IT HAS BECOME something of a cliché for authors and journalists discussing Eastern Europe to preface their texts with threats that go more or less as follows: "Since this is the region in which both world wars began, it would be best for us to achieve a fuller understanding of the area before it gives birth to a third (and possibly final) conflict." This argument has lost most of its appeal in a world in which the term "balkanization" is more often applied to Africa or Southeast Asia than to the Balkans, but it is certainly true that most Westerners, and particularly Americans, are remarkably ignorant about the large, populous, and increasingly industrial area that lies between the Soviet Union and Germany, the region that the American writer Philip Roth refers to as "The Other Europe."
Eastern Europe is far more of a political expression than a geographical one. It is an area in which very few of the important physical features, such as rivers and mountains, have had a major role in determining boundaries between peoples, cultures, and nations. This is true both within the area itself and in its relationship to the surrounding regions. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are many conflicting definitions of just what comprises Eastern Europe (indeed, some scholars reject the term entirely). Perhaps the only definition that could approach unanimous support is one that simply points out that the solidly Russian areas to the east and the solidly German and Italian lands to the west are not a part of Eastern Europe.
If it is relatively easy to say what Eastern Europe is not, it is far more difficult and much more controversial to say what it is. The most widely accepted definition states that Eastern Europe consists of the territories of the present-day countries of (from north to south): Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania.