Metaphors of Betrayal

December 2014
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There are two different meanings of the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement" that largely reflect a substantial civilizational gap between Western and Eastern Europe – the gap that results from different experiences, memories, and attitudes towards the past and, consequently, towards the present. In the West, it is primarily a historical fact, an event that occurred on 24 August 1939, in Moscow, and paved the way to the partition of Eastern Europe between the Nazis and Soviets and, eventually, to the Second World War. Its prehistory and consequences are mostly subjects of historical research but barely of mass interest, artistic exploration, or collective soul-searching. In the East, it is a metaphor of the region's vulnerability, history's ruthlessness, and the cynicism of the great powers. First and foremost, however, it is a metaphor of betrayal. In this respect, it fits alongside a series of other events that have various historical meanings for Westerners, but the same moral (or rather immoral) symbolism for Easterners: Munich, Yalta, and so on.

Each Eastern European nation has its own list of historical injuries, grievances, and complaints against the West – from the late eighteenth century partition of Poland to the 1936 Olympic games, which took place despite large-scale anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany; from the Entente's sacrifice of Ukraine's independence to the Poles and Russians in 1918-1919 to the tacit acceptance of the Russian occupation of Georgian territories by the EU and Nato in 2008-2009. Some of these grievances may look odd and poorly substantiated, but all of them reflect a particular historic experience that should be acknowledged in the West. Otherwise the civilizational gap will widen, bringing about further mistrust and misunderstanding. Once again, Westerners will be puzzled by the "irrational" nervousness of the Poles, Ukrainians and Balts about Russian "assertiveness", and about Western appeasement of the "asserters". And once again, they will be frustrated by Easterners' "blasphemous" attempts to put Nazism and Communism on equal footing. Westerners know Communism mostly in theory, where it certainly looks much brighter than the ugly racist ideology of the Nazis. But Easterners know both regimes primarily in practice – where, in methods of extermination of "enemies" or in ultimate results, they differed little.

This does not excuse Easterners of their own wrongdoings or absolve them of responsibility for their historical misfortunes. It only means that both sides need to do some soul-searching, and to discuss some points that still are poorly understood and variously interpreted in different parts of the continent.

The West and the Rest

The first question looms large: Why do Eastern Europeans still look to the West and expect so much from Westerners – despite numerous disappointments, neglects, and real and perceived "betrayals"? Why do they believe the West should take care of them and should, sometimes, sacrifice its own interests for the dubious interests of its Eastern neighbours?

The first part of the question is easy to answer. All the small Eastern European nations had been squeezed historically between Eastern and Western powers and had little choice but to look for a lesser evil. In this view, the constitutional Habsburgs and Prussians were certainly better than the despotic Russians and Ottomans, while liberal British and French looked even better but dwelled too far away. In a sense, Easterners became "Westerners by default". They had to accept themselves and persuade others that they were (and had always been) "Europeans" – not merely in appearance, but also in culture, political values and the whole way of life. The Iron Curtain and Soviet dominance strengthened this feeling, making the issue of national and political liberation identical with "Europeanization"; "returning to the norm" became equivalent to "returning to Europe" (where...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka