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A Longlasting Scar

Europeans tend to see their continent as being made of two distinct parts: the East and the West. Dr. Evert van de Poll explores how this longstanding division evolved throughout the centuries.

This is an excerpt of Evert Van de Poll’s book ‘Christian faith and the making of Europe’. To be published soon.

By around the 13th century, what we today call Eastern Europe was almost fully included in Christendom – the ‘Europe’ of the day.

But there was one important distinction: the peoples or ethnic groups… who received Christianity from Constantinople, adopted the Greek version of it, together with the Greek script (later developed into Cyrillic) and they accepted cultural and political influence from Byzantium (…)

The nations who chose the eastern rite (i.e. Orthodox Christianity) did not in any way make a foolish decision. Quite the contrary: …until about the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire surpassed the Western European kingdoms and empires in almost every respect, culturally, economically and militarily. In fact, one of the reasons why the emperor Diocletian had moved the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire to the East, in 284 AD, was that this part was much more civilised and prosperous. People of Byzantium looked down on the recently converted Barbarians in the West.  

As Leon Marc explains, the economy of Europe only really took off after the year 1000 and it is about that time that Western and Eastern Europe slowly began to diverge economically. 

Added to the growing prosperity in the West there was another divergence. The West witnessed the emergence of a movement of thought called the Enlightenment. Enlightenment ideas of democracy, civil rights, freedom, separation of Church and State, rational science, progress, and religion being a matter of the private sphere, have had a far-reaching impact on the societies in the West. However, the central and eastern parts of Europe were impacted much slower. As a result, the political developments have not been the same. Viewed from the West, democracy and human rights are the hallmarks, the foundations of a modern society. In the east, these things were not so evident for a long time, and often considered, precisely, as ‘Western’.

When people in the West conveniently talk about Eastern Europe as the whole eastern half of the continent, they perpetuate an old prejudice.  ‘Europe’ literally means ‘west’, and in the eyes of many the real European culture lies in the west, i.e. the western part of the continent. The idea of ‘Eastern Europe’ comes from Western Europeans who have determined the geographical and political foundations of the continent. They saw themselves as the real Europeans. This age-old prejudice still lingers on. After 1945 the countries west of the Iron Curtain had no difficulty in simply attaching the label ‘European’ to their common market, their treaties and institutions of cooperation. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall the countries to the east were invited to ‘join Europe.’ But the people in this part of the world themselves have always considered themselves as an integral part of Europe. Moreover, they are very much aware of the historical religious divides and the cultural differences that have flown forth from them. 

In fact, what Westerners conveniently call ‘Eastern Europe’ really consists of several strands – Central Europe, Eastern Europe proper and Southeast Europe, which is also referred to as the Balkans. There are several west-east divides. The first one goes back to the old division between the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire. After the Empire was Christianised, the division continued. The West became Catholic, orientated to Rome and culturally Latin, while the East became Orthodox, oriented to Constantinople and culturally Greek.

During the Middle-Ages, the peoples to the north and the east were evangelised by Catholics and Orthodox respectively. The Germanic and some Slavic peoples were incorporated in the Catholic realm, other Slavic peoples in the Orthodox realm. So the division line was prolonged in northern direction, separating the Poles and the Lithuanians from the Russians, the Hungarians from the Romanians, the Croats from the Serbs. Today, it runs right through Ukraine, between Greek Catholics in the western provinces and Orthodox in the rest of the country.

The second east-west divide is between the people with a Germanic ethnic background and language on the one side, and people with a Slavic ethnic background and language on the other side. This divide was reinforced by the Communist turn, since 1917 in the Russian Empire and since the end of the Second World War in Central Europe and the Balkans. When the defeat of Nazi-Germany was imminent, the victors divided Europe in a Western and a Soviet influence. In the following years, the so-called Iron Curtain was drawn between the western half of the continent, and the Communist countries that were now collectively called Eastern Europe. It ran right through Germany. West-Germany became part of the West. Austria also, despite its name (Österreich, ‘the eastern realm’) and despite its neutral status – it did not integrate the Western military alliance NATO but became a ‘partner for peace’. Urs Altermatt sums up the significance of this, with respect to the religious and cultural history of Europe.

Since the Middle Ages, a territorial-political internal border runs through Europe that almost exactly corresponds to the eastern border of the former Carolingian Empire. More or less the same frontier was repeated in the 20th century, when the three allies Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill during the conference of Yalta in 1945 divided Europe in two parts. In an almost ghostlike way they reinstalled the age-old inner European border line. A second internal frontier runs more eastward, it is religiously determined, separating Catholic and Protestant from Orthodox Christianity.’ 

The West looked westwards to the United States as its new powerful ally. It began a process of economic and political integration resulting in the European Community. Meanwhile, the West and the Communist East were engaged in a Cold War. 

The second ‘frontier’ as Altermatt calls it, was subdued. And as far as the Communist ideology was concerned, it should disappear altogether. All Slavic peoples were now united in one Soviet Bloc, together with the other peoples of the East. They should forget about their Catholic or Orthodox past.

However, Communism did not last long. Within a few remarkable years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Communist regimes left the scene, one after the other. Barriers were broken down, doors were open for people in the East to travel to the West. Countries that had shaken off the Communist regimes adopted Western style democracy and free market. Now they could join the European Union. But only some of them did, others did not want to (Russia, Belarus), while Ukraine, a newly created country, was deeply divided over this question. And so, through an ominous turn of events, the eastern border of the EU ran more or less parallel with the old Catholic-Orthodox divide. It had never really disappeared despite the common experience during the Communist era. Since the 1990’s it took on more and more significance as tensions emerged between the EU on the one hand and Russia and its influence zone on the other.

Dr Evert van de Poll

Professor of Religious Science and Missiology at Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven and a pastor with the French Baptist Federation.

Picture: the Yalta Conference – Public Domain (Source: Wikipedia)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. A couple of observations: Firstly, what Evert has done is normal in academic circles. He has applied his knowledge, reason and historical sources to evaluate and produce an opinion. The world is awash with opinion. We need what Daniel, John, Paul and others had – namely revelation. Both the so-called eastern and western empires derailed their eastern and western churches. We can debate which deviated the more, but both were devastated into very poor copies of the early church. The four, principle, empire effects were, 1) Banning the organic, local congregations that usually met in homes. 2) Setting up an empire clergy, thus creating a separation between priests and non-priests, ministers and non-ministers. The false clergy/laity distinction, no division, started then. 3) Insisting on grand buildings, as befitting empire. In the west’s case, Constantine’s insistence on using Basilicas which were built as centres of Emperor worship, and, 4) The loss (or obliteration) of Hebrew roots. The inherent anti-Semitism sought to erase the culture and generic roots of the Hebrew scripture. The Hebrew variant of the Aramaic speech of Jesus, his disciples and much of the early church was, to varying extents, lost in translation into other languages. In so doing, much of the flavour, the detail and cultural colouring of the original has been lost.

  2. Hello Doug,
    here is the reply from Evert Van de Poll:

    I am a bit puzzled by the reaction of Doug Fett. If I understand him right, he opposes human opinions, of which we have too much, to divine revelation, of which we have too little. But then he summarises the history of Western and Eastern Churches by way of four severe criticims. Are these to be understood as revelation? In that case, who am I to argue with that. Or as opinions? In that case, I would take issue with this wholesale condemnation. There is a lot more to be said than just this list of accusations. In my book I have devoted a whole chapter to the mixed record of European Christianity. While I agree that it has deviated in many ways from the teaching of Christ, not everything was dark, even in the Middle-Ages. There has always been wheat among the tares, outside the mainline and established Churches and within these structures.

    Evert Van de Poll

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