Coming face to face with the threat of extermination as a common experience for Central Europe

Contrary to the expectations and hopes of politicians and the communities that make up the European Union, the division into the so-called 'old' and 'new' Union is not going away at all. On the contrary, we can see quite clear signs of it deepening, which is also making the wide range of differences between countries and societies on both sides of the former Iron Curtain more and more visible. The differences are not only - and not primarily - economic. The richest regions of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, are on par  or even in some cases exceed the average for the countries of the 'old' EU. Macroeconomic indicators of the Visegrad countries are already better than those of Greece, Spain, Portugal or southern Italy. However, this economic "levelling" of inequalities (to some extent, of course) did not trigger the melting pot mechanism in Europe. And this despite the fact that modernisation processes in the 'new' EU were accompanied - and are still accompanied - by intensive ideological activities aimed at implementing a uniform liberal-left world view throughout the EU. The activities of various NGOs, cultural institutes, foundations, , development agencies financed from the European budget, schools and various social media, working for a "united" Europe, and not only united but also culturally unified, i.e. free from the ballast of particular national and religious identities, are well known. These "strong" identities were considered to be detrimental and dangerous for the peaceful coexistence of people. In the past, they led to conflicts, wars and ethnic and religious cleansing, as witnessed by the most gloomy 20th century in Western history. These identities differentiate, and if they differentiate and conflict, they are too "hard", rigid, too little negotiable and therefore confrontational. Therefore, they must be weakened as much as possible, or preferably removed alltogether, and then - to put it simply - there will simply be nothing to fight about, at least as far as the axiological and philosophical sphere is concerned. As the next main cause of conflicts is poverty that gives rise to aggression and radicalism, it should also be eliminated in the most troublesome cases. This, of course, does not mean a real equalization of wealth. A glance at the map of Europe's economic development allows us to see immediately that since the enlargement of the Union in 2004, richer people have become richer and richer, leaving the rest of Europe behind. West Germany, the Benelux countries, England with the agglomeration of London, northern and central Italy all the way to Rome as well as north-eastern France with Paris are the very core of European wealth and development, continuing to expand their advantage over other regions. However, some of the resources of the 'strict core' - it must be admitted - have also flowed into the countries of the 'new' Union, contributing to a reduction in the spheres of real poverty, spheres which were still very extensive in the 1990s. After years of crisis and the sense of hopelessness they suffered, this caused a real explosion of enthusiasm for the idea of the European Union in the states of Central Europe. The coefficients of "euro-enthusiasm" skyrocketed, and the enthusiasm for abandoning anachronistic, narrow and rigid national and religious identities reached its zenith. So that it seemed, at least in the years 2004-2008 - but also later - that the predictions of the Social Liberals, the new Left (strongly linked to the international capital of corporations and NGOs) and the Neoliberals were correct: if we guarantee people some reasonably decent economic conditions - they claimed - and by means of more or less subtle persuasion, through the local elites, convince them that traditional cultural identities are passe, and also harmful and philistine, we will indeed be able to build a new, wonderful, culturally homogeneous world - the true United States of Europe. Under the effective veil of this enthusiasm, the political and intellectual elites of Brussels began at the same time a thorough reconstruction of the European Union project itself. In short, it consisted in a departure from the original assumption based on the Christian foundation of the Europe of Fatherlands (free and equal, but completely different nations), postulated by Schuman, Gaspary and Adenauer to the concept of a European, culturally unified superstate, referring to the ideals of the counter-cultural revolution of 1968, the neo-Marxistism of Gramsci and Spinelli and cultural relativism. In order to implement new ideals more effectively, a wide-ranging campaign to promote oikophobia and Christianophobia was also launched: the intellectual elites of the West began to call not only for distance from traditional cultural identities, not only for their "privatization" and hiding in the intimate sphere, but also for a ruthless fight against traditional cultural models portrayed as xenophobic, homophobic, discriminatory, exclusionary, etc., and for a more effective implementation of new ideals. The propaganda machine of combating traditional cultural identities gained momentum during the emigration crisis of 2015 (and in the following years). The exponential increase in the presence of refugees and immigrants who are completely culturally alien, marching in endless columns across Europe, often revealing an elementary disregard for European norms of behaviour and culture, demanded that a real "tyranny of repentance" be instilled in Western societies, preventing any criticism of the irresponsible decisions of EU politicians, mainly German ones. According to its mechanism, anyone who protested or even made an unswerving remark about this uncontrolled mass movement of people was called a "white supremacist," a fascist, a racist, a xenophobe, a spiritual heir to Hitler and Goebbels. And these attitudes, it has been recognised, are due to the traditional European culture, based on Christianity, Greek philosophy, Roman law and nation states. It has already led to the Holocaust once before and it will lead again if we do not take vigorous steps to "raise awareness" of its toxicity. The foundation of the social-liberal elites was and remains clear: everything is better than the Christian culture of the Latin West, whether it be aggressive Islam, militant neo-Marxist atheism or the ideology of sociobiological experiments under the sign of LGBT.

            As it turned out, it was the moment of the migration crisis - 2015, which coincided with the election victory of Law and Justice in Poland - that was to reveal many deep, but so far barely visible, cultural differences between the "old" and the "new" EU. The media discussion - not to say a row - spread across the continent, leading to the crystallization of opposing systems of values and completely different visions of Europe. The wave of media and political hatred first fell on Viktor Orban, because of his refusal to allow immigrants into Hungary, and then decision to start building border reinforcements to prevent them from crossing the border illegally. Then Poland was also criticised for not adopting the Brussels-based mechanism for relocating immigrants. Germany, on the other hand, as the strongest European player and representative of ideology and the interests of the old Union, has become known as the main driving force behind the illegal influx of people to the continent, within the framework of the so-called Willkommenspolitik (welcome policy) and Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture). From now on it was only to get worse - the scale of mutual misunderstanding (or even reluctance) was growing: in Germany and France there were direct voices that Central Europe "did not mature" into the EU because it did not want to take on humanitarian responsibility for refugees, that it was chauvinistic and closed in itself (at least this is how it was presented by ruling elites and opinion-forming circles), and finally that it was unable to provide assistance to those in need by itself using various forms of assistance from the West. That it is culturally "backward" and does not fit into the open civil societies of the West. What, then, has caused this radical difference of opinion on the immigration issue and, as it turned out, on the general attitude to the historical European culture and the vision of its future? Why do the nations of Central Europe (perceived through the prism of the majority of those who govern them) assess the condition of contemporary Europe and its prospects in a completely different way than their western neighbours? What is the fundamental source of this mutual misunderstanding and growing mistrust?

            The reasons for this state of affairs are, of course, very numerous and complex, so it is impossible to discuss or even bring them all up here. There is no doubt, however, that these reasons do not lie only in the intricacies of modern intra-EU politics. Their source is not even just the experience of forty-five years of communism, but they go far into the depths of history. The deepest reason for the misunderstanding of Central Europe by the new EU is the fundamental and formative experience of a threatened extermination of the nation. It is about political, cultural and, ultimately, biological destruction. A bit lofty - but without exaggeration - it can be said that every nation living between Athens and Tallinn has had the opportunity to look its death straight in the eye. Sometimes the threat was caused by invasions of neighbouring peoples - Turks, Tatars, Russians, or Germans - and sometimes it was the nations of Central Europe themselves that posed such a threat to each other. And so (to give just a few examples, because the full list of fears would be very long), Poles were a danger of nationalisation for Lithuanians and Ukrainians, then they were themselves threatened by it on the part of the Russians and Prussians, and later the Prussian and Habsburg Germans. Hungarians threatened the Slovaks and Wallachians, but they themselves faced the danger to their national existence from Turks and later the German Habsburgs. These dangers could have been conditioned by relatively peaceful actions to implement foreign culture and language (the example of Poland and Lithuania) or connected with direct military attacks (Turkey against Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary or Russia and Germany against Poland). There were also mixed variants: after the bloody conquest war, there were decades of creeping Kulturkampf (Czech Republic after the Battle of White Mountain, Poland in the post-partition period, especially after the November Uprising). All Central European nations have symbolic dates in their history, marking the beginning of heroic struggles for survival, fighting that sometimes dragged on for hundreds of years and claimed hundreds of thousands, millions of lives: Battle of Kosovo Field (1389) for the Serbs, Mohacz (1526) for the Hungarians, White Mountain (1620) for the Czechs, Maciejowice (1794) for the Poles. Of course, the various historical events mentioned above differed greatly in terms of their overall political and military context. However, from the point of view of historical memory and cultural transmission, they were similar: they constituted moments of a fundamental threat, reaching back to the very biological and cultural foundations of national existence.

Particular similarities can be seen in this context between Poland and Hungary. Both nations - Hungarian and Polish - in the past created state structures far beyond the narrow ethnic core area, radiating politically and culturally to neighbouring peoples; both were based on a structure of nobility - both were and remained predominantly Catholic, being the centre of the "Catholic belt", stretching southwards from Croatia to Latvia. After their heyday, both these political - historical communities were first weakened and truncated, and then completely devoid of statehood as a result of the partitions of Poland. Both nations had to fight to maintain their cultural identity. Both finally, having regained their independence, had to come to terms with huge and painful territorial losses.

            The experience of losing territory and cultural and historical heritage is a very painful            blow. For Poland the loss of Galicia with Lviv, for Hungary the loss of Transylvania with Kolozsvar became real political and cultural traumas, the consequences of which are still felt today. But there's more to it than that. Something that the English, French, Dutch or Germans will probably never fully understand, because they have never experienced anything like it before - the fundamental threat of non-existence. Yes, the French lost Algeria and the British lost India, which was probably painful and humiliating for them. But nobody ever killed the French en masse in the streets of Paris just because they were French; or the English for speaking English in the streets of London. These peoples therefore have no idea what it means to be deprived not only of their own statehood, but also of educational or cultural autonomy; what it means to be persecuted on the basis of their ethnic origin or religion. Thus, for the vast majority of the countries of the new EU, the terms 'renationalisation', 'cultural invasion', 'loss of identity' and 'cultural annihilation' are esoteric and exotic scientific terms. For Central Europe, however, they are still a living historical experience passed on in the family memory.

For Poles, the 19th and 20th centuries turned out to be the most tragic, especially the period of World War II, when the Nazi occupier did not hide the fact that its goal was the physical liquidation of the Polish nation. Once again Stalinist Russia was declaring to "free" the peasant and workers' masses, but in reality it conducted a no less brutal extermination policy (especially with regard to intellectual elites) than the German Nazis. For Hungarians, the most dramatic was, of course, Trianon, which deprived them of two thirds of their territory, and the communist terror of Matijas Rakosi and the Stalinists, which ended in the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. These experiences are therefore relatively fresh and strong and are remembered by living witnesses. Nazism and communism (although not to the same extent in all the countries of Central Europe) were therefore the last attempts to exterminate the peoples of what Timothy Snyder described as "blood-stained lands"[1]and Jacek Bartosiak the "crush zone"[2] between the great powers. Fourteen million people died in this area in the last great war alone. Poland lost 17.2% of the population, Belarus 25.6%, Ukraine 16.3%, Lithuania 14.3%, Latvia 13.7%, Yugoslavia 11%, Hungary 6.2%. It should be added to this, that the grim experience of inhabitants of these countries was also the observation of almost a complete extermination of the Jewish and Roma community in this part of Europe. This was further reinforced by the conviction that the prospect of complete destruction is not a dark political fiction, but a very real threat. What is worse, this threat did not give way here with the fall of the Third Reich - as it happened in the west of the continent. For all the countries of Central Europe, the fall meant a new occupation and a new attempt to destroy local historical identities, so that an internationalist communist - homo sovieticus - could be created in their place. Although communist regimes were generally not as genocidal as Hitlerism, in the long run they led to the same thing: the destruction of culture, the extermination of elites and the liquidation of independent national existence.

If the political and intellectual elites of the new EU were to take the trouble to look at both the recent and slightly older history of their Central European partners, perhaps there would be fewer misunderstandings. Perhaps they would have understood and accepted the impulse to defend and preserve their cultures and identities in the context of today's great migratory movements or the left-liberal "cultural policy" strongly promoted by the West. For the West somehow understands the fascist threat, but in general it no longer understands the criminal nature of communism and its spiritual successors and followers - for these ideologies have never become the object of its real experience. The Western societies thus perceive its essential hypocrisy, according to which it is not only possible, but also necessary, to conceal a deadly political practice behind beautiful slogans, according to which a lie of a cabinet ideology is to become an official "truth" and a "baton and gag" against political opponents. They do not want to see the destructive effects of social experimentation or degradation of culture without reference to religion and higher values on the social fabric. For us, the people of bloody central Europe, this political short-sightedness and cultural blindness is absurd and unacceptable in the long term. Will the countries of the old Union have to go through the experience of imminent extermination in order to come to their senses and return to their roots? We don't wish that on anyone. We hope, however, that they will begin to listen to those who have gone through hell with the utopias of the "new, glorious worlds. Because we have something to say to them today.      




[1] See: T. Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin, transl. B. Pietrzyk, Warsaw 2015.

[2] See: J. Bartosiak, Rzeczpospolita między lądem a morzem,. O wojnie i pokoju, Warsaw 2018.




Bartosz Jastrzębski 


Autor jest doktorem habilitowanym kulturoznawstwa, filozofem, pisarzem i etykiem, wykłada na Uniwersytecie Wrocławskim.