From World Wars to the Cold War to Ukraine: How Central Europe Survives

REVIEW: 'The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe' by Martyn Rady

The graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed in Russia's invasion / Getty Images
May 14, 2023

Central Europe pops up on the front pages of newspapers every few decades. Whether it is because of Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife dying at the hands of a Bosnian Serb in 1914, the consequences of the 1938 Munich agreement surrendering Czech lands to Hitler, the drawing of the Iron Curtain after World War II by the Soviet tyranny, the annus mirabilis of 1989 bringing liberty to oppressed nations, or, now, the violent westward push by Russia in Ukraine—Central Europe is the place where seemingly circumscribed forces ignite larger events, good or bad.

But why? Does the region have something peculiar in its people, its traditions, and its geography making it distinct from other parts of Europe? How did it develop through history? Martyn Rady, the Masaryk professor of Central European history at University College London, tackles these questions in a sweeping new book, The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe.

An accomplished historian of the Habsburg Empire, Rady now widens his aperture to encompass in this tome a large region and a long history. Beginning with the Roman Empire and its frontiers on the Rhine and Danube and ending with Russia's aggression against Ukraine, the book is a tour de force of two thousand years. The narrative moves breezily from the Teutonic Knights to the Fuggers, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Habsburgs, from Charlemagne to Václav Havel. It is a 500-page stroll across much of European history.

The reader is dazzled with stories of the various wars and political changes, interspersed with colorful vignettes which never lack in these parts. The spirit of toleration characteristic of the region meant, for instance, that there was an abundance of eccentric groups, such as the Adamites, a second-century sect that reappeared in late medieval Central Europe, advocating nakedness as a way of reestablishing Adam and Eve's innocence before original sin. The lively intellectual life produced Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff, who in the 17th century wrote a 1,000-page brick on how to manage a state. Flamboyant personalities in positions of power abound too. Take, for instance, King Augustus II, who could snap horseshoes with his hands and who died, asking God for mercy, after some heavy drinking. The ethnic diversity of the region is often summarized through descriptions of drinking habits of various nationalities: Slovaks liked plum spirits while Hungarians favored wine, so much that Stephen Széchenyi, one of the greatest Magyars of the 19th century, asked to have his heart pickled in Hungarian wine after his death.

Central Europe is often thought of as a land of mystery with incomprehensible languages and confusing local feuds, but Rady makes it clear that its history is European.

One reason perhaps why Central Europe is puzzling is that its geographic contours are fuzzy. It is notoriously controversial to draw the boundaries of Central Europe because this region has a geopolitical rather than a purely geographic nature. The Mediterranean region, in contrast, is easier to define: It includes the polities with the littoral on the sea. North America is similarly a clear geographic reality. But Central Europe moves on the map, and in some historical periods it outright vanishes. During the Cold War what we now call Central Europe was referred to as Eastern Europe, a result of a violent division of the continent between the democratic West and the Moscow-dominated East. With the withdrawal of the Red Army and then the long-awaited enlargement of NATO and the EU, Central Europe returned to the geopolitical dynamics of the continent and to our lexicon.

But the nomenclature question remains—and it matters. Rady draws Central Europe to include the lands from Germany to Poland and then south to Slovenia, with some brief excursuses into the Baltic and Ukraine. By doing so, Rady draws one of the key underlying threads of the book, namely that Central Europe's main threats have always come from the east, from the Huns and the Tatars to the Russians. Indeed, Central Europe thus conceived is the bulwark, the Christian antemurale, against the mythical Scythians riding their horses from the Asiatic steppes on their destructive westward raid. Today's Ukraine tragically carries this role as it grinds, at heavy cost to its own people, the Russian military machinery led by a modern-day tsar on another imperial push.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with the geographic boundaries chosen by Rady. The region he covers in this history is closer to Mitteleuropa, an area often associated with a German-dominated economic union, than to the area sandwiched between the Prussian and Muscovite powers. By doing so, however, he discounts the Germanic pressure on Central Europe. After all, the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century and much of subsequent history were characterized not simply by Russia's attempt to expand in Europe but also by the increased role and ambition of the various iterations of German power. Whether the German drive to play a dominant role in the region is no longer there, having been transcended by the postmodern institutional arrangements of the European Union, remains to be seen. In any case, Berlin's foreign policy to play nice with Moscow over the past few decades is clearly not a Central European trait.

Irrespective of the particular geographic focus, a history of Central Europe, as of any other region, is written in the shadow of the argument that there is something very specific to this location. Is there then something unique to the belt of nations from the Baltic to the Adriatic seas? We know what Central Europe is not. It is not Russia with its Asiatic steppes and grand ambitions to be the Third Rome after Byzantium and Rome. It is also not Western Europe with its merchant powers looking at the Atlantic and Mediterranean and making recurrent bids for continental hegemony.

Rady suggests that there are deeper differences and briefly mentions at the end of the book some of the singularities of Central Europe. One, deserving perhaps greater attention as it permeates the history as well as the current geopolitical dynamics of the region, is that Central European nations have grown often in separation from the state. As he writes, in "Western Europe, the state preceded the nation." Indeed, "governments through their control of the army, bureaucracy, and education forced nations into being within the spaces of their state." There would be no French people without the French state. Certainly, despite the pining of Machiavelli and other thinkers, there would be no Italian nation without the forceful unification of the peninsula by the Savoy rulers in the late 19th century.

In Central Europe, national consciousness was seeded often without the state. Many, such as the Ukrainian nation, have developed despite not having had their own state until recently. Some survived and prospered at least culturally as independent national entities even when under the political domination of others. Take the Polish nation, for instance, split among three great powers for more than a century until 1917, and then again assaulted, occupied, and oppressed from 1939 until 1989. It survived by maintaining a national identity in the painstaking work of small groups and families, with the support of the ecclesiastical authorities, and in the powerful words of literature and notes of music. Chopin was indeed a "cannon buried in flowers," as Schumann put it.

Why does this difference matter? Rady lists the dangers of this Central European feature. As nations were not aligned with the state, there have been many revisions of boundaries, often resulting in violence and mass movement of people. National groups overlapped, creating animosities that turned ferocious and undermined the political stability of the region. The cause of the bloodletting was, however, less national diversity and more the desire of some political leaders to create states congruent with the nations. "Where people did not fit, their new twentieth-century masters either killed them or loaded them into cattle trucks." As Stalin commented on the fact that Hungarians lived in many states, "The Hungarian problem is only one of boxcars."

But there are positive aspects of this strong national attachment in the region, perhaps underestimated in the book. The fact that Central European nations have an attachment to sources of authority that are often independent from the state—the church, the intellectuals, the local leaders or tragic military heroes—makes them not just more irrepressible but also more willing to fight, quickly coalescing against an enemy who threatens their national survival and independence and, if in place, political sovereignty. Again, the case of today's Ukraine here is telling. It is a firm belief in the existence of an independent Ukrainian nation that allows Ukrainians to fight to keep their state sovereignty. People are more likely to accept sacrifices for the nation, rather than just a state.

Central Europe deserves to be studied. It will not disappear from the chessboard of geopolitical competition. And this book offers a brisk and stimulating introduction to its history.

The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe
by Martyn Rady
Basic Books, 617 pp., $36

Jakub Grygiel is a professor at The Catholic University of America, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and senior adviser at The Marathon Initiative.