Postcard from Europe

Back in geography class in school I learned that Italians spoke Italian, the Spaniards Spanish, the French French and the Germans German. The Dutch spoke Dutch and the Danes Danish. Each country was a homogeneous place where the people were "naturally" of a single culture and that is why Europe had fractured into the shapes and sizes as it had, each piece taking with it its own linguistic, cultural and ethnic heritage.

But two countries made me wonder - Austria (why isn't it part of Germany) and Switzerland (why do people there speak so many different languages).

A few years later, when I was actually living and working in Germany and traveling like a madman, I discovered that my teacher had lied!

Well, not exactly. She had merely glossed over many of the more inconvenient details. You see, despite what people might say, European countries are actually an accident of history. Just in the 20th century, European borders have shifted around dramatically and if you take into account the movements of peoples and rise and fall of states and empires in the last 2000 years, you would come up with a dramatic and utterly confusing story.

Let us start with Germany, sitting smack dab in the middle of the continent. It was not even a country till 1871 when Otto von Bismarck realized that he needed to create a unified state under Prussian control in order to project power over the neighbors. But the state that was created is very different from the re-unified Germany as it exists today. Alsace and Lorraine are in France, a little slice is over in Belgium, another slice in Denmark and large lands are in Poland and Russia.

Italy was created partly due to the hard work of Garibaldi and his redshirts from a mass of kingdoms and principalities. After World War I, a piece of Austria (called Sued Tirol) was lopped off and tacked onto Italy where it is called Trentino-Alto Adige. There are many such adjustments all over the European map. Perhaps the most blatant of them all is Poland, which has been created, destroyed, sliced, shaped and fussed over with by all the major and most of the minor players. If you compare the maps of Poland before and after World War II, you would think that someone put it on a flat-bed truck and drove it westwards!

So, where am I going with all this? Well, it is quite common to assume that the national boundaries haven't shifted and that each country is basically an indivisible unit of ethnic cohesion. The only exceptions being the "artificial" countries such as Yugoslavia and USSR which have exploded once the strongmen ruling them died or countries that have been shaped by immigration such as USA and Canada. But that is not the case. You can go anywhere in the world and find that most boundaries have been drawn by political and military realities at various times.

Rather than yearning for ethnic, linguistic and cultural uniformity, we should realize that such entities have never existed and never will...

1 comment:

d said...

As marketing experts, somewhat politicians like to work with masses, classes, large group of people. On the other hand many times cheap 'divide and conquer' tactics are used to generate artificial differences in order to get more popular.

Critical thinking has never been so important in order to be not trapped by questionable movements, and faiths.