Where is east-central Europe? This is a question that immediately provokes yet another: what is east-central Europe? Like the terms western Europe, southern Europe, or northern Europe, east-central Europe is a vague concept that defies any precise definition. It is, nonetheless, a term that is used in the media, in books, and verbal discourse.
Territorial extent The concept of east-central Europe seems to have evolved from the even more general terms, central Europe and eastern Europe. Central Europe was the older of the two, and in the nineteenth century it had come to denote territory ruled by various German states as well as the Habsburg, or Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The term often implied that there existed a religious-cultural dichotomy and a desire to distinguish this part of the continent from the “less civilized” east and southeast. In other words, central Europe was understood to comprise the German states and the Germanic part of the Habsburg Empire that were linked to the Catholic (and in part Protestant) “West.” This was opposed to the unenlightened or heathen “other,” i.e., the Orthodox “East” embodied in the Russian Empire, and the Muslim and Orthodox “Balkans” under the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire.
As for the term eastern Europe, it began to gain currency in the wake of World War I, which saw the creation of small successor states sandwiched between Germany in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. German literature sometimes referred to this area rather prosaically as zwischen Europa, the in-between-Europe. When, after World War II, the Soviet Union expanded its political influence farther to the west, the term eastern Europe came to designate the so-called satellite countries: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as Yugoslavia and Albania, which were also ruled by Communist regimes but which had at some point succeeded in leaving the Soviet bloc. This Cold War definition of eastern Europe remained in place until the collapse of Communist rule during the Revolutions of 1989.
It is during the post-Communist era that the terms east-central Europe and central Europe have gained increasing currency. These terms have appeared, in part, in response to the wishes of the inhabitants in the region itself, who often adamantly reject the adjective “eastern,” which they believe is applicable to Russia or the Soviet Union with whom they do not wish to be associated. Consequently, the formulation east-central Europe, or preferably just central Europe, are again – as in the nineteenth century – being used to underline the association of oneself and one’s country with the rest of Europe and at the same time to distinguish oneself from the “unenlightened” and economically underdeveloped “East.”
This still leaves the question as to what precisely is the territorial extent of east-central, or central Europe? Not surprisingly, there is no consensus. Some authors, both within and beyond the countries in question, consider east-central Europe to comprise only Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and perhaps Slovakia, that is, the proverbial “West.” Other writers extend the boundaries of east-central Europe to include the Balkan peninsula (in some cases Greece as well), while in the north the Baltic states and perhaps even Finland are added. For some, the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine should be added; for others those countries are relegated along with Russia to eastern Europe. Clearly, the concepts east-central Europe and central Europe vary according to the eye of the beholder.
Let us begin with physical geography. There is a general, although not universal, consensus that the European continent stretches from the coasts of Ireland and Portugal in the west to the Ural mountains in the east. The longitudinal coordinates of that land mass are 10°W and 60°E. If divided into three equal parts, the center portion 10°E – 30°E, basically coincides with the east-west geographical middle, or central third, of the continent. Looked at from a north-south perspective, the territory referred to here as east-central Europe falls within 55°N and 40°N latitude. This is also roughly the middle, or central third of the continent as measured from the Arctic coastline of Norway in the north to the isle of Crete in the south.
In terms of present-day political divisions, east-central/central Europe as outlined above includes fifteen countries or parts of countries: Poland, western Belarus, western Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The outside boundaries that encompass these countries should not, however, be considered absolute but rather as frayed edges. And beyond these edges are historical and contemporary states like Brandenburg-Prussia, Lithuania, Austria, Venetia, and Greece, which could at times be considered part of east-central/central Europe.
From the standpoint of language and national cultures, east-central/central Europe does respond to the proverbial description of a “land in between,” that is territory roughly bounded by the Germanic- and Italian-speaking west, the Russian-speaking east, the Baltic (Lithuanian)-speaking north, and the Greek- and Turkish-speaking south. Since, however, language and national cultures are not necessarily limited to a specific territory, one must also be mindful of centers of cultural creativity beyond the land mass described above. In that regard, St. Petersburg in Russia, Riga in Latvia, Trieste in Italy, Berlin, Paris, New York City, and Toronto are just some of the other paces that need to be factored into any serious cultural history of east-central/central Europe.
Geographical zones East-central/central Europe can be said to be divided into three geographical zones: (1) the northern zone; (2) the Alpine-Carpathian zone; and (3) the Balkan zone. The northern zone is bounded by the Baltic Sea in the north and the crests of the Ore, Sudeten, and Carpathian mountains in the south. This zone is characterized primarily by an unbroken plain that is part of the North European Lowlands, stretching in a west-east band across the entire European continent and including northern Germany, Poland, Belarus, and part of the western Ukraine. Along the southern portion of this zone located in east-central/central Europe are plateaus and foothills covering large parts of southeastern Poland, southwestern Ukraine, and northern Moldova. Because of its geographical features, the northern zone has traditionally allowed for easy access from all directions, except perhaps from the mountainous south. The lowland plain is drained by several river systems—the Elbe, Oder, Vistula, and Neman—all of which flow northward into the Baltic Sea or North Sea.
The second, or Alpine-Carpathian, zone is characterized by mountain ranges that surround lowland basins and plains. In terms of present-day countries, this zone includes the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Subcarpathian/Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, Hungary, western Romania (historic Transylvania), northern Yugoslavia (the Vojvodina), Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. This zone is bounded in the northwest by a triangle formed by the Sudeten Mountains, Ore Mountains, and Bohemian Forest, which surround the lowland Bohemia Basin and plateaus of Moravia. Immediately to the south are the Alps, which cover most of Austria and Slovenia. Farther east the zone is bounded by the wide sweeping arc of the Carpathian Mountains, which stretch from Slovakia eastward across Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region and southward into Romania, where the arc turns abruptly westward until it reaches the Danube River at the so-called Iron Gates. The Carpathian arc surrounds the Transylvanian Basin and large Hungarian plain that covers virtually all of Hungary and stretches southward into Yugoslavia’s Vojvodina and Croatia’s Slavonia as far as the Sava River. Because the main geographic feature is the Danube River and its main tributaries (the Tisza, Drava, and Sava), the area is often referred to as the Danubian Basin. The mountain crests of the Alpine-Carpathian zone traditionally served as natural protective barriers that states hoped to secure and maintain as their political frontiers. Despite the existence of several passes, those crests also limited communication and trade with regions outside the zone.
The third, or Balkan zone, begins at the Sava River and includes the Walachian Plain below the arc of the Carpathians. This zone basically coincides with the Balkan peninsula, which is surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the west, the Aegean Sea to the south, and the Black Sea in the east. In terms of present-day states, the Balkan zone comprises western Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, most of Yugoslavia, southern Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. Most of this zone is covered by mountains (one range in Bulgaria actually carries the name Balkan mountains), although there are extensive lowland plains in southern Romania (Walachia) and northern Bulgaria, which are together drained by the lower Danube, as well as the Rumelian Basin in southeastern Bulgaria, the Thracian plain in European Turkey, and the Vardar Basin in southcentral Macedonia and northern Greece.
Although geographically part of the Balkan zone, the coastal areas of Croatia (Dalmatia) and central Albania are quite distinct. This is because they have traditionally been linked to the Adriatic and Mediterranean maritime world and, until very recent times, were cut off by high mountains from the Balkan hinterland. With the exception of the coastal areas on all sides of the peninsula, communication within the Balkan zone has been hindered because of the extensive mountainous ranges. The result has been the existence of large tracts of sparsely settled and frequently isolated areas that are incapable of sustaining populations of any significance.
Cultural spheres The population throughout most of east-central Europe is characterized by great diversity in terms of religion, language, and nationality. By the nineteenth century, all of Europe’s main religions were well represented in the region: Catholicism in both its Roman (Latin)- and Byzantine (Greek)-rite forms, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Protestantism. Numerically, the Catholic Church had until the twentieth century the largest number of adherents, with an estimated 56 million at the end of the nineteenth century and 83 million at the end of the twentieth century. The majority of Catholics were and still are of the Roman (Latin)-rite, with the Byzantine (Greek)-rite Catholics numbering respectively 5 million (ca. 1900) and 7.7 million (ca. 1995). Whereas both rites are within jurisdictions ultimately responsible to the Pope in Rome, the Greek Catholics (or Uniates as they are also known) use the Byzantine-rite and follow other practices similar to the Orthodox world to which they had belonged before accepting union with Rome.
The Orthodox represented the second and now largest group in east-central Europe, having increased from 44 million at the end of the nineteenth century to 87.5 million at the end of the twentieth century. In contrast to the more unified Catholic world, with its ecclesiastical center in Rome, the Orthodox are divided into several self-governing, or autocephalous, churches. These autocephalous churches are loosely linked together by what they call a “communion of faith,” and most show respect to the “ecumenical patriarch” of the Church of Constantinople (resident in Istanbul), a hierarch who is considered the “first among equals.” Despite frequent analogies, the ecumenical patriarch has never had the same jurisdictional authority within the Orthodox world as does the pope within the Catholic.
The size of the Jewish population may have been considerably smaller than either the Catholic or the Orthodox population; nevertheless, the 7.4 million Jews living in east-central Europe at the end of the nineteenth century represented 70 percent of the total number of all Jews worldwide. The Jews of east-central Europe were basically divided into two distinct groups, the vast majority of whom were Ashkenazim, or Yiddish speakers. The other group, numbering only about 193,000, were the Sephardim or Ladino speakers. Also in contrast to the Catholics and Orthodox, the number of Jews has decreased dramatically in east-central Europe during the course of the twentieth century. This is largely the result of their physical extermination during the World War II Holocaust, so that there are only 594,000 left in east-central Europe (ca. 2000), and as many as three-quarters of them live in the region’s former Soviet republics (western Belarus, western Ukraine, Moldova).
The Muslim population of the region has undergone even greater numerical fluctuation. At the outset of the twentieth century, there were an estimated 4.4 million Muslims living primarily in the Balkan zone in lands under Ottoman rule. As the Ottomans were progressively pushed out of the region, so too was the Muslim, mostly Turkish, population. Between 1912 and 1926 alone, nearly 2.9 million Muslims were either killed or were forced to emigrate to Turkey. Despite such demographic losses, a high birth rate (in particular among Muslim Albanians) has resulted in a total of nearly 8.2 million Muslims living in the Balkan zone of east-central Europe by the end of the twentieth century.
Protestants in the region made their appearance already at the time of the Reformation. Various Protestant sects gained a significant number of adherents in east-central Europe, most especially in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the eastern regions of the Hungarian Kingdom. Despite their relatively small size, Protestants had a significant impact on their surrounding environment as promoters of education and in the printing of books and pamphlets in vernacular languages. By the nineteenth century, the most important Protestant denominations in east-central Europe were the Evangelical (Lutherans) and Reformed (Calvinists).
Aside from these “mainline” religious orientations, east-central Europe also became home to several other smaller groups, many of which by the end of the twentieth century have dwindled further in size or have virtually ceased to exist. Among these are the Armenian-rite Catholics, Orthodox Old Believers, Karaite Jews, and Anti-Trinitarian Protestants.
The spatial distribution of the major religions in east-central Europe is uneven. The Catholics are concentrated in the northern zone and in the Alpine-Danubian zone, that is in lands formerly belonging to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Austria-Hungary. The Orthodox are found in parts of all three zones, but most especially in the western regions of the former Russian Empire/Soviet Union and throughout the Balkan peninsula. By the end of the twentieth century, fully 97 percent of all Orthodox Christians lived in the following countries, listed in order of their size of adherents: Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Belarus, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Before its decimation during World War II, the Jewish population was concentrated in what was known as the Pale of Settlement, that is, lands acquired by the Russian Empire at the end of the eighteenth century from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (i.e., present-day central and eastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, central and western Ukraine) and the Ottoman Empire (Moldova and southeastern Ukraine). Whereas there were also Jewish concentrations in the Habsburg Empire (especially in the northeastern counties of the Hungarian Kingdom and in the urban conglomerations of Budapest and Vienna), there were very few Jews throughout the Balkan zone aside from some concentrations of Sephardim in small towns and cities, especially Salonika/Thessaloniki.
Certain religious groups were linked to the state, while others were associated closely with national movements among stateless peoples. This was particularly the case in the Orthodox world, where the self-governing, or autocephalous churches often came into being at the initiative of the state’s secular authorities. In turn, the state would frequently use the church to promote its national and even socioeconomic policies. For instance, in late nineteenth-century Macedonia, the Bulgarian, Serbian, and Greek Orthodox churches competed with each other in an attempt to convince the local population that it was either of Bulgarian, Serbian, or Greek nationality. Similarly, Islam served the interests of the Ottoman state throughout the Balkan zone, where it was not uncommon to find people who converted to Islam (Bosnian Muslims and Albanians among others) in order to become part of the ruling socioeconomic elite.
Whereas the Catholic world did not permit the establishment of “national” churches, Roman (Latin)-rite Catholicism in practice functioned as a state church in many countries, most especially in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This meant that for a long time the Catholic Church controlled the Habsburg educational system, and being Catholic certainly enhanced an individual’s socioeconomic mobility, especially in the military and civil service.
Some religions, on the other hand, were closely associated with stateless peoples and their efforts at attaining recognition as a distinct nationality. In this sense, Greek Catholicism came to be perceived as the “national” religion of the Ukrainians of Galicia, as did Roman Catholicism for the Poles, who before 1914 lived as a stateless people in the German, Austrian, and Russian empires. Some ideologists went so far as to argue that one could not be a Pole unless one were Roman Catholic, or that one could not be a Ukrainian from Galicia unless one were Greek Catholic. The simplistic association between religion and national identities at times produced anomalies. For instance, Slovaks were traditionally associated with being a Catholic people, yet the revered nineteenth-century national awakeners who promoted the idea of a Slovak literary language and identity distinct from Czech were all life-long Protestants and indeed ministers (L’udovít Štúr, Michal Hodža, Jozef Hurban).
The linguistic configuration in east-central Europe is even more complicated than the region’s religious structure. Taking into account the unresolved debate about whether a given form of speech should be classified as a language or as a dialect of another language, it is still possible to refer to as many as 32 languages in the region. These languages represent all the major linguistic groups spoken on the European continent: Slavic, Germanic, Romance, Baltic, Turkic, and, in their own category, Romany, Albanian, Greek, and Armenian.
By far the largest number of speakers are within the Slavic group, which in turn is subdivided into East Slavic languages (Russian, Belarusan, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Rusyn); West Slavic languages (Polish, Kashubian, Lusatian Sorbian, Czech, Slovak); and South Slavic languages (Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian). The Germanic group is represented by German-speakers not only within the boundaries of present-day Germany and Austria but in various areas throughout east-central Europe. Some of these areas were part of a continual German speech area stretching eastward into Pomerania, Poznania, Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia. There were also Germans who lived in compact colonies, some of which began to be settled as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (the Saxons of Transylvania, the Zipser or Carpathian Germans in north-central Slovakia, the East Prussians), others which were first established in the fourteenth century (Galician Germans in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine, the Gottschee Germans in Slovenia) or in the eighteenth century (the Danube Swabians in southern Hungary, Slavonia, the Vojvodina, and the Banat , and the Volhynian, Bukovinian, Black Sea, and Bessarabian Germans in Ukraine). Many of these German colonies were decimated as a result of the events during and immediately following World War II; those that managed to survive after 1945 had significantly reduced numbers. Another Germanic language is Yiddish, which was spoken in Ashkenazim Jewish communities until their destruction during World War II.
The Romance languages are represented primarily by Romanian speakers in present-day Romania (historic Walachia, Moldavia, Transylvania) and Moldova, as well as by Vlachs, a semi-nomadic livestock-raising people based in the mountainous areas throughout much of the Balkan peninsula. Italian remained the dominant language for many coastal towns and cities along the Adriatic coast from Trieste to Dubrovnik, although by the second half of the twentieth century only a few Italian speakers remained in Istria (Slovenia) and Dalmatia (Croatia).
The Finno-Ugric group is represented by Hungarian spoken by Magyars in present-day Hungary as well as in linguistically contiguous areas of all neighboring countries—Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia (the Vojvodina), and Austria. There is still a large community of Magyars farther east in Romania (in eastern Transylvania), some of whom designate themselves by the term Székely/Szeklers. The Baltic linguistic group is represented by the Lithuanians within the present-day country of the same name; the Turkic linguistic group by Turks (primarily in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece), by Tatars (in Romania’s Dobrudja region), and by Gagauz (in Moldova and adjacent southwestern Ukraine).
As for the distinct language groups, Greek is limited primarily to present-day Greece, although before World War I it was the language of the large Greek population in western Anatolia as well as of the traders and merchants living in numerous towns throughout the Balkans and as far north as Budapest. Albanian is spoken in a compact area covering present-day Albania as well as in neighboring Yugoslavia (Kosovo) and Greece (Çameria/northern Epirus). Like Greek, Armenian was the language of merchant colonists living in cities stretching from Istanbul to as far north as Poland, although most of that otherwise small group has become assimilated in the course of the twentieth century. By contrast, the number of Romany/Gypsy speakers has increased. Although not all Romany use or even know some form of their ancestral language, the number of Roma/Gypsies has increased dramatically, with conservative estimates being 820,000 at the end of the nineteenth century to over 2.1 million at the end of the twentieth. Traditionally an itinerant people, the Roma/Gypsies either voluntarily or through state intervention (especially during the Communist era after World War II) came to settle in permanent abodes. They live on the outskirts of villages, and in towns and cities throughout virtually all countries of east-central Europe, although the largest concentrations are found within the present-day borders of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Slovakia.
Such extensive linguistic diversity might suggest that the speakers of the nearly three dozen language groups were isolated among themselves because they could not understand neighbors with whom they often lived in the same state, province, city, or even town and village. Leaving aside the possibility of at least basic communication between speakers of related languages (in particular among the Slavic languages), it was not uncommon for communication to be carried out by a few lingua francas. Often lingua francas were the state languages, so that in the nineteenth century the Russian language served the role of an intermediary between Belarusans, Ukrainians, and Jews, while the Polish language served the same function between Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, and some Ukrainians and Belarusans. German was the most widespread lingua franca in the Habsburg Empire, making possible communication between Austro-Germans, Magyars, Jews, speakers of various Slavic languages, and Romanians. To a lesser degree Hungarian played the same role within the Hungarian Kingdom, allowing for communication between Magyars, Slovaks, Rusyns, Romanians, Croats, Danube Swabians, Jews, and Serbs.
For those who received a higher education, spoken lingua francas like German, Russian, or Hungarian could be used for more sophisticated spoken and written communication. Therefore, bilingualism – even multilingualism – became the norm for most educated east-central Europeans at least until the mid-twentieth century. After World War II, the status of Russian as a second language was enhanced by virtue of the fact that it was a mandatory subject in schools throughout most of the region as long as pro-Soviet Communist regimes were in power. Gradually, however, the former state languages – German, Hungarian, and eventually Russian – were no longer being learned, since each was associated with an “imperialist” and “occupying” power, whether the pre-World War I German and Austro-Hungarian empires, or the postwar Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The result is that a much smaller percentage of educated people in east-central Europe know German or Hungarian at the end of the twentieth century than did their predecessors before and just after World War I; similarly, Russian is unknown to young people educated in the 1990s. Instead, since the Revolutions of 1989 it is English which is becoming the lingua franca that more and more links the linguistically diverse peoples of the region.
There is a crucial difference, however, between the old and new lingua francas. In the former multinational empires, it was quite common for educated individuals to have multiple identities, and the lingua franca, especially if it was simultaneously a state language, was an important badge associated with those identities. Hence, a native-born Yiddish speaker from Prague, aside from being a Jew, might in certain circumstances identify as a German or a Czech, because he or she had learned and used those languages. By contrast, English is a kind of “new Latin,” in that it is a neutral and purely functional instrument – and one, moreover, that does not add another “national” identity to its user in east-central/central Europe.
Language, of course, is not simply a functional instrument for communication; it also has great symbolic value in relation to national identity. As nationalist ideology increasingly established roots beginning in the early nineteenth century, intellectuals throughout east-central Europe were inspired by Herder’s theoretical question: “Has a people, in particular a culturally underdeveloped people, anything dearer than the language of its ancestors? Therein resides its whole intellectual wealth, tradition, history, religion and principle of life – its very heart and soul.” Some thinkers went even further and began to argue that a nationality could not even exist unless it had is own language.
To be sure, all peoples spoke languages, but not all peoples had a literary language. It was the struggle to create a literary language that led to great intellectual debates and often political conflict in east-central Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Questions such as, “Which dialect or dialects should form the basis of a literary language,” or, “Should not a sacred language like Church Slavonic or ancient Greek be adopted for modern usage?,” are the kind of issues that for decades were to preoccupy the attention of national awakeners. Nor did all national awakeners feel that their respective people needed its own distinct literary language. For instance, supporters of Pan-Slavism, who saw strength in unity, favored a limitation on the number of Slavic literary languages. The Slovak Ján Kollár suggested that number might be four (Russian, Polish, Czech, Illyrian/South Slavic); the Slovene Jernej Kopitar respected all the Slavic “dialects” but argued for the adoption of a single Slavic literary language; Slavophiles in Russia also called for one literary language, and that it should be Russian.
Since literary languages were almost always associated with the existence of a distinct nationality, and since the creation of a literary norm was to a degree an arbitrary intellectual construct, the decision as to where the boundary of one language ended and another began often led to conflict between neighbors. Is, for instance, Kashubian a dialect of Polish or a separate language? Analogously, what is the relationship between Ukrainian and Russian, Slovak and Czech, Rusyn and Ukrainian, Macedonian and Bulgarian, Moldovan and Romanian? If the first in each of these pairs became recognized as a distinct literary language, this would imply and perhaps confirm that there exist distinct Kashubian, Ukrainian, Slovak, Rusyn, Macedonian, and Moldovan nationalities. These are the kind of debates that for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed the languages of east-central Europe into instruments of political, social, and cultural conflict.
As recently as the 1990s, one literary language has been deconstructed because of political reasons. With the creation of independent Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina alongside what remains of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), the former common linguistic medium called Serbo-Croatian (rendered in two alphabets, Roman and Cyrillic) has been replaced by two new separate “national” languages, Croatian and Serbian. There have even been attempts to create a third variant, Bosnian. The linguistic diversity of east-central Europe has, therefore, continued to evolve, since language remains both an instrument for verbal and written communication as well as a political weapon and badge of national identity.