This book carries a bold title – rather too bold for my taste (more of that later) – yet it delivers a great deal. John Connelly wants to clear prejudice and ignorance in the public mind, especially, he hints, in his native USA. His eastern Europe is, first and foremost, the area popularly described as such in recent decades: the lands satellite to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, most of them now members of the EU, along with their immediate antecedents, the ‘successor states’ of the 1920s and 1930s that emerged as the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires collapsed.
Connelly describes the region’s history, from the late 18th century to the present, with brilliance, expertly interweaving intricate strands and decking out the main themes with picturesque details and a stress on the play of personality. He shows the fragility of the freedoms gained there after the First World War amid the ruins of the old empires and describes the failure to establish any kind of lasting liberal or democratic order, in the face of pressures from the Right and the Left, the forces of which gained the upper hand thanks to external aggression and internal complicity. Thus a recrudescent Germany in Nazi guise was able to achieve total control during the first phase of the Second World War; then, after 1945, the Soviet Union extended its dominion across the entire area.