Eastern Europe

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Eastern Europe has many plains that allow invaders to move from east to west and vice versa. In World War II, Germany invaded the Communist Soviet Union, killing millions. After the war, the Soviet Union decided to protect itself from invasion by setting up a political barrier. So it established Communist governments in the nations of Eastern Europe, which lay between the Soviet Union and its enemies to the west. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted Eastern Europe to “have governments whose relations to the Soviet Union are loyal.” For decades, the Soviet Union crushed political reform and free trade in Eastern Europe. The region is still recovering.

History of a Cultural Crossroads

Eastern Europe's location between Asia and the rest of Europe shaped its history. Many groups migrated into the region, creating great diversity. Strong empires ruled parts of Eastern Europe, delaying the rise of independent nation-states there. Today the region includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Serbia and Montenegro.


Eastern Europe is a cultural crossroads, or a place where various cultures cross paths. Since ancient times, people moving between Europe and Asia—traders, nomads, migrants, and armies—have passed through this region. Because the region is an important crossroads, many world powers have tried to control it.

Eastern European History, 1389–2000


By about A.D. 100, ancient Rome held the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria, Romania, and parts of Hungary. After the Roman Empire was split, the Byzantine Empire held onto those lands for centuries. In the 1300s and 1400s, the Ottoman Empire of Turkey  gradually took over the southern part of Eastern Europe. Various Slavic groups moved into Eastern Europe from the 400s through the 600s. Several kingdoms, such as Poland in the north and Serbia on the Balkan Peninsula, formed. In the late 800s, a non-Slavic group called the Magyars swept into what is now Hungary and in time established a kingdom. The Ottomans later conquered it.

Beginning in the 1400s, the nation of Austria became a great power. Austria drove the Ottomans out of Hungary and took control of that state. In the late 1700s, Austria, Prussia (a German state), and Russia divided up Poland among themselves. Poland ceased to exist.

Turmoil in the 20th Century

Responding to centuries of foreign rule, most ethnic groups in Eastern Europe fiercely guarded their identities. Many wanted their own nationstates, even though few had a history of self-rule. These characteristics sparked many conflicts in Eastern Europe during the 20th century. WAR AFTER WAR By 1908, the Balkan nations of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia had broken free from the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia went to war against the Ottomans, who lost most of their remaining European territory. In 1913, the Balkan countries fought over who should own that territory.

Their actions led to a new word, balkanization. The term refers to the process of a region breaking up into small, mutually hostile units. The Slavic nation of Serbia also wanted to free the Slavs in Austria- Hungary. In 1914, a Serb assassinated an Austrian noble, sparking World War I. Austria-Hungary and Serbia each pulled their allies into the conflict until most of Europe was involved. After the war, Austria and Hungary split apart. Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia gained independence. The Ottoman Empire ended and was replaced by the nation of Turkey.

In 1939, Germany seized Poland, starting World War II. Near the end of that war, the Soviet Union advanced through Eastern Europe as part of an Allied strategy to crush Germany from two sides. The Soviet Union later refused to withdraw from Eastern Europe until it had set up Communist governments there. Eastern Europe became a region of satellite nations—nations dominated by another country.


The Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe for four decades. But by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union had severe economic problems, and a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was making reforms. As one reform, he gave Eastern Europe more freedom. The impact was dramatic. Eastern Europeans demanded political and economic reforms. In 1989, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania ended Communist control of their governments and held free elections. In 1990, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia followed suit.

Communist and Non-Communist Europe, 1949 and 2000

Instability followed. The old governments had taught people to be loyal only to the Communist Party. After those governments fell, people returned to ethnic loyalties. That was especially true in Yugoslavia, a nation consisting of six republics. In the early 1990s, four of the six Yugoslav republics voted to become separate states. Serbia objected, leading to civil war. In contrast, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Developing the Economy

Because of its fertile plains, Eastern Europe has traditionally been a farming region. After 1948, the Soviet Union promoted industry there. INDUSTRY Under communism, the government owned all factories and told them what to produce. This system was inefficient because industries had little motive to please customers or to cut costs. Often, there were shortages of goods. Eastern European nations traded with the Soviet Union and each other, so they didn't keep up with the technology of other nations. As a result, they had difficulty selling goods to nations outside Eastern Europe. And their outdated factories created heavy pollution.

After 1989, most of Eastern Europe began to move toward a market economy, in which industries make the goods consumers want to buy. Many factories in Eastern Europe became privately owned instead of state owned. The changes caused problems, such as inflation, the closing of factories, and unemployment. Since then, however, many factories have cut their costs and improved production. As a result, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have all grown economically.


Some Eastern European nations have had trouble making economic progress—for many different reasons.

  • • Albania's economic growth is slowed by old equipment, a lack of raw materials, and a shortage of educated workers.
  • • Few of Romania's citizens have money to invest in business. In addition, the Romanian government still owns some industries. Foreigners don't want to invest their money in those industries.
  • • The civil wars of the 1990s damaged Yugoslavia and its former republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Equipment and buildings were destroyed; workers were killed or left the country.

In general, it will take years for Eastern Europe to overcome the damage caused, in part, by decades of Communist control.

Per Capita GDP in Eastern Europe

A Patchwork Culture

Because Eastern Europe contains a variety of ethnic groups, the region as a whole is a patchwork of different languages and religions.


The map on page 267 shows the languages of Eastern Europe. The number of languages makes it difficult to unify the region. In some places, the national language is most closely related to a language spoken in a different region. For example, Hungarian is related to Finnish, and Romanian is related to Italian, French, and Spanish. Neither are related to the Slavic languages of the countries around them. This pattern was created by long-ago migrations.

Similarly, many different religions can be found in Eastern Europe. The Roman Empire introduced Catholicism, and after Rome fell, the Byzantine Empire spread Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Some countries also have a Protestant minority. And under the Ottoman Empire, some Eastern Europeans converted to Islam.

The region also has a small Jewish minority. Jews once made up a much higher percentage of Eastern Europeans, but in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews. About half of them were from Poland. After World War II,many surviving Jews migrated to Israel.


Religious belief, rural customs, and Byzantine art have all influenced Eastern European folk art. In general, folk art is produced by rural people with traditional lifestyles instead of by professional artists. Eastern European folk artists create items such as pottery, woodcarving, and embroidered traditional costumes.

Many Eastern European ethnic groups also have their own folk music. This music influenced the region's classical musicians. Frederic Chopin based some of his piano music on Polish dances. Anton Dvor?ak wove Czech folk music into his compositions.

Moving Toward Modern Life

Since their Communist governments fell, many Eastern Europeans have expressed a longing for more economic growth and political freedom. These goals provide the region with some major challenges.


Eastern Europe has several large cities, such as Prague in the Czech Republic. More than 1,000 years old, Prague is one of Europe's most interesting cities, with quaint buildings, a rich history of music and culture, and thriving industries.

In general, though, Eastern Europe is much less urban than the rest of Europe. For example, the percentage of city dwellers is only 40 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina and only 37 percent in Albania.

As Eastern Europe develops more industry, its cities will grow. That will have both positive and negative effects. Cities are often places of culture, learning, and modern technology. But urban growth creates problems such as pollution, traffic jams, and housing shortages.


As you read earlier, many Eastern Europeans have fierce loyalties to their own ethnic groups. One result of that has been conflict. For example, many Serbs hate Croats (KROH•ATS) because they believe the Croats betrayed them in World War II by working with the Nazis.

Eastern European minority groups have often faced discrimination. Throughout history, Jews have suffered from anti-Semitism, which is discrimination against Jewish people. Another minority that experiences prejudice is the Romany, or Gypsy, people who are scattered across Eastern Europe. Traditionally, the Romany have moved from place to place. Because of this, other groups often look down on them.


To obtain true democracy, Eastern Europeans need to overcome old hatreds and work together. They also need to accept democratic ideals such as the rule of law—which means that government officials must obey the law. The dictators that ruled Eastern Europe in the past did not do so. But in recent years, Eastern Europeans have often held their leaders accountable. For example, in 2000, the Yugoslav people forced a dictator to accept election results that turned him out of office. You will read about this event in Chapter 14, along with other major issues of European life today.