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East European Perspectives: December 17, 2004

17 December 2004, Volume 6, Number 22


By Victor Neumann*

Variations Of Cultural And Political European Geography

This study focuses on the theory of history and covers the east-central part of Europe, especially Romania. My intention is to explain how other elements -- beyond intellectual convergences of the Enlightenment largely discussed in other books and studies (Neumann, 1993) -- contributed to differences that emerged between Eastern and Western Europe in the past, and persist at this time as well. I have in mind the Romanian terms defining collective identity. I will examine the term neam and its relation to the idea of national identity. As politicians and intellectuals try to shape a common European language (e.g., the project of a common European constitution), the main difficulty they face is rooted in the contradictions at the heart of Eastern and Western policies. The terminology indicates a different understanding of the identity issue, and our analysis will focus on the starting point of parallel evolution, showing how these understandings demonstrate the persistence of distinct cultural fundaments.

The problem starts with the term "natiune" (or "popor") perceived in political cultures of East-Central Europe as a concept defining an entity that must precede the elaboration of a constitution. More precisely, the same concept can define a cultural and geographical cohesion. In the absence of such cohesion, no legal act can exist. In the case of East-Central and Southeastern Europe, ethno-nationalist values at work in the 19th century should be examined, as they have been scrutinized ever since the age of Romanticism, because such values continue to compete with state and European constitutionalism. The result of mixing history with politics -- using and abusing multiple cultural and confessional heritages, some of which became incompatible with the aspirations of contemporary Europe -- was only too apparent during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. For example, Western resolutions aimed at putting to rest territorial and interethnic disputes did not appear to be based on an accurate decoding of the ideological messages that triggered tragic events, messages that were largely based on identity perceptions.

The half-century that passed since the end of World War II demonstrates that Western Europe is concerned about redefining some of the concepts that determined its policies in the 19th and 20th centuries. This priority is observed on both the levels of academic interest and of state politics. New concepts incorporating pluralist perspectives are being developed -- along with a legal framework -- yet the uncomfortable accents of the former identity ideology have not been fully overcome. As for East-Central Europe, it faces more delicate issues. One of the greatest difficulties facing its social and political democratization is coming to terms with a past that encompasses two totalitarian regimes. Recently liberated from communism, some of the societies of the area face prejudices rooted in the revival of the nationalist discourse. Reforming the idea of a national identity in line with the aspirations of European integration is only beginning and remains quite unfamiliar to the general public.

While in the West there is a visible interest in achieving and preserving social balance through competent governance of the state, it seems that populations in East-Central and South-Eastern Europe are still tempted to rekindle their trust in ethnic, cultural, and linguistic valences of collectives. While Western cultures focus on decoding the key terms that define their historic evolution, outlining changes in time and social and political ruptures, the cultures of East-Central and Southeastern Europe seem to be retrieving the past through the construction of an anticommunist discourse. In the West, memory has been trained to honestly understand the past, while in the East, historiography started recovering its own history by avoiding dark episodes.

Greece is an exception among EU states: It has preserved the particularities of the Balkan area, and its rhetoric on identity oscillates between that propagated by the state bureaucracy and the related, vulgarized ethnosemantics of Race and Blood, which is widespread among the public. This aspect is directly related to the Greek historiography based on German 18th-century philology. This historiography fueled the nationalist cultural and political orientation of the last two centuries. Political interests were obvious, focusing on the regeneration of a Hellas as invented by German philologists and being manipulated into making up the cornerstone of an alleged modern Greek's Europeanism (Herzfeld, 2001, pp. 39-53). Historians often do not take into account the fact that prolonged time spans simply escape human perception, with one exception: when one deals with repetitive structures that people assimilate and ritualize consciously, enriching them culturally (Koselleck, p.12). Apart from those exceptions, as Koselleck noted, there are in history temporal ruptures or multiple time layers whose origins are manifold and cannot be reduced to a single particular cause or source. In the Greek case, we know that between ancient Greece and the Neo-Hellenic world we have to identify those differences of time, institutional organization, and cultural expression in order to avoid excessive references and justifications. "Unfortunately, today's Greece faces a centripetal cultural movement, and historiography only accepts one starting point, that of 5th Century B.C. Athens" (Herzfeld, 2001, p.40, 53).

This "neo-Greek model" of cultural-historic thought is somehow taken for granted in some East-Central European states -- for example, in Romania, where prominent representatives of the country's cultural and political elites emulate the example and disseminate it as if it were an indisputable "fact." Thus cultural historian and politician Alexandru Paleologu wrote in his 1997 article "The Balkanic Socrates and the Socratist Caragiale" that Greek philosophy, architecture, and tragedy were the "indisputable foundations of European civilization" and that those foundations were "evidently Balkanic." Paleologu emphasized this idea throughout the article, thus unwillingly managing to personify not only the confusion described above but also the preservation of an obsolete literary and historical understanding of the 19th century: "It seems strange to me how people forget that, whichever way you look at it, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were Balkanic," Paleologu wrote. "One might argue that Balkanism is a more recent concept. It is not. It is either related to the geographical area and to the world populating it -- and then it refers to the entire duration of history known thus far -- or -- if it were an ephemeral and local phenomenon -- then it could not be inherent to certain structures." "It is clear," he concluded, that there is "something perennial, an essence that has not suffered any interruption since Antiquity" (Paleologu, 1997, pp. 20-21). Time overlapping or metaphors taken for reality -- precisely as described in Kosellek's article quoted above -- stimulate cultural and political theories that help us to understand neither the present nor the past. We witness an approach wherein intellectuals -- as well as a vast segment of the population -- compete with the state in generating cliches and stereotypes.

The genesis of modern intelligentsias under the impact of ideation-convergence notwithstanding, social and historical evolutions were and are different in Western and Eastern Europe. The most obvious aspect is unveiled by the cultural and political concepts shaping collective identity. No geographical area of the continent is free of problems, as various regions of the European continent periodically undergo identity crises. Quite frequently, the sources of those crises are common, and elites everywhere are tempted to embrace similar ideals. Yet on closer examination one is bound to discover several modalities of understanding society and its environment. The differences in perceptions, in turn, are generated by differences in the sets of core values internalized and practiced by the populations of modern Europe.

Some scholars try hard to shun any straightforward confrontation with the phenomena encountered in modern Europe's geographically determined cultural and political differences. There are researchers who compare the local and regional autonomy trends from Northern Italy with the cultural and state rupture in Czechoslovakia or with the Croatian and Serbian case, as if the social and institutional structures were similar. Or, the same (or other) scholars indulge in comparisons of Catalan-Spanish bilingualism with contemporary Transylvanian multiculturalism in Romania, as if responses and reactions to signs and symbols were identical in different corners of Europe (Niculescu, 1993). The relationship between culture and structure is complex, and it does not always justify approaching different societies from a unique perspective or issuing judgments on societies from a single angle. Linguists, ethnographers, and anthropologists do not have the best tools to identify the relevant phenomena, which is why -- even if they intend to prove allegiance to a pluralist discourse -- they fall into the trap of purely speculative interpretations. Sometimes they make available to ideologists metaphors that offend rational interpretation. As a separate discipline of study, history seems to have a solid opportunity to clarify things. I have in mind that independent field of study discovered by scholars of the Enlightenment that is capable of imposing by itself the organization of its own representation. Among those scholars, Nikolaus Vogt believed it was possible "to diminish the 'heroic mania' of princes" if history "turns historians into philosophers." I have in mind at the same time doing away with conceptual ambiguity and with oscillation between the idea of progress and fatality -- in other words, eliminating that aspect that has generated the ideological function of history. According to Koselleck, this modality of concept-formulation and utilization at the same time comprises the very criteria that lead to the exposure of ideological traits (Koselleck, 1997, p.97).

The differences between the two areas of the continent represent an issue of reflection for intellectuals in all the states of the European Union. Romanian-born writer and essayist Richard Wagner is persuaded that Eastern Europeans are facing a big dilemma. They "do not trust the new West led by Germany and France, but at the same time see their future only in the EU and NATO. The dilemma becomes even more obvious as one realizes that the main reason behind this decision's sharing by all social strata and by nearly the entire political class, is not necessarily a substantial modernization and self-regulation of society, as is the search for a shield from the instability still emanating from the post-Soviet area." The author notes that easterners "feel closer to the American individualist idea of achieving personal happiness than to the West European slogan of social security and its intensive regulation [by the state]. This can be explained by the East European state traditions, which display loose social solidarity, combined with a slight dose of anarchy" (Wagner, 2003). Although I believe that the individualist idea is not pertinent to East-Central and South-Eastern Europe, I am deeply convinced -- just as Wagner is -- that there is a huge difference between what the United States is all about and what the polities of former communist Europe are constructed on. Wagner's misrepresentation derives from the failure to comprehend that the United States was built on citizenship self-identification and a set of regulations shaped according to society's necessities, whereas the states of East-Central Europe are still concerned with assessing and defining their collective identity according to the Romanticist concept of Kulturnation," rejecting the state and ignoring its role in organizing society.

Notions generate idioms, and idioms are the result of links between societies and politics. It is this area of knowledge where history steps in. Political and social phenomena in Eastern Europe today need to be discussed in relation to the beginnings of modernity. If one does so, one is bound to realize that certain concerns in the East are often different in both content and context from apparently similar concerns in the West. I would say that when one analyzes social behavior -- particularly in rural environments or in suburbs of large cities -- one must always do so in relationship to the set of values cultivated by family, school, and church. National myths in the Serbian, Albanian, Romanian, and Greek cultures penetrated society particularly via these institutions. Literacy and shaping the idea of "nation" share some common traits to which philosophers such as Karl Popper drew attention, thereby opening the door to fertile reassessments in the sphere of political thought.

Political identities in East-Central Europe were forged by linguists, historians, and politicians. Lawyers and bureaucrats played only a minor role in the endeavor. This explains the inclination in these countries to superimpose "language" on "ethnicity" and "nation" on "state." It should be a priority in cultural and political studies to inquire further into this modality of collective identification. Starting with Germany and continuing with Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece (all of which at one point or another were strongly influenced by German culture), the popularity of ethnicity-theory demonstrates an attraction for fictitious constructions and the ignoring of the actual facts of history, of ideas, and of elements that contributed to the genesis of the modern European state. The rebirth of a democratic Germany after World War II is proof that leaving behind servitude to the former identification theory was essential for the success of the process. In Germany, the rediscovery of much regional heritage, alongside American educational support, side by side with an economic-aid package, played a fundamental role in the genesis of cultural, social, and political mutations.

Wherever idiom, ethnography, geography, onomastics, and religion are the cornerstones in identifying nationality, differentialism is at home just as it was in the Romanticism period when it all started. There are cases where only one of the above-mentioned factors seems sufficient for the purpose of fixing an identity label. Although a collective ideal is attractive for many, identity itself is of little value if assumed in the absence of self-awareness. Genuine identity can only be assumed as a result of some minimal education and, consequently, of social emancipation.

To conclude, I believe that changing mental constructs depend on the concepts used by any culture. Such concepts have a role in daily life decisions as well as in political thought. As far as the concept of "nation" is concerned, it includes a series of connotations that refer either to an abstract-metaphysical construct or to actual life issues needing rational solutions. National issues figure prominently in numerous books on history, sociology, and political science in postcommunist Europe. Unfortunately, one often finds speculation and the Romanticist vision of the nation prevailing over rational analysis. Under communism, ignorance generated by a dogmatic culture enabled the perpetuation of images of the past and of connotations of nation that belong to the myths of early modernity.
* The author is professor of history at the West University of Timisoara, Romania. He can be contacted at


Herzfeld, M., 2001, "Vers une phenomenologie ethnographique de l'esprit grec" in Francois Harttog and Jacques Revel (eds.), Les usages politiques du passee (Paris: EHESS).

Koselleck, R. 1997, L'experience de l'histoire (Paris:Hautes Etudes, Gallimard, Le Seuil).

Koselleck, R., 2000, Zeitschichten (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp).

Neumann, V., 1993, The Temptation of Homo Europaeus, (Boulder, Colorado, distributed by Columbia University Press, New York).

Niculescu, A., 1993, "Natia si limba" [Nation and Language], in "Romania literara," No. 42.

Paleologu, A., 1997, "Balcanicul Socrate si socraticul Caragiale," [The Balkanic Socrates and the Socratist Caragiale] in "Secolul 20," Nos.7-9.

Wagner, R., "Europa de Est, stat federal american?," [Eastern Europe -- A Federal American State?] in "Observator cultural," No. 182.