History Derailed: Central and Eastern Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century

By Ivan T. Berend | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
THE EMERGING WEST AS
AN IDEAL AND MODEL FOR
THE EAST

IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH and early nineteenth centuries, the Central and Eastern European elite, national prophet-poets, intellectuals, and enlightened aristocrats, looked to the West with the greatest admiration. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the state of their own “backward,” “underdeveloped,” “sleeping” countries, societies in their “childhood,” which lacked modern institutions, such as industry, railways, and educational systems, and lagged behind Western Europe by a century. Reformers warned of the danger posed by the inability of their countries to “sustain an independent state” and of the threat of being pushed back “to Asia.” They saw that their countries remained outside the main thrust of the modern Western European metamorphosis and were thus defenseless against their more powerful neighbors, subordinate to the more advanced world, and relegated to the periphery of the continent.

These reformers were convinced, however, that they could turn their countries around. Like all those influenced by the zeitgeist of the century, the Enlightenment and the idea of progress, they viewed history as a ladder for climbing from lower to higher stages.

Freedom and progress, progress and economic growth, went together in their minds. These ideas were also borrowed from the West, where the “idea of progress reached its zenith” during the period 1750–1900. Progress, “from being one of the important ideas … became the dominant idea” (Nisbet 1980, 171). As Franz (or Ferenc) Liszt, the romantic virtuoso pianist-composer par excellence, said: “We believe in one un-

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