A Brief History
On December 28, 1918, Constance Markievicz, while an inmate in Holloway prison, London, England, made history as the first woman elected to British House of Commons as a Member of Parliament (MP). You may notice her last name is not a typically British name, but her birth name of Constance Georgine Gore-Booth represents her English and Irish ancestry. Her married name, Markievicz, you may recognize as a Slavic appellation, specifically Polish. It is her husband, Casimir Markievicz, a playwright, director and artist that provides the background for the theme of this article, that of the changing and not always reasonable borders of European countries.
Casimir Markievicz was born in Malopolska Province of Poland, in what is today within the Ukraine. The borders of Poland have varied so much over the centuries that it defies belief. From disappearing altogether to enjoying enormous expansions of territory, Poland is one of the best (worst?) examples of the fallacy of European borders. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles granted Poland a “corridor” through East Prussia so that Poland would have free access to an ocean (Baltic Sea) port (Danzig, or Gdansk). This “Polish Corridor” left Germany with a non-contiguous country, with East Prussia separated from the rest of Germany by this concession to Poland. The perceived insult to Germany that their country could be mutilated in such a way grated on the nerves of German nationalists and provided some of the impetus for the invasion of Poland in 1939 that started World War II in Europe.
Of course, the fact that the borders of Poland have changed so often and so drastically essentially means that the borders of their neighboring countries have also experienced those same changes in reverse. The Ukraine, a country often in the daily news today (2019), is currently the largest European country by territory (of countries entirely within the continent of Europe), and like Poland is another country with an amorphous and changing border. Chafing under the Russian thumb during the Soviet period as one of the “SSR’s” of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine finally got its independence after the USSR broke up in 1991. Alas, Vladimir Putin and his gang of thugs in Russia saw fit to seize the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, creating a virtual state of war between Russia and the Ukraine, providing the backdrop for the political crisis enveloping the administration of US President Donald Trump over the withholding of American military assistance from the Ukraine in exchange for political favors (allegedly). While the Crimea situation remains under contention, Russia is meanwhile attempting to snatch up some more Ukrainian territory, so the map of Europe may change again in the near future! (Note: When the grandparents of this author were born in the Ukraine prior to 1900, the actual political country of their birth was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so although they were ethnic Ukrainians, their nationality on their passports when they immigrated to the US said “Austria.”)
Since World War I and then after World War II we also had a couple of composite Slavic countries that combined more than one individual nationality into a single entity, notably Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Prior to World War II the Germans ate up part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) and after the fall of communism in Europe (1993) the country became the separate nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Bohemia, a former entity comprising much of what is now the Czech Republic, no longer exists. For that matter, Bohemia was part of the greater entity of Moravia, another place you do not find on a current map. At least the Czechoslovakian breakup went off smoothly and without violence, while the breakup of Yugoslavia was fraught with warfare, violence, and terror.
Yugoslavia was carved out of the ashes of World War I as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, combining historic Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and later Kosovo as well. Yugoslavia was formed from territory formerly claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia prior to World War I. Prior to Austrian-Hungarian hegemony, the Ottoman Turks had controlled much of the territory. After World War II, Yugoslavia was no longer a monarchy, but a communist state in the orbit of the USSR, united by force by the dynamic communist leader and partisan, Josip Broz Tito. The death of Tito in 1980 and the gradual disintegration of communism in Europe led to separatism by some of the nationalities of Yugoslavia, resulting in war during the early 1990’s, with lingering violence past the actual dissolution of the country. What is now the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is basically Serbia, with the rest of the former country broken up as the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia, the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Croatia. Kosovo was given back to Albania against the wishes of the Serbians that control the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
After World War I, France was given back Alsace and Lorraine, territories between Germany and France that had been annexed by Imperial Germany after the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Called the “Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine” by Imperial Germany, after World War I, with Germany in defeat, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France. In fact, reacquiring Alsace-Lorraine was a matter of great national patriotic fervor for France during World War I and provided impetus for French people to support the idea of a war against Germany. Italy also had territorial disputes with Austria-Hungary, as the borders between those nations were also not clearly defined by history.
During World War II the land grab by Germany changed the map of Europe, at least temporarily, including the annexation of Austria into part of Germany. The conflict also provided cover for the Soviets to conduct their own land grab efforts in Finland, a land grab that was ultimately successful after hard fighting, which changed the European map in the North.
Just as Americans can see how their own country grew over the decades following independence, the maps of Europe changed constantly with the rise and fall of the various kingdoms and empires through the centuries. Romans and Greeks, Ottomans and Moors all played a part in redrawing European maps from time to time. Incursions by Norsemen, North Africans, Turks, Huns and Mongols all played a part in the variable status of artificial borders in Europe, as did the Napoleonic Empire of France (1804-1815) and the great wars since.
Maps and borders drawn by political divisions often have little to do with geography or ethnic population, although those political borders can definitely affect the course of human events that can alter the demographics of an area. One thing is apparent, at least to this author: Borders drawn on a map are a ridiculous excuse for nationalistic fervor that results in war and violence. Do you agree?
Question for students (and subscribers): What European country do you consider to have “artificial” borders? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Benezet, Louis Paul. The Story of the Map of Europe, Its Making and Its Changing. Franklin Classics, 2018.
Dolan, Allison. The Family Tree Historical Maps Book – Europe: A Country-by-Country Atlas of European History, 1700s-1900s. Family Tree Books, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by B. Wallace of the New Map of Europe in 1918 outside Independence Hall Philadelphia, PA on or about 10-26-1918, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.