Some claimed it was the end of history; others that it was history with a happy ending. Ultimately, though, not much remains of the happy ending, and history continues to march on. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition of the Eastern Bloc from socialist to market economies, and the consequences of the 2004 enlargement of the European Union show that late modernity has been extremely unpredictable. It might have been expected that the revolutionary changes which took place in Central Europe in 1989 would also refashion its inhabitants’ collective emotions. In fact, just the opposite has been true. The dreams and nightmares which shape the collective identity of Central Europe still oscillate around the same two poles: a fascination with and a fear of the West. Although the forms and functions of these emotions have morphed, their intensity and the tension between them have remained unchanged − for nearly two hundred years.
In just two years, industrial production in East Germany fell by one third, and the unemployment rate exceeded 10% in 1991, 15% in 1994, and 20% in 2003. Apart from war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, no other former Eastern European Bloc country experienced such a dramatic economic crisis as did East Germany.
Paradoxically, Central Europe’s fascination and fear towards the West both have their origins in the asymmetry between the dominant Western culture with its claims to universality, and the rest of the world. Clearly, Central Europe is only one of many regions in the global constellation of differences between the centre and the peripheries. However, due to its geographic and cultural proximity to the West, the two basic markers of this relationship − namely underdevelopment and dependency − are much more intense here than anywhere else in the world.
A fascination with the West
The point of departure for Central European fascination with the West is a contrast between underdevelopment (here) and modernity (there). Over time, imagined civilizational and cultural differences mingled with real ones, and the line between reality and imagination has often been blurred. There seems to be only one exception to that Central European rule: the Czechs, whose collective identity does not rely on claiming they belonging to the West, but on cultivating it.
This fascination with the West has manifested itself across Central Europe in a variety of ways. There were those who could and those who had to leave for Berlin, Vienna or Paris. Those who wanted or had to stay assumed a Western lifestyle more or less deliberately by choosing the right books to read, the right dishes to eat, and the right clothes to wear. Still, the most spectacular symptom of Central Europe’s gravitation towards the West was the development of its cities. In nineteenth-century Warsaw and Bucharest, there were ambitions to be Paris, and in Krakow and Lviv, ambitions to be Vienna. Their legacies still define their landscapes today.
At the turn of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, the Central European notion of the West expanded and became polarized. First, London appeared on Central Europeans’ mental map of the West, and with it Anglophilia, fueled by an admiration for British democracy. Next came the United States, commonly referred to as “America.” With time, the U.S. grew into the global symbol of technological progress and innovation as well as the main creator of popular culture even whilst militant anti-Americanism was rampant in the Eastern Bloc.
After several decades of forced Sovietization, Central Europe’s post-1989 turn towards the West was as rooted in history as it was compulsive and rushed. Post-socialist Europe’s leap into the deep end of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization resulted not only from a longing for all things Western, i.e. modern, colorful and diverse, but was also a consequence of the global hegemony of neoliberalism and the persuasive power of Western experts. For these reasons, Central European reformers looked towards the future optimistically. Most of them were convinced that catching up to the West was just a matter of time.
In each country, putting neoliberal theory into practice was conducted at different speeds and to various extents. Poland quickly became the West’s golden child. Leszek Balcerowicz’s reform program was launched as early as the autumn of 1989. It was comprised of a radical reduction in grants and subsidies, swift privatization of state companies, price liberalization, and opening markets to foreign products. After a brief adjustment period, the move was supposed to restore the Polish economy’s balance, which had been lost due to central planning and the nationalization of property. However, the social and economic costs of Balcerowicz’s shock therapy turned out to be much higher than he had expected. By early 1990, inflation had exceeded 1000%; by 1991, industrial production had dropped by one third; and by 1992, the unemployment rate had climbed to over 16%. The fact that Czechoslovakia and Hungary did not suffer as many problems as Poland at the time was caused not only by a better macroeconomic situation in these countries, but also by a gentler course of reform. On the other hand, Lithuania’s and Ukraine’s economic transition was worse than Poland’s largely due to their deep economic ties to the Russian economy, which itself was sliding into an ever-greater crisis.
Thus, the shock therapy that Poland experienced was most similar to the socio-economic transformation of East Germany. Although neoliberal rhetoric was much less popular in Berlin and Bonn than it was in Warsaw, the reshaping of the East German economy was based on even more radical assumptions than Balcerowicz’s Plan. In mid-1990, the West German Mark became the only legal tender in East Germany. The exchange rate of almost all monetary benefits was established at 1:1. Whilst this strategy unquestionably allowed East Germany to avoid social disaster, at the same time it left East German industrial plants no chance to compete against Polish and Czechoslovakian products price-wise, nor against the quality of products from West Germany. The Treuhandanstalt, the trust agency which was supposed to protect East German employers from bankruptcy, proved to be their undertaker. By the end of 1992, almost 60% of East German companies became privatized, over 30% were liquidated, and instead of profits from privatization, the Treuhandanstalt created enormous debts. In just two years, industrial production in East Germany fell by one third, and the unemployment rate exceeded 10% in 1991, 15% in 1994, and 20% in 2003. Apart from war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, no other former Eastern European Bloc country experienced such a dramatic economic crisis as did East Germany.
Social protection and welfare benefits, which were also unparalleled in any other post-socialist country, did not manage to prevent the awakening of anti-Western sentiment in the so-called new federal states (die neuen Bundesländer). Even today, the sense of being exploited and abandoned is still felt, as is Ostalgie: the longing for the GDR.
By criticizing the course of the post-1989 transformation and the indiscriminate adoption of Western solutions, Central European populists are reviving a decades-old complaint against imitation. One of its many versions was described in the late nineteenth century by Titu Maiorescu, long before dependency theory and post-colonial criticism were first forwarded.
How is it that the strongest anti-Western sentiment was born precisely in the post-socialist society which was the nearest to Western Europe in terms of geography, language and culture? This riddle is only partially solved by the scale of the economic and symbolic deprivation caused by the GDR’s accession to the FRG, popularly known as German reunification. What is equally important is that both the architects and the builders of East German reform had come from West Germany, whereas the socio-economic transformation in other post-socialist countries was endorsed by local politicians. Moreover, no other post-socialist society saw such a great discrepancy between expectation and experience. Helmut Kohl’s famous 1990 promise that collective efforts in just a few years would transform the new federal states into “blooming landscapes” turned out to be little more than a pipe dream. No less important than these German-on-German frames of transformation, though often overlooked, was the role of European integration. While East Germany entered the European Community automatically and thus inconspicuously as a sort of appendix to one of the founding members, all other post-socialist countries aspiring to join the European Union had to undergo a long and grueling preparation process, which defined the horizon of collective dreams for the next dozen or so years and strengthened pro-Western sympathies there.
Hope for EU membership focused the collective attention on the near future, or at least a future that was thought to be near. So much energy and emotion was concentrated around this hope in the 1990s that few Central Europeans were interested in analyzing the recent past at that time. It was only later that the lack of alternative for the direction and pace of systemic transformation became the subject of critical reflection. Yet, rather than based on the social and economic costs of introducing neoliberal reform, this reflection was instead sparked by a crisis of liberal politics with populist politicians like Orbán and Kaczyński rising to power.
By criticizing the course of the post-1989 transformation and the indiscriminate adoption of Western solutions, Central European populists are reviving a decades-old complaint against imitation. One of its many versions was described in the late nineteenth century by Titu Maiorescu, long before dependency theory and post-colonial criticism were first forwarded. In 1868, the Romanian politician and literary critic wrote:
Before we had any village teachers, we created village schools […]. Before we had even a shade of original scientific activity, we created the Romanian Academic Society […] [B]efore we had a single valuable play, we founded the National Theatre, and we devalued and falsified all these forms of culture […]. Apparently, […] the Romanians have now almost all of Western civilization. We have politics and science, journals and academies, […] theatres, and we even have a constitution. But in reality, all these are dead productions, pretensions without a foundation, […] illusions without a grain of truth.
However, whereas Maiorescu and generations of authors who shared his criticism of local imitations were still advocates of modernization and held pro-Western views, Orbán and Kaczyński are combating imitation in the name of local values supposedly threatened by the West.
A fear of the West
The latter example clearly shows how the fascination with the West resonates through anti-Western sentiment. This coupling is by no means a new phenomenon. In his analysis of Poland’s ambiguous attitude towards the West during the nineteenth-century, Jerzy Jedlicki wrote: “The Europeanization of dress, customs, education, and politics engulfed all and sundry, and the more headway it made, the more the disappearance of national features was bemoaned.” However, anti-Western rhetoric is not only fueled by the simple mechanism of action−reaction. It also draws from the other marker of the Central European condition besides underdevelopment: i.e. dependency. The Central European fear of the West feeds on a long history of Central Europeans’ physical and symbolic dependence on their more powerful neighbors. And even if the dominance did not always come from the West, it was surprisingly easy to interpret the Eastern neighbors’ aggressive policies as a result of Western ignorance, ingratitude, lack of solidarity, or to put it more pathetically: Western betrayal.
Anti-Western rhetoric in post-socialist Europe can certainly be considered as a display of post-accession hooliganism. Still, it is difficult not to notice that it also reflects the peripheries’ struggles with modernity.
The motif of suffering and maltreatment was reiterated in countless local variations. While looking for its causes, the Hungarian historian István Bibó wrote about “the misery of small states”. His poignant essay was written in the direct aftermath of World War Two, which undoubtedly impacted Bibó’s view. Still, he traced the origins of Central European “misery” back to a decidedly more distant past. Unlike in Western Europe, whose state borders largely corresponded with the borders between nations, the modern history of Central Europe was shaped by discrepancies between national and state borders. According to Bibó, this resulted in “political hysteria” and an “existential anxiety for the community.”
Central European fears of the West were expressed in both specific and common emotions. The former amounts to a sum of ethno-national fears of the (Western) neighbors: Poles and Czechs felt threatened by Germans, Slovaks felt threatened by Czechs and Hungarians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians felt threatened by Poles. In these anxiety-driven narratives, the West was a moving line rather than a fixed location. The only pre-modern exception to that ethno-national rule was the ideology of Sarmatism, created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Polish nobility in proud opposition to the West.
A shared Central European fear of the West, beyond ethno-national cleavages and conflicts, appeared as late as the nineteenth century. Its emergence was the outcome of two processes. Initially, the dark legend of the West was written with an apprehension towards the sweeping adoption of the Western lifestyle. Many inhabitants of the region saw this development as a threat to their identity. Another wave of anti-Western rhetoric accompanied industrialization and urbanization, which appeared to many as a threat to local traditions. Still, various anti-Western campaigns were met with little enthusiasm. The glorification of local identities and traditions could neither stop, nor even slow the progress of westernization.
After World War Two, anti-Western sentiment in Central Europe entered a radically new stage: the fear of the West became instrumentalized for ideological reasons. Depicted as the embodiment of fascism, capitalism, and imperialism, the West became the greatest threat to the socialist project and the Eastern Bloc’s number one enemy. Although the power of anti-Western rhetoric decreased after the 1956 Thaw when ideological strictures were eased, it was only the relaxation of Cold War tensions in the 1970s which brought about a substantial change of the master narrative. Against the backdrop of the next decade’s economic crisis and the introduction of market mechanisms to some countries of the Eastern Bloc, the ritual repetition of anti-Western slogans were starting to seem grotesque, to say the least.
The failure of anti-Western propaganda prior to 1989 was best evidenced by scant resistance towards the ideas and innovations which poured in from the West after 1989. Initially, anti-Western views were limited to the realm of values. At the margins of the dominant push for European integration, many conservative observers feared that galloping westernization would lead to the fall of the family and marriage, accelerate secularization, and spawn cultural relativism. It was only after some time that the old fear of the West started to reawaken, this time with bureaucratic Brussels, supposedly controlled by Paris and Berlin, becoming its new symbol.
The perception of Franco-German cooperation as a threat arose from two conventional wisdoms about the functioning of European politics. First, nothing happens in the EU that runs counter to French and German interests, and nothing happens without their agreement. Second, a common Franco-German stance might not be sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for moving the EU forward. Clearly, these beliefs simplify the dynamics of power relations in the successive incarnations of the EU and overlook how much the real impact of France and Germany on the course of the European integration has changed over time and across policy areas. Nevertheless, in the eyes of its critics, the Franco-German leadership of the EU appears as an intentional, independent, and unchanging state of affairs.
In countries which joined the European Union in 2004, concerns over the strong position of France and Germany play into the mindset of Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike. The former would like to see their country outside the EU, while the latter are supporters of integration, although many call for the structural reforms. The division between Euroscepticism and Europhilia largely corresponds with the divide between the conservative and liberal positions, albeit with the caveat that the range of meaning in these two ideologies are much less stable in post-socialist Europe than in countries with a longer democratic pedigree.
Some claimed it was the end of history; others that it was history with a happy ending. Ultimately, though, not much remains of the happy ending, and history continues to march on.
Sharing anxieties about the Franco-German leadership does not, however, mean drawing the same conclusions from it. According to post-socialist Eurosceptics, close Franco-German cooperation is a threat to the sovereignty of their states. Meanwhile, post-socialist Europhiles believe that the Franco-German tandem embodies the specter of a two-speed Europe, deepens the democratic deficit in the EU, and endangers the future of the European project as a whole. Although divergences between France and Germany are tracked by both Eurosceptics and Europhiles, their goals differ. Whereas Europhiles diagnose the decline of the Franco-German partnership and advance their own ideas about how to establish new power relations between the so-called old and new Europe, Eurosceptics interpret the prospects of the Franco-German “condominium,” “directory,” or “duumvirate” through various historical parallels and conspiracy theories.
The positions of post-socialist Eurosceptics and Europhiles, however, are not just a distant echo of old disputes among Central European supporters of conservative and progressive political projects. Statements from Eurosceptics resound with the old fear of German expansion towards the East (Drang nach Osten) and references to the recent dependency of Central Europe on the Soviet Union. Indeed, the widespread tendency to treat Brussels as the new Moscow reveals how strongly the political imagination of post-socialist Europe is rooted in its socialist experiences. 
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Drifting between fascination and fear of the West has serious consequences for the political identity and the sense of agency felt by the inhabitants of Central Europe. Being “for” or “against” the West seems to drain so much energy that not much is left in the tank for taking matters into one’s own hands among those who aim to become closer with the West and their opponents. This inertia keeps adding new points to a long list of squandered opportunities to reconfigure the two fundamental markers of the Central European condition: underdevelopment and dependency.
One example of lost opportunities for rendering the fear of the West productive is a series of attempts at creating political projects which could be alternatives or at least supplements to an ever-closer European (and Atlantic) cooperation. Such failures include the Central European Initiative (1989), the Visegrád Group (1991), the Council of the Baltic Sea States (1992) and – by all indications – also The Three Seas Initiative (2016). It remains to be seen whether the Lublin Triangle (2020) will follow in the footsteps of the Weimar Triangle (1991).
Poles and Czechs felt threatened by Germans, Slovaks felt threatened by Czechs and Hungarians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians felt threatened by Poles. In these anxiety-driven narratives, the West was a moving line rather than a fixed location. The only pre-modern exception to that ethno-national rule was the ideology of Sarmatism, created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Polish nobility in proud opposition to the West.
The journey of post-socialist countries to EU membership provides an example of the failure to transform the fascination with the West into concrete changes. When adjusting their laws to the acquis communautaire, candidate states adopted a series of procedural acts and moved from negotiation stage to negotiation stage in an atmosphere of competition with other post-socialist countries. Regrettably, these powerful legal changes did not translate into a public debate on the political and economic consequences of the Copenhagen criteria which all candidates promised to meet. As a result, they failed to take advantage of the pre-accession enthusiasm as an impulse for collective reflection on how the post-socialist political community could and should be organized.
A look back at the expansion of European Union through the membership of ten post-socialist countries in 2004 is not favorable to them either. So far, neither post-socialist Europhiles nor Eurosceptics have been able to suggest concrete solutions which would impact the future of European integration or at least become the subject of a serious debate.
Up to this point, the processes set in motion by the Union’s new members have run independently of their political will and power. A prime example of this mechanism are the unintended consequences of labor migration from the so-called new Europe to the old, which were witnessed in 2004−2008. At the time, when Great Britain (and Ireland) gained several hundred thousand new residents, and the unemployment rate in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic countries rapidly fell, there was nothing to suggest that the mass presence of Central European migrants would prove to be one of the stones that started the Brexit avalanche. In addition, the result of the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 introduced new words to the public debate raging in the new member states: Polexit, Hungexit and Czexit. Suddenly, there is an alternative – for some a more than viable one – to the presence of Central Europe in the European Union, which has until only very recently been taken for granted.
Anti-Western rhetoric in post-socialist Europe can certainly be considered as a display of post-accession hooliganism. Still, it is difficult not to notice that it also reflects the peripheries’ struggles with modernity. This might mean that the pendulum of Central European identity can keep swinging between fascination and fear of the West.
The text first appeared in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Die Sonne Does Not Shine The Same As Słońce at TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art, Szczecin, Poland.
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 For the Polish case: Filip Adwent, Dlaczego Unia Europejska jest zgubą dla Polski, Komorów: Antyk Marcin Dybowski, 2003; Czesław Stanisław Bartnik, Czyżby to już “post-Polska”?, Lublin: Polihymnia, 2009; Dariusz Hybel, Unia Europejska w drodze do totalitarnego superpaństwa, Komorów: Fundacja Pomocy Antyk, 2003.
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 Jiří Přibáň, Legal Symbolism: On Law, Time and European Identity, Aldershot et al.: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 93−113; idem: “From ‘Which Rule of Law?’ to ‘The Rule of Which Law?’ Post-Communist Experiences of European Legal Integration”, in: Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 1(2), 2009, pp 337−358.
 See Maria Bucur, Brexit: A Tipping Point towards New Tribalism, in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28: pp. 65–68; Adam Hudek, “The United Kingdom and Central Europe: A Dream of an Alternative,” in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28, pp. 61–64; Maciej Janowski, “Steampunk Nationalism,” in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28, pp. 53–56; Michal Kopeček: “Sovereignty, ‘Return to Europe’ and Democratic Distrust in the East after 1989 in the Light of Brexit,” in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28, pp. 73–76; Ferenc Laczó, Mate Rigo, “New Versailles or a Velvet Revolution? Brexit and the Exits of Central and Eastern European History, 1916–2016,” in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28, pp. 57–60; Vladimir Tismaneanu, “What Went Wrong and Why? Nationalism versus Democracy in Eastern and Western Europe,” in: Contemporary European History, 2019, 28, pp. 69–72.
 Venelin Ganev, “Post-Accession Hooliganism: Democratic Governance in Bulgaria and Romania after 2007,” in: East European Politics & Societies 27(1) 2012, pp. 26−44.
|Exhibition||Die Sonne Does Not Shine The Same As Słońce|
|Place / venue||TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art, Szczecin, Poland|
|Dates||15 October – 29 November 2020|
|Curated by||Jakub Gawkowski|
|Exhibition design||Karolina Babińska|
|Index||Kornelia Kończal TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art in Szczecin|