Motley chips off the old bloc

Eastern Europe in the 20th Century
July 21, 1995

Visiting Romania in 1919, Emmanuel de Martonne, a professor at the Sorbonne, braved cholera and nearly impassable roads to explore the eastern province of Bessarabia, a strip of land recently acquired from the moribund Russian empire. With curious peasants flocking around his motor car, Martonne was surprised to find that most of his Bessarabian company owned up to a nationality different from what might be expected. "That Jew might be a genuine Aryan, that Russian looks like a Bulgarian", while "one of them, who claims to be Russian, calmly admits that his father is Moldovan and his mother Bulgarian." It was a place, concluded Martonne, "inhabited by a motley population where mixed marriages must be very common and the notion of race rather hazy".

In much of Eastern Europe, identity has long been a rather hazy notion, mutating and adapting in a region where a change in political fortunes can still mean a change in political frontiers. The nations of Eastern Europe have experienced an uneasy existence throughout this century. Over the past two generations, the inhabitants of Bessarabia, for example, have been subjected to "Russification" in the tsarist empire, "Romanianisation" in the Kingdom of Romania, "Sovietisation" in the Soviet Union, and now, "Moldovanisation" inside an independent Republic of Moldova. The same can be said for the peoples of Europe's other Zwischenlander, the "lands between" Germany and Russia, which have historically lain as much on the periphery of European consciousness as on the periphery of the European continent.

R. J. Crampton is to be congratulated for his engaging and erudite history of a region where the locomotive of history seems to run faster than anywhere else. Two important themes run beneath the detailed historical narrative.

First is the author's inclusive definition of "Eastern Europe". Other recent histories have normally seen the region through the lens of the Warsaw Pact, thus ignoring the Baltic republics and most of the Balkans. The boundaries of Soviet-style Communism, however, always revealed more about the extent of Red Army activity during the second world war than about any historical or cultural affinities unique to the bloc's erstwhile allies. Crampton's narrative, by contrast, covers the entire swathe of territory stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans, including the ideological apostates Yugoslavia and Albania and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but excluding Greece and Finland - in short, the region that, though dominated by Communism and partially incorporated into the Soviet Union after 1940, has been defined in this century primarily by its geopolitical position between Russia and the West.

Second, one of this book's most laudable qualities is that it takes the interwar period seriously. Less-able historians have seen the 1920s and 1930s as a brief but tragic respite on the road from Versailles to Munich. Crampton, however, fleshes out the early history of domestic and regional problems that would plague East European governments into the Communist period and beyond.

All East European states were as much victims as victors after 1918. Some, such as Romania, emerged as clear winners in the peace settlement, but their territorial acquisitions and new ethnic minorities put them at odds with irredentist neighbours. Others, such as Yugoslavia, were created as exceptions to the one-nation, one-state formula hammered out at Versailles, but internal political conflicts threatened the precarious balance between ethnic diversity and multinational unity. All, however, faced the triple perils of Bolshevism to the east, an expansive, xenophobic nationalism to the west, and internal squabbles over the gains and losses induced by the Great War. In the end, many of the basic problems of the interwar years - electoral reform, land redistribution, ethnic identity, international borders - were left unresolved throughout the Communist period and have remained to challenge a new generation of post-Communist leaders.

Today, searching for historical lessons to guide Eastern Europe's troubled transition has become an obsession among western journalists and academics. The numerous impressionistic and quasi-historical accounts that have appeared, however, have normally done more harm than good. If Washington pundits are to be believed, President Clinton's bedtime reading - including Robert Kaplan's appalling Balkan Ghosts - has largely determined America's inconsistency on the Bosnia question. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, such treatments have either discovered "ancient hatreds" and "age-old animosities" behind the Yugoslav wars or, conversely, have posited a multicultural Balkan paradise tragically torn apart by war profiteers-turned-statesmen. Both views miss the mark. As Crampton shows, the territorial changes ushered in by the first world war heightened the importance of ethnic identity as a defining characteristic of the state. Western diplomats rewarded nationalism at the Paris peace conference. By carving out ostensible nation-states in a region of mixed and sometimes uncertain identities, the West convinced local elites of the power of nationalism to secure the support of their constituent populations and to guarantee the interest of western governments. To understand the travails of the post-communist transition - particularly the tension between ethnic diversity and national purity that plagues countries as different as Estonia and Serbia - observers would thus do well to look to the interwar years.

One would have wished for a concluding chapter to tie up these various strands. For Crampton, our short century began and ended with revolution: the Young Turk movement of summer 1908, and the more and less violent events of autumn 1989, with the inchoate notions of collectivism and nationalism spawned by the former being transformed by the latter. As a historian, the author can rightfully leave predictions about Eastern Europe in the next century to political scientists. But given that the 21st century began six years ago, some tentative thoughts on where Europe's Zwischenlander are headed would have been welcome. It is no great criticism, though, to say that the reader was left wanting more of the same.

Charles King is the Rank and Manning research fellow in social studies, New College, Oxford.

Eastern Europe in the 20th Century

Author - R. J. Crampton
ISBN - 0 415 10691 5 and 05346 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00, £14.99
Pages - 475

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