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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 11:119–129.


The Politics of Writing European History in the Eastern Part of Europe


Titles of papers are frequently much more promising than the actual substance, the same way as etiquettes and bottles often suggest higher quality than the wine they advertise. This is definitely the case with this short paper, in which I can only summarize some cursory thoughts on the huge topic in the title.

The participants of the conference that originally this paper was prepared for have been encouraged to draw on their own experiences instead of being too abstract and theoretical. My experiences are threefold: as a student of historiography and organizer, coordinator of numerous historical research-projects, I have always paid special attention to the interrelationship of politics and historical scholarship. The second source of experiences relates to the work I published in two editions about post-World War Two international relations1 and another work whose birth I observed from very close, the only single-person, comprehensive, universal history of the 20th century in Hungarian published after 1945. It came out under the title What happened in the 20th century?2 in 1997 and the author was my father.

The third source of experiences is teaching: for 12 years I have taught courses about various aspects of 19th–20th century European history to American undergraduates in Vienna – a peculiar stimulus to rethink basic patterns of historical thought in confrontation with the substantially different “historical culture” of American students.

The issue I am going to address on the basis of all these experiences is as much historical as political: the scholarly and non-scholarly motivations of some East and Central European historians who ventured into the field of European history. A related question to be tackled is whether history is as important for shaping European identity as for Hungarian or regional, e.g. East Central European, identity?


East and West in Modern European Political and Historical Thought

What does a historian want to present when he/she sits down to write a comprehensive history of Europe, decides to prepare a monograph on a “European” topic or is trying to put a national or regional topic into a European context? My assumption is that the main point is not so much to present new research results, giving evidence of his/her deep going thorough, diligent investigations but he/she is more motivated by the educational and representative functions of history. More precisely: a new approach motivated by the peculiar situation of a certain nation might have a generally beneficial impact on historical scholarship. At the same time – willing-unwilling – it is pretty often politically loaded. Let me start my argumentation with a Hungarian example, i.e. several works by István Hajnal (1892–1956) who – if he had published his path-breaking works in English or French or German – could have most likely become one the most influential figures of 20th century European historical scholarship. In his synthesis of the History of Modern Age (1936)3 he elaborates on the significance of the technique of medieval and early modern writing and is most skilfully incorporates European technical developments (including behavioral techniques) into European social history. With this method he follows the recommendation of another Hungarian historian Henrik Marczali who, in the introduction to a 12-volume Universal History4 (edited by him, published at the turn of the century), wrote the following:

”We cannot change the materiel of history, we cannot shape it. It is undoubtedly very important to study the participation of our nation in world events more thoroughly than it had been done so far. Still, I do not think that the material matters most. The approach, the conception has to be different, based on knowledge of the domestic situation. The peculiarities of our national, political and social development supply enough basis for judging the course of the great drama of history through our own eyes, through our own mind. And adding new approaches, new perspectives can only be beneficial for scholarship.”5 Hajnal, when analyzing the peculiarities of medieval Hungarian developments in comparison with those in Europe, devotes much space to alphabetization and literacy (“Schriftlichkeit”) in general. This is a major point of his argumentation along the line of his proving Hungary’s “Western Christian” character. Hungary, he points out, introduced written privileges at exactly the same time (12th century) as the “West” and the clergy’s most important social function was to be the “custodian” of what Hajnal in his quite complicated terminology defines as the “objective social organization”. This is in sharp contrast with the Balkans and Russia but is far from being identical with the “Western” situation. An evidence for that is that, in Hungary and Poland, Latin was used as the language of official documents for a much longer time (up to the 19th century) than in the “West” where the vernaculars appear in legally binding documents as early as the 12th century. This, however, does not at all mean that in this field Hungary would share the characteristics of the “Orthodox cultural circle”. There, the “dead church vernaculars” (as “ancient Slavic”) have had nothing to do with the spoken national languages whereas in Hungary and Poland Latin lives in a permanent, deep-going, mutually enriching contact with the “living national language”.

Where are the “politics of writing European history” here? I think, that this is a good case-study reflecting the great fundamental questions that 19th–20th century Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Croatian historians and politicians had to face: how is it that they are, in principle, considered to be “part of the West” and still they are not treated as equals, their regions are economically, socially less developed and frequently fell victims of “Western” great power aspirations. For Hajnal’s generation the post-World War One peace-settlement, for later generations of historians the post-World War Two peace-settlement resulting in the division of Europe into the western and Soviet bloc were decisive experiences along this line.

One possible answer to this question is “victimisation”, i.e. that the East and Central European people have basically been always right, they have always taken their share in “Western” efforts (e.g. in the fight against the Mongolians, Ottomans and other barbarians) but evil, bad-intentioned Western politicians were far too egoistic and sacrificed them. The other type of answer (for which Hajnal is my first example) is trying to go deeper, looking at structural characteristics of societies “East of the river Elbe”. Most historians working in this field – Hajnal was a major exception– dwelt upon these problems more on a theoretical level than working out comprehensive surveys of European history based on their unique perspectives. Let me point out three most fruitful and influential examples. The first is Oscar Halecki (born in Poland, maturing into a great historian in the US) whose Borderlands of Western Civilization and The Limits and Divisions of European History6 postulated a fourfold division of Europe: Western, West Central, East Central and Eastern, greatly challenging the cold war-determined East vs. West division. Jenő Szűcs published his The Three Historical Regions of Europe7 following the footsteps of Halecki on the one hand, and a Hungarian social scientist, István Bibó, on the other, in 1979. Bibó examined the possibilities (“Spielraum”) of the small nations living between Germany and Russia in a series of brilliant essays during the aftermath of World War Two8 arguing that ever since Charles the Great’s time (9th century AD) Europe was divided into “East” and “West”. The borderlines between these two regions were in a flux – up to approximately the middle of the sixteenth century, this borderline ran somewhere at the Eastern border of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. The tragedy of the Ottoman Turkish wars pushed Hungary into the East and the Habsburg rule of the 18–19th centuries didn’t allow for a reintegration into the West. It was only in 1945 that a most unique opportunity emerged for the “arrested socio-economic development” to return to the “Western” pattern. The two decisive peculiarities of this model were the economic modernization disseminated through the Industrial Revolution and the representative democratic political system rooted in the French Revolution. According to this interpretation the socialist revolution (“disseminated” by the USSR) was in fact a great historical venture to try to get out of the deadlock of Eastern development. The deep-rooted historical traditions of the region should have enabled Hungarians (but Czechs and Poles as well) to carry out this “experiment” by employing the “western techniques of practicing liberty.” These views reflect the optimistic political climate of 1945–47 when a couple of really free elections were taking place in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia. It was widely believed that pluralistic “Western-type” democracies can emerge in the western neighborhood of the Soviet Union. These hopes had, of course, quickly vanished and the question that an increasing number of intellectuals in the region (and external specialists of the region) started posing was more and more the one that – in my view – is topical up to the present day. Namely: was it only Soviet expansionism (motivated by Russian great power imperialism and communist ideology) and the logic of the cold war that doomed these “western” aspirations to failure or deeper structural peculiarities were of decisive significance in this respect? This is the key-problem of Jenő Szűcs’ brilliant essay who came up with a great number of arguments concerning the existence of a third region in Europe, approximately between the Elbe region in the West, the Carpathians in the East, the Adriatic in the South, and the Baltic in the North. The region is defined both by institutions that exist here but cannot be found further East (autonomous towns, corporate liberties as e.g. those of the guilds, the presence of Roman and Gothic art and architecture, the influence of Reformation etc.) and by institutions that are not typical of the social-economic development further West: the so called “second serfdom” instead of Western free peasantry, influential nobility instead of a strong Western burgher, later bourgeois, layer. The arguments go into numerous details of social, economic, political and cultural development. In most fields it arrives at the conclusion that most of the “Western” institutions were available in this central region but in a “belated” and “distorted” form. At approximately the same time (late 1970s, early 1980s) did some Czechoslovak, Polish and Hungarian intellectuals start “propagating” the concept of Central Europe with more or less the same message. Their region (which in some statements included Croatia, Slovenia, sometimes even Austria and Northern Italy as well) might be in many respects different from the West but it is much more different from the East i.e. from Russia and the Orthodox world in general. The Iron Curtain logic of the Cold War is refuted here. With the words of Kundera: to define this region as Eastern Europe is “perfidious vocabulary” because “Central Europe represented the destiny of the West”.9

Bibó and Szűcs addressed a great number of concrete issues and based their arguments on an extremely broad knowledge of respective research results; still, the genre of their works is a historical essay. The question regarding the roots of the division of Europe during the decades of the Cold War, however, also resulted in large-scale monographs and synthetic works in the region.


Hungarian Case-Studies

It was especially in two fields where Hungarian economic – and to a lesser extent social – history produced the most significant results in the 1960s: Hungarian agricultural development of the 16th and 17th centuries and the genesis of Hungarian capitalism. Earlier research had already shown that by the second half of 15th century Hungary had quite fully caught up with the West European social, economic, political and cultural development. However, as a result of the collapse of the centralized state system in 1490, the suppression of the 1514 peasant war, together with the ensuing retaliation and the Ottoman conquest, Hungarian social-economic developments diverged or “deviated” from the Western pattern of the time. This retrogression in the 16th–17th centuries was generally attributed to external factors: these were Ottoman rule and Habsburg “exploitation”. New research now shed more light on the internal features of agrarian development: the expansion of the landlords’ manorial land at the cost of free peasants’ plots, the strengthening of feudal bonds (serfs’ services in kind and labor), the decline of free peasants’ market activity, the gaining ground of the “second serfdom” etc.10 No one really challenged this view in the 60s (Prof. Pach’s book on the comparison of West-European and Hungarian agrarian development was published in 1962). Only recently did some younger colleagues suggest that the presentation of East-European peculiarities of Hungarian social-economic development, the analysis proving an ever widening gap between Eastern and Western Europe from the 16th century on, served eminently daily political interests in the 1960s.11 Namely, it would have wanted to supply historical evidence in favor of the post-World War Two division of Europe. In the course of the discussion it became unambiguously clear that since long before Yalta – in comparison with the West – diverging patterns of Hungarian and East Central European economic and social developments had been a key-issue in economic history writing inside and outside Hungary. It is, however, understandable that in a political climate when Hungary seemed to be so much integrated into the Eastern half of a divided Europe (and divided world), research into the various historical aspects of European regionalism and the origins of East European backwardness had strong political motivation.

The same holds true of another research field which inspired heated debates in the 1960s: it concerned the most important period in the genesis of Hungarian capitalism, the period of the Dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867–1918). Abrupt as the break between the “bourgeois” historiography before and the Marxist one after World War Two might have been, there was a striking continuity between one major pre-World-War-Two “independist” type12 of argumentation and the Marxist approach. Both presented the history of the Dual Monarchy as seen through the eyes of the parliamentary opposition of the period i.e. all social, economic and political ills, the backwardness of the country were attributed to Vienna’s wicked manoeuvres. In the aftermath of the cruelly suppressed national revolution of 1956, a number of historians, thinking about the possibilities of small nations in the region, began thinking more of the framework that the Habsburg Monarchy offered for the coexistence of the peoples of the region. Economic historical investigations, utilizing modern “Western” theories of economic growth, arrived at the conclusion that Hungary’s rate of economic growth was somewhat faster than that of the other parts of the Monarchy. Still, in spite of the accelerating industrialization it was mostly agriculture that enjoyed a period of boom and the “embourgeoisment” of society was very slow, indeed. It was an extremely great merit of this approach that it pointed out the respective peculiarities of political, economic and social development: a conservative, authoritarian, antidemocratic regime may rule a state in which, for very important social groups, economic advantages outweigh disadvantages. Going far beyond the traditional explanations for the disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy (where either the machinations of the Entente and some leaders of the national minorities or the oppression of minorities by Vienna and/or Budapest were blamed) fundamental economic-social factors (as e.g. the emergence of the bourgeoisies of the national minorities) were examined. Critics of this view spoke of “whitewashing” the “reactionary” Habsburgs. According to their argumentation, historians in general and especially in this particular case should concentrate on elucidating the conflicts between “reactionary” and “revolutionary-progressive” forces, assuming that it was always possible to divide actors of history into these two groups.13

Two Hungarian historians have devoted several decades of intensive research to place Hungarian developments in the overall context of 19th century European economic history. Theirs was a first major attempt in European economic history writing to organize the material not around states but nine major regions trying to find the key factors of economic success and failure.14 The analysis of a vast amount of material lead them to a seemingly over-simplified conclusion, i.e. there is not one (or some) factors that offer explanations, only the totality of national histories. Under the circumstances of the 1980s, the political message of this approach was that as there did not exist a singular pattern of 19th century European economic development but a number of similar challenges were responded to in various ways, a clear hierarchy of developmental patterns had not existed in the present either. Consequently, Soviet type of socialism was not the only perspective for the East and Central European region.


The “Year of Miracles” in East European Historical and Political Thought

1989–90 and especially its aftermath created a fundamentally new political framework for the development of the peoples living in the “Europe-Between” i.e. between the former Soviet-Union and Germany. Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, European and Euro-Atlantic integration became the number one slogan of the ascending new elite. The old questions about the structural features of the region re-emerged as highly topical, current political issues: was it only the “Soviet yoke” and the Cold War that created a line of division in the heart of Europe or the regional differences were so old and substantial that plans of a short-term integration or reintegration (frequently interpreted just as an extension of western Europe) of the region were illusory. During the long decades when the division of Europe seemed to be eternal or very-very long term, Hungarian, Czech, Polish historians gave much thought to the long term social-economic factors that had contributed to making their countries, their societies, different from the West. By introducing the concept of Central (and East Central) Europe, a convenient approach was found which was now vigorously challenged. Numerous social scientists argued that – unlike the Balkans or Eastern Europe which had been well-established concepts – Central Europe had always belonged only to the realm of imagination, it was only a “kingdom of the spirit”. Whenever it emerged – the critical analysis continued – it was used prescriptively rather than in a descriptive way, referring to something that had yet to be created.15 The concept circulated in critical periods of European history (as 1848, World War One or the time of the decline of the Soviet Union) with the function of rejecting some existing conditions and initiating the creation of a new European order. Instead of Central Europe, the concept of Europe had become the democratic counterpoint to authoritarian or even despotic communist rule that lead to the economic decline and overall stagnation of the countries of the Soviet Bloc. According to this interpretation European standards, European values, came to mean an idealized imaginary Western Europe that rather sooner than later could be extended to the territories symbolically beyond the Berlin wall that went crumbling down in November 1989. It was a Land of Promise where some cultural, civilizational factors created a cohesive force – foundations of a European brotherhood to which, so far, the “evil empire”, the Soviet Union had been an obstacle. Military and social security, physical and mental health, full economic prosperity were to radiate from this new symbolic Europe that, in fact, meant the Euro-Atlantic community including the United States.16 However, the concrete experiences of the early 1990s did not meet these expectations. In spite of substantial western capital inflow into Eastern and Central Europe miracles did not want to happen. For the time being, quite the contrary seemed to be the case: ethnic and national conflicts, large scale migrations, rising unemployment and inflation, criminality, corruption, decreasing life-expectations took-up the agenda. Foreign investment and privatization were frequently associated with the destruction of former work-places and, although the “Soviet yoke” had been removed, the East–West gap seemed to be further widening. Who is to be blamed for that? What is the solution? What is the “optimal” pace of integration?

The everyday reality of the Euro-Atlantic community hardly overlapped with the idealized concept of the West. Some of the dilemmas that emerged in the respective discourses in Eastern and Central Europe showed striking similarity to issues debated by the political and cultural elite of the region in earlier periods, going back to the late 18th century. Discovering, analyzing the underdevelopment and backwardness of their lands, was an important topic of Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Balkan politicians and political thinkers throughout the 19th century. All these personalities had to face the problem of the relationship between national aspirations and economic-social modernization. Poles of partitioned Poland, Habsburg-controlled Czechs and Hungarians, Balkan patriots under Ottoman rule, were pondering the possible ways and means of creating their national states. That was to be coupled with the modernization of social, economic and political institutions but they frequently asked a major question: will the import of modern Western institutions endanger the integrity and cohesion of smaller Eastern nations? Let me refer to just two current historiographical reflections of this problem. The first is a book by a Polish professor Jerzy Jedlicki who argues that the 19th century Polish intelligentsia “saw itself as part of the world of European culture, but as a somewhat underprivileged part, since its learning development and social advancement were hampered in every possible way. It regarded its own country as a poor and neglected suburb of Europe, a suburb that looked at the metropolis with contradictory feelings of envy, admiration and distrust.”17

The 19th century problems and dilemmas presented by Jedlicki are very similar to the fears, worries and doubts of East and Central European historians and other intellectuals concerning the present day relationship between Eastern and Western Europe. For example, quite a number of early 19th and late 20th century liberals shared Condorcet’s prophecy about peoples from the peripheries, the underdeveloped regions: “The march of these peoples will be less slow and more sure than ours has been, because they will derive from us that light which we have been obliged to discover, and because for them to acquire the simple truths and infallible methods which we have obtained after long wandering in the mazes of error, it will be sufficient to seize upon their developments and proofs in our discourses and publications.”18

Condorcet’s ideas were echoed by optimistic forecasts of the early 1990s. One of the most prestigious economic historians of Eastern and Central Europe, Iván T. Berend, quotes Jeffrey Sachs’ advice to the peoples of the region. Sachs argued that the key to the door leading to prosperity is the transition from planned to market economy and the “economic reforms will set in motion a sustained process of economic restructuring. Once market forces are unleashed, there should be a strong pull of resources into the previously neglected sectors. We should expect a complete restructuring within the industrial sector, from energy – intensive heavy industry to more labor-intensive and skill-intensive industries that can compete on the world market.” This marketfundamentalism (a term coined by the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros) is also reflected in a 1993 statement of another American economist, Michael Mandelbaum: “If the people can endure the hardship that the policies of stabilization, liberalization, and institution building inflict, they will emerge at the other end of the valley of tears into the sunlight of Western freedom and prosperity”.19

These views (shared by a number of influential and prestigious economists and politicians in the region) imply that East European backwardness is largely the result of decades of state socialism, Communist rule and the sooner and the more ruthlessly vestiges of this era are removed, the better the chances for catching up will be. Results of recent economic historical investigations, however, show that during the period 1870–1983 “market and private economy could not generate automatic prosperity. Central and Eastern Europe’s relative position vis-à-vis Western Europe and the overseas West remained largely unchanged. Ironically, state socialism with its planned economy generated a slight transitory ‘catching up’ between 1950 and 1973, followed by an even steeper decline.”20 In other words: the experiences of the last one and a quarter century do not seem to confirm Condorcet’s and present day American economists’ assumption about the very fast positive impact of Western market institutions on the ailing East European economies.

The last major current research trend I should like to refer to focuses on the cultural and intellectual ties binding the peoples of the former Soviet bloc to the Western community and the hero of the day is S. Huntington who argues that: “As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has re-emerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the boundaries between Finland and Russia and between the Baltic states and Russia, cuts through Belarus and the Ukraine, swings westward separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine, swings westward separating Transylvania from the rest of Romania, and then goes through Yugoslavia almost exactly along the line now separating Croatia and Slovenia from the rest of the former Yugoslavia. In the Balkans the line, of course, coincides with the historic boundary between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The peoples to the north and west of this line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared the common experiences of European history – feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east; and they may now look forward to increasing involvement in a common European economy and to the consolidation of a democratic political system. The peoples to the east and south of this line are orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the events shaping the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe. As the events in Yugoslavia show it is not only a line of difference; it is also at times a line of bloody conflict.”21 Huntington’s views had a great echo in Eastern and Central Europe and will definitely inspire quite a number of historians to study the unity and diversity of European history.

This short survey came up with a few random examples concerning the politics of writing European history in Eastern and Central Europe. If we now return to the introductory question as to how important history is for European and national identities I would like to conclude with a provocative hypothesis. I assume that dealing with European issues, examining the continent-wide developments, is essentially part of the search for national identities, a form of national self-definition. Europe is a slightly mythicized basis of comparison spurring East and Central European historians on to debates about “structural models” and “deviations”. Present day European collective identity can be better built on the achievements of the present and the perspectives of the future than on the fictitious “glory” of the past. Completely new institutions are constructed that cannot, do not, have a historically determined legitimacy. The course of European integration history is more about separation than integration. The broader and the more successful European integration becomes, the more it calls for forgetting than remembering!




Pók, Attila: A nemzetközi élet krónikája 1945–1997. Budapest, 1999.


Pók, Lajos: Mi történt a 20. században? Budapest, 1997.


Hajnal, István: Az újkor története. Budapest, 1936.


Marczali, Henrik: Nagy képes világtörténet I–XII. Budapest, 1898–1905.


Marczali, op cit. Vol. I. XL.


Halecki, Oscar: The Limits and Divisions of European History. New York, 1950. Borderlands of Western Civilization. New York, 1952.


Szűcs, Jenő: “The Three Historical Regions of Europe”, Acta Historica Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae 29, nos 2–4. (1983): 131–184.


Bibó, István: Válogatott tanulmányok II. 1945–1949. Budapest, 1986.


Cf. Schöpflin, George–Woods, Nancy (eds.): In Search of a Central Europe. London, 1989. Daedalus, Winter 1989 issue.


Cf. Pach, Zsigmond Pál: Hungary and the European Economy in Early Modern Times. Variorum, 1994.


Cf. Budapesti Könyvszemle (BUKSZ) 3 (1991), no. 3. 351–361, no. 4. 406–409.


The most typical example: Mód, Aladár: 400 év küzdelem az önálló Magyarországért. Budapest, 1943. Numerous editions during the 1950s.


Hanák, Péter: “Hungary in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy: Preponderance or Dependency?” Austrian History Yearbook, vol. 3. (1967) 260–302., Hanák, Péter: “A kiegyezés historiográfiájához”. Valóság 16 (1973), no. 12. 16–25., 17 (1974), no. 12. 11– 28., Hanák, Péter: Ungarn in der Donaumonarchie. Probleme der bürgerlichen Umgestaltung eines Vielvölkerstatates. Wien, 1984.


Berend, T. Iván–Ránki, György: Európa gazdasága a 19. században. Budapest, 1987.


Péter, László: “Central Europe and its Readings into the Past”. European Review of History 6 (1999), no. 1. 101–111.


Berend, T. Iván: “From Plan to Market, From Regime Change to Sustained Growth in Central and Eastern Europe”. Manuscript (2000)


Jedlicki, Jerzy: The Suburb of Europe. Nineteenth Century Polish Approaches to Western Civilization. CEU Press, Budapest, 1999.


Jedlicki: op. cit. 12.


Cited by Berend: op. cit. 6, 8.


Berend op. cit. 10.


Huntington, Samuel P.: “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 1993/3. 29–31.


The Europa Institute Budapest organized a roundtable conference in April 1999, focusing on “The Change of Systems and Historiography in East Central Europe”. We are presenting here the study of Attila Pók, Assistant Director of the Europa Institute Budapest, having selected it from among the presentations. It will also appear in: Attila Pók–Jörn Rüsen–Jutta Scherer (eds.): Historizing Europe – Approaches and Attempts to be published by the Körber-Stiftung (Hamburg).