BW Ostergard europe identity and borders english text

Part of an illustration by Karin Sunvisson.

Reviews Using the classics to understand Europe in the present Identity, borders, and politics

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 56-58, 2 2011
Published on on juni 30, 2011

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The book contains contributions from the third in a series of symposia held in honor of the late Polish sociologist Edmund Mokrzycki (1937—2001). The volume is the brainchild of the extremely imaginative Swedish sociologist Sven Eliaeson, of Uppsala University. Eliaeson has worked for years in Warsaw, which has inspired his efforts to bring Polish research and policy into the European mainstream, where it so obviously belongs. Communism and the Soviet Union never managed to regiment Polish society, although the nearly fifty years of repression after the widespread devastation of World War II left deep wounds, wounds the country is only now beginning to overcome under Donald Tusk’s liberal-conservative government and a vibrant economy, one that survived the financial crisis surprisingly well. Despite all attempts at communist regimentation, Polish sociology and historical research held up well and maintained their independence to a surprising degree.

One of the most influential Polish sociologists was Stanisław Ossowski (1897—1963), whose most important work, Class Structure in the Social Consciousness, was published in English in 1963. Ossowski had a profound influence on Mokrzycki, who was allowed several sojourns in the West even before the fall of communism, including visits to Oslo and Gothenburg in 1972, and later Berkeley, Chicago, and Wassenaar in the Netherlands. Mokrzycki’s own magnum opus, Philosophy of Science and Sociology, in which he attempted to add a humanist dimension to positivist sociology, was published in English in 1984. After a stay at the European University Institute in Florence in 1992—1993, he became a leading figure at the Warsaw satellite campus, established in 1995, of George Soros’s Central European University. His sudden death in 2001 left a tremendous void, which Eliaeson and other of his friends and students have tried to fill with a series of symposia aimed at bringing Eastern and Western Europe together to examine the significance of the former communist countries to the new EU after the enlargement of 2004. Eliaeson was assisted with the editing by a young Bulgarian scholar, Nadezhda Georgieva of Trakia University in Stara Zagora, who has studied in Poland.

The main thrust is a refreshing and interesting shift of intellectual emphasis toward the East created by gathering scholars from Germany and Poland along with a few other mainly Western European researchers. As a Dane, I am must admit that it is shameful that Denmark has not been more involved in such efforts with Polish intellectuals. The Danish opening to the east has primarily been aimed at the Baltic countries, which, because of the Danish small-country syndrome, are easier to cope with than large and self-assured Poland. It was only the independence of the Baltic countries in 1990—1991 that led Denmark to stop officially calling itself a small country and start talking about itself simply as a country, i.e. a country that pursues its interests in the world and doesn’t simply adapt to those of others, as is the normal small-state behavioral pattern. This semantic change was soon followed by a militarily activist foreign policy. But the activism has not engendered much Danish interest in neighboring Poland as anything other than a supplier of highly skilled labor during the economic boom that lasted until 2008, and as a promising object of investment for Danish agriculturalists. There is virtually no political and intellectual interest in Poland and the few Polish language courses that existed during the Cold War have stopped being offered, even though Poland is Denmark’s second-largest neighboring country after Germany — a country whose language young Danes also seem unable to work up the enthusiasm to learn. This lack of interest in Poland is often blamed precisely on the fact that Poland is a large country now making increasing efforts to take its rightful a place in the European project and play a role commensurate with its size. This does not sit well with Danes, who have always had difficulty with large (non-English-speaking) countries. Hopefully, this book is evidence that mysophobia is less prevalent in Sweden than in the other Nordic countries, and not simply evidence of the energy and open-mindedness of one individual.

Has Eliaeson managed to produce an interesting contribution to a changed understanding of the new Europe? Only partially. My main reservation is that he has been too faithful to the original symposium concept. The ideas and presentations are generally of good quality, even though not everyone has added something new or interesting. Such is always the case with conferences, which is exactly why one must maintain a steady hand when transforming conference proceedings into a book. This is not to say no work has been done on the contributions. They have been technically reviewed and are presented in mainly comprehensible English. However, the editing has taken such a long time that the entire anthology already seems a bit outdated, since most of the contributions were thought out and written before the crisis of the euro and European integration in 2008 and the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The wise reader will, however, do well to ignore this deficiency, and can do so all the more easily, given that most papers rise above the topical and institutional details of the European project. This applies particularly to the first thematic section, which is dedicated to national identity and borders. The key contributors are heavyweight Western European scholars such as Jürgen Kocka, Dieter Gosewinkel, and Jan Zielonka, who are always worth reading even if, here, they mainly repeat what they have written elsewhere.

It must be admitted, however, that Jürgen Kocka, one of the leading comparative historians and for many years the driving force behind one of the most influential efforts at writing comparative history on a world scale in Berlin, has taken the easy way out in delivering a short contribution with no footnotes nor references. The result, however, is still full of ideas and interesting suggestions about the meaning of inner and outer borders in Europe. His piece belongs to an intense German debate about Turkey’s and Ukraine’s past, present, and future relations with Europe. In a well-argued text, Kocka explicitly dismisses all essentialist cultural understandings of Europe, such as those propounded by some of his colleagues in the circle around the journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft, primarily Heinrich  August Winkler and Hans-Ulrich  Wehler, who oppose any consideration of Turkish membership in the EU because of their reading of Turkey’s history, and present Muslim character. Yet none of these scholars, however good they may otherwise be as social historians, has any particular expertise on subjects like national identity and ideas in southern and southeastern Europe.

This lack of specialist knowledge also characterizes Kocka’s sympathetic contribution, even though he rightly states that borders are prerequisites for collective group identity and thus democracy — the “social cohesiveness” political pundits have begun talking about in recent years. This is true for individual states and the EU as a whole. This insight, though, does not prevent Kocka from making a mistake in his discussion on the Ural Mountains as the perceived border of Europe. His formulation is correct insofar as the idea first emerged in eighteenth-century Russia as a consequence of Peter the Great’s shifting of Russia toward the west in 1703 by moving the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg — on then Swedish territory where the Neva River empties into the Baltic! Kocka writes that the Russian historian and geographer Vasily Nikitich Tatishchev was the first to suggest, in the mid-eighteenth century, that the eastern border of Europe should be drawn at the Urals. It is true that Tati–shchev suggested this, but he was not the first to broach the idea. That honor belongs to a German officer serving in the Swedish military who spent many years as a prisoner of war in Siberia.

As part of his attempt to “Europeanize” Russia, Peter the Great ordered the Swedish officer (of German descent) Philip Johan von Strahlenberg to redraw the map of Russian possessions in Asia. Strahlenberg was taken prisoner by the Russians in connection with the devastating Swedish defeat at Poltava (in Ukraine) in 1709. He spent his time in captivity in Siberia, where he worked as a cartographer and ethnographer. After his return to Sweden, he published two works, of which the first in particular, Das nord- und östliche Theil von Europa und Asia, published in 1730 (reprinted in Hungary in 1975), became a source of inspiration for many later geographers. For reasons unknown, this demarcation became decisive for the perception of the political geography of Europe among ordinary Europeans ever since. Before Strahlenberg’s book was published, Europeans had drawn the line to the East at the border of Poland, somewhere in Ukraine, often along the Dnieper. But after Strahlenberg’s contribution, it became customary to draw the border along the otherwise unassuming Ural Mountains. It was as a consequence of this new drawing of the map of Europe that a location in Lithuania was named the geographical center of Europe after the Baltic countries had fallen to Russia as a result of the partitions of Poland. This geographical demarcation of Europe is commemorated today with a monument near Molėtai, about 100 km north of the capital city of Vilnius, marking the “center of Europe”. It was at this time that Poland/Lithuania and other central European countries began to be called “Eastern Europe”, a designation that eventually was extended to cover Russia as well, a country that previously had been considered part of “Northern Europe” along with Scandinavia and Poland, as convincingly demonstrated by Larry Wolff in Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994).

This factual objection, however, does not lessen the value of Kocka’s general observations on the relativity involved in determining the geographic borders of Europe, this is particularly true given that his observations invite further consideration. In reality, Russia straddles Europe and Asia and has done so ever since the principality of Moscow conquered Tatar Kazan at the River Volga in the middle of the 16th century and began expanding into Siberia in the 17th century. All of the vast territory along the Trans-Siberian Railway is nowadays just as Russian as the “European” parts of Russia. The border at the Urals can thus be considered both arbitrary and invented for political purposes at a particular moment in history. But on the maps, it has been elevated to the status of a boundary between cultures and civilizations. The notion of the Ural Mountains as the border of Europe was revived by French President de Gaulle around 1960. His object was not to give a lesson in geography, but rather to undermine the multinational Soviet Union by pointing out that its polity, in addition to being communist and hostile to Europe, was also “unnatural” in that it encompassed both “European” and “Asian” peoples.

The best contributions in the book thus invite the reader to further reflection, including topics not addressed explicitly, such as Turkey’s relations with the EU. The position of Turkey in Europe is constantly present as a subtext and frame of reference, but is not explored in depth by any of the authors. That is a shame, because the method of combining historical, sociological, and political insights can take scholars a long way, especially on a topic like discussions of the geographical borders of Europe. This debate is informed by widespread beliefs that Turkey lies outside Europe in purely geographical terms, while Russia — up to the Ural Mountains — belongs to it. Every child has come to learn the borders of Europe as the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the Urals and the Mediterranean. Looking at the EU’s official formulations on the nature of Europe over the years, however, does not provide any clear answers. The Declaration on the Future of the European Union adopted at the EU summit in Laeken in December 2001 expressed it thus: “[Europe is] the continent of liberty, solidarity, and above all diversity, meaning respect for others’ languages, cultures, and traditions. The European Union’s one boundary is democracy and human rights.” And Article 58 of the Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe of 2005 stated: “The Union shall be open to all European states which respect the values referred to in Article 1—2, and are committed to promoting them together.” This wording is retained in the Treaty of Lisbon, still with no closer definition of what constitutes a “European state”. To reach such an understanding one is compelled to study the actual decisions of the EU.

When Morocco applied to accede to the EU in 1987, the application was rejected by the Commission on the grounds that “Morocco is not a European country”. Opponents of Turkish membership have since used the rejection of Morocco as an argument against Turkey’s membership, even though the country has been associated with the EU since 1963 when the EU was just the Common Market. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, member of the French center-right UMP previously led by President Jacques Chirac, for example, said before the French vote on the EU Treaty in 2005: “Turkey is, after all, not in Europe. So, we should also include Morocco. And Tunisia. Those countries are much closer to us. But they are all countries in a completely different economic situation, and the idea of a European Union would be lost.”

The Anatolian Peninsula that forms the majority of Turkey is often called “Asia Minor”, portrayed by some as a menacing encroachment from the Asian continent toward Europe. Others see Turkey as culturally alien, an emblem of the Asia that has been perceived as the opposite of Europe ever since Herodotos’s description of the clash between the Greeks and the Persian Empire in 480 BCE. “Hellespontos”, as the strait was called by Greeks, was more of a conceptual — and occasionally a political — boundary, not a cultural, economic, or in any other way “natural” border. The Bosporus serves the same function in contemporary political debate. Ostensibly, there is a clear and distinct border. But if one travels in the area, one finds the same culture on both sides of the straits, i.e. in “Europe” and in “Asia”. The main part of Istanbul, home to millions of inhabitants and one of the largest cities in Europe, now spreads into both continents, connected by two bridges across the Bosporus and a railway and metro tunnel to open soon. Turkey, in other words, is as much or as little part of Europe as Russia, geographically as well as culturally, is part of Asia. Much the same can be said of the rest of southeastern Europe — politically incorrectly referred to as “the Balkans” — but that is another matter, which I have dealt with in the first 2010 issue of the Danish Foreign Policy magazine, Udenrigs [Abroad].

In this way, one can be inspired by the many and varied contributions to the anthology. One of the themes closely related to Eliaeson’s own research is the revival of social scientific classics and the use of them in interpreting the new Europe we are now seeing emerge, caught up in financial crises, disagreement about foreign policy, and the generally declining influence of Europe in the globalized world. In this context, the readings of Max Weber attract particular interest. The German sociologist Bernard Wessels undertakes an intriguing new reading of Weber’s theses on the connections between Protestantism and capitalist modernity. He expands the thesis to include Catholics and Orthodox Christians and examines empirically whether there is evidence that Orthodox Christians have more difficulty reconciling with capitalist modernity, as Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations” would have it. The persuasive result is that there is nothing to indicate that such is the case. The late East German sociologist Helmut Steiner undertakes an interesting study of Max Weber’s writings on Russia between 1905 and 1912 that were, in any event, unfamiliar to me, although they were published by Wolfgang Mommsen in 1989 as part of Weber’s collected works.

One could go on and on pointing out interesting tidbits in this rich anthology. Göran Thernborn, for instance, provides an imaginative analysis of the function and evolution of capital cities as symbols of nation states, using Paris, London, and Stockholm as examples. The problem is only that the unifying context is unclear. Eliaeson has done his best with an introduction that gathers together themes about borders and the enlargement of Europe, as well as the reading of classics in the social sciences. But not even he manages to make the relatively numerous contributions by young and well-meaning scholars, especially from Poland, interesting. If only they had written about their empirical results or developed perspectives on familiar problems as seen from the east of Germany and dealt with in languages that few western and northern Europeans know. One pleasing exception is Ukrainian sociologist Olga Kutsenko’s paper containing an empirical study of individualism in Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. Unfortunately, most of the others provide fairly banal patchworks of general Western sociological literature. That is a shame. Yet the reader is still presented with a cornucopia of ideas and reviews, coupled with a clear sense of how things are going to change in the EU once the new countries find their place in the European Community. This is communicated by Sven Eliaeson in the best spirit of Edmund Mokrzycki. And that is saying quite a bit. The enlargement of the EU is already a success, even if it may not seem like it at the moment with the looming financial crisis and rising nationalism in the old member states. ≈

  • by Uffe Østergaard

    Professor of European history at the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School, and former director of the Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

  • all contributors

Sven Eliaeson & Nadezhda Georgieva (eds.) New Europe: Growth to Limits? Oxford: The Bardwell Press 2010, 454 pages