Winston Churchill described how in July 1914, after a long and tedious discussion on the minutiae of local government boundaries in the north of Ireland, the cabinet heard the terms of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. ‘The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone’, he wrote, ‘faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe’. 1 The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone are still, alas, in our headlines but with the light again on eastern Europe it appears to be an opportune time to examine the modern history of this area. Some recent events have brought back distant, exotic names last encountered in school history text-books: Temesvar (Timişoara), Macedonia, and, tragically, Bosnia-Hercegovina. There are also names which few text-books would have contained: who or what, for example, are the Gagauze or the Vlachs?
In addition to bringing to light strange or forgotten names the upheavals in eastern Europe have presented the west with new opportunites for trade and business, but at the same time have posed awesome problems. To take better advantage of the new opportunities and to make a start at understanding and solving these problems some knowledge of the area’s recent history is essential. That this is so was brought home forcibly to me and three British colleagues in Romania in 1990 when three or four young men, all of them excellent journalists with reputable newspapers, took us to dinner on condition that we gave them a seminar on recent Romanian and Balkan history.
Before 1989 ‘recent’ eastern European history would probably have been taken to mean the period since the communists took power after the second world war. Up to the 1970s at least that takeover appeared to be a huge historical ‘Berlin Wall’ dividing the contemporary world from a dead past. Yet, as we move further away from the wall, it becomes easier to see over the top of it, and so we perceive more and more the continuities of history rather than its divisions, the more we realise that paths and tracks which seemed to begin at or near the wall are in fact continuations of ones leading to it, that the wall is an interruption not a break. As the distinguished American historian, István Déak, has asked:
Is there any need, then, to emphasize the scholarly importance of the history