Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the aptly named website Over de Muur (‘Over/Concerning the Wall’), I wrote a piece on the wall that still divides Europe today: the mental wall between East and West. I argue that ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western Europe’ are merely concepts or frames, which do not reflect a geographic reality. Rather, they serve as catch-alls of various images and stereotypes, which hardly do justice to the complex relations between East and West, or to the differences within East and West themselves.
In addition, I explain how the divide is kept alive by western historians, for whom ‘European history’ often means ‘Western European history’. Countries like Hungary, Poland and Ukraine are regularly overlooked by western scholarship, partly because historians seldom know the languages required. Instead, they often make use of publications written in for example English or German, which tend to neglect the East and/or give an unflattering view of Eastern European history.
I state that historians can overcome these difficulties by being aware of the fact that ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western Europe’ are frames, which are furthermore anachronistic when discussing the period before the Enlightenment, as that is when these concepts first came into use. In addition, scholars can visit eastern conferences, or invite speakers from Eastern Europe. But most importantly, they can try to incorporate the lands east of Germany into their research and their classes. This will help to gain a better understanding of Europe’s history as a whole, and thus to tear down the mental wall dividing the continent.
The piece was also posted on Radboud Recharge, in both Dutch and English.
Romeyn de Hooghe, Sobieski conquers the Turkish standard, 1683
On 12 September 1683, the Polish king Jan III Sobieski led a Christian coalition army to a glorious victory at the Battle of Vienna, defeating the Turkish troops which had laid siege to the city. In recent years, this event has started to play a significant role in right-wing, islamophobic rhetoric. In a piece I wrote for Over de Muur, I disclose how far-right terrorists such as Anders Breivik, as well as Dutch right-wing politicians such as Geert Wilders and Frits Bolkestein, appropriate the Battle of Vienna in their speeches and manifestos. I argue that this appropriation manipulates history, as it falsely implies that Europe in 1683 was on the brink of ‘islamification’. Moreover, I explain that this kind of rhetoric stems directly from the ideas expressed by Samuel Huntington, who in the 1990s launched the notion of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’, and how it strengthens a dangerous islamophobic worldview, in which there appears to be an ongoing struggle between Christendom and Islam, which are presented as irreconcilable forces of Good and Evil.
The current Dutch reactions to the developments surrounding brexit resemble eighteenth-century responses to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Much like brexit, the Polish-Lithuanian state became associated with political chaos. Reactions ranged from disbelief and pity to outright mockery. In addition, Poland-Lithuania became viewed as being ‘ill’. By the end of the eighteenth century, a disorderly situation could be called ‘een Poolse landdag’, i.e. a meeting of the Polish Sejm. These negative perceptions partly legitimised the eventual partitions of the country, which vanished from the map of Europe in 1795.
For Over de Muur, I wrote a more in-depth analysis of the similarities between the responses to brexit and to eighteenth-century Poland-Lithuania.
In 1624 bracht Ladislas Sigismund Vasa, kroonprins van Polen-Litouwen, een spannend bezoek aan het Beleg van Breda. Het fraai vormgegeven In Brabant. Tijdschrift voor Brabants erfgoed publiceerde deze maand een artikel van mijn hand over dat bezoek. Ik vertel daarin over de historische context van deze gebeurtenis, behandel aan de hand van ooggetuigenverslagen het verloop ervan, en ga in op het naleven van het bezoek in met name het Pools-Litouwse Gemenebest. Rondvliegende kanonskogels, maansverduisteringen, baarden met geheime brieven erin: het komt allemaal langs!
Vandaag verscheen in De Volkskrant mijn opiniestuk, waarin ik een vergelijking maak tussen Mark Rutte en de dividendbelasting enerzijds en Johan de Witt en de Nederlandse graanhandel met het Oostzeegebied in de zeventiende eeuw anderzijds. Wat voor overeenkomsten en verschillen zijn er te vinden tussen het heden en het verleden?