Modern scientific explanations of the origins of western nation-states’ power-political superiority hark back to the 1880s when German political economist Georg Friedrich Knapp (1842-1926), today mainly remembered for his treatise on monetary systems, The State Theory of Money (1905). Yet, it is his early and much less known work in ... (Show more)
Modern scientific explanations of the origins of western nation-states’ power-political superiority hark back to the 1880s when German political economist Georg Friedrich Knapp (1842-1926), today mainly remembered for his treatise on monetary systems, The State Theory of Money (1905). Yet, it is his early and much less known work in which he argued that the nature of seigneurial domination determined European—and thus world—history: western Europe’s peasantry, free from the High Middle Ages onwards (as opposed to unfree peasants in Eastern Europe), made all the difference. Variations of this theme informed generations of scholars across the Humanities and Social Sciences throughout the 20th century, in particular during the Cold War as these themes reflected both the wider ideological competition between the US-led western world and the Soviet bloc. To this day, these twin developments inform virtually all recent accounts about the diverging development of western and (vs.) eastern Europe, reinforced—buttressed—by the very limited reception of 20th-century Eastern European scholarship by western academics.
Differences between east and west are fairly traditional, if not conventional, in European thought, however, recent decades witnessed the solidification of its eventual outcome, that is power-political superiority by western nation-states over both Central and Eastern European imperial monarchies such as the German, Habsburg, and Russian empires, as well as over their successor states that emerged in the wake of the upheavals of World War I. This holds particular truth during the Cold War, when the differentiation initially proposed by Knapp underwrote the social-scientific discourse and public debates that reflected on the division of Europe and the world between the US-led West and the Soviet bloc. Curiously enough, while post-1989/90 discussions, themselves revolving around a slightly different terminological and conceptual dichotomy, namely between landlordship (Grundherrschaft) in the west and demesne lordship (Gutsherrschaft) in the east, began to discuss the implications of East European research, the debate soon petered out. Instead, and based on a very selective reading of these histories, the general idea was preserved and continues to reinforce the increasingly widespread and, at times triumphalist, accounts of the rise of western Europe and northern America thanks to commerce and, later, industry, but without an even-handed discussion of agricultural productivity, changing social relations, and the long-term transition of the Humanities and Social Sciences that discuss these matters in terms of the “Great” and “Little Divergence”, but for the most part ignore the intellectual and scholarly foundations of these narratives.
In my paper, I wish to contribute to the overcoming of this regrettable lacuna by outlining the conceptual and intellectual history of this master-narrative as it was, and in some ways continues to be, (selectively) perceived by eastern and western scholars from the late 19th century onwards. (Show less)