As Borders Fall Are Europeans Losing Their Cultural Identity

Aside from the English Channel, Europe has hardly any significant internal natural borders. Seventy years ago the border between Germany and Poland was settled at the Oder River. At its main crossing point it is no wider than the Waikato at Hamilton, and there is not even a gorge.

On the west bank there is the German town of Frankfurt-on-Oder; on the east the Polish . Just one bridge connects the two, although it was temporarily closed to all but pedestrians when I was visiting, as they were installing a pipeline for a heating interchange across it. The towns also have a joint sewerage disposal system.

It was not always like that. The border was fully open for only two of the first 34 years after the war, when Frankfurt was in the (communist) German Democratic Republic and the Poles were a part of Russian empire too. Crossing became less onerous after the (Berlin) Wall ‘fell’ in 1989. Following Poland joining the European Union ten years ago, all artificial impediments were removed; you cross the bridge without meeting a customs officer or passport control. (Well not quite. You can take a German taxi from Frankfurt to Slubice but it may not bring you back; you must take a Polish taxi, but it is not allowed to take passenger back either. Taxi systems are sometimes beyond the best intentions of the law.)

Of course the Polish zloty is more commonly used on the east side of the river; Poland is yet to join the European Monetary Union. But they accept the euros used on the west side. Folk from the smaller Slubice go to concerts in Frankfurt, and some inhabitants live on one side and cross to work or shop on the other. Some German boys marry Polish girls (German girls go off to work in the more prosperous west of Germany.) So, as the founders of the European Union hoped, there is mutual engagement across the old border.

But from my observations when I was there as a guest of the German and Polish embassies in New Zealand, the towns remain distinct social entities. This economist was at first surprised for the artificial impediments which created the border had been largely abolished.

When I thought more about it I realised that while there may have been economic and political barriers to social intercourse, culture was much deeper. The history of Europe is of culturally distinct groups living next to one another for centuries, engaging and adapting but maintaining their identities. Poles were split between three empires for 123 years; only in 1919 they formed the modern state of Poland (to again be divided during the Second World War). There was no ‘Germany’ before 1871 but Germans had lived for a thousand years in a variety of jurisdictions whose boundaries frequently changed. While we can never forget the Holocaust and some earlier massacres, neither should we forget that Jewish communities lived peacefully with their neighbours throughout Europe for most of that time too.

Frankfurt and Slubice are even odder. The war devastated the region and all its inhabitants left. The GDR settled German refugees in Frankfurt, Poland settled Poles in Slubice. There connections with the soil are shorter than many Pakeha can claim in New Zealand. Yet those there maintain their historic ethnicities whereas New Zealand has went on to forge one of our own..

It will be a long time before the inhabitants of the EU think of themselves as a common people in the way that, say, Americans do, and Americans still celebrate a local identity and their ethnic origins.

Yet, there is a coming together. Mindful of the terrible things that the Nazis did to the Poles (as well as the Jews) during the War, I asked our Polish guide ‘Will the Poles be supporting the French or the Germans’ in the World Cup quarter finals (the Germans went on to win the cup). Unhesitatingly she said ‘the French’ and then reflectingly added ‘or perhaps the Germans – they have a couple of players of Polish descent’. Brilliant combination; great team.

 

Comments (7)

by John Egan on December 30, 2014
John Egan

Interesting article: the idea of European borders (grenzen in German; granic in Polish) is a fascinating one. Although Poland entered the EU in 2004 they didn't enter the Schengen zone (of borderless travel within Europe, which includes several non-EU members states) until 2007. So the border came down in '07 rather than '04.

However I have to dispute your claim that Jews "lived peacefully with their neighbours": in fact, Jews were scapegoated, subject to racist laws, and the targets of violence in most of the continent for hundreds of years before the Third Reich came into power. There were some areas (Vilnius, Budapest) where their integration was less problematic, but tolerance was sometimes experienced: acceptance rarely.

by Charlie on December 31, 2014
Charlie

I experienced the same surprise and delight when visiting Austria, Hungary & Slovenia a couple of years ago.

Hopefully the most serious thing they can argue about now is which football team they support.

It only took about 2000 years of more or less continuous warfare to work out this solution! 

 

 

by Peggy Klimenko on December 31, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

Prior to 1914, Europe was largely borderless for the elites, including wealthy Jews. In his book "The Hare with Amber Eyes", Edmund de Waal describes such a world, of which his Jewish family were habitués.

But John Egan is right: even in elite society, Jews were tolerated at best; "l'affaire Dreyfus" drove a wedge between Jews and non-Jews in late 19th - early 20th century France. And the almost overnight stripping of assets from wealthy Austrian Jews at the Anschluss in 1938 is an eloquent illustration of the limit of that tolerance.

"So, as the founders of the European Union hoped, there is mutual engagement across the old border."

We have family in Central Europe. A relative in Bavaria told us that there's a widespread view among Bavarians that, not only do they not like being part of the EU, they don't even like being part of Germany, and would greatly prefer that Bavaria returned to being a kingdom.

This is anecdotal, of course, but it would scarcely be surprising if citizens in other parts of Europe had similar views. A borderless Europe may well suit the elites, but the citizenry in general don't necessarily feel that they have any particular stake in such large-scale political changes, which have come about at best without their voices having been heard, or at worst over their opposition.

We reflected on this as we drove through breathtakingly beautiful rural Austria (Steiermark most recently), where farms (and houses) have been handed down within the same families since time immemorial. People in that part of the world take the long view: doubtless many see the EU is just the latest iteration of a political game played by people other than themselves.

While our family members live in Central Europe, some of them work on projects all over Europe. So for them, work entails and springs from a borderless Europe. But I don't think that they could be said to embrace that state of affairs wholeheartedly.

"Yet those there maintain their historic ethnicities whereas New Zealand has went on to forge one of our own.."

I think that this is only contingently true here. While there are aspects of culture that many of us share, cultures - including those brought here with migrants - run deep, as they do in Europe. For instance, te ao Maori is alive and well, but largely inaccessible to those of us who aren't Maori, or don't have Maori among our family members. Other groups keep alive aspects of their culture - most importantly language - by any means possible. This applies in other former colonies: my grand-nieces and nephews go to a school in Sydney which teaches Italian to all its pupils, regardless of whether they're of Italian descent (my relatives aren't).

"It will be a long time before the inhabitants of the EU think of themselves as a common people in the way that, say, Americans do...."

I don't think that Europe can be compared to the former colonies in this regard; and in any event, it's likely the indigenes in said former colonies don't necessarily think of themselves as "Americans" and so on.

by Brian Easton on January 04, 2015
Brian Easton

The events surrounding what we call ‘The Holocaust’ are so appalling that they colour our understanding of what happened to European Jews in the thousand years before. Undoubtedly at various times some Jewish communities were abused, restricted, repressed, expropriated, exiled and massacred. But at other times they lived in a constructive peace with non-Jewish neighbours. As Alfred Haverkamp, the eminent historian of the Jews, has written of medieval times, ‘we should not forget that such violence was by no means an all pervasive feature in all regions and at all times ... there were several regions and towns or cities where Jews lived for centuries’

It was this phenomenon to which I was drawing attention, illustrating it with Jews but it is true of other diversities too. European history shows that diverse communities have lived together retaining their cultural distinctiveness as well as sometimes getting involved in bloody communal tensions.

Peggy also discusses the desire of some Bavarians for independence from Germany. There are many regions of Europe where a large minority, or even majority, of inhabitants do not wish to belong to the nation-state to which history has assigned them. (The list I began to make got a bit long.) There is some idealisation in these responses: a desire to have the benefits of globalisation but not its downsides.

The two issues seem to be related. The rise of the nation-state in the last two hundred years seems to be associated with particularly pernicious expressions of anti-Semitism . I confess a possibly romantic notion that ultimately the EU will dull the edge of the nation-state and further enable distinct communities to live together. Before I went to Europe this time, I had a notion that perhaps there would be an evolution of a unified European culture. I now think not.

May I celebrate with the three commentators the obvious joy they have had interacting with parts of Europe’s rich cultural diversity.

by barry on January 05, 2015
barry

I am not at all surprised that the two communities retain their differences despite physical and political barriers being reduced.

I have visited the mosaic of Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian and German villages in south east Austria.  It is easy to see which you are in even though they are only kilometres apart and everyone will talk to you in German.

I have also visited towns in Switzerland where you can almost see the line separating the French and German quarters.

And I have seen the landsker in Wales which persists from viking days.

Communities cling to their character.

by Rich on January 06, 2015
Rich

You can take a German taxi from Frankfurt to Slubice but it may not bring you back; you must take a Polish taxi, but it is not allowed to take passenger back either. Taxi systems are sometimes beyond the best intentions of the law

The same thing applies between New York and New Jersey, and they're in the same country.

by John Hurley on January 08, 2015
John Hurley

The history of Europe is of culturally distinct groups living next to one another for centuries, engaging and adapting but maintaining their identities.

...........

history extends to the genes?

http://www.percepp.com/groupnat.htm

http://psychology.uwo.ca/faculty/rushtonpdfs/n&n%202005-1.pdf

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