History as we all know is a subjective beast. However, in an effort to give some kind of semblance of objectivity historians use documents, facts and other data to anchor their views in the past ‘reality’. Another valuable clue used by historians is the map. Maps allow us to chart the past. By looking at borders, we can visualise how power was delimited in various parts of the world. Of course, territory is no mark of power but it is, however, a valuable clue. If we understand maps and borders in their historical context (what came before and what came after), we can imagine the country expanding and contracting its territorial muscles and in a sense its power.
Charts of the Past
A revealing point of contact in the study of maps is those micro-changes, those subtle distortions that take place along sometimes arbitrary lines of demarcation. We can take the borders of Poland over the years ignoring those massive shifts in territory that have already been analysed and regurgitated thousands of times but focus more on the changes that many ignored. Let’s take Zaolzie, the area either side of the Olza River. Zaolzie was once an area in the Czech lands with a large Polish population, an island of the Polish language within Czech. The area has moved between the Czechs and the Poles several times and now lies with the southern Slavs. It is to this day a sore point in the good relations between the two neighbours with both countries having resulted to various dirty tricks in an effort to ‘Polonize’ or ‘Czechize’ the area.
Another interesting little area when looking at older maps of Europe is the point at which Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine used to converge. This magical geographical point has a variety of names: Carpathian Rus’, Subcarpathia or Transcarpathian Ruthenia. The area has previously belonged to Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and was once one of the four provinces of the pre-war Czechoslovakia. At one stage, Subcarpathian Ruthenia was even an independent state, called Carpatho-Ukraine, declaring its independence in 1939. Self-determination was brief, lasting for only three days following an invasion by Hungary. The area now lies in Ukraine populated mostly by Ruthenians with a large Hungarian minority (as well as smaller Romanian, Slovak and German minorities).
Here Be Dragons
One of the most wonderfully-named places in Europe has got to Snake Island (Острів Зміїний in Ukrainian, Insula şerpilor in Romanian). This tiny limestone rock is caught in a tug-of-war between Ukraine and Romania in the International Court of Justice. The little island has a proud history belonging to the Greeks (who called it White Island), and was even mentioned by Ovid, Strabo and Ptolemy. The island was also owned by the Soviet Union but over the years, it has been overlooked and forgotten about. The Romanians considered the continental shelf that the island lies upon to be theirs, the Soviets believed otherwise. Following Ukraine’s independence, ownership of the island once again became a bone of contention, this time between Ukraine and Romania.
The jewel in this post’s crown has most certainly got to be a small village in Bosnia & Herzegovina. In fact, the use of the preposition ‘in’ is itself highly controversial because the village of Sastavci may well ‘belong’ to Bosnia & Herzegovina but actually ‘lies in’ Serbia. The village of Sastavci is therefore an exclave of Bosnia & Herzegovina lying entirely outside its borders. What makes this village so interesting is the fact that a mere 300 or so people live here. Even though Sastavci is tied inexorably to (and lies geographically in) the Serbian district of Priboj, it ‘officially’ lies in the Bosnian district of Rudo.
To the Future
Looking at maps in fine detail is fascinating because not only does it allow us to chart history and politics but it also allows us to view arbitrary ethnic demarcations which often have little to do with reality (take Sastavci and Bosnia & Herzegovina, for instance), the struggle for independence and self-determination (like Subcarpathian Rus’) or the needless bickering between countries that share much in common with each other (for example, Zaolzie). Maps provide important lessons to be learnt and demonstrate mistakes not to be repeated.