The history of Eastern Europe is grounded in geography. It is the funnel through which, over the centuries, successive migrations or invasions have passed from Central Asia, the cradle of so many races, to the European heartland. Huns, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, Tartars, Turks: all have come via the great plains to the north or round the Carpathians into the Danube basin or up the Balkan valleys from Asia Minor and the Hellespont, pushing back earlier peoples into the shelter of the mountains and settling themselves in the fertile plains and valleys until challenged in their turn. Thus has arisen that distinctive feature of Eastern Europe, the multiplicity of small and medium-sized nations lying athwart important strategic routes between two powerful and numerous peoples, the Germans to the west and the Russians to the east.
Of course, ‘the lands between’, as they have been called, differ markedly among themselves. Three distinct regions can be made out: in the north, the Great European Plain, corresponding roughly to the territory of modern Poland; in the centre, the Danubian basin flanked by the Alps, the elevated plateau of Bohemia-Moravia and the Carpathians, which shaped the old Habsburg monarchy, and to the south, beyond the Danube, the mountainous reaches of the Balkans. But greatly as the experience of these separate regions has varied, history has time and again underlined the ultimate interdependence set by geography; as in 1683, when a Polish army marching south through the Moravian Gap relieved Vienna, the Danubian capital, from Turkish besiegers striking through the Balkans; as in 1943-4, when many anticipated a Balkan landing by Western forces and advance through to the plains of Central and Northern Europe to forestall the communization of the whole area by the Soviet Red Army. At a deeper level, it is the struggle of a large number of relatively minor peoples to achieve full independent national development in difficult strategic circumstances which imparts a related rhythm to East European history as a whole.