Teaching 'The Other Europe' in World Civilization: The Wider Role of East European History

By Peterson, Russell D. | Education, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

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.

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