Teaching 'The Other Europe' in World Civilization: The Wider Role of East European History
Peterson, Russell D., Education
"Who rules East Europe rules the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World - Island; Who rules the World - Island commands the World."
Sir Halford MacKinderer, 1919
With the growing academic trend in history towards teaching world civilization rather than western civilization, I have made a startling discovery. Much of the course material in the field of European studies is still largely oriented around Western Europe, to the neglect of East Europe. This cursory treatment of the "other Europe" is particularly surprising given important role the region has played in the history of that continent. Perhaps this coverage is the result of the East in Europe's conquest, subjugation, and occupation by larger and more powerful political neighbors. However, East Europe has made countless contributions to both Europe and the world in a number of endeavors. Precisely because of these contributions it would be unforgivably remiss to not to give historical attention to the rightful place of East Europe in the history of the world.
A case certainly can be made regarding the time constraints facing those who teach world civilization. Indeed, a survey of the history of mankind from their beginnings to the present in a single year is no easy feat. I hope to demonstrate the vital and vibrant role East Europe has played in the development of modern Europe, a role that is too often neglected or overlooked. From the fall of the Roman Empire through the age of absolutism to the present day the political, social, and religious legacy of Eastern Europe has left its mark. It is important to illustrate this legacy and demonstrate its importance.
The Indo - European peoples were responsible for the collapse of Rome's Western Empire and ancestors of today's Slavs. Until the later appearance of the Germanic tribes, Slavic fiefs and kingdoms were scattered throughout Eastern Europe. In fact, the appearance of the Germanic tribes (and their subsequent conquest of the area) was the beginning of a long history of German - Slav competition.
The eastern Roman empire, or Byzantine empire as it is better known, played a tremendous influence on a Russia still in its infancy - giving it not only an eastern Cyrillic alphabet, but also Orthodox (rather than Catholic) Christianity. These ties to the Balkans remain even to the present (Boris Yeltsin's interest in the Bosnian crisis for example.)
East Europe was a major force in the religious upheaval called the Reformation. The Bohemian reformer Jan Hus preceded Martin Luther by 100 years, yet criticized the same issues of his better known antecedent. In fact, the Roman Catholic counter-reformation was only successful in East Europe - a fact that is puzzlingly absent from many texts on world civilization.
Let us also not forget that East Europe served as a "buffer" to the advance of Islam while Western Europe was still developing. Without this vital protection, it is reasonable to assume that the "Christian west" would have participated in the tradition of Islam, radically altering history. Individuals such as Vlad "Dracula" Tepes are better known in popular culture for their mythic supernatural attributes than for the important (if under-represented) role they played in the shaping and style of Europe's cultural and religious make-up.
Yet East Europe is perhaps most important to the West in the early modern to modern era between 1700 and 1945. While much attention is lavished upon Louis XIV's absolutism, even more radical and drastic efforts towards creating an absolutist state were simultaneously underway in Russia with Czar Peter ("the Great") Romanov. The "enlightened despots" of the Habsburgs during the Enlightenment similarly share in the political, cultural and intellectual climate of all Europe, particularly regarding their attitudes towards the masses of Central Europe still locked in serfdom, even as United States was engaged in its war of independence. The failure of democracy in Poland, attributing to its three partitions over a twenty - five year span and resulting in its eventual extinction is scarcely given any attention in text books, yet the partitions were instrumental in Napoleon's conquest of the Continent.
On a final political note, the violent upheavals that have rocked the twentieth century have all originated or have been played largely in East Europe. After all, both world wars began with nationalist and racial tensions in the region: The Great War of 1918 ostensibly over an assassination; and the Second World War over German "living room" in the east. The more recent Cold War was waged over the pivotal and politically critical collection of nations in East Europe. Indeed, even today, the political instability, ethnic and religious strive, and social change routinely displayed in the headlines may yet prove undoing of NATO.
The study of East Europe and its importance to Europe and the entire world is neither exclusively political nor exclusively reactive. Socially the sharp divisions that existed between social classes in Central and East Europe were more the rule than the exception even 100 years ago. Yet the "progression" and "advance" of democracy in Western Europe is emphasized in both textbooks and classroom presentations. The radical social arguments of Marx and Engels found their greatest supporters east of the Rhine. In fact, there were three "Marxist" revolutions in the early twentieth century - all in Central or East Europe. In science as well as the arts, there is a deficit in the amount of material devoted to the artistic contributions of the "other Europe."
Comparatively, East Europe has given the world more than its share of gifted musicians and composers. In the nineteenth century, giants such as the Pole Frederick Chopin, the Czech Antonin Dvorak, the Hungarian Franz Liszt, and of course the Russian Peter Tchaikovsky come most readily to mind. Their romantic and thoroughly moving masterpieces certainly place them at the apex of Europe's cultural contributions to the world. In the twentieth century, masters like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and the composer of "Flight of the Bumble Bee", Rimsky - Korsakov surely need to be more commonplace and be identified with East Europe. Furthermore, these artists reinforce the contributions of non-western Europeans to the-greater European culture.
Literature has a rich and tremendous legacy that is not emphasized as originating in the East. Franz Kafka, for example, was years ahead of his time, essentially writing existentialist and surreal literature an entire generation before either Sartre put pen to paper or Dali put brush to canvas. The Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, the prolific Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the epic Boris Pasternak similarly share and contribute moving and timeless works to world literature. In the nineteenth century one must also mention Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin-authors who deserve their rightful place next to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Balzac and Dickens as some of the best writers in the history of modern mankind while also discussing social and political problems of theft time.
In the field of science the "other Europe" has made many important contributions which are down played as to their origins. The Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus' heliocentric theory radically changed the way in which man saw his place in the universe, while simultaneously doing irrevocable damage to the intellectual domination of the Roman Catholic church. Gregor Mendel, a Moravian monk unintentionally provided the long sought evidence to prove Darwin's theory of evolution. Without Mendel's work in genetics, Darwin's theory of evolution would remain but a hypothesis without any genetics to support it. The discipline of psychology is also largely a legacy of East Europe - how many people realize that Freud's Vienna lies east of Prague? The theories of both Sigmund Freund and Ivan Pavlov had a tremendous impact on how mankind sees itself and its actions since the advancing of their theories on behavior and the nature of the mind's workings.
Beyond these specific individuals and their contributions to world civilization, East Europe as a geographic region has much to teach us. Proportionately the most ethnically diverse region per square kilometer in the world, it has been for over 2,000 years an area of political conflict, intrigue, and ethnic hatred. Yet the ethnic, nationalist, and religious tensions are essentially a microcosm of the rest of the world. What does this tell us of our prospects for eventual world peace? A panacea for the world's social ills still eludes us.
East Europe also offers hope. During much of its troubled history, their more powerful neighbors have politically dominated the peoples of the "other Europe". The hardship and suffering they have had to endure - through constant intermittent warfare, famine, and plague, as well as political and social oppression - and yet they have persevered. A case in point is Poland, a nation which for almost 125 years ceased to exist. Yet in the 1918 peace that concluded the First World War, a Polish state was resurrected. Poles had patiently awaited that day. When it came, it was almost as if they had known it would be so all along. A more recent example is East Europe today. After nearly 50 years of occupation and repression by the Soviets, life has returned to a "pre-Soviet" normal. (So it was in 1989 when the iron curtain was hammered open.) This perseverance is a human characteristic offering this hope to all of us: there may be a solution to our problems after all; if no relief is to be found, we certainly have the fortitude to face them.
East Europe is an important but usually neglected part of Europe and the world when taught. To incorporate its history and place in world civilization is not difficult because of the wide and influential role it has played in the development of Europe. Politically, it has been an occupied - even incorporated - part of the continent, reinforcing its importance. Yet it has made many contributions to thought and art. I am certain that many of the individuals mentioned here are familiar to you. The time is nigh that this "closet relative" of Western Europe take its front row place in both textbooks and classrooms. As for those whose names may seem foreign and strange, I challenge you to discover more about them and their ideas.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Teaching 'The Other Europe' in World Civilization: The Wider Role of East European History. Contributors: Peterson, Russell D. - Author. Journal title: Education. Volume: 116. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 1995. Page number: 145+. © 1999 Project Innovation. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.