Europe, Nations and Modernity Edited by Atsuko Ichijo Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (pp. 158-182) The Ferry-Country between East and West: Debates on Modernity and Europe in Hungary András Kovács, Anikó Horváth, Zsuzsanna Vidra Introduction



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III. The period after WWII

After a short democratic interlude in the immediate post-war years, Hungary became part of the Soviet bloc. From 1948 on, under the rule of the communist party, strict censorship rules were introduced for news media, as well as for academic and literary publications. This meant an abrupt end of all debates – among them debates on modernity, and Europe and Hungary’s position on the symbolic map of the continent. During this period, integration in and catching up with Western Europe naturally disappeared from the focus of the writings. It was replaced by a discourse that aimed to ideologically and historically justify the geo-political divisions of Europe, a political reality that emerged after Yalta. Europe was divided into the "decadent and reactionary West” and the "progressive East”. It is not by chance, that ‘Europe’ appears only rarely in contemporary discourse of that time. The symbolic geography of the world was defined in terms of the post-World War Two status quo which descended directly the agreements of the four Great Powers stemming from the Yalta–Potsdam process. The division line was between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, where ‘East’ incorporated the USSR and the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”, while ‘West’ consisted of Western European countries and the US. The dominant pattern was that European countries were divided into the aforementioned two categories rather than being subsumed under the adjective ‘European’. The similarities among the nations of Eastern-Europe were pointed out frequently and common roots in their history, literature, and culture were highlighted by literary critics, musicologists, ethnographers, and historians. The purpose was to prove the “relatedness” of the “people of the East” in order to provide a historical underpinning for the existence of the “socialist camp”.

Nevertheless, the modernization argument had not disappeared; indeed it became a part of the ideological legitimation of the system. As Johann P. Arnason put it (Arnason 2000) the ambition of the Marxist-communist ideology was “to outflank the West by improving on shared ideas of modernity”. And, indeed, the official discourse’s main premise throughout the whole period was; 1. the backwardness of “feudal-capitalistic” Hungary drove the country into “German subjugation” and devastating conflicts with neighboring countries and the Soviet Union and; 2. The liberation and the alliance with the victorious liberator, the Soviet Union will enable Hungary, and all East-European countries to abolish historical backwardness through rapid industrialization, the destruction of the old feudal and capitalist classes, the introduction of a scientifically-based planned economy and real democracy, called “people’s democracy”. During the first twenty years of "real socialism" it was not permitted to challenge this view of a modern, progressive and victorious “East” and a decadent, decaying “West."


  1. The “Central-Europe” versus “Eastern-Europe” debate from the late 1950s to the early1990s

It took about a decade to restart the intertwined debate on modernization and the regions of Europe. Historians – helped by data collected in comparative historical research (mainly in the field of economic history) on the region – were among the first to argue against the existence of a homogenous Eastern-European region. The historical method – using very large timeframes, and applying geography to support some of the arguments – made possible a cautious revision of the official views.

In certain areas, these debates had three phases, reflecting the gradual liberalization of the system:

• In the late 1950s and during the 1960s the division of Europe into two main regions – the East and the West – was not yet questioned, but the image of a heterogeneous Eastern Europe started to take root in academic debates (Niederhauser 1958, Pach 1968, Berend & Ránki 1968, 1969).
• From the early 1970s on, more and more academics argued that there was a sharp dividing line within Eastern Europe where the western parts of this region – especially Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – were more developed and thus more similar to Western Europe. However, it was not until the early 1980s that a Hungarian historian openly claimed that Europe was divided into three parts – the West, the East, and the in-between region of Central-Eastern-Europe. He argued that each of these three regions had a different path of development (Szűcs 1981). Szűcs’s article was published in Western European academic papers as well, becoming one of the most influential studies written on this topic from that period. His arguments will be discussed in more detail in the next subchapter.
• Beginning in the mid-1980s a “Central-Europe” debate – parallel to the “Eastern-Europe” debate of the historians – also emerged, in which leading intellectuals took part - Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Milosz, Eugene Ionesco, Danilo Kis, György Konrád. Although this was not an academic debate, and the argumentation used primarily revolved around the existence of a shared Central-European culture and mentality, it substantially influenced the discussions which emerged around 1990, i.e. at the time of the collapse of the old system. However, given the nature and actors of this debate, we will not give a detailed account of it in this chapter.

The debate of the Historians



      1. Supporters of the East/West dichotomy and the “detour theory” of Eastern Europe

In the late 1950s and 1960s leading economic historians returned to the idea of the East-West modernity divide: In order to explain the unevenness in development in Europe, the so-called “detour theory” of Eastern Europe was developed. The main argument of these authors was that for a time the historical development of the Eastern-European region paralleled Western patterns, but then it took a "detour" from the Western road and began to exhibit those characteristics that, it can be argued, are the reasons for the historical underdevelopment of the region. Emil Niederhauser saw late formation of states in the Eastern parts of Europe as the main causal factor explaining differences in development between the East and the West, while he also emphasized the importance of the religious divide that existed within Eastern Europe.


The fact that on these Eastern-European territories the formation and crystallization of the state happened only in the 11th and 12th centuries indicates that the development of Eastern Europe was delayed a few centuries compared to Western European territories. This time delay is a very particular characteristic of Eastern European development. (…) Compared to the West another difference was that in Eastern-Europe both the western and eastern forms of Christianity were present. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia belonged to the Western Church, while all other countries were under the influence of Byzantine Orthodoxy. ” (Emil Niederhauser, 1958)

The most influential representative of this argumentation was Pál Zsigmond Pach, director of the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1967-1985). In his voluminous book published in 1963 he argues that “in Hungary the transition from feudalism to capitalism began in the 19th century, with a significant delay and important differences when compared to Western Europe”. He then goes on to ask that “What were the historical roots of this delay (…) and when, under what circumstances, and as a result of which factors did Hungary turn off from the Western European path of development?” In his answer he argues that the East-European “Sonderweg” started by the end of the 15th century; while in the Western states the disintegration of feudalism and development of early capitalism continued, owing to several factors, in Eastern-Europe feudalism consolidated. His main argument in explaining this separation in development is based on the reorganization of the international trade routes: As soon as the overseas colonies were connected through international trade, Eastern-Europe lost its importance as a main trading/producing partner, and was reduced to no more than an agricultural hinterland of Western Europe.

An even more radical proponent of the same position was Peter Gunst, who strongly criticized traditional European history writing. He argued that if we look into what traditional history books say about Eastern-Europe we find that Eastern-European development is always compared to and measured by Western development. It was always assumed that throughout the centuries the direction and nature of Eastern development – although delayed in time – was the very same as that of the West. He claims that this attitude needs to be changed if historians want to move towards a more objective understanding of Europe’s history. According to Gunst, the theories arguing about the “detour” of the Eastern European region between the 13th-15th centuries were misguided: The development of East and West were already different beginning in ancient times, and it was more accurate to explain possible similarities by pointing out a Western influence in the western parts of Eastern Europe and Hungary, but not as a product of inherent tendencies. The core of his argument was that the density of the population was much higher in Western Europe, and because of that the availability of agricultural land was more limited. This scarcity of land resulted in an increased need for the development of more efficient agricultural technologies. These bottlenecks led to differences in land ownership structure and use; the advent and legalization of private property in the West; differences in the structure and types of cities in the two regions; the advent of constitutional states and the formation of civilian strata (burgers) in the West; and the early shift to industrial/capitalist production in the West.

However, besides this main premise for understanding the causes of differences within Europe, an attempt to emphasize the internal heterogeneity of the Eastern European region was also present. Emil Niederhauser had already pointed at a possible effect of religious diversity, and Iván Berend and György Ránki, the two most influential historians of the 60s and 70s, emphasized the regional differences in modernity due to the consequences of the Ottoman occupation. Berend and Ránki, partly following the arguments of Alexander Gerschenkron (Gerschenkron 1962) stressed the deep differences between England, the Western and the Eastern part of the European continent, but they did not accept that these differences arose due to the differences in the role of the state in modernization. They argued that the western parts of Eastern Europe – Central-Eastern-Europe – showed more similarities to Western Europe than the rest of the region, but the regionalization of developmental differences was to be explained by the different relationships of the Eastern “peripheries” to the Western “centers”. Thus, the explanation for the relative underdevelopment of the eastern regions was not to be found simply in the consequences of the late medieval detour (the Eastern “Sonderweg”) but in a hierarchical relationship of the Western and Eastern regions of the continent which strongly contributed to the reproduction of the modernity gap.

As can be seen, although in the 1960s and early 1970s the idea of a separate Central European region was not yet the main focus of the debate, the appearance of some ideas that prepared the ground for the “Central Europe” debate of the following decade could be identified in the writings of the period.
While the “detour” theory, by delivering historical arguments for Hungary “organically” belonging to the bloc of East-European countries under Soviet dominance, may sometimes have functioned as “legitimacy discourse” for the existing system, the slowly emerging “Central-European-ness” argument served exactly the opposite purpose. The underlying idea of this argument was that if it could be demonstrated that Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland were part of a region that was seen as historically different from both Russia and the Balkan, than striving for the relative independence and limited sovereignty inside of the Soviet realm would have had historical legitimacy. For the Central European countries three political models were seen as possible alternatives to the original status quo established after the Second World War: The first was the so-called “Finlandization” model, which consisted of the idea of a western-type democracy with a government that would guarantee unconditional acceptance of Soviet security interests. The second type was the Yugoslav model of non-alignment based on the so-called Bandung principles. And the third model was that of Austrian neutrality based on the Treaty of 1955. All three models departed from the idea of a separate European region, between “East” and “West”. (Kovacs, Horvath, & Kinsky-Mungersdorff 2009)

Thus, it is no coincidence that the Hungarian Europe debate did not take a new and different turn until the early 1980s, when historian Jenő Szűcs published his study about “the three historical regions of Europe”.6



      1. Questioning the East-West dichotomy: introducing the idea of “Central-Eastern Europe” and “Central Europe”

One of Szűcs’s important contributions to the field was that he was the first to highlight that belonging to a region cannot be seen as rigid and static, and that instead needs to be treated as dynamic and constantly changing. Thus, while former historical works presented Eastern and Western Europe as large homogenous regions having fixed boundaries, Szűcs in his research raised arguments that contradicted this approach. He stated that there was a separate, “hybrid and multi-faceted” Central-Eastern European region – an in-between border zone to both West and East – comprised of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Although, over the last few centuries Central-Eastern Europe was exposed to Eastern European influences – and, as a consequence, its administrative and economic structures changed a lot – the formerly Westernized structures could not be fully eradicated. Accordingly, Szűcs argued that “from the middle ages to modern times, and even later, Hungary was an integral part of the Western economic world”, and while there was an “Eastern-European” influence in the history of the region, that was not strong enough to override the Western influences of earlier times.

Gábor Gyáni, a historian who analyzed the discourses of the historians participating in the Europe debates of the past decades, argues that Szűcs’s work became extremely important in the 1980s because it questioned two of the basic concepts of the widely accepted “detour" theory. First, Szűcs reframed and nuanced the ways in which Hungary’s “catching up” with the Western World was presented in history writing, namely that regional development was a process during which Central Europe did become the eastern border of Western Europe by the 13th century. Second, Szűcs gave a more thorough explanation of the transformations that took place in Hungary in the middle ages and modern times. He showed that – contrary to what “detour” theorists believed – differences in development between Western and Eastern parts of Europe were not the result of a return to feudalism in the East, but a combination of external and internal factors that led to a path of development which was characteristic only of Central-Eastern Europe (Gyáni 2002). In the mid 1980s Szűcs even started to refuse the use of the terms “center” and “periphery” in relation to the positioning of Central-Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s Szűcs further developed his theory about the three historical regions of Europe, bringing into discussion arguments about the status of the aristocracy in the West and the East, and talking about the secularization that took place in the Western parts of Europe. He argued that one of the important dividing factors among regions was precisely this: For centuries in the East a similar separation between state and church did not occur. (Gyáni 2002)

Although the Europe debate continued among historians until the early 1990s, radically new ideas were no longer raised in the debate. According to Gábor Gyáni the most important conclusion one could draw from the decades long debate was that “the many ways in which ideologies were able to influence history writing were never fully acknowledged in this debate, and thus the original preconceptions of the individual historians regarding Europe and its regions were never uncovered.” (Gyáni 2002)
Integral to the change in the political climate, in the mid- and late 1980s the discussion about the existence of a separate “Central-European” region was taken over and dominated by writers, literary critics, and other intellectuals from the region. With new opportunities for elimination of the cold-war division of the continent, the debates about a restructuring of the European sphere stepped out of a strictly historical context. History remained a salient subject, but politics, social issues and, especially, the cultural heritage of the region also became focal issues.7


  1. Theoretical and philosophical debates about Europe after 1990

The ‘new wave’ of theorizing about Europe started in the late 1990s when accession became a political reality. The new situation inspired not only economists, legal experts and political scientists but also political thinkers and philosophers to ponder the old questions of Hungary’s relationship to Europe. In the new context of European enlargement and political integration very similar dilemmas were approached as they had been earlier in the various historical periods.

Theoretical debates embraced approaches from various disciplines all dealing with questions of the integration process of Hungary and speculating about possible outcomes of Hungary's membership in the EU. The debates generated by political thinkers touched upon the old considerations that had constituted the Europe debate in Hungary: the East and West division, the interrupted modernization of Hungary and the "minority question" and nationalism.

At the same time, a purely philosophical debate emerged mainly as a recognition that debates and discourses on Europe were primarily of a political and legal (as well as technocratic and bureaucratic) nature. Accordingly, many reflections deal with the fundamental philosophical issues of morality, ethics and political culture in the European tradition (Ferenczy 2001, Kende 2001, Lendvai 2001, Losonczi 1999) as well as with the very concept of Europe and European identity (Heller 1992, 1999, Kókai 2001). The most interesting and provocative ideas, however, are concerned with the theory of ‘new-Europeanism’, that is to say with the changing concept of Europe in the age of globalization and Americanization.


  1. Political thinkers

Identifying Europe with the West and Western values – such as progress, development, freedom, humanism, civilization, sophistication, modernity – and contrasting those with the “'One-Thousand-and-One-Nights’ East” considered barbaric, uncivilized, stagnating, backward and non-modern (Heller 1999, Vajda 1999, Rostoványi 2000) is as old as the European civilization itself (Heller 1999). As we have seen before, the dominant intellectual discourse of the 1980s on Central European-ness was also a contribution to the deconstruction of the age old dichotomy.

The change of discourse created by political thinkers can be best characterized as returning to the East-West dichotomy. One major concern in this respect was the issue of the status of the new member states within the EU. The question of how new members were going to integrate had been raised by various authors in the EU and also in the accession countries. From the perspective of the newcomers, it was widely discussed that integration was not necessarily a smooth process and becoming a periphery – the “East of the West” – within the EU was a real danger. The idea of second-class EU membership characterized primarily Euro-skeptic, nationalist discourse. However, speculation took place on a more scientific level as well: Since no earlier EU enlargements resembled the one of the CEE countries, the results could not fully be anticipated. It could not be eliminated that new states would become less powerful, unequal members within the Union. (Balázs 2001)

Related to the status of the new countries within the EU, the issue of European identity was explored. In the literature, at least two major problems regarding the solidity of European identity are specified; the revival of nationalism (Viehoff) and the domination of economic needs over all other needs (Habermas). Authors from the accession countries added a third type of issue as a potential new challenge to European identity; feeling excluded from the European community, from the core or center despite the common cultural roots. This, it was thought, would generate discontent and endanger the process of strengthening of the European identity. (Bayer 2001)
An additional sign of putting more emphasis on the East-West division in the period of the integration process was the tendency to identify Europe with modernity. Some authors argued that the concept of Central-Europe as it was used in the 1980s – in essence a cultural criticism of Euro-centrism - had been overridden by turning European integration into a symbol of the possibility for making up for Hungary’s interrupted modernization. (Rostoványi 2000) Hungary had been cut off from Western European development until 1989-1990 and with the collapse of the communist regime the previous isolation had come to an end and the country could start catching up. In the mid-1990s it was believed that European integration would automatically modernize the country. (Balázs 2001)

Some critical views were formulated regarding the normative approach to integration and automatic modernization. Integration was instead perceived as an opportunity for Hungary to modernize by critically reviewing the country’s earlier failures of modernization. According to some authors, modernization projects in Hungary had only been successful when they took place in a wider international framework and did not collide with national identity. In other words, in moments when the outer world was more inclusive and the inner world more open. Intellectuals were still undecided as to whether the pre-accession period could be perceived as such a moment. (Balázs 2001)

Visions about Europeanism included the opportunity to overcome and resolve the various dimensions of the "minority question" as well.
Euro-Atlantic integration8 was the only reasonable step for remedying the issue of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries.” (Balázs 2001)
The problems related to ethnic and national minorities had been crucial elements of the modernization blueprints of Hungary. Jászi’s confederation concept and later the disastrous revisionist ideas all took account of the national minority issue. European integration was seen as a new geo-political arrangement that would put an end to the dilemma of how to guarantee protection of minority rights in countries where ethnic Hungarian populations lived. It was envisioned that once frontiers disappeared, interaction between kin states and minority populations would become natural, and, the EU would serve as a legal framework for collective rights protection.
An important concern for political thinkers regarding the integration/modernization process was the persistent presence of destructive nationalism. As early as the end of the 19th century, ethnic nationalism was reproached by intellectuals. The lack of a self-conscious layer of citoyens as being a prerequisite for successful modernization had already been stressed by Jászi at the beginning of the 20th century. Similar anxieties were now expressed which pointed to the lack of a strong middle class, a “bourgeoisie”. The negative legacy of this development was, for example, that no real ‘société civile’ ever came into existence without which, according to many authors, Hungary could not become a real European country. (Lendvai 2001) The lack of a middle class also was approached from the perspectives of social inequalities, claiming that:

As long as integration is taking place while social inequalities are growing, we are getting further away from Europe”. (Fehér 1999)

Some authors explored the intricate link between nationalism and social inequalities in the context of European identity. Most surveys reveal that national identities are stronger in Central Eastern European countries than in Western Europe and that more "average" people in the West than in the East claim to have European identity. Besides the different historical developments, the results are also explained by highlighting the idea that Europe favors the ‘winners’. This, it was thought, could have a negative consequence for Hungary, a country without a strong middle class and with lots of potential losers, namely that a significant part of the population would turn away from Europe and hang on to their exclusive nationalist ideologies. (Rostoványi 2000).


  1. Philosophers

In the philosophical discourse the dominant theme was the changing nature of Europeanism. The debate, most of all, reflected on the normative concept of identifying European integration with modernization.


Europe itself is not what we think it is. Our modernization becomes an illusion because the Europe we want to adopt, to join and catch up with, does not exist any more. Europe has been kidnapped again.” (Vajda 1999)
The argument drew on Kundera’s essay – “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (Kundera 1984) – claiming that the real tragedy for the region was not Russia, but Europe in the sense that:
behind the iron curtain they did not know that times were changing and that in Europe, Europe was not a value any more”. (Kundera 1984)

Europe and the meanings of Europe had changed and Central Europeans, while aspiring to be part of it, did not understand its new messages. Philosophers, thus, formulated their dilemmas on the ‘new Europeanism’ from various perspectives. A cultural pessimist's approach claimed that Europe was a “highbrow and sophisticated idea” representing dignity, virtue etc. However, these European values had been fading as they gave way to globalization, Americanization and uniformity. (Karikó 2001) Another reflection also examined European values, namely toleration – “Europe is toleration” (Vajda 1999) – and explored what was becoming of this value. Europe had been claiming to be multicultural and had chosen to turn its back on fundamentalisms. This, however, raised questions about whether or not Europe was losing its cultural identity because one of its most essential values, toleration, was being transformed. (Vajda 1999)

According to a less negative scenario, Europe is the amalgam and sum of all histories told about Europe by Europeans. It has lots of (hi)stories and Europe became Europe not because it is the oldest continent but because of its stories. Following the story of the fall after the Second World War when everything that had constituted Europe was questioned (technological development, democracy, rationality, modernization, etc.), Europe ‘invented’ relativism and it has become the new, dominant European story: European culture is only one among all cultures. This view still is not sure what European story is being told now, and what will be the story that could create new myths and common identity. (Heller 1999)




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