Prof. Piotr BIŁOS: The Renaissance of Central Europe

The Renaissance of Central Europe

Photo of Prof. Piotr BIŁOS

Prof. Piotr BIŁOS

Professor of literature, lecturer in literary theory, head of the Polish section, and co-responsible for the department of translation studies at INALCO in Paris. In 2006-2012 created the Polish section at the Lyon III Jean Moulin University. Author of books promoting the universalism of Polish literature.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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If it hadn’t been for sovietisation, the Three Seas Initiative would have been created several decades ago – writes prof. Piotr BIŁOS

The area, in spite of being extremely diversified, presents a lot of common features, which are also a consequence of modern history. This generates the potential for cooperation and creates a specific civilisation, which is, nevertheless, complementary to that of Western Europe. The Three Seas Initiative corresponds to the formerly dialogical culture of the borderland which was crushed by the expansion of the Russian and Soviet empires as well as the German Reich in the 19th and 20th centuries and was gradually replaced by peripherilization and uniformity. A Latvian writer Inga Žolude, born in Riga, speaks of the trauma which was left by the soviet period.

In Western Europe, a region eager to consider itself as the only true Europe, the real East-West divide also has an imaginary aspect. Western philosophers of the Enlightenment heavily criticised Central-Eastern Europe (this was referred to by Larry Wolff, inspired by the thesis of Edward Said and his Orientalism), and a good many inhabitants of the region have internalised such prejudices (which was noted by Norman Davies).

Nothing reinforces the sense of one’s own identity more than culture, but at the same time nothing else can cause so much division. The historic memory may, however, restore to the other the role of a partner. And a stereotype of one’s own identity according to the prejudice of others is often a tool of conquest, war and even mass extermination. Let’s remember that the philosophers referred to above worked for Catherine the Great and had their own interest in idealising her civilisation-modernization opus. Jean Jacques Rousseau was fairer when evaluating the Polish political system, like Robert Frost or Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski are today.

Already the gesture of description itself is partly an expression of the stiffening of a thing whose nature is dynamic. Between the coasts of the Adriatic, Black and Baltic Seas there were and are not only mountains and swamps but also communication routes i.e. rivers beyond the Rhine: the Elbe, the Weser, the Danube, the Vistula and the Daugava, which were once followed by merchants from the empire, the Vikings, the Arabs… The national communities of Central-Eastern Europe were created as a result of migration. The Hungarian nation, which has a 1200 year history, comprises people who came from the Pannonian Basin of the steppes and were then mixed with the Slavic population. The lands of Europe minor situated to the east of the borders of the German empire had already by the 12th century attracted German people who wished to improve their social status. The Polish Crown and later the Republic of Poland offered home to Jews running away from Western Europe as a result of persecution.

Even a cursory glance at this part of Europe precludes simple generalizations. Generally, it was a more poorly developed area in comparison to the countries of “the core of Europe”, originating from the Roman Empire and renewed by Charlemagne (its borders coincide twelve centuries later with the cradle of the European Union). Europa minor was created later which is not merely a defect. Initially, Carolingian Europe was far from rich and its production capacities were limited. It was outperformed by the Arabic and Byzantine cultures, and at that time, for the Islamic world, the main European export goods were actually slaves!

Western Europe also owes its success to the fact that it embraced the opportunity to achieve it. But Cracow, which thanks to its location broke with the alleys of the medieval city, shows that it was in the younger Europe where the dream of a perfect city came true. While it was becoming the main centre for exporting Latin culture to the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania, in Europe under the Jagiellonians, close relationships between Polish, Hungarian and Czech courts were enhanced. Generalization should be avoided to the benefit of either party. After a period of “convergence” with the West, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, opted for certain policies which slowed down the development of modern capitalism to the east of the Elbe River. In 1945, history would repeat itself. The Soviet occupation would deepen the backwardness of these economies with respect to the West.

The Three Seas Initiative excludes the imperial triumph of a hegemon – the interests of the region correspond with the interests of particular countries. Integration goes hand in hand with the protection of diversity. Once, “the national renaissance” of Slovenes and Croatians took inspiration from Polish slogans of freedom and fraternity which were brought by refugees (Władysław Ostrowski or Emil Korytko). Let’s remember that competition between various centres serves capitalism because when economic actors depend too much on one centre of power, this creates unfavourable conditions for its development.

Piotr Biłos

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