Signal failure on central line

Atlas of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century
May 2, 1997

To western eyes, the continuously fluctuating boundaries of Eastern and Central Europe have come to symbolise a region racked by economic and social upheavals. Stemming from a bewildering variety of conflicting movements, factions and ideologies this flux has made the area a butt of western humour and condescension, as well as the object of fear and suspicion. Each reaction has been fuelled by a curious combination of ignorance and a dim awareness that the tiniest spark might ignite this powder-keg.

The manifold complexities of Eastern and Central European history are perhaps best addressed through detailed cartographic analysis and there is a long tradition of such works in the German language, supported more recently by several French-language volumes, including the colourful and workmanlike L'Europe Centrale et Balkanique, edited by Philippe Lemarchand, which ranges across centuries and ever-shifting geopolitical boundaries, in a successful attempt to explain the region's problems. No comparable work has been presented in English. It is to be deeply regretted that the Atlas of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century by Richard and Ben Crampton, has so signally failed to rise to the challenge.

In a volume of this nature the parameters within which discussion is to take place should not just be defined, it is essential that they be justified. Yet from the start, this atlas fails to address two key questions. Why should such a work restrict itself to an examination of the 20th century, without seeking explanations of current issues, such as religious-cultural difference and ethnic identity, within a deeper medieval framework? And, above all, how does one define "Eastern Europe", and concomitantly, how or why should Eastern Europe differ from MittelEurope, Central Europe, East Central Europe, to say nothing of Western Europe? Astonishingly, in their introduction the authors offer no explanation of their understanding of any of these terms. Furthermore the first paragraph states that "all definitions of the 20th century or of Eastern Europe are subjective and transitory". By announcing the ephemeral nature of their work the authors would appear to be tearing the rug from beneath their feet before anybody else can.

The choice of titles for many of the sections exhibits a distinct lack of imagination. For instance, section three, "The interwar years", is subdivided as follows: "Interwar Albania"; "Interwar Albania: religious, ethnic and tribal divisions"; "Interwar Bulgaria" and so on through a list of some 30 titles. The highest flight of fancy in this interminably repetitive catalogue peaks with "Estonia between the wars". As for the 129 maps, these are utterly disappointing. In the past 20 years cartographers have benefited from a revolution in the computer-generation of clear, colourful and vibrant maps. These developments would appear to have bypassed the publisher Routledge, and instead we are presented with the confused and cloudy black-and-white sketch-maps more akin with an atlas of the early 1960s. The text raises more questions as to the validity of some of the maps. For example, the text which accompanies the map of main religious groups in 1914 states that "No large-scale map can portray the mixtures of religions found in some regions..." If that should be the case, why attempt it?

One of the fundamental rules in the production of such an atlas is that the maps and text should be able to sustain detailed cross-referral, but the many inconsistencies and vaguenesses present here indicate a disturbing editorial laxity. For instance, in the map on main ethnic groups in 1900, all southern Slavs are grouped together, and the text offers little enlightenment as to why this should be so. As for the map on the first world war, hardly any information is presented; why are arrows demonstrating attacks in the Balkans provided, and yet none for Galicia or for the "massive attack" centred on Gorlice which is mentioned in the text? Again the lack of dynamism in the mapping is a serious drawback, as is the sparseness of information. As for the numerous graphics and statistical charts, these are often incomprehensible. Poor standards of cartography are not helped by the imbalance of detail in many texts. In the section on "Nationalities in Austria-Hungary", the discussion is superficial and hardly touches upon what has been an important and much debated issue. No mention is made of the role of any of the national awakeners of the 19th century, presumably because this would take the authors beyond their self-imposed brief - to explain the present by reference to the past, but only if that past falls within the last 96 years. Perhaps the format of the book would have been improved by larger section introductions and a single page of self-contained text to accompany each full-page map. Certainly there seem to have been some problems in the planning stages as the reader, on several occasions, is faced by blank pages which might have been put to better use.Ultimately, one cannot help but feel that in claiming that its Atlas of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century is a "ground-breaking masterpiece" the publisher is guilty of more than hyperbole. The reality is that we are provided with a superficial, fragmentary and seemingly rushed overview. It must also be asked, what is the audience for this book? It cannot be scholars, while the absence of either illustrations or anecdotes discounts its appeal to the general reader. It should be handled with extreme caution even by undergraduates. If the work is described as pioneering, then it is only because it prepares the reader for the publication of something far better.

Robert Hudson is senior lecturer in European studies, University of Derby; Stephen Haddelsey is a freelance editor and cartographer specialising in Europe.

Atlas of Eastern Europe in the 20th Century

Author - Richard and Ben Crampton
ISBN - 0 415 06689 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00
Pages - 297

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