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Us and Them: The evolution of identity

May 25, 2013 - Ziemowit Szczerek - Bez kategorii

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ZIEMOWIT SZCZEREK: What do people in the West think about Europeans from the East? Are they “us” or “they”?

HANS HENNING HAHN: The concept of “us” is always dependent on how we understand “them”. The more we think about other regions of the world, for example the Arab world, as being different from us, the more we are prone to regard our immediate neighbours as “us”. But when we don’t need this external enemy, then we start seeing divisions in “us”, and then some of “us” may become “them”.

This “us” does not need to be particularly strongly built. This is the rule of the functioning of the evolution of identity, which is very strong when there is an enemy. If the enemy is not there, identity can get blurred. In other words, the nation stays tightly together when its members feel that something threatens them. When they feel safe, regionalisms start to emerge. This “us” and “them” in Europe is also a kind of a regionalism.

Has Eastern Europe always been perceived as something strange, wild, and barbarian in the West?

The image of others as “barbarians” has probably always been with us. The division of the world into “us” and “the barbarians” existed in ancient Greece and Persia. Interestingly, the Greeks were “the barbarians” for the Persians. This was because the Persians were monotheistic and the Greeks, who believed in many gods, seemed primitive to them.

But Eastern Europe did not regard the West as barbarians…

This is because the divisions into more or less civilised regions in Europe did not follow the East-West line. In England, the more “uncivilised peoples” lived in the north, which was much less urbanised. At that time, the world was divided into more and less urbanised areas. Eastern Europe was not so barbarian for people back then; it simply fit into these division lines.

The perception of Eastern Europe as being somewhat backward only dates to the end of the 17th century and is related to the phenomena that in the West that we like to see as the beginning of modernisation, namely: industrialisation, the Enlightenment, economic development, and a certain level of progress. The concept of “progress” in the West was understood in terms of material progress. A “modern society” was a society with a strong “third tier” which neither comprised of nobility nor clergy. In Europe’s East this tier was weak. Hence, the region was perceived as backward.

And would you say that the medieval German settlers who came East – to Hungary and Poland – didn't know they had come to less developed areas? Wasn’t this the beginning of the idea of the “barbarian East”?

Back then, the differences were not that big. In addition, in the Middle Ages, this migration to the East was a migration to regions which may have been a bit less developed, but also enjoyed freedom. Interestingly, the migration of the bourgeois and farmers to the East took place at the same time as the migration of Jews. They all were seeking freedom. And this lasted way longer than the Middle Ages. Think about the Germans brought to Russia by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. This means that many Germans thought they could get a better life in the East.

But also in the “Wild West”, which quickly became part of the civilised West, while Eastern Europe somehow did not…

This is because the West did not dominate Eastern Europe in the same way as the West dominated in Northern America.

Are you suggesting that people in Eastern Europe were not capable of establishing a well-developed civilisation similar to the one in the West?

There is no doubt that Eastern Europeans were capable of establishing a well-developed civilisation, but in Poland, for example, the so-called “nobles’ democracy” was the reason for the impeded urban development. It was the nobility who set the tone in the state, not the bourgeoisie. In Russia, on the other hand, Moscow’s victory over Novogrod was the reason why the project of the mercantile republic failed.

So why was it in Europe’s West, and not its East, that the cornerstone of this civilisation was born?

Until the end of the 15th century in Europe, silver was the most popular means of payment, and the largest volume of silver was to be found in the Czech lands and the East of them. In the 16th century silver was replaced by gold which started to be massively imported from America. Consequently, the countries located more closely to the Atlantic developed faster than those further away from it. Theoretically, things could have taken a different course.

The West had an ocean, but the East also had its space. Peter the Great had the idea of using this space in such a way as to turn Eastern Europe into a trade intermediary between Europe and Asia; in the same way as Western Europe was an intermediary in the trade with America. Russian trade was present in the Baltic area and yet Peter the Great did not succeed in conquering Crimea or establishing direct relations with China. But his thinking was going in the right direction and the idea was good. The only problem was that the distance from India or China to Russia proved to be too long.

But the West had dominated even before. That’s where the powerful Holy Roman Empire was. Christianity also came from the West.

I would not exaggerate with the power of the Holy Empire. But when it comes to civilisation, Rus did not take Christianity from the West but from Byzantine. We tend to ignore the very important role that was played by Byzantine: we look at what the East took from the West and forget about the Greeks. And bear in mind that it was Saints Cyril and Methodius who Christianised Eastern and Central Europe. Byzantine eventually lost because of the Turks. But its historical and cultural heritage constitutes the overall shape of today’s European culture, with the same input of the Orthodox Church as the Catholic or Protestant Churches.

Had Byzantine not collapsed, would it have been just as attractive as the West?

Saints Cyril and Methodius had much earlier done something that the Protestant Reformation later did in the West. They translated the Bible into the national languages. That is why Eastern Europe was not as concise as was Western Europe, which for so long read the Bible in Latin. The Mongol invasion also had a big influence on Eastern Europe’s development, as it cut the region off from Western Europe for many centuries. The Tatars and the Mongols were also very different from the Arabs in southern Spain.

Unfortunately the Mongolian Empire was not the centre of the world’s culture as the Muslim world was a thousand years ago. And of course the Western urbanised world included such regions as the Rhine river valley and northern Italy. In other words, the territories of the former Roman empire. Its urban development was based on a continuity which reached back to antiquity.

Contacts with this world allowed faster development. However, I also believe that those who say that Eastern Christianity is less capable of development than Western Christianity express, in fact, a very Western point of view. The same opinion was heard from Protestants in regards to Catholics not that long ago. Think about the theory that modernisation can only be carried out by Protestants.

However, France and Spain underwent the process of modernisation much slower than some of the Protestant countries?

Perhaps Spain did in the 19th and 20th century, but France was never a backward country. Just the opposite. In a sense, it was a seen as a “leader” in culture and science.

But France was viewed as a backward country in Great Britain even after the Second World War?

I can assure you that when I travelled to France as a young boy, the majority of my friends thought that Great Britain, not France, was backward. If you look at the impact that the French universities, inventions, also in natural sciences, have had on the history of our civilisation, it would be hard to hold on to such a belief. Also we need to remember that there were also times that Spain was the outpost of civilisation.

The Webberian idea that capitalism was born thanks to Calvinism is an exaggeration. Protestant ethics have indeed played a role in the development of capitalism, but we cannot forget that so did the French banks and French capitalism. The truth is that the French have managed quite well without Protestantism.

And what about the Germans? Did the French also think of them as backward?

They were backward up to the 19th century. They were something of a Ruritania, a romantic, yet backward forest country. The French image of Germany emerged from Madame de Stael’s book De l'Allemagne which was written around 1810. The French did not see Germans as a threat, neither in economic nor military terms.

A great debate, which took place in France and which was to prove that Germany were not actually that backward, took place 60 years later, after the 1871 war, which France lost. It was then when everybody started asking questions about what happened to those Germans, as it was the French who claimed that the Germans had obsolete weaponry and a terrible army.

And how did the Germans look at the world surrounding them?

First of all, they were scared of France. France was seen as enemy number one. A country of imperial ambitions, a threat to Germany. In addition, stereotypical Frenchmen were “morally wrong” and sexually transmitted diseases were called “French illnesses”.

And there were stereotypes among these medieval German colonisers who headed East. What were their views of Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Romanians?

They had to exist but we have no sources for them. These anti-Slavic stereotypes had to already exist when the territory between the Laba and Oder rivers were becoming more and more Slavic. However, as of today, we can’t say much about them. For example, Thietmar’s chronicle includes some very anti-Slavic, anti-Polish statements. In the same way as anti-German featured in a chronicle by a Prague-based priest.

However, the latter distinguishes between Germans who don’t adjust to Bohemian customs and those who not only don’t adjust but also expect special privileges for themselves. This shows not only stereotypes but also a rather complex situation, and means that when a statement is “anti” or “for” something it does not make it yet a stereotype, but, in a way, it describes a situation without a way out: they are like this and nothing could be done about this.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This text was originally published on the Polish internet portal Interia.pl. It is republished by New Eastern Europe as part of our cooperation with the portal’s section Środek Wschód Report o Europie Środkowej i Wschodniej.  

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