Is Eastern Europe disappearing?
Jacob Mikanowski explains how the diversity of cultures, religions and ideologies that once distinguished Eastern Europe have disappeared before, but that now the last vestiges that define the region are at risk of vanishing entirely
Please note this is a transcript of an extract from an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast that has been lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full episode here: Eastern Europe: a personal journey through the region’s past
Eastern Europe has disappeared. It has disappeared twice over. The history of the 20th century – especially since the start of the Second World War – is also the story of Eastern Europe’s dissolution. It was once this place of unique, almost fractal diversity, where in any village or town you could see multiple religious places and hear multiple languages.
This has ended. There are traces of this diverse world still, but the Second World War essentially subtracted the Jewish part of Eastern Europe. The huge population transfers after the Second World War got rid of a lot of the ethnic intermingling. Poland, for example, went from being an extremely heterogeneous place – with a 60 per cent Polish, 30 per cent minority population – to being an incredibly homogenous country. It used to be religiously heterogeneous, too.
The history of the 20th century – especially since the start of the Second World War – is also the story of Eastern Europe’s dissolution
Albania's still religiously plural, but it's not very ethnically plural. This process culminates in the 80s with the expulsion of Muslims from Bulgaria. And then the Yugoslav wars, which also separated out this diversity within Yugoslavia, within the Balkans and Kosovo.
This old world of Eastern Europe has traces left, but it's not a lived reality the way it was in 1914. The distinctiveness that I saw growing up in the 80s and 90s – of going from west to east and kind of crossing some kind of barrier – isn't really there anymore. You used to land in East Germany – or Prague or Warsaw or Sofia – and feel like you were in a different world. Things worked differently. The way that all of society was arranged was different.
You have to go deep into Eastern Europe to find a real sense of difference. You have to go into northern Romania, into the Albanian mountains, to feel like you can recapture some of that.
Whereas if you're in downtown Warsaw, you could be in Belgium. Our architecture is different – and you have a different sense of people – but they are dressed the same and people are listening to the same music.
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The places that remain outside of that Europe-wide gradient are actually in direct physical peril. Ukraine is under Russian attack. Moldova is on a knife's edge, politically, and has a whole part of the country under Transnistria (so under quasi-Russian rule, or separatist rule). There is also the uneasy situation in Kosovo or the Republika Srpska in Bosnia; these kind of frozen conflicts that keep these places out of the European mainstream.
I think when we think about the old world of Eastern Europe that much of it perished in the 20th century. And the newer world of Eastern Europe that was created by the settlement after the Second World War is also either vanishing – due to prosperity or directly imperilled through conflict.
Jacob Mikanowski is the author of Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land (Oneworld, 2023)
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