History, even American history, doesn’t seem to be one of our strong suits. One recent assessment showed that 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and only 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency in U.S. history. And that’s history that actually matters to us. As anything outside that is likely viewed as irrelevant, our grasp of European history must be appalling. Even then, our focus has been on Western Europe and, at best, Eastern Europe is little more than an afterthought, if that.
Yet the importance of Eastern European history is seen in Tomek Jankowski’s Eastern Europe!: Everything You Need to Know About the History (and More) of a Region that Shaped Our World and Still Does. As he points out near the end of the book, after having documented the basis for his statements:
Eastern Europe is a concept invented … by the West, and it has always carried the connotation of a backward, underdeveloped, superstitious, and remote region isolated from the modern ideas and lifestyles of Western Europe. To be Eastern European implies that one is poor, undereducated, and provincial, and prone to occasional irrational fits of horrendous violence inspired by ethnic or religious fanaticism.
Yet Jankowski makes a strong case that a great deal of what makes up Western Europe today, from people to technologies to languages, probably came through Eastern Europe first. That is mostly a matter of geography. Jankowski views Eastern Europe as not only always surrounded by competing civilizations — Western Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa — but serving as a land connection between and among them. It was also a front line between Christianity and Islam, meaning it was a battleground on which “countless crusades and jihads were waged.” (In fact, there are an estimated 35 million Muslims in Eastern Europe today.)
After an “Introductory FAQ,” the book consists of two sections. The first looks at the development of languages in the region, its geography and the spread of religions. The second, and by far the longest, traces the history of the region from roughly 500 CE through the fall of Communism and its effects. It also contains a lengthy reference section full of statistics about Eastern Europe, as well as 42 pages of endnotes and a 19-page bibliography. In addition to its dozens of maps and photographs, Eastern Europe! the book includes numerous sidebars titled “Useless Trivia.” Although Jankowski suggests these contain “interesting but utterly useless historical, cultural or other completely senseless facts,” he does himself a disservice. They often provide glimpses of events and people and their resonance into today.
In tracing the history of Eastern Europe, the beginning of each chapter contains not only a timeline of events in Eastern Europe but also a separate timeline for Western Europe. This allows the reader to compare the various developments in each and the interplay between them. In fact, Western Europe’s impact on Eastern Europe is also unmistakable. For example, the unification of regions and peoples into nations such as Italy and Germany gave rise to similar hopes in Eastern Europe. And although we think of World War II in terms of the U.S. and Western European countries, “every Eastern European country lost the war, regardless of which side they chose or what their leaders did. This war haunts Eastern Europe as no other historical event does.”
In broad strokes, the history of Eastern Europe is the story of the rise and fall of and wars among various clans, kingdoms and the occasional empire. It often to consist largely of seemingly never-ending warfare among various entities that continually affect the balance of power and boundaries. Granted, the same observation might also be made about Western Europe. Jankowski tends to try to trace this in terms of particular kingdoms, ethnicity or nations. His chapter subtitles frequently serve as pithy summaries of what follows. For example, “Albania as Accident,” “Austria-Hungary as a Bug on the Windshield,” or “Montenegro is Pushed Off the Cliff.” Yet this separate lines also cause some problems. Because a particular event or war often affects several countries, it may be discussed in several subsections and readers may not grasp the entire picture.
Despite covering such a large amount of information and territory, Eastern Europe! remains highly readable and user friendly. It is not merely a recitation of dates and events but a plain language look at the whos and whys of its history. In fact, the book would be an excellent introductory guide for anyone planning to visit an area of Eastern Europe. It allows the reader to trace the country’s history and get a sense of its influences. That is important because, as Jankowski points out (and explains), the past remains alive in Eastern Europe. “For the average American, the American Revolution of 1775-83 was thousands of years ago,” he writes, “but for the average Eastern European, the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje or the 1410 battle of Grunwald haven’t quite ended yet.” The book reinforces how often even modern conflicts among various ethnic groups, whether in Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia, can only be understood by knowing the history of the region. Jankowski shows us this as he traces the changes in and development of the country from clans to a feudal system to “nations” to Soviet domination and after.
It is hard to imagine that a conversational, one volume work could not only introduce readers to Eastern European history but do a lot towards helping the reader understand it. In that respect, Eastern Europe! is both a success and an impressive achievement.
History is all about perspective. It isn’t usually that the facts change, it’s how they’re interpreted that changes.
Tomek Jankowski, Eastern Europe!