Political turmoil in the Ukraine. The struggle of nationalism in Poland. The resurgence of neo-Nazism around the world. The conflicts of Eastern Europe are all over the news today, but beyond the headlines is a long and complex series of events going back more than a hundred years.
Being an informed citizen of the world requires us to understand the world of Eastern Europe, but a surprising number of Americans likely couldn’t tell you the capital of Slovakia—much less find it on a map.
Eastern Europe has long had a reputation for being the “Other Europe,” a mysterious region behind the old Iron Curtain, associated with unwelcome stereotypes of instability, backwardness, Balkanization, and even lack of civilization. To understand this region in the 21st century—its conflicts, its economic growth, and the lingering problems and challenges from yesteryear—we must gain an understanding of the region’s geography, history, society and more.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Eastern Europe. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Here are 10 reasons Americans should immerse themselves in a detailed study of Eastern Europe:
- Gain insight into the “Other Europe.” Whether you’re planning a trip or just want to better understand a region you never studied in school, the story of Eastern Europe is a fascinating piece of world history
- Expand your knowledge of world cultures. Eastern Europe is home to an amazing variety of ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultures. From the Jewish shtetls to the traveling Roma, this part of the world has one of the most interesting—yet surprisingly untold—stories.
- Unpack the turmoil of ethno-nationalism. The region’s diversity makes it a fascinating place, but the tension between different ethnicities within artificial national borders has led to some of the world’s most horrific conflicts, from World War I to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
- Reflect on the artificial nature of state borders. The political history of Eastern Europe is one of contested borders. How are national lines drawn in the first place, and how do geopolitical forces shape the arc of local history?
- Understand Russia’s interest in the Ukraine. Russia and the Ukraine seem on the verge of full-on war over Crimea, but the tension between these two nations has been simmering since the breakup of the USSR. And historians know the tension goes back even further, all the way to the Middle Ages.
- Discover the historical context for Poland’s resurgent nationalism. In November 2017, far right nationalists took to the streets of Poland—a frightening development to anyone with knowledge of the rise of Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s. But anyone who knows about Poland knows the nation has a long history of struggling for independence.
- Explore global Jewish heritage—and the roots of Zionism. Israel may not be in Eastern Europe, but understanding the region’s history (the fall of Empires, the rise of Zionism, and the Holocaust) are necessary for understanding the Jewish state today.
- Examine the ideology of Nazism. Political events have emboldened neo-Nazis in recent years. What are the origins of Nazism? How did they come to political power in the 1930s? And weren’t they defeated in 1945?
- Delve into the surveillance state. Whether it was life under the Nazis in World War II or the East German Stasi, the 20th century gave us many examples of state surveillance and control. Are these tactics at play in today’s cyber world? How do we guard ourselves against state control?
- Defend against tyranny. America began with a fight against tyranny, but it’s been a long time since we’ve faced a genuine political threat at home. From East Germany to Yugoslavia under Tito, Eastern Europe offers numerous historical case studies for how tyrants and dictators grab and maintain power.
Common Questions About Eastern Europe
The UN defined Eastern Europe as including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Moldova, Ukraine, Russian Federation, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Belarus.
Eastern Europe is no more or less dangerous than any other section of the developed world. Being aware of problematic neighborhoods and keeping alert is the best advice for traveling in any city.
The best method of transport in Eastern Europe is by train; however, there are many countries where the rail doesn’t stop, which would require an automobile.
Generally, most food and travel accommodations are significantly cheaper in Eastern Europe than Western Europe. It should be noted that the Euro is not accepted in all establishments, so an alternate currency should be kept.