While President Trump tweets, the United States and Russia drift towards war over Syria, and the new Thirty Years War between Shi'ite and Sunni continues on many fronts, another critical drama is playing out in the Eastern half of the European continent. I find it particularly interesting because it is a replay of the drama I described about 40 years ago in my first book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War, which is linked at left and available as an e-book.
For the first few centuries of the modern era the peoples of Eastern Europe lived under large empires. The Ottoman Empire had reached Europe in the 15th century and eventually included what is now Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Rumania, some of the nations of the former Yugoslavia, and Hungary. The Tsar of Russia ruled what are now the Baltic States and, by the 19th century, Poland. The Holy Roman Empire--which in 1806 became the Austrian Empire, and in 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire--included parts of Poland and the present-day Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia. All these peoples, to varying degrees, developed nationalist movements during the 19th century.
The enormous strain of the First World War proved too much not only for the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, but also for the German Empire. The Allies--France, Britain, Italy and eventually the US as well--sponsored the claims of some of the national movements in their territory. In January 1918, in his Fourteen Points, Woodrow Wilson endorsed an independent Poland and autonomy (not independence) for the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. When those nations collapsed ten months later, various national movements proclaimed new states.
As the brilliant but eccentric English historian A. J. P. Taylor noted in 1961, the post-1919 settlement in Eastern Europe reflected the astonishing fact that both Germany and Russia had been defeated. Only that allowed for the re-creation of an independent Poland, the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia,a larger Rumania, independent Poland and Finland, and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It seemed in 1918-9 that things might go even further and that Ukraine might become independent as well, but the Bolsheviks managed to secure control over it in the Russian civil war. These states were economically and politically weak. Nearly all of them initially formed some kind of democratic government, encouraged down that path by the western powers.
In the short run, several of the new states--Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania--were threatened by Hungary, which had lost huge territories at the peace conference, while in the long run Czechoslovakia and Poland had to worry about a resurgent Germany. France, eager to cement its status as the leading power in Europe, offered all those states some kind of alliance. Clearly the French would have trouble defending them once the Germans or Russians regained their military strength, but the French were counting on keeping the Germans weak. The alliances faced no serious threats until after the rise of Hitler.
By then all these countries had undergone profound political changes. While all of them had begun as democracies, only Czechoslovakia, Finland and the Baltic States were still electing their governments by the early 1930s--the rest had come under some form of authoritarian rule. The agricultural states among them, as I showed in my book, came under German influence after 1935 because the Germans, desperate for food, offered them a market for their produce. In 1938 Hitler managed to destroy Czechoslovakia when the French abandoned their alliance. In 1939-40, Hitler and Stalin concluded the Nazi-Soviet Pact. They partitioned Poland and the Soviets incorporated the Baltic States. Hungary and Rumania became allies of Hitler while Yugoslavia was occupied by the Italians and the Nazis. In 1945, the whole region (except Finland) came under Soviet occupation and the USSR installed Communist governments.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991--77 years after the start of the First World War--started this process over again. Once again, as in 1919, the entire region was liberated from foreign rule. This time the proliferation of new states has gone much further, with Czechoslovakia and former Yugoslavia giving way to no less than 8 new states, and not only the Baltic States, but also Ukraine and Belarus, becoming independent. Once again the new states established various forms of democracy. And once again, powerful nations from outside the region offered them alliances. NATO, led by the US, offered membership to virtually every new state in the region, including the Baltic states--after initially promising the new Russian government not to do so. The EU also offered many of them membership, choosing to ignore the enormous economic and cultural differences that still divide Europe somewhere around the frontiers of Germany and Poland.
Germany is no longer an imperialist nation, although it leads the EU and played a key role in its enlargement. Russia once again went through a chaotic period but by 2000 it was recovering its strength under Vladimir Putin. He is clearly determined to reassert Russian influence--if not more--over many of the states of the former USSR. Belarus lost any real independence very quickly, and Putin is actively contesting the West in a bid for influence in Ukraine, and using the Russian military at the border to do so. He also very obviously has designs on the Baltic states, which are extremely vulnerable militarily. And while Putin cannot offer these states markets the way the Germans did 80 years ago, he can provide them with energy.
And once again, democracy has proven fragile in Eastern Europe. Rightist parties now lead the governments of Hungary, Poland, and some of the other states of the region. The governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia are weak and subject to corruption and outside influence. These nations face a choice between western-style democracy--which is having enormous problems in the west--and Russian-style authoritarianism. It is not at all clear which path they shall take.
Only a gigantic war settled the question of Eastern Europe's future 80 years ago. Such a war does not seem in prospect now, but limited wars, such as a lightning Russian occupation of one or more Baltic states, cannot be ruled out. Russian and NATO aircraft are constantly confronting one another in the region. The Russians also seem to be using cyberwar against Ukraine, and they may use it elsewhere. To reach a new equilibrium diplomatically would require a level of statesmanship which is not apparent on the world scene. Nearly thirty years ago, when the Soviet empire collapsed, I commented frequently that this time, Eastern Europe had taken a new shape without a new world war. Now it seems that the process may involve a larger conflict--albeit of a possibly different kind.