"Deads Lands" or "New Europe"? Reconstructing Europe, Reconfiguring Eastern Europe: "Westerners" and the Aftermath of the World War

Article excerpt

A "NEW EUROPE" OR "DEAD LANDS"?

In Britain during 1916, a periodical called The New Europe appeared. Believing that the Great War offered an unique opportunity to destroy the dynastic empires that prevented nationalities like the Czechs and Poles from having their own self-governing homelands, contributors such as R. W. Seton-Watson, Elmer Davis, and W. J. Rose advocated the establishment of independent states, based upon nationality, throughout Eastern Europe. The creation of new nation-states would, these men thought, rectify an historic injustice and satisfy the legitimate claims of the nationalities. After 1918 many intellectuals and popular writers invested their fears and hopes for the postwar era in the notion of Eastern Europe, a region that they saw as a geographical, political, and cultural entity of self-governing nation-states distinct from Western Europe. (1)

As several scholars have demonstrated, before 1914 West European and American thinkers depicted Eastern Europe as a place of semi-Orientalized, backward, and degenerate peoples, thereby differentiating themselves and an idealized West--in civilizational terms--from the others of Eastern Europe. (2) This analysis begs an important question. How did Westerners' cultural ideas about Eastern Europe after the Great War reflect the political transformation that had occurred? Through a study of interwar French, British, and American literature, including both contemporary scholarly studies and travel accounts that were written about the region, one can conclude that West Europeans and Americans did not change their fundamental ideas about the area and its peoples. (3) They could have created a positive discourse on the region by viewing East Europeans as political and cultural equals, fellow citizens of the new European home, rather than seeing them as uncivilized savages. The journal The New Europe sought to demonstrate the potential for the formation of a positive East European image. However, these early hopes died soon after the close of the peace conference, and even use of the term "the New Europe" tapered off during the 1920s. In an effort to make West European civilization look superior, many writers described an Eastern Europe that was the home of inferior, degenerate cultures characterized by barbarity, pseudo-Orientalism, and Levantinism, ideas that placed Eastern Europe in closer connection with the Orient than with the "high culture" of Western Europe. Thus, in cultural terms, a New Eastern Europe never came into existence.

After the Great War, negative constructions of Eastern Europe tied into ideas about Western civilization's decline and probable collapse. Notions of Western decline dated to the late nineteenth century, yet some of the most influential prognosticators of that decline, particularly Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, only published their ideas in 1918 and the years following. During the interwar era, writers who deprecated Eastern Europe as a zone of uncivilized people did so in an attempt to find meaning for the idea of Western civilization in the wake of the war. In a few seminal cases, men like Arnold Toynbee, Paul Valery, and Henri Massis analyzed the symptoms of Western deterioration, sought solutions for the Western problem, and in the process depicted Eastern Europe as inferior to the West in order to present the West in the best light possible, that is, by contrasting Western Europe with its degenerate Eastern neighbor. While one might think it contradictory to maintain that Westerners defamed Eastern Europe in order to uphold as superior a Western civilization which they believed to be in a state of decline, in reality no contradiction exists. West Europeans and Americans thought that the West had entered the most severe crisis of its existence after the Great War and that disintegration seemed to loom on the horizon. But most of them believed that with reforms, such as a spiritual revival, Western civilization could be saved from the fate of the "others," including those in Eastern Europe, who had slipped beyond the point of salvation. …