Putting Eastern Europe Back into Western Civilization: Or, Why Is the Russian Stuff Always at the End?

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This essay offers a brief description of efforts by a specialist to rework courses for a general curriculum. Needless to say, this adaptation is a common concern for faculty at colleges and small universities. Where there is a strong core curriculum, professors are often called upon to teach surveys or other general courses that include but move well outside their specialties. My own graduate work was in East European history; my foreign research languages are Serbian, German, Slovene, and Hungarian; my visceral frames of reference for historical questions are quintessentially East European concepts such as nationalism, irredenta, great power hegemonism, lagging economic modernization, linguistic diversity, and cultural fault lines; my dissertation was a biography of a revisionist Yugoslav communist. But much of my time in our required freshmen classes is spent teaching a lot of different material, from Hatshepsut to Hiroshima. My colleagues have similar experiences. How do we adapt, and what constructive perspectives can a specialist bring to a general course?

This essay, however, also has a second aim: to help historians who are not specialists in Eastern Europe improve the way they integrate that region into general European history courses. The history of the lands east of Germany is complex, especially to North Americans. While I am sure that other historians approach the history of this region with nothing but the best of intentions, we cannot all be trained in everything, and, as it turns out, too often the textbooks we use are not without shortcomings.

What Exactly is Eastern Europe, Anyway?

Before a treatment of our two main topics, we need a clear understanding of just what constitutes the region of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately there are almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region. One common (but now superannuated) definition was of Eastern Europe as the Soviet-dominated communist countries of Europe. This created problems for scholars of Albania and Yugoslavia, which--though communist (or socialist)--were maverick states, beyond the control of the USSR. This definition also left Germanists in the lurch. What was one to do with East Germany, which ended up in Eastern Europe by an accident of military history and, although temporarily a loyal Soviet satellite, had precious little in common historically with Bulgaria or Romania? The East Germans, of course, had their minds on the other Germans during the Cold War, trying to build a relationship with their cousins to the West, while determining whether or not the German Democratic Republic really had its own cultural identity.

Another, and better, way to define Eastern Europe is as the sum of the countries of Central Europe plus the countries of the Balkans. Such a formula, of course, immediately requires further definitions. What constitutes Central Europe? (1) Undisputed candidates for inclusion would be Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia; scholars debate over Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (the Baltic states) as well as Croatia and Slovakia; historians would include Austria during the Habsburg period. What countries comprise the Balkans? (2) Sure bets for inclusion here would be Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Macedonia, and (historically speaking) Greece. Questions of what to do with East Germany, the European provinces of Turkey, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine make this solution less than comprehensive, however.

Yet another approach is embodied in the term "the other Europe." (3) Given the scholarly impetus to achieve equal "air time" for Eastern Europe, this emotionally charged term works. But in practice its advocates have not used it to include any of the former western republics of the USSR (the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus). Russia itself' would seem to belong in this definition; Russia certainly deserves inclusion in some definition of Europe that would produce more integrative thinking in the historical community. …