Anna M. Cienciala (
History 557 Lecture Notes
Spring 2002 (Revised Jan. 2004, revised Sept. 2007))
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I would like to thank Lynn Nelson, Professor Em. of History, University of Kansas, for encouraging and helping me to use the computer, and for putting my first text "The Rise and Fall of Communist Nations" on the Internet.

I would like to thank the Instruction and Development Suppport Department of the University of Kansas for helping me to put the "Lecture Notes" for Hist. 557 on the Internet. In particular, I am grateful to Irsan Jie and John Rinnert for their help and patience over several years. I could not have done this work without them.

East Central and South-Eastern Europe to 1772.

[This is a revised version of the text first put on the Internet in 1999. I would like to thank Prof. Jean Sedlar of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA., for her most helpful comments and corrections.]

Note on maps: all maps, unless otherwise indicated, come from Paul Robert Magocsi, Historical Atlas of East Central Europe,  University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1993.

I. What's in a Name? Eastern Europe, East Central Europe, Central Europe, South-Eastern Europe/Balkans.

(a) In a geographical sense, the whole region is bounded in the West by a line running from N.E. Poland (Szczecin) in the North to Greece in the South, and in the East by the Ural mountains, which separate European from Asiatic Russia.

(b) In a geopolitical sense, Eastern Europe can mean either (i) the former Soviet bloc states including or excluding USSR, or (ii) all the lands between Germany and USSR, including the Balkans. Whenever the term Eastern Europe is used in this course, it  includes all the countries of the region except the USSR.

The first to use the term Eastern Europe were French writers in the 18th century, who called it: "L'Europe de L'Est," or Europe of the East. They described it as a rather backward or even barbarous region - but few ever traveled there.

(c) Subdivisions of Eastern Europe.

(ii) East Central Europe (ECE): as used here means Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and they are emphasized in this course. However, ECE sometimes  means the whole of Eastern Europe, as in the Magocsi Atlas. I use it to mean the above named countries. (Note that the State Department now includes these countries in Central Europe - which used to mean Germany and Austria. The citizens of ECE consider their countries as part of Central Europe). The Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia can be considered as part of ECE. They were part of Russia from the 18th century to 1915; were independent in 1918-39, and in the Soviet Bloc in 1944-91. They receive only marginal treatment in this course.

(iii) South-Eastern Europe or Balkans means former Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, Croatia, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro),  Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia; Romania; Bulgaria; Albania. Greece is both a Balkan  and a Mediterranean country. It was the first to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire and was never part of the Soviet Bloc, so it receives only marginal coverage in this course.

II. The place of E.Europe in 20th century European and World History and Main Themes.

A. In World History

Both World Wars broke out in E.Europe. World War I broke out in August 1914 in the Balkans, after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia, by a young Serb fanatic, Gavrilo Princip, in the Bosnian capital of SARAJEVO on June 28, 1914. [See Lecture Notes 10].  But this was only the pretext for Austria's attack on Serbia, for tension had been building between Russia on the one side, and Austria and Germany on the other for control of the Balkans [see Lec. Notes 10].

World War II broke out in ECE when Hitler attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, on the charge that the Poles had attacked a radio station in Gleiwitz, German Upper Silesia (now Gliwice, Poland). In fact, as revealed after the war, the attack was organized by the German S.S. using German convicts in Polish uniforms. The political pretext was that the Poles had refused the German demand to agree to the return the Free City of Danzig [Gdansk] to Germany,and cede a part of Polish Pomerania [called the Polish Corridor by the Germans]  to Germany for a German controlled highway and railway to Danzig and East Prussia. Both had belonged to Prussia, then Germany, from 1772/93 to 1918, but to Poland before the Partitions. The population of Danzig was predominantly German-speaking but the Polish Corridor was predominantly Polish. The Polish-German War became World War II when Poland's allies, Britain and France, entered the war on September 3,1939. As we know, the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, when  the U.S. declared war on Japan. Hitler then  declared war on the U.S.

The Cold War had its roots in the Soviet domination over most of E.Europe and the eastern half of Germany, which began in 1945.

Finally, the peoples of East Central Europe led by the Poles, threw off  Communism and Soviet domination in 1989, thus contributing to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Of course, the USSR was itself undermined and brought to ruin by internal economic and national/ethnic problems, aggravated by the enormous military budgets needed to wage the Cold War against NATO, and especially the U.S. The former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1990-91 and its peoples endured several wars fomented by the President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic [pron. Meelohseveetch], in Croatia, Bosnia, then Kosovo. NATO forces finally defeated the Yugoslavs and have occupied Kosovo since1999, while U.N. forces are stationed in Bosnia since 1995.

B. Main Themes

(i) Economic backwardness: After the discovery of America, a shift of trade began to the west European seaboard. This meant the decline of towns and trade in E.Europe, the predominance of an agrarian economy, and thus a lord and peasant classes with very small merchant class and artisans in towns. Also, W.Europe imported grain and other materials from E.Europe (hemp, flax, timber), thus strengthening the agrarian economy and serfdom [tying the peasant to the land and forcing him to labor for the lord]. The decline and abolition of serfdom in E.Europe took place in the second half of the19th century. (See section VIII of this Lecture.)

(ii) Interrupted statehood: all peoples of E.Europe came under foreign domination, some earlier, some later. In many cases this meant a stop in the development of national languages and literatures.
(iii)  When National consciousness developed in the 19th century, these nations were not nation states as in western Europe, but nations under foreign rule. Therefore, nationalism meant opposition to ruling foreign powers, that is, nationalism without states, until collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austrian Empires.

III. A Bird's Eye View of East European History to 1772. (Date of the First Partition of Poland).

1. The Peoples and their Early Settlements.

(A) The word "Slav" may have originated in the Latin word "Sclavus," because Slavs were sold as slaves in the Mediterranean area, or it may come from the word "Slava" which means fame or glory in most Slavic languages. The Slavs form the majority of peoples in the region. Their historic cradle was between the Elbe river in the West, and the Bug or even the Dnieper river in the East. (Magocsi puts the western line near the Oder, but Berlin was originally a Slavic settlement). From this cradle the peoples fanned out as follows:

(i) Those who moved East around the year 500 our o.e [our era, previously a.d. or anno domini = year of the Lord] became the Eastern Slavs: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians.

(ii) Those who moved slightly South around 600-700 o.e., became Czechs and Slovaks. Together with the Poles, who stayed in the area between the Elbe and Bug rivers, these three became the Western Slavs.

(iii) Those who moved further south, also around 600-700 o.e., became: the Southern Slars. These were the peoples of former Yugoslavia. Another S.Slav people are the Bulgarians, originally a Turkic people from Asia, who became slavicized. The Macedonians of today's Macedonian state, formerly in Yugoslavia, are also southern Slavs; some live in the Greek province of Macedonia, where most inhabitants are Greeks.

(B) The Non-Slavic Peoples:

(i)  Magyar is the Hungarian word for an ethnic Hungarian. The Magyars were originally a warlike asiatic tribe called" Orgun." They may have passed through Finland, or a branch of them did. Some settled for a while near the Ural mountains in Russia. They broke into the Pannonian or Hungarian Plain in 895 o.e. A warlike people, they at first raided German and other lands until defeated by Emperor Otto I in a battle near Augsburg in 955. After that, the Magyars settled down under Prince Geza Arpad in what became a large state known as Hungary. Geza was converted to Christianity from Rome in 970.

(ii) The Romanians  setlled in Moldavia and Walachia. They were partly descended from the Roman colonists of DACIA, which was a Roman province in 106-271 o.e. Many Romanian words have Latin roots.

(iii) The Albanians are the descendants of ancient Illyrian-Thracian tribes.

(iv) The Greeks laid the foundations of Western Civilization.

(v) The Germans coming from German lands, settled in parts of E.Europe in the Middle Ages; the largest settlement was in the Sudetenland, in northern and western Bohemia (Czech lands), but many also settled in Poland and elsewhere.

(vi) The Jews  began settling in E.Europe around 900 o.e. Later many who were driven out of W.Europe settled in Poland, where they had more rights and freedom than elsewhere. Jews made up some 10% of the population of inter-war Poland (1918-39), that is, about 3,500,000. Almost all  Polish Jews were murdered  by Nazi Germans who conquered and occupied Poland, where they set up death camps for Polish Jews and brought in Jews from other parts of Europe. The most widely known death camp is Auschwitz, Polish name: Oswiecim. It is estimted that 200,000-350,000 Polish Jews survived, most of them in the USSR [see Lec. Notes 16].

(vii) The Gypsies - Romany gypsies were nomadic; they moved around E.Europe. The Germans set out to exterminate them too, and killed many of them. They try to maintain their traditional way of life and are most visible in Romania, but are discriminated against in most E.E. countries.

(viii) The Turks - came in with the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and most of Hungary (1300-1500). Many inhabitants of Bulgaria, Bosnia and Kosovo converted to the Moslem faith in the 16-17th centuries. Here religious and ethnic identities were generally the same, and formed the basis of the bloody fighting in the last two regions in the 1990s.

IV. Conversion to Christianity.

Conversion to Christianity came from two centers: (a) Rome and (b) Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, or the Eastern Empire. After the Turkish conquest its name became Istanbul.

(A) The Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians were converted to Roman Catholicism from Rome, as were also the Croats and Slovenes (former northern Yugoslavia).  Their educated elites and thus their culture, became part of Western Civilization by way of the Latin language brought in by the R.C. Church. Latin became the language of education and law, just as it was in Western Europe; it remained the language of administration in the central part of the Habsburg Empire until the late 1700s, and in some other parts of the Empire until the mid-19th century, e.g. Croatia.

    Note that the RC Church had its own landed property, which enabled it to stand up to rulers it considered wicked,or following wrong policies. Thus, the RC Church set the precedent for legal opposition to rulers, typical of Western Civilization. This opposition was later expressed by nobles in parliaments, then by political parties, and eventually led to political pluralism, characteristic of  W. Civilization.

(B) The Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians and Romanians -and Russians - were converted from Constantinople. The Orthodox Church created the the Cyrillic alphabet (named after the missionary St.Cyril) for the Slavs, and the Church Slavonic language for their liturgy. In Byzantium, the Orthodox Church was subject to the Emperor, as it was later to the Tsar in Russia, also to the rulers of Serbia and Bulgaria before the Ottoman Conquest. This subjection deprived these states of the concept of a legal opposition and thus political pluralism, which developed only sporadically in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Europe around the year 1,000 o.e.
(Hammond Historical Atlas, 1976).

V. The Peoples and The Earlv States of Eastern Europe.

A. East Central Europe.

The earliest state, though largely mythical, was the so-called Moravian Empire ruled by the legendary Samo around the 7th c. o.e. Some historians place it in N. Yugoslavia, while others locate it in south-eastern Hungary.

Next came Bohemia - where the Presmyslid ruler Rastislav converted to Christianity in 863. Some Russophile Slavicists claimed that the first conversion came through Cyril and Methodius, but Slavic philologists recently disproved this theory. * In any case, the Czechs and Slovaks soon became Roman Catholics due to their proximity to Germany. (The Germans were converted in 780-800 o.e. by Charlemagne, the ruler of the Franks, when he conquered their lands).

* (see: Jindrich Toman and Benjamin Stoltz, "Philologia Militans: N.S. Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson on the Church Slavonic Liturgy," American Contributions to the 11th Congress of Slavists, 1993).

The Resurrection, from the Passion by the Master of Trebon, late 14th century (Czech, from Anthony Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe, New York, 1972).

Poland - here Duke Mieszko I (pron. Myeshkoh), who established the PIAST (pron: PYAST) dynasty, converted to Christianity in 966 o.e, which also marks the beginning of the Polish state. The one thousandth anniversary of the Polish state was celebrated in communist Poland in 1966, while the RC church celebrated the conversion to Christianity. Mieszko married the Czech princess Dubravka (pron. Doobrafkah), who was a Christian, so she may have influenced him in this direction. However, the key reason for his conversion was to secure Papal support against the German lords who were pushing into his territory on the pretext of converting pagans. Mieszko made Poland a "papal fief," paying dues to the Pope. His son, Duke Boleslaw the Brave, was crowned King in Gniezno, the Archbishopric of Poland, in 1025.

Doors of Gniezno Cathedral,Poland, 10th c.(Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe.)

King Geza of the Arpad Dynasty was converted to Christianity in the 970s. His son,Stephen I (996-1038) who had been baptized at birth, ordered the conversion of Hungary in the year 1,000. Stephen was a great King, who united vast lands under his rule. He was later canonized as a saint. (Note: Hungary conquered Slovakia in the year1,000 and acquired Croatia in 1102).

B. RUSSIA. The first state here was Kievan Rus, which is seen by some historians as a proto-Ukrainian state. It was established by Vikings, called Varengians, who came down the rivers from Scandinavia. They had red hair, so the word Rus originally meant red and later came to mean mean Russian. Prince Vladimir I, of the Rurik dynasty accepted Christianity from Constantinople in 988 o.e. The one thousandth anniversary of this conversion was celebrated in the still communist USSR in 1988, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev was head of state.

C. The Balkans - as noted above, most of the peoples were converted from Constantinople, except for the Slovenes and Croats who were converted from Rome. Tomislav became the first King of Croatia in 924, accepting his crown from the Pope in Rome. However, as noted earlier, Croatia became part of Hungary in 1102.

    A large Bulgarian Empire was created in 1050, at the expense of the Byzantine Empire, but was later reduced in size. The  greatest medieval Serb ruler was Stephen Dushan (1331-1355), who created a large Serbian Empire. In the 19th and 20th centuries, both nations looked back to their medieval empires as inspiration for their territorial goals

from: Stewart C. Easton, The Heritage of the Past: From the Earliest Times to 1715,
                                                                        New York, 1957.

VI. The Golden Age of East Central Europe, and the later fall of Bohemia and Hungarv.

1. Bohemia. The Premyslid dynasty died out in 1306 and was succeeded by the House of Luxemburg. The first ruler of this house was Jan (Johann), was elected King by the Bohemian nobles and ruled in 1310-46. The greatest ruler of this dynasty was Charles I of Bohemia, who  ruled in 1346-78. He was also elected Holy Roman Emperor (HRE)  by the German electors, and ruled as HRE Charles IV. He founded a university in Prague, 1348, known to this day as Charles IV University.

Royal Oratory, ST.Vitus Cathedral, Prague, 1493 (Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

In the 14th century, a Czech national-religious movement began to oppose the German clergy who dominated the Catholic Church in Bohemia. A priest, JAN HUS (1369-1415) led the attack against the corruption of this clergy. He also preached in Czech and the period saw the beginnings of Czech literature. HUS advocated communion in two kinds, that is, bread and wine, which led to the founding of the Utraquist Church (from the Latin utraque = both). Note that HUS was influenced to some extent by ideas and teaching of the English reformer JOHN WYCLIFFE (1320-84), who attacked the Pope, priests indulgences, etc. and began to translate the bible into English.

HUS rejected papal authority and church councils, saw authority only in the scriptures. (No wonder Martin Luther said that Hus had preceded him by a hundred years). HUS went to the Church Council at Constance, 1414-15 to debate Catholic theologians, but his safe-conduct from HRE Sigismund was ignored. He was arrested and burned as a heretic, July 6, 1415.

HUS's death led to the Hussite Wars, (1420-33) between the Czechs and HRE Sigismund. The Czechs fought off the German and Hungarian armies of Emperor Sigismund winning many victories..The Hussites divided into 2 factions: (1) the Utraquists, and (2) the Unity of Brethren, also known as the Czech Brethren. There were also smaller sects, such as the Hutterites (named after Jakob Hutter, who reorganized the Brethern in Moravia), and the Taborites (named after Mount Tabor). Both lived in communes and held property in common The great military commander Jan Ziska organized his forces at Mount Tabor. The Taborites were defeated at the Battle of Lipany in 1434, clearing the way for a compromise with the Pope in the Basel Compacts of 1436, when the Hussite faith became legal in Bohemia. The Czech Brethren were pacifists, refusing military service.

The end of Bohemian independence came soon after the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which began with the "defenestration of Prague," 1618, when Czech Protestants threw two imperial officials out of a window of Hradcany Castle (they landed in a pile of manure and were not hurt). HRE Ferdinand II, Habsburg (1619-37), ruler of Austria, and by inheritance also of Bohemia and Hungary, decided to abolish Protestantism in his lands. His armies defeated the Czechs at the Battle of the White Mountain (Bela Hora, now a suburb of Prague), November 8, 1620, which is the most fateful date in Czech history. Many Czech nobles were killed or executed, and many others left the country to escape religious persecution. They were replaced by German nobles and townsmen. Czech writings were burned as heretical, so much of early, mostly religious, Czech literature was destroyed, and lacking an educted Czech-speaking nobility, Czech remained the language of the peasants. The Catholic church, headed by German-speaking clergy, was imposed on the country. The defeat of 1620 interrupted the natural development of the Czech language and Czech statehood. The language was to revive, and with it literature and historical writing in the 19th century, helping to develop national consciousness and paving the road to independence in November 1918.

2. Hungary

    The Nobles obtained equal rights for themselves and safeguards for them in the Golden Bull, 1222, (compare wih the Magna Carta, England, 1215).
The country was devastated by a Tatar invasion in 1241. (The Tatars had destroyed Kiev Rus a few years earlier). Lazslo [Louis] I, the Great, lived 1335-82, ruled 1342-82, was a member of the Angevin dynasty of Naples and was related through his mother with the Arpad dynasty. He rebuilt the country and is called the second founder of Hungary (after Stephen I). He added Dalmatia, Bosnia, Walachia and Moldavia to Hungary, but after his death Dalmatia was taken over by Venice.

Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle made before 1370
(from: Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

The Visitation, 1506, from former altar of Selmecbanya (Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

Casimir III, the Great of Poland, the greatest medieval Polish king, died childless in 1370, so Lazslo I of Hungary, who had married Casimir's sister Elizabeth, succeeded briefly to the Polish throne. When Laszlo died, 1382, his daughter Jadwiga (pron. Yadveegah, German Hedwig,1374-99), was proclaimed "King" of Poland by the Polish nobles. She was persuaded to marry the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Wladyslaw Jagiello (-pron. Vlahdyslav Yagyelloh, Lith: Jogailla, pron.Yogailah) 1351-1434, who promised to convert with his people to Christianity, and did so. (see section 3. Poland, below).

Virgin and Child from church in Kruglowa, 15thc. Cracow workshop

(A.Rhodes,Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

    Hungary was repeatedly attacked by the Ottoman Turks , who defeated the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in June 1389 and took Constantinople in 1453. A great military leader, Janos Hunyadi organized an army and defeated the Turks in 1442. His other campaigns against them failed, but he successfully defended Belgrade in 1456, and the ring of fortresses he built in the south preserved Hungary for another 60 years.
    Hunyadi's son, Matthias, known as Matthias Corvinus was elected King by the nobles and proved to be a great ruler and statesman. He built up a strong mercenary force "the Black Army," and added more lands to Hungary. He was also a Renaissance man, educated according to Renaissance ideas. He knew Greek and Latin, built a great library - "The Corvinum" - and was a patron of the arts. He died in 1490 and left no heir.

    The nobles elected a Jagiellonian prince, Vladislav [Polish: Wladyslaw] as King. He could not rein them in, nor could his son Louis II. The crown was destitute, so the nobles had their way. Also, there was a great Peasant Revolt, 1515, when the peasants tried to throw off their heavy taxes and labor dues, but were crushed and punished with great brutality. (Note also the Peasant Revolt in German lands, 1521).
    In 1521, the Turks took Belgrade, the gateway to Hungary, which they invaded in 1526. They conquered most of the country after defeating  the Hungarian army and its commander, the young Jagiellonian King of Hungary and Bohemia, at the Battle of Mohacs, August 28, 1526. (Vladislav died in the battle and was childless, so by the Treaty of Vienna of 1518, the Austrian Habsburgs succeeded to both thrones. However, they were unable to take them until many years later). This defeat interrupted the natural development of Hungarian statehood and culture, though a symbolic Hungarian state survived in Transylvania, which was granted autonomy by the Turks. The  Battle of Mohacs marked the end of great Hungary, but its memory inspired future generations of Hungarians

In the 17th century, Austrian armies pushed the Turks out of Hungary, and the new frontier this was sealed by the Treaty of Karlovitz (Sremski Karlovac) in 1699. After this, many German-speaking Austrians settled in various parts of the country, and there were also new settlements by Serbs and Croats.

The Hungarians revolted against Austrian rule. The most serious revolt was led by Ferenc II Rakoczy of Transylvania in 1704-11 . He was defeated, but when Maria Theresa became Empress of Austrian lands in 1740, she received the support of Hungarian nobles against another claimant to the Habsburg throne, Charles of Bavaria. ln return, she recognized all the old rights of the Crown of St.Stephen. This amounted to self-rule by the Hungarian nobles, though under Austrian sovereignty.

  Prince Ferenc Rakoczi (from: Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

3. Poland.

The marriage of Jadwiga of the Angevin House of Naples, (niece of Casimir III),and the Lithuanian ruler Vladislav [Wladyslaw] Jagiello [Lith. Jogaillo] in 1386 began the Jagiellonian Dynasty, which ruled Poland until 1572. This state evolved from a dynastic union into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The period 1386-1572 was the great age of Poland, when it was the greatest power in East Central Europe. In the 16th century, Polish art, architecture, and culture in general were greatly influenced by the Renaissance and Reformation. The religious disputes during the Reformation helped develop the Polish language and produced the first great age of Polish literature.

Coronation of the King, from Pontifical of Bishop Erasmus Ciolek (1474-1522), done by an artist of the Cracow School, beginning of 16th century (Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe).

Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), portrait by unknown artist (Polakow Portret Wlasny (Polish Self-Potraits, Marek Rostworowski, ed., Warsaw, 1983, no. 52).


    Copernicus was born into a germanized family in the city of Torun [former German name: Thorn]. He was a canon of the church, studied astronomy at the University in Krakow (later known as the Jagiellonian University), also in Italy. He is famous for his book on Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, in which he proved that the Sun and not the Earth is the center of the Universe. The book was published after his death and declared heretical by the R.C. Church.

VI. Social and Political Structures of East Central Europe.

a. The Social Structure and Noble/Genry Culture of East Central Europe.

The nobles of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary constituted the social and political elite of those countries. In terms of a pyramid, the magnates or great landowners formed its tip. Below them were the middle and petty nobles (gentry), called "Szlachta" (pron. Shlakhtah) in Poland, who were mostly dependent on the magnates. All of these nobles formed the privileged class. Below the Szlachta came the burghers or townspeople, who inluded merchants and artisans. In Poland and Hungary the merchants. The latter were at first mostly were originally German, but in the course of time became mostly Jewish. Below the burghers came the masses of peasants, or farmers. They were mostly free people until the development of serfdom in this part of Europe in the late 15th century.

The Szlachta or noble/gentry ethos exerted a particularly strong influence on Polish national culture. From the17th century onward, it was  known as the "Sarmatian" culture, from the name of the ancient eastern tribe that Polish nobles believed to be their ancestor. The chief characteristics of Szlachta/Sarmatian culture can be described as follows. All Polish nobles believed that: (1) they were free and equal regardless of economic-social status; (2) they formed the :"rampart of Christianity" in Europe against the infidels, that is, the Moslem Turks and Tatars; (3) they considered the Greek Orthodox Russians to be barbarians, and distrusted all foreigners (The Russians, for their part, viewed the Poles and all foreigners as heretical devils); (4) they participated actively in local politics through provincial dietines (assemblies), which discussed local affairs and elected deputies to the national parliament; (5) They treasured their "golden freedom," that is their rights, and opposed strong royal power for fear it would turn into absolutism, as it did in neighboring Russia, Prussia and Austria; (6) they learned elegant manners at the courts of the magnates; (7) they had a very demanding code of honor; (8) they put their women on a pedestal and treated them with great respect (unlike the Russian boyars who beat their women, which the Polish nobles considered barbaric);  (9) They idealized life on their country estates and viewed the towns, especially Warsaw, as dens of iniquity; (10) They were socially and politically conservative, fearing that any change would reduce or deprive them of their rights.

The extraordinary 17th century Polish coffin portaits give us a good idea of what the middle and petty nobles looked like. The magnates could afford large portraits.

A great Polish noble, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, 1648. Polakow Potret Wlasny (Polish Self-Potraits, Warsaw, 1983)


Some lesser nobles: Coffin portraits of Polish nobles and noble women, 16-18th centuries (Polakow Portret Wlasny, nos. 136,137).

In many respects, Polish noble culture resembled that of the Hungarian, Croatian, and also Spanish nobility. In all three cases, the idea of constituting the "ramparts of Christendom" came from long wars with Moslem peoples (Turks and Tatars in E.Europe, Moors in Spain). In Poland, moreover, noble culture later inspired national resistance to foreign rule. This resistance was, in fact, led after the Partitions at first by the noble class, mostly middle and petty nobles (the exception was Prince Adam Czartoryski, who represented the Polish cause in exile, 1831-61). After 1864, leadership passed to the Intelligentsia, or educated class, who were mostly descended from the impoverished nobles. (In Hungary, the same class led the War of Independence, against Austria and then also Russia in 1848-49). National consciousness spread from this class to the emerging Polish middle class and the peasant masses in the late 1800s. The noble tradition of resistance to foreign rule later inspired Polish resistance to the German occupation of World War II, and to some extent also, though in a peaceful manner,  the workers' movement "Solidarity," in 1980-81. Indeed, at that time, the workers repeated the old Polish noble slogan against their Kings: "Nothing [can be decided] about us without us!" The relics of Polish noble  culture can be seen in the Intelligentsia of Poland today, where it continues to provide models of social behavior.

b. Noble Parliaments.
    In medieval and early modern Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, the nobles dominated parliaments - as they did in most European countries - unless the kings had sufficient resources to carry through their policies.
    Hungarian nobles had their Golden Bull, 1222, reissued in the 15th century. The Polish nobles gained their rights in the 13-15th centuries, but the Jagiellonian kings were able to rule effectively due to their resources. However, the male line died out in 1572. Most noble rights as well as new ones were enshrined in the Confederation of Warsaw, the Henrician Articles, and the Pacta Conventa all signed by French Prince Henry of Valois in 1573 when he was elected King of Poland by the nobles. Henry left for France to take the throne when his brother died, but these agreements guaranteed noble rights - including freedom of religion - and greatly limited royal power. Thus Poland became a "noble republic," though it was officially a Monarchy. We should note that by 1572, most Polish nobles were Calvinists, but this did not last long for the Jesuits had the best schools and so the nobles soon returned to the R.C. faith which became a hallmark of Polishness.


[Map from Jerzy Lukawski and Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland, (Cambridge, 2001).

See Piotr S. Wandycz review of Karin Friedrich and Barbara M. Pendzich, Citizenship and Identity in a Multinational Commonwealth: Poland-Lithuania in Context, 1550-1772, Boston, 2009 (PDF link)

VII. South-Eastern Europe (Balkans)

As mentioned earlier, Serbia attained its largest size under Stephen Dushan, 1344-55, while Bulgaria reached its greatest extent around 1050. Note too, the Principalities of Moldavia and Walachia which were to unite as Romania in the late 19th century.

Note the contrast between the Byzantine architecture in the 14th c. Kosovo church on the left, and the Italian style art and architecture in the 16th c. Dubrovnik monastery on the right

(from: Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1999, p.16). 

Painting in the Dominican Monastery, Dubrovnik, early 16th century (A.Rhodes, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe, New York, 1972).


Medieval Romanian Monastery
Byzantine style Moldavian religious art

(from: Romanian Calendar, Iasi, 1998).

Of course, the major turning point in Balkan history was the Ottoman Coqnuest. The Ottoman Turks came out of Asia Minor into Anatolia; they entered the Balkans in 1326-60. By the death of Murad II, 1451, they had conquered what is northern Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and part of Serbia.

The great Serbian defeat came at the Battle of Kosovo Polje (pron. Pohlye), June 28, 1389. The battle was touch and go, for a Serb killed Sultan Murad I, but his son Bayazid took over and defeated the Serbs. Ever since then, the Serbs have celebrated June 28 as their national holiday and have a fierce attachment to Kosovo, viewed as the cradle of Serbia. However, the population in 1980 was 90% Albanian.  (For Kosovo in the 20th century, see Lecture Notes 14b and 20.)

Turkish rule lasted in most Balkan countries from the late 1300s to the late 1800s, but in Kosovo and Albania it lasted until 1912. It interrupted the natural development of languages, statehoods, and cultures. National memory was preserved in the Orthodox church and the ballads of wondering minstrels who sang of past greatness. In Serbia, they sang about Stephen Dushan and the Battle of Kosovo Polje. Note that the noble class of Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania was killed off in the wars with Ottoman Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries.

VIII. The Question of the Economic Backwardness of Eastern Europe.

Most western historians of Europe see Eastern Europe as economically backward. However, while this is generally true in comparison with Western Europe, it was not always the case everywhere. There was an impressive development of towns and trade in East Central Europe in the Middle Ages and early Modern Times, especially in Bohemia and Poland. (The economic patterns around the year 1450 can be seen im Magocsi, map 11.) Bohemia (Czech lands) was on the economic level of German lands, with Western Poland close behind. Indeed, Poland's port city of Danzig/Gdansk - which was predominantly German-speaking - was the emporium of E. C. E. grain trade, and a very wealthy city indeed. Poland, however, declined after the "deluge" of 1655, recovered somewhat, then was devastated again in the Great Northern War 1700-21. (See Lecture Notes 3: the Decline of Poland.)

Historians still disagree about the economic impact of the discovery of America on E. Europe.  However, it is a fact that European trade shifted away from the Baltic and the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in the 1500-1600s. The countries which profited most were England, the Netherlands, and France. Spain and Portugal built empires in Central and South America, but without raising the economic level of the home countries.

We also know that Western Europe needed food grains, meat, timber, linen and flax, and that these products came from East Central Europe. In the 16-17th centuries, most of the grain came from Poland and was shipped West from Danzig/Gdansk. The W. European demand for these goods, especially grain, favored the development of serfdom in Poland.  But serfdom also developed elsewhere in E.Europe because in agrarian economies labor was capital . It is known as the '"Second Serfdom," because the first developed in W. Europe. However, serfdom began to decline in the West in the 13-14th centuries with the development of towns and trade.

In Poland, there was no serfdom to speak of until the late 15th- early 16th century, which correlates closely with the shift of European trade to the Atlantic. Serfdom gradually declined in England; it was abolished in France in 1789; in Prussia -and thus Prussian Poland - between 1806 and 1848; in the Austrian Empire -and thus in Austrian Poland - in 1848, and in the Russian Empire in 1861, though not in Russian Poland, where it was abolished in 1863. As we know, slavery was abolished in the southern states of the U.S. in 1865 toward the end of the Civil War. In the South, it had been essential in the developmnet of labor-intensive cotton plantations.

IX. The Growth of Empires in Eastern Europe.

1. Austria: The word Austria comes from: Ostmark, or the Eastern March, which was established by the first HRE, Charlemagne, as a bulwark against the Magyars. The first Habsburg ruler was Rudolf I who defeated King Ottakar of Bohemia in 1278 and took over his lands. They became the foundation of the Habsburg Empire, also known as the Austrian Empire. However, Bohemia remained a kingdom, though part of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Habsburgs expanded their lands by conquest and marriage, and mostly by marriage. They came to be regularly elected Holy Roman Emperors, theoretically sovereign over all the German states. The Habsburg Empire reached its farthest extent in the 18th c. when it acquired ltalian lands formerly held by Venice, took over what is now Belgium (inherited from the Spanish Habsburgs), also part of Poland (Galicia). Their cousins ruled Spain and its Empire. However, from 1740 onward the Austrians vied with Prussia for the leadership of the German states, finally losing to Prussia in 1866.

2. The Ottoman Empire (The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and Hungary has been metnioned earlier; for revolts against Ottoman rule in 19th century Balkans, see Lec. Notes 9).

3. Prussia. - Brandenburg Prussia was an insignificant German state until Frederick Wilhelm, the Great Elector gained East Prussia from Poland by the Treaty of Oliva, 1660. (Poland had  defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1410 and had sovereignty over East Prussia, from 1466 to 1660).  He built up his army with subsidies from King Louis XIV of France, who wanted Prussia to fight France's enemy the Austrian Habsburgs. FrederickWilhelm never did so; instead, he used French money to become financially independent of his nobles. In 1701 his son obtained the title of King of Prussia and was crowned as Frederick I in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia). His son, Frederick Wilhelm I, built up an army of 80,000. His son, Frederick II, The Great, who ruled 1740-86. fought a long war with Maria Theresa of Austria and gained Silesia, except for Teschen [P.Cieszyn, Cz.Tesin] Silesia, which stayed with Austria. In 1772, he annexed part of western Poland. His son, Frederick Wilhelm II, who ruled 1786-97, took two more bites out of Poland in 1793 and 1795. These western Polish lands, some of which were agriculturally rich, became the base of Prussian power which later developed into the German Empire in 1871.

4. Russia.

The first Russian state, KIEVAN RUS, was destroyed by the Tatars in 1237-40. The nucleus of modern Russia was the Duchy of Muscovy. The Moscow rulers led the long Russian fight against the Tatars. Tsar Ivan IV, The Terrible (1530-84), conquered Kazan and Astrakhan. He also fought Poland-Lithuania over the Baltic Provinces, but lost. The next great Russian ruler wasTsar Peter I, The Great, born 1672, who ruled from 1689 until his death in 1725. He fought long wars against Sweden, and defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava, July 8, 1709 in Ukraine. He wanted to modernize Russia, but  did so only superficially. He built a new capital on the Baltic Sea and called it St. Petersburg.

The third great Russian ruler was Empress Catherine II the Great, a German princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, born 1729, who married Peter III 1745. Peter was mentally unstable and finally was murdered by her supporters in 1762 when Catherine became Empress in her own right and ruled until her death in 1796. She did much to to bring western ideas and manners to the Russian nobility as well as to Russian intellectual and cultural life. She also expanded Russia to include the Crimea and took most of Poland in the three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795. By the time of her death, the Russian Empire was a great European power, though in economic terms it was very far behind Western Europe.

Thus, the medieval and early modern states of Eastern Europe gradually fell under foreign domination. However, resentment against foreign rule and the development of national consciousness in the 19th century would revive historical memories and inspire the peoples to fight for independence.


Short, Select Bibliography.

The best short history of East Central Europe (meaning the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians) is: Piotr S. Wandycz, The Price of Freedom. A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present, New York, Oxford, 1992, 2nd edition 2001. (For the Period up to the Enlightenment, see Introduction and chapters 1 through 4.)

For a detailed study of the social, economic, legal and political history of the whole of Eastern Europe up to 1500, see Jean Sedlar, East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500, Seattle and London, 1994.

On the Polish "Szlachta," see the brief capsule in Norman Davies, Europe. A History. New York, Oxford, 1996, pp. 585-86. A longer account is in same, God's Playground. A History of Poland, vol. I., The Origins to 1795, New York, 1982, ch. 7., pp. 201-255.

For the Balkans between 1354 and 1804, see Peter F. Sugar, Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804, Seattle and London, 1977.


For reference works and more detailed studies, see Bibliography, Part I .