America in the Eyes of Eastern Europe

By Sunic, Tomislav | The World and I, November 2001 | Go to article overview

America in the Eyes of Eastern Europe


Sunic, Tomislav, The World and I


Tomislav (Thomas) Sunic, a former professor of political science at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and a former Croatian diplomat, is the author of several books and numerous essays. He currently resides in Europe.

While a massive amount of both critical and laudatory literature on America is circulating in western Europe, only a few critical books on America and the American way of life can be found in today's postcommunist eastern Europe. This essay is my attempt to add to that literature.

Before attempting to tackle this complex subject (an eastern European account of America), one needs to define terms. People living in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, or Slovenia do not like being called eastern Europeans; the term eastern Europe has a ring of an insult to their ears. They consider themselves, despite their region's undemocratic past, full-blooded Europeans--as much if not more so than west Europeans. There may be some truth in this semicomplacent attitude. From the ethnic point of view, all postcommunist countries in eastern Europe are highly homogeneous, with only a few non-Europeans living on their soil. By contrast, western Europe, or what is today part of the fifteen states of the European Union, has a non-European population of approximately 7 percent. Moreover, the population of the United States--which can be thought of as an extension of western Europe--is well over 25 percent non-European in origin.

Ironically, due to the closed nature of its communist past, eastern Europe has never known a large influx of non-Europeans. The paradox is therefore twofold: the label eastern Europe is viewed by many as ideologically colored, its derogatory meaning referring to the formerly Soviet-occupied and communist-ruled part of Europe. Second, although claiming to be 100 percent Europeans, all east European nations, and particularly the newborn nation-states in the region, are well aware of their ethnic roots--certainly more so than are west Europeans. For decades, if not centuries, and even during the darkest hours of communism, east Europeans had a strange love for America, while displaying strange resentments toward their next-door European neighbors.

Any American who travels to Budapest, Zagreb, or Warsaw, be it in a public or private capacity, is welcomed. An American backpacker may enjoy passing through Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but he will never be so warmly embraced by west Europeans as he will be by his east European hosts. The communist rule, which lasted well over forty years in eastern Europe and seventy in Russia, created a mental atmosphere whereby the very term West became synonymous with America, and only to a lesser degree with nearby western Europe. The West, in the eyes and ears of east Europeans, was not so much the rich and opulent Germany or France, but rather the distant, Hollywood-hazed America.

While one could find scores of Marxist true believers in American academia during the Cold War, most east Europeans privately nurtured strong anticommunist and pro-American feelings. Former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had more true, albeit hidden, constituents in communized Poland, Hungary, and Albania than on the West or East Coast. It was difficult for many east Europeans, particularly those who physically suffered under communism, to grasp the motives of young American students during the anti-Vietnam protests in the late sixties. Of course, pro-American and anticommunist sentiments among the wide layers of eastern European society had to be skillfully hidden. But a great majority of people in eastern Europe privately applauded the U.S. bombing of Vietnam and the harsh anticommunist rhetoric of Nixon and Reagan. They were all persuaded that, sooner or later, American GIs would liberate their homelands from the red plague. But today east Europeans are beginning to realize that America had other fish to fry than liberating Hungary in 1956 or Poland in 1980. …

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