The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations. They were corridors. Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms. They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders. All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.
These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors. They were a mess, and many of them still are.
The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples. The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace. The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.
We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component. Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale. We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.
One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole. More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition. In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.
Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution. The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918. The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.
Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.
As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.
Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement: Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation. The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.
On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev. Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.
Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination. There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.
The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed. The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.
News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs. Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.
The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.
The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure. Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.
This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make. There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers. Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is. So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.