Oct 16, 2006

Book Review: Historical Atlas of East Central Europe

Magocsi, Paul R.

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993, 218 pages

Magocsi earned his doctorate from Princeton University in 1972, and was a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He has been a professor of history and political science at the University of Toronto since 1980 and was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1996. This atlas is a component of the History of East Central Europe series produced by the University of Washington Press.

The book follows the format of the other entries in the series, which is to say that the geographic boundaries are those lands between the German- and Italian-speaking peoples in the west and the boundaries of the former Soviet Union in the east. Magocsi expanded these boundaries by including maps that examined parts of eastern Germany (such as Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, and Prussia), Austria, Venetia, and lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian kingdom (such as Belarus and Ukraine).

The text includes historical maps dating back to 400 CE and continuing through the end of the Soviet era. Magocsi also provided a great number of maps that included Anatolia, and the atlas does not fall into the trap of some Western-oriented works that overlook the important role of the Seljuk Turks and the Ottoman Empire in European history.

The text follows a chronological format, and alternates between sections covering wider areas of east central Europe and narrow foci on individual states. In addition to the typical political boundary maps, the author included maps covering demography, ethnicity, economies, military concerns, education, and ecclesiastical structures. In order to achieve consistency within the text (and thus addressing the problem of historical naming), Magocsi used the official language in the present-day state as the basis for choosing place names.

However, the author used Webster’s dictionary as the final arbiter, choosing the first listed name in cases of multiple accepted spellings; the author noted that every naming decision is likely to produce a charge of linguistic bias from some readers, and opted for an English-language orientation given his assumed readership. Thus, Kraków is rendered Cracow in the maps of the atlas, and readers will find Gdańsk in place of the Germanic Danzig. In cases where a strong argument might be made for several variations of the same name, the author placed the first name above the parenthetical second, as in the example of Posen and Poznań and Ragusa and Dubrovnik.

Map of Europe about 1560 Left: Europe about 1560 (click to enlarge)

In addition to composing the text Magocsi created the first drafts of the maps used in the text. The initial color drawings were delivered to the Office of Cartography at the University of Toronto, and a team of cartographers produced the camera-ready artwork that appeared in the final version of the book. Despite the input of many hands in the project, there is an aesthetic continuity throughout the atlas, which is helpful for readers who like to flip back and forth between different maps, and Magocsi credited Geoffrey J. Matthews for the overall visual appeal of the artwork.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of Fernand Braudel, Magocsi opened the text with an examination of the geographic and geologic features of east central Europe. The non-specialist will be struck, for example, by the relative isolation of the Hungarian Plain, surrounded as it is by the Alpine, Carpathian, and Dinaric ranges; the historical continuity of Hungarian language and culture make more sense in this geographical context. Comparing the maps of “Average annual rainfall” and “Vegetation and land use” helps readers understand the climactic role in the development of particular agricultural products in east central Europe.

Interestingly, the Danube River has traditionally been seen as the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, but by glancing at the rainfall map readers will note the presence of a frost-line (0° C in January) that also mirrors much of the northern boundary of the Romans. One might make a convincing argument that the imperial ambitions of the Romans were influenced in part by the regular presence of frost in the Hungarian Plain and the Bohemian Basin.
The industrial history of east central Europe can also be better understood through the use of maps provided in this atlas.

The map that examines the history of canal and railway development is particularly intriguing, as the vast majority of railway construction prior to 1850 occurred in German and Austrian territories. Also noteworthy are the maps of east central Europe that depict population density in 1870 and 1910; the confluence of a lack of railways and low population density put many of the Slavic regions at a distinct economic disadvantage with Western Europe in the race to industrialize.

The atlas contains an extensive bibliography, broken up into historical atlases, geographic atlases, thematic atlases, and historical texts that provided additional source material. The cross-referenced entries in the index begin with the main forms, and are followed by linguistic variants (helpful language abbreviations are also included). Magocsi also included a section that listed the original sources for the maps that he consulted for each map in the text. Throughout the text there are also a significant number of informational tables; readers, for example, desirous to know the ethnolinguistic-national composition of Yugoslavia or the Orthodox population of east central Europe will find such information compiled in a tabular format.

Map of Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1911 Left: Austro-Hungarian empire in 1911 (click to enlarge)

Unlike many historical atlases, in which narrative text plays a small role, Magocsi’s work can be read in the manner that one might read a textbook. A reader might, for example, follow the maps on “East Central Europe in 1648,” “Partitions of Poland,” “Campaigns of Napoleon,” and “East Central Europe in 1815” for a narrative and cartographic overview of the political changes that occurred in the region between the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna. Similarly, the series of maps that begin with the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” through “Conflicting claims to Macedonia” and “The Balkan Peninsula 1912-13” gives a reader greater understanding of the wide variety of ethnolinguistic and political groups in east central Europe prior to World War I. In comparing such maps one is struck not so much by the ability of the Habsburgs to rule over multiethnic empire but rather by the fact that such an unwieldy amalgamation could have been held together so long.

A Historical Atlas of East Central Europe should be considered the definitive historical atlas for the region, and is a must for every student and specialist of the history of east central Europe. Moreover, general readers with an interest in east central European history would benefit from the use of this book; one could envision that genealogists in particular would find this text to be of immense value. Magocsi has produced a work that will continue to be an important reference tool for decades.


Maggie Thurber said...

HM - interesting how your description of this work and the maps reflect on some of the things I learned while in Hungary regarding the history of that nation as its interrelations with others...


Peter Jones said...

Any info from these maps on the ancient land of 'Khazaria', as described by Arthur Koestler in his 'The Thirteenth Tribe', Mike? I'd appreciate your take on this whole episode. Thanks.

Peter Jones said...

Thanks, anyway, Mike. I guess you're too busy right now.

historymike said...

Hi Peter:

Sorry for the delay.

My understanding is that the Khazars are a Turkic people who converted to Judaism somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries.

Many people have searched for the Lost Tribe(s) over the past two millennia. Some Europeans were convinced that Native Americans constituted at least a part of the Lost Tribes.

An interesting twist on this thread are the Lemba, a people of southern Africa who were dismissed for years as kooks because they professed a connection to Judaism. DNA testing, however, has demonstrated a genetic link between the Lemba and modern Jews.

So, to answer your question in a roundabout way, as a historian I tend not to put much attention on this, as it seems more a matter of faith than secular history.

My suspicion is that the Lost Tribes were mostly absorbed by other ethnic groups in the Middle East and Central Asia, and that the separation from the Tribes of Judah, Levi, and Benjamin occurred long before the written record.

Peter Jones said...

Thanks Mike. You write,
"My understanding is that the Khazars are a Turkic people who converted to Judaism somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries."

If this is your understanding, or viewpoint, then you would no doubt concur with Koestler and many others, that many white skinned, Ashkenazi Jews, are genetically unrelated to the ancient Hebrews, being instead descendants of a Turko/Slavic warrior kingdom.

Daan said...

Ashkenazi Jews are descendents of Jews who were bullied out of Germany and invited by the king of Poland in the Middle Ages. These Jews entered Germany when it was part of the Roman Empire. In the AD 1st millenium, the Jewish faith was open for new members. Later on the Jewish community became closed. To conclude, Ashkenazi Jews form a mix of Northern Europeans and the original Jews from Israel.

I read about the Khazars that only the elite turned Jewish. Furthermore, the nations of southern Ukraine and southern Russia have been the victim of one genocide after the other. I presume that hardly anything is left of the Khazars at presently. The leftovers of the genocides must have assimilated into the culture of the victors.

Peter Jones said...

Thank you, Daan. My only problem with your explanation is this:
How long does evolution take, to transform a semetic, desert dwelling, middle-eastern people, with all the attendant features of body, face, hair etc, into strapping teutonic-looking, white bearded European type people? Two thousand years would be enough for these changes?

Frank said...

HM - been to Hungary twice to, among other things, do research on family. Mom was born on Janik, a village presently in south central Slovakia, on the northeast Hungarian border. All the signage there is printed in both languages as most villagers are Hungarians. Believe Trianon Treaty cut them off from Hungary & the Slovak leadership have historically left them destitute.

Father's side hails from Mesekovacshaza, about forty minutes east of Szeged.

In both villages I talked to extended family, photographed tombstones, homes & churches, and was able to share it all with my four wonderful grandparents and family. 38 million Europeans died during WWII - the fact my family got out & I'm here is nothing short of a miracle.

I'll look for this mapbook at the library. Appreciate it.