Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 13
21 December 1998

C E N T R A L   E U R O P E:
Across the Great Divide?
'Eastern Europe' through Western Eyes
Sean Hanley

Most of what Western journalists, academics and politicians have said or written about Eastern Europe since 1989 is nonsense. It has been based largely on self-serving Western cultural stereotypes of a barbarous East wracked by atavistic nationalism and ethnic hatreds, whose inhabitants are congenitally unable to adapt to or understand democracy, the market and civil society - the values of the civilised West. At a stroke 'Eastern Europe' has been transformed from the Cold War image of a prison of 'captive nations' enduring the Soviet yoke to a source of political instability, dangerous fanaticism, crime and illegal immigration.

Despite its pretensions, Western expert analysis of Eastern Europe has been little more than a rehash of the 'civilisational' theories of the late 19th century, albeit shorn of the latter's explicit racism. Such thinking tells us more about the West's declining sense of moral and economic superiority and need to conceal its own deep-seated social and economic problems than about the countries former Soviet bloc. It is above all a convenient ideology for a new post-Cold War domination of these countries of the by the West. The army of Westerns consultants, advisors, aid workers, academics and 'civil society' professional employed in various projects and NGOs expensive and ineffectual resemble nothing so much as well-meaning but patronising 19th century European missionaries and educators in colonial Asia and Africa. Such are the provocative and iconoclastic conclusions of Divided Europe: The New Domination of the East by Adam Burgess, a British academic based at the University of Kent.

Divided Europe deliberately drives a coach and horses through unspoken assumptions widely shared by both Western academic specialists and political and intellectual elites in East Central Europe itself. Historically-rooted cultural divides between 'East' and 'West' so often used as explanations of present events and future developments are, the author argues, little more than self-serving historical myths. Such imagined divides oppose Christendom to the Islamic world; the Orthodox world to the Catholic; 'Hapsburg Europe' to the parts of Balkans once ruled by Turkey; and of course, ultimately the liberal-democratic West itself to the backward, unstable nationalistic post-communist East. However, the idea of a backward, irredeemably barbarous Eastern Europe contrasting with the civilisation and enlightenment of the West has little to do with the real history of the continent. Rather it originates in the 18th century and, fed equally by intellectual discourse and popular culture and runs more or less uninterrupted through the 19th century, the interwar period and the Cold War to our own time, picking up various embellishments on the way.

Since 1989 Burgess argues, such pseudo-historical stereotypes of Eastern and Western Europe have served to veil Western unpreparedness, disinterest, self-interest and hypocrisy. For, the criteria set for Eastern Europe by the West - the creation a coherent 'civil society', a prosperous market economy and a tolerant community free of xenophobia and nationalistic populism - are standards that most Western states fail to meet. Not only that, many 'established democracies' suffer as much, if not more from the typical 'post-communist' problems as the 'East'. The stagnating economies and high unemployment of Western Europe; the derisory electoral turnouts and phenomenal levels of crime and social breakdown in the US; the crisis-ridden party systems and nationalistic far-right parties in Austria or France; xenophobic and inward-looking tabloid newspaper nationalism in Britain puts put most of East and Central Europe in the shade. The real difference between Western and Eastern Europe, Burgess argues, is that the former is richer and more powerful and can set the terms of political discourse. In reality, however, it is economic, political self-interest and Realpolitik that rule the West is, knowingly or unknowingly, using Eastern Europe for its own ends.

However, such stereotypes are not simply the preserve of Western academics and opinion formers. Intellectual and political elites in the East and Central Europe have also seized upon it. Isolated from their own peoples, they are quite happy to concede the 'civilisational incompetence' of the mass of their own population. The role of intellectuals of politicians and intellectuals as educators and enlighteners of an ignorant benighted populace is a well-worn one in the region. At the same time local elites also use historical and cultural stereotypes to back up petty nationalism. While neighbouring countries (to the East) are irredeemably nationalist, backward and 'Eastern, their own country, despite apparent similarities is- for reasons of a specific cultural and historical legacy (rooted in the Middle Ages, if not earlier) - is an outpost of 'Western/Central European Christian civilisation'. Such a role is claimed with equal vehemence by, for example, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Croatian and Ukrainian intellectuals.

Divided Europe is a refreshingly partisan. Its bravura demolition of academic and journalistic stereotypes of 'Eastern Europe' will strike a chord with many fed up with stale and hackneyed terms of debate about East and Central Europe almost a decade after 1989 . As a critical writer on the (seemingly) on radical Left, the author highlights much conventional liberal thinking on democratisation and marketisation skates shy away from, above all highlight unequal economic and power relationships within and between states and the emergecne of new post-Cold War ideologies. In tracing Western discourses on 'Eastern Europe' Divided Europe points up, for example, how crucial decisions shaping the future of the East Central European states, once made in Vienna, and later Berlin and Moscow, are now being made in Brussels and Washington. Its suggests that rather, than a fast lane to prosperity, integration into the West may leave former Eastern Europe economically and politically peripheral. It highlights that democratisation and marketisation are not simply neutral processes of institutional reform, but also huge and grabs for political and economic power in which the 'manufacture of consent' rather than coercion is the order of the day.

However for all its iconoclasm and well-researched historical passages, as a piece of serious analysis the book is a flop, its insights marred by some sweeping oversimplification and a resort to a new set of stereotypes.

Its analysis marred by slapdash rhetoric and casual historical analogies. Turns of phrase concerning 'virtually neo-colonial relationships' between the West and Eastern Europe and the 'Great Power rivalries' between modern Germany, the EU and the United States etc. are a poor substitute for serious analysis of real, emerging unequal relationships in post-Cold War Europe. Such sweeping and hasty 'polemical' writing blunts and discredits even the author's strongest arguments. Despite occasional disavowals, the book thus quickly descends into a implausible and simplistic exercise in blaming all of East and Central Europe's problems almost on external (Western) influences. Moreover, in dismissing stereotypical conception of the legacies of communism, the book bizarrely ignores the possibility that communist experience might have left any specific imprint on the societies of East and Central Europe.

More problematic still is the book's exaggerated and oversimplified dismissal of any notion of 'culture' or 'political culture'. As anyone who has ever lived or worked abroad can testify - in East Central Europe or elsewhere - shared understandings concerning things as banal as answering the telephone all the way up to fundamental ideas of state and society do vary culturally between countries and regions in important ways. To discuss political culture and culturally-rooted understandings of politics does not necessary imply crude stereotyping or 'cultural essentialism'. Indeed, as the British-based Czech social anthropologist, Ladislav Holy demonstrated in his last published book The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation (see review in The New Presence May 1997) when conceived in a reasonably sophisticated way 'culture' can be an important tool for understanding aspects of social and political change, otherwise inexplicable to outsiders.

It is perhaps because it throws the baby out with the bath water in this way that Divided Europe ultimately fails. For, its demolition of prevailing Western understandings and stereotypes of Eastern Europe is based not on any counter-analysis, but on presenting an array of counter-stereotypes. These range from the banal ('Russians and East Europeans from my experience generally better educated and more conversant with classical (Western?) culture than their Anglo-American counterparts' p.10) to the downright offensive: the author questions Western media demonisation of the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia by writing of 'war crimes' and 'mass graves' in inveretd commas and suggesting that widely publicised incidents of torture and killing (including the well-documented Srbrenica massacre) may not have taken place. Critical scrutiny of news images and agendas is legitimate and very necessary. But 'analysis' of this type, based on a crude counter-bias to conventional opinion, can risk degenerating in a mix of personal anecdote and, more worryingly, apologism for any regime criticised by the Western media, including those of Milosovic or Meciar, whose unsavoury reputations are based on more than media hype .

However, the central image the author evokes of Eastern Europe and its citizens is one of the helpless, impoverished victim-of-the-West interested only in bread-and-butter issues, and in need perhaps of a champion in the Western academic Left. This is not only a crude image of a complex, evolving (unequal) relationships in post-Cold War Europe but in its own way a stereotype of the East as crude, inaccurate and patronising as the more conventional images the author so pointedly dissects. It is thus ironic and disappointing that Divided Europe ends up indulging in exactly the kind of 'moral geography' that it condemns in conventional wisdoms on Eastern Europe. Divided Europe is thus ultimately yet another projection of yet another Western agenda by yet another Western academic on the region- albeit this time one-sidedly stressing the faults Western societies, rather than their virtues.

Divided Europe is perhaps a book that belongs ultimately to the second hand bookshop. However, the issues it raises are important ones, which are starting to be discussed elsewhere, with more thoughtfulness and less polemical verve .The English historian Mark Mazower has, for example, recently written a history Europe as a 'Dark Continent', whose political traditions, West and East, were more conducive to fascism than liberal democracy. Critical and thoughtful voices on emerging East-West relationships in post-Cold War Europe can also be heard in East Central Europe itself. The Croatian born writer Slavenka Drakulic has, for example, written of the 'invisible walls' between West and East Europeans, partitions both of experience and understanding and more tangible barriers of wealth and status. The respected Czech sociologist Jirina Siklova has noted injunctions to post-Communist countries voiced by Western specialists are both platitudinous and contradictory. East Europeans, she writes, are told to 'come to terms with our past and 'lustrate' each other, but at the same time not use retroactive legislation; maintain all the principles in the Declaration of Human Rights, but not interpret them in our own way; be multi-cultural but at the same time maintain our identities and be open to emerging globalisation. . .'

Regardless however of we view divisions in contemporary Europe, it is clear that such dilemmas are far from confined to the Eastern part of the continent.

Sean Hanley, 21 December 1998


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