The Shadow of the Iron Curtain: One Union, Two Visions of Europe

NORBERT REBOW

In May of this year the European Commission put forward a proposal that would fine member states of the European Union for not accepting agreed numbers of asylum seekers, stressing the need for solidarity on the basis of European values. These plans have been met with hostility from governments of Eastern European countries. The Prime Minister of Hungary in particular has framed his tough stance on migration in terms of protecting the Christian heritage of Europe, accusing Western European governments and EU institutions of undermining this patrimony through open-door policies towards refugees and migrants. These divisions between East and West could easily be dismissed as temporary and superficial, chained to one divisive issue and the ideological difference between the current governments of Eastern and Western Europe. The question of migration will be settled, new governments will be elected, and the unity of purpose of the 2000s will be restored. This narrative is, in my view, deeply misguided. 

Recent years have only highlighted the different meanings that the Old West (the existing member states before the 2004 expansion) and the New East (countries which have joined since 2004) can attach to “Europe”. These are meanings borne out of very different social histories that continue to evolve and define the relationship between East and West. These two halves of Europe spent almost half a century in radically contrasting political realities, which sent them on divergent trajectories with regards to their global outlook. It would be intuitive to ascribe the disagreements on migrant quotas solely to the economic consequences of decades of the operation of a command economy: poorer states are less willing to pay to maintain foreign nationals in their territory. While economic arguments as well as explicit racism are not irrelevant, they obscure this more fundamental issue of diversion on what it means to be European and what the function of European institutions should be. The latter will be my focus here.

Before delving into the intricacies of Cold War social history, it is prudent to establish a clear understanding of the present. Until recently it appeared that the populations of the new member states of the European Union were more enthusiastic about the European projects than the Western European states who initiated them. Indeed, the 11 post-communist member states voted emphatically in referenda to join the European Union in 2003, 2006 and 2012. Since then, Eurobarometer surveys have consistently shown that generally Eastern Europeans value their EU citizenship more highly than their western counterparts. It would appear, therefore, that there is little threat to European solidarity on the East-West axis. This conclusion, however, would miss the point of difference regarding definitions of “Europeanness” between the two regions. The debates surrounding accession, especially in the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states of the 2004 enlargement reveal the specific motivations at play in Eastern Europe. In these contexts, apart from being seen as a motor for economic growth, the European Union was perceived as a guarantor of national sovereignty in the face of potential Russian aggression and influence. Joining these institutions increased the formal obligations of Western European states to bolster their Eastern European counterparts against the threat of unwanted foreign interference. This is evidenced by the fact that all these countries successfully sought to join NATO. Former bloc countries recognised that their involvement in both military alliance and economic-political union would tie in Western partners on the levels of collective security duty and economic interest. Protecting the autonomy of the nation state was thus a key aspect of support for accession. “Europeanness” was a way of protecting the nation rather than an end in itself. Indeed, the two parties in Eastern Europe which are now seen as the major challengers of the power of European institutions, Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz (“Hungarian Civil Alliance”) in Hungary, both campaigned in favour of their countries joining the European Union. Having established that there were strong national motives for joining the European Union and noting the use of religious identity surrounding the debate on migration from outside the continent, we must ask where these characteristics of a strong attachment to the nation-state and the ethno-cultural definition of the nation emerged from. To find the answer we need to turn to the period of the Cold War and the different ways in which secularisation and nationalism developed in the East and West.

Attitudes towards nationalism were very different on either side of the Iron Curtain for half a century. In Western Europe, nationalism became associated with the outbreak of World War Two and was identified as a danger that needed be contained. Indeed, the tempering of French and German nationalisms and their rivalry was perhaps the most important immediate motivation for the initiation of institutionalised European cooperation. It seemed that reverence for the nation had caused unification wars, plunged the whole continent into two total wars and had been used to justify the horrific actions of totalitarian regimes. Nationalism was thus perceived to be a danger to peace and democracy, and its influence on events in European politics needed to be limited. Rejecting nationalism was not a shared position across the free part of the continent, however, as Spain, Portugal and Greece continued to be ruled by right-wing dictatorships at the inception of the European project. However, the three key founding states – Germany, France and Italy – were all united by this idea. Europe as a guarantor of peace and democracy through the tempering of nationalism was an appealing concept for many: initially, for the citizens of countries ravaged by war and later, when the Mediterranean dictatorships fell, to those who had lived under authoritarian regimes with nationalistic accents. 

In the Soviet sphere of influence, the situation was markedly different. Here, the political establishment also portrayed nationalism as evil. It was, however, an establishment that was dictatorial, did not enjoy popular support and, perhaps most importantly, was imposed and maintained by a foreign power. Soviet propaganda was based on a supranational communism, thus the most salient rallying point against these oppressive regimes was the nation and the concept of national self-determination. A strong sense of nationhood became a symbol of struggle against oppression and economic malaise rather than the potential root of such problems as it was seen in capitalist Europe.

Reaction against the ideology of communist dictatorships also spilled over into the realm of religion. Just as they sought to suppress strong feelings of national identity, the regimes of Eastern Europe also supported secularisation from above. It must be acknowledged that the strength of these efforts and backlash against them varied considerably from state to state and region to region. At the end of the Cold War, Estonia emerged a lot more secular than Lithuania while Slovakia emerged more religious than Bohemia and Moravia. In Poland, the role of the Catholic faith in the opposition to the regime was particularly striking. In 1960, the residents of Nowa Huta, a model socialist district of Krakow, successfully protested against the removal of a cross by communist authorities. One of the demands of the Gdansk stockyard strikers in 1980 was the erection of a monument to their fellow workers killed during industrial action a decade earlier. This memorial took the form of three crosses arranged together. The imprisonment of Prelate of Poland, Stefan Wyszynski, the killing of Warsaw priest Jerzy Popieluszko and the speeches of Pope John Paul II all became symbols for the opposition to the regime and linked the struggle for freedom intimately with Catholicism. This was not replicated to the same degree across the Eastern bloc, but a shared core narrative emerges: secularisation was seen as an alien force imposed on these societies, which heightened the contribution of religious traditions to national characteristics. With Christianity being traditionally perceived as a European phenomenon, we can hypothesise that this also influenced how people exposed to these ideas approached the concept of European identity. A notion of the shared cultural heritage of Christendom, rather than common values derived from a mix of religious thought and secular processes, became the basis for “Europeanness”. 

A second dimension to this issue is that while communist dictatorships attempted to weaken the influence of the churches, they only took limited steps in promoting social liberalism for fear it would lead to challenges to their authority. This experience clearly contrasts with the slow march of social liberalism in Western European societies. In the West, the link between Christianity and individual identity was slowly eroded and the importance of religion to concepts of nations and, by extension, Europe, was also affected. European civilisation, in this mindset, was no longer to be defined by a common faith but rather a set of values that were a product of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought. These values were also subject to open debate on questions of identity and morality which could only take place in the free societies that had not been governed by coercive communist dictatorship. Arguably, these tolerant values were secular variations of Christian teaching on compassion and inclusiveness. This, however, underscores the importance of the Cold War. Despite sharing in the Christian faith for a millennium beforehand, the experiences of liberal democracy and communist dictatorship encouraged people on the two parts of the continent to put emphasis on different aspects of the religion going into the 21st century. 

These differences have significant implications for European unity. Out of them flow two competing visions of Europe that are not fully compatible, which are ingrained in the cultures of the two sides of the fallen Curtain. On the one hand, we are faced with an acute sense of the potential dangers of nationalism and the definition of European values in socially liberal terms, while on the other we have societies that attach great value to independent nation states and the significance of Christian cultural heritage to European identity. In some ways, this distinction represents the civic and ethnic conceptions of nationhood elevated to the European level. If the European Union is to continue integrating it must manage these two ways of understanding Europe. Many nation states have successfully overcome this question of what the basis of national identity should be. The plurality of citizens in most countries on the continent means that they think of their national identity in a mix of civic and ethnic terms. Europe could therefore still forge a common sense of self but European leaders should not be under the illusion that economic development in the East will harmonise social relations across the bloc. Winston Churchill’s curtain running from Stettin to Trieste is no longer made of iron but the scar on the continent is not fully healed. It takes a long time for the past to be truly confined to the history books; we would do well to remember this central lesson of European history.