Black Lives Matter is just another pretext to contemplate the relation of Central Europe to the West.
When statues started to be toppled in the American South, Bristol or Antwerp, one would have thought that Central Europeans were in a privileged position to understand what was being done.
As nations that still remember the removal of communist statues, they would know that demands for justice – as was the case of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – also play at the symbolic level.
Equally, they would know that when the past is being discussed outside of academic ground or designated political institutions, the earth may tremble.
For example, in Bratislava, dynamite was used to remove the statue of the first Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald responsible for the communist putsch in 1948 and the square named after him was renamed to the Liberty square.
However, the reactions in response to the toppling of status were far more complex. General public opinion denounced attacks on statues as acts of vandalism.
Here are a couple of tentative explanations based on popular political narratives. These narratives may be conflicting; they are not philosophical systems but rather a series of beliefs on who we are and who we should become.
The very notion of Central Europe is based on its problematic relation to the West. The Visegrad region used the Kunderian definition of Central Europe – a part of Europe that was ripped away by the Soviets – as its political definition and the key argument for its “return to Europe” materialised in the act of integration.
If Western societies are the role model, they are accomplished societies to which aspiring members and then new members should resemble. In that sense, the West is the centre and the centre must hold. Its moral integrity cannot be questioned. Even less so by demonstrating crowds attacking historical monuments and spraying offensive words on the statues of great men.
At the same time, as Ivan Krastev pointed out, the Visegrad region made a leap from being a copycat to being “the real West”. The most conservative narrative proposes that Central Europe was protected from the political influence of the New Left and de-colonisation.
According to this line of thought, the region’s source of pride is its victory over communism. By extension, it takes Western liberalism and multiculturalism for offsprings of communism and believes that Central Europe has a mission to fight them.
To protect the West from radical left ideas and movements, BLM is seen as just another attack on Western integrity, an attempt to undermine its civilisation by spreading the culture of guilt. As some political forces believe, keeping the Western legacy intact is thus the ultimate task of Visegrad.
Disneyfication of socialist statues
The removal of statues of communist politicians – in the case of Hungary, which was the most radical in cleansing public space from socialist legacy, meant the Disneyfication of socialist statues in the Szoborpark (Memorial Park) – was seen as connected to the logic of the regime change.
However, the political movements challenging the statues of Confederate generals, slave owners or people blamed for genocide in colonies are observed with reservations. What do they want? Don’t they live in democratic societies?
Why do they attack the history of their own nations? Are they trying to grab power using public unrest and mechanisms of shaming? Are they a part the “cancel culture”? Don’t they want to rewrite history in a similar way as communists did?
Thus, is it a revolt using the image of the suppressed man to install a kind of dictatorship of the proletariat?
During the refugee crisis more than ever, it was obvious that Central Europe has a deeply troubled relation to the European colonial and imperial legacy. The popular narrative among Visegrad leaders was that “we never had colonies, so we have no moral obligation to accept migration from Asian and African countries”.
They elaborated on this idea saying that “our societies are homogeneous and coherent; migration would dismantle it and bring problems and we have an obligation to our electorate not to allow it”.
Thus, accepting the demands of BLM – represented by the iconoclastic movement – would disturb this narrative. It would allow the idea that racial injustice is still a part of European and Western identity. Being Europeans, the Central European nations would need to rethink their position and to share the “white man’s burden”.
Colonised by the West?
Post-socialist Central European societies like to think of themselves as colonised, too. Either as previously colonised by the Soviets. Or as deprived of identity and derivative of the West. This is manifested in the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s thesis on how Western corporations benefited from the new member states.
Moreover, Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric presents Brussels as the political force which inherited the imperial ambition to treat member states as its “lands” and dictate its rules. Orbán’s case on the state of the rule of law in Hungary is based on a deeper logic that West has never accepted Central European states as its equals but rather as countries existing thanks and according to its will.
This quote from Orbąn’s Trianon centenary speech may be representative: “The West raped the thousand-year-old borders and history of Central Europe. They forced us to live between indefensible borders, deprived us of our natural treasures, separated us from our resources, and made a death row out of our country. Central Europe was redrawn without moral concerns, just as the borders of Africa and the Middle East were redrawn. We will never forget that they did this.”
Ex-PM of Slovakia Robert Fico used the example of so-called Munich betrayal to cultivate the idea that the West is responsible for the first break up of Czechoslovakia before the Second World War and thus also for its subsequent occupation by Nazis and later by Communists. The political lesson he thus suggested was that the West may be the guarantor of our security and prosperity, but we should better not rely on it.
The narratives saying that we were and still are colonised and that we are the true guarantors of Western civilisation put the Visegrad region in a rather complex situation in relation to the BLM movement.
Affiliations are being cultivated through political discourse with the imperial West as an untouchable cornerstone of our identity. This should not be attacked because it is a source of our uniqueness and pride.
At the same time, we are being persuaded that Central Europe was absent from colonial history and thus should be exempt from both multiculturalism and migration.
And still, Central Europe believes it is held in an inferior position by the imperial gesture of the West represented either by leading nation-states – such as France and Germany – or by Brussels.
Privileged when convenient
A lesson from the debate on anti-racist iconoclasm may be that Central European societies need to talk about what it means to be white and whether there are different shades of whiteness. What is our historical – not imagined – experience with colonialism and imperialism?
By joining the EU or by the symbolic “return to Europe”, don’t we share its history a in larger sense? Can we accept the notion of Western civilisation without criticism and deny our investment in a colonial and imperial legacy?
Don’t we also have regional experience with communities that are parts of our societies but exist outside of our national histories?
Does being Central European mean being an innocent victim of the will of others? And does it also imply not feeling affiliation with the colonised and oppressed elsewhere? Do we switch in a cunning way between the position of bearers of Western civilisation and victims of imperialist powers?
Isn’t it a form of political role-playing to stand with the privileged when convenient and present traces of whip marks when needed? It may be a good definition of the Central European state of mind.