Opinion: When following events in Ukraine, remember Eastern Europe’s legacy to the world
Eastern European achievements represent high watermarks of world history. More than a collection of NATO allies, it is a center of faith, enterprise, inquiry, culture and a deep wellspring of courage
Were our information sources limited to cable news or social media, we would deprive ourselves of appreciating how different parts of the world lift the human spirit.
Take the example of Eastern Europe, for instance. Considering the Russian war in Ukraine, we might hear that the Baltic nations (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) are important as a “northern flank.” We might also learn that Poland is an important ally for “backfilling” military assets. Finally, we might express admiration at the Slovenian, Polish and Czech heads of state who weeks ago stealthily pierced the Ukrainian frontier to stand resolutely beside Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
But Eastern Europe holds a much deeper human legacy — one that often goes unnoticed. While teaching a class on the cultural contributions of European Jewish scientists, artists and public figures for the honors program at BYU between 2018 and 2020, I had the chance to study this underappreciated part of the world, historically situated between the former Polish-Lithuanian, Prussian, Russian, Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.
Eastern European achievements represent high-water marks of world history. Indeed, Eastern Europe is more than a collection of NATO allies. It is a center of faith, a center of enterprise, a center of inquiry, a center of culture and a deep wellspring of courage.
Inasmuch as what follows is intended to persuade you of Eastern Europe’s importance in global affairs, it is also a series of invitations to appreciate these achievements. The serious student of the region will also consult the definitive analysis of the region’s recent history: John Connelly’s “From People into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe” (Princeton, 2022).
First, Eastern Europe is a center of faith. In the 14th and early 15th centuries, Wenceslaus IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, ruled his far-flung domains from the medieval city of Prague. His wife, Elizabeth of Pomerania, cultivated a network of Europe’s leading lights as far away as England, where reformer John Wycliffe issued challenges to the Catholic Church.
One of Wenceslaus’ subjects, a religious innovator named Jan Hus, took courage from Wycliffe’s reforms, which included translations of the New Testament for the common folk. From the sturdy walls of Bethlehem Church, situated near Prague’s iconic main plaza, Hus made the sacramental chalice and bread available to all parishioners and championed the dispersal of sacred writ in the local language.
Sadly, Wenceslaus’ brother, Zygmunt, elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, betrayed Hus, who was imprisoned and ultimately burned at the stake in June 1415 for his alleged heresies. Thus, 100 years before Martin Luther unwittingly took the initial steps toward thorough-going reformation, leveling influences were already afoot farther east. Distinguished historian Theodore Rabb offers a compelling account of Hus’ courage in “Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age” (Basic Books, 2000), an exquisite book written for a general audience.
If a center of faith, Eastern Europe is also center of earthly enterprise. Even before the end of the Cold War, prescient Poles, Czechs and Hungarians anticipated market reforms.
While many remember Solidarity union head Lech Walesa’s dogged leadership to force systematic reforms in Poland, hundreds of his fellow citizens headed west to Germany, where they bargained for profits at makeshift flea markets in Berlin’s Reichpietschufer. Similarly, the winds of freedom rekindled a strong industrial base in and around Prague, where myriad manufacturers thrived prior to the Cold War. At the same time, Hungarian farmers parlayed specialized crop production into a lucrative trade, while today Slovakia pitches itself as a 21st century showcase for automotive assembly.
At present, these countries are arguably even more market-oriented than their Western counterparts, their entrepreneurs keen on preserving openness even as authoritarianism farther east threatens to stifle innovation. The Heritage Foundation’s 2020 Index of Economic Openness ranks Estonia, Lithuania Latvia, Czechia (the former Czech Republic) and Austria ahead of the United States.
And, as University of Vienna historian Philipp Ther observes throughout his engaging “History of Europe since 1989” (Princeton University Press, 2016), even enterprising Ukrainians gravitated westward to these nations in search of free-market opportunities — a trend only exacerbated by Russia’s execrable onslaught.
As commerce and innovation go hand in hand, Eastern Europe has also historically been a center of inquiry. Eighteenth century German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn held that science and faith were not mutually exclusive. This movement, known as the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, threw open the doors to a liberating pursuit of truth throughout Europe.
It is hard to read Jewish memoirs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including novelist and historian extraordinaire Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday” (Nebraska, 2013), without recognizing that the highest aspirations of European Jews lay in the realm of education.
Sadly, those same traditions, which flourished in today’s Ukrainian city of Lviv, a college town on the order of Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, served as the backdrop for the genesis of the term “genocide” and the concept of “crimes against humanity.” British attorney Philippe Sands outlines these tragic consequences of 20th-century dehumanization in his compelling, family-history driven “East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes against Humanity’” (Knopf, 2016).
As an extension of creative inquiry, Eastern Europe is also a center of culture. The built environment of Prague and Ukraine’s window on the Black Sea, Odessa, give a sense of pre-communist architectural achievement. Following the fiery destruction of Prague’s Jewish quarter in the early 20th century, well-heeled citizens adorned their new homes with the motifs of art nouveau, including embellishments of femininity, flora and the orient.
If this movement arguably originated farther west in Erte’s Paris and Gustav Klimt’s secessionist Vienna, Alphonse Mucha gave it a decidedly Czech wrinkle with his stylish depictions of fashion forward ladies, images which still grace the pages of calendars and art books today.
Ukrainians were not about to be outdone by their Bohemian neighbors, outfitting their blue-collar port city with an opera house worthy of great performances, which still stands. Historian Charles King has written about these early artistic achievements of Odessa’s cultured intelligentsia in his history of the city, “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams” (W.W. Norton, 2012).
While few buildings attest to the presence of a Hungary’s distinctive post-impressionist artist’s community, which flourished in the village of Szentendre, the Hungarian National Gallery, housed in nearby Budapest’s Castle Hill, attests to the inspiration that idyllic Hungarian villages lent to the talented eyes of artists including Karoly Ferenczy.
Finally, if art encourages the human soul, bold action sustains it. Thus, Eastern Europe is a wellspring of courage for the rest of humanity. Centuries of conflict have forged determination in the face of overwhelming adversity. Poland offers plenty of examples.
The piano is a fitting symbol for democratically based defiance. You’ll find one on the mezzanine of Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin International Airport. More recently, at least one Ukrainian sympathizer wheeled a pianoforte to the Polish/Ukrainian border, where he welcomed refugees with tones of triumph.
Some generations earlier, Wladyslaw Szpilman, author of the memoir “The Pianist” (Picador, 2000) signed off on Polish national radio’s final broadcast in 1939 with a live performance, even as German bombs fell on Warsaw. He subsequently played for German officers to preserve his life as he dodged certain death in the wartime ghetto.
Equally as compelling, the 20-something Polish diplomat, Jan Karski, twice escaped Nazi captivity before agreeing with the Jewish underground to visit the Warsaw ghetto, as well as the Izbica concentration camp, a transport point for Jewish prisoners.
With little regard for his own life, he made these humanitarian sorties. Then, at the age of 25, and as a representative of the Polish government in exile, Karski shared the reality of the Holocaust with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during an extraordinary interview at the White House on July 28, 1943. Karski was later hailed as “Righteous Among Nations,” by Yad Vashem, the World Historical Memorial Center and recounted his wartime experiences in “Story of a Secret State: My Testimony to the World” (Penguin Classics, 2019).
A recently produced theatrical monologue of Karski’s life, “Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski,” (Georgetown University Press, 2021), recently reprised at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., further attests to the heroism of this Catholic Pole who went on to become a beloved professor at Georgetown University in the nation’s capital.
Even as Szpilman and Karski survived to bear their witnesses to the West, others gave their lives to preserve an obscured, even erased, past. The undaunted Emanuel Ringelblum, a Jewish historian, trained a cadre of fellow denizens of the Warsaw ghetto to meticulously document the atrocities perpetrated against and the accomplishments realized by their extraordinary community.
In “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto” (Vintage, 2009), historian Samuel Kassow recounts the story of how these sheaves of history — a living testament to a vulnerable, though resilient community — were committed to nine metal boxes and a milk container, then buried underneath buildings in Warsaw. Recovered after the war, these voices from the rubble helped convict Adolf Eichmann of crimes against humanity in 1961.
The extraordinary, dented metal milk container that preserved a portion of this history, which was designated a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO in 1999, remains on display at the Jewish Historical Archive in Warsaw.
In sum, Eastern Europe is as important to the pageantry of human experience as any other region in the world. As we better see the similarities to our experiences and cultivate an awareness of the region’s outstanding accomplishments, we can better engage with those from the region whom we meet in their own the pursuit of liberty, faith, creativity and knowledge. Ultimately, when we celebrate these achievements, and those that wrought them, we will gain a deeper conviction that to protect their values will only strengthen ours.
Evan R. Ward is Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University.