Social Education 57(4), 1993
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

A Geopolitical Overview of Europe

William H. Berentsen
Europe is less well defined by its physical characteristics than the other continents are. Europe is more accurately defined as a cultural and political construct, delimited by perceived or real distinctiveness from Asia, with which it forms the contiguous Eurasian landmass. Although research has offered numerous qualitative and quantitative measures to define what is and what is not Europe, many seem to agree that the continent generally has the following broad cultural characteristics: Indo-European languages, Christian religions, democratic government and institutions, and emphasis on and achievement of relatively high levels of socioeconomic well-being (Jordan 1988).
The physical boundaries of the continent are generally recognized as the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, and Caucasus Mountains to the south, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the more arbitrary line of the Ural Mountains, Ural River, and Caspian Sea to the east. The latter boundary also splits the world's largest and fifth most populous nation, Russia, between Europe and Asia. It is, thus, understandable that many Europeans themselves think of nations of the former Soviet Union (especially Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) as Eastern Europe. What most people in the United States call Eastern Europe (those nations, formerly dominated by the USSR or socialism, in a more or less north-south line from Poland to Albania) is often referred to in Europe as Central Europe. East Central Europe is also used to refer to the nations in the north, and the Balkans (or Southeastern Europe) to those in the south. Needless to say, the boundaries for the continent's subregions are equally as arbitrary and even more confusing than the delimitations of Europe itself.

Compounding the confusion, many people of European ethnic heritage who speak European languages live off the continent, including about two hundred million U.S. citizens, although many people with non-European ethnic and linguistic characteristics are readily identified and accepted as European. The latter peoples include the distantly related Hungarians, Estonians, and Finns, whose ancestors migrated to Europe from Asia more than one thousand years ago, and many lesser-known Asiatic peoples in northwestern Russia and in the region near the Volga Bend (southeast of Moscow). Less accepted as Europeans are, for example, Jews, Roma, and Sinti (pejoratively, Gypsies), and millions of resident guest workers from Asia and Africa. With notable exceptions (e.g., the Armenians), most of the languages of the peoples of the Caucasus Mountains are not Indo-European, though some of these peoples are often recognized as European (e.g., the Georgians). Turkey crowns the disorder. Here is a country with territory in southeastern Europe, whose government belongs to NATO and seeks to join the European Community, but whose citizens speak an Asian language, follow a Muslim religion, and are not generally considered European.

Europe's Geopolitical Heritage and Structure
Unfortunately, the internal political boundaries of Europe are and have been as unclearly defined as who and what is European. The dramatic post-1989 boundary changes in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia are only symptomatic of an unending history of strife and political realignment in Europe. For example, although many Europeans view the United States as a young country (given that it has existed for a short period compared to, for example, Poland, Greece, and Hungary), few may actually be aware that the United States has existed continuously as an independent state for a longer period than most European nations-including the countries just listed (figure 1).

The emergence and reemergence of countries in Europe has occurred with regularity. Based on one method of tabulation, nine nation-states developed for the first time or reemerged as independent in the 1860s and 1870s, seven during the few years before and after World War I, and eleven within the last couple of years (not including united Germany, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Serbia/Montenegro). Some political entities, notably Austro-Hungary and Czechoslovakia, no longer exist.

We can trace much of this political instability in states and their boundaries to the relatively complex interplay between four major forces affecting Europe from the time of the Vienna Congress (1815) to the present: imperialism, nationalism, totalitarianism, and economic development (Pounds 1990). A deceptively peaceful era followed the Vienna Congress, held after the last of the Napoleonic Wars. During the 1800s, large, international empires controlled vast territories across Europe and around the world. Partially in response to repressive, unenlightened rule and suppression of national cultures, however, nationalism evolved to become a potent political force in Europe. The associated belief that nations of people should have a right of self-determination within independent nation-states also spread. Pounds (1990, 5) argues that with nationalism, "the almost 'seamless web' of earlier Europe became broken and fragmented by the political lines drawn across it, so that it became a mosaic rather than a continuum."

Nationalism had an especially great influence on Central and Eastern Europe, where the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and (after its formation late in the century) German Empires included within them great numbers of diverse nationalities, most of whom received scant political representation in government and too little benefit from the momentous changes emanating from the Industrial Revolution.

Numerous revolts took place against authoritarian rule, often with a strong nationalistic basis. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Hungarians wrested concessions from the Austrian crown resulting in the foundation of a dual monarchy, but, ironically, Hungarian rule over ethnic minorities within its portion of the empire was generally less enlightened than rule from Vienna. This laid the basis for continuing problems between the Hungarians, Slovaks, Croatians, and Romanians that continue to the present.

Problems were even more severe in a highly diverse, weak Ottoman Empire, from which several countries won independence late in the nineteenth century. Complex geographic patterns of ethnicity in Southeastern Europe, resulting in part from political and economic policies of the warring Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, enhanced an existing, geographically complex distribution of ethnic groups. This complexity was and is greatest in the central portions of what was Yugoslavia, notably in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a tragedy of chilling proportions has unfolded. A volatile mix of ideology, nationalism, economic jealousy, and historical precedent and mythology (e.g., between ethnically related Croats and Serbs) has been superimposed on an ethnic landscape where cleanly dividing competing, warring national groups was and is impossible. The Holocaust, the Yugoslav atrocities of World War II, and the unfolding atrocities of the current Yugoslav civil war-to name only some of the region's most violent episodes-are the horrible consequences of the interplay of these forces.

Geopolitical instability in Europe, thus, has been most notable in what people in the United States call Eastern Europe, a region sometimes referred to as the Shatter Belt because of the impermanence of countries and international boundaries and their related, complex geographic pattern of ethnicity. Unstable, unenlightened governments, ever-shifting national boundaries, relatively poor resource bases, and related lack of technology, capital, and skilled labor are among a number of possible explanations for the region's relative economic backwardness and associated political weakness (Berend and Ranki 1982; Chirot 1989; Zaniewski 1992). Deprived of many of the fruits of economic development from the Industrial Revolution, and weakened and torn politically by the factors noted above, states in the region launched the Balkan Wars and played major roles in precipitating World War I. Devastated by the Depression, Eastern Europe then became a not entirely innocent victim to the maelstrom of totalitarianism and imperialism associated with the 1930s and 1940s.

By the late 1940s, the cold war divided Europe geopolitically between the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe dominated by the Soviet Union and the Western alliance (NATO) led by the United States. Overlooked during this confrontation was the perilous existence of a third set of more or less nonaligned states astride the Iron Curtain. In a north-south corridor through Central Europe, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Albania formed a group of largely nonaligned states, which all attempted in their own way to survive or wait out Europe's bipolar cold war and the related superpower confrontation. The intra-German border was one of a few places in Europe where Warsaw Pact and NATO forces lined up opposite one another. The boundary was much more important and hostile because it lay along a historic path of invasion on the North European Plain and because it artificially divided the German people, relatively few of whom identified with or supported the authoritarian regime in East Germany. Exodus of literally millions of these people for the West precipitated construction of the Berlin Wall and a fortified East-West German border in 1961, which persisted until the end of the cold war.

Europe's Geopolitical Future
The dramatic political events of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe have opened what appears to be a new era in the geopolitical history of Europe. Some people interpret the economic descent and political demise of the USSR as a final chapter in European imperial history. As a result, a number of new European states have been born or have reemerged. It seems unlikely, however, that we have yet experienced the final implications of the momentous collapse of the Soviet/communist/socialist system and empire.

What will the eventual political-territorial organization of the former Soviet Union look like? Will the now more ethnically diverse and still relatively economically dependent economies of the Baltic states and Moldova survive as they exist today? What will future relations between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine be like? Will Central Europe, where Russian-Soviet power has drastically declined, remain as it is in 1993?

Certainly, in the case of Central Europe one must expect further political change, including likely changes in international borders. The ultimate boundaries of Croatia and Serbia/Montenegro and the very existence of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia seem to hang in the balance. An independent Slovakia appears to face a difficult economic future, not to mention the political task of forming a new nation-state with an ethnically diverse population, which polls indicate still prefers union with the Czech Republic.

Many of the forces that have been the historic bases for political disunity in Europe persist, both at the international and national levels. Economic competition among nations makes international cooperation increasingly difficult. For example, agricultural interests at the national level complicate EC politics and impede progress toward a new, global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Economic jealousies threaten national unity-notably in Belgium, where long-term divergent levels of economic growth are one of the ingredients in disputes between Walloons in the south and the Flemish in the north. In Italy, a movement in the prosperous north seeks separation from an economically much weaker south, which has long received transfer payments from other parts of the country. Nationalism and ethnic conflict continue to play a role in dividing peoples and threatening political stability. These conflicts often have deep historic roots and complexly interrelated socioeconomic causes, notably in the cases of northern Ireland, the Basque lands, and Corsica. Numerous regionally and ethnically based political movements threaten national and international peace in Europe today (figure 2).

Although forces of disunity continue to exert influence in Europe, a number of unifying forces may, in some instances, lead toward national and international unity. Shared values, common aspirations for the future, and national identity helped work to unify Germany, although ideological differences, economic jealousies, and negative expressions of nationalism complicate and impede consummation of the process. A mutually recognized horror of war and the desire to defuse ethnic and national animosity has helped bind European nations together in international political and trade organizations, the European Community being the most prominent and successful example to date, despite some of the problems stemming from the periodic assertion of strong national interests by individual member states (or interest groups such as those of the French farmers).

Extension of education to a great proportion of the electorate, an expanded network of telecommunication, and reductions in the relative cost and effort of transportation have increased contact among peoples in Europe and probably have led to increasing levels of tolerance and acceptance of shared values, including a desire for economic prosperity and participation in an evolving international popular culture. Although these trends seem threatening or distasteful to some Europeans, they may allow the continent's diverse regions and ethnic groups an opportunity to express their identity with less fear of repercussions from other groups or from central governments. Regional interests might be better served by political recognition and economic redress within a pan-European political organization like the European Community, than within the narrow confines of the nation-state, where political positions can become fixed and long-standing grudges difficult to overcome. Thus, for example, Catalonians or Bretons might be able to fulfill a greater sense of national political-cultural identity and economic independence by working within the framework of a federated Europe than within the confines of their traditionally centrally dominated nation-states (Spain and France).

The late twentieth century appears to be either an era in which peace could break out in Europe in the wake of a once-threatening cold war, or an era in which forces of disunity could prevail and launch the region into yet more cycles of strife and instability. At present, greater unity appears to be a possibility in Western Europe, whereas greater divisiveness is a reality in Central and Eastern Europe. Predictions of the future seem perilous; the unfolding of unpredictable trends and events may be a reasonable prognostication for the immediate future. Virtually no one could have envisioned the geopolitical status of Europe in 1993 and there are likely few potentially accurate predictions for twenty-first-century Europe, which could be propelled toward greater unity or pummeled again by national and international discord.

Mitteleuropa: Will Central Europe Reemerge?
A current topic of debate related to Europe's geopolitical future is the possible reemergence or, fundamentally, the existence of a region called Central Europe, or Mitteleuropa (e.g., Graubard 1991; Papcke and Weidenfeld 1988; Varsanyi n.d.). Several authors date serious discussion about the definition of the region to an influential book published by Friedrich Naumann in 1915. One could undoubtedly define Central Europe based simply on latitude and longitude. Early discussion about how arbitrarily Europe itself is defined, as well as the ethnic and spatial-temporal complexity of political units in the center of the European landmass, make it clear that defining Central Europe is not, after all, an easy task. Some authors warn us beforehand that the term is highly "ambiguous" (Graubard 1991, xiii) or that "Central Europe has become the idealized Europe of our cultural nostalgia....[D]own on the ground, Central Europe remains a very opaque sort of proposition" (Judt 1991, 48).

The latter arguments notwithstanding, use of the term Central Europe has continued, although an accepted definition does not really exist. Although the geographic center of the European landmass likely lies somewhere in the newly independent nation of Belarus (the former Soviet Union had a little more European land area than the rest of Europe combined), most writers traditionally have included within central Europe both Germany and the more northerly nations of what people in the United States have traditionally called Eastern Europe. Thus, Germany, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Austria, and Hungary have generally been included in definitions of Central Europe. Slovenia and Croatia will probably now also fall within this definition. Much of Southeastern Europe (the territory of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania), however, is also often defined as part of the region. Switzerland, Belarus, the Baltic Republics, and even the Netherlands have also occasionally been included.

Central Europe has no precise definition, and usage reflects and reconfirms that fact. A reasonably fair, working definition might be to think of the region as present-day Germany, Poland, and the historic lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Not everyone, of course, will agree with this definition.

Justifying Central Europe as an Entity
Several reasons exist for identifying Central Europe as a distinct subregion of Europe. First, two large and powerful empires, Germany and Austro-Hungary, once dominated the area. Their territories and spheres of influence were more central within Europe than those of the Western powers (e.g., France and the United Kingdom) or the Eastern powers (Russia and Turkey). In deference to this geopolitical fact, coining of the term Mitteleuropa was probably inevitable.

Second, some view Central Europe as a region with an especially rich intellectual and cultural heritage, springing in part from "centuries of interaction between different cultural traditions" (Rupnik 1991, 233). Franz Kafka was, for example, a "German-speaking Jew in the Czech capitaquot; (Rupnik 1991, 236). Central Europe has also been home or birthplace to an impressive array of leaders in science (e.g., Nicolaus Copernicus, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein) and in the arts, including a long list of world-renowned authors (e.g., Bertolt Brecht, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka) and musicians (e.g., J. S. Bach, Béla Bart—k, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Anton’n Dvor‡k, George Friedrich Handel, Joseph Haydn, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Arnold Schönberg).

Third, the end of Soviet domination over large parts of Europe, and the associated political and economic restructuring of nation-states and national economies in the middle of Europe, provides an opportunity for the new governments of the states to consider new approaches to their foreign policies, including reconsideration of ways that groups of nations might join together in international economic or political organizations to defend and achieve their national interests. Many discussions have been held about such possibilities, but little tangible progress has yet been made in this direction. Most such efforts have been oriented toward consideration of possible union under the broad umbrella of pan-European organizations, notably the European Community.

Fourth, Central Europe is in many ways identifiable as a zone of transition between two parts of Europe that have widely different characteristics. For many, the West embodies enlightenment, intellectual achievement, and democracy, the East backwardness and absolutism (Schöpflin 1991). The harsh, economically and environmentally disastrous rule of socialism directed from Moscow has embedded this view deep in the minds of many people in East Central Europe, who underscore their nations' Western and Central European heritage with clear demarcation from those things that emanate from the East (Judt 1991).

Central Europe is the zone of contact between the Germanic peoples and the Slavs, as well as the most westerly region greatly affected by invasions of Asian peoples onto the continent over a period of many centuries (e.g., the Avars, Huns, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks). These population movements and the effects of the settlement policies of the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires resulted at one time in large numbers of Germans throughout Central Europe and account for the great variety of ethnic groups in the region today. For example, it is not uncommon in the region to find greatly contrasting peoples and cultures living side by side.

Another indicator of Central Europe as a borderland is that five distinctive religions once had large numbers of adherents in the region. Although the Holocaust and subsequent emigration greatly reduced the prevalence of the Jewish faith, the other four, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Islamic faiths, remain well represented among the region's population and observable on the landscape (figures 3, 4, and 5).

During the 1945-89 era, a sharp political divide also traversed Central Europe-a fate the region suffered during many periods of history (e.g., after the division of the Roman Empire and during centuries of Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman conflict). These divisions continue to be felt in the region today, as in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where ethnic and religious diversity are among the bases of the current conflict. The political divide in Central Europe is also visible on the contemporary landscape in the contrasts between capitalist and socialist land-use patterns, land ownership conditions, and architectural styles (figures 6 and 7).

Finally, high standards of socioeconomic well-being, notably those in prosperous western Germany, stand in stark contrast to low levels of well-being in much of Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe.

Central Europe and Germany
The evolution and possible acceptance of a reemerged Mitteleuropa is inextricably bound to the fate of the German nation. "For historical reasons, it is impossible to reclaim Central European identity without its essential German component; and as one nation with two states, Germany remains the symbol par excellence of a partitioned continent" (Rupnik 1991, 235). The unification of Germany in many ways epitomizes the end of a partitioned Europe.

Does a united Germany now allow or require the acceptance of a Mitteleuropa? Unfortunately, the latter term apparently raises dread among some of Germany's neighbors, notably the French and the Poles. A united Germany, more populous than any European state other than Russia, and unquestionably Europe's strongest, most respected economy, seems threatening to some. "Eastern Europeans hope to be aided by Germany and to be lifted from an economic marasmus; but at the same time they fear being vanquished by this uncertain savior" (Rupnik 1991, 263). These concerns are, no doubt, heightened by increasingly active and vociferous conservative and far-right political groups in Germany today (Varsanyi n.d.). The very name Mitteleuropa has, perhaps, already been "poisoned through Nazi usage" (Ash 1991, 2).

On the other hand, the Federal Republic of Germany has an excellent democratic record over several postwar decades. Its policies have frequently, if not always uniformly, sought to redress the German past and accommodate the concerns and perceptions of peoples in nations as diverse as Israel, Poland, and the United States. Germany's economic influence could also grow in a united Europe. In fact, and ironically, it could also be even more important if the economic benefits of European unification are not acheived. Already, German trade links with nations in Central Europe are displacing those once dominated by the defunct USSR and Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (the socialist bloc's trade organization). The two Germanys were already second only in importance to the USSR as trade partners for the latter's satellites prior to the dissolution of the CMEA and USSR (Berentsen 1991). Germany's existing and potential economic and political influence is great. Can acknowledgement of Germany's political power and its inevitable economic sphere of influence be complete without exoneration of the term Mitteleuropa and recognition of Germany as a Central European power?

Answering that question will not be an easy one for many Europeans. The political and economic importance of Germany, and the importance of the other nations of Central Europe, will almost certainly grow. Such growth is likely to be paralleled by the development of two of the region's premier cities, Berlin and Vienna, as entrep™ts to a rebuilding Central and Eastern Europe. Still, complete acceptance of a resurrected Mitteleuropa will likely take longer to evolve. Central Europe and Mitteleuropa as designations of a German-dominated portion of Europe will be completely acceptable to Europeans only when the divisions between Germans and them are completely healed. This process could take many years, if not generations, to complete. It also remains to be seen if the nations of the region are motivated and able to establish intraregional connections that would help create Central Europe as a distinct subregion on the continent. Central Europe exists, and it is and will be dominated by Germany. The extent to which German domination will continue or to what extent the creation of a thriving, interactive relationship among the region's states will evolve also remains to be seen. In any event, given apprehensions about united Germany in many parts of Europe, it is going to take a while for other Europeans to accept Germany as a European power and the dominant nation in newly emergent Central Europe.

Ash, Timothy G. "Mitteleuropa?" In Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Daedalus. Edited by Stephen R. Graubard. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.Berend, Ivan T., and György Ranki. The European Periphery and Industrialization 1780-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Berentsen, William H. "Eastern Europe in 1990: Politics, Policy, Performance, and Patterns in Space." In Eastern Europe: The Impact of Geographic Forces on a Strategic Region. Edited by the Directorate of Intelligence. N.p.: Directorate of Intelligence, 1991.Chirot, Daniel, ed. The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.Graubard, Stephen R., ed. Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Daedalus. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.Jordan, Terry G. The European Culture Area: A Systematic Geography. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.Judt, Tony. "The Rediscovery of Central Europe." In Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Daedalus. Edited by Stephen R. Graubard. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.Naumann, Friedrich. Mitteleuropa. Berlin: Reimer, 1915.Papcke, Sven, and Werner Weidenfeld, eds. Traumland Mitteleuropa? Darmstadt, West Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988.Pounds, Norman J. G. An Historical Geography of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.Rupnik, Jacques. "Central Europe or Mitteleuropa?" In Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Daedalus. Edited by Stephen R. Graubard. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.Schöpflin, George. "The Political Traditions of Eastern Europe." In Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Daedalus. Edited by Stephen R. Graubard. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.Varsanyi, Julius, ed. Quest for a New Central Europe. Adelaide: Australian Carpathian Federation, n.d. (ca. 1975).Zaniewski, Kazimierz. "Regional Inequalities in Social Well-Being in Central and Eastern Europe." Tijdschrift Voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 83, no. 5. (1992): 342-360.Recommended Reading
Andric, I. The Bridge on the Drina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. A fascinating, award-winning historical novel about life in multiethnic Yugoslavia during the era of Turkish-Austrian struggle for control of the region.Barraclough, Geoffrey, ed. The Times Concise Atlas of World History. Maplewood, N.J.: Hammond, 1982. An affordable, highly informative historical atlas.Europe: Magazin of the European Community. Washington, D.C.: Commission of the European Communities. An excellent source of information on contemporary events and trends over a wide range of topics.Jordan, Terry G. The European Culture Area: A Systematic Geography. New York: HarperCollins, 1988. An excellent overview of the cultural and political geography of Europe.Palmer, Alan. The Lands Between: A History of East-Central Europe since the Congress of Vienna. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Classic coverage of modern history of the region.Pounds, N. J. G. An Historical Geography of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The best overview of the topic with especially good coverage of the Industrial Revolution.German Information Center, This Week in Germany. New York: German Information Center weekly. A free, eight-page summary of events and issues in Germany-an indispensable aid to keep abreast of developments in Germany.William H. Berentsen is Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut 06269-2148.