6.3.3 Centres and Peripheries in Contemporary History (ca. 1900–2000)

Gabriela de Lima Grecco, Károly Halmos, and Jaroslav Ira

© 2023 Lima Grecco, Halmos, and Ira, CC BY-NC 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0323.72


Over the centuries, differences between European countries and other nations have been very important in the construction of contemporary European identities as ‘European’. In this process of shaping the identity of the European nations, a key part has been played by the experience of cultural and economic contrasts, as well as the ‘othering’ of the non-Western world. However, differentiation inside Europe has been similarly important in constructing a self-definition of each European country or region. In this positioning of the ‘other’ and ‘self’ with a global outlook, an idea has developed of some regions as ‘centres’ and others as ‘peripheries’, inextricably bound up with relationships of power. The centre-periphery relationship has particularly been employed to contrast regions that have great social and economic differences. This has created an imaginary classification of ‘central’ and ‘peripheral’ countries in the twentieth century, with similar meanings to other divisions, such as the North and the South, the developed and underdeveloped world, or the First, Second, and Third Worlds respectively. On the other hand, we can identify different centre-periphery scales, from the level of the global all the way down to the scale of a single city.

Thinking of Centres and Peripheries

The idea that the world has a centre around which everything else revolves has very deep roots and is closely connected to the birth of colonial empires. However, the proposal to consider the centre-periphery duality as a reference with which to analyse the relations between countries in the international economy was a product of the Latin American structuralist school. Its main exponent was CEPAL (the UN Economic Commission for Latin America), among whose personnel the Argentinian Raúl Prebisch and the Brazilian Celso Furtado stand out. In the structuralist theory, emphasis is placed on the relationship between industrialised countries and raw material exporters, and the unequal relationships that develop from that basis.

Recent Latin American critical theory, especially from the representatives of decolonial studies, develops the idea of dual relations between centre and periphery. For some decolonial thinkers, it is not only the economy that creates unequal relationships, but also the construction of knowledge. Some historians denounce the geopolitics of knowledge, which tries to explain how the peripheralisation of some places and the centrification of others has operated. This reveals the interaction of certain types of knowledge produced by the relationships of subordination and [the] inferiorisation of the knowledge generated in other places (those of the periphery and those of the colonial difference) for the sake of dominating, exploiting, and subjecting the latter. This theory seeks to point out that knowledge as such has often been produced with universalist pretensions in the ‘centres’—in schools, academies, universities, by literary and scholarly elites. In reality, this wisdom is partial knowledge on the reality of the world, written from a particular point of view. Centres create discourses, enunciations, and knowledge—including History—and in this sense decolonial studies is an attempt to confront and transcend Eurocentrism as a model of universal development.

In the perspective of European historiography, universal analytical concepts have long been established, including ‘development’, ‘progress’, ‘modernisation’, ‘civilisation’, and temporality (from the European chronologies of time: medieval, modern, and so on). They are assumed to be valid for the entire world. Historiography thus went on to homogenise the narrative structures of different histories and build uniform methodological standards. This is precisely one of the problems of modern epistemology: the construction of Eurocentric meta-narratives that played (and continue to play) a decisive role in the construction of a history centred on world unity and the evolutionary notion of time, progress, and development. In consequence, actors located in the continents of Latin America, Asia, or Africa usually appear as a secondary element in historiography, because these are the regions considered far from the ‘centre’ of the world. They are considered to be ‘underdeveloped’ compared to the North-West of Europe, in a device that creates a kind of ‘West-and-the-rest’ dichotomy. Therefore, some scholars nowadays recognise that thinking about the past is a positional action and that the illusory notion of a neutral, omniscient narrator must be rejected. In this sense, historiographical practices should not disconnected from being (the historian) and power (from where and for whom it is written).

The literary scholar Edward Said developed the notion of ‘Orientalism’ as an ideological mechanism for the self-definition of Europeans through the differentiation of the ‘Other’ (inferior) and the ‘Self’ (superior). This is closely connected to the west-east framework of centre-peripheries. However, within the European continent itself the centre-periphery relationship is also present. It can be observed in both east-west and north-south relations: on the one hand, Eastern Europe, including the post-communist countries that were behind the Iron Curtain in contrast with the ‘centre’ of Europe (Benelux, France, Germany, or the United Kingdom); on the other hand, the more symbolic construction of north-south, in which Scandinavian countries are seen as modern and developed in comparison with the southern countries of the Mediterranean peninsulas. Nonetheless, some scholars reject these dichotomies, usually in relation to particular countries. In relation to Russia, they argue instead in favour of an “awkward triptych in which Russia was neither fully western nor eastern but was rather inserted between West and East. Therefore, it is important to note that in this imaginary geography of Europe, built from centre-periphery dualities, some countries receive an ‘exotic’ representation, such as Russia or even Spain (through Flamenco, Muslim architecture, the idea of religious obscurantism, or the dictatorship of Francisco Franco). Therefore, these symbolic constructions reinforce the orientalisation of some countries or regions within the European continent itself.

European Empires: From Pax Britannica to the European Union

There is a well-known map from 1904 by the British geographer Halford Mackinder (1861–1947), on which the developed world is a periphery in relation to the pivot area. What Mackinder designates as the pivot is a large, nearly uninhabited part of the world. History ‘happened’ in the periphery but, as Mackinder suggests, the real question was that of who ruled the pivot area. Britain at the time of this map’s drawing was at the zenith of its imperial power, and this was a very British view of power relations at that time.

Since Britain was the dominant player in European power relations we can characterise the beginning of the twentieth century as a Pax Britannica, the core element of which was to maintain balance among the powers of mainland Europe. The great challenger of the Pax Britannica was the rising power of Germany. This new power was basically confined to Central Europe, and had long-lasting rivalries with the old powers—including France and Britain, with their hinterlands on other continents. This contest led to two World Wars—global acts of conflict—in the first half of the century. The First World War led to the collapse of the old-type (mainland, monarchical) empires of the continent, while the Second upended whatever European hegemony was left in the world and gave that place to the Pax Americana in Western Europe and to the Pax Sovietica in Eastern Europe.

A map from Halford Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History from 1904: shows a world map inside an eye-shaped border; Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia are situated in the center, while both ends of the Americas are situated on either side of the oval.

Fig. 1: A map from Halford Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History (1904), Public Domain, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heartland.png.

As for the western half of Europe, the United States followed its commercial interests. It intended to stabilise its partners without losing hegemony, which was ensured by forcing the acceptance of the principle of a multilateral system of payments at Bretton Woods in 1944. Stability was then achieved within the framework of the Marshall Plan (1947). The plan expected the coordinated economic cooperation of the European countries, including Germany, mainly in the sphere of heavy industry. The further steps of the process of economic and political integration included: the London Customs Convention (1945), the Benelux Customs Union (1948-present), the Western Union and later Western European Union (1948–1954; 1954–2011), the European Coal and Steel Community (1951–2002), the European Economic Community (1957–1993), the European Atomic Energy Community (1957-present), the European Communities (1958–2009), and finally the European Union (1993-present). Although the United Kingdom and France became nuclear powers, Western Europe (or more precisely, the territory of the Common Market) could not have defended itself without the aegis of the United States. A military defence shield was provided within the framework of NATO. Maintaining limited military capacities was counterbalanced by the economic successes of the region.

This trade-off is evident in the cases of neighbouring countries and provinces. While some could benefit from the free-trade agreements around the Common Market, others were enlisted in the satellite state system surrounding the Soviet Union. The lands that make up today’s Czechia were the most developed territories of the Habsburg Monarchy, on par with Austria and Bavaria. But only Austria and Bavaria were beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan. Two generations (seventy years) later, Czechia was clearly lagging behind its neighbours.

As for Czechoslovakia, the GDR (the capitals of which were to the west of Vienna), and the rest of Eastern Europe, power relations were simple. The military dominance of the Soviet Union that took shape in the form of the Warsaw Pact was practically an occupation; the governments of countries hosting the troops of the Red Army were not even informed of basic facts, such as whether or not nuclear heads were stationed on their territories. As for economic relations, the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, or Comecon) was not ‘mutual’ in the sense of multilateralism. In fact, throughout its existence it was based on bilateral agreements. In the framework of the pact, the Soviet Union was importing value, added in the form of processed or manufactured goods, while exporting raw materials, first and foremost crude oil and natural gas. Economic relations were subordinated to defence purposes and were not efficient. The central power of the system, the USSR, exploited its satellite states—and itself, too. On the macro level, no country became rich at the cost of the others. Rather, it was a situation where huge human effort became useless waste. This is why, at the end of the twentieth century, the system of Pax Sovietica collapsed under its own weight.

This economic and political division of Europe influenced the mental maps of ordinary people, too. The continent’s prior centre of gravity in the northwest was now extending to the Mediterranean. The traditional mental map of Europe, for much of history, articulated a difference between the north and the Mediterranean south. Although this representation is still present in everyday life (for example, the topos of the industrious people of the north going on holiday to the south, where they feel their money can buy more and people know how to live). This image was overwritten for long decades by the west-east split, where the visit behind the Iron Curtain was considered to be an exotic adventure, as if visiting Prague (a city that is more westerly than Vienna) would have been nearly equal to an expedition to Siberia. On the other hand, those everyday people who were living behind the Iron Curtain acknowledged their underdog position—listening to Western broadcasting stations (the US-funded and Munich-based Radio Free Europe, Radio Luxembourg, the BBC and so on), diligently collecting US dollars and Deutsche Marks to buy products that were only available in special shops that sold goods for what was called ‘hard currency’. This mental representation of centre-periphery relations can be still traced in the post-communist countries, even if they have been members of the European Union for at least a decade.

Europe as a Continent

Moving to the continental scale, the centre-periphery model can best be applied in terms of hierarchy and gradient structure. Following developments in preceding periods, the turn of the twentieth century saw north-western Europe firmly established as the core region, marked by a high rate of advanced industry, urbanisation, and consolidated nation-states. Periphery stretched from south-western to northern Europe and was characterised by low industry, less advanced agriculture, and a focus on exporting raw materials. Unequal economic relations, maintained by the core region and serving to its benefit, were complemented by a unidirectional flow of standards, norms and models, such as that of urbanism, towards the periphery. Parts of central Europe formed what has been termed a semi-periphery, the sphere that combines traits of both. Political fragmentation after the demise of the Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian Empires only deepened the hierarchical relations and dependent position of the periphery and semi-periphery—“Europe’s Third World”, according to the historian Derek H. Aldcroft. The political division of Europe after the Second World War gave birth to a two-pole structure, within which parts of European semi-periphery, such as Czechoslovakia or Eastern Germany, became subordinated to the peripheral yet powerful Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Cold War order after 1989, Western Europe remained as the clear centre, with East-Central Europe becoming a periphery within the EU, and Eastern Europe once again assigned the ambiguous status of European borderland.

As on the global scale, the European scale of imaginary geography has accompanied socio-economic hierarchies. Orientalising discourses are applied to various parts of the continent: ‘Balkanism’ (Maria Todorova) was one of those. Born amidst the Balkan Wars in the early twentieth century, this discourse has until today produced images of the region as quasi-European (Europe’s “Internal Other”, as Todorova puts it) and marked by essentialiations such as an inclination to ethnic violence or political fragmentation. In this construction, the Balkans deviate from the alleged standards of the European core. Many of the stereotypes were reactivated during wars in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. More recently, the European Debt Crisis of the 2000s, with its proliferating images of a fiscally irresponsible south leaning on the high-performing and austerity-prone north, re-activated the long-established division of Europe along the north-south axis. These images of idleness and excessiveness, building in part on an older repertoire of stereotyped imagery of south Europe, should not blind us to the role of the north (or the core) in co-structuring the vulnerable economy of the region, such as the volatility of mass tourism and foreign loans. Likewise, it was the core that profited from the cheap labour of migrating southern European and Yugoslavian guest workers, who helped build the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s in north-western Europe. Central Europe, too, has been subject to orientalising “discourses of Eastness” (Tomasz Zarycki) produced by the Western core, while also producing these images itself. Unquestioned acceptance of Western norms and models, efforts to assert a distinctively Central European identity, but also a critical stance towards what some see as Western European moral corruption and colonisation, are some of the ways in which the region copes with its semi-peripheral status, defined by, and in relation to, the Western core. Other ways of coping with the semi-peripheral status are some political projects, such as Intermarium, a mid-twentieth century plan for an East-Central European federation controlled by Poland, or ideas on how the region might breed morally superior models of civilisation.


Further down the spatial scale, many centre-periphery relations were also at play on a micro-level, within the centres and peripheries of Europe, or within individual states. It would be wrong, for instance, to imagine twentieth-century France as a monolithic core country. Rather, a regional discrepancy evolved in the nineteenth century and crystallised in the twentieth, between industrialising northern France and its increasingly agricultural south. Regional discrepancies between the rich Italian north and the poor Italian south are even more pronounced. From the perspective of urban geography, the core region of rich, heavily populated, and globally significant cities has established an “Urban Pentagon” (Heike Meyer and Paul Knox): the territory marked out by London, Paris, Milan, Munich, and Hamburg. Or in Roger Brunet’s “Blue Banana”, a curved belt can be observed stretching from the English midlands to northern Italy. Peripheries spread out to the east and west of these formations.

Whether a particular country was part of the European centre or its peripheries, smaller internal peripheries have tended to emerge within—or have remained in existence from previous periods. Regions that were comparatively less industrialised, less urbanised, poorly connected and circumvented by railroads and motorways, tended towards a high rate of outmigration. In the first half of the twentieth century, the southern belt of the Czech Lands was an example of such an internal periphery. Largely circumvented by industry, the territory became notorious for outmigration to Prague and Vienna, to the northern industrial part of Bohemia, and even to Americas. At the same time, the acknowledgement of this peripheral position, known as the Southern-Bohemian Question, gave birth to remarkable efforts by southern Bohemian regionalists to stimulate locally based development, for example by turning to the leisure economy, while also promoting regionalism as a state-wide doctrine of territorially balanced development, with more power given to the provinces. Targeted against ‘pragocentrism’—seen as the disproportionate concentration and monopolisation of economic, political, and even cultural power in the capital—regionalists called for a polycentric structure, with peripheral regions becoming self-sustaining socioeconomic and cultural wholes, while also being sources of genuine and high-quality cultural life.

Sometimes, the provinces could be more offensively positioned against the centre. In the Germany of the early twentieth century, for instance, the polarity between the provinces and the all-too-rapidly evolving Berlin carried traits of a pronounced cultural war between metropolitan cosmopolitanism and what was promoted as genuinely national German culture. In yet other contexts, peripheral regions were cradles of what has been called ‘peripheral nationalism’, including Scotland, Flanders, the Basque Country, and Catalonia. As the last example makes clear, peripheral regions are not necessarily economically disadvantaged parts of the state; Hans-Heinrich Nolte has argued that “internal peripheries” could also be economically high-performing regions. Yet, as they tend to be former independent states themselves, they are also likely to be units that are politically controlled from centres lying elsewhere.

Transition toward a ‘second modernity’ and post-industrial society in the late twentieth century put new developments on the map, with some of the old industrial centres, such as northern England, turning into peripheries. Elsewhere, areas such as southern Finland became champions of a new, knowledge-based economy, focused on smart-technologies, design, but also healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles. While the spatial hierarchies and disparities remain in existence, they have nevertheless become more complex and less easy to draw on the map, with the rich metropolitan areas of the global cities coexisting with underdeveloped regions, and affluent districts bordering with run-down neighbourhoods. The culture-led development, based on the creative industries, cultural heritage, and tourism, became a new panacea for many deindustrialised regions and other areas that lagged behind, sometimes instigated by national or European cultural policies and frameworks, such as the title of European Capital of Culture. In parallel, more grassroots movements have tried to challenge pervasive spatial imaginaries, such as association of centre with metropoles and periphery with the countryside. The international Cittaslow movement that emerged in Italy in 1999, and which is composed of small towns with the aim of promoting slow living, may serve as an example of these efforts.


Centres and peripheries are an analytical tool that needs to be used at different scales, providing different levels of observation. This differentiation structures the European continent and its relationship with other continents. It can also be observed within a region, or even within a city, between two contrasted neighbourhoods. Although economic aspects are undoubtedly the most relevant for understanding the relations of the centre-periphery, political, cultural and even knowledge-building issues are also relevant. This construction of the world as we see it in centres and peripheries has deep consequences in terms of politics or culture. How has the habit of Europeans to perceive their world in terms of centre and periphery been affected by the geopolitical changes of the twentieth century?

Discussion questions

  1. In which ways has the Cold War influenced the development of centres and peripheries in Europe?
  2. Has European integration strengthened or undermined the idea of centres and peripheries in Europe?
  3. Is Europe still the ‘centre of the world’? Why, or why not?

Suggested reading

Aldcroft, Derek H., Europe’s Third World: The European Periphery in the Interwar Years (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Brunet, Roger, Les villes europeénnes: Rapport pour la DATAR (Montpellier: RECLUS, 1989).

Cronin, Stephanie, ‘Introduction: Edward Said, Russian Orientalism and Soviet Iranology’, Iranian Studies 48:5 (2015), 647–662.

Grecco, Gabriela de Lima and Sven Schuster, ‘Decolonizing Global History? A Latin American Perspective’, Journal of World History 31:2 (2020), 425–446.

Knox, Paul and Heike Mayer, Small Town Sustainability: Economic, Social, and Environmental Innovation (Berlin: Birkhäuser, 2012).

Nolte, Hans-Heinrich, ‘Internal Peripheries: From Andalucia to Tatarstan’, Review 18:2 (Fernand Braudel Centre, 1995), 261–280.

Restrepo, Eduardo and Axel Rojas, Inflexión decolonial: fuentes, conceptos y cuestionamientos (Popayán: Universidad del Cauca, 2010).

Todorova, Maria, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Van der Wee, Hermann, Prosperity and Upheaval: The World Economy 1945–1980 (London: Penguin, 1991).

Zarycki, Tomasz, Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

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