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From People into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe

by John Connelly

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It is now a commonplace among political commentators that the big ideological fault line in the 21st century has not been between left and right, or fundamentalist Islam and the rest, but between the countervailing forces of globalisation and nationalism.

This friction helps to explain the era of Trump and his “beautiful wall”, of Vladimir Putin, the rise of China as a superpower, the varied legacies of the financial crash of 2008 and, of course, Brexit and the travails of the EU. In particular it is the conflict that has led to the resurgence of authoritarian regimes in eastern Europe.

If you want to understand why illiberal democracy is not the newest of ideas, or how a raft of leaders has emerged in Hungary, Poland and the Balkans who seem to echo a dark time in our continent’s history, this compelling book, covering the last 200 years in the region, is a good place to start.

For John Connelly, a professor at Berkeley, California, the band of small countries that run from the Baltic to the Adriatic and the Black Seas “constitute a space where more of the 20th century happened — forgood and ill — than anywhere else on the planet”. His story is one about the enduring, unrivalled force of ethnic nationalism. Along the way we are introduced to an extraordinary cast of megalomaniacs, idealists, conmen, generals, philosophers, ruthless politicians and visionaries who have used the idea of nationalism to create new states, or simply grab power.

His broad historical sweep is based on deep scholarship. But he can be excellent on small, telling details as well. Though there are periods of longeur, he can bring some of the region’s great dramas to life with vivid storytelling. His accounts of the 1848 revolution against the Habsburgs in Vienna and Budapest are superb. The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 has been recounted many times, but here too is a fresh retelling and a fascinating portrait of the teenage assassin Gavrilo Princip. If you want to know the extent of corruption in the court of King Carol of Romania in the 1930s and how many jewels his mistresses pilfered, here you will be told. The accounts of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the massacre at Srebrenica are harrowing.

For many westerners, eastern Europe’s mix of religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities is utterly confusing. No other part of the world has witnessed such frequent, radical, often violent changes to borders in order to make people fit into states — “a shift from simplicity to complexity”, the author says. In 1800, when his story begins, the region was divided into one small and three multinational imperial powers (the Holy Roman, the Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman). Now there are nearly 25 independent national states, and over the years some appeared, disappeared and then reappeared.

Has nationalism in eastern Europe been a more powerful force than elsewhere, say in Asia or the West? Connelly seems to be arguing that there is a category difference between them, forged in eastern Europe by surviving subjugation — by Turks, Austrians, German Nazis, communists. Whatever regime people lived under, ethnicity “has retained a core meaning to the people”.

At first, nationalist campaigns were against efforts by the imperial powers to suppress vernacular languages. The heroes didn’t lead armies but wrote dictionaries. In Bohemia and Hungary, predominantly German-speaking in the early 1800s, thousands of new words were invented by indigenous lexicographers as there were no Czech or Magyar equivalents to new inventions.

The fear of many Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Serbs was that if their languages disappeared, so would their identity. This fear — of national oblivion, and the need for survival — is a deep, existential one and is often used nowadays in the rhetoric of leaders such as Viktor Orban in Hungary in a way that the British, or other long-established nation-states like France, find hard to comprehend.

After the 1848 revolutions, the various nationalist movements began campaigns for independence, and the book traces their successes and, as often as not, failures.

A high price has often been paid for the creation of nation-states and the post-First World War idea of “self-determination” of peoples. Invariably it has been a price paid by the minorities. The collapse of the Habsburg empire, for example, was a catastrophe for Europe’s Jews. It’s cleverly documented here in places that we don’t often hear about in books solely focused on the Holocaust — regions such as Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia.

It was events in eastern Europe 30 years ago, after the Berlin Wall fell, that prompted the use of that dumb phrase about the end of history. Connelly cleverly shows how the wheels of historical fortune turn and big ideas morph. Take nationalism. One moment in history you can be an ultra-patriot like Princip, who died for his great cause: a national state for the South Slavs, Yugoslavia. Barely two generations later, though, as Connelly deftly explains, Princip was being derided as a reactionary and imperialist in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, and the “true nationalists” were Bosnian Serbs or extremist Croats fighting a genocidal war.

History moves apace, particularly in eastern Europe. Places that seem stable now could very likely turn out not to be; who can predict with any certainty which national borders will remain the same for long? Even for those who know eastern Europe, this can be a complex story. But stick with this important book. Few recent works have made the past so relevant to our times.

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