A Chronicle of a Certain Superstition

Międzymorze. Podróże przez prawdziwą i wyobrażoną Europę Środkową Ziemowit Szczerek (The Intermarium: Travels Across Real and Imaginary Central Europe), Agora, Czarne 2017, pp. 343.

For almost one hundred years the concept of the Intermarium has been a synonym of political wishful thinking, ignoring both the political realities and the desires and interests of other nations of Central Europe. The voluntarism of this idea is particularly obvious to anyone who has taken the effort to understand the reasons for the historical misery of our part of the continent, and the fact that this area has never been subordinated to one political center. In the economic context, the Eastern European triangle defined by the shores of the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea since early Middle Ages was the space of trade exchange between the East and West Europe, while in the political context it was an arena of the battle of conflicting cultural influences – and this is what makes its culture so unique.

The “Intermarium” obfuscates the reality of Central or Eastern Europe. It rejects the achievements of those historians who in the 20th century precisely described the cultural uniqueness of the region.

In the case of Poland, it is so at least since the middle of the 13th century, when as a consequence of the Mongol invasions the lands of the Piast dynasty, previously lying away from the main trade routes, unfarmed, fragmented, and lagging behind more developed state structures in the West (the Roman Empire of the German Nation), the South (Bohemia, Hungary), and the East (Kievan Rus), suddenly became a peripheral country of Christian Europe, exposed to attacks of the Asian empire with the capital in Karakoram, or a “gateway to the East” (Henryk Samsonowicz). Or to the West, depending on your perspective.

A Conglomerate of Rival Nation-States

Thanks to the efforts of the Piast and Jagiellonian dynasties, one of the main political centers of the region emerged on the Vistula. After the Partitions, its fate was jointly decided by three powers ruled by the German dynasties. Conflicts between them were meant to be resolved at monarchical summits, such as the famous meeting of the three emperors in Skierniewice (1884), but ultimately their rival claims to the Balkans led to a global conflict and self-destruction. And thus, on the ruins of the three empires, Central Europe appeared, and contrary to the wishes of F. Naumann, author of the concept of Mitteleuropa (1915), it was no longer a space for cooperation of nations under the influence of the German Empire, but a conglomerate of rival nation-states with numerous minorities (up to one third of the population), trying to survive between Germany and Bolshevik Russia. The year 1939 produced a disaster the consequences of which were borne by the region for the next half-century. So from the historical perspective the European Union is a miracle. Yet even the EU, despite its cultural attractiveness and economic advantages, supported by the military and financial power of the USA, did not manage to embrace the whole “Intermarium” in the last quarter-century.

An Obfuscation of the Reality

I deliberately put this word in quotation marks. The “Intermarium” obfuscates the reality of Central or Eastern Europe. Plainly speaking, it rejects the achievements of those historians who in the 20th century precisely described the borders, origin, and cultural uniqueness of the region, as well as pointed to the reasons of its backwardness and defined the perspectives for its returning on the development path. Oskar Halecki and Marian Małowist, two prominent researchers of the phenomenon of the European East, although they represented diametrically opposed worldviews (Halecki was a Christian historiographer, while Małowist was a non-orthodox Marxist), were in agreement as to the existence of the “Third Europe” (J. Szűcs), that is, the area between the West and Russia. (In fact, Małowist rarely used the term Central Europe, preferring to describe it as Eastern Europe, but this resulted from the fact that his research focused mostly on the period from the 13th to the 17th century, an epoch when you can hardly speak about the state then forming around Moscow as being European.)

Central-Eastern Europe is in fact the first colony of the West, that is, an area bound with the center through a permanent and disadvantageous economic relation based on grain exports.

While Halecki described Central-Eastern Europe in civilizational terms, highlighting especially the religious and political criteria, Małowist was convinced that the reason behind the separate nature of Eastern Europe, including the former Commonwealth, did not lie in insufficient ties with the West, but in their particular nature, perpetuating in our region from the 16th century onward at the latest “a backward capitalism, called by some dependent capitalism” (Małowist). He differentiated three zones (the Baltic, Balkan, and Black Sea areas) of the region trading with the West and pointed at the slower pace of economic and social development there. This is how Henry Samsonowicz wrote about the work of his master:

“For the main line of his enquiries was the South-North divide [meridian 20] splitting Europe in two parts with unequal economic and social development. His vision showing the crisis of developed countries [Western Europe] in the 16th century and the process of overcoming it, also by way of economic exploitation of the countries in the centre and East of the continent, reflected the emergence of the global market on the basis of the division of labour between developed countries and peripheries.”

The First Colonies of the West

Tomasz Siewierski, the author of the recently published work Marian Małowist and the Circle of His Students: From the History of Economic Historiography in Poland, reminds us that it was the findings of Małowist which Immanuel Wallerstein invoked in the 1970s when he created the theory of the global system. Under this theory, Central-Eastern Europe is in fact the first colony of the West, that is, an area bound with the center through a permanent and disadvantageous (although profitable for local elites) economic relation based on grain exports (this also led the to the emergence of manor estates and involuntary labor, in the shape of indentured servitude and serfdom) as well as materials necessary for the construction of ocean fleets (timber, tar, hemp), which enabled the northern countries of Western Europe their later colonial expansion in Africa, both Americas, and Asia. It is worth quoting here a longer fragment of Małowist’s Great States of Western Sudan in the Late Middle Ages (1964), for it provides a good illustration of his scholarly intuitions:

“There are some analogies here to the situation of Eastern Europe, where in the same period, as I have repeatedly underlined, we also observed the phenomenon of economic colonisation, reinforcing old social structures and hampering further economic and social development, although obviously both Poland and Russia, and the neighbouring countries of the region, were at a much higher cultural level than Western Africa. It is tempting to define the 16th and 17th century not only as the epoch of rapid development in a few countries of North-Western Europe, but also as a period when slower development of huge areas of the world got bogged down, distorted and consequently reversed.”

Another analogy with the countries of the Intermarium comes into mind, for also here nationalist tendencies appeared in the period of decolonization, that is, breaking away from the dependence on Moscow.

Rejection of Western Values

Małowist wrote these words in the era of decolonization of Africa, which he supported, although he perceived “some excessive nationalist elements.” Another analogy with the countries of the Intermarium comes into mind, for also here nationalist tendencies appeared in the period of decolonization, that is, breaking away from the dependence on Moscow in the last quarter-century. The common feature of these tendencies is the view that the countries of the region are still colonies, but now of the West.

Szczerek roams the East, but the conclusion arising from his wanderings is the same: “Kudamm, not Arbat.”

Ziemowit Szczerek is a political scientist, a regular contributor to the New Eastern Europe quarterly, and a man who knows this whole Central-Eastern theory inside out; this is perhaps why he focused on field studies on the Central-Eastern madness. Almost everywhere during his travels across the Intermarium he encountered manifestations of the persistence or even “long duration” of a certain Central European superstition. This superstition wants Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and a dozen other nations portrayed by Szczerek to believe that since they undoubtedly are something separate from the West—the East, the Center, or at least the Intermarium—they should high light these differences with an intensity proportionate to how much they in fact resemble the West. An extreme example of this are the nationalists, whom Szczerek quite rightly compares to Islamists from Western Europe, of ten the offspring of immigrants in the second or third generation. Both these groups reject Western values, promote violence, glorify anti-Semitism and fascism. Both these groups are a by-product of the historical process which produced the peculiar, insecure, and resentful mentality of the “native” at the fringes of the capitalist center. But they are not the only ones.

“Kudamm, Not Arbat”

For it is hard to read Szczerek’s account of his travels across “real and imagined Central Europe” without the feeling of déjà vu. At least to a Bohemian scholar, for whom the audacious reports call to mind Jaroslav Hašek’s stories about his youthful outings on the rim of the Habsburg Empire. Hašek also went to Macedonia, he most probably was in Bulgaria, he certainly visited Hungary, eastern Galicia and Bukovina, he was in the Tatras and Zakopane, and in Kraków, where he made an “unfortunate attempt at crossing the border with Russia; he wanted to get to the Kingdom of Poland, but ended up in a Tsarist prison” ( J. Magnuszewski, Polskie tropy wędrówek Jaroslava Haška). On top of it he was a Slavophile; he identified Europe with Germanisation, militarism, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism, and he really believed in a revolution which was to arrive from the Asian steppes. Also today such Hašeks are legion, from the Baltic up to the Black Sea and the Adriatic – and they are the true protagonists of Szczerek’s lampooning book. But Szczerek himself is more remindful of Karel Čapek, whose letters from a journey to the countries of Western Europe were meant to convince his compatriots that, contrary to the drivel spread by Hašek and pro-communist intellectuals, Bohemia was part of the West (“Paris, not Moscow”).

It is possible that in a few years we will read The Intermarium as a prophetic book, a “chronicle of a death foretold” of the European East, of its marginalization or exclusion from the EU.

Szczerek roams the East, but the conclusion arising from his wanderings is the same: “Kudamm, not A rbat.” A nd because he did not have to wander per pedes like Hašek, he managed to repeatedly visit not only Germany (which is also part of Central Europe after all), A lbania, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey but also the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and even St Petersburg and Moscow, not obviously Central European. From the Polish perspective it is still an uncharted territor y where you meet your compatriots much less frequently than in the West (and when you do, you usually have met them before). The locals are divided into Occidentalists and Slavophiles. In other words, into bores, “ver y democratic and liberal […] like Michnik and Havel put together,” and paranoid nationalists like the Slovak neo-Nazi Kotleba.

A Prophetic Book?

Despite his distanced attitude towards the “bores,” Szczerek himself is of course an Occidentalist. I would even say a fanatical one, which manifests itself in a very emotional, expressive language. However, if you weed out the profanities (although it is rather a mission impossible), the author emerges as a beacon of liberal correctness or at least a sober analyst and an embodiment of common sense. Jerzy Giedroyc would certainly publish Szczerek’s texts in Kultura (like the editor of Polityka does). He would understand that the post-Soviet reality requires an adequate language, like in a brief description of Zaporozhye, which “was like one huge village. The main drag, Lenin Street, was like a dozen-kilometres-long fucking log dumped in the middle of a muddy steppe.”

This is a quote from an earlier book Mordor Will Come and Eat Us (2013). In this book Szczerek showed Ukraine as a country which we do not understand, we mistakenly take phantasmagoria for reality, we treat our inferiority complex there. And in fact the only possible thing to do for us in Ukraine is to help the local patriots in their drive towards Europe. Instead of that, and this is one of the things analyzed in The Intermarium, the Poles have quite unexpectedly joined the ranks of the crazies (Szczerek would write “crazy fuckers”) who recently have been trying to reverse the course of history, turned their backs towards the West and walk East, or—like in the case of the current government in Poland—delude themselves and the voters with the hope that you can be somewhere in between.

It is possible that in a few years we will read The Intermarium as a prophetic book, a “chronicle of a death foretold” of the European East, of its marginalization or exclusion from the EU. If Ziemowit Szczerek, in a sense continuing the liberal Central European discourse of Czesław Miłosz or Milan Kundera, is still regarded as an eccentric then, it will only prove that the political reality in Poland has really been stood on its head.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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