Historical land use may shape landscapes for centuries into the future, but it remains unclear how much land-use legacies affect contemporary land use. Knowing for how long and how strongly land-use legacies affect agricultural systems is important for contemporary land-use planning and conservation. We assessed the effect of nineteenth-century agricultural legacies for contemporary agricultural abandonment by integrating historic maps and satellite imagery in the Carpathian region. We modeled the choice of agricultural land, and the legacies of Habsburg and Socialist regimes, while controlling for agro-ecological, accessibility and sociopolitical variation. Farming during the Habsburg era was concentrated in agro-ecologically suitable areas, but socialist agricultural expansion occurred mostly in less suitable areas, leading to subsequent abandonment. In addition, our results showed that historic land use affected abandonment even 100 years later. Although legacies diminished over time, their effects were amplified when political transformations occurred, likely due to land tenure systems, land owner attitudes, cultural values and differences in land improvement over time. Taken together, land-use legacies and shifts in political systems can constrain current land management and possible future land-use options, suggesting that contemporary land-use decisions can affect future land use for decades and even centuries.