Peter Frankopan

Central Europe has shaped our culture for centuries – yet we still find the region baffling

Tracing its history from the Roman empire to the present, Martyn Rady puts it firmly centre stage, where it belongs

A miniature from the breviary of Matthias Corvinus, showing St Paul preaching to the Renaissance king of Hungary. Seated beside Matthias is his son John; kneeling in the foreground is his third wife Beatrice. [Alamy]

It is easy to overlook the importance of Central Europe, writes Martyn Rady at the start of this fascinating book. For some modern writers the region is best typified by similarities, or differences, over postboxes, popular preferences for spirits over wine or ‘the heavy smell of boiled cabbage, state beer and a soapy whiff of overripe watermelons’. For others, it is an exotic world of ‘small nations’ east of Germany, where one has to wait for the end of the sentence to learn the operative verb: a place of ‘baffling’ languages ‘written with an abundance of consonants, odd diacritical marks and, in places, even a different alphabet’.

Take a step back, and Central Europe takes centre stage. Conflicts arising in the region have changed the world, from the Thirty Years’ War, which ‘engulfed almost the entire continent, with sideshows in Africa, the Caribbean and even distant Taiwan’, to the two world wars (both of which started in Central Europe), to say nothing of the present invasion of Ukraine, which is already the ‘most destructive war waged in Europe for more than 70 years’.

One problem lies in defining what and where Central Europe is, since it is often characterised by what it is not. Rady’s masterful overview seeks to change this by looking at 2,000 years of history, from ancient Roman times to the present. When Europe was divided between east and west, ‘Central Europe fell from use as a term’. It is time to rethink the label.

Rudolf II was mainly interested in wizards and alchemists, and finding scandalous ways of harming enemies

The breadth of Rady’s coverage is as impressive as it is eclectic, with gems scattered throughout the book. One Habsburg was so penny-pinching that he travelled with his own chicken coops to avoid having to buy – and be overcharged for – eggs.

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Written by
Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Oxford University and author of The Earth Transformed: An Untold History

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