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Where Is Eastern Europe?

Where is Eastern Europe?

For Western Europeans, Eastern Europe comes to mean the countries that used to be under communism. But for the Poles, the Czech or the Hungarians, Eastern Europe is further East. Evert Van de Poll explores the deep roots behind these discrepancies of understanding.

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

In the nineteenth century, the idea of Mitteleuropa came up, signifying the German and the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.

These empires stretched for to the east, including several Catholic Slavic peoples: Czech, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croats, Galicians… Except the Poles, who were part of the Russian Empire of the Czars. The idea of Mitteleuropa or Central Europe in those days led to the ideal to unite the German and Slavic peoples, in a sort of multicultural federation, albeit with German as the lingua franca.

Due to the second World War, when Germans and their allies were bitterly and cruelly opposed to the Slavic people, there is nothing left of the old idea of Central Europe. Then came the Communists who only deepened the rift. But already during that time, the idea remerged in another form, namely as a sort of partnership between the western Slavic people and the Hungarians. In the 1990’s, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary became known as the Visegrád Four, named after the town in Hungary where the kings of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland met in 1335 to sign a treaty in 1335. They reclaimed the title Central Europe. Leon Marc explains:

Intellectuals in these countries helped to reinstate the concept as they had already attempted to do during the Communist era. The political grouping of the Visegrád Four was meant to facilitate the path of these countries towards accession to the EU but the philosophical underpinning of the idea (the restoration of Central Europe) met with a very mixed reaction in Western Europe…. Apparently, the idea of Central Europe challenged deeply ingrained views of the whole of Eastern Europe as a region inherently different and distant from the West. 

People in the West often forget that Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Hungarians, Czech and Poles like to consider themselves as being part of Western Europe. Eastern Europeans in their mind are Russians, Ukrainians, or Romanians (although the latter speak a Romanic language). There is a widespread feeling that they should rather not join the EU. 

At an international cultural meeting in Prague in 1995, the Polish author Andrzej Szczypiorski gave a talk in which he excluded the Russians from the European civilisation ‘because they lack Roman law, Latin Christianity and West-European Enlightenment.’  He is not the only one to hold to such views. The Hungarian historian argues that there are still fundamental cultural and political differences between Western, Central-East and Eastern Europe.  Perry Anderson has summarised the discussion on this subject as follows:

Since the late 1980s, publicists and politicians in Hungary, the Czech lands, Poland and more recently Slovenia and even Croatia have set out to persuade the world that these countries belong to Central Europe that has a natural affinity to Western Europe and is fundamentally distinct from Eastern Europe. But if Poland, or even Lithuania, is really in the centre of Europe, what is the east? Logically, one would imagine, the answer must be Russia. But since many of the same writers – Milan Kundera is another example – deny that Russia has ever belonged to the European civilisation at all, we are left with the conundrum of a space proclaiming itself centre and border at the same time. 

The interesting thing about this kind of representation is that there seems to be a general feeling among people east of Berlin and Vienna that Europe equals ‘the West.’ As to the ‘line’ between east and west, it seems to be moving eastwards as the EU expands to the east. Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Hungarians, Czech and Poles like to consider themselves as being part of West. In their mind, the ‘East’ is Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, ‘another’ Europe further to the East to which they do not want to belong. If this is so, then it really confirms how real the east-west demarcation is in the minds of people, wherever they would draw it geographically. This is a major cultural frontier.  It runs right through Ukraine and it explains much of the clashes between the population in the western provinces, oriented towards the EU, and the pro-Russian population concentrated in the eastern provinces. The separation of the Crimea from Ukraine and its integration in the Russian Federation in 2014 is another illustration. Meanwhile, the Baltic States are afraid that the Russian speaking population within their borders make a similar turn towards Moscow in the east.

On the contrary, Russian leaders often oppose their ‘Eurasian’ culture to the so-called Atlantic orientation of Western Europeans who are largely influenced by the American culture. Ukrainians themselves are divided to which side they belong, and this is the undercurrent of the troubles that rip their country. Some would even exclude the Russians from the European civilisation altogether. Meanwhile, Orthodox Church leaders insist that Russia and its neighbours are the inheritors of Byzantine Europe, which stand in continuity with the Christianised Roman Empire. In other words, they emphasise that the East is a different kind of ‘Europe’. How then shall we define the East? In academic circles, the term Central and Eastern Europe has come in use, to denote at the same time the links between the peoples in the larger eastern part of the continent, their common ethnic background and their common experience with Communism for instance,  as well as the difference between those who live closer to the West and those in the ‘Orthodox’ zone. We find this a convenient usage. 

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 Visegrád Castle – (Source: Wikipedia – username: Unknown – Civertan Grafik – Link to license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/legalcode)

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