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

By Ivan T. Berend | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
UPRISINGS AND REFORMS
The Struggle for Independence and Modernization

THE WESTERN CHALLENGE AND EASTERN WESTERNIZERS

THE MODERN WESTERN ideals of freedom, liberty, and the independent nation-state gradually penetrated Central and Eastern Europe and sharpened the contrast between ideals and realities. Most of the countries of Europe experienced the frustration of remaining far behind the West in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1860, the Northwest European countries more than doubled their per capita gross national product—the most comprehensive parameter of the level of economic development. The Scandinavian and Mediterranean countries, as well as the Habsburg empire, however, increased their income level only by 40 percent. Russia and the Balkans experienced stagnation, achieving only a 10 percent increase, and many of the Balkan countries saw a drop in GNP. During the 1860s, all these countries, from Sweden and Spain to Poland and Bulgaria, remained almost unchanged in their traditional agrarian structure: between 70 to 85 percent of the labor force continued to work in agriculture.

While this caused continued landlessness, robot work on the big estates, illiteracy, suffering for the majority of the population, and humiliation for the minority intellectual elite and enlightened nobility, it also produced a strong mobilizing effect. The broadening gap in economic development challenged the slow-moving countries, causing a frightening feeling of stagnation, “backwardness,” and even military danger, a fear of the final “extinction” of the nation, as romantic poets and desperate reformers often expressed it (see introduction and chapter 1).

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