27 March 2017, Monday, 23:33

Half a Europe Away

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A special report for New Eastern Europe on German youth attitudes toward Eastern Europe by Europe & Me editor Mathew Shearman.

All along the horizon, Europe is changing in ever more manic fluctuations. Economists are fixated on the southern states, watching the crumbling fringes of the Eurozone in Greece; or looking for fresh signs of the breakup of the euro in Spain and Portugal. Young Germans have begun dealing with the realisation that Germany has returned to the focal point, and will be the largest European stakeholder for the foreseeable future. And looking East, to other states as young as themselves, young Germans are also trying to comprehend how the newer European states will influence the ever-changing dynamics of the European Union.

When Radosław Sikorski, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke in Berlin last November, he provocatively stated that he feared “German power less than German inactivity”. In doing so, he inverted the normal response to the perpetual “German question” of whether Germany remains an economic and political power. This radical departure from traditional Eastern European narratives was received with muted applause, followed by a continuing self-reflection on how the influences in European politics are changing.

Coming at a time where Germany and its young generation, in particular, are searching for a clear direction in Europe, Sikorski's belligerency over German engagement in Europe was not wholeheartedly welcomed. Even the younger generation, whose view of the future is traditionally optimistic, did not show much euphoria after hearing the Polish minister’s speech, despite the fact that some among them are of the opinion that the current changes will most likely help many countries take on new roles and eventually depart from the burden of 20th-century stereotypes. Such belief is held by 23-year-old Rike, a law student at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Rike remains positive that Sikorski’s words signalled the end of the “postwar constellations” in Europe. Rather than shirking from a responsible role in Europe, she thought that the changes coming would help the European states find new roles for the future and escape the clichés of the 20th century.

Talking to a variety of young Germans it isn't difficult to notice that their thoughts on Germany and Eastern Europe are still linked, although perhaps no longer directly, but more in the way they framed their responses to the events of the 20th century. Rike admitted that she thought the German people were “not at all comfortable” with the new role and responsibilities that economic strength and expectation were placing on them.

In recent years the old East-West distinction has fallen out of use among many European analysts. The current lexicon of carving the continent up through the contrast of strong vigorous economies in the north, and weaker economies in the south, however, only goes so far in explaining the interaction between European states. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2012, Sikorski suggested that Poland should cooperate with Germany in working towards “European solutions”. Young Germans echoed the idea, suggesting that the Europe of the future should be contrasted to its past.

And the question is…

Where is Eastern Europe? To the more poetic of the German youth, the further you travel east, the more “Europe begins to peel off, to crumble, to wilt”. For 25-year-old Christian, from Rotweil in South Germany, this is not something to be lamented. He describes Eastern Europe as a place that is familiar but “blossoming” with its own character. Where some see destitute communist buildings, he describes the unifying “reddish, frail roofs standing as they did before two wars tore West and East asunder”, ripping Germany and Poland apart. Even the 1960s communist slab buildings take on a different meaning. In eastern Germany they stand as a charming, but sinister reminder of the dreary past. In Ukraine, however, where he lived with a family in the rural countryside, they were, he said, “at the centre of the overgrown idylls”.

But far from this idyllic image of Eastern Europe, the fraying edges of Europe also suggest the dissolution of European ideas and a divide between the supposedly unified groups. Julia (25) suggests, you “cannot realistically say that these countries are perfectly integrated” into Europe. This “experiment” as Julia describes it, challenged the integration process by adopting states still in transition from the Soviet system. The rapid process of integration did not simply dissolve the differences between East and West, but rather unified them in an uneasy marriage of unfilled expectations.

Defining Eastern Europe is illusive though, even more so amongst those German students who take an active interest in the region. Janosch (25), who took a course wholly dedicated to the question of  “What is Europe?” at Maastricht University, described the central problem as being one in which too many considerations play into the broad term “Eastern Europe”. Although it is clear to young Germans that Eastern Europe began geographically where Germany ends, no specific area or simple post-Soviet historical narrative adequately encompasses the nature of the region.

Many described their understanding in terms of their European values as a way of approximating and ordering their thoughts. At any given time they can decide to include and exclude the Baltics, Russia, and the self-identified “central Europeans”, on the same grounds that others eliminate them. Whilst geography brings their European status into the question, it is second to their perception of European values and how the eastern countries gravitate towards these expectations. The geographic location of Lithuania in the centre of Europe is held with pride over any political or cultural similarities to their much closer neighbours. Having ascended to the European Union in 2004, their proximity to Belarus, “the last dictatorship in Europe”, is de-emphasised, despite the fact that the country lies further from Brussels and Berlin than it does to Minsk.

Chernobyl, prostitutes and car thieves

The politically nuanced images of the Eastern member states sharpens into firm distinctions when talking to my respondents about what is beyond the EU's official borders. And while Janosch gives Belarus the label of “a dictatorship that tortures political prisoners”, and Christian admits that he  has “not been far enough East to find out” where Europe ends, most respondents intuitively feel that Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova represent fundamentally different cases than the EU member states.

Beyond the obvious, with Belarus currently under EU sanctions, the opinions of these young Germans have been shaped both by the exposure and the degree to which these states have been integrated into core European debates. The best example here is Ukraine. Those who talked about Ukraine focused primarily on the ongoing Tymoshenko case as being archetypal of Ukrainian politics. Felix, a law student in Berlin, was certainly open to the idea that Ukraine might one day join the EU, but he emphasised that it would have to become “more just” to align with European norms. Certainly, these liberal expectations form the basis of European accession and the views usually expressed showed the interlocutors' lack of in-depth knowledge they felt they had on Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Few had travelled to these countries, and one young German, holding a Master of Science in international relations even admitted not having read anything on Belarus!

Christian reflected on the level of genuine knowledge among young Germans and suggested that when it comes to the example of Ukraine, the “national specificity seems equal to zero”. He felt that instead of reflecting the true picture, the case of Ukraine has become a catch-all for their expectations of post-Soviet democracy. Despite his own experiences to the contrary, Christian had also heard his peers talk of “Chernobyl, cheap prostitutes and car thieves” as Ukraine's three main characteristics.

Not really a Cote d’Azur

Building Germany's new role in Europe will as much depend on how they deal with what lies to their East, as how they handle the immediate problems in the South, and anti-EU sentiment in the West. This group of young, educated Germans seem keen to continue engagement, just as recent EU presidencies, such as the highly successful Polish Presidency at the end of 2011, demonstrated the East's willingness to contribute to the European project. Janosch already believes that the relationship with Poland is “excellent and getting better” and is much more sincere than a simple Geschichtsaufarbeitung (coming to terms with the past). It is this partnership that will prove decisive to the future and bring in a new era of understanding.

The wider understanding of Eastern Europe, however, will have to change. Christian, the most engaged with Eastern Europe, finished by describing the love he has for it “bears more sadness and anxiety, even apathy, than if you simply state ‘I love the Cote d’Azur because everyone loves Cote d’Azur.’” It could be that in this lingering sadness, the shadowy history that both Germans and Eastern Europeans coalesce over, creating expectations of both, still needs to be overcome.

For Eastern Europeans aiming to build a European democracy, it is as much a challenge against western expectations as against genuine undemocratic traits. All too often, development in the East is seen as a dialectical process from a Soviet state to a modern European system. This is because this particular ordering of events constitutes a western attempt at understanding the region in a new light. Reflecting on this, Julia mentioned that Germans and the West tend to forget that Eastern European history did not begin in the 20th century. Travelling through the Baltics, she says, “taught me how different these countries really are when it comes to mentality, culture and history.”  Aiming for a process of liberalisation in the spheres of politics, the economy and the media, these countries cannot be expected to develop on the same terms as the original EU members. Instead, it will occur in a unique negotiation between their unique historical experience of empire, oppression and revolution; domestic political forces; and European aspirations. The young Germans here seem to be on the fringes of realising that.

Mathew Shearman, New Eastern Europe