(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2015)
Crossing from Slovakia into Trans-Carpathian Ukraine a distinct culture comes into view. At the interchange of Çop trains from the West halt on account of different rail gauges used on the other side. Stalin ordered this to prevent ease of entry for invading armies, or escape. Crossing the frontier into the former Soviet Union might instil a little trepidation even into a seasoned traveller.
An illuminating mural in the cavernous train station depicts heroic scenes of triumphant Socialism. Trains that retain wooden benches recall another age. I knew I had left a rapidly converging Europe when the conductor smilingly declined payment after I presented too large a denomination.
I was among three other visitors to Ukraine arriving by train from Slovakia, although a border guard told me frequent car trips are made to avail of cheap petrol. The frustration of waiting on a windowless, stationary carriage – akin to a sardine tin – during a heatwave was offset by the friendliness of custom officials who simply checked for contraband medicines. No visa is required for EU visitors but the continued low level warfare in the far away east is deterring visitors despite a favourable Euro to Hryvnia exchange rate.
Borders are often a legacy of ancient battles or coincide with impassable mountain ranges or rivers that deterred conquest and absorption. A change in topography gives rise to socio-economic boundaries; shifts from upland, semi-nomadic pastoralism to settled arable land bringing larger settlements: different political regimes and ethnic compositions usually arise.
But twentieth century Europe brought more artificial borders imposed by distant remote peace treaties or later omnipotent Superpowers, and saw the decline of multi-ethnic empires. Thus Hungary was reduced from one part of a dual empire (the Austro-Hungarian) to a disgruntled rump that ruefully surveys its over two million ethnic brethren in neighbouring countries. The hated Treaty of Trianon after World War I was affirmed by that country’s alignment with Nazi Germany during World War II. Revanchist Hungary remains a potential source of instability.
There is no obvious difference in terrain between Trans-Carpathian Ukraine and eastern Slovakia, and the region contains a sizeable Hungarian minority. Yet as one travels into the surrounding countryside a different agriculture becomes apparent from the ubiquitous cash crop of maize on the Slovak side to traditional hay stacks in Ukraine gathered as of old with scythe and pitch fork. Since the twentieth century political frontiers have acted like natural boundaries accentuating patterns of development.
In Eastern Europe north of the Balkans, the legacy of Soviet victory in World War II remains largely intact. Apart from the amicable separation of Czech Republic from Slovakia in 1993 the frontiers are unchanged. The recent land grab by Russia of Crimea and incursion of irregular troops into Donetsk may herald a more turbulent phase in European history. Borders rarely shift without an accompanying tide of blood, even more perilous in an era of mutually assured destruction.
The most dramatic legacy of World War II was Poland’s westward shift, forcibly ceding significant territory to the Soviet Union in return for large swathes of eastern Germany. Millions of Poles were removed from their ancestral homes and re-located in the west. Among the territory lost was the historic city of Lviv, (Lvov to Poles) to Ukraine which contained an inter-war population two-thirds Polish. Lviv is now almost entirely Ukrainian although reminders of the Polish period include a statue to their national poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was actually born in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania.
Lvov was annexed by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire (and re-named Lemberg) in 1772, in the first Partition of Poland, becoming capital of Galicia which was the poorest province of the Empire. But this period left a remarkable architectural legacy that prompted UNESCO to designate the historic centre to be a part of “World Heritage”.
Today Lvov is relatively prosperous, drawing a large number of tourists from neighbouring Poland. Predictably the old city is fringed by a swathe of functionalist Soviet-era apartment blocks, but it retains an abundance of old world charm and the hum of cafés that spill onto carless streets. There are nonetheless signs of a country at war with offensive toilet roll featuring a picture of Vladimir Putin available in souvenir shops and stands erected by the Far Right Svoboda Party supporting the war effort.
I spoke to one women of student age who railed against a terrorist, separatist threat to the integrity of the state. She could have been mistaken for someone referring to the existential threat posed by ‘enemies of the people’ in Soviet times. The uncompromising language of extremism is unmistakable.
The demise of the archaic, multinational Hapsburg Empire after World War I might be seen as the death knell for so-called Mitteleuropa. Most successor states that emerged in the Versailles settlement were inspired by a nationalist vision promoting a single culture, and hostile to diversity within the confines of the state. In contrast during the imperial era cities at least were a mosaic of religious and linguistic groups.
The population of ethnically variegated Mitteleuropa was particularly unsuited to the identification of a nation with a single state that reached a violent apotheosis with the Nazi ideology of the master race. Transnational Jewry were the most obvious victims but anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis, continuing into the Cold War-era: as late as the 1960s thousands of Jews fled Poland in the wake of various purges.
Jews had flocked to Poland in great numbers at the end of the Middle Ages due to the tolerance shown there compared to the rest of Europe. It became known as paradisus Iudaeorum (paradise for the Jews) and contained two thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. Great centres of learning were establish in cities including Lvov and agrarian settlements known as shtetl that contained many layers of Jewish life dotted the countryside. There Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew script, found its highest expression.
The writings of Joseph Roth (1894-1939) recalls the extraordinary cultural diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Born a Jew in the city of Brody near Lviv in the province of Galicia, The Radetzky March is a paean to the fallibility of that Empire; his journalistic account of Eastern European Jewry The Wandering Jews remains a valuable insight into the remarkable diversity of the Jewish populace.
Roth despised passing through the numerous frontiers that impeded his passage erected in his lifetime, and that of many others, throughout Europe. He wrote ‘a human life nowadays hangs from a passport as it once used to hang by the fabled thread. The scissors once wielded by the Fates have come into the possession of consulates, embassies and plain clothes men’. The possession of a particular passport at that time was indeed a matter of life or death. A melancholic alcoholic, Roth committed suicide in Paris in 1939 just before the Europe he knew was consumed by the fires of hatred.
The Versailles settlement also created what now seems the curious state of Czechoslovakia, stretching almost a thousand miles from east to west, as a homeland for Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians (or Rusyns as they were then known), but also containing large and disgruntled German and Hungarian minorities. In the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938 which dismembered that country, the far eastern province of Ruthenia containing most of that Ukrainian population was annexed by Hungary, but was transferred to Ukraine itself after the arrival of the Red Army in 1945.
The First Czechoslovak Republic was a microcosm of the Hapsburg Empire with republican institutions. Although clearly dominated by its Czech constituent, many of its first leaders such as Thomas Masaryk were socially progressive, and eschewed narrow-minded nationalism. It is perhaps Europe’s tragedy that his vision of a multi-ethnic democratic state did not endure.
The Europe of Joseph Roth and Thomas Masarky was torn asunder by the twin hydras of Nazism and Stalinism. Ironically one of the groups that suffered most was the German populations who were forced out of their ancestral lands across Eastern Europe, many thousands perishing in the process. Europe is the poorer for the homogeneity of many states.
Perhaps the arrival of the idea of a political and cultural Europe might generate a more accommodating reaction to minorities, but unfortunately attitudes in Ukraine suggest the idea of Europe itself can be exclusionary, as if humans feel the need to find an oppositional Other.
This exclusionary idea of Europe is not limited to Ukraine as nearby states also identify enemies within. The Romany people remain a pitiable underclass in most places they live. Latterly migrants fleeing political turmoil in the Middle East have been greeted by barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border. We have yet to reach an epoch when cultural diversity is seen as a boon. It would be tragic if the political idea of a Europe, a response to the conflagrations of the early twentieth century could become the case of further conflict.