The concept of “Eastern Europe” was born after the second world war, when the Allied powers agreed on spheres of influence on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet half received that name, as opposed to “Western Europe”. When the Soviet (then Russian) armies left the region, in the early 1990’s, the name stuck. Eleven countries of the European Union are still grouped together under a single name, for no reason other than habit.
This intellectual laziness provides ready-made answers to any question about the region. If Poles or Czechs behave in a specific way, it is probably due to their “Eastern Europeanness”, the thinking goes. This view is mistaken. Such prejudice clouds the mind when trying to think about European issues and prevents the emergence of truly European analyses.
“Eastern Europe” as a concept
“Eastern Europe”, as a concept, entered in general use after the second world war1. Prior to the late 1940’s, the term only designated the easternmost fringes of the the continent, roughly the area in present-day Belarus, central Ukraine and Moldova. Other areas had other names: “Middle Europe” and “Central Europe” were used for the region that stretched from Austria to the Russian border, and more specific names, such as Galicia or Bessarabia were commonly used. With borders changing regularly in the first half of the 20th century, it made more sense to keep regional names than to use international borders (“Galicia”, for instance, would have been “North-Eastern Austria” until 1918, “South-Eastern Poland” until 1939, “Western Ukraine” until 1941, “Southern General Government” until 1944 and “Western Ukraine” again from then on).
Starting in the late 1940’s, the geography of Europe became easier to describe: “Eastern Europe” was what was under Soviet influence, the rest was Western and an exception could be made for Yugoslavia and Albania. Never mind that parts of Eastern Europe were more western than parts of Western Europe (Greece lies more to the East than Poland), “Eastern Europe” was more catchy than “Soviet-occupied Europe”. Despite this geographical nonsense, the term stuck after the fall of the Soviet Union. It now designates the 11 post-socialist member states of the European Union, with one major exception: East Germany, which counts as Western Europe.
Berlin, Rostock and Leipzig are never grouped together with Warsaw, Debrecen and Varna. Absorption by a “Western European” state clears away the label “Eastern European”, which shows that the term has acquired a purely political dimension, as opposed to historical or geographical. “Eastern Europe” today means a country whose government is heir to a socialist one, period.
Where there is a difference
Sharing 40 years of Soviet occupation does provide for similarities. Goods from the whole COMECON, the Soviet economic area, can still be found in the region (including East Germany, even if it modernized faster than the rest). Trams, for instance, are more often than not T3 models from the Tatra factory in Ostrava. Soviet urban architecture has left traces from Schwerin, Germany, to Donetsk, Ukraine, with its hallmark large avenues and underground pedestrian passages.
There are other differences. 40 years behind an Iron Curtain prevented socialist countries from experiencing immigration from colonies of other European countries. Few Muslims2 or Blacks live in post-socialist Europe (immigration from Vietnam and other countries under Soviet influence is another difference, but the scale of this immigration to socialist Europe was different).
Post-socialist countries are finally different for what they did not do. They are not heir to governments that cut the hands of millions, like Belgium did in the Congo3. They are not heir to governments that organized public beheading of independence fighters (sometimes in front of school children), like France did in Cameroon4. They are not heir to governments that shot down entire villages, like the Netherlands did in Indonesia5. (Many post-socialist countries do have horrible histories with which they barely engage, but this trait is not specific to them).
Where there is no difference
These differences are real. But they do not apply to the current economic situation or to politics. The crisis that erupted in 2008 showed that the split occurs more on North/South lines than East/West ones. Unless one is studying infrastructure, immigration or colonialism, there is no need to distinguish between “Eastern” and “Western” Europe. When it comes to politics, the 11 countries of “Eastern Europe” are no different from their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.
Governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia do push far-right policies. Yet it is hard to distinguish these from the policies set up by Austria, which first closed the door to refugees in 2015. It’s hard to distinguish anything especially “West-European” when Denmark forces refugees to pay for their asylum with the valuables they carry or when the British government says it hopes to do away with the European Charter of Human Rights.
When journalists or analysts see an Eastern European trait to some of the policies of Warsaw and Budapest, they make a profound mistake that prevents them from seeing truly European dynamics6.
By looking to the socialist past to explain current trends in these countries, they fail to grasp the wider, European factors that influence politics. Nationalists in Poland and France use the same techniques and rely on the same feelings to push their agendas. There are differences, of course. But these differences are merely variations of the same rationale, not fundamental divergences.
Why do the concepts of “Eastern” and “Western” Europe remain, 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, if the blocs they represent disappeared? I see two reasons. The first is the historical construct of “Eastern Europe” by Paris, London and Bonn as a group of inferior countries. The other is the political construct of “Western Europe” by reformists in post-socialist societies.
Prejudice as an escape from guilt
Much of the construction of Eastern Europe as a homogeneous group of second-class countries is the result of an almost unconscious search for a reason why France and Britain abandoned Czechoslovakia and Poland to Nazi Germany in 1938 and 1939, and later, the whole bloc to Soviet Russia. France and Britain were allied to Czechoslovakia and Poland but agreed to the annexation of the first and failed to meaningfully react when the second was invaded. Not respecting a contract that says “I’ll cover your back no matter what” is pretty much the worst thing a government can do. But if you think of Poland and Czechoslovakia as inferior countries, it becomes normal to treat them as inferior partners.
This construct of Poland and Czechoslovakia as inferior countries was started after the war and persists to this day. The construct gained traction because the needed material was available. The myths about Poland created by Nazi Germany were reused in French and British media without second thoughts. The most famous one is the Polish cavalry charge against German tanks, which, if you studied in Europe, you probably heard about in history class. The legend was created by German propaganda and keeps circulating, despite the fact that Poland fielded a modern army in 19397. This legend has a purpose: it says that France and Britain could do nothing to help such a powerless army and it justifies their inaction.
Another myth is Polish antisemitism. Poland is associated to antisemitism, for no reason other than German massacres perpetrated on what is now Polish soil. That extermination camps where in Poland was a Nazi decision, not a Polish one. No research shows that Poles played a more active role in the murder of Jews than others. If a country has a problem with antisemitism in Europe today, it is Greece (yes, really)8.
Treating Poland and Czechoslovakia (and, by extension, other countries of the Soviet bloc) as inferior is still standard practice. This was demonstrated by French president Jacques Chirac in 2003, when he told Eastern European governments that they were “not well-behaved”, in response to their supporting the American invasion of Iraq9. The metaphor of Eastern European countries as children remains fair game for French journalists today (the 2016 piece mentioned in footnote 6 describes Eastern European countries as “adolescent”)10.
Ceasing to patronize post-socialist European countries by using the phrase “Eastern Europe” would mean, for Paris and London, a reassessment of their behavior in the 20th century. I see no politician in either capital ready to take such a step.
The idealization of the West
Western governments and intellectuals are not the only ones to blame for the persistence of the “Eastern Europe” category. Activists and reformists in post-socialist countries used the mirror version of the term - “Western Europe” - to pressure their governments and institutions. While this worked well in the transition period from socialism to capitalism, this technique is now counterproductive.
An early example of post-socialist reformists using the concept of “Western Europe” as a coherent group to be emulated was done by the Polish foreign minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski in 1989 and 1990. He traveled the region frantically to avoid a war between Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland (the region was then ripe for a Yugoslav scenario), always appealing for everyone to follow Western “European values” and aim for peace and democracy11. Of course, he was bluffing. There was no clear set of European values he was referring to. They were defined much later, in 1997 (and are now called the “Copenhagen criteria”). Skubiszewski just used the concept of Eastern European countries needing to catch up with the West - so that he could push an agenda.
Using the concept of “Western Europe” as a group to catch up worked well in post-socialist countries until the goal of integrating the European Union was achieved in 2004 and 2007. After this date, the vision of a continent split along the lines drawn in 1945 was obsolete.
While catching up, post-socialist countries surpassed the others in many way. Transparency of businesses and public officials, for instance, is taken much more seriously in post-socialist Europe. The privatization portal of Serbia, the land registry of Czechia or the public servant assets database of Romania should be examples for other European countries to follow. Because activists and reformists in these countries keep using “Western Europe” as a concept to emulate (and because those of other countries see post-socialist lands as inherently inferior), they are unable to objectively assess the successes (and, therefore, the failures) of their institutions.
What can be done
If you are a journalist or an analyst, stop using the phrase Eastern Europe. If you work in an area where it makes sense to distinguish between post-socialist countries and the rest of Europe, use the phrase “post-socialist” and include East Germany. If you don’t, use more specific geographical terms, or even the names of the countries themselves.
More generally, prejudice can be fought by increasing the scope and depth of exchanges between nationals of different countries. I do not believe that associations of interest, such as international joint-ventures or consortia of organizations vying for a common profit, have any impact on the perceptions participants have of each other. To open up to external influences, one must not be interested in the outcome of the encounter. The best way to change one’s views about a foreign country is to learn the language, make friends there and explore the culture. There is a program for this, called Erasmus. It makes up less than 1.5% of the European budget. If governments wanted to truly unite Europe and do away with prejudice anchored in the 20th century, they should increase funding for the Erasmus program and develop exchange programs for pupils in high school.
2. Turks in Bulgaria and Tatars in Ukraine are obviously citizens of these countries, but their story has nothing to do with the one of Muslims in France or Germany.
3. Read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
4. Read Kamerun! La guerre cachée de la France en Afrique noire.
6. For an example of such sloppy analysis, read Populisme en Europe de l’Est : c’est davantage qu’une crise d’adolescence by Jean Quatremer, published on June 3d.
8. Check out the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100, a comprehensive survey on antisemitism. While Poland ranks high, it is on par with neighbors and with France. Greece is the only country with a much higher score.
10. It could be argued that the metaphor refers to the relatively young age of democracy in these countries. But this does not hold. First, no one talks of East Germany as a young democracy, even if cities like Leipzig or East-Berlin spent less time in democratic regimes in the 20th century than Bucharest or Warsaw. Similarly, no one talks of Spain or Portugal as children, despite their democracies being just 14 years older than the Czech Republic’s.
11. Read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations.