When the Cold War came to a sudden end thirty years ago, the two halves of the continent declared in unison their intention to overcome the legacy of the division. Eastern Europeans appeared eager to ritually condemn, if not to critically examine, their recent past and were especially keen on asserting and proving their ‘Europeanness.’ Westerners, too, hoped to see the countries of the former Eastern bloc transformed and potentially absorbed into an enlarged and ever deeper project of political integration. Mutual ignorance and deep-seated misperceptions seemed a temporary hindrance on the path towards the unification of the continent.
After 1989, the conviction became common that the Cold War had been an anomaly. The Iron Curtain may have enforced a perception of stark differences between the two halves of the continent, and may even have turned such differences into a fact for more than a generation, but the distinction between East and West was said to be little more than a symbolic construct. It was repeatedly asserted that the boundary separating the two halves of the continent was fluid, negotiable, and subject to deconstruction. Yet the integration projects launched during the early postwar decades, which despite being restricted to one side of the Iron Curtain made increasing claims to represent Europe as a whole, drew on long-standing traditions in western European thought that marginalized and even excluded the experiences of the continent’s eastern half. And it was similarly overlooked that structural differences between various macro-regions of Europe had a history stretching back much further than the Cold War.
If the integration of an enlarged Europe was to stand any chance of success in the post-Cold War period, a more inclusive narrative of the recent past and a more equitable present was required. Not only was, as post-colonial authors asserted, a thorough decolonization of the dominant Eurocentric visions of the world called for after centuries of colonialism. Also, as critical scholars from eastern Europe noted, a simultaneous de-provincialization of western Europe needed to accompany European unification in order to avoid reproducing developmental-civilizational hierarchies and stigmatizations within the continent.
The hopes and ambitions of those heady days for a fast and successful merging of Europe’s East and West can today be viewed as unrealistic at best. The financial and economic crisis of 2008 led to a crisis of the eurozone, which – beyond painfully reopening a North-South divide – halted or may even have reversed the process of economic convergence in the East. The increasing confrontation between Russia and the West in recent years has challenged Europeans’ confidence in a peaceful future. The global revival of authoritarianism has engulfed several eastern European states, including EU members, while xenophobic forces and nationalist politicians enjoy growing support across the continent.
The past decade of crisis and turmoil appears to have frustrated the great expectations of the turn of the millennia for a free, borderless and social Europe. With the elevation of controversial projects in the eastern member states to models for their western counterparts (an unexpected reversal in the transfer of political ideas and styles), the possibility of convergence between Europe’s two halves is increasingly perceived as a threat rather than a promise. These trends make it all the more urgent to ask what happened to the legacy of the East-West division in the three decades since the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the communist regimes.
How have the perceptions and misperceptions between the two halves of the continent changed since 1989? Is it justified to talk of a new East–West divide? If so, how can one characterize it and why has it re-emerged? Conversely, how have hopes of overcoming the divide been met over the past three decades?
Together with its Slovene partner journal Razpotja, Eurozine is posing these timely questions to a host of prominent intellectuals, who share their insights and assessments in the essays here. We will be continuing the conversation through further contributions throughout the year. We wish you a stimulating read.
Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, Razpotja
Ferenc Laczó, Maastricht University