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Where East Meets West

March 12, 2012 - Example Author - Bez kategorii

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Martin Pollack’s book Cesarz Ameryki translated into Polish by Karolina Niedenthal (unfortunately not published in English) was the winner of the First Annual Ambasador Nowej Europy (Ambassador of New Europe) award on March 8th 2012 in Wrocław Poland. The book was published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Czarne (http://czarne.com.pl), the recipient of the award. In honour of this award, we are republishing Pollack's article "Where East Meets West" which appeared in New Eastern Europe’s first issue.


By: Martin Pollack

In the West, there is still ignorance to what is happening in the countries which were once behind the Iron Curtain. Many efforts and patience are needed to overcome prejudice and fear in order to start a real dialogue with our neighbours to the East.

What does a Western European see in the eastern part of the continent? What would a satiated Austrian see if, altering his own habits, he decides to turn attention to the East rather than the West? Or if, for some reason, he puts aside his own little, everyday concerns and contemplates this region, incorrectly called Eastern Europe? Let’s put it differently: What do Western Europeans expect from these countries? What can they find there?

This is a legitimate question, as there is always a gap between image and reality. We become convinced that we see things and have certain knowledge. We contrive our own opinions. And yet all these are simply conjectures, predetermined opinions, prejudices which would not pass the confrontation with a reality test.  Rarely do we consider such a confrontation. It would not even cross our minds to make an attempt to break stereotypes, which, in many cases have been passed down to us for generations. Hence, our attitude towards Eastern Europe has been shaped by such ungrounded judgements, fake images and clichés.

Eastern Europe – Where is it?

Problems already arise with an attempt to precisely define the term “Eastern Europe”.  Where is it – East Europe? What are its eastern and western borders? Which countries does it include? Is it still politically correct to use this term? Isn’t it more correct to say “Central and Eastern Europe”, “South-Eastern Europe” and “North-Eastern Europe”?  Not that long ago, the common belief was that Eastern Europe is the area inhabited by the Slavs. This image still haunts us and many people believe in this absurd idea. Just think: how Slavic are the Hungarians, the Albanians, the Romanians, the Moldovans, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, or the Estonians?  Maybe they should be considered Western Europeans?

The problem doesn’t end there. In geographic terms, at least from Austria’s perspective, Eastern Europe is almost impossible to be captured in one definition. A glimpse at a map and we see Prague is more to the West than Vienna and the same goes for Ljubljana, Rijeka or Szczecin: and all these cities, without much thought, would be assigned the label Eastern Europe, although their residents really feel that they live in Central Europe. Therefore, maps and atlases will not help us in this debate and it is probably better to just put them aside.

My point here is that the idea of Eastern Europe is more a political than geographical concept. Its borders were drawn after 1945 and fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. For decades, we, the Westerners (and of course in this context the term “West” is just as imprecise as “Eastern Europe”) were content referring to “the countries of the Eastern bloc” or just simply “the Eastern bloc”.  We looked at this region as it was one uniform territory deprived of differences or borders. For us, Eastern Europe was an area in which everything was more or less the same: politics, economy, lifestyles, people’s mentality and even cities and countryside. We had the vague idea that the landscape was slightly different, but we had no first-hand knowledge of this because we never travelled east. 

And when it comes to travelling east, not much has really changed. Even today a trip to Ukraine or Moldovia is regarded, as it was years ago, as a risk. Many of us simply prefer not to go there: sicher ist sicher.

In our minds, Eastern Europe was an area of backwardness, poverty, lacking political freedom, and imposing uravnilovka. To us everything that was on this other side seemed miserably poor, worth very little, and even dangerous. In our eyes, the Eastern European countries were perceived as one entity; an alternate, colourless version of our own world.


Rich, proud and overconfident

All these years has affected our mentality and behaviour. A thought that our home is in the “better” part of Europe gave us pride. It made us feel quite confident towards our eastern neighbours whom we regarded as our underprivileged relatives, our poor relation. Yes, the unfortunate souls, who once in a while could count on our generosity and charity. Even at such moments we preferred to maintain our distance.  These are the emotions the poor relation generates; they are more tolerable than loveable.

A sense of superiority with a degree of pity, which at any moment could turn into intolerance, if not refuted, allowed us to treat the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Poles, not to mention the Ukrainians or Belarusians (about whose existence we barely knew), with such arrogant attitudes. We would never allow ourselves to treat the British, the French or the Italians like that. Our neighbours in the East were simply inferior, in many aspects. They were poor, they had no luck, and we knew how to remind them of their misery.  As it is often in relations with the poorer relatives, we did not think it was inappropriate to show them our superiority. Let alone the fact that we were able to give them good advice, without even knowing what their lives were like. When they ignored our words of wisdom, we treated it as a sign of a lack of gratitude. Ultimately, we, the rich Westerners, were proud of our success. We were the West who they were supposed to listen to.

With time we started believing that maybe our neighbours from the other side of the Iron Curtain were actually deserving of their fate. Maybe, at least partially, they shared the responsibility for their fate. In the end, we, or maybe our parents and grandparents, were capable of rebuilding our ruined country after the war and put our efforts into establishing the good life. Surely there had to be a reason why those living behind the Iron Curtain were not so successful and that their countries suffered crisis after crisis. Was it really only the political system? Or maybe they, the Eastern Europeans, were less ambitious, less diligent and less hard-working than us.

That Eastern Europe, a creature of the “cold war”, disappeared from the maps along with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism. It all happened so fast, much faster than even the biggest optimist could predict. Soon after, at a similar pace and with unexpected courage, the process of Eastern enlargement of the European Union took place. Indeed, the courage of European politicians at that time was amazing to many of us.  It is disappointing to see that momentum diminish in the recent years.

The fearsome East

The once alluring enthusiasm towards a united Europe without borders has been replaced, at best, by troubling doubt or, worse, by national egoisms, petty and self-centred thinking.  In many countries, also in Eastern and Central Europe, there is a visible popularity of nationalistic thinking and hostility towards minorities. For many people in the West this becomes a pretext to yet again turn away from the East. For them this region is once again starting to look unpredictable and threatening.

However, the same tendencies can be seen in Western democracies, in countries which for years had been served as an example of liberalism and openness to the world. This can be seen in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

Hence, there is no reason for us, people in the West, to look with pity at the East and warn it against the danger of nationalist movements, something that is too familiar to us. We should rather reflect on similar tendencies in our own countries. Take an example of our own good, old Austria where a politician who is building his political capital on nationalist ideas and prejudice against foreigners can quite realistically count on winning elections and entering the government in a few years.

These types of views, often used by politicians, include the spreading of fear of the “East”. It is the fear of the tribes of wild barbarians flowing from this undefined East through our open borders in order to steal and loot our countries. Or, at the very least, they will take our jobs away from us. Such arguments are far from novel. In fact, they are obsolete. They were used under the Habsburg Empire by the politicians who were representing the German nationalist fraction.

I live in the southern part of Burgunland in Austria, near the border with Hungary and Slovenia.  Today, when both countries are members of the European Union, the border has no meaning. And yet, it seems as if has never disappeared. It exists, at least, in our heads. Between the southern part of Burgenland and the border regions of Hungary and Slovenia there is no significant interaction.  People from my area are usually quite reserved and sceptical when it comes to the other side. Old fears and distrust thrive and are propagated.

Ironically, before 1918 Burgenland belonged to the Hungarian, and not Austrian, part of the dualist Habsburg monarchy. Yet, not much remained from the ties that historically glued us together.  These ties have been long cut. The new ones are being established slowly and with many difficulties. Today any attempt to reopen the old doors, which before 1989 were sealed by the Iron Curtain, is met with resistance on the Austrian side; many Austrians living near the old border are still against its reopening. 

This visible distance reveals also ignorance towards our neighbours’ languages. This would not be so surprising, if not the fact that some time ago many residents of Burgenland spoke Hungarian, sometimes Croatian (Burgenland is also inhabited by a Croat minority). Today multilingualism is something unusual. This is true, at least, for our side of the border. On the other side, meaning the East, it is quite different: there many young people speak German.

This seems to be the characteristic of all these unique parts of Europe where East also meets the West. Much effort and patience are still needed to dismantle existing prejudice, overcome fears, and undertake a real dialogue with neighbours. And by real dialogue I do not mean the teary one during the anniversary ceremonies during which beautiful speeches are uttered in shaky voices and the participants embrace each other, exchanging kisses. By real dialogue I mean the simple, every day, conversation.

One can say that the political events are not only faster than people’s mentality but that people with old mentality remain behind the changes brought to them by politics. It is quite a surprise and a shame, at the same time, that all borders, walls, and barriers of distrust disappear in people’s minds much slower than they do in the world of politics. It seems that it is more difficult to weed out prejudice and the lack of compassion towards neighbours than get rid of even the most stringent political systems.

Clearly, this is also because of our attitudes. These also have not changed significantly. Until today, many people in the West are still ignorant on what is going on in the countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain, their nations and culture. Anyone who knows something about literature understands this.  German-language publishers are resistant to include books of unknown Polish or Czech authors, not to mention Ukrainian, over an unknown American, Italian or French author. When asked on why this is the experts, publishers, bookshop owners and reviewers will only shrug their shoulders. No one has an explanation; it is just how things are.

Oh those difficult names

In culture, much endurance and patience are needed to overcome the old thinking patterns and achieve change. Quite often it appears that indifference and lack of interest emerge from little details. Let’s take the example of the spelling of names. Someone could say that this is my personal whim to fret about such a minor thing. And yet I believe that there is a reason behind a carefree attitude towards the spelling of foreign last names, especially when they are of Eastern European origin.

For example it is a norm among Austrian journalists to misspell Polish, Czech and Hungarian last names. Something nobody seems to be bothered about. Even the mainstream newspapers are not certain on how to write correctly the last name of a well-known Polish politician. Is it Kaczinski, Kaczinsky, Kacsinsky or maybe Kaczyński? For many years, I personally fought for the proper writing (let’s forget about the pronunciation) of the name Kapuściński (late Polish reporter and writer – editor’s note), and that was a quixotic fight. At the same time, the last names of French politicians or writers, for instance, also not easy for Austrians, are given special attention, making sure they are written correctly, up to the last accent mark.

Sloppiness in this area, which is also a sign of ignorance and/or a sense of superiority, has a long tradition. I talked about this on many occasions. The first time I brought up this issue in 1985 in an essay with a provocative title – A Call to Easternise Vienna. Back then I wrote: “It is common knowledge that a large part of Vienna’s telephone directory consists of Slavic or Hungarian last names. What is irritating, however, is the fact that not many Viennese are able or show enough effort to spell them, not to mention pronounce them, correctly…And this is not because the Viennese are somewhat hostile towards foreign names: French or English last names are loved here. The situation is completely different when it comes to the names of politicians or other dignitaries from Hungary or other Slavic countries. Here, the languages are mixed, here the cultural imperialism is joyfully rising: who, on earth, cares whether the last names of the Polish workers’ leader or a Hungarian composer are properly pronounced?”

My essay was written over a quarter century ago, and not much has changed since then. Until today our attitude towards the neighbours in the East is characterised by a lack of interest, ignorance and prejudice. This is all despite the fact that these neighbours have long been members of the EU and their economic situation is not much worse than ours. Before, we could blame the Iron Curtain, which, of course, we did not build ourselves. It was those on the other side. And it was the Iron Curtain which was supposedly blocking our view to the East and the main reason for our poor relations. We conveniently blamed the Iron Curtain for the lack of not seeking contacts with people from the other side.

The same old story

The Iron Curtain has long since been raised. The barbed wire and the land mines are history. The borders are open. Even the nations, once closed in the Soviet Union, have been states for 20 years now can be freely visited. They have their own good hotels, restaurants and just as sophisticated intellectual life as the one in the West.  And yet the curtain still exists, as if nothing has changed.

How is it possible? How can we explain it? Why is it so difficult to fill this ignorance towards Eastern and Central Europe?

I believe that the reasons are mainly of historical nature. Prejudice which is revealed in our attitude towards our Eastern neighbours goes deep in history reaching back to the 19th century or even deeper. As commonly known, such prejudice are most vivid and the hardest to root out. Here again, I am referring to Austria, although it is quite similar in other Western countries. But let’s stay with Austria. Here the lack of understanding towards the history and tradition of Eastern European nations is very deeply rooted. Already before the Habsburg Empire collapsed, in its Austrian part, the orientation was predominantly pro-West, even though Vienna was a metropolis of not only German-speaking people but also a city of Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Slovenians.

However, the German-speaking Austrians were even irritated back then carrying a certain level of distrust towards the easterners. Anybody who could afford it then, would choose a vacation in the Austrian mountains, at the Austrian sea or at least at Austrian lakes but not in Böhmen (this is what the Czech country was called back then) or in the flatland of today’s Hungary. And God forbid a journey to Galicia.  Anybody who would make a trip there would probably be sent there only for business or work and such a stay was treated almost like exile.

If anybody decided to make a journey in these remote regions, he would return with stories of dissatisfaction and stereotypical complaints. Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872), Austria’s national poet, a well-known grump and misanthrope left such a description of his trip throughout the Czech country, “The moment you cross the Czech border, everything slows down and gets worse. Is this only my conviction or maybe it is the area, all in all probably not that bad, in its essence –how to say? – more boring, bitter, wilder than in Austria. And the beggars on the side roads are more numerous and more shameless”.

The same Grillparzer once visited Budapest, and he must have been in an exceptionally foul mood. He wrote: “The local language when spoken by women sounds simply terrible. When spoken by men, it sounds a little better, but still somewhat husky…I saw a few things. Museums, universities, and what else? I really feel sick. Dinner with the Takatschs’ (common Hungarian last name – editor’s note)…I ate very little but instead drank a lot of really strong wine to make myself feel better… At the tavern, the service is the worst I have ever experienced. Around eight o’clock, going to the Hungarian theatre, which I have not seen yet. The show was The Barber of Seville. To say that the show was weak would be a complement. It was below any standard”.

Until today, this is, or at least similar to, the reaction of many Austrians (and not only Austrians) looking East. Negative from the beginning, they are distrustful and always convinced that by them, meaning in the West, things are much better. In this sense, Grillparzer is quite up-to-date. The fact that this great Austrian national poet, without much qualm, would write “Takatsch” instead of “Takács” is not surprising; the same old story.

Martin Pollack is an Austrian writer, journalist and translator of Polish literature. He is the author of many book including: Po Galicji (1994), Ojcobójca – przypadek Filipa Halsmanna (2002), Śmierć w bunkrze. Opowieść o moim ojcu (2004), Sarmackie krajobrazy (2005), Dlaczego rozstrzelali Stanisławów (2008), Cesarz Ameryki. Wielka ucieczka z Galicji (2011).

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe Vol. 1(I)/2011


Information about Subscription to New Eastern Europe and purchases of back issues can be found at http://www.east24.eu

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