The Oldest Border in Modern Europe

One of the attractions of the Hanse Museum in Lübeck is an interactive map showing the development of cities in mediaeval Europe. With each passing century the number of ashing points on the map is growing, the colorful patchwork is getting systematically denser and extends from West to East. And yet, there is a constantly visible (although not marked) dividing line separating the East from the West of Europe.

The West is dense, the East less so; both today and 800 years ago, when the daredevils from Lübeck, in their incredibly small boats—not much larger than today’s yachts—loaded with wares up to the mast, sailed across the Baltic on their way to the fabulous treasures of Great Novgorod, joining the Euro-Asian far West (that is Europe) with the Eastern empires of the basileis, caliphs, and khans. This is the most enduring internal border of the continent—it runs roughly along the 20th meridian and south of the Baltic it crosses the territory of Poland and Hungary.

It is not only a border of wealth but also of political culture. In The Origins of Political Order Francis Fukuyama explores one of the greatest mysteries of European history: why did serfdom lose its validity in the West, but became highly profitable in the East? In the late Middle Ages, peasants enjoyed much greater liberty in Poland than in Hungary or in France, but in just a few years “legislative heralds of ‘secondary serfdom’ appeared with uncannily synchronized timing in Brandenburg (1494), Poland (1496), Bohemia (1497), Hungary (1492 and 1498) and Russia (1497).” While in the West peasants were becoming landowners (on the eve of the 1789 revolution in France they possessed 50 percent of all land), in the East the serfs retained only minimal rights, which distinguished them from slaves. “In practice, the difference was not very big,” says Fukuyama.

The key to solving this mystery is the demographic advantage of the western part of the continent. Western Europe was much more densely populated; in 1300, its population was three times that of the East. It allowed for the more rapid development of cities, which took advantage of the weakness of feudal state structures and in just a couple of centuries a significant part of the continent, from northern Italy to Flanders, was covered with a network of autonomous trade centers. It was the cities which recovered most rapidly after the demographic collapse which ravaged the West in the middle of the 14th century (the Black Death); it is in the cities that the peasants, escaping from the plague, famine, and feudal oppression, took shelter. And it was in the cities that monarchs, aiming at centralization of power and building strong absolutist states, saw their most important ally against the barons. The problem of food shortages was solved by way of trading with the East. Ships bearing grain sailed to Lübeck, Amsterdam, or London and returned to Gdansk loaded with sophisticated products of West European crafts, and luxuries, coveted by East European landowners and their spouses—aristocracy and nobility without exception.

Thanks to the profits from trade in agricultural produce and cattle, Polish and Hungarian magnates became so powerful that they subjugated not only peasants and townspeople, but even kings, whom they elected themselves, sometimes within their own group. They deprived them of real power, at the same time making both their societies and states defenseless against their arbitrary rule. In Hungary the magnates cruelly suppressed a peasant mutiny in 1514; they burned the insurgents’ leader on an iron chair and forced his comrades to eat the burnt body. Twelve years later, internally weakened and plundered by its native oligarchy, the Hungarian State ceased to exist after the lost Battle of Mohács (1526). It was divided into three parts, one controlled by the Habsburgs, one by the Ottoman Turks, and one, Transylvania, a Turkish fief. Two hundred and fifty years later, a similar fate was met by the feudal Republic of Poland.

The experience of losing their own country is shared by Hungarians and Poles. The fear of a “historical repeat” still plays a huge role in the politics of these nations, despite their NATO and EU membership. In the era of the new “migration of peoples,” many Hungarians and Poles see the greatest threats in migration and demographic challenges. NATO membership is not a safeguard against these challenges, while EU membership even exacerbates the risks—at least such is the belief of those voting for the ruling parties in Central Europe.

It is not just a matter of the events from a few years back, when “Mass immigration—the arrival of over 200,000 migrants and refugees in 2015 on Hungarian territory—triggered a trauma that the Hungarian state was unable to provide the security that society wanted,” as György Schöpflin in wrote for our magazine (“Hungary, Fidesz and the EU: The Elections and After”, Aspen Review Central Europe, 2/2018). “In a real way, the uncontrolled march of the migrants questioned the very existence of the Hungarian state, a deeply neuralgic thought in the light of history, and constituted a form of structural violence.”

The point is also that the whole European East—Central Europe, the Balkans, Russia, and post-Soviet countries—is becoming depopulated. Not only because of low birth rates but also—and sometimes mostly—because of migration. While the West is getting denser and younger, mostly thanks to people arriving from the countries of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (just the number of the inhabitants of France increased in from 1990 to 2017 by 10 million,1 the East is getting “sparser population” and older. Since 1990, the population of Lithuania and Latvia has fallen by one quarter, of Romania and Bulgaria by more than 10 percent, and in Czechia it has slightly grown only thanks to migrants (mostly from Ukraine, Slovakia, and Vietnam—currently one in six residents of Prague is a foreigner).

It is estimated that in 2050, Ukraine will have less people than Poland, also because of mass migration to Poland (which will have three and a half million inhabitants less than now). Even today there are about one million citizens of Ukraine in Poland, and the government in Warsaw encourages the inhabitants of South East Asia (Filipinos, Vietnamese) to settle there. But it is difficult to run a sensible migration policy if at the same time the ruling politicians exacerbate xenophobic sentiments and the citizens increasingly hate those they need the most—the “aliens.” And both groups blame the “West” for every possible ailing.

Also in this sense the 20th meridian still is the internal border of Europe.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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