This book surveys the history of the lands lying between Central Europe and Russia from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present. It is concerned, in other words, with what was once the Habsburg monarchy, partitioned Poland and Turkey in Europe, and is now the states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania.
No general work can do justice to the eventful detail in which the history of each of these countries abounds. Its author must offer a perspective rather than tell a story, hoping to suggest enough of the region’s fascination to persuade readers to pass on to lengthier studies on narrower fields. The perspective adopted here views Eastern Europe as a region which for two centuries has been striving after the ‘modernity’ seemingly embodied in certain of its western neighbours. From the time of the Enlightenment through the liberal and national movements of the last century on to the socialist experiments of our own day, East Europeans have struggled to emancipate themselves from a legacy of under-development and dependence. In the process they have experienced far-reaching changes: political change from a pattern of dynastic empires to one of republican nation-states; socio-economic change from a rurally based feudalism towards urbanism, industrialization and communism; cultural change from the folklore traditions of illiterate peasant communities to the norms of national cultures inculcated through schools and the modern media. The transformation has been marked by controversy and ambiguity. How much has instability owed to the implanting of alien ideas into unsuitable East European soil? Has the region’s pervasive nationalism been curse or blessing? How far has the extension of independent statehood in the area really changed the balance of power between the interests of large nations and the aspirations of small ones? What verdict must one offer on the East European dream of national dignity and social well-being?