Too Much History in one Place

Ah, Eastern Europe. I was sorting through books and pulling ones I need to review (and some I need to read) as I think about getting ready for next summer. And I’m reviewing material for teaching the Ottoman Wars of the 1500s-1700s. Some places really have more history than is comfortable. Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, eastern Austria, the Balkans. Some years back a student asked if there was a century when Poland had not been invaded by someone. I stopped, thought, and could not come up with one, going back to before the Romans.

Part of the difficulty is that these are all areas that happen to be between mountains and plains, fertile land and harsher lands. And they have the relatively few easy passageways from one to the other. This is great for trade. This is not so good for defending the area from invaders.

Alas, poor northeastern Europe…
Used under Creative Commons License via WikiCommons from

You will note that the North European Plain is pretty unobstructed. Or as a friend of mine observed, “Wonderful tank country.” You have a few hills, a lot of marshes including the Pripet Marshes, and the Elbe and a few other rivers. And for three-quarters of its length, the Elbe is at most three meters (nine feet) deep, generally shallower. Not much of an obstacle, in other words. When populations began shifting around toward the end of the Roman Warm Period (400s, then really shifting after the mid 500s), Slavs and Burgundians and others took that northern route into what is now Poland, Lithuania, and eastern Germany, then south to Austria or west into the Rhine and Rhone watersheds.

If you look at the southern area, you see the Carpathian basin as a large green swath surrounded by the browns and reds of higher elevations. The Alps are to the west, the Bohemian Massif to the east of the Alps, and the half-circle of the Carpathians to the north, east, and south.

The Carpathian Basin in more detail, all that lush, wonderful grazing land, free for the taking… Used Under Creative Commons via Reddit. Click image for source.

If we go back to the earlier map, you’ll see that there are two main “entrances” into the Basin.

Hmm, I see two “gates”.
Used under Creative Commons License via WikiCommons from

You can come in via the Danube River in the southeast, especially after Trajan’s army built a hanging road through the Iron Gates. The “Iron Gates” are the narrows where the Danube cut through sheer cliffs. Today the area is a lake behind a hydro dam. *Sigh* The other “easy” option is to circle around the Carpathians to the north and west, and come in through Poland and Slovakia. There are a few other routes, but those are the “easiest.” As a result, what is now Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria have gotten to enjoy a lot of history. The Proto-Indo-European speakers came in part through the Danube route way back when, then Celts (maybe), Illyrians, Goths (the originals), Huns, Slavs of various sub-sorts, Avars, Magyars, and eventually the Mongols, who terrorized Russia and assaulted Poland first before flattening everything they could find in Hungary. Then things settled down for a while, before the Ottomans moved in from the south and southeast.

The eastern Carpathians and anywhere along passes, the Danube and Rhine River Lowlands, what is now Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, “the Fatal Avenue” in northern France… All places that have water, grazing, and easy topographic access to other places. You don’t want to live in places with lots of history, unless you are ready, willing, and able to relocate on very short notice and hide, or can fight back and make it stick.

Milan in Italy is at the south end of one of the major trade passes. Venice likewise (The Brenner). This meant they saw lots of opportunities for trade. It also meant that they were the first ones to know if the Germans/Slavs/Burgundians/Franks decided to bring an army and a shopping list.

You find similar places in North America, especially the upper Rio Grande River. Ojo Caliente suffered attacks and raids seemingly every-other-year because it sat, and sits, on a good route into and out of the central Rio Grande where people settled down and grew crops and raised sheep and horses. Pecos Pueblo in Glorieta Pass is similar. Yes, it was warm in winter and cool in summer, made of materials easy to find locally. It was also easy to defend.

I love visiting places with lots and lots of history. Vienna has roots that go back at least to Rome, and if you go into the Vienna Woods (foothills of the Alps), you can find Paleolithic remnants. I’d just as soon not be around when that much history happens, though. Remember that purported Chinese “curse” about living in interesting times? No thanks.

13 thoughts on “Too Much History in one Place

  1. Interesting. Question for students: how to get there without an Interstate or autobahn.

    The next layer should be the water barriers: Rhine, Dneiper, Danybe, Pripyat Marshes. Bad to cross, but great for riverine traffic. The Marshes make Poland hard to keep conquered.

    Third layer: major bridges, viaducts, and passes.

    Then students start understanding why some places produce and export way too much hstory. They have an unwanted monopsomy.

  2. The Steppe history course on the Great Courses (available for free on the Hoopla app through many public libraries) is very good on all those guys who kept charging along those “invasion highways.” Same thing happened in certain Chinese areas, going the opposite direction, and in the Ukraine. (And in Belgium, for that matter.)

    • Yes, it is. I’m about a quarter of the way through. (I can get the courses at a discount and take a business deduction, since we cannot stream video at Day Job [hard bandwidth cap].)

  3. One can only ponder what future histories might be like given some statements, such “the problem with German (European?) villages is that they are only two kilotons apart.”

  4. That relief map also helps graphically explains why the appeasement at Munich left Czechoslovakia so much more vulnerable to subsequent conquest by the Germans. The Sudetenland that was ceded contained most of western Czechoslovakia’s defensible terrain and (not shown on the relief map) the network of modern fortresses that had been constructed in there.

  5. Yeah, I’d strongly prefer to avoid living in the time and place where the map gets full of lines and arrows. That’s the sort of exciting that I can definitely do without!

    • One of the diaries that survived the Thirty Years War and the rest of European history thus far describes with increasing weariness and resignation the villagers hiding in the woods for the umpeenth time as another army comes through. The last group ripped the houses apart and used the door frames and other fittings as firewood. I think it ended up being six or seven times in twelve years at one point, before the war shifted to a different region for a while.

  6. And building anything is a PITA, because inevitably they find another layer of ‘history’, which requires archeologists, more approvals, etc. And one of the reasons I say they are all mongrels, as the number of ‘invasions’ means there is no such thing as a pure race over there. Served with some Poles, and they loved to argue over ‘which’ ethnicity was the most prevalent in their gene pool… And one guy favored Genghis Khan, saying his mother ‘had’ to be a direct descendant… 🙂

      • A friend of mine is of Polish descent; his parents were from there.

        Looking at him, you’d think he was Sioux or Lakota.

  7. BTW, shouldn’t there be a unit for measuring historic density? Perhaps the unit of history is the Durant, equal to one volume of “The Story of Civilization”, with the density unit being Durants per square kilometer, and usual measurements in the microDurants per square kilometer?

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