Despite their symbolism in the minds eye of the English the white Cliffs of Dover, far from marking the boundary of England and separating Britain from the Continent, are in fact part of Europe’s dominant territorial feature. Stretching for 4,000 km without interruption from the Pyrenees to the Urals the Great European Plain is the physical feature that defines Europe more so than any of its uplands or mountain regions. At the Urals the plain spans 2,000 km from the Barents Sea to the Caspian. Further west it narrows to just 200 km between the North Sea coast and the hills in the Low countries. With an average east to west gradient fall of 26 inches per mile, or 0.04 per cent the plain gives Europe the lowest average elevation of any continent
The North European Plain covers modern Poland, Northern Germany, Southern Scandinavia, Belgium, The Netherlands, touches on the Czech Republic and the Franco-Belgian borderlands, and crosses the English Channel to include parts of Southern and Eastern England. The landscape is typically postglacial following several glacial episodes during the Pleistocene (c. 2,600,000 to 11,700 years ago) and is characteristically flat and undulating.
The plain is drained by several major European river systems including the Garonne, Loire, Seine, Schelde, Maas (Meuse), in France and the Low Countries, and the Weser, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Don, Volga, and Dnieper in Central and Eastern Europe. The Rhine is the main river of west Central Europe and with the Schelde and Mass has formed the extensive delta plain of the Netherlands.
With the exception of Finno-Ugric Hungarian and Finnish the languages spoken on the Great European Plain are predominately Indo-European and fall into the three main branches of Germanic (Dutch, Flemish, German, Danish, and Swedish); Romance (French and Romanian); and Slavic (Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, and Bulgarian). Despite differences in national or regional culture and language historically many of the inhabitants of the plains shared underlying similarities that stemmed from a common pattern of village life and agricultural practices. Industrialization from the nineteenth century has led to a more urbanized society, particularly in the west, and the centuries-old distinction between rural and urban cultures has been obliterated.
As well as being the defining physical feature of Europe the plain has arguably defined Europe’s history, being fertile and rich in resources, while allowing for the easy movement of peoples from east to west. It’s southern offshoot, the Pannonian Plain has been a springboard for the migrations of the Gepids, Huns, Avars, Cumans, Slavs, and Magyars, while it’s lack of natural boundaries or limits to territory is one factor in the ebb and flow of the peoples and polities that have sought to dominate Europe throughout recorded history.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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