Europe’s Steppe Frontier: 1500-1800
by William H. McNeill
University of Chicago, 252 pp., $5.50
Ever since the days of Frederick Jackson Turner people have debated the question of the open frontier and its impact on the development of civilization. Like all other genial ideas, Turner’s “frontier thesis” has incurred its share of criticism. It has also been remarkably fertile. A classic study by Owen Lattimore applied the concept to China. Others have tested its applicability to Australia, South Africa, Hispanic America, and to the eastward expansion of Russia across Siberia to the Pacific. Finally, in 1952, the Texan historian, Walter Prescott Webb, adapted it as the foundation for a sweeping—if hotly disputed—reinterpretation of the course of world history since Columbus.
In this analysis Europe—or at least modern Europe—has usually figured antithetically. The medieval Spanish frontier against Islam might fit into Turner’s scheme. But historians for the most part have contrasted Europe since Columbus and Vasco da Gama with the frontier regions beyond, treating it as the “great metropolis,” the “unified, densely populated core,” upon which and against which the “frontier” acted and reacted. Some years ago I ventured to question this view, noting as an illustration that the colonization of the Hungarian plain in the eighteenth century was so vast a movement that contemporaries frequently compared Hungary with North America as a frontier region. Now, from William H. McNeill, whose volume on The Rise of the West won such high praise, we have a study of Hungary and the neighboring regions—Europe’s steppe frontier from the Great Alföld through Moldavia and Transylvania to the Sea of Azov—which impressively demonstrates the impact of the open frontier on European history in its formative period.
This European borderland was, of course, different in many ways from Turner’s American West. “In the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia,” Professor McNeill points out, there were “no militarily formidable enemies” to be “overcome.” The steppes of Pontic and Danubian Europe, on the other hand, had been harassed for centuries by nomads from the east; and there is no reason to think that “a locally self-sufficient peasantry, free, equal and politically unorganized” could have “warded off nomad harassment any better in the eighteenth century than it had been able to do in the fifteenth and sixteenth.” In any case, the region was bordered by three great powers, Muscovite Russia, the Ottoman Turks, and Hapsburg Austria—and for a time by Jagellonian Poland also—which were not minded to leave it alone. McNeill’s book is largely the story of their encounter, and of their relations with the “interstitial political entities” which tried unsuccessfully, to maintain an independent position between them. It is also a study on the Toynbeean theme of challenge and response.
For long it seemed that the Turks would carry the day; and the first merit of Professor McNeill’s book is his dispassionate examination—unaffected by the anti-Turkish bias which afflicts most western historians—of the reasons for the progressive Turkish failure. The second is his freedom from the …