My introduction to European history began with a map. The peninsula of Europe lay stretched out over a blackboard; the lecturer drew an imaginary line down the center. Empires shifted, he explained, but this line had remained the same. To the west of it lay the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the “progressive” Great Powers, and what we learned during the Cold War to call “the West.” To the east lay barbarism, feudal states, Russia and Austria-Hungary, and what was then known as “the Communist bloc.”

The lecturer explained that the division of Europe was nothing new: it had its origins in deep cultural and political differences, land use patterns, the absence of capitalism in the East, the scientific revolution in the West. In all cases and at all times, the peoples to the west of the imaginary line had been more sophisticated, more progressive, more advanced. The peoples to the east were...