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1: The Geographical and Ethnographical Background

Author || 2: The Slavs and Their Neighbors >>


The usual approach to European history is strangely limited. Very frequently Western Europe is identified with the whole continent and even in that western part only the big powers, particularly the empires, receive serious attention. It certainly made for progress when, in the study of some periods, a few eastern powers were also included. Thus the revival of interest in Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, contributed to a better understanding of the Middle Ages. The rise and decline of the Ottoman Empire, although it was a power of non-European origin, had to be considered part of modern European history. And as soon as Muscovy developed into another empire, the history of that new Russia proved to be inseparable from that of Europe as a whole.

There remained, however, a vast terra incognita of European historiography: the eastern part of Central Europe, between Sweden, Germany, and Italy, on the one hand, and Turkey and Russia on the other. In the course of European history, a great variety of peoples in this region created their own independent states, sometimes quite large and powerful; in connection with Western Europe they developed their individual national cultures and contributed to the general progress of European civilization.

It is true that time and again some of these nations were submerged by the neighboring empires, and so was the whole group precisely at the moment when, toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, the writing of history entered its truly scientific phase. This might to a certain extent explain why the nations of East Central Europe were so badly neglected in the contemporary study and teaching of the historical sciences. And since the period of their apparent disappearance coincided with the formation of the American nation, it is even more understandable that they seemed of little interest to American historiography.

The shortcomings of such a limited interpretation of Europe became evident as soon as the process of liberation and reconstruction of East Central Europe was almost completed after World War I. But even then the so-called “new” nations of that whole region, most of them very old indeed, were usually studied without sufficient consideration of their historical background. And, both in Western Europe and in America, the realization of their importance in the making and organizing of Europe had hardly started when the normal development of that crucial region was once more interrupted by World War II. In the unfinished peace settlement after the last war, all these nations were sacrificed to another wave of imperialism in one of its contemporary totalitarian forms.

No permanent peace will be established before their traditional place in the European community, now enlarged as the Atlantic community, is restored.

Historical science can contribute to such a solution by promoting a better understanding of the antecedents. But as a science, history will first have to repair its own mistake in overlooking so large a territory near the very heart of the European Continent. That territory, which never has been a historical unit, in spite of so many experiences which all its peoples had in common, is not a geographical unit either. And as it has happened with all historical regions, it did not even have any permanent boundaries.

Hence the initial difficulty of giving to that part of Europe a truly fitting name. The difficulty is increased by the artificial character of all the conventional divisions of the Continent into a certain number of regions. If only two of them, Western and Eastern Europe, are distinguished, it is impossible to find a proper place for a territory which does not belong in toto to either part. If the conception of a Central Europe is added, it must be specified at once that there is an inherent dualism in that central region. Leaving aside its western, homogeneously German section, only the eastern section can be roughly identified with the “new” or “unknown” field of study which is being introduced here into the general framework and pattern of European history. For that very reason the name East Central Europe seems most appropriate.

That means, of course, a geographical division of Europe, not into two or three but into four basic regions . Western, West Central, East Central, and Eastern. And such a division is clearly justified, so far as the main body of the Continent is concerned. But the question arises as to how the great European peninsulas fit into that division. In the case of East Central Europe, this is the question of its relationship to the Balkan Peninsula.

The Balkans are not only geographically different from the Danubian lands, but they differ even more from the great plain north of the Sudeten and Carpathian mountains. In the days of the Mediterranean community which preceded the European, the Balkan Peninsula, and particularly its Greek extension—historically the oldest section of Europe—had been an integral part of that earliest community, and eventually of the Roman Empire. That Empire advanced to the Danube and even crossed it temporarily into Dacia. But the main part of East Central Europe remained outside; it was not even touched by Roman influence, as was West Central Europe up to the Elbe, and it definitely belonged to the historically younger part of Europe which entered the European community, and history in general, not before the centuries which followed the fall of the Empire in the West. At the same time, some of the peoples of East Central Europe invaded the European territory of the Eastern Empire, that is, the Balkans. They penetrated even as far as Greece, and definitely settled in most of the main northern section of the peninsula.

A large section of the original Eastern Europe was thus associated with East Central Europe through a historical process which disregarded the geographical factor as quite frequently happens. That very factor facilitated the eastern expansion of other peoples of East Central Europe through an early process of colonization; an advance through the practically unlimited European Plain in the direction of Asia. It was only then that the large region, which geographically is Eastern Europe, was also historically connected with Europe proper. But without discussing here the highly controversial question as to what extent that colonial area in the Volga Basin ever became fully European in the historical sense, it must immediately be pointed out that it always remained different from East Central Europe. The boundary between the two regions, hardly a natural frontier, fluctuated back and forth of course. But the clear distinction between the two is a prerequisite for a correct understanding of European history.

For similar geographical reasons, there was also no natural frontier between East Central and West Central Europe, although here again the historian has to make a distinction as clearly as possible. It was only too natural, however, that whenever in the course of history the open intermediary region of East Central Europe suffered a stronger pressure from either side, it tried to move in the opposite direction. The situation became critical when the pressure came simultaneously from both sides. Sometimes a serious threat to some of the peoples of East Central Europe also came from the south, and even from the north; through the Balkans, which they never completely controlled, or across the Baltic from the Scandinavian side of the “Mediterranean of the North.”

The southern danger increased tremendously when the Byzantine Empire, which usually remained on the defensive, was replaced by the aggressive Ottoman Empire. And since the Turkish onslaught started at a time when Eastern Europe was still under Tartar overlordship, East Central Europe had to face the impact of Asiatic forces on two different fronts. Its role as a bulwark of Europe as a whole, of Christendom and Western culture, can therefore hardly be overrated.

Equally important for general European history are the problems of the Baltic. But they are merely internal problems of Europe, and since neither the Normans in the Middle Ages nor Sweden at the height of her short-lived power succeeded in creating anything like a Scandinavian Empire, the dangers which threatened East Central Europe from the northern side proved to be only temporary. But it ought to be remembered that even the natural frontier of the Baltic Sea was neither an adequate protection nor a real barrier. It was crossed more than once by Scandinavian invasions which alternated with projects of cooperation between the countries on both sides of the Baltic. And not only northern but also western conquerors and colonists succeeded in cutting off from that sea, sometimes for centuries, the native populations of East Central Europe and their national states.

Nevertheless, thanks to their access to the Baltic during most of history, and thanks to an access to the Black Sea which was, it is true, even more contested by foreign invaders from the east and the south, the peoples of East Central Europe occupied a territory which geographically can be considered a wide isthmus between two seas. Furthermore, they also reached a third sea, another bay of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and approached the Mediterranean itself through the Balkans. But here, too, they met with serious difficulties in really controlling the coast line and the ports which were mostly in foreign hands. With rare exceptions, the East Central European nations did not develop any considerable sea power.

This is one of the reasons why they never fully took advantage of the geopolitical possibilities offered by the huge area which they inhabited and by its position in Europe. Another even more important reason was the obvious fact that their territory, so varied in its topography, consisted of quite a number of minor regions which were very difficult to unite in one body politic. At least three of these subdivisions must be distinguished. One of them is the central sector of the great European Plain, including parts of both the Baltic and the Pontic shores. The second is the Danubian Basin, with the adjacent Bohemian quadrilateral. And third come the Balkans, without any clear-cut separation from the preceding region, however, so that there are countries which might be considered partly Danubian and partly Balkan. For these and other reasons, any geographical determinism in the interpretation of East Central Europe would be even more misleading than in the case of any other territory.


Equally misleading would be any racial interpretation of East Central European history. Practically nowhere in Europe can we identify the ethnic groups which appear in history, or even in prehistory, with races in the anthropological sense. But in addition to the usual mixture of various racial elements, there always was in East Central Europe, as there is today, a particularly great variety of ethnic groups which differ in language and general culture. It is true, however, that from the dawn of history, among these groups the Slavs occupy a central and predominant position representing the vast majority of all peoples in that whole region.

The recorded history of the Slavs begins at a comparatively late moment, not before the sixth century A.D. By their earliest invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire, at the turn of the fifth century, they came for the first time into contact with the Greco-Roman world. Therefore, though ancient writers of the preceding centuries, beginning with Tacitus, Pliny, and Ptolemy, noted a few names of tribes in the unknown northeast of Europe, including some which certainly refer to Slavic peoples, more detailed information was given by Jordanes and Procopius, the leading historians of the sixth century. The three peoples, Venedi, Sclaveni, and Antes, which the former distinguishes among the Slavs (the latter omits the Venedi, known to earlier writers but not neighboring with the Byzantine Empire), seem to correspond to the Western, Southern, and Eastern Slavs which until the present remained the main divisions of the Slavic world. And there is no doubt that in the sixth century they already occupied the whole territory north of the Balkans, east of the Elbe-Saale line and its continuation toward the Adriatic. They also reached the southern shores of the Baltic and the Dnieper River.

The question as to when they settled in that whole area is highly controversial. It is now universally admitted, contrary to legendary traditions, that the original home of the Slavs was north of the Carpathians. Furthermore, the Sudeten Mountains were not crossed, and the Elbe was not reached by compact Slavic settlements before the great migrations of the Germanic tribes toward the West. But contrary to the opinion which, under German influence, continues to prevail in Western historiography, the original homeland of the Slavs was not limited to the territory east of the Vistula. Recent archaeological research seems to confirm that from the end of the Neolithic Age, about 2000 B.C., the Slavs occupied the whole basin of the Vistula and most of that of the Oder, in addition to their eastern settlements between the Pripet Marshes and the Black Sea.

It is also highly probable that during this earliest period of their prehistory, which lasted some three or four hundred years, they lived in close community with their northeastern neighbors, the Balts. There is no agreement among linguists as to the existence of a common Balto-Slavic language, but in any case Slavs and Balts had closer relations with each other than with any other group of Indo-European peoples. Even after the final division of their community into two branches, in the early Bronze Age, the destinies of both groups remained inseparable, and next to the Slavs the Baltic peoples were always the most important native ethnical element in East Central Europe.

Originally, the Balts occupied a much larger part of that region than in modern times. It extended from the sea to which they gave its name (baltas = white), taking it in turn as the usual name of their group (the name Aistians or Aestians is very questionable), as far as the Oka River. In addition to the Lithuanians in the center of the group, who were most numerous, and to the Letts or Latvians in the north, the Balts also included the old Prussians who disappeared after the German conquest of the thirteenth century, losing even their name to the invaders. The historical role of all the Baltic peoples started much later than that of the Slavs, however, not before the tenth century A.D.

It is another controversial problem as to what extent the Slavs themselves, after their separation from the BaIts, constituted an ethnic and linguistic community which might be called proto-Slavic. It seems that already, in the course of the various periods of their prehistory, including the probably foreign (Celtic or Illyrian?) impact of the Lusatian culture between 1500 and 1300 B.C. and the undoubtedly Slavic Pit Grave culture down to Roman times, the differentiation among the Slavs was making rapid progress. Their territorial expansion in three directions certainly contributed to it so that when the three main branches of Slavic peoples appeared in history each of them was already divided into various groups and tribes.

Out of the Western Slavs, only the ancestors of the Poles, who took their name from the tribe of the Polanie (field dwellers), remained in the original Slavic homeland in the Vistula and Oder basins. Another group, linked to the Poles through the Pomeranians along the Baltic Coast (Pomorze—the land along the sea) and consisting of the Polabian tribes (the name means along the Elbe) and of the Lusatian Serbs or Sorbs, advanced to the extreme western limits of Slavic expansion. South of the latter and of the Polish tribes in Silesia and the Upper Vistula region, a third group occupied Bohemia (where the tribe of the Czechs eventually gave its name to all others), Moravia and Slovakia.

It was the southern branch of the Slavs, however, which proceeded farthest, crossing the Carpathians and leaving only vague traces north of those mountains. Following the Croats and Serbs, who moved to the frontiers of the Eastern Empire and who were soon to cross these frontiers in their invasion of the Balkans, the Slovenes occupied a territory much larger than present-day Slovenia, and from the Danubian Plain penetrated deep into the Eastern Alps.

As to the Eastern Slavs, it is not so easy to determine how far they extended their settlements during the millennium which preceded their first appearance in history about 500 A.D. Some of their numerous tribes certainly crossed the Dnieper and may have reached the lower Don River in the southeast, while others slowly advanced in a northeastern direction. From the very beginning all these “Antes” seem to have been divided into a western group, in the homeland of the Slavs, and an eastern group in the area of early colonization. But it is only at a much later date that the names of the East Slavic tribes are enumerated, and the origin of their common name, Rus, is as controversial as is the process of differentiation into three groups which would correspond to the Ukrainians, White Ruthenians, and Russians proper or Great Russians, of modern times.

Although very little is known about the prehistoric culture of the various Slavic peoples, the earliest references of foreign chroniclers, combined with archaeological and linguistic evidence, make us realize certain distinctive features which they all had in common with one another and also largely with the Baltic tribes. Their agriculture and cattle breeding were well developed, and such of them as occupied themselves with fishing, hunting, and the production of furs, wax, and honey had trade relations with the outside world. It is not easy to find out to what extent differences in occupation resulted in the formation of different social groups. What is certain is that the fundamental role of large familial groups or clans constituted the first community organization under their hereditary leaders.

For a long time this seems to have been their only permanent organization. Therefore, Greek writers, such as Procopius or Mauricius, speak of their “democracy” and love of freedom. Without acknowledging any supreme power, even without any special priesthood—the elders taking care of their religious ceremonies which were chiefly based upon the worship of nature—these familial communities united in larger, tribal organizations only very slowly and under the pressure of external danger. Cooperation of such tribes in even more comprehensive groups seems to have been less frequent than quarrels among the various communities. Without being on a lower cultural level than the other “barbarian” peoples outside the Empire, and having much in common, particularly with all other Indo-Europeans, the Slavs were probably inferior to most of their neighbors in the fields of military and political organization. And the same might be said about the Balts.

Under such conditions the numerous Slavic tribes could not really control the large area of their expanding settlements nor oppose the successive waves of foreign invaders which overran that territory, dominating it temporarily and crossing it in various directions, chiefly in connection with the great migrations toward the West. For that very reason the periods which are usually distinguished throughout the long transition from prehistory to history in that part of Europe are periods of its domination by Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Alans, Huns, and finally Avars, none of whom had anything in common with the native population.

We know very little about the resistance of the Slavs or their earliest endeavors to create states of their own. The Antes, particularly threatened on the crossroads in the steppes north of the Black Sea, seem to have been in advance of their kinsmen. The tragic end of their struggle against the Ostrogoths, when in 374 their leader, named Boz, was crucified, together with seventy other chieftains, produced such a strong impression that the record of that event came down to us as a first memorial of an agelong fight for freedom in East Central Europe. Some kind of federation of Antic tribes appears almost two hundred years later when they were again unable to stop a new conqueror, the Avars. The memory of the latter’s harsh rule was to live long in the Slavic tradition, and it was in opposition to them that around 630 a man called Samo created what is supposed to have been the first Slavic state. Whether it can be considered the first Czech state is rather doubtful, since we do not even certainly know whether that short-lived power originated among Czechs and Moravians or among Slovenes, the western and southern Slavs being not yet separated from each other.

What is more significant, Samo was probably a Frankish merchant, or rather a Latinized Celt from Frankish territory, and some historians are of the opinion that the early rulers of the Antes were of Iranian origin. The very possibility of such assumption of foreign leadership in the first political movements among the Slavs shows the tremendous importance of their protohistoric relations with foreign elements. These elements came, on the one hand, from the Asiatic East through the vast intermediary region between two continents without any distinct boundary, and on the other hand from the Germanic West. Those early associations must be studied before the first contacts of the Slavs with what remained of the Greco-Roman world can be properly discussed.

Author || 2: The Slavs and Their Neighbors >>