Inventing Eastern Europe: the Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment.

Topics: Europe, Eastern Europe, Western Europe Pages: 9 (2223 words) Published: May 9, 2008
Larry Wolff. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. xiv + 419 pp. Maps, notes, and index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-804-72314-1.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Hegarty, University of Tampa.
Published by HABSBURG (July, 1995)
In a book based on an extraordinarily rich
array of fascinating sources, including eighteenthcentury
Western European travelers’ accounts of
trips to Eastern Europe, maps and atlases drawn at
the time, and letters and literature of the
Enlightenment about Eastern Europe (ranging from
personal accounts, to philosophical treatments, to
pure fantasy), Larry Wolff has written a delightful,
erudite, and useful work of intellectual history in
which he sketches implications for later European
political and social history. He has traced how
Western Europeans came to view the continent of
Europe as sharply divided into a Western and
Eastern half, and to conceive of the latter as
backward and uncivilized.
The concept of the underdeveloped East
came into vogue just as travel to Eastern Europe
was on the increase. Though the line of
demarcation between East and West on the
continent might vary with the individual and his or
her grasp of geography or truth, wherever it fell in
the mind of the writer or traveler, a great chasm
opened and "Europe" ended. The boundary
between the Europes was, of course, changeable:
sometimes it was at the Don River, at other times
further east at the Volga, and at other times, it was
(as now) at the Urals.
Moreover, Wolff shows that the distinction
between East and West did not arise by chance, but
came about as the result of an intellectual agenda,
related both to Western European ideological selfinterest
and to scholars’ and writers’ selfpromotion.
The invention of an Eastern Europe
that was found to be seriously wanting had a great
deal to do with the emergence of the concept of
civilization and the reinvention of a "civilized"
Western Europe that would suit--and be worthy
of?--the aspirations and tastes of the
The East-West distinction was, Wolff points
out, new. As late as the Renaissance, the division
of Europe that dominated thought and thinkers was
still that between the North and the South. "Just as
a new center of the Enlightenment superseded the
old centers of the Renaissance, the old lands of
barbarism and backwardness in the north were ...
displaced to the east. East and west were suddenly
defined by ’opposition and adjacency’." A straight
line connected Paris to Poltava.
It was only in the eighteenth-century
Enlightenment that the philosophes and others
interested in affirming the superiority of Western
Europe created a sense of difference from, and
prejudices toward, Eastern Europe. This, Wolff
opines, was later updated to accommodate new
circumstances and reinforced the West’s decision
to fight the Crimean War, the Germans’ and
Austrians’ steady Drang nach Osten, the eastern
campaigns of Nazi Germany, and the Iron Curtain
of the Cold War. Even today, as the former Soviet
satellites and Newly Independent States move
toward the West and work to emulate aspects of
Western capitalist development, the "scratches on
our mind" (to use a wonderful phrase that Harold
Isaac applied to Westerners’ views of China),
stemming from an old tradition of East-West
cultural separation, still subtly govern our
In emphasizing the false similarities, the
philosophes judged the western part of Europe to
be superior according to the then evolving notion
of "civilization." The process of invention
consisted not just of endowing real countries with
mythic attributes, though much of that happened;
the greater work of invention lay in a "synthetic
association" of peoples that drew on both fact and
fiction to produce "a general rubric of eastern
Europe...." Wolff describes Eastern Europe as a
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