Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

N O W   A N D   T H E N:
Reckoning and Reconciliation

The meaning of History in East Central Europe

Joanna Rohozinska

The subject of the meaning and use of history in East Central Europe is, to say the least, a loaded topic. The meaning and use of history in general is the subject of exhaustive debate that has given rise to philosophies on the very nature of mankind - authored by great philosophers from Nietzsche to Foucault. The problem of distinguishing history, a chronological record of events, from historiography, the process of writing history, is certainly not unique to East Central Europe. However, it generates more interest and speculations in this region in particular, because the blurring of the lines between the two has spawned far more serious conflicts here within living memory. History here is packed with martyrs and collaborators, despite the fact that the vast majority of inhabitants were neither. There seems to be a pressing need to categorise that is simply not prevalent in the West. While lustration committees are hard at work, one wonders if it is indeed reckoning and reconciliation that they are seeking or whether they are merely tearing at scars for the sake of personal power and political expediency .

There is a distinct impression that History is more immediate here than in the rest of the continent. This is due to two related, though distinct, factors: Western ignorance (or more accurately at this point the perception of and belief in the West's ignorance) of the history of the "small nations," and the fact that, for much of the area, the concept of nation preceded statehood. Similarly, there are two ways to consider history in the region - depending on whether it is viewed from within or without. The most striking example of the latter (one which may belie the West's general ignorance of the region) was the West's initial reaction to the explosion of Yugoslavia. The most prevalent commentary found in the Western media was that it was the "powder keg" of Europe exploding yet again. A parallel which is as simplistic as it is incorrect for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it ignores the history of Yugoslavia as it existed - both since the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 and again after 1945. Never mind that this parallel also ignores the support for, and thus viability of, the concept of a Yugoslav federation which stretches back to the 19th century.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, East Central Europe consisted essentially of colonies. The concept of nation-states was imported from the West, as the exchange of ideas began to flow more freely across the continent, beginning around the turn of the 19th century. There was no Springtime of Nations in Eastern Europe, but it nonetheless left its mark on at least a certain portion of the area's population. It is at this point that one confronts the difference between national "reawakening" and "nation-building." Defining these terms and choosing which one to use had, and continues to have, distinct political implications.

The need to assert national identity through territorial boundaries or statehood arose during this colonial period. Awareness of distinct identity largely came from social elites. Whether they were clerical, cultural or economic is irrelevant to the discussion of national identity, as the point is merely that they were not representative of the majority (that is, they were literate and were exposed to and affected by continental intellectual currents). This phenomenon varied throughout the region, mainly dependent on which imperial power held control, as this determined the nature of the relations with the local populace. For example, the Poles who lived under Russian rule experienced intense Russification campaigns and a far more oppressive atmosphere than their counterparts who lived in the Hapsburg-controlled regions. In the latter regions, the result was the development of a divergent political culture marked by a far less rebellious and violent nationalism.

The assertion of national identity involved delving into ancient history and dusting off long-forgotten artefacts that attested to a group's past greatness. As a result, almost every nation in East Central Europe can recount the seminal events during which they heroically fought off one (frequently heathen or barbaric) invader or another, when precisely their "Golden Age" was and what tragic events brought about its downfall. Of course, this involves pointing out the territorial expanses which were won and lost and -based on these past sacrifices - determining which ones should be regained.

Over time, the process of writing national histories began and was disseminated in some manner to the broader population - though with varying degrees of success. Eventually, these nationalist interpretations did permeate the lower levels of society, with historiography becoming history. As previously mentioned, this is not a phenomenon unique to the region. So long as there was no opportunity to realise the accompanying, and inevitably overlapping, territorial ambitions they remained relatively abstract and innocuous. But the Empires were in decline, and the now nationalised elites were ready to take control. The chance to have their ambitions realised came at the close of the First World War.

US President Wilson's Fourteen Points did not introduce the concept of the rights to national self-determination, but they did lend it unprecedented political weight. In 1928, one observer noted that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions - in this case with Wilson's Fourteen Points." The inter-war period witnessed the first chance at statehood for most of the countries in the region. Eerily, the majority followed the same pattern of beginning the era with high democratic ideals and ending with some form of authoritarianism. Czechoslovakia was the notable exception - though as much of one as some Czechs and historians (or combination of the two) would like to believe.

The creation of the states of East Central Europe after the First World War was couched in the rhetoric of national self-determination, which obscured the underlying pragmatism. The Western powers decided, mainly among themselves, which nations would gain statehood. This process was justified by the existence of certain "historic" nations - such as Poland or Hungary - while others, such as Ukraine, were ignored. Here, the use of history became paramount. The Western powers formally determined that parameters for statehood be based almost entirely on history. In truth, the pragmatic concerns of maintaining a peaceful balance of power and containing Communist Russia were paramount - concerns which certainly did not escape the leadership of the new states, as they each sought to be the guardians of peace and stability. Each nation presented its arguments as to why it should be granted statehood and, more importantly (as this was the cause of much friction between states), where its boundaries should fall, always based on historical arguments. In the end, the vacuousness of the rhetoric of self-determinism was well exemplified in the treatment of Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon, which was purely punitive and consequently disregarded any legitimate territorial claims.

The Second World War, particularly harsh in this region, and the Communist expansion, which followed the turbulent inter-war period, once again landed the region under external control. As countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland sought in vain to summon help to break Soviet control, history, both ancient and more recent war-time history, was used to broadcast loudly to the West the notion of a "kidnapped West." The West's failure to intervene in the drawing of the iron curtain compounded sentiments which had first arisen at the end of the inter-war period, spawning the cynical (self-pitying) conclusion that the West simply did not care about the fate of the region. In terms of historiography, one can detect a shift at this time from accentuation on the heroic aspects of ancient history to a far more martyrological approach: along the lines of "We've always suffered and been ignored and will continue to do so now."

However, all this talk of the expediency and pragmatic use of history should not undermine the sincerity and power of historical knowledge in mobilising and unifying people. Nationalism does not have to be a dirty word, as it does not have to be exclusionary and competitive. History in East Central Europe served to instil a sense of pride and distinction among groups living under foreign domination, adding diversity to the chronicle of the European continent's experience. The danger always lies in the manipulation of historical facts to justify courses of action that serve to fulfil political ambitions. Determinism is the other side of this same coin, as it explains events as an inevitable consequence of history. Though, ironically, the acute awareness of national histories in East Central Europe is a function of the historical experiences within the region, understanding contemporary events based on these histories would be as misleading as trying to understand modern Greek history based on The Illiad.

Joanna Rohozinska, 4 October 1999




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