Teaching Innovations

Teaching “Eastern Europe” without the Iron Curtain

Larry Wolff, January 1993

The revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, followed fast by the upheavals of 1991 in the Soviet Union, have challenged us to reconsider various aspects of teaching European history. Most obviously we have to face up to all the ways in which the Cold War and the Iron Curtain have served as pedagogical props, permitting us to count on or play off students' cultural and ideological assumptions about the division of Europe.

College students are aware that something dramatically important happened recently in Eastern Europe, but the generational memories of college cohorts are famously short. For instance, when I started college in 1974 the Vietnam War was something very vivid for all students, the daily news of their adolescence, but by the time I graduated four years later, it was beginning to be taught as strictly historical material to incoming students who were eight at the time of the Tet Offensive. I think we have to suppose that, similarly, after a full four-year cycle of college classes, we may find ourselves teaching college students whose memories of 1989 and 1991 are not even hazy, and for whom both the Cold War and the Iron Curtain are entirely matters of history. I don't mean to suggest that we should regret their passing from memory into history. I do think, however, that the present moment, when our students are poised between memory and history, offers an opportunity for us to think critically about the ways in which the Cold War has shaped the way we teach the history of Eastern Europe. I think we have probably, over the last generation, managed to curtain off Eastern Europe within academia, and we therefore risk perpetuating the intellectual prejudices of the Cold War even at the moment when we are looking at what amounts to a new map of Europe.

The first problem to face is the simple fact that Eastern Europe has been relatively neglected in our university curriculum, in the number and nature of courses offered within history departments, but also in the apportioning of attention within individual courses advertised as the history of Europe. This problem of neglect is complicated by a second problem concerning the questionable historical validity of the whole notion of Eastern Europe. My own research in eighteenth-century intellectual history strongly suggests that Eastern Europe, like the Orient, may best belong between quotation marks, that it was invented by travelers and philosophes in the age of Enlightenment, as a politically charged, cultural construction. By the same token, the concept of Western Europe was no less an artifice inasmuch as its self-definition and self-promotion was a function of the invention of Eastern Europe, based upon a convenient cultural geography of "civilization" across the continent. Just as the idea of Eastern Europe was an ideological convenience in the age of Enlightenment, so it has become a pedagogical convenience in our history curriculum, creating a convenient category for quick generalizations to serve as a figleaf for our scant attention to that historical terrain.

From the perspective of Renaissance Italy, the obvious division of Europe was between north and south. Machiavelli in Florence saw barbarians when he looked northwards, and he found his perspective reinforced in the writings of Tacitus. This may serve as a caution to us in assuming the timeless validity of our own schema of Western and Eastern Europe, which research reveals to be relatively recent, a phenomenon of modern European history. We owe it to the fact that a presumptuous Parisian like Voltaire could not feel altogether comfortable with the perspective of a presumptuous Florentine like Machiavelli. In fact Voltaire continued to employ the notion of the North—describing Poland and Russia, for instance—even as he emptied the rubric of its cultural significance and helped to usher in the new orientation. Beginning with the History of Charles XII, in 1731, Voltaire created a chain of geographical and ethnographical associations that linked Russia and Poland (in the north), to the Ukraine, the Crimea, and Ottoman Empire (moving south), and brought them together to constitute Eastern Europe. It is of some significance that Voltaire, who wrote in every literary genre of the Enlightenment, approached this particular subject as a historian, for to this day it has remained the project of historians to seek evidence in the past to justify this sometimes specious association of lands and peoples. During the last half century the Cold War, with its Iron Curtain and Soviet Bloc, has given the division of Europe an air of geopolitical inevitability, encouraging historians to interpret earlier periods in terms of the same distinction between Western and Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain has come and gone, and the conviction of Europe's fundamental division, which antedated the Iron Curtain by some two centuries, still remains entirely potent today. Historians as teachers continue to reinforce that distinction when we reach for the analytical generalizations that allow us to speak of Eastern Europe as a whole, that encourage us to neglect the dramatic diversity of historical experiences that fall under that rubric. As teachers, however, we must consider the possibility that "Eastern Europe" is a term of convenience, to be used with caution. For the twentieth century it corresponds to an externally imposed diplomatic coherence, with reference to Versailles as well as to Yalta. In the history of modern Europe we tend to take this twentieth-century experience and project it backwards, where it fits comfortably with the culturally constructed and politically charged sense of difference that dates from the Enlightenment. For the history of early modern Europe, before the Enlightenment, we may have to admit that most generalizations about Eastern Europe as a whole are arguably anachronistic.

Palmer and Colton, in their now venerable textbook A History of the Modern World, pronounce that "for Europe as a whole a real though indefinite line ran along the Elbe and the Bohemian mountains to the head of the Adriatic Sea." They stipulate briefly economic and social factors of distinction, emphasizing the nature of serfdom: "In eastern Europe in contrast to what happened in the West, the peasant mass increasingly lost its freedom." The chapter as a whole, however, entitled "The Transformation of Eastern Europe, 1648–1740," is fundamentally concerned with statecraft and the rise of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Certainly serfdom was oppressive in many of the lands of Eastern Europe, though the "contrast to what happened in the West" was perhaps overemphasized and overgeneralized by observers from the West, starting in the eighteenth century when serfdom in Poland and Russia was sometimes compared to slavery in the West Indies. One passes over a great deal by summing up in a sentence the social systems of Ottoman Europe, Habsburg Hungary, Commonwealth Poland, and Romanov Russia, or by dealing with the "peasant mass" en masse before moving on to the details of politics and international relations. By the time Palmer and Colton get to the partitions of Poland, the heart of the matter can be stated almost en passant: "Poland was meanwhile sacrificed." That telltale "meanwhile" says much about the place of Eastern Europe in our history curriculum, where it is generally sacrificed to make space for other matters.

I do not mean to pick on Palmer and Colton particularly. Their textbook has many strengths; I learned European history from it myself years ago, and I still sometimes assign it to students. Let's consider the competition. Chambers, Grew, Herlihy, Rabb, and Woloch, in The Western Experience, have bite-size bits on Eastern Europe. The early modern volume has two pages entitled "Eastern Europe: Resurgent Nobles," then, later, four pages to survey "the major powers of Eastern Europe," that is, the Ottoman Empire, Poland, and Russia. (Spain alone receives about the same amount of space in the same chapter.) Finally, in a section on "Zones of Conflict," Eastern Europe is described as "admittedly an imprecise designation"—but the eastern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire "did generally set off the classic area of Europe from the vast reaches of the continent that lay to the east," where "the most important issue was the attempt to push back the Ottomans." This attempt to generalize about Eastern Europe on the basis of an anti-Ottoman orientation is even more awkward than that which is based on social and economic issues. Furthermore, the notion of a "classic area of Europe," as compared to "vast reaches" beyond, suggests some dangers perhaps inherent in a textbook with a clearly directional sense of subject, like The Western Experience. Similarly, in A History of Western Society, by McKay, Hill, and Buckler, there is a chapter entitled "Absolutism in Eastern Europe to 1740." The generalization, however, makes no sense at all, given, as the authors immediately concede, "the notable exception of the kingdom of Poland"—an enormous exception on the map, and a "kingdom" which might just as well have been designated as a republic or commonwealth. There follows a timeline chart, entitled "The Rise of Absolutism in Eastern Europe," on which lands are juxtaposed by the most arbitrary historical calendar of events (e.g., 1613 Election of Michael Romanov as tsar, 1620 Battle of the White Mountain in Bohemia).

That our textbooks insist so emphatically on serfdom and absolutism as defining characteristics of Eastern Europe (when they were, after all, very much present in Western Europe as well in the early modern centuries) may remind one of Montesquieu's emphatic association of slavery and despotism with Asia in the Spirit of the Laws. We would have little trouble today assigning that to the Orientalism of the Enlightenment, and I think we have to be sensitive to a sort of demi-Orientalism at work in our generalizations about Eastern Europe. For the French, ever since the Enlightenment, it has been l'orient de l'Europe or l'Europe orientale or even l'Orient europ,en. An eighteenth-century French traveler, the comte de Segur, who crossed the border from Prussia into Poland, felt he had "left Europe entirely." An eighteenth-century American traveler, John Ledyard, designated that same border as "the great barrier of Asiatic & European manners."

When Palmer and Colton specify a line running "along the Elbe and the Bohemian mountains to the head of the Adriatic Sea," they may be thinking of their own experiences as travelers in Europe. The first edition was published in 1950, however, and one might consider that line in the context of the contemporary division of Europe. In 1946 Winston Churchill announced that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent." Stettin (that is, Szczecin) is on the Oder, not the Elbe, but Palmer and Colton's line is pretty close to Churchill's Iron Curtain, and the impulse to generalize about two distinct halves of Europe was certainly consistent with the geopolitical perspective of the Cold War in 1950. One should note that Churchill himself, though responding to contemporary circumstances, was also drawing a line that had been drawn many times before. Johann Gottfried Herder, for instance, in the eighteenth century, had marked the lands of the Slavs "from the Don to the Elbe, from the Baltic to the Adriatic." The idea of the Iron Curtain was as powerful as it was because it reflected not only the contemporary conditions of the Cold War, but also a long cultural history which invented and defined the border between separate spheres of Europe. The Iron Curtain reinforced that distinction, and certainly the Cold War has left its mark on our idea of Eastern Europe. Another textbook, The Western Heritage, by Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, gives as a complete index reference, "Eastern Europe: See Soviet Union." It reminds one of Voltaire's quick reference—"Russia: See Peter the Great"—and also leaves one wondering just how we are going to summarize and reference Eastern Europe now that the Soviet Union and the Cold War are history.

I began my graduate work at Stanford in 1979, and did my major field in Eastern Europe under the famously excellent guidance of Wayne Vucinich, who had already then trained a whole generation of historians working on Eastern Europe. I know I am not alone among his students in taking him as my model when it comes to teaching that region. Uncle Wayne (as his graduate students call him) was born in Montana, brought up in Hercegovina, and then educated at the University of California, going back to Europe to study in Prague; he is someone who seamlessly combines different worlds, and that is something he made into a special asset as a teacher. I remember as an essential part of my training his insistence on considering each of the many national histories of Eastern Europe from two perspectives, both from within the national historiographical tradition, and also critically from outside that tradition. I also appreciate, maybe especially in retrospect, the way I was encouraged not to limit myself to the Eastern Europe field, but to also work outside and around it, to put it in context, and I recognize the wisdom of his conviction that all of us studying Eastern Europe, just like those who were studying Western Europe, should be able to teach the general history of Europe. Those of us who grew up exclusively in New Jersey, as I did, cannot aspire to naturally inculcate special perspectives on European history, but we can learn from those who come from more culturally complex backgrounds. The real issue, however, is generational as much as geographical. Uncle Wayne grew up in Yugoslavia in the 1920s, studied in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s; though his career at Stanford spans the whole period of the Cold War—he started in 1946 and taught a course in 1992—his teaching about Eastern Europe comes with the natural conviction that the Iron Curtain did not represent any kind of historiographical destiny, and should not overshadow the complex and diverse histories of previous centuries. "A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory," declared Churchill in the Iron Curtain speech of 1946, and for those of us born after that date, Churchill's rhetorical shadow was always there, conditioning us to consider the history of Eastern Europe in its half-light.

When I called Uncle Wayne in California and asked him what to say about teaching Eastern Europe in an essay like this one, he told me he thought the thing to stress was the importance of appreciating the long, continuous histories of the different places and peoples; the thing to warn against was the way Eastern Europe is permitted to pop in and out of conventional courses on European history. At the time we spoke, Sarajevo was front-page international news, the scene of civil war in newly independent Bosnia and Hercegovina. The city's sudden celebrity was particularly striking, since no place name pops into courses on modern European history with more explosive effect than Sarajevo. It pops in with the popping off of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and though background for students may sometimes refer to the annexation crisis of 1908 and the Austrian occupation of 1878, the real history of Bosnia and Hercegovina is that of its complex and virtually unique social and cultural combination of religious populations—Moslem, Orthodox, and Catholic—evolving over centuries on the frontier of the Ottoman Empire. Our students should surely come away from European history with a sense of Sarajevo as something more than a hot spot, a volcano that once erupted in 1914, that could erupt again today, but which may otherwise be ignored in its dormant state. If one were considering early modern European history, the obviously analogous trigger event would be the defenestration of Prague in 1618, starting the Thirty Years' War; Bohemia too is popped into early modern Europe as a hot spot, then dropped with a mention of the battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Yet unless this discussion is preceded or accompanied by some discussion of Bohemia's special social, cultural, and religious conditions, going back at least to the time of Jan Hus, we are missing the opportunity to create a more inclusive history of Europe.

I think, on the one hand, that those who have specialized in the history of Eastern Europe can envision a more expansive and inclusive history of Europe, but, on the other hand, I fear that our specialization itself has contributed something to the relative isolation of the field. Furthermore, while I would want to enjoin everyone to think more and teach more about Eastern Europe, I also want to caution everyone against speaking of Eastern Europe in a way which makes broad and unwarranted generalizations about very different national histories. I feel something of the sense of puzzlement and paradox that follows from reading Edward Said's Orientalism, and suddenly realizing that there almost isn't any way to talk about the Orient at all without playing into the Orientalist discourse. The field of Eastern Europe appears to me especially fraught in this regard, and the dangers have until now remained almost unrecognized.

My triple injunction, then, is directed against the sins of lumping, neglect, and subordination. My not very exciting suggestion is that we all have to read more widely, those of us who work on Western Europe and those of us who work on Eastern Europe; we have to read across an Iron Curtain that no longer exists as a geopolitical phenomenon of the Cold War, but persists as a long-established cultural prejudice. To read the separate national histories of the lands of Eastern Europe forces one to think twice about lumping them together. In fact, some of our most celebrated works of analytical generalization are, on closer inspection, less general than they become in casual citation. Immanuel Wallerstein, for instance, whose famous first volume of The Modern World-System places Eastern Europe, along with Latin America, on the economic "periphery" in the sixteenth century, is in fact arguing largely from the case of Poland; he admits the importance of making distinctions concerning Eastern Europe and the world economy: "Russia outside, but Poland inside, Hungary inside, but the Ottoman Empire outside." While even the economic history of Eastern Europe demands such distinctions, the superstructural social, political, and cultural histories call for many more concessions to diversity. I am well aware that in any general course in European history there are only so many lectures in a semester, and so many pages of assigned reading, while many other neglected aspects of historical experience currently claim a place on our syllabuses. I am aware that not every claimant can be fully satisfied, and on behalf of this particular appeal, one might note that, outside the classroom, the future of Europe over the next generation will likely turn on the ways in which issues concerning the states and societies of Eastern Europe are recognized, confronted, and comprehended.

In 1772 Voltaire, in a letter to Catherine the Great, joked about "Notre Dame de Czestochowa, a name very difficult to pronounce"—and a name, I might add, very important for both the early modern and modern history of Europe. It was a gratuitous joke since there was no need for Voltaire to pronounce the name in a letter, and also an unfunny joke since Catherine's armies had just taken the monastery-fortress of the Black Madonna, preparatory to the partition of Poland. Condescending humor about the difficulty of Slavic names has played a part in Western Europe's alienation from Eastern Europe since the time of Voltaire, and a certain diffidence about Slavic languages and pronunciations contributes to the marginalization of Eastern Europe in our curriculum to this day. Those of us who teach Eastern Europe no doubt contribute to the mystification in making much of our languages, which are in fact essential to research, but should not be considered an obstacle to others who want to bring Eastern Europe into their courses. After all, there are those who teach courses on the Renaissance without knowing Italian, and even those who teach courses on the Reformation without really knowing German, so it would be preposterous indeed to presume that Hungarian, Romanian, and a dozen Slavic languages are essential to bringing some aspects of Eastern Europe into a survey of European history. As for the names that are difficult to pronounce, the more we mention them, the less alien and intimidating they will seem to our students.

There have been intellectuals in the twentieth century who have wrestled with the dilemma of Eastern Europe's significance for Europe as a whole. Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the 1,200-page account of her travels in Yugoslavia in the 1930s, is surely the most monumental, and probably the most profound, literary effort on the part of a visitor from Western Europe; the book still exercises an appeal to conscience and intellect, challenging us to read it and prove that we care about Eastern Europe enough to follow West on her voyage east. For the reciprocal perspective, that of the intellectual from Eastern Europe, everyone should read the memoir of Czeslaw Milosz, Native Realm, which seeks "to connect the marchland of Europe where I was born, with its mixture of languages, religions, and traditions, not only to the rest of the continent but to our whole age." All that, and only three-hundred pages.

For those who may want to start reading their way into the field, there has been excellent historical work on Eastern Europe published by American university presses over the last twenty years. Some books I especially admire include The Rise of the Polish Monarchy by Paul Knoll, Between Poland and the Ukraine by Frank Sysyn, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians by Istvan Deak, The National Question in Yugoslavia by Ivo Banac, and, most recently, The Uskoks of Senj by Catherine Wendy Bracewell. The soundest approach to reading, however, and at the same time the truest teaching strategy, would be to focus on those specific aspects of Eastern Europe that fit best with one's other interests—rather than planning lectures that are just surveys of surveys. To follow what's happening in the field there is also now an excellent journal, East European Politics and Societies.

Actually, the most interesting book I've read about Eastern Europe recently was Michael Burleigh's Germany Turns Eastwards, about the academic experts on Eastern Europe in Nazi Germany and how their "scholarship" served the regime in matters of racial persecution, foreign occupation, mass deportation, and ethnic genocide. Many of the professors in question came from conventional academic backgrounds, and they made pronouncements only slightly more derogatory towards Eastern Europe after the war. In fact, Burleigh points out that the idea of Europe divided between "two distinct spheres of civilization" was promptly adapted from the Nazi racial discourse on Germans and Slavs to the Cold War rhetoric of ideological blocs. The evidence of such easy adaptation constitutes a warning to us of how powerful the traditional formulas on Eastern Europe have become over two centuries, and how cautiously we should consider before making generalizations about Europe's duality.

It was Herder who discovered the Slavs as the ethnolinguistic key to Eastern Europe, in the section on "Slavic Peoples" in his Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Mankind. He hoped they would one day freely celebrate their "ancient festivals" in the "beautiful areas from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, from the Don to the Moldau." As a generalization over that geographical domain, however, the idea of Eastern Europe as Slavdom is both technically incorrect and politically charged. Nazi racism with regard to the Slavs accompanied the German conquest of those beautiful areas, and yet one finds even in the supposedly sympathetic discussions of the postwar period a really remarkable level of condescension. Consider, for instance, the juvenile American text of 1962, entitled Slavic Peoples, as if in parodic allusion to Herder, with junky drawings of people in folk costume, ready to celebrate those ancient festivals. The first chapter is "From the Land of Gog and Magog," while the last considers "What the Slavs Have Done for Us," proceeding thus: "What, for example, has little Pyotr of Russia inherited from his long line of ancestors who have climbed from their primitive marshes? His father manufactures tractors or atomic warheads in the Donets basin or at Novosibirsk beyond the Ural Mountains." What did it mean in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, this image of Russian ancestors climbing out of primitive marshes? And what about little Pyotr, what was his relation to big Peter, the tsar, who built his capital on the marshes, bringing those marshes into the Enlightenment's mythology of Russia?

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which our public discourse on Eastern Europe, including Russia, has remained submerged in a swamp of formulas invented by our own ancestors. In 1987 the Marquis de Custine's account of his voyage to Russia was still being published with a blurb from Zbigniew Brzezinski: "No Sovietologist has yet improved on de Custine's insights into the Russian character." Custine traveled in 1839, and his insights are, for instance, that the Russians are fundamentally barbarians, and that "there is between France and Russia a Chinese wall—the Slavonic language and character." Thus the "Chinese wall" was proclaimed a century before the Iron Curtain. I assign Custine to my students because he has a lot to say about Russia, and even more for reflection on how we think of Russia. "The Russians are not yet civilized," observed Custine in 1839, and in 1991, under the headline "Gorbachev back as coup fails," The New York Times remarked that Russians were now ready for "the mammoth task of civilizing their country." This formula dates back beyond Custine to Voltaire's work on Peter the Great, perhaps to Fontenelle's eulogy of Peter before the French Academy in 1725. For us, Russia is always just getting ready to get civilized, in the eighteenth, in the nineteenth, in the twentieth century. Such biases are all over the literature on Eastern Europe, academic and nonacademic, and offer yet another reason to be cautious about how we teach "Western civilization" to our students.

The revolutions of 1989 and 1991 should by rights have shaken our academic ideas about Eastern Europe, since we specialists, for all our expertise, were so embarrassingly taken by surprise. Calvin Trillin, in December 1989, wrote that "a pleasant by-product of the recent events in Eastern Europe is the way they have demonstrated that nearly everyone who has written anything on the subject in the past twenty or thirty years has been dead wrong." Trillin, as usual, was quite right, but I have noticed with some interest that since 1989 some of those dead-wrong experts have begun to comment at conferences that what happened in Eastern Europe was exactly what they had always said was going to happen. Of course we academics are always hesitant to admit our uselessness, but this particular rewriting of our wrongheadedness seems to me unfortunately likely to discourage the rethinking of old formulas still frozen in the ice of the Cold War.

In 1986 Timothy Garton Ash published an important essay in The New York Review of Books called "Does Central Europe Exist?" (republished in his book The Uses of Adversity). He concluded that it didn't exist, not yet in 1986, and, as far as teaching goes, I tend to think that it still doesn't really offer us a viable alternative for reconsidering and recategorizing the regions of Europe. First, the idea of Eastern Europe is powerful and persistent; second, the idea of Central Europe is rendered somewhat suspect by its original appearance as Mitteleuropa in Germany during World War I. Finally, the process of triage which would welcome, say, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland into Central Europe would probably be premised on the even more emphatic conceptual exclusion of those lands still relegated to Eastern Europe. In 1987, in Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev issued a powerful appeal for the idea of Europe as "Our Common Home," regretting the equation of "Europe" with "Western Europe," which thereby excluded Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. "The Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Letts, Estonians, Karels and other peoples of our country have all made a sizable contribution to the development of European civilization." He then put his appeal directly to us, the historians: "Our common European history is involved and instructive, great and tragic. It deserves to be studied and learned from." Surely Gorbachev's model of European history in all its diversity, without limiting equations and exclusions, merits both our political and pedagogical consideration.

Who is the paragon for the 1990s when it comes to teaching Eastern Europe? I wonder how many well-read members of the AHA have encountered The Prince and the Patriot, romance #239 in the "Loveswept" series. "Professor Nicholas Francia returned from his Wednesday afternoon lecture on Eastern European Cultures. . . ." so it begins. Some years ago I was traveling on the night train to Warsaw, with a number of academics who worked on Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. We had, among us, a lot of academic expertise and only one copy of The Prince and the Patriot (my going-away gift from a certain writer who knows me very well) so we had to read it aloud. "It was no secret that Professor Nicholas Francia was an arrogant so-and-so, nor was it any secret that he was the most attractive man on the entire campus. Attractive...hah! What an inadequate word to describe the pure, unadulterated magnetism of the man. How could he be so cool, so aloof, so regal. . . ." His regality should tip you off to the probability that he is going to turn out to be royalty incognito, heir to the throne of Brasovia, in exile from Eastern Europe, reduced to the condition of a college professor in America. "One of the younger girls, a theater major named Betta Karoly, made a growling noise and whispered, 'The man is a god.'" Another student is so mesmerized by his "innate elegance" that "she could almost hear the click of polished boot heels, the silvery clash of sabers." I could go on and on, as we did on the train to Warsaw. The picture seemed to us, especially those of us who grew up in New Jersey, well, so profoundly true. Wouldn't you like to have one like that in your department?

—Larry Wolff is an associate professor at Boston College, and author of The Vatican and Poland in the Age of the Partitions and Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud's Vienna. His new book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment is forthcoming with Stanford University Press.