Visions of Greatness, Delusions of Grandeur – Eastern Europe: Too Much History

For the Romanians it is ancient Dacia, for the Czechs it is the Kingdom of Bohemia, for the Slovaks it is the centuries long fight for independence, for the Poles it is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for the Hungarians it is Saint Stephen and the Arpad Dynasty. For the Serbs, it is the Serbian Empire, for the Croats, it is the Kingdom of Croatia and so it goes on. Each one of these peoples had a period of greatness that they can look back on with adoration. Even if it was hundreds of years ago, in a world much different than the present, that scarcely matters. What really matters is that once they were the rulers rather than the ruled. In Eastern Europe, it seems every nation enjoyed a long ago day in the sun.

Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

A Great Place To Start?- Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

The Past Isn’t What it Used To Be
In an essay titled Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Istvan Deak states the following: “Public fascination with national history, especially with a faraway often mythical, past as a guide to future action is hardly a Hungarian monopoly! Rather, such fascination is common to East Central Europe as a whole. Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs have had little choice but to find inspiration and consolation in visions of past greatness when faced with the miseries and powerlessness of the present.”

Dealing with the challenges of the present often is easier for an Eastern European when they can recall a historical past where their people were on top. It is as though, if it happened once, it could certainly happen again. It is the possible dream. A glorious period deep in the past allows for optimism, even if the future is filled with uncertainty or gloom. I once asked a Hungarian about what would happen if one side or the other won the next election, their reply was revealing, “well whatever comes, we all know it won’t be good.” That was a statement informed by history. I can’t imagine my opinion would be any different if my nation had suffered through a 20th century like Hungary’s. Or for that matter, had been overrun by the Mongols, occupied by the Turks for a century and a half, and then followed by another century and a half of Habsburg absolutism. This same Hungarian talked of Saint Stephen, a man who lived over 1,100 years ago, as though he had just left the building.

Tomek Jankowski writes in his recently released Eastern Europe: Everything You Need To Know About The History (And More) Of A Region That Shaped Our World And Still Does: “The past for Eastern Europeans is not restricted to dry, dusty books on shelves that only a few socially maladjusted nerds read; the past is a living part of life for Eastern Europeans, and their discussions about the present are often clothed in language of the past.” Jankowski quotes historian Lonnie R. Johnson who says: “Some of the problems Central Europeans have with themselves and with one another are related to the fact that their history haunts them.”

The former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain – the former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain
The final part of that last sentence, “their history haunts them” is an eloquent critique on the presence of the past in the psyches of Eastern Europeans. The ghosts of empires, wars and revolutions past exists somewhere in that nebulous space between reality and imagination. This is in contrast with how the past is viewed by western Europeans. In the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany, the past is to be respected, but the present is still pretty good and the future just might be better. It is as though an invisible iron curtain still divides Western and Eastern Europe. In the west they look forward, in the east they look backward.

Quite obviously, none of these countries are glorifying the present or recognizing it as a golden age, despite the fact that Eastern Europeans are freer than at any time in their history. Even Ukrainians, who just ousted the oppressively corrupt Yanukovych regime, at present, enjoy freedom of movement, relative freedom of the press and a degree of civil rights unprecedented in their long and contentious history.

Lest They Forget
Is it really possible for a people to have too much history? It is not so much the quantity of historical events as it is the depth to which these events have skewed the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. In Bulgaria, time and again I heard the phrase, “five hundred years of slavery” in reference to the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The people I heard this from, were not historians or geriatric wanna be khans, they were students working the front desk at hostels or leading the free city tour in Sofia. Their average age could not have been more than twenty-two. Yet they spoke of the dreaded Turk as though he had just been run out of the country last week.

But the past in Eastern Europe is not just about what is remembered, it is also about omission, about what is forgotten. In western Ukraine, there is the wonderful mittel European city, par excellence, Lviv. It is identified by the catchy phrase, “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.” This conveniently ignores the fact that it was majority Polish right up until the Second World War. Polish Lwow is ancient history. In Kosice, Slovakia there is the beautiful old town which was the main reason the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is packed with buildings that were the handiwork of the Hungarian bourgeois and German burghers who respectively called the city Kassa or Kaschau. This is supposed to be Slovakia? It’s quite the trick to fool the tourist; it’s quite the feat for the Slovaks to fool themselves. Lest they forget!

Forgetting and remembering, it’s all about the past in Eastern Europe. The past really is a different country in Eastern Europe, it bears little resemblance to the present and for that reason it is all the more appealing.

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