Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe
Author: Robert Bailkey
Date: 2002

Following in the wake of the Germanic tribes' westward march, the Slavs
spread from the Pripet marshes west to the Elbe, east to the Urals, north to
Finland, and south to the Peloponnesus. As they settled throughout eastern and
central Europe from the sixth through the ninth centuries, they absorbed most
of the original inhabitants of the region. This mixing of peoples produced the
resulting blend of nations that make up present-day Central and Eastern Europe
and the western portion of the Soviet Union.

The region's geography contributed to the diversity of the population.
The climatic extremes range from Arctic cold to Mediterranean mildness. The
soil varies from the rich topsoil of the Ukraine and the Danubian plain to the
rocky dryness of the Dinaric Alps. Waterways include both the scenic though
commercially useless rivulets of Greece and the broad and powerful Vistula and
Danube rivers. Some of the nations were landlocked. Others, such as Greece,
were blessed with fine harbors. The particular combinations of climate, soil,
and water access dictated the economic possibilities of each nation.

The Slavs hunted, traded (usually forest products such as nuts, honey,
and wax), or farmed. The usual farming practice was the "slash and burn"
method of cutting down the forests, tilling the land until it was exhausted,
and then moving on. With the exception of the Bulgarians, the Slavs formed
themselves into male-dominated peasant tribal units, based on blood relations.
The clan elders elected a leader from their ranks who would meet with other
clan leaders to elect a person to coordinate activities throughout the
district. From the ranks would come local officials and priests, as well as
taxes and military payments.

Compared to the wealth and sophistication of the Byzantines, the Slavs'
economic and social lives were primitive and their political and military
structures were weak. Outsiders - Byzantines, Germans, Magyars, Mongols, or
Turks - often ruled them. Each of the outsiders imposed a distinctive set of
cultural, economic, political, and social traits. Religion was the key means
through which these distinctive traits were imposed.

The Orthodox Orbit

The Orthodox church in the ninth and tenth centuries converted the
Russians and Slavs south of a line formed by the Danube and Sava rivers and
the South Carpathian Mountains. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins,
Romanians, and Russians heard the liturgy in their native language, worshipped
under a decentralized religious structure, and remained culturally isolated
from western Europe. In addition, these Orthodox Christians, living on the
eastern edge of Europe, endured the domination of the Mongols and the Turks,
two despotic Asiatic powers that permitted the exercise of the Orthodox
religion but controlled political authority. The combination of Byzantine
autocracy and oriental despotism facilitated the growth of authoritarian

The Bulgarians

The Bulgarians, originally a Finno-Ugric group, came into the Balkans in
the late seventh century. In the ninth and tenth centuries, they were ruled by
inspired leaders such as Krum and Boris and Tsar Symeon (893-927), who brought
the first Bulgarian empire to its peak, claimed the mantle of Roman emperor,
and challenged Constantinople. Not until Basil the Bulgar-Slayer conquered his
ancient foe at the battle of Balathista in 1014 did the first Bulgarian empire
come to an end. The Byzantine emperor captured 14,000 Bulgarians and divided
them into groups of 100. He then blinded 99 of each group, sparing one eye of
the hundredth man so that he could guide his sightless colleagues home. The
shock of the ghastly sight of his blinded warriors killed Tsar Samuel and the
first Bulgarian empire crumbled, though an independent Bulgarian orthodox
church remained. After this drastic defeat, the Bulgarians did not pose a
military threat for more than a century.

After the Fourth Crusade in 1204 put an end, temporarily, to the
Byzantine state, John Asen II brought the second Bulgarian empire to its
height, extending its power from Thrace through Macedonia and northern Albania
into the area of present-day Yugoslavia. The Mongol invasion in the 1240s
struck a decisive blow that removed the Bulgarians as a power in the Balkans,
though the shell of the kingdom remained until the 1390s when the Ottoman
Turks defeated them.

The Serbs

In the thirteenth century, the Serbs replaced the Bulgarians as the
dominant Balkan power. Groups of Serbs converted to Orthodox Christianity in
the ninth century and until the twelfth century remained under Bulgarian or
Byzantine control. Stephen Nemanja (1168-1196) founded the Nemanjid dynasty
and established the Serbian state. Although the Serbs fought the Byzantines,
they remained their cultural and religious students, even after the fall of
Constantinople. When the Serbs reached their peak during the reign of Stephen
Dushan (1331-1355), they set up an imitation of the Byzantine court, revised
their laws on the basis of the Code of Justinian, and rivaled the Byzantines
with their intricate court ritual. They made significant contributions to
Orthodox theology. From his capital at Skopje, Stephen fought off the
Hungarians and Italians and proclaimed himself emperor of the Serbs, Greeks,
Bulgars, and Albanians. The Serbian state declined rapidly after Stephen's
death in 1355 and in 1389 the Ottomans defeated the Serbs at Kossovo. The
Turks incorporated Serbia into their holdings, where it remained for the next
five centuries.

Other Orthodox States

The other Orthodox Slavs - Bosnians and Montenegrins - each for a brief
time stood strong and independent in the Balkans. The Bosnians enjoyed their
greatest prosperity in the 1370s after the decline of the Serbs, Bulgarians,
and Byzantines, before the arrival of the Turks. A century later the Turks
made the area an Ottoman province. The entire Bosnian aristocracy converted to
Islam - the only instance of conversion by an elite, as the Turks destroyed
all the other Balkans' nobilities. Montenegro, ruled by a prince bishop,
emerged in 1355 following Serbia's decline. From its mountainous fortress
Montenegro tenaciously held on to its independence for five centuries, the
only area in the Balkans to maintain its freedom from Ottoman control.

The Greeks had lost their political independence to outsiders beginning
in the third century B.C., although they continued to exert powerful
commercial and cultural influence, particularly in Constantinople. They
emerged from two centuries of Slavic invasions with their civilization intact;
they survived the period of Latin occupation after the crusades; and they
endured Turkish control after the fifteenth century. They did not experience
any substantial degree of self-government until the nineteenth century.

One area of the old Roman Empire retained its Latin legacy, the area of
present-day Romania. The emperor Trajan extended Rome's control to the area of
Dacia in 106, and by the time the Romans withdrew 165 years later, they left
behind very little of the original civilization or language of the area. (In
fact, Romanians refer to themselves as "an island of Latins in a sea of
Slavs.") For the next thousand years Romania, and its provinces of Wallachia,
Moldavia, Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina, served as the crossroads
through which every invader came. Not until the end of that millennium could
elements of a definably Romanian civilization and government be perceived.
Thereafter, the efforts of fifteenth-century warriors such as Vlad Tepes, the
model for Dracula, held the Turks off,y but the Romanians paid tribute to the
Ottomans for the next three centuries. ^10

[Footnote 10: Rene Ristelhueber, Histoire des Peuples Balkaniques (Paris:
Artheme Fayard, 1950), pp. 1-107.]

The Roman Catholic Orbit

The Eastern Europeans who found themselves in the Roman sphere - the
Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, and Croats - joined religious
framework knit together by the Latin language and papal authority. The
Catholic community stretched from the Bug River to the Straits of Gibraltar to
Iceland. Predominantly German monks and priests carried the Roman faith to
this area, and they were followed and sustained by a Germanic population
movement - the so-called drang nach osten (drive to the east). The region
experienced a golden age of cultural and economic achievement in the
fourteenth century. Universities were established in Prague (1348), Cracow
(1364), and Pecs (1369), and scholars in those schools were active in the
humanist movement of the fifteenth century (see ch. 12). This region
experienced the great formative developments of Western civilization - the
Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the rise of
capitalism, the Enlightenment, and the French and Industrial Revolutions. The
people of this area of Europe also participated directly in the development of
the western European system of feudalism, the rise of the modern state system,
and the growth of pluralistic society.

The Hungarians

The Hungarians, also known as the Magyars, arrived in eastern Europe from
Asia. Unlike other nomadic peoples, however, the Hungarians remained and
effectively split the Slavic peoples in two parts. They crossed the
Carpathians in 896 and destroyed the remnants of the Great Moravian empire ten
years later. Until their defeat by Otto the Great at Augsburg in 955, they
terrorized Europe, ranging from the Baltic to the Pyrenees and into Italy.

By the time their advance was halted, they had established a more or less
permanent state along the middle Danube, under the Arpad dynasty. Two
outstanding kings, Geza (972-997) and Stephen (997-1038) laid the foundation
of the country's county-based political system and stabilized the social and
economic structure. Geza and his family accepted baptism from the Roman
Catholic church, but it was Stephen who, by accepting his crown from Pope
Sylvester II in 1000, brought Hungary into the western church's orbit. Stephen
actively defended the faith against heretics and pagans, and the crown of St.
Stephen, who was canonized (made a saint) by the Roman Church in 1083, remains
the symbol of the Hungarian nation.

After Stephen's death Hungary experienced a century of crises brought on
by internal competing factions and Polish and German intervention. The
tenth-century structure erected by Geza and Stephen, modified somewhat to
accommodate an elective monarchy, withstood these tests and by the reign of
Bela III (1173-1196) Hungary stood as one of the most powerful countries in
Europe, extending its influence deep into the Balkans. Domestically, the
nobles gained enough strength to force the monarchy to agree to a limitation
of its power in a Magna Carta-like document, the Golden Bull of 1222.

The Mongols ravaged the country so thoroughly in 1241 that two
generations passed before the area recovered. However, the invaders did not
remain to exploit their victory, and the Hungarians were able to rebuild their
system by the 1280s. During the period of recovery, the more powerful nobles,
the magnates, gained greatly in authority.

Charles Robert of Anjou (1308-1342) and his son Louis the Great
(1342-1382) oversaw a period of rapid growth through the fourteenth century,
as Hungary expanded its trade and political ties to the west. The two kings
attempted to limit the powers of the provincial magnates by building support
among the cities. Louis fought the Turks successfully in 1365 at Widin, while
extending his power southward toward Serbia, Wallachia, and Moldavia and
northward toward Poland. After Louis's death, the magnates soon regained any
lost power, as his successors either through negligence or capitulation to
noble demands weakened the central authority. Leadership of the country passed
to those nobles living along the frontier. One of these nobles, John Hunyadi,
in the fifteenth century ruled the country as regent for the infant king
Ladislas V.

Matthias Corvinus, Hunyadi's son, brought Hungary to a high point from
1458 to 1490. Effectively running the state, Matthias excelled as a soldier,
statesman, and scholar. He brought some of the great thinkers from Florence
and Ferrara to his court at Buda, where he accumulated a library of over
10,000 manuscripts. He encouraged the development of Hungarian literature and
brought a printing press to Hungary, two years before the first press was
installed in France. He also founded the university at Buda. When Corvinus
died in 1490, Hungary was the most powerful state in central Europe; its
influence extended from the Turkish frontier to Austria to Poland.

The Czechs

After the Magyars put an end to the Great Moravian empire in 906, the
Bohemian state centered at Prague became an important element in European
history. For a thousand years before the Czechs - the common name for
Bohemians and Moravians - had shown a deft balance in working with the Germans
to maintain the maximum amount of leeway for their own policies and desires.
They cooperated with Otto I (936-973) to drive back the Hungarians and
thereafter established their church hierarchy under the archbishopric of
Mainz. From the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, Bohemia benefited
from the influx of German settlers and money. There was considerable cultural
and economic interchange. German and Czech families intermarried and both
German and Czech merchants profited from trade. By the fourteenth century,
Bohemia-Moravia had a strong Czech-dominated urban life, a balanced social
structure with the only Slavic middle class that would develop in eastern
Europe, and the beginnings of a broad-based spirit of nationalism.

The indigenous dynasty, the Premyslid, encouraged both the urban and the
rural economy and gained a diversified and rich base of political and economic
support. In contrast to Hungary and Poland where the nobles held the upper
hand, in Bohemia the king maintained greater autonomy. In addition, the
Premyslid monarchs followed the western European custom of primogeniture, by
which the throne passed to the eldest son, instead of the system of seniority
in which rule passed from one brother to the next in a given generation before
the next generation was given its chance. The Czech ruler Otakar II
(1253-1278) was the most powerful ruler in central Europe, until Rudolf of
Habsburg defeated him in 1278.

After the Premyslid dynasty ended in the first decade of the fourteenth
century, John of Luxembourg (1310-1347) came to the throne. He wasted much of
the local Bohemian fortune to wage battles against all available heretics.
When he was killed at the battle of Crecy - a conflict he entered even though
he was blind - his peers praised him for his bravery and his subjects breathed
a sigh of relief.

John's son Charles IV (1347-1378) proved to be almost the complete
opposite of his father. Charles was a cosmopolitan statesman: He brought the
best of Europe to Prague. He made the Bohemian city the capital of the Holy
Roman Empire and turned it into an ecclesiastical center, separate from the
dominance of the German city of Mainz. In 1348 he established the University
of Prague, the first university north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, and
brought to it the finest scholars in Europe. In addition, he built up other
Bohemian and Moravian cities and showed his sensitivity to the area's
population by first tolerating and then encouraging the use of the Czech

Charles set in motion developments that his successors could not control.
While he was a student at the University of Prague in the 1390s, John Hus
(1369?-1415) discovered the writings of the English theologian John Wycliffe,
which called for a simplified, faith-based, Bible-oriented church that
minimized the importance of the clerical bureaucracy and the role of the pope.
Two years after receiving his M.A. in 1396, Hus became dean of philosophy and
then rector of the university. His sermons, preached in Czech, repeated the
desires for a simpler church, centered on the Bible, in which the believer was
capable of judging right from wrong on the basis of reading the scriptures.

The church in Mainz attempted to silence Hus, and in 1415 he was summoned
to the reform Council of Clermont. The authorities promised his safe passage,
but when he would not recant his views, they condemned him and burned him at
the stake on July 6, 1415. ^11

[Footnote 11: S. Harrison Thomson, Europe in Renaissance and Reformation (New
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), pp. 191-211.]

A common disaster led to the demise of the rising nations of both Hungary
and Bohemia. The king of Hungary, who was also the king of Bohemia, met his
death while fighting the Turks in 1526. Terrified at the prospects of Muslim
rule, both the Czechs and the Hungarians elected the same man to their vacant
thrones - Ferdinand, the Habsburg archduke of neighboring Austria. The Turks,
however, occupied most of Hungary (which they would hold until the end of the
seventeenth century), leaving Ferdinand only a narrow strip along the western
border. This intertwining of national fortunes explains how the Habsburgs at
Vienna came to rule a vast empire of Bohemians, Hungarians, and German


The Slavic tribes that came into the Vistula basin in the seventh century
formed the Polish nation. They were united by faith with the Germans, and
united by race with the Russians. Geography blessed and condemned the Poles:
Poland is a land of rich plains, forested mountains, and broad navigable
rivers; on the other hand, it lacks any natural features that might protect
the area.

The Piast prince Mieszko led the Poles into the Roman Catholic community
in 966 and, coincidentally, began an ecclesiastical relationship with Rome
that culminated a millennium later in the election of a Polish pope. Polish
Catholicism assumed the role of the advance guard of the faith against the
infidel. This crusading tradition should have encouraged the growth of a
strong, centralized, national military force. Instead the Poles developed a
structure that featured close ties locally between the nobles and the church,
usually at the expense of the king and always at the expense of the peasants.
Catholicism, nonetheless, has been an essential element of the Polish

This is not to say that there were no strong kings in the early
centuries. Boleslav I (992-1025) and Boleslav II (1058-1079) constructed the
state and extended Polish authority far to the east. Vladislav IV (1305-1333)
did much to restore Poland after the Mongol invasion. But the real power in
Poland was the major noble families and the church. It was apparent that in
the elective monarchy, kings could have power only by placating the nobles,
especially after the Piast dynasty died out in the first decade of the
fourteenth century. Under the Jagiellonian dynasty, which came to power in
1386 and ruled for nearly three centuries, the nobles' strength increased.

Poland's golden age occurred during the reign of Casimir the Great
(1333-1370), who oversaw the progress of all parts of the nation's life. He
encouraged the arts, sponsored the codification of the law, established the
University of Cracow (1364), modeled after the University of Bologna, and
centered his foreign policy on the Russians and the Lithuanians.

Poland's nobles dominated the nation's social, political, and economic
structures. As the nobles' activities rested almost totally in agriculture,
they did not invest in much urban development; so Jews and Germans dominated
the cities, where an indigenous Polish urban class developed slowly. Such a
development may have suited the nobles' interests, but it condemned Poland to
fall behind western Europe after the 1400s. The nobles increased their
dominance in the political realm with the accession of each new Jagiellonian
monarch, who had to sign increasingly onerous contracts with the nobles to
gain power.

The nobles made a major stride forward with the election of Princess
Jadwiga, who gained power by granting them many concessions. When she married
the pagan Lithuanian prince Jagiello, who ruled as Vladislav V from 1384 to
1434, she had to grant still more. The alliance of the Polish princess and the
pagan Lithuanian prince produced one of the largest powers in Europe and
brought the last European nation into the Christian fold, but it also allowed
the nobles to solidify their position as one of the most privileged
aristocracies on the continent.

As long as Poland was surrounded by relatively weak powers, the nobles'
policies of expanding their position at the expense of the central government
functioned well. They put down the Teutonic Knights at the battle of
Tannenberg in 1410 as well as in the Second Peace of Torun in 1466, by the
terms of which the Poles obtained control of the Vistula River and a corridor
north to the Baltic Sea, including the important port of Danzig. In the
history of modern Europe, the Polish corridor and Danzig have played important

Other branches of the Jagiellonian family ruled Bohemia and Hungary, and
for a brief time at the beginning of the sixteenth century, central Europe
seemed ready to unite under them, until the Turks struck at the battle of
Mohacs. The Polish nobles continued to extend their control over the monarchy
to such a degree that the king was unable to muster a standing army or push
through a program of reform. In addition, Poland faced the hostility of the
ambitious tsars of Moscow, who sought to rule over all Russians, including
those in the huge Polish-Lithuanian state.

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