collaborative efforts by the most renowned authors
in the field (Deak et al, 2000).
The intersection of Eastern European and Jewish histories has been a vibrant field of study in the
last two decades. While the Holocaust and Jewish studies in general were largely a taboo subject in the
first several decades following the war on both sides of the Iron Curtain, these topics have seen a great
deal of attention (including some major controversies) recently. Ranging from micro-studies such as
Hans Walser Smith’s (2002) work on the small German town of Konitz (now: Chojnice) before the Great
War to broad surveys spanning several centuries (Slezkine, 2004), Jewish history and European history
are finally put into dialogue with each other. Poland has seen a wave of historically informed
cinematography on the issues of Polish role in Jewish extermination – signifying that it is no longer an
avoided subject it had been for half a century. The process of coming to terms with historical memory
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and issues of guilt and responsibility has been addressed by Charles Maier in his evocative essays (Maier,
1988) and many historians followed suit.
Historians of Eastern Europe, although often preoccupied with some of the ‘traditional’ topics
outlined in this article, have not remained unaffected by recent trends in historical scholarships. The
field has seen innovative work in gender (Wingfield, 2006), urban (Thum, 2011) and everyday history
(Healy, 2007). Historians have also paid attention to ‘subaltern’ groups often overlooked in ‘traditional’
political or international histories: children (Zahra, 2011) and underprivileged ethnic groups such as the
Roma. The crimes committed against this particular minority has recently emerged as one of the main
topics of scholarship, finally filling a gap in the literature (Levy, 2000). Environmental history has been on
the rise as well (Dawson, 1996). Traditional areas such as imperial history have in consequence received
less attention, but there have been some path-breaking work in this area as well (Plokhy, 2014). It is
impossible to do justice to even a small fraction of new scholarship in this short article, but it is beyond
doubt that Eastern Europe as a field remains at the cutting edge of historical scholarship and in
stimulating dialogue with the rest of the discipline.
The calls to integrate Eastern European history not only with continental, but also global,
history, have not remained unanswered. Naturally, the global approach has been most useful for
historians of empires. Both the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires have witnessed a sustained
effort to reconnect their history with global agenda such as slave trade, global commerce, colonial
expansion or racial relations, issues which had been often marginalized earlier due to the urgency of
military, diplomatic and national questions. Especially the younger generation is keen on showing how
the region they study participated and influenced global movements such as the Renaissance,
Enlightenment, birth of mass politics, origin and spread of technological advances, etc. This focus on
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interconnectedness, exchange and mutual influence emerges as a dominant motive of the current
doctoral works on the region.
Tony Judt’s Postwar (2005) has arguably been one of the first attempts to put Western and
Eastern European history back together into one integral whole. It took one of the greatest minds of the
generation to achieve this monumental and (not very long ago) hardly thinkable task. In 1989, the Berlin
Wall was a symbolic and all-too-tangible expression of deep rifts splitting the heart of the continent. The
last quarter century has witnessed all kinds of integration and interchange of unparalleled scale and
intensity. The rapidity of these processes has exceeded all expectations and poses a challenge for
historians and for the ongoing European integration project. Writing history is now a truly global
enterprise and old nation-state boundaries of historiographies, though still strong, are being diluted
every year. The recent crisis in Ukraine (2013-2014) did show that some of the Cold War categories still
remain valid and that the rift between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Europe is not yet fully leveled. At the
same time, it is certain that the model of Eastern European studies as it was conceived in the Cold War
era is a thing of the past. This model would not function well in the current political or cultural reality.
Many actively resist the Eastern European label and the conditions for Eastern European
‘commonalities’ no longer exist – to mention just two major reasons. Traditional clichés do not work
either. The old language of nationalism and xenophobia seems to win more votes in some ‘old’
democracies such as France than in the ‘perennially nationalistic’ Eastern Europe. The differences in
political orientation of two countries often put into one category by historians – Poland and Hungary –
were rarely greater than in 2014. On the other hand, the twentieth century and the last twenty five
years are just a fraction of the region’s millennial history and historians tend to be able to resist
‘pressures of the present’ rather well. There is certainly enough of shared history in ‘Eastern Europe’ to
keep the field alive and to what extent it will perturbed by recent ‘divergent’ developments remains to
be seen.
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See also:
Area and International Studies: Development in Eastern Europe; Communism; Eastern European
Studies: Culture; Eastern European Studies: Society; Nationalism, Sociology of; Socialist Societies:
Anthropological Aspect
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Eastern European Studies: History Author: Tomasz Blusiewicz PhD