Topic: Conceptualising the Relationship between Western and Eastern Europe (2011) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on the relationship between Western and Eastern Europe was written by Debbie McCauley on 20 May 2011 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Borders and identities can be indelibly intertwined. The natural borders of a geographically isolated place like New Zealand are in sharp contrast to Europe whose fluid boundaries have been shaped over several centuries by historical developments. There is an ongoing debate about the division of Western and Eastern Europe, the relationship between them, and the various identities that can be found in this region. These borders and identities are often more than physical realities; they can also be constructed within people’s psyche and constitute a mental border.

Historical changes in physical borders are evidenced by historical maps up to the present day (Pittaway, 2003, Maps 1-22) that show both how the borders of Europe have changed over time as well as which countries have been included and excluded by the cartographer. As Pittaway (2003) explains, ‘Europe’s boundaries are not set in stone; they are matters of complex negotiation, shaped by historical context and defined by, while simultaneously defining, identities within the continent’ (p. 155). The boundaries of Europe have been a contested geographical area shaped by fluid borders which have influenced identities in both an historic as well as a contemporary sense. These borders can be of symbolic importance as they can be seen to divide Europe in half and both include and exclude peoples.

Larry Wolff (1957- ) is a professor of history at Boston College and author of Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 1994). He argues that the division of Europe into two halves is a product of Enlightenment thought, that ‘the Enlightenment had to invent Western Europe and Eastern Europe together, as complementary concepts, defining each other by opposition and adjacency’ (Wolff, as quoted in Pittaway, 2003, p. 59). The Enlightenment invention of Eastern Europe as a backward equivalent was required to balance its western progressive intellectualism and ideas of civilised behaviour. This is an idea which has persisted into modern times with Wolff describing Eastern Europe as a ‘paradox of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion’ (Wolff, as quoted in Pittaway, 2003, p. 61)

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded in 1922 and persisted until it was officially dissolved in 1991. The Eastern European countries that made up the USSR (including Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) were identified as communist under Soviet influence and separate from the west. After World War 2 the USSR surfaced as one of two global superpowers along with the United States of America. This led to the period known as ‘The Cold War’ from about 1947 to 1991, a tense power struggle between the communist east and capitalist western world, in which the borders between the countries of Eastern Europe were clearly defined. These states were bound together by the East European Mutual Assistance Treaty (Warsaw Pact 1955–1991) until it was officially dissolved in 1991, whilst the west was embodied by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO 1949- ).

Germany’s defeat in both world wars and its responsibility for the most appalling genocide in history led to the imposition of a new border delineated by the Berlin Wall (1961-1989). This was seen to represent the Iron Curtain that divided Europe into two halves. Germany had a new border for the first time since its unification in 1871 with half of its citizens living under authoritarian rule whilst the other half lived in a democracy. Identities were very different for those on each side of the border. Whilst Western Germany had a thriving economy, East Germany was a typical communist country plagued by few luxuries, a rundown economy and a prevailing mood of fear.

As part of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened on 9 November 1989. The events that overthrew communist governments in Eastern Europe began in Poland in 1989, than repeated in Hungary, East Germany (Berlin Wall), Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (Velvet Revolution) and Romania. British-born author and journalist Christopher Hitchens (1949- ) crossed east-central European borders in December 1989, the month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His encounters stem from his ingrained western identity. He travelled through Austria and Hungary into post-revolutionary Romania just after the dictator Nicolae Ceauşeacu was captured and killed.

Hitchens (as quoted in Pittaway, 2003) claims he experiences culture shock as he encounters ‘an insufferable line’ (p.8) a ‘sorry-looking shop-front’ (p. 8), an ‘insulting grille’ (p. 9), ‘herds of pigs and geese, horse-drawn wagons and wayside hovels’ (p12), the ‘shell-shocked, sullen wretchedness’ (p14) and views people on the roadside as ‘caricatures of Eastern European misery, in their shapeless bundles of coats and scarves’ (p12). His description of the Romanian border is as ‘a dismal, dingy aspect of a little machine for the imposition of petty authority’ where ‘everything from the lavatories to the waiting-room was designed for insult, delay and humiliation’ (Hitchens, as quoted in Pittaway, 2003, p 12).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century Croatian-born writer and publicist Slavenka Drakulič (1949- ) wrote about her experience of crossing borders as an Eastern European woman.  She describes herself and those about her; ‘we are different, our skin is often dark, our eyes dart suspiciously about or stare dully straight ahead, our movements are sluggish and subdued’ (Drakulič, as quoted in Pittaway, 2003, p. 6). It has been over 20 years since the Iron Curtain was pulled down but Drakulič’s experience illustrates that there is still a psychological divide between Western and Eastern Europe.

Julie Sparks from New Zealand visited the Czech Republic and Hungary in 2007. Her experience as a westerner, although 18 years later than Hitchens, has similar aspects. In her journal at the time she noted that ‘the damage done by years of oppressive communism has 'hamstrung' the country (Hungary) to such an extent that it will be generations before it fully recovers,’ explaining that ‘the suspicion is palpable’ and there was always the feeling of being ‘watched’ (J. Sparks, personal communication, May 10, 2011).

Since the fall of many communist governments, the definition of countries that make up Eastern Europe has become perplexing and harder to define. As Drakulič (as quoted in Pittaway, 2003) states, ‘The Europe of today is no longer a question of geopolitics and defined borders to the east, not even of economic unity – but more of attitudes, definitions, institutions, of a certain mental landscape’ (Drakulič, as quoted in Pittaway, 2003, p. 38).

Western culture and money fuels globalisation today and, as it did during the age of imperialism and colonisation, helps to reinforce the supremacy of Western Europe. The root of this stems from the idea of eurocentrism where Western European ideas are established as universal and generally accepted to be the model way of doing things. As Gupta (2003) explains, this constitutes ‘economic, political and cultural domination’ (p. 78).

The synecdochical usage of terms such as European or Europe, where a part is used to represent the entire thing, is reinforced by the idea of eurocentrism. The eurocentric view of Europe is a synecdochial construction as Western Europe is only one segment of those diverse cultures that constitute the area known as Europe. It would seem that globalisation combined with eurocentrism could see the demise of the richness of cultural diversity and thought. This hegemony or domination is a challenge for the identity of traditional cultures because there is pressure to integrate into the dominant culture, and when that culture is one of individualism, materialism, progress, profit and consumerism with an urban lifestyle influenced by mass media there is immense pressure on traditional ways of living.

Europe’s post-industrial societies are becoming increasingly complex. Standards of living have risen steadily, but there are still significant gaps between rich and poor. The general view of Western Europe is usually favourable, whereas the synecdochical view of Eastern European can still be a stereotypically negative one of backwardness, a growing poverty margin and tension-ridden societies evidenced by recent conflicts but also because of the fact that both World Wars began in this area. As Wolff (as quoted in Pittaway, 2003) states, it is ‘the wealth of Western Europe facing the poverty of Eastern Europe’ (p. 57). Eastern European countries are traditionally less urban and industrialized than the West which is seen by some as dominant and superior. When describing this area Pittaway (2003) explains that the ‘eastern half was increasingly constructed as a zone of chaos, poverty, criminality, conflict and outward migration’ (Pittaway, 2003, p. 6).

Some writers now refer to a ‘New Europe’ to describe post-communist Europe. As Western influences proliferate in the east and migration has increased since the opening of borders there seems to have been an increase in understanding and tolerance. As Gupta (2003) explains, ‘Decolonization and postcolonial migration have created new kinds of European identities and have reshaped perceptions of Europe’s fluid borders’ (p. 86). Several former Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO and the European Union (EU 1992- ) which also encourages the opening of both physical and mental borders. There has been increasing recognition of the multitude of identities that people can identify with. As Drakulič (as quoted in Pittaway, 2003) states, ‘Anthropologists are proving that it is possible to identify with more than one nation and one culture’ (p. 41). This can be due to mixed marriage, immigration and living in borderlands.

The author, a European New Zealander, is used to modern borders with their customs searches and passport requirements and having lived all her life in a country geographically defined by nature, finds the concept of fluid borders intriguing but also unsettling. This western background in which Eastern Europe is seemingly the ‘other,’ reinforces the synecdochical view of Europe in which Eastern Europe is marginalised by eurocentrism, although this study of Europe has brought the author to a greater understanding and appreciation for the diversity of Europe, its history, and the issues that it faces. English comedian, actor, writer and television presenter Michael Palin’s (1943- ) experience of what he terms ‘New Europe’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007) in his 2006-2007 travel through twenty countries of Eastern Europe has been an inspirational and significant journey. He explains that ‘with the Cold War over and the Iron Curtain lifted, there was the prospect of being able to travel through once-forbidden lands; of making a voyage of discovery on my own doorstep’ (Palin, 2007, p. 6).

Palin’s book documents his travels Eastern European countries such as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Russia. He talks about ‘New Europe’ consisting of countries with a ‘clear sense of their own identity’ (p. 6). There is an acknowledgement of the past by Palin but an optimistic view of the future of Eastern Europe as he discovers that ‘for the first time in a thousand years, the old Europe of domination and conflict has been replaced by a new Europe of co-operation’ (p. 7).

Drakulič can also visualise this ‘New Europe’ describing a ‘vision of a border-less, multinational and multicultural Europe’ (Pittaway, 2003, p. 44). If the future of geographically intertwined Europe is to become the reality of Drakulič and Palin’s vision, then the distinctive cultures that make up the continent will need to be embraced and living standards across those cultures raised for those who so desperately need it. It seems as if the shadow of the Iron Curtain has refused to fade into the past but instead casts a shadow on Eastern and Western Europe today. It is to be hoped that one day Europe will be able to move forward as one and relegate the Iron Curtain to the past, where it belongs, in a new spirit of a shared continent.

Stability in Europe is important for the rest of the world. A ‘New Europe,’ a continent of understanding and tolerance would seize all the advantages of globalisation and co-operation, whilst still valuing cultural traditions and identities, resulting in a cross-border and cross-cultural new identity. Eastern European countries that make the most of globalisation will be likely to fiercely hold on to their own regional culture whilst picking and choosing new concepts from the global economy.

To summarize, this essay has explored the fluid borders of Europe and some of the historical background behind these borders and why the continent of Europe continues to be conceived in halves. The post-communist transition of Eastern Europe and experience of people from diverse backgrounds (Drakulič, Gupta, Hitchens, Palin, Pittaway, Sparks and Wolff) has been explored along with the impact of eurocentric globalisation and the preservation of Eastern Europe’s cultural heritage, practices and diversity. The author believes that the physical and mental borders of Europe and the concept of stability in a democratic Europe are important for the stability of the rest of the world.

by Debbie McCauley (May, 2011).



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Conceptualising the Relationship between Western and Eastern Europe (2011) by Debbie McCauley

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Conceptualising the Relationship between Western and Eastern Europe (2011) by Debbie McCauley by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License