As the Wall went down in 1989, the winds of change that had been forcefully repressed in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Poland in 1980 swept across what was then known as Eastern Europe. Sowing the seeds of freedom, it blew away the old structures and filled the whole continent with hope. Yet along with this hope came a worrisome sense of ambiguity. One thing was certain: The time of certainties had come to an end.
A second age of nations
Thus when the once much-admired Yugoslav Federation sunk into ethnonationalist bloodshed, and the first war of serious scale since 1945 in Europe occured, concerns grew stronger. Fears that the old nationalist quarrels would ignite the very heart of the continent shook most of the western intelligentsia out of its confident dream of the victory of liberal democratic ideals. The question was: Would the tribes drag Europe back down the old paths of history, into blood, death and misery?
The members of the European Community, about to become the European Union in 1992, had forgotten about political instability and geopolitical challenges. After four decades of integrating, pooling their sovereignty, and working at the peaceful reconciliation of the old foes, these old nations had developed another kind of identity. It was a kind of national identity no longer rooted in an ethnic historical narrative, filled with 19th century romanticism and ideals, but rather one shaped by modern market forces, social trajectories, and individual welfare.
In order to interpret what was unfolding in their "backyards", these European states drew on old stereotypes and intellectual habits. They argued that in terms of linear historical progression, the former communist nations had seen their transformations hindered and their modernization belated. The metaphorical theory of the "freezer" was schemed to explain the violent return of history, in countries where historical processes and protracted conflicts had been "frozen"by totalitarian rule. Hence, in the cultural identifications that replaced communist rhetoric, they saw the return of Dracula, of passion, of war. Worse, they even tended to react as if history had been reversed, and old geopolitical interests reasserted themselves, such as when Germany or France hastened to defend their "traditional" allies. Defiance became the rule.
Zwischeneuropa, Europe médiane, Central Europe, etc.
But defiance was found not only in Western capitals. Some of the flame carriers became anxious that the wind of liberty could fan new dangers. In 1990, in a rather melancholic tone, the Solidarność icon Adam Michnik expressed his concern that the spirit of the anti-totalitarian struggle would be lost, diluted into the most gruesome nationalism and "tribal hatreds"(sic). He recalled that the forces that had overturned the communist dictatorship had shared a kind of spiritual momentum, filled with the virtues of solidarity and forgiveness, free of resentment, and full of tolerance and generosity. He urged that this spirit not be lost to a fundamentalist interpretation of national identity.
This part of Europe seemed ripe for outburst. It had no long-standing democratic traditions, no rationalized borders, no truly positive historical experiences. Instead, the region had a history of overlapping polities, irredentism, trans-national minorities, and changing territories. Its states would once again be competing with each other, and the nationalism long held in check would resurface.
And yet nothing happened. Following the pattern established in the German-Polish Treaty on Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation (17 June, 1991), the Poles also reconciled with the Czechs. The Hungarians did the same with the Slovaks, and later on with the Romanians. Beyond these mere international agreements, the tools contained in the first German-Polish treaty paved the way towards the resolution of many conflicts related to national minorities scattered around the region. The minorities no longer seemed to threaten stability and cooperation in the region.
In another, related domain, the foundation in 1991 of the Visegrad Triangle marked the first international and intergovernmental cooperation at the heart of Europe. Then, very smoothly, the triangle became a quadrangle after the Czechs and Slovaks divorced on 1 January, 1993. The separation occurred without a fight, without ethnic cleansing or any form of nationalist aggression, but by means of a law passed a month earlier. Such a pacific partition was resounding evidence that "the tribes of Europe" were capable of civilized behavior.
Indeed the pressure of the European Union and the incentive of prospective membership in the EU contributed a lot to successive settlements, as well as to a regional pattern of multilateral cooperation. The positive impact of the EU's enlargement policy is no longer to be demonstrated, but these results are genuinely linked to some other factors, namely the specific identity of the region. In fact, the troubled history of this part of Europe and in particular the discontinuity in the territorial identification of the peoples tended to dissociate their identity from the real territory and rather associate it with the cultural features, in both the folk and popular culture and its elitists higher version. Torn between the real territory and the imagined terrotory, these communities are developing into societies rather than nations. They do not indetify culture and tradition as much as the old nations of Western Europe do, and when the cultural discourse is filled with a kind of missionarism it remains articulated on a vision of the future, not a revival of a mythical past.
The effects of these features inherited from the distant and recent past are felt in the relations between religion and politics. In Poland, for example, the Church has played a significant role in the struggle against illegitimate regimes, but as soon as the regime was defeated, it lost its political influence and relevance, and seemed an obstacle to the modernization of society. Interestingly, the religions of central Europe seem to have led to, and eventually delivered, a genuine kind of political modernity, in which the religious pattern has not been completely wiped out. A political modernity in which the individual is situated and never completely alone, facing the state or the power, as the personnalist philosophy would put it.
This philosophical approach of the identity duly translated into a judiciary framework would allow exploring the ways and means for the eventual management of the manifold minorities present within the national communities. At the stake lies the possibility of a truly multinational political construction. In fact, drawing on its specific historical experience, made of long standing networks and connections of persistent patterns in inforam and convivial relationships, and of a relative autonomy from the political structures, this part of Europe could be paving the way towards an alternative kind of post-national maturity.
French historian, political scientist, writer. Since 2004 academic assistant for Professor Geremek's Chair of European Civilisation at the College of Europe in Warsaw.