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28 November, 2011  ▪  Спілкувався: Oleksiy Sokyrko

European Optimist

Historian Andreas Kappeler speaks on the political concept of Europe and ways to forge European identity

An Austrian historian with Swiss citizenship who has worked in Germany and Russia, Andreas Kappeler has the goal of building bridges between Eastern and Western Europe. One of the advocates of Ukrainian history in the scientific world, he is a former director of the Vienna Institute of Eastern European History. The Ukrainian Week asked him for his professional opinion on problems with forging a new European identity and the future of national identities in Europe.

U.W.: Until recently manifestations of national identities in European countries were viewed as politically incorrect vestiges of the premodern era. Demonstration of and emphasis on the national identity of European politics were considered relapses of xenophobia and chauvinism. Is the era of nationalisms indeed in the past? Will national self-identification be replaced by something new?

To answer this question, we need to look at a few episodes in history. The 19th century in Western and Central Europe was a time when national movements and separate nations began to take shape. The latter either took hold in the territories of countries that existed then (such as France and Denmark), formed as separate subregions (Germany and Italy), or broke off former empires (the Czech Republic and Ireland). In the second half of the 20th century, and all the more so after the First World War and the breakup of continental empires in Europe, new nation states began to emerge on the continent. Nationalism was not and is not a vestige of the premodern era. On the contrary, it has been an important element of the contemporary scene (modernism). This is proved by the fact that some nations (Catalonia) have not been able to achieve their goals yet, while others have split off supranational entities (the USSR, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic).

The model of ethnic differentiation of nation states was in total disaccord with the ethnic-territorial reality of Central and Eastern Europe. This situation was conducive to numerous national conflicts. Attempts to form democratic governments fell through in nearly all these newly created states, because prior to the Second World War, dictatorships with authoritarian nationalistic ideologies ruled over almost all of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe (except the Czech Republic).

At the same time, a totalitarian regime took shape in the Soviet Union, which included three Eastern Slavic peoples. The Stalin-led USSR stymied any attempts at nation building and generated Russian nationalist ideology, in addition to a communist one. At the same time, Germany, which started the Second World War in the name of racism and nationalism, carried out unprecedented mass ethnic cleansing which turned some multiethnic countries into mono-ethnic territories. Poland is one such example.

The experience of nationalism and chauvinism in Central and Western Europe forced people to seek new ideologies and international identification after the war. This showed in the idea of European unity which was to bury old conflicts and would unite states once in conflict under one umbrella. The eastern part of the continent, which was under the USSR at the time, did not find protection under the common roof. Hence, Western politicians did not perceive the experience of soviet communism as something horrible and inhuman. These people were still shellshocked by the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, so some of them even believed that the Soviet regime in fact helped solve the national issue.


U.W.: The interest of Western scholars in Central and Eastern Europe sharply increased after the breakup of the USSR when the newly emerged states turned out to be a gray area for the rest of the continent. Has this newer Europe become more understandable to Western intellectuals and politicians?

Little was known about the peoples and republics of the Soviet Union before 1989. They were viewed as parts of the Russian Empire. This applies also to Ukraine, which remained terra incognito for many years. I was one of very few Western historians who taught courses in Ukrainian history before 1989 and had an academic interest in these topics. The situation has improved since then but knowledge of this area is still on a fairly low level. I’m talking not only about Ukraine but also about such EU members as Slovenia and Slovakia, which are often confused. Of course, today it is easier to understand the peoples of the Central and Eastern Europe. The obstacles are gone; there is plenty of information – at least professional mass media have access to it. However, many people are simply not interested. The Iron Curtain is still a certain barrier in the perception of many. As long as there are challenges emanating from China and the Muslim world, the issues of Central and Eastern Europe will continue to be in the background.

When the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc fell apart, Europe, which believed it had gotten over nationalism, faced new states and nationalisms. This turn of history did not fit in with the dominating public opinion of the time, so it was often perceived as manifestations of chauvinism. Bloody conflicts, which erupted in the former Yugoslavia and in the Southern Caucasus at the time, were graphic proof of this. Some saw them as attempts to revive national identity which had been suppressed by the soviet regime. However, they led to bloody conflicts in some parts of Europe. Now it was not only about forming nation states but also the ability to control possible excesses and extreme behavior. Fortunately, the situation was not the same everywhere. For example, in the fairly homogeneous countries (after ethnic cleansing), such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Lithuania, it was easier to control the process of nation building than in ethnically mixed territories, such as Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

The lesson we can learn from the 20th-century catastrophes is that all nations and nation states experienced, during their maturation, the aggressive and ruinous influence of nationalism and tried to curb it. We can conclude that national society (it may be composed of several ethnic groups) is sending its roots more deeply than mono-ethnic manifestations of nationalism, which confirms that the concept of nation has been closely linked with that of democracy since the time of the French Revolution.

If we treat nationalism as a manifestation of chauvinism, I hope that its era is close to the expected end. This doesn’t mean that an individual nation should be viewed as an object of self-identification. If it lives by the principles of democracy and tolerance, takes into consideration the interests of minorities and rejects an expansionist foreign policy, it will certainly win the right to exist. At the same time, a nation should be not only the recipient of loyalty, but also a region, an entity of social inclusion, a democracy, a religion and a part of the world community, in particular Europe. In this case national identification will not be modified but will lose its importance.


U.W.: A lot has been said about an identity crisis of united European nations. In your opinion, has this project suffered a fiasco?

The discourse of identity crisis is not new, and the list of critics of Europe is fairly long. Not surprisingly, the project to forge a united Europe will not be realized in such a rapid and problem-free fashion as was hoped after the Second World War. On the other hand, many changes have taken place which were previously unimaginable. For example, the authority of European institutions was expanded; a single currency was introduced (with all the ensuing problems); all borders were erased, enabling high human mobility. Most countries which once belonged to the Eastern Bloc and three of which were also Soviet republics are now EU members. They did not even dare dream of something like this 25 years ago. As you can see, I remain a European optimist, and this is why I have Swiss (non-EU member) citizenship along with my Swiss passport.

Shaping European identity is a slow process. It may be that it will not emerge as such, but instead we will develop various forms of European self-identification for individual nations, territories, religions, regions, etc. Problems arise when you stop and think: What do we have to understand under “Europe”? Geographically, Russia (its territory before the Urals) and Turkey (its part before the Bosporus) are also parts of Europe, just like Ukraine and Belarus are. Historically, I believe that all of Eastern Europe and all Orthodox countries belong to Europe. Since antiquity, the overall history of Europe has been shaped in the territory between Rome and Constantinople. If we use the concept of contemporary Europe as the EU, some countries to the east are outside it, along with such Western countries as the USA, Canada and Australia. The issues of Europe’s eastern border remain unresolved. At the same time, it is possible to define the criteria for the EU’s capacity. There have been mostly political decisions along this line – for example, whether Ukraine and Turkey will be accepted into the EU. Equally political were the resolutions that granted membership to Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. I still believe that the Europe which has erected a new Golden Iron through its Schengen Zone is incomplete, because I view Eastern Europe as part of a large Europe. To me, without them the EU is not a true union of European countries. As a specialist in Eastern European issues, I see my most important mission in building bridges between Eastern Europe and the rest of the continent. These are the bridges that would enable mutual understanding and a victory over old superstitions. The world has changed so much over the past years that the question of European unity has receded into the background compared to global issues. Today less attention is being paid to the growth of a certain country inside Europe than to its status in the world.


U.W.: After large-scale geopolitical crises and conflicts historians are often told to return to literature because their science is, it is alleged, chronically incapable of achieving its mission to be a “teacher of life.” How much substance does this view have?

Historians are not prophets, just like politicians and social scientists, few of whom could even imagine that the Soviet Union would disintegrate. In general, politicians don’t learn from history at all. One possible exception is the Second World War whose lessons had a great impact on postwar policies. But scholars did not contribute much to this, in fact. Today, compared to the 19th century and the Soviet era, historians as public figures are of secondary importance. Politicians and businessmen read few books written by historians. Nevertheless, studying the past may help them read the current situation, see alternative paths of development or structures and perceive the long-term trends of progress and active traditions. Of course, I don’t live in a dreamworld. We historians are not “teachers of life” and have have been. There has never been a historian who supported one particular nationalist ideology, legitimized dictatorship or approved of wars.

U.W.: You have considerable experience teaching. What kind of people choose the historian’s profession these days? What motivates these young people? What was your motivation?

History has lost some of its importance as a subject in schools and universities. One reason is that that the profession of a historian does not exist anymore. Few people earn their living by doing history, perhaps with the exception of school teachers. Nevertheless, a number of young people still select courses in history, which are optional in our university. In other words, it has not lost its attraction. The strange thing is that students who make a conscious choice of becoming professional historians know that after graduation they will have a hard time finding a job and getting a salary comparable to that of graduates with degrees in economics, engineering or computer science.

However, the situation is not that tragic. Most history graduates realize themselves in many possible domains, particularly in the mass media and publishing business, museum work, as well as in the economic sector, social services and diplomacy. Flexibility and mobility are two requirements for young people today. In my opinion, it is important that historical studies today do not have to legitimize the existing order but form critical thinking. Evidently, history will continue to be viewed as a general academic discipline related to many other disciplines. This would be an answer to the question about whether a student of history can study something else.

As far as my personal motivation is concerned, I did not want to become a historian – I was dreaming of journalism. Earlier, I decided to pursue Eastern European studies. That I dared become a historian is accidental. I could have gone into Slavic studies or political science. After completing my PhD, I received an offer to work as a foreign editor with a newspaper and move to Moscow as a foreign correspondent. I declined and stayed in the university. That was also a spontaneous decision. I don’t regret it, even though I sometimes say to myself that I could have achieved more if I were a journalist rather than a bookworm.


Andreas Kappeler

1943 – born in Zurich (Switzerland)

1962-69 – pursued Slavic studies and studied history in the universities of Zurich and Vienna

1969 – defended his PhD in the University of Zurich

1970 – received a scholarship to study in Moscow and Leningrad

1971-79 – worked at the University of Zurich and completed his habilitation

1982-98 – Professor of Eastern European History at the University of Cologne

1996 – foreign member of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences

1998 – professor at the University of Vienna

2006-2009 – director of a doctoral-level research project “Austrian Galicia and its polycultural heritage.” Author of books Russiaas a Polyethnic Empire; Mazepyntsi, Little Russians, and Khokhols: Ukrainians in the Ethnic Hierarchy of the Russian Empire; and A Little History of Ukraine.

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