Friday, February 26, 2010

Therapeutic historiography, (Europe view 173)

The end of history, revisited
Feb 25th 2010

The ex-communist states of eastern Europe are leaving their pasts behind
WHERE would they be without their past, the ex-captive nations? (Or "ex-communist countries", "former Soviet satellite states", "the old Eastern block": so much history even in the category). The region between the Baltic and the Black Sea is so shaped by history that at first sight the question seems absurd. Trianon, Yalta, Molotov-Ribbentrop, Munich—the gloomy echoes of past betrayals and atrocities are inescapable.

For the past 20 years, the countries of this region have been involved in what might be called "therapeutic historiography": tearing up old communist propaganda versions of history, and writing new ones. That has been an exhilarating, messy and sometimes disconcerting process. For Estonians and Latvians, for example, it meant the chance to honour those (heroes or victims, but not villains) who fought against the impending Soviet occupation in 1944-45. Yet many outsiders see these men as no more than Nazi collaborators: they wore uniforms of the SS, the epitome of wartime evil, and served alongside some war criminals. Context and comparison (far more Russians than Balts fought on Hitler's side) become irrelevant.

Slovaks and Croats want to de-demonise their wartime republics (Nazi puppet states from one viewpoint, a snatched breath of national regeneration from another). Germans and Jews, once seemingly vanished from the region, have emerged from the shadows (and from abroad), with their own unhappy memories that undermine the self-righteousness of both Communist and ethno-nationalist versions of history.

Yet re-examining taboos is a self-limiting process: you run out of them after a bit. And historical inquiry inevitably bogs down in complexity. The communist version of history may have been mostly lies, but the western version has holes in it too. If you like closely reasoned historical monographs, you may spend your evenings examining the interplay between the Munich agreement (when Britain and France betrayed Czechoslovakia) and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (when Hitler and Stalin carved up Europe). For most people, it is enough that the latter deal is no longer secret or glorified.

In the luckier half of the continent, history has a much shorter half-life. Who worries about the Schleswig-Holstein question when looking at Danish-German relations? Who cares that Norway was once part of Sweden, or that Finland used to be a Grand Duchy of tsarist Russia?

Now central and eastern Europe may be joining the club of the ahistorical and apathetic. Historical rows are already the exception, not the rule. Poland is the signal example. In recent years it has successfully pursued reconciliation with Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Germany and even (albeit in limited terms) with Russia. The picture is marred only by a recent flare-up with Belarus, and a tiresome squabble with Lithuania about spelling. The recent ripple of protest in Poland when Ukraine's outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko, made the wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a "Hero of Ukraine" was interesting not because it exemplified the two countries' rows over history, but because it came after years in which they had sorted out so much.

Hungary's neighbourhood is transformed too. Relations with Slovakia are tense, thanks to a badly drafted language law there and some silly politicking. But Hungarians' real animosity is directed towards the Austrians, who have (they feel) betrayed them by selling shares in MOL, the Hungarian energy company, to Russians against their will. The historically difficult relationships with Serbia, Romania and Ukraine, all home to Magyar minorities, look chummy in comparison.

That reflects a big shift. As western Europe flounders, the old patronising and unfair treatment of the "east Europeans" is no longer sustainable. Change is in the wind. Power is up for grabs. And it is more fun than history.

1 comment:

Margaret said...

On remembering communism but moving on

That twenty years of therapeutic historiography in Eastern Europe was part of a healing process for the whole region, it was necessary and needed to happen. I will always remember how it felt to read Norman Davis’ Europe a History and to see the map of Europe with Poland somewhat more to the West than usual. That was just a beginning for a new approach to see ourselves. Many other paradigms were broken and truths found in the archives.

It is my sincere hope that Poland and the entire Eastern Europe, will never become as a historical and apathetic as other parts of the world - I live in Canada but please make no inferences - hopefully our eastern fibre will not allow it, but I also sincerely hope that the region will move on and not grow an endless need for what you call therapeutic historiography.

I agree with you, it may be just about time to stop asking ourselves if we measure up to the rest of Europe and instead show initiative and leadership... as it is visibly lacking in our much admired West.