Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About usNews and EventsNews articles

Dr S. van der Poel: ‘We were naïve about the fall of the Wall and never truly interested in the East’

03 November 2009
In order to stimulate European unification, Western European countries must show more interest in the cultural values of Central and Eastern European countries. In their turn, these countries should take on the role of victim less often and act more responsibly. This is the opinion of University of Groningen historian Dr Stefan van der Poel. On 9 November he will be giving a lecture on the course of European history since the fall of the Wall for Studium Generale.
The ideas that circulated in the Western world when the Wall fell were very optimistic. East and West would quickly come together, everyone expected. Europe would be reunited, and nuclear weapons would be swiftly banished. Intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama thought that with the disappearance of the ideological differences between East and West this phase of history would come to an end.

History repeating itself

In the meantime, it looks like history is repeating itself, according to Stefan van der Poel. ‘The ideas that took root in around 1989 were naïve, we have come to realise. The feelings of nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that were suppressed violently for forty-five years in the East are now resurfacing. To continue from the point that had been reached at the start of the Second World War was completely impossible; Central and Eastern European societies changed fundamentally between 1939 and 1989. Van der Poel: ‘The middle classes, who had been mainly Germans and Jews, did not exist anymore in 1989, they had been deported and dispossessed. This in part explains why European integration is so difficult – democracy doesn’t stand a chance without a middle class.’

Economic agenda

These and other social changes in the East were not recognized by the West, thinks Van der Poel. ‘We were mainly interested in intellectuals like Václav Havel, György Konrad and Milan Kundera. However, they did not reflect the opinions of the Central European population but of a Western-orientated elite.’ Later on, too, there was little interest in the West for the experiences of Central and Eastern Europeans. Van der Poel: ‘There has never been an integration of East and West. All the West was interested in was assimilation. We forced our economic agenda on the East, assuming that they’d want nothing more than to be able to lead as Western a lifestyle as possible as soon as possible.’

Old knee-jerk reactions

The rude awakening is now well underway. The West looks uncomprehendingly on the ‘ungrateful’ attitude of new EU member states, who seem to be deliberately frustrating European unity. Van der Poel: ‘President Klaus of the Czech Republic is an excellent example. He is still partly acting on the basis of old knee-jerk reactions and still regards Germany as a potential aggressor.’ A lack of a feeling of responsibility also plays an important role, however, thinks the historian. ‘But what else could you expect? Two or three generations in Central and Eastern Europe have learned to show no initiative whatsoever but rather to obey the system. It will take some time before there are new leaders who have learned to take responsibility.’

Learning from Central and Eastern Europeans

Westerners must show more interest in the history and the experiences of their Eastern neighbours, thinks Van der Poel. ‘Although we in the West have reached a level of freedom and prosperity that others do not yet have, that is no justification for feeling superior.’ Western confidence should not only be based on economic performance, thinks Van der Poel, but also on cultural values. ‘We’re very uncertain in the West about who we are and what binds us together. In my opinion, we could learn something from what Central and Eastern European intellectuals have written about solidarity, citizenship and what it means to live in freedom.’

Curriculum vitae

Stefan van der Poel (1968) is lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Groningen. He gained a PhD in 2004 with a thesis on the Jewish community in the city of Groningen between 1796 and 1945. In addition to modern Jewish history, Van der Poel is also specialized in Central and Eastern European history.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
printView this page in: Nederlands

More news