Culture & Eastern Europe

Early in his Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), Larry Wolff pointed to the obscurity of the very concept of ‘Eastern Europe’, it being a concept obscured by the history of experiences and terms such as the Cold War or Osteuropa. The idea of Eastern Europe, Wolff wrote, ‘remains an extremely powerful idea, […] so influential in its political consequences that its intellectual origins are barely recognized, hidden in historical camouflage’. Wolff’s project thus became the extrication of the concept of Eastern Europe from its historical origins – by focussing on the construction of notions of civilization and barbarism during the Enlightenment. ‘The new idea of civilization was the crucial and indispensable point of reference that made possible the consolidation and articulation of the inchoate idea of Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century.’ Western Europe, Wolff argued, ‘appropriated to itself the new notion of “civilization,”’ and then ‘civilization discovered its complement, within the same continent, in shadowed lands of backwardness, even barbarism’.[i]

In a sense Ukraine was one of the most obvious representatives of this Europa Obscura, in that (as Wolff notes) ‘the lands of the Ukraine, those in the Polish Commonwealth as well as those in the Russian empire, were among the worst mapped and least generally known’. For Joseph Marshall in 1769 ‘the country’s being so extremely out of the way of all travellers, that not a person in a century goes to it, who takes notes of his observations with intention to lay them before the world’. In the eighteenth century Eastern Europe generally was often portrayed as (in Wolff’s words) ‘emerging from darkness, ténèbres’. The Count de Ségur, for example, wrote of how ‘many people, especially in France and at Paris, still regard Russia as an Asiatic land, poor, plunged in ignorance, ténèbres, and barbarism’.[ii] A lack of culture and rationality was Hegel’s ascription too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History given in the 1820s. Though he granted that ‘a part of the Slavs were conquered [erobert] by western reason’, on the whole ‘this whole mass’ of Slavic peoples, Hegel judged, ‘has not stepped forward as an independent force in the array of the forms of reason’.[iii]

Wolff’s study is replete with such Western criticisms of Eastern Europe for its putative lack of civilization. The more interesting aspects of Wolff’s work, however, enable us to see how Western thinkers both critiqued the very idea of civilization and proposed alternative ideas of Eastern European culture, locating cultural forms which may even be seen to be more vital than Western forms. Wolff attends for instance to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (1782), noting that ‘Rousseau’s challenge to the Enlightenment, dating back to the discourses, was his suspicion and rejection of civilization’. Quoting Rousseau, Wolff maintains that his view of Eastern Europe ‘associated Poland and Russia as lands that faced a portentous alternative, to accept or resist “the general bent of Europe”’:

‘[…] a great nation which has never mixed too much with its neighbours must have a lot [of ‘civil and domestic usages’] which are its own, and which perhaps were becoming bastardized day by day by the general bent [pente] of Europe to take the tastes and manners of the French.’[iv]

As Wolff observes, the stress laid by Rousseau on Polish distinctiveness – on the way in which Poland has ‘never mixed too much with its neighbours’ – ‘challenged the conventionally careless confusion and combination of the peoples of Eastern Europe’:[v] their reduction to a Hegelian ‘whole mass’. Rousseau criticized Western Europe because in its nations ‘all have the same tastes, the same passions, the same manners’; but a Pole ‘must be a Pole’. ‘Give another bent to the passions of the Poles; you will give to their souls a national physiognomy that will distinguish them from other peoples’, Rousseau advised. He believed that Poland should develop institutions which would ‘form the genius, the character, the tastes, and the manners of a people; that make it itself and not another; that inspire in it that ardent of [sic] love of country founded on habits impossible to uproot’.[vi]

Crucially, Wolff notes that Rousseau had ‘seized upon something essential in the Polish situation, the issue of national survival without political independence’. Wolff writes that at the beginning of the 1770s ‘neither imminent defeat nor even partition invalidated the political theory Rousseau proposed for the case of Poland’, but really Rousseau’s was a theory of national cultural or emotional survival. He saw that, for Poland, survival in the face of aggressive neighbours could really only be achieved by following a course of action ‘to establish the Republic in the heart of the Poles’, that heart being ‘the unique asylum where force can neither reach nor destroy it’.[vii] Wolff finds a similar preoccupation with the survival – indeed the liberation – of Eastern European peoples in the thinking of Johann Gottfried Herder, a ‘Western’ philosopher whose Prussian birth-place (Mohrungen) is now in fact in Poland, and who studied in Königsberg under Kant. In his Anthropology of 1798 Kant would simply dismiss Poland (‘it no longer exists’), alongside ‘the nationals of European Turkey, that have never been and never will be up to what is requisite for the acquisition of a definite folk character’.[viii] By contrast, Herder in his Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-91) had lamented the subjection and oppression of Slavic peoples, commenting that ‘their remnant in Germany resembles what the Spanish made out of the Peruvians’. He hoped that the Slavs, ‘so deeply sunken, once industrious and happy peoples’, would be re-born and ‘finally one day be awakened from your long, sluggish sleep, be freed from your chains of slavery’.[ix]

Wolff shows that Rousseau was able to ‘translate his commitment to Poland into a brilliant reconception of Eastern Europe, based on national identity, immune to partition or subjugation’.[x] Wolff also found a notable emphasis on how Eastern European national independence could be maintained through the preservation of distinct cultural identity in the Count d’Hauterive’s Memoir on the Ancient and Actual State of Moldavia, which was composed in 1787. Commenting on behalf of the inhabitants of the Moldavian nation, Hauterive argued that ‘of all the peoples who surround us and who glory in an ancient genealogy, we are still the one who preserves in its customs and in its laws the most conformity to those of its founders’. The peoples of the Romanian principality of Moldavia, Hauterive asserted, were ‘the only ones who, without forming an integral part of a vast empire, preserve […] our name and our civil forms’. Interestingly however, Hauterive combined his accent on cultural purity and national independence with a recognition of the cultural complexity of the Moldavian territory, noting how just in recent history ‘the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Transylvanians, the Cossacks, the Russians, and the Poles have in turn been sovereigns of this land’.[xi]

The dialectic of cultural distinctness or independence and cultural complexity which is located by Hauterive in the case of Moldavia, reappeared in Italian literary scholar Claudio Magris’s account of neighbouring Transylvania in his Danube (1989). Transylvania, Magris saw, has been ‘a cradle of Hungarian culture, at least since the eighteenth-century autobiography of Miklós Bethlen or the Confessions and the Memoirs of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II’. Transylvania is also ‘the cradle of the Rumanian [sic] national consciousness, of the literary tradition that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries asserted the continuity of the Latin element in Dacia and the linguistic-national unity of the Rumanians’. Just this Hungarian/Romanian juxtaposition of purities illustrates the fact that, as Magris puts it, ‘the entire history of Transylvania is an intricate web of disagreements, cross-purposes, clashes, and the establishment and overthrow of national alliances.’ But purities do not just contribute to ‘cross-purposes’: Magris suggests that the sense of ‘unique’ cultural distinctness, the ‘special identity’ of the Hungarian Transylvanian or the Romanian Transylvanian, itself emerges out of precisely the ‘clashes and clamour’ of cultural complexity.

‘As sometimes happens in mixed-race frontier countries, this melting-pot of peoples and their various quarrels also brought about an awareness of having much in common, a special identity, entangled with contradictions but nonetheless unique in its clashes and clamour; such an awareness was proper to each and every one of the antagonists in the struggle.’[xii] 

The independent Germans amidst the mélange of wider Romania offer another fascinating case in point. Magris found ‘the town squares of Sibiu-Hermannstadt and Braşov-Kronstadt’ to be ‘images of a German tradition that may well no longer exist in Germany itself’. He interprets the title of the ‘bard of Kronstadt’ Adolf Meschendörfer’s 1931 novel, The City in the East, as a reference to ‘the Civitas on the eastern frontiers of Europe’. The distinctness of the Saxons of Romania historically found expression in their economic status, Magris notes: ‘Independent farmers and solid bourgeois, the Saxons were very seldom either feudal lords or serfs.’ But as Magris stresses, the German Romanians’ inimitable independence was always defined by its intrinsically cultural character: ‘cut off from their country of origin, they have always been a “cultural nation”, inclined not towards joining their territory to that of Germany, but eager to preserve their own cultural identity’. Hence ‘the Saxon tradition’ in Romania, Magris added, is ‘fiercely proud of the total independence from all the seats of power which in 1688 caused the Kronstadt shoemakers to declare war against the German Emperor, and (in the period of the dual monarchy) to resist the process of Magyarization’.[xiii] In a brilliant summarizing paragraph, Magris returns to the values of ‘Civitas’ – identified now in terms of civilizing ‘universalism’ or ‘the Germanic ideal’ – upheld by the German Romanian. Unlike the idea of Western civilization which underlies Wolff’s work, the civilizing universalism sketched here by Magris can recognize the cultures of ‘Slavs’ and, geographically marginalized, finds itself undermined by the centre. The point remains, of course, that such a proud and unique, all-inclusive civility could only have been produced in the first place out on a culturally complex frontier-space such as Romania.   

‘The German writers attempted to reconcile loyalty to Transylvanian independence with “Germanism” and the Hapsburg crown, loyalty to Francis Joseph as Emperor of Austria, not as King of Hungary. Adolf Meschendörfer, though by no means totally deprived of German nationalism, praises Germanism as universalism, the Holy-Roman-Imperial ideal which embraces all peoples, Germans, Celts and Slavs. He scoffs at the Teutomanic racists who invented the “Gothic man”, because the concept of universalism – of which the bearers are of course the Germans – cannot in his opinion be bound down to one race or style, but is destined to extend throughout Europe, even into those parts of it which are Latin or Slav. But the German Emperor – as the parish priest of Kronstadt remarks in his book – is a traitor, because he abandons the Germans of the East, the true standard-bearers and advance-guard of the Germanic ideal, and lets them go to rack and ruin.’[xiv]    

[i] Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 15, 12, 4.
[ii] Wolff, pp. 147 (quoting Marshall), 149, 129 (quoting Ségur).
[iii] Hegel quoted from Wolff, p. 315.
[iv] Wolff, p. 240 (quoting Rousseau).
[v] Wolff, p. 240.
[vi] Rousseau quoted from Wolff, pp. 239, 241, 240, 239.
[vii] Wolff, pp. 242, 239, 238 (quoting Rousseau).
[viii] Wolff, p. 314 (quoting Kant).
[ix] Herder quoted from Wolff, pp. 312, 313.
[x] Wolff, p. 260.
[xi] Hauterive quoted from Wolff, pp. 292, 293.
[xii] Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, trans. by Patrick Creagh (London: Collins Harvill, 1990; first publ. 1989), p. 314.
[xiii] Magris, pp. 309, 312, 313, 312, 310, 312.
[xiv] Magris, p. 315.


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