MPIDR Working Paper

Historical family systems and the great European divide: the invention of the Slavic East

Szołtysek, M., Zuber Goldstein, B.
MPIDR Working Paper WP-2009-041, 34 pages.
Rostock, Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung (Dezember 2009)
Open Access


In 1940, almost two years into World War II, the book, “Agrarverfassung und Bevölkerung in Litauen und Weißrussland”(Agrarian constitution and population in Lithuania and Belarus), was published. The habilitation thesis of the young German historian Werner Conze, the book was an extensive study of premodern family patterns of the peasant serf population in Lithuania from the 16th to the 18th centuries. In an approach that was innovative for its time, Conze used a type of historical source which, up to that point, had not yet received a lot of interest, namely, quantitative data derived from original inventory lists of historic estates. The analysis of the data led Conze to detect a difference between West and East. The comparison emphasised the cultural divide between the Germans and the Slavs to the East by postulating smaller family sizes throughout the western or German-influenced part of historic Lithuania, and larger families with more complex structures throughout the Slavic parts of the country. Thus, Conze also suggested that population growth in the Lithuanian west had been restrained, while the Lithuanian east had experienced abundant population growth. Conze’s scientific insights remain present in today’s historical-demographic literature, and have become an essential building block of any argument in support of the validity and persistence of East-West differentials in family systems in East-Central Europe. Because of this study’s continued importance, it may prove useful to re-examine “Agrarverfassung und Bevölkerung,” looking at its auctorial and ideological context, its methodological procedures, and its empirical content. Our critical assessment of some of Conze’s basic assumptions reveals serious shortcomings in his analysis, which resulted from his tendency to make unwarranted inferences from non-representative and circumstantial evidence, and from his underlying motivation to search for German-Slavic differences. We will discuss the extent to which the pervading notion of the East-West divide in historical East-Central Europe must be revised in response to these shortcomings. By uncovering the inadequacies of Conze’s contribution, we hope to pave the way for a truly scientific understanding of familial characteristics of Eastern Europe, and to end the perpetuation of certain stereotypes of Slavic populations.
Schlagwörter: Deutschland, Litauen, Weißrussland, demographers, family forms, historical demography
Das Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung (MPIDR) in Rostock ist eines der international führenden Zentren für Bevölkerungswissenschaft. Es gehört zur Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, einer der weltweit renommiertesten Forschungsgemeinschaften.