Biskupska on Connelly, 'From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe'

John Connelly. From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. Illustrations, maps. 968 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16712-1

Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-Poland (August, 2020)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

In From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe, John Connelly offers a sweeping, elegantly written new narrative of modern eastern European history from the nineteenth century to the present. Digesting a formidable library of interpretations in English, German, French, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Polish, his synthesis will define the field from this point forward. Moving from personage to personage and crisis to crisis, he links disparate societies and events together under the umbrella of nationalism. In his eyes, the key to understanding the region’s identity is the durability of nationalist thinking—despite the encroachment of multiple external and internal imperial projects. A double-edged sword, nationalism preserved the distinctiveness of this space and its plurality of peoples but also provoked constant violence and undermined consensus-based polities. Readers will notice echoes of Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1999), which considers Europe’s last century as an “unremitting struggle” among “liberal democracy, communism, and fascism.”[1] Mazower sees the period after World War I as the heyday of nationalism. Connelly, too, emphasizes the interwar but grounds nationalism much earlier and sees in it an explanation for the successes and failures of democracy, communism, and fascism in the East: nationalism is cause, not effect.

Eastern Europe’s human complexity makes national and state histories contentious to construct and a regional narrative a formidable project indeed. Most tell a coherent tale only by letting one nationality dominate, but Connelly refuses to do this. Only a few syntheses exist in English: Robert Bideleux’s History of Eastern Europe (2007), which begins with the Greco-Roman period, and Piotr S. Wandycz’s Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present (1992). Wandycz’s volume focuses on the Poles and was published at an optimistic moment, when the eastern half of Europe appeared to be merging successfully into the West at the end of the Cold War; Connelly’s, penned a generation later, comes to nearly opposite conclusions about the region’s past, present, and future.

The first challenge of the volume is to draw boundaries. This Connelly does with care, aiming at the “band of countries” hemmed in by the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas and by the creeping borders of the Prussian/German, Ottoman/Turkish, and Russian/Soviet Empires (p. 3). Czechs and Hungarians receive the most thorough treatment as the children of the Habsburg project. The radicalism of Magyar politics and Hungarian nationalism, defining themselves first against German Habsburgs and then a sea of Slavs, steals the show. Poles and Serbs, too, are considered at length, especially in the twentieth century. Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, and Bulgarians broaden the story, and the importance of Zionism and the Jewish communities of the region are considered. Ukrainians and ethnic Germans also enter the narrative and the Roma make fleeting appearances. Antisemitism among emerging national groups provides a point of comparison, as not all eastern European antisemitisms were (or are) the same. Polish antisemitism is portrayed as having a particular power, as it leveraged language to unite landowners and peasants with wildly different interests against a common “other” (p. 288). Though Connelly flirts with nationalism as an “inevitable” and overpowering force, he never discounts individual agency (pp. 789-790). Tomas Masaryk plays a starring role, but the portraits of Aleksandar Stamboliskii, Stjepan Radić, and Władysław Gomułka deserve mention as well.

The book is composed of twenty-seven chronological chapters that consider how national thinking developed in different eastern European peoples, and with what consequences. Sensibly, not all moments and topics include all players. Though the work deserves to be read from cover to cover, its length means some may dip into a few chapters, likely the one on the Holocaust and collaboration, “What Dante Did Not See,” and the closing analysis of contemporary liberal democracy, “Eastern Europe Joins Europe.” Readers should not, however, neglect chapter 5, “Insurgent Nationalisms,” on the parallel Serb and Polish insurrectionary traditions or chapter 11, “Peasant Utopias,” which showcases the creativity of Croat and Bulgarian enfranchisement of the peasantry. Essential also are two vibrant paired discussions: on native fascism and anti-fascism in chapters 14 and 15, and the two divergent ends to the Cold War in northeastern and southeastern Europe in chapters 25 and 26. The importance of native eastern European anti-fascism as a demonstration of nationalism’s creative power is vital.

Connelly’s discussion returns again and again to various themes: the force of ideas, the malleability of language, the peasant question, the “othering” of minorities, and violence. The approach to warfare is distinctive. Insurgency traditions are seen primarily in their relationship to national mythmaking. The Balkan Wars and World War I are considered perfunctorily, with their echoes more important than the fighting itself. World War II, with its prolonged Nazi and Soviet occupations, encouragement of local empires, and demographic catastrophes, is covered in detail. Communism is portrayed not merely as a foreign import but as a series of creative (if unsuccessful) national recastings of Soviet directives, usually to Moscow’s consternation.

Rejecting common misunderstanding of the region as the mere plaything of empires, Connelly’s eastern Europe testifies to the extraordinary power of nationalism, which eastern Europeans themselves embraced and which has in turn channeled their development and kept them distinct from their neighbors, east and west. His analysis of the region is sure to have enduring power.


[1]. Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York: Knopf, 1999), x, 41.

Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Connelly, John, From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020.

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