A History of Eastern Europe

Course No. 8364
Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine the impact of the Mongol invasion, retreat, and how that impacted the origins of many Eastern European peoples.
  • Understand how imperial ideology grew into highly volatile nationalism in a number of Eastern European countries.
  • Peer into the worldviews of Hitler and Stalin before their pact and how they led to redrawing the map of Eastern Europe.
  • Look at the underpinnings of the Nazis' plans, as well as the terrible toll they took on Eastern Europe.

Course Overview

Eastern Europe has long been thought of as the “Other Europe,” a marginalized region rife with political upheaval, shifting national borders, an astonishing variety of ethnic diversity, and relative isolation from the centers of power in the West. Yet in recent years, Eastern European nations have begun integrating with Western Europe—joining NATO and the European Union—as the region has gained a new measure of self-determination in the wake of communist collapse.

Nonetheless, Eastern Europe still maintains an aura of “otherness” and mystery, due to its relatively tumultuous timeline and complex cultural tapestry. Indeed, history haunts this region, so to truly understand Eastern Europe today, it is necessary to examine its past in the broader context of world history, asking such questions as:

  • Who are the diverse ethnic groups that make up the region, and how have they cooperated and clashed?
  • How and why have national borders shifted so frequently?
  • What is the region’s relationship to Western Europe?
  • How has the region been isolated from—and connected with—the West?

You’ll find the answers to these questions and more in A History of Eastern Europe. Taught by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, an award-winning professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, these 24 insightful lectures offer a sweeping 1,000-year history of Eastern Europe with a particular focus on the region’s modern history. You’ll observe waves of migration and invasion, watch empires rise and fall, witness wars and their deadly consequences—and come away with a comprehensive knowledge of one of the world’s most fascinating places.

This course goes far beyond issues of military and political history. Professor Liulevicius delves deeply into the cultures of this region—the 20 nations that stretch from the Baltic to the Black Seas. You’ll meet the everyday citizens—including artists and writers—who shaped the politics of Eastern Europe, from poets-turned-politicians to proletarian workers who led dissident uprisings. Breathtaking in scope and crucially relevant to today’s world, A History of Eastern Europe is a powerful survey of a diverse region and its people.

Discover the Historical Context for Today’s Eastern Europe

The story of Eastern Europe is very much in flux today. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea during a time of chaotic unrest in the Ukraine. Slide back to the 1990s, and the Balkan states erupted into a brutal civil war that rewrote the national boundaries of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and others. Slide back another few years, and you witness the 70-year-old USSR disintegrate, leaving in its wake a hodgepodge of nations with crumbled economies and uncertain national identities.

These events are products of more than recent history—or even modern history. To truly understand the ongoing news in Eastern Europe, it’s necessary to step back a thousand years to find the foundations of today’s world.

  • See how the waves of invasions by Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, and others left their mark on Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
  • Trace the origins of the Slavic peoples, the Magyars, Germanic tribes, the Roma, and other ethnicities who make up the region.
  • Discover how events such as the Crusades and the Black Death led to a large influx of Jews to modern-day Poland.
  • Witness the battles, political strife, and nationalism that gave rise to nations such as Poland-Lithuania and empires in Russia, Prussia, and Germany.

Studying this history helps explain Eastern Europe’s wide mix of languages, religions, and cultures. In this course, you will see how these cultures clashed internally—and how a vast array of external enemies and empires have tried repeatedly to carve out territories or spheres of influence within the region. Professor Liulevicius brings to life the local people’s struggles—through cooperation among coalitions as well as through armed conflicts—for survival and self-rule.

Gain a New Perspective on Europe’s East vs. West Divide

Eastern Europe has long been a marginalized region—considered the home of “barbarians” by the Greeks, far-flung backwater provinces to the Romans, fair prey for the Mongols—a vast land for civilized empires to “enlighten.” But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the divide between East and West grew more pronounced as the world globalized and the United States and Soviet superpowers jockeyed for spheres of influence—epitomized by the imposition of the Iron Curtain across Europe and the rise of the Berlin Wall.

Professor Liulevicius offers you a different perspective on the last hundred years of history, beginning with the end of World War I. Whereas Western Europe viewed the Great War as a total catastrophe marked by years of stalemate and a shaky peace, Eastern Europeans viewed the war as a fiery baptism of national independence. Likewise, when the guns fell silent and stability returned to the West after World War II, a series of bloody conflicts continued in the East. And of course, the Iron Curtain that partitioned East and West for half a century has left deep marks on the Eastern Europe of today.

This course presents the grand sweep of all this history and clues you in on the context necessary to understand today’s world. Professor Liulevicius also gives you specific, unique insights that are fascinating in their own right—and seldom mentioned in the history books. Among other historical details, you will:

  • Go inside the Jewish shtetls, most of which were destroyed during World War II.
  • Gain insight into the Nazi-Soviet Pact, including the motivating worldviews of Hitler and Stalin.
  • Learn about the waves of ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe after World War II, and the resulting orphans known as “wolf children.”
  • Study the little-known Baltic Forest War, which, incredibly, continued until the late 1970s.
  • Experience daily life behind the Iron Curtain, from mass surveillance and the police state to the broken economies and worker uprisings.
  • Meet leaders such as the Yugoslavian President Josip Tito, the Polish dissident worker Anna Walentynowicz, the Czech writer-turned-president Václav Havel, and many other people who shaped the course of history.

You’ll also witness the stunning collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, sparked by mass protests and fueled by governmental ineptitude. The widespread chaos created great suffering, reshaping the region’s economies, politics, ideologies, and geographical boundaries.

Study the Cultural History of the Region

George Orwell once said, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Created and shared under circumstances of high pressure and risk, Eastern European jokes and satirical—or nationalistic—works of art are full of humorous and passionate expressions of resistance, defiance, despair, and the will to survive. Professor Liulevicius bridges the personal and the political in this course, analyzing the meaning and impact of widespread dark humor and introducing you to poets, writers, artists, and other cultural figures who all made an impact on Eastern European history. In fact, studying the history gives you a whole new context for understanding authors such as:

  • Franz Kafka
  • Czesław Miłosz
  • Milan Kundera
  • Václav Havel
  • Herta Müller
  • And many others

In addition, he introduces you to some authors who are relatively obscure in the West, such as Jaroslav Hašek (author of The Good Soldier Švejk, one of the funniest and most profound antiwar novels in existence), and Zlata Filipovic (a 12-year-old whose diary from the Bosnian War has been compared to the Diary of Anne Frank).

Professor Liulevicius is an ideal guide for this course, having focused on Germany and Eastern Europe during his entire academic career. From a period of study in Moscow and Leningrad in 1989, to dissertation research in Freiburg, Germany, and Vilnius, Lithuania, in the early 1990s, to his term as president of the international Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (A.A.B.S.) for 2010–12, he has spent decades pursuing and disseminating knowledge of this fascinating region. His insights into the clashes and unexpected alliances of empires, peoples, and philosophies will clarify the complex twists and turns of the narrative of Eastern European history.

In Eastern Europe, culture and politics are inextricably linked with centuries of tumultuous change, and this in-depth course will explore the intersection of these factors to give you a comprehensive understanding of the region and its status in the world today. A History of Eastern Europe is a marvelous overview of the story of an essential and often overlooked area of the globe, and will fill in many critical gaps in the social and political history of the world.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Other Europe: Deep Roots of Diversity
    Begin your course with a geographic overview of Eastern Europe, a region that begins at the Baltic Sea in the north and spans 20 countries to the Black Sea in the south. Here, Professor Liulevicius introduces you to the key themes of this course: Eastern Europe’s remarkable diversity, it shifting borders, and its separateness from—and connections with—the West. x
  • 2
    Formative Migrations: Mongols to Germans
    Examine the many waves of people who settled Eastern Europe during the ancient and medieval worlds. Ethnic groups including Germanic tribes, Slavic peoples, the Vikings, the Mongols, and many more created a diversity of language and culture. Meanwhile, the mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims led to the region’s first political strife—and laid the groundwork for the modern era. x
  • 3
    Clashing Golden Ages, 1389–1772
    Continue your study of Eastern Europe’s development with a look at several decisive battles, including the Battle of Kosovo and the Battle of Tannenberg. You’ll see how these battles were transformed into legends—and were also key turning points for the region’s political landscape. Witness the creation of a united Poland-Lithuania, as well as the rise of modern empires in Prussia, Austria, and Russia. x
  • 4
    The Great Crime of Empires: Poland Divided
    The combined nation of Poland and Lithuania was a powerful force in the 18th century—and its dissolution is one of the great crimes of the modern era. Civil strife provided the pretext for neighboring empires to swoop in and annex the nation. Consider the results of this partition and the political problem that would plague the region for the next century. x
  • 5
    The Origins of Nationalism, 1815–1863
    Glide into the age of Romanticism, when poets surpassed politicians in setting national agendas. In this lecture, after considering the distinction between civil and ethnic nationalism, you’ll study a number of 19th-century revolutions that swept across the region—and reflect how defeat in these revolutions paved the way for empires. x
  • 6
    The Age of Empires, 1863–1914
    After poetic romanticism failed to produce a new world order, conservative politicians co-opted nationalism in support of empire building. Review the stirrings of nationalism within the Russian, German, and Austrian empires. Then turn to emerging political ideologies that laid the foundation for the world wars of the 20th century. x
  • 7
    Jewish Life in the Shtetl
    The story of the shtetl—small Jewish towns once found throughout Eastern Europe—has been significantly lost to history due to the crimes of the 20th century. Here, Professor Liulevicius reconstructs what we know about the vibrant life in these communities and how it connects to modern Jewish culture. x
  • 8
    World War I: Destruction and Rebirth
    Examine the First World War from the very different vantage of Eastern Europe. Whereas the West’s view of the Great War is one of indecision and stalemate, the war in the East was one of movement—and perhaps even a cause for celebration as the old empires were destroyed, giving room for the creation of new states such as an independent Poland, among others. x
  • 9
    From Democrats to Dictators, 1918–1939
    After the guns fell silent in Western Europe, border wars and the fight for self-determination continued in the East. Take a look at the major events after World War I, including the little-known Soviet-Polish war, forcible population exchanges throughout the region, and the rise of dictators. x
  • 10
    Caught between Hitler and Stalin
    The Nazi-Soviet Pact is one of the most perplexing occurrences in modern history. Examine this uneasy alliance and how it accommodated Hitler’s and Stalin’s plans for expansion in the 1930s and 1940s. See how borders were redrawn yet again as Germany and the Soviet Union invaded neighboring countries. x
  • 11
    World War II: The Unfamiliar Eastern Front
    Continue your study of World War II from the Eastern European perspective. Here, you’ll see how Hitler caught Stalin off guard with a surprise attack, causing the Soviet Union to join the Allies. Nevertheless, Stalin had his own plans to expand the Soviet sphere of influence. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, communist partisans had other ideas. x
  • 12
    The Holocaust and the Nazi Racial Empire
    The sheer number of casualties in the Holocaust defies the imagination. In this lecture, Professor Liulevicius guides you through this troubling history. You’ll learn about German goals and actions, Nazi collaborators who helped produce the Holocaust, and resistance from within the Jewish community and in the world at large. x
  • 13
    Postwar Flight and Expulsion
    After the war, the West saw a measure of stability, whereas Eastern Europe was chaotic as displaced populations and refugees shifted among new political territories in the wake of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. Witness the travails of some of these populations, including ethnic Germans, refugees from Soviet rule, and Jews who couldn’t return to their former communities. x
  • 14
    Behind the Iron Curtain, 1945–1953
    In this lecture, Professor Liulevicius sets the stage for the next 40 years of Eastern European history. Go behind the Iron Curtain to examine how Stalin exerted control—and how countries such as Yugoslavia were able to resist. In the years after World War II, the battle lines were drawn for the emerging Cold War. x
  • 15
    Forest Brothers: Baltic Partisan Warfare
    Find out about a fascinating conflict largely unknown today. The Baltic Forest War raged in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for many years after World War II. Learn about the guerrilla fighters who hid in the forests and attacked Soviet security forces—and then examine the Soviet tactics to stop them. x
  • 16
    Life in Totalitarian Captivity, 1953–1980
    Go inside daily life in Eastern Europe during the peak of the Cold War. After reviewing the dire economy, Professor Liulevicius delves into the apparatus of state control. Find out how secret police forces such as the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate oppressed ordinary citizens through surveillance and a culture of fear. x
  • 17
    Power of the Powerless: Revolts and Unrest
    As the Cold War continued, Soviet forces tightened their grip on Eastern European countries, yet dissident voices emerged. In East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, witness the revolt of proletarian workers and see how writers used secret publications and the power of the pen to protest totalitarianism. x
  • 18
    Solidarity in PolandWalesas Union
    The beginnings of the end of Eastern European communism came with the firing of a shipyard worker in Gdansk, which led to a workers uprising and the founding of the Solidarity political movement. Dive into these exciting events, from rebellion to state crackdown, and meet some of the key players who altered the course of history. x
  • 19
    Toppling Idols: The Communist Collapse
    The fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union are two of the most iconic moments in modern history. Trace the events leading up to these moments, from the newly free elections in Poland to the botched press release in East Germany that led to the opening of borders. x
  • 20
    The Turn: The Post-Soviet 1990s
    Take an archaeological tour of Eastern Europe in the wake of the communist collapse. After considering the region’s tattered economy, you’ll look at some of the secrets that emerged with the fall of the USSR and the release of Stasi files. Then consider the shift of identity that took place thanks to redrawn borders and new national entities. x
  • 21
    Yugoslav Wars: Milosevic and Balkan Strife
    In the 1990s, Yugoslavia erupted into a brutal civil war between many different ethnic groups, including Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Unpack the many sides of this conflict, from its origins to ethnic cleansing and genocide to the country’s breakup into separate countries. Examine the world’s response to this crisis. x
  • 22
    The New Europe: Joining NATO and the EU
    Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO continued to exist, and began admitting newly liberated Eastern European countries into the organization. Reflect on Eastern Europe’s place in the western world and what joining NATO and the European Union means for the region. You’ll also explore Russia’s role in the post-Soviet world. x
  • 23
    The Unfolding Ukraine-Russia Crisis
    Survey the recent crisis in Ukraine and see how the origins of this conflict stem from the last hundred years of the region’s history, which is rife with skirmishes and shifting borders. After providing the historical context, Professor Liulevicius explains the ins and outs of the current crisis, including ethnic divisions within Ukraine and Russia’s attitude toward former Soviet territory. x
  • 24
    Eastern Europe at the Crossroads
    In this final lecture, you’ll revisit the four key themes running through this course and consider whether they still remain true of Eastern Europe today. Look at the region’s economy, politics, ethnicities, and relationships to Western Europe to consider the current state of Eastern Europe and what the future may hold. x

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Your professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

About Your Professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford...
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Reviews

A History of Eastern Europe is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 126.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A History of Eastern Europe The course is very full of information and I find I have to interrupt it with background reading as Eastern Europe is not an area taught much in our schools. There is so much to absorb but that is why it is so interesting. Because of doing extensive family geneaology, I have become very interested in getting the background to family movement within much of the time the course covers. There are excellent visuals and it is obvious the professor loves and is comfortable with the material. An excellent learning experience!
Date published: 2019-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Relevant, interesting, and well presented I knew Dr. Liulevicius was an excellent presenter from his course on World War I, and in my opinion he outdoes himself in this course. He’s more relaxed, and one learns a little bit more about him--such as his own Eastern European heritage and his passion for collecting jokes, a number of topical and relevant examples of which he shares with us in the course. I knew much less about Eastern Europe than about either Western Europe (despite having lived there twice) or Russia, and found nearly everything in this course to be really interesting and insightful. The in-depth coverage of both historical and cultural aspects of the Baltic countries, Romania, the component nations of the former Yugoslavia, and other areas not covered in previous history courses was most welcome, as were the extensive discussions of Jewish and Roma life. The comprehensive coverage of both the Holocaust and the Stalin era was riveting and definitely lingers in the mind—more so than anything else I had ever seen or read about these things. Professor Liulevicius takes events right up to 2015, including current politics, so it’s effectively up-to-date and relevant. A terrific course!
Date published: 2019-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eastern Europe: Yesterday & Today It is difficult to define Eastern Europe given the DIVERSITY of its people and the comparative history of its cultures, ethnicities, religious identities, languages, and literatures. From the Baltic sea in the north to the Black sea in the south, from Germany to the West to Russia in the East, today consists of about 20 countries. According to Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius in A HISTORY OF EASTERN EUROPE -- the rise and fall of empires, the construction and partitioning of states, and the incessant changing of geographical boundaries due to ideologies, political alliances, world wars, political summits, cold wars, iron curtains, surveillance, migrations, expulsions, annihilations, and exterminations of peoples throughout world history -- all complicate the Western conception and historical understanding of Eastern Europe of yesterday and today. The geo-political significance of Eastern Europe to Hitler, Stalin, and the West cannot be underestimated. From this soil would arise a new form of social organization labeled TOTALITARIANISM in contrast to Eastern Europe's cultural diversity and the Western liberal capitalist democracies. From Nazi Germany's politicalization of RACE, fascist Italy's authoritarian NATIONALISM, and Russia's international communist consciousness of CLASS would arise the dictators that would challenge the Western democracies in all facets of their daily existence. According to the professor -- very different from the Western front -- the Eastern Front's Final Solution, its Holocaust would destroy Jewish populations throughout Europe, force migrations, change geographical borders, etc. which drove Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Soviets to reconfigure the international political map after the war. But an Iron Curtain, a Cold War, and an Eastern Bloc arose in its place, further separating Eastern and Western European political and cultural relations and the world for decades. The West would construct political, economic, and military institutions such as the Truman Plan, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the European Union to navigate and respond to the COLD WAR environments. In true dialectical class struggle terms, the Stalinization of the Soviet Union and its now called Eastern Bloc countries would construct institutions known collectively as the WARSAW Pact as its response. Surveillance cultures and secret police forces would further complicate the divide between Eastern Europe and the Western democracies, while popular unrest and revolts would haunt and slowly weaken the Eastern Bloc's forced integration and undermine the Soviet Union's iron hand rule of orthodoxy. The professor offers various national literatures, ethnic stories, political jokes, etc. that helped lessen political anxieties and supported the social changes that were evolving to deconstruct the false dichotomy of an Eastern -- Western Europe. In the 1980s there was Gorbachev’s policies of GLASNOST and perestroika, the Chernobyl nuclear power accident and the slow unveiling of contamination exposure, and rising popular tensions demanding greater social change. But not all social changes are easily managed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1990s Eastern Bloc regimes had to learn to survive in new and extreme environments. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, changing geographical boundaries, birth of new nations repeated itself in he Balkans; but the fall of the Iron Curtain encouraged Eastern European countries to join NATO and the EU constructing the New Europe. I used the course's four-theme structure as a way of organizing the vast amount of historical material presented. So let me close using the professor's own words as an open ended question about the future of THE NEW EUROPE: "From 1999, leadership in Russia passed to a former KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin, whose project for that state has been called managed democracy...2014 was in a sense a pivotal year, as Eastern Europe again saw borders altered by violence and the threat of force, as part of Ukraine (Crimea) was annexed by Russia. The question presented itself, whether one wanted it to or not: Is this the new normal in Europe? The background to this perspective was Putin’s declaration that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The cultural and educational policies of Putin’s regime have praised the Soviet Union, and revived its symbolism and vocabulary. Putin’s government argued that its intervention was motivated only by concerns for order in Ukraine, which had become a failed state."
Date published: 2018-12-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great stuff. Lot of good information on a region often neglected.
Date published: 2018-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Course I accidentally bought this course as a CD instead of a DVD. That being said, I enjoyed listening to all this history of Eastern Europe. I do think though that I would have enjoyed it more as a DVD with maps and pictures. So it is on my short list to purchase again.
Date published: 2018-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Educational & enjoyable My wife and I are both History graduates (from University College London many years ago) but now are semi-retired. We both studied a lot of European history, but found the course really interesting and informative. It took a little while to get into the Professor's style of presentation (neither of us are fond of American accents), but now we really enjoy it - very engaging - and have bought another series of his lectures ("History's Greatest Voyages of Exploration"). We think this course would work well for both the history buff and for those with little background knowledge of history, who are keen to learn. Much of the material is highly relevant to modern day society and politics. The variety and depth of the subject-matter keeps you interested at all times. We watched one lecture a night, then read the course chapter the following morning to embed the learning. The presentation was analysis, not just narrative, and expressed in a thematic way. The people movements and conflict in the region certainly give plenty of material to discuss. We liked the fresh and interesting way material was presented e.g. the old East German joke - capitalism is all about man's exploitation of man, whereas communism is the exact opposite. All in all, we are big fans of Professor VGL and this course.
Date published: 2018-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative Exposition Prof. Liulevicius' lectures clarified many things for me. I had always been curious about the region and its ethnic, religious and language groups; and their alliances. I found his presentation engaging and pleasant. He demonstrated great knowledge of his subject matter. I have since bought another of his lecture series. I am now retired and ordered the course as I want to broaden my understanding of the world. I was inclined to give it a higher rating, but want to keep something in reserve..
Date published: 2018-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating journey through a turbulent history. My wife's grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia and Ukraine and we wanted to know more about the area before we travel there. Happily, we bought this excellent course as a result. Even though Eastern Europe has been much in the U.S. news throughout my life, I've been familiar with its history only superficially. And what a history it is. Professor Liulevicius delivers in a dramatic (but not cheesy) style. He is articulate, has a sense of humor and a comprehensive grasp of the complex forces working over the centuries to shape and reshape the area. It's a tumultuous history and the lectures center on the fault lines where empires rise and fall and clash. All of the course is of interest but, for me, the lectures on the turmoil of the last several decades were particularly riveting as it clarified what I only tangentially understood from following developments in the news over the years. We both recommend the course highly, for both content and delivery. It's one of the best we've encountered through the Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-10-11
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