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 nationalist preconceptions which, operating in Rumanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian and other blinkers, have distorted the history of the area and made it virtually impossible to review it as a whole. Professor McNeill is neither for nor against the nationalisms of the Danubian and Pontic regions; he views them as a distraction, relevant (no doubt) in the nineteenth century but an obstacle to understanding the forces operative during the previous three centuries. These were military, social, and economic, and it was their interplay that determined the course of events and decided the fate of the region. Above all else, it explains why “genuine autochthony”—that is, the emergence of stable Ukrainian, Cossack, Tartar, and other native states—failed to materialize.
The story Professor McNeill has to tell is of “wide and potentially fertile lands” that “lay open to the first power that could establish a regime favorable to settlement.” No comparable area of the world’s surface has a more complicated history, and it is only possible here to make a crude summary of Professor McNeill’s argument. The initial check to the Ottoman Turks, at the height of their power, was logistical: “the very operation of the Turkish field armies tended…to create conditions at the extreme range of their effective radius of action that prevented them from going further.” By 1570 their “expansive capacity” was exhausted; but no one else was ready to take their place, and “a troubled time of counterpoise” followed, marked by the Polish thrust into the Ukraine. It failed, above all else, because of the social antagonisms which crippled seventeenth-century Poland. After 1650 the future lay with bureaucratic monarchy which alone could put modern professional armies in the field. “The appearance of such a force under Hapsburg command changed the balance of forces in Danubian Europe in a fundamental way.” By 1718 Austria was in a strong position, and under Maria Theresa a large-scale settlement program was put into operation. But “institutional frictions”—above all, the truculence of the Magyar nobility and the “strangely vestigial social and economic structure” of Hungary—brought Austrian progress to a halt, and it was left to Muscovy, less hampered by indurated vested interests, to reap the largest share of the harvest. After the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji (1774) “the region lay wide open…to Russian predominance.”
An outline such as this fails to do justice to the richness of Professor McNeill’s narrative, and in particular to the skill with which he interweaves not only the histories of a dozen or more different peoples but also the economic, religious, and social strands in the story. No doubt much in his account is tentative; but it provides a starting-point for the history of a region which has often been misinterpreted from the parochial point of view of one of the parties involved, but never before been told as a whole. To criticize it in detail at this stage would be beside the point. What is important, rather, is to assess its bearing in the wider context of “frontier” history. And here the first point is that it places the relations of “metropolis” and “frontier” in a new light. The inherent “western” and “Atlantic” bias of most current historical writing has led too easily to the view that Europe’s “frontier” in modern times lay overseas, in the Americas and India. This bias, which rests on the role of the western monarchies, England, France, and the Spanish dominions of Charles V and Philip II, in European history, stands in need of correction. For the great bureaucratic empires, which were to play a dominant role in continental Europe after the Vienna settlement of 1815, the “eastern” frontier was decisively important. The problem of the “empty or almost empty lands along their borders,” and the way they coped with it, were determinative factors in shaping their development.
These considerations apply particularly to Russia, about which Professor McNeill writes in sober and dispassionate terms. Today it is perhaps natural to see the great Russian colonizing movement across Asia to the Pacific as the factor—parallel to the western colonizing movement in the United States—which has made the U.S.S.R. into one of the two super-powers and thus laid the foundations of the world in which we live. In general terms, this view is, no doubt, true. But the Asiatic expansion of Russia was essentially a nineteenth-century phenomenon, stemming from the emancipation of the peasants in 1861; and the rise of Russia to the status of a world power began earlier with its conquest of the steppe. From this point of view. McNeill writes, “the smugness of American and other western critics, who tend to decry the prevalence of force and social inequality in the Russian past” is “beside the mark”:
What happened in Pontic Europe in the eighteenth century was an inescapable price of taming the steppe to agriculture. The truly enormous achievement of Russia’s nobility and bureaucracy in superintending the process…made Russia between 1762 and 1815 the arbiter of eastern Europe and allowed Russian might to outstrip Austrian and eclipse Ottoman power.
Professor McNeill’s book comes to a close in 1800. Anyone who therefore thinks that it is irrelevant to current problems should think again. And if he believes that Pontic and Danubian Europe is a “peripheral” region, of minor importance in world history, let him ponder the fact that it was out of its complexities that the war of 1914, which brought the old world crashing down, was generated. Let him remember also that as late as 1941 Hitler was still obsessed with the idea of “organizing the Ukraine” and “mobilizing the rich territories of eastern Europe” as a vast German colony to equal and challenge the “closed economic entity” of “North America.” Even in the mid-twentieth century Europe’s steppe frontier retained its historic role as a potent force in political thinking and political calculation: how it secured that role is an eminently practical question which we cannot afford to ignore.
January 28, 1965