Syrena logo Two Thousand Years of the Modern Era
in Central & Eastern Europe

Part 5: 19th and 20th Centuries - Struggles for Freedom.
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EE after 1815 At the beginning of the 19th. century Napoleon appeared on the scene. He quickly won many battles causing disarray in four of the five European empires - only England was undaunted. New hopes arose among the subdued nations of Eastern Europe, who hoped that the defeat of the great empires would provide the means for their freedom and independence. In 1807 he created the Duchy of Warsaw and the Illyrian Provinces with capital in Ljubljana.
All hopes were dashed with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The Congress of Vienna divided up Europe among the victorious powers with no regard for the desires of the smaller nations. Except in the Balkans, the frontiers that were established in 1815 stayed in effect in Eastern Europe for another hundred years. Napoleon's Duchy of Warsaw was given to Russia as the Kingdom of Poland, but this was only a name. Especially after an unsuccessful insurrection in November, 1830, the Russians held absolute power. In the old Polish area outside the "Kingdom" only Russian was allowed in schools. In Austria and Prussia the German language was enforced in all schools. Many Polish leaders, intellectuals, artists and poets fled to exile in Paris.

In the 19th. century the inventions of the steam engine, telegraph, telephone, electric light, new discoveries in medicine, all changed the way people lived, particularly in Western Europe. The changes were slow to reach into the Russian and Ottoman empires, with their autocratic regimes.
However there were renewed stirring of hope in the Balkans, supported by Russia in order to gain greater influence in world affairs. Serbia gained a degree of autonomy from the Ottomans in 1804 and 1815, then complete independence in 1878. Southern Greece regained freedom in 1832.

The Habsburg empire changed radically. The 1848 revolution lead by the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth was unsuccessful, but put in motion events that resulted in the Compromise of 1867 granting Hungary partnership in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time more autonomy was given to other nationalities, such as the Poles in Galicia and Czechs in Bohemia.

Balkans in 1911 In 1853 England and France decided to halt further Russian expansion into the Balkans with the Crimean War. As a result Romania was created as an independent state. However, 20 years later local rebellions in Bulgaria and Bosnia caused vicious Turkish reprisals. Russia sent its troops to aid the insurgents and defeated the Turks. At the resulting Congress of Berlin of 1878, independent states of Serbia and Bulgaria were created, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was made a protectorate of Austria. The small nations were not consulted, so many local issues were not addressed.

As a result, in 1912 the first of two Balkan Wars broke out, effectively removing Turkey from Europe, except for the area around Istanbul and the Dardanelle Straits. Albania became free, the territories of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece were all enlarged.

started with the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince and his wife in Sarajevo in July 1914. After four years of carnage, both Germany and Austro-Hungary were defeated, and the Communist Revolution destroyed Tsarist Russia. The resulting peace treaties at Versailles, St. Germain and Trianon created a new map of Europe, which lasted less than 20 years. The main principles behind the creation of several independent countries and the rebirth of Poland, were President Wilson's "14 Points".

EE after 1921The first three years after the end of World War I were not free of strife. Numerous small conflicts broke out along the new borders in areas of mixed ethnic groups. Attempts by Ukrainians to create an independent state were thwarted by the Soviets. The most serious threat was the invasion of Poland by Soviet Russia in August 1920. The westward thrust of the large Russian forces was stopped just north of Warsaw at the battle called "The Vistula Miracle". The 1921 Treaty of Riga established the eastern border of Poland.
The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was created in 1918 as an federation of autonomous republics under a Serbian king. However, in 1929 the king renounced the constitution and set up the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which created the origin of the turbulent events that occurred 62 years later.

The states of Central Europe enjoyed their new freedom for only 19 years. In 1933 Adolf Hitler seized the the reigns of power in Germany and immediately started preparations for a new war. In 1938 German troops invaded first Austria, then Czechoslovakia, while the western nations stood by mouthing only ineffectual protests. Then on September 1, 1939, Nazi troops crossed the borders of Poland. This time France and England honored their guarantees and declared war against Germany, but did little to help their ally. In spite of the furious struggle of Poland's armies, the overwhelming force of Hitler's tanks and aircraft defeated them in 30 days. Secretly Hitler had made an agreement with his declared enemy Stalin, dictator of Communist Russia. On September 17 Soviet armies invaded eastern Poland, and a few months later the Baltic countries.
In the spring of 1940 Hitler's armies directed their attacks westward and in short order defeated and occupied Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. In spite of furious aerial bombardment, England held fast. In turn Yugoslavia and Greece succumbed in the spring of 1941. Then Hitler renounced his diabolic pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union reaching the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad by Christmas 1941. Here, bogged down by impassable roads the German military machine ground to a halt.
In the United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to outmaneuver a reluctant Congress to grant substantial aid in military equipment and supplies to both Britain and Russia. Hitler's further advances in Russia all the way to Stalingrad in 1942, and attempts to defeat Britain and its allies in North Africa, failed. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 8 December 1941, brought the United States openly into World War II. Its enormous manpower and industrial might tipped the balance and the defeat of Hitler's Germany became only a matter of time.

1943 started the road towards defeat of Nazi Gernany - American landings in North Africa, then Sicily, followed by the steady advance of Allied Forces in Italy - in Russia Soviet forces slowly push westward. Finally June 6 1944 brought Allied landings in Normandy, the liberation of Paris; then early in 1945 Allied forces cross the original borders of Germany, while Soviet forces advance through Poland and meet up with the western allies at Torgau May 2. May 8 is declared VE Day - Victory in Europe.
Europe 1945 map Unfortunately, while Europe has been freed from German Nazi tyranny with the loss of more than 25 million civilian lives, including 6 million Jews and 3 million Poles, the Yalta Treaty (Feb 1945) between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt gave the Soviets hegemony over eastern Europe and the division of Germany into East and West. Only Greece and Austria were rescued from total subjection to communist governments totally under the control of Moscow. West Berlin was maintained under western control due to the Berlin airlift in early 1949. Attempts to shake off Soviet communist control by Czechoslovakia (spring 1968), Hungary and Poland (1956), ended with bloody repressions.

E.U. map In 1946 Winston Churchill called for the formation of a United States of Europe. The French ministers Monnet and Schumann vigorously campaigned for this idea to prevent war from ever again engulfing western Europe. The first infant organization along this line was created by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands and West Germany in 1951. In 1957 the same six countries formed a customs union in the Treaty of Rome, gradually the organization expanded into the European Union with a parliament. By 1995 all countries of western Europe, except Norway and Switzerland, had become members of the European Union.

Meanwhile, all the countries of Eastern Europe remained firmly in the hands of communist governments strictly controlled by the Soviet Union. However the worsening economic situation in all the communist countries caused a softening of the heavy handed governments. The strikes in the Polish Gdansk shipyards in 1981, lead by Wałęsa, brought recognition of the Solidarity Labor Organization. Reforms by the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Gorbachev in 1987 lead to the Polish elections of spring 1989 in which Solidarity gained a majority in the government. Shortly afterwards democratic opposition parties gained control in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The wall between East and West Germany was breached in Berlin Nov 9, 1989, and the country was reunited October 1990.

The freeing of central and eastern European from Russian hegemony was completed when Poland, Hungary and Czech Republics joined NATO in 1999 (other East European countries also joined NATO in the following years). On May 1 2004 eight countries that were part of the communist bloc after World War II - Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenis - joined the European Union with common passport and customs controls.
This brings us to the beginning of another Century - the 21st., another Millennium. What will it bring us? Will politicians learn anything from the great mistakes of the past? May we hope that the encouraging developments of the last few years - the creation of a United Europe - the rebirth of freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe - are the beginning of a safer life for our children and grandchildren?

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Last update April 2004