Jak widzimy siebie nawzajem

Symbols and Clichés

How We See Each Other. Images and Prejudices of Nations in Central Europe

Publication: 13 August 2021

NO. 1 2011



The human sense of justice is not particularly well developed. I used to know an old Aromun (a Greek), Mr Dugali, who, when listening to a story about battles between the Turks and the Greeks, when he heard a description of one of the Turks blindly stabbing one of the Greeks mercilessly, leapt out of his seat, thundering:

“Oh you vile pagan! You vile pagan!”

When the storyteller, altering the thread of his narrative, began to expand on how one of the Greeks grabbed a Turk, slit his throat and fried him in oil, he merely purred serenely:

“Ah, well, what else could he do, the poor thing!”

(That is: what else could the poor Greek have done! Of course he fried him in oil. He couldn’t have fried him in dumpling lard, the poor Greek.)

Such is the human sense of justice, everywhere, not excluding historiography.

Kálmán Mikszáth, Beszterce ostroma (The Siege of Beszterce), translated by Jessica Taylor-Kucia


The road to formation of the modern-day Central European nations was littered with serious conflicts; the plans for nation-states were drawn up seemingly with the intention of spiting their neighbours, with no prospects of soothing antagonisms. Mutually excluding national traditions evolved. Our neighbours created images of their own nations, for instance, setting us, Hungarians, up as a point of reference, a base on which to construct their own identities. These images do not, of course, reveal what we are really like – this is not the foundation on which we shape our image of our own nation. Our neighbours’ view shows what they believe us to be like. We are unwilling to look into this mirror, even though it might do us a world of good, and though a thorough analysis of our reflection in it would be crucial for building future relations with them.

There are two subjects I want to touch on in this sketch: a few of the traits characteristic for the shaping of a nation’s image, and the mesh of mutual prejudices that is the background to polemic. To this day, both the national and international press often use the term “Eastern Europe,” customary in communist times, to refer to the region stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic. The older generation was brought up believing that there are two worlds, two “world orders,” and that we are in the eastern hemisphere, in Eastern Europe. For my generation, however, Central Europe and the “socialist countries” formed the western end of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, which was at odds with the term “Eastern Europe” as propagated by the Soviet Union and approved by the West.

So where is this region? One definition identifies it as the area of our continent in which the emergence of nations – that important element of the modernisation process – followed comparable patterns. At the beginning of the process there was no independent statehood; here and there there were traditions of political sovereignty, but elsewhere there were none. This region was inhabited by a population with a complicated structure of nationalities, where there were usually different religious confessions – and hence divergent civilisational traditions – coexisting side by side. In places where the idea of the modern nation was introduced from the outside, it was seen like a commodity imported from the West. In short: it is east of the German-speaking region and west of the Russian-speaking region. It comprises not only the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but also the Polish territory outside the Monarchy, and the Balkans.

The two main currents of research into the phenomenon that is nationalism in the last two or three decades (particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries) conceive of the nation – slightly simplistically – primarily as a construct, an “imagined community,” imagined by ideologues and nation builders (Benedict Anderson, Eric J. Hobsbawm), and as a creation whose essence has its roots in its ethnic origins and tradition (Anthony D. Smith). Even if “imagined traditions” (Hobsbawm) played a major role in creating the identity of this new type of community, it is, nevertheless, hard to imagine that such a community could come into existence from one day to the next, like Pallas Athena leaping forth out of Zeus’s head. Past circumstances cannot be ignored. The awareness of common origins, the historical memory of an identity as a community, was important, as was the no less weighty fact of sharing the same language. These were the factors that often were more important in Central Europe than in the West. The nature of the process by which nations are formed is also greatly divergent from the path of imperial Russia, where two key factors were loyalty to the ruler and Eastern Orthodoxy – though, of course, the significance of religious identity is not to be belittled in our region either. In western understanding the nation is a secularised community par excellence; the construct of a modern nation has in a sense superseded the religious identity. Things developed differently in Central Europe. New communities also grew up around a religious/church framework. It would be hard to imagine the Polish nation without the Catholic Church, for instance, or the Serbs without their national Orthodox Church.

Western scholars of nationalisms relish the distinction between the western and eastern paths to nationhood, and term the former “political nationalism” and the latter “ethnic nationalism.” This polarised construct also conceals an opposition in the concept of “developed” and “less developed” – in other words, the sense that the Western European process is considered the model and the benchmark. Moreover, it does not take account of Russian imperial nationalism. Central European historians take a far more moderate approach; they tend not to operate according to sharply opposing schemes (the nation as state and the nation as cultural community; the concept of nation according to subjective or objective criteria), and they perceive clearly the characteristics of the Central European path. The Czech historian Miroslav Hroch formulated it as follows: “…even at the construal stage the senselessness of the opposition ‘either a nation has always existed or it is an artificial construct’ is evident.”

Creation of the image of a nation was a similar process in Central Europe to elsewhere. In order to define the group “us,” there usually had to be a group “them,” in relation to which “we” are the “others.” Of decisive significance to the self-definition of the national movements evolving in the Kingdom of Hungary was their attitude towards a common state and towards the Hungarians. The Croats, Slovaks and Transylvanian Romanians created the images of their own nation in the 1830s, largely in relation to the Hungarians. There were often similarities in their mechanisms for selecting attributes and outlining characteristic threads. Each community tended to see itself, above all, in positive colours. The nations’ ideologues – who were often writers – reminded them of bygone topoi and traditions; they dug out ancestors from medieval chronicles, drew heavily on their literary heritage, and “inscribed” ages-old prejudices into their own national portraits.

Those ideologues – Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats – whose nations had considerable traditions of statehood, had things far easier. The “ancient glory” of the medieval state in this case served as an image of the germinal future, bursting with rulers, medieval royal capitals, and heroes. The challenge was greater for those nation builders who had to seek out a “heritage” in the more dim and distant past. When we look back today, it seems almost unbelievable that small cultural communities such as the Slovenes and the Slovaks, who had to reach back to the earliest times in their histories for the former glory of their nation, also found a path that transformed them into modern nations. We cannot forget, of course, that there is a far longer history of linguistic and religious tolerance in our region than in many countries in Western Europe. A Slovenian historian Peter Vodopivec, in a comparison of the potential of the Slovenes and the Bretons, found, for instance, that Slovenes living in various provinces of the Habsburg Empire enjoyed conditions far more conducive to the development of their own language and culture, than the Bretons in their strongly Francophone linguistic environment. The Slovenes’ ambitions were reinforced by the idea of a deep-rooted community as promulgated – not coincidentally – by Slovak poets and scholars (above all Ján Kollár and Pavol Jozef Šafárik). The dilemmas surrounding the crystallisation of the Slovak nation are reflected in the languages in which these pronouncements were formulated: German and Czech. The thought of a Slav community conjured up an image of greatness which was designed to conceal the paucity of the actual present.

It is no coincidence, either, that in Central Europe the linguistic community, which in many cases was still at the formative stage or only in existence as a potential, was such an important element in the process of creating the nations. The first generation of nation builders considered it their task to construct a unified national language. At a point when a state of their own seemed a pipe-dream, the codification of a national language looked like a realistic, attainable goal. It was during discussions over new linguistic standards in the 1830s and 1840s, that seminal political positions were established among the Czech, Slovakian, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian elites and that decisions were taken to herald the emergence of two 20th-century multi-nation states – and also their later dilemmas.

In Central Europe the “faces” of the nations entered into emotional discourse. Nostalgia for freedom, for instance, was part of the self-image of both Hungarians and Slovaks, with the distinction that the portrait of the Hungarian depicted the moustached face of an heir of the concept of freedom for the nobility and the upper classes?(maybe: elites/gentry?), while that of the Slovak portrayed his clean-shaven countryman who as a serf was demanding the right to freedom from that same, moustached gentleman. The image of a nation is often the product of a variety of elements, like a jigsaw puzzle. It may include many elements of folk culture, or the geography of the native landscape, it may incorporate an external and internal profile of the nation, and important historical events, but it may also comprise connotations with products or professions associated with the nation. And hence, the Slovaks’ image of the Hungarian is of that moustached gentleman (the moustache being an attribute of a nobleman!), while to the Hungarians, the stereotypical Slovak tends to be a shepherd or a peasant – in any case, someone of a lower estate.

It is worth briefly exploring the world of Central European national stereotypes in order to reflect on which long-existent prejudices have over time been transformed and became entrenched as national prejudices. I have tried to outline the background of the mutual national prejudices in Central Europe in a typological sketch. A classification of the arguments present in these prejudices may enable us to establish the sources of the generalisations that, nevertheless, have their origins in real experiences. There can be no doubt that the root causes of prejudices are differences in civilisation, ways of life, or other social factors.

The self-definition of a group incorporated in a nation’s image of itself (its auto-stereotype) serves to fortify the community and is closely linked, in the mutual definition, with the image of us generated by others (our heterostereotype). Central European national prejudices also operate within just such a mutual relationship. The basis for such prejudices may be lifestyle differences, confessional or class differences (maybe dissimilarities?), differing types of settlements (city−country), and even differences in geography and/or landscape (highlands−lowlands). In each of these cases, the mutual prejudices are formed as a kind of binary opposition. Types of oppositions interact with each other; prejudices aroused as a result of class differences, for instance, may be reinforced by lifestyle or religious difference (again, maybe dissimilarities?). The image of the Romanian among the Transylvanian Hungarians was affected by both religious and class differences.

What is also characteristic of Central Europe is a West-East oriented cascading sense of scorn for the neighbour to the east of our borders, whom we consider less developed, a barbarian. At the root of this is the difference in the way we live and in our mentality. This “cascade” of prejudice runs uninterrupted across Europe from the West to the East: such is the attitude of the Germans toward the Czechs, the Czechs toward the Slovaks, the Slovaks toward the Ukrainians. One of the dividing lines in European civilisation has for a thousand years lain between the western and eastern traditions of Christianity, and a sprawling mesh of prejudices has spread on both sides of this divide. In the Byzantine-Orthodox tradition the western Christian world is seen as secularised and burnt out, while in the eyes of the Westerner, the eastern Christian is idolatrous, backward and superstitious. This factor has a lot to answer for in the mutual prejudices of Hungarians and Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians, and Poles and Ukrainians.

In terms of class-based prejudices we have the burgher-noble opposition. For centuries various social groups harboured entrenched mutual notions of each other founded largely on class prejudices. In the age when modern nations were being born, these social preconceptions evolved into national prejudices: the Polish or Hungarian lord and the Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Slovakian or Romanian peasant. In countries where the national identity had noble roots and nationalist movements were led above all by the gentry, nation builders of different cultures and languages with a largely subordinate peasant base naturally formulated diametrically opposing self-images: we are the people of the cottages, they are from the palaces – and this invested in forming a sense of being the bearers of social justice. Of crucial significance for the self-identification of the Czechs’ national movement, was an explication of their relations with the more developed German world (as embodied by both the Habsburg Empire and the Germans inhabiting the historical lands of the Crown of St Wenceslas). They elected to base themselves on the petty, bourgeois tradition and, again, in opposition to the Catholic Habsburgs − Hussitism. This is the genesis of the plebeian, democratic image of the Czech nation.

This essentially bourgeois self-portrait of the Czechs is in opposition, again, to the image of the Poles and Hungarians, which has its in the nobility, for the fundamental value of liberty was understood entirely differently by the Czechs than by the Poles and Hungarians. From the angle of the democratism and pragmatism “appropriated” by the Czechs, the world of the Hungarians and Poles was a feudal one. The Czechs tended to see the revolutions and freedom struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries as unrealistic bids. In opposition to the Czechs’ “bourgeois” prejudices, and seen through the spectacles of a more developed world, the Hungarians and Poles are thoughtless and irresponsible. In the eyes of the Hungarians and Poles, on the other hand, the Czechs are opportunistic, petty, false, and prone to subservience to whatever authority is in power.

An urban dweller considers a country peasant a person of limited horizons who clings stubbornly to their customs and is hostile to change and the concept of progress. The peasant, for his part, is suspicious of the city, where everything seems alien and unpredictable. These age-old prejudices present in many civilisations have become “ethnicised” in the mutual portraits of the Germans and Czechs, the Czechs and Slovaks, and the Germans (Austrians) and Hungarians.

In the Hungarian national image, the Great  Plain came to be seen as the typical Hungarian landscape (largely under the influence of Petőfi). Thus, the Slovak nation builders naturally recognised their homeland as the mountains (Felvidék – the Upper Land, today’s Slovakia). This is how the opposition between the wealthy Hungarian lowlands and the poor Slovakian uplands has come to figure in the polemic of Slovak politicians and journalists.

The mutual national portraits in Central Europe form an immensely complex, colourful mosaic. Such bilateral prejudices were, in a sense, vital steps on the road to the formation of the nations. The train of thought that leads to a hope that they will be effaced in the “age of enlightened understanding,” that is integration in the European Union, or with the progression of globalisation can only be considered naive. These images are passed down as a part of the canon of national culture, and it is by assimilating them that we become members of the national community. In real terms, all that we can hope for is that in the Central Europe of our times conflicts of interests can be smoothed out, and that by learning about and comparing images and prejudices created in the past, we will come to see their relativity.

For while prejudices can be long-lived, they are not eternal. Favourable circumstances or significant new experiences can weaken or change them – for good or ill. An old Slovakian tradition, for instance, saw the Hungarians as brothers in a shared homeland. As a Slovakian adage goes, “The Hungarian is our brother, the German our brother-in-law…” (Peter Záthurecký, 1896). The image of the Hungarian as an enemy was constructed by the 19th-century national movement, and did not become widespread until after the creation of the first Czechoslovakian state.

In Hungary, in turn, since the end of the 19th century a rather unfavourable image of the Czechs began to emerge, and after the First World War and then Second World War it grew more sinister. These prejudices began to wane sharply after 1968, however. There was increasing emphasis on the fact of their common fortunes, and Czech literature and film art did much to contribute to formulating a positive image, especially among the intelligentsia.

The strongest current in the Croatian national movement from the middle of the 19th century has also altered the traditional, generally favourable image of the Hungarian, based on the awareness of a shared statehood, and of being “stuck with” each other. In the “Illyrist” context, however, Hungary came to be identified with a threat and with forces attempting to restrict Croatia’s self-determination. In 1893 and 1903 anti-Hungarian demonstrations were staged in Zagreb. When in 1990 Croatia broke away from the second Yugoslav state, however, and in the dramatic conditions of war received aid from Hungary on more than one occasion, public opinion rediscovered Hungary and their shared traditions. Anti-Hungarian prejudices were reversed, and Hungary is now their best neighbour (according to a survey conducted by Večernj List).

About authors

Csaba G. Kiss

Literary and cultural historian, essayist and expert on Central European issues. Professor in the Chair of Cultural History at the Loránda Eötvös University in Budapest. He also lectures in the Central European Studies Centre, part of the Institute of Slavic and Eastern European Studies in the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University in Prague. In 2009 the International Cultural Centre in Krakow published a volume of his essays and sketches entitled Lekcja Europy Środkowej (A Lesson in Central Europe).


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