06 September 2006

Eastern and western Europe

Eastern vs. western Europe. "New" vs. "old" Europe. Or, during the Cold War, simply "them" and "us". What's the difference, and where is the dividing line?

"Europe" as a geographical expression is fairly well-defined, and also essentially meaningless. It's bounded on the north by the Arctic ocean, on the west by the Atlantic, on the south by the Mediterranean and Black seas and the Caucasus mountains, and on the east by the Ural mountains. But this geographical area clearly is not a cultural unit. Most obviously, the Ural mountains are not a cultural boundary at all; they mark the eastern edge of "European" Russia, but there is only more Russia on the other side, so the culture on both sides is the same. One might as well declare the Mississippi to be a fundamental dividing line.

Everyone knows that this "Europe" contains two very different worlds. It's in defining the distinction and where it lies that things get murky.

It seems to be a common habit of people in several of the countries of eastern and central Europe to declare that they themselves are genuinely Europeans in a cultural sense, but that all the countries to the east of them are not. Many Ukrainians say this about the Russians, Romanians and Poles say it about the Ukrainians and Russians, Hungarians say it about the Romanians (most of my observation of this phenomenon over the years comes from personal conversation and writings that don't seem to be online, but I can assure you it is real), and of course we all know about the historical attitude of the Germans toward pretty much everyone to the east of themselves.

More objectively, in The Clash of Civilizations Samuel Huntingdon went to some trouble to define "the eastern boundary of Western civilization", a line he drew along the Croatian-Bosnian border, then along the Carpathian mountains to include Transylvania but exclude the rest of Romania, and finally northward through the Pripyat marshes to follow the eastern borders of Latvia, Estonia, and Finland (map here). This is basically the eastern border of the area which was historically Catholic and (later) Protestant. It has won favor from those who believe that the cultural character of "the West" as it exists today was largely shaped by a series of events including the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment in general, which took place to some degree in all of the societies west of this line, but not in the Eastern Orthodox and Muslim societies east and southeast of it.

How much importance we attach to this boundary depends on how closely we agree with Huntingdon's definition of what makes the West what it is (I believe the essence of Western civilization lies in its Roman origins, though the later events cited above were obviously important). One could also argue that this borderline reflects a division between those societies which received Roman civilization directly from Rome and those that received it via Byzantium -- Huntingdon makes a similar point, though he is talking about the spread of Christianity rather than Roman culture.

But how useful is this boundary, really? Its location is defined by religion, and religion is no longer a significant part of most Europeans' sense of identity, except in Poland; eastern and western Europe are both overwhelmingly secular. It is true that there were major cultural changes centuries ago which happened only to the west of the line, because at that time religious differences were formidable barriers to the transmission of such ideas; but there are also many cultural connections and influences which cross the boundary. Most obviously, five countries which are "Western" by Huntingdon's definition (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia) speak Slavic languages, a cultural link with non-Western Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia. Ukraine was ruled by Poland for much of the late Middle Ages, and Polish influence played a role in creating its identity distinct from Russia. Transylvania's population is now over 60% Romanian (non-"Western"), even though Hungarians ("Western") were predominant there as recently as two hundred years ago. The Baltic states, also classified as Western, have large Russian populations which settled there during the centuries of Tsarist and Soviet rule. And German cultural influence has been a huge factor throughout eastern Europe for centuries; it declines somewhat as geographical distance from Germany increases, but does not abruptly end at any arbitrary line.

Where can a meaningful line most usefully be drawn now?

I know that when I speak of "eastern Europe", I mean the area east of the eastern borders of Germany, Austria, and Italy (and Finland). This line may have no basis in the 16th century, but it does divide what, in 2006, seem like two different worlds.

Economically: the countries west of the line have living standards typically equivalent to around 60% to 90% of what we have in the US. East of the line, per-capita incomes are more similar to those of Latin America.

Linguistically: west of the line, people speak what we think of as "Western" languages, at least somewhat familiar to Americans, such as Spanish, French, German, and Italian. East of the line lies the realm of "strange" and "difficult" languages -- mostly Slavic languages and exotica such as Albanian and Hungarian (the latter of which is not even Indo-European). Romanian, a Romance (Latin-derived) language like Spanish or Italian, is the sole exception.

Politically: west of the line, independence and democracy are half-century-old (or more) realities, taken utterly for granted. East of the line, these things are fifteen years old at best, and recognized as not at all a foregone conclusion.

Psychologically: this is most important, if harder to pin down. Eastern Europeans mostly still seem to understand that civilization (whatever they consider that to mean) has dangerous enemies and needs defending. Western Europeans, with the notable exception of (some of) the British and the Danes, seem to have lost this awareness and live in a pacifist dream-world in which threats are not real and all problems can be solved by talking. In Iraq, for example, there is actually a Polish occupation zone between the British and American ones, and soldiers from other eastern European countries are present there alongside ours. Western Europe, except for Britain's enormous contribution, has done little to help, with France and Germany even seeking to obstruct American policy.

As a corollary to this, almost every major western European city has a large colony of unassimilated Muslims (immigrants from Muslim countries and their descendants), who are gradually transforming those cities into crime-infested hell-holes, intimidating and threatening the indigenous people with extremist rhetoric and public demonstrations, harassing Jews, and more or less openly proclaiming the aim of establishing Islamic domination. Eastern European cities lack this problem, partly because those countries are too poor to offer the generous welfare states and high wages that attract such immigrants. But it also seems very unlikely that Muslim minorities could behave in Moscow, Kiev, or Warsaw as they do in Paris, Brussels, and London, because the indigenous people simply would not put up with it.

Finally, throughout western Europe, vicious anti-American hatred is commonplace, even fashionable. The roots of this phenomenon are complex, but a good discussion of it can be found in the book While Europe Slept by Bruce Bawer (the book is also a good source on the problem of Islamic minorities in Europe, its main topic). In most eastern European countries, attitudes toward Americans are at least somewhat friendlier, even if some of the governments (such as Russia's) are not.

Westerners tend to think of eastern Europe as a backward place which needs to be Westernized as quickly as possible for its own good. It is true that geographical disadvantages, isolation from the sources of the Enlightenment, and the long periods of traditional despotism and Communist misrule have left eastern Europe poorer than the West. But the balance sheet suggests another side to the story. The easterners know a thing or two about how the world really works, about standing up to bullies, and about knowing who one's real friends are. Their western neighbors could benefit by learning from them, as much as vice-versa.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Infidel. Again, I'm impressed by your homework. Good points all around; I could add more on the specifics of the Polish culture, which is somewhat unique in this slowly melting pot. For example, that sense of "real enemies" existing in the Polish collective psyche comes from our past. We were, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed (oops! bad language -- I apologize!) throughout most of our history, positioned so unfortunately between those two giants, Russia and Germany, that constantly wanted to chomp a piece of us here or there.

So there is a strong sense of patriotism and nationalism, not necessarily for the better, I must say, ingrained in Poles in general -- and with it comes the constant vigilance toward possible enemies.

And yes, Poles are in (not reciprocated) love with the US and would jump almost any hoops to satisfy American demands. We had our Kosciuszko and Pulaski here in person to prove it ages ago, and lately, our soldiers in Iraq as part of the "coalition of the willing."

Romanians and Poles say it about the Ukrainians and Russians

That's so true. :)

BTW, from what I know (and seen with my own eyes), Poland too has an immigration problem -- from the East and South (Romania, for example). And Poles, again in general, are not friendly toward those immigrants. What has surprised me most, perhaps, when watching the political and social changes from afar during the past 20 years, was the (re)surgence (the "re" part is questionable, IMO, because I never saw it under socialism -- but then there was no immigration to speak of under socialism) of anti-immigrant sentiments and often outward racism.

27 August, 2009 15:22  

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