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Friday, June 30, 2017

What next for Eastern Europe?

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.


Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

In principle, Eastern Europe should roll itself up into a market by treaty, then solicit offers from the markets to its West and East. In practice, the longstanding issue of the many separate nationalities might prevent such a roll-up, particularly at the political level. Back to principle, a broad social movement could subvert such political obstacles.

Jude Hammerle

Energyflow said...

Quo vadis Eastern Europe? They are very European but in the older sense, not yet socially liberal, multi cultural, ethnically diverse. The right wing backlash there is pushback against western new values like gay marriage, islamization, mass 3rd world immigration. They are seeking identity between post modern west and romantic ancient russia. Communism was a stop gap, industrialized, modernized quickly but without allowing the slow process to take place in the mind which democracy enabled in the West. Now we see the result of democracy and consumerist culture being decadent. Post religious values, post ethical values have made citizens lazy of their rights anfd business fusing with govt. in the technical definition of fascism to make a centralized brussels burocracy against will of regional cultures. So Europe will likely end up becoming south, north and east according to cultural tendencies and economic strength. Like in America divorce could be best way to go if differences are not able to be solved. This was a long time coming but the 2008 crisis with the banking and debt problems in the south and now the arab spring/syrian libyan wars based immigration flood have tipped the balance towards brexit, french political dissolution, new party formations elsewhere and radicalization in Eastern Europre. Trump is also part of the trend. The individual everwhere must identify with his own culture. Globalization is overdone. Before WWI trade was at its peak then came war. In 1618 German peoples were 20 million and doing very well. 30 years oc war later only 10 million people left impoverished. High times breeds overshoot of expectations, ambitions. Everyone expects linear progress to continue economically, culturally, geographically in their favour. Then all breaks loose. Globally regional civil wars in America, Europe or peaceful, soviet style breakups are likely.

Bozon said...


Very engaging discussion. Thanks for this detailed effort.

Too many things here to tempt comment for me to choose.

Bobbitt had thought that we have been in a long war, until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thus he seemed to think that the Eastern Europe Question, along with much else, had hung in the balance until then.

I don't agree with him on certain things, but I do think that WWII failed to solve the problems of Eastern Europe at all, for any period of time, not just the 80 years.

Kennan had thought that the Austro Hungarian Empire had been better than anything taking its place since, and I agree with that, as far as it goes.

All the best

Bruce Wilder said...

I am grateful for your intelligent review and historical perspective, but I find I must quibble with some of your narrative choices.

I would have noted that Empire was both the deep cause and proximate cause of the First World War. It was not simply the strain of war that destroyed empires, it was the strain of empire that caused the war.

I think I would note both that nation-states were emerging well before WwI and that liberal self-determination and constitutional democracy were frequent competitors with monarchy in the organization of new states even in the 19th century. Hungary had one of the most liberal constitutions after 1867, at least on paper even if rival nationalisms spoiled the practice.

The Austrian Empire was not the successor to the Holy Roman Empire. If the Holy Roman Empire had any successor, it was the German Confederation, in which the Austrian Empire was one of 39 constituent states. Significant parts of the Hapsburg realms --notably Hungary -- were outside both the Holy Roman Empire and the German Confederation. The German Empire would succeed the Confederation. Austria-Hungary was formed when the Hapsburg Emperor chose to retain those non-German realms, conceding the throne of the German Empire to the Hohenzollerns who added their Prussia to the German Empire, while Austria exited.

You failed to reference the problems of mixed ethnic population in the Empires and the subsequent challenges to the ethnic behind the formation of nation-states defined by ethnic, cultural or linguistic principles. I appreciate there isn't space to go into the many details, but it ought to get some mention as a factor. You mention the threat of Hungary to new states after the first war, but fail to mention the how of ethnic Hungarian populations left behind. German populations scattered thruout Eastern Europe were a big problem between the wars, but were eliminated after WWII. Russians in Latvia, Estonia and most notably Ukraine are a challenge. A lot of Latvian Russians took EU passports and moved to the UK during the period of Euro-induced austerity. Estonia's Russians are concentrated in an area closely adjacent to Leningrad, which is why Estonia fears Russia might seek a change in the border.

You reference economic diplomacy but fail to mention the use of economic sanctions against Russia. You should probably also take note of the strange reliance of the Russians on foreign finance and ownership institutions, particularly in UK and Cyprus.

Finally, it seems odd to mind-read Putin as the villain of the piece in your peroration, when Putin is the one statesman conspicuously calculating his moves and seeking the fluid and adaptive to circumstances cooperation of a multi polar world in contrast to the irresponsible moralistic blundering of the U.S. (could we acknowledge that the U.S. and EU had a heavy hand in overthrowing the previous elected pro-Russian Ukraine government and the new government's hostility to their Russian-speaking citizenry might be a factor in the subsequent civil war?)

David Kaiser said...

I could have said a lot more about nationalism in Eastern Europe, yes. It's a main theme of the last part of my book, Politics and War. The ethnic conflicts in the region broke up Czechoslovakia (peacefully) and Yugoslavia (violently) after 1989. On the other hand, the Austrian Empire was created at the moment that the Holy Roman Empire came to an end in 1806, certainly making it its successor, and it included most of the same territory. It became Austria Hungary in 1867, four years before the creation of the Geramn Empire, if you want to get technical about it.
Liberalism has not been very successful at creating stable democracies in Eastern Europe.