When East Becomes West

The Heart of Europe
The Heart of Europe

Are we witnessing a gradual westward cultural shift in Europe? Are we facing a post-modern crisis where identities increasingly overlap and blur? Is the definition of Western Europe the same now as it was in 1945?

Mitteleuropa Revisited
An even trickier question is what (or where) is Central Europe? The geographical centre of Europe (not the European Union) is laid claim to by at least five towns, all of which lie in what is conventionally not thought of as Western Europe, but rather Eastern Europe. These towns are: Purnuškės, Lithuania; Polotsk, Belarus; Suchowola, Poland; Rakhiv, Ukraine; and Krahule, Slovakia. Interestingly, these places form an area partly overlapping Poland’s semi-mythical Kresy (more info here). If this is the case then our definitions of Central Europe need to be redefined. Central Europe is Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, and perhaps also Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. To the west of this area, Western Europe begins: Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. However, as we are all aware, calling Serbia a part of Western Europe is odd. There is more to west and east than points on a compass.

Neither East Nor West
Neither East Nor West

Europe Redefined
The chief problem with defining what is central, east and west is our notions of these terms and the connotations they all carry. Most people think of Western Europe as the UK, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain and Italy. But what about Greece? What of Finland? Most of the territory of Poland, all of the Czech Republic, and the afore-mentioned Serbia lie in Europe’s western half yet most Europeans would not call them ‘western’.

Culture Remade
Most recently, communism helped delimit Europe into two halves but with communism gone it can be argued that Europe has shifted west. Russians often claim Poles are westernised traitors to the Slav cause. Poles and Slovaks believe Czechs are no more than Germans speaking a Slavonic language. Perspective is key to our interpretation of east and west. We cannot deny the fact that ‘western’ culture (whatever that means) has permeated the new EU states. Popular urban culture is something familiar to people both in Warsaw and Walsall; you can get a Starbucks in Bucharest and Buckingham, a Big Mac in Bratislava and Bradford and a Burger King Whopper in Burgas and Burnley. The so-called ‘eastern’ countries have increasingly more in common with the ‘western’ ones to such an extent that any discussion of Eastern and Western Europe is little more than academic. So where is this mythical West?


14 thoughts on “When East Becomes West

  1. … so what ?
    Als ich ein Kind war… (when I was a kid, reference to Wings of desire, Wim Wenders), Europe and the world were simple : either your country was western (meaning pro-american, and nothing else), or your country was eastern, meaning allied to USSR or your country could be non-aligned. Three categories fitted all… basic, efficient !
    When I became a student, my world slightly changed with a wave of Traban and lots of exotics cars, a not that old wall falling down, and bananas spreading over new borders (emotion and happiness, not for bananas and so on, but for freedom of move, of expression and nascent democracies) and very soon after that, war in former Yugoslavia… (horror and unability to understand any reason why such a violence)… beginning to understand what my grand parents were refering to when speaking of Europe…
    When I’m an adult… well, we now have more than three categories to fit all countries! (maybe a taste for shades ?) And as far as Europe is concerned, what does Western Europe mean ? uuhhh ! just dunno ! but shame on us if it’s just being grateful to have franchises to propose us products we can find all over the world (with enough money)!
    When I was younger, I thought that Western Europe was something made on a common idea that human beings shall be protected in their integrity of body and thought and soul, protected against arbitrary decisions of their government, shall be free to act according to their will (including economically, until this doesn’t attempt to others’ rights) and on a society made of solidarity, mutual respect and tolerance… based on : all of our history is not necessarily something we can be proud of, try a better future with keeping the best we experimented and try improving the rest… in a few words : never forget history, do your best and go ahead !
    Now, in my empty home, with my things on their way to Warsaw, I realize I just don’t know what Western Europe is today, and that I don’t mind ! This could be a terrible anxiety … but it isn’t, because the word was made for another world… which declined.
    Was the hidden question what should Europe be ?

  2. Wonderful, many thanks, Dinolaure! 🙂
    Was there a hidden question? Maybe, maybe not. 😉

    I love what you wrote. Things seemed so simple long ago. I suppose that explains why so many people would love a return to the ‘old ways’ of east and west, good and bad. Humans need dichotomies. My view is that we should find the dichotomies somewhere other than in Europe. But is that possible? Aren’t we doomed to always split things up, categorise…?

  3. … thanks for your commenting back ! (no available emoticon)
    Categories should remain what they are, a commodity to help understanding and not a definitive judgment !

  4. Stop flattery !
    Let’s say that to categorize efficiently, one need to simplify (sum up) things and that true understanding doesn’t come with only simplified information or criteria … categories are helpful but there’s a need to go further than categorization to understand what’s really at stake. Something to do with knowing real things more than labels…

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