Getting into the history of Eastern Europe


I recently received an email from a dedicated blog reader who was very much enjoying the wonderful travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor (who in the 1930s decided he would walk the length of Europe) and asked for some advice on how to get an overview of the history of Eastern Europe. Embracing any opportunity to rummage through my bookshelf and yarn over old favourites, I picked out a few titles which I have found to be the best and most recent broad introductory reading on the History of Eastern Europe that would make a great accompaniment to the writings of Fermor. They are all markedly different in style, approach and content, and I hope this will be helpful to anyone seeking to get into this amazing history depending on what you want to get out of it.


The short and sweet introduction:

The Eastern Question, 1774-1923
By A. Macfie
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Anybody starting out in Eastern European History across this period will inevitably encounter the term 'The Eastern Question'. This is term, coined by the British Government, is used to encompass the broad diplomatic and political problems across Eastern Europe posed by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. The expression does not apply to any one particular problem, but instead includes a variety of issues raised during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including; the rise of Balkan nationalism and the independence movements of the Balkan states such as Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania; the territorial ambition of Russia in the Balkans especially in the Strait and Constantinople; the responses; attitude and the vested interests of the Great European Powers especially Britain; France and Austria, and the international relationship and groupings of the Powers in each of the crisis.
The author of this short book, which part of the Seminar Studies series, provides a good, easy to follow, clear and concise introduction to all of these issues. The layout of the content also makes this a great quick reference guide to Fermor's travel writings.


The broadest of the comprehensive introductions:

The Making of the Modern East, 1792-1923 (A History of the Near East)
By M.E.Yapp
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This is a well structured, almost textbook-like work and the broadest of background readings for anyone interested in the history of Eastern Europe.
It contains a general regional introduction, followed by a series of country-by-country analyses, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the Baltic states, and a section which places the Near East in the international context.
The new, expanded edition, also covers some of the recent dramatic events including the end of the Cold War, the Kuwait Crisis of 1990/91, and the continuing conflict in Israel, as well as assessing the huge social and economic changes in the region, perhaps giving this book a leaning more towards a history of the Middle East rather than Eastern Europe proper.


More specific to the timeframe of Fermor's writings:

East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars (A History of East Central Europe)
By Joseph Rothschild
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This book has found its way onto pretty much all University reading lists that deal with the region and therefore its more academic in makeup and less reference or casual reading. It's scope however is focussed on the history of the region between the two world wars and the events which were happening while Fermor was actually travelling. It therefore goes into much more depth on the political cultures of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the Baltic states.


My personal favourite:

The Balkans 1804 - 1999
By Misha Glenny
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This book does a good job at everything from putting all the peoples of the Balkans in the context of their existence within the Ottoman Empire, to the experience and legacy of the Great War, the royal dictatorships of the interwar period, the occupation and genocides of World War Two, liberation and communism culminating in the new nationalism of the late eighties, civil war and the involvement of NATO.
I wrote a review on this last year and continue to find it recommendable to any reader seeking to obtain an understanding of all the essential dynamics that have shaped the region's past and present. For those already acquainted with Balkan history, Misha Glenny's book may still serve as a very useful chronological reference guide or to get a broad understanding before attempting to move on to works dealing with more specific issues in Balkan history.