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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 1:17–24.


Integration or Disintegration in Europe: West and East

When a historian answers a question, his answer is supposed to be based on his professional knowledge of the past. But the questions are often put by the present. They are connected with the problems of his own age, his own world-problems which need a historical approach to be better understood. They have to be put into a historical perspective and to be traced back to their origins.


Recent works of the British–German historian, Professor Ernest Gellner have shown that nation, nation-state, nationalism are relatively recent phenomena of historical evolution. In 1900, a Hungarian historian, Gyula Pauler wrote an otherwise quite solid book under the title: History of the Hungarian Nation up to Saint Stephen – that is, our first king in the early eleventh century. No Hungarian historian would choose the same title for a similar book today. Now we know that the modern nations of our days have been formed – after certain antecedents – in the last two or three centuries. Loyalty in the Middle Ages was a tie binding people firstly to local communities, to religion, to personal and family links.

For this reason, they perceived to a lesser extent their belonging to a wider ethnic, linguistic “nationality” – although well marked signs also of this kind of loyalty could in fact be observed already in those times. In France, at first, the inhabitants of certain provinces were called “nations”. It was from the 13th century on that the concept of a common homeland, communis patria, appeared along, in a wider sense, with the concept of natio. This, however, devoted only a restricted stratum of society, the privileged nobility. It was the appearance of the nation state which fundamentally changed the situation. At the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution swept away the royal absolutism and feudal privileges. The representatives of the Tiers Etat took in hand, in the name of the nation, the direction of the French state and society. In principle, one single nation lived within the state: the French. And there was a single official language, the French. In reality, of course, there could be found, even within the French state, also other ethnic elements, hardly speaking French.

This nation-state became the main model of other national movements as well, even in East Central Europe, where its preconditions were rather defective. Firstly, the social and economic level was less advanced. Also they did not have independent and unified states. Even the one-time independent states became parts of greater, multinational empires. This was the case of Hungary which, along with Bohemia, belonged, after 1526, to the Habsburg monarchy, or that of Poland which was partitioned at the end of the 18th century. In the South-East, Serbia and the Rumanian principalities had been since long under Ottoman rule. And – last but not least – the given political frontier coincided even less with the ethnic ones. The various ethnic elements lived in this region even more intermingled. This fact, the multinational character of many parts of this zone led to national tensions and conflicts ever since the early 19th century.

Whatever difficulties their process of development had to face, all these nations came to exist, and their existence is to be regarded as a lasting historical fact. The best historical works dealing with the evolution of the nations all share the view that, although the dangerous excesses of nationalism must be repudiated, it would be a great mistake to consider national evolution a kind of avoidable aberration – to quote Professor Gellner’s words. Or to quote another specialist, my late friend Professor Hugh Seton-Watson, the throwing aboard of national heritage would entail political decadence, since it would suppress rich sources of human culture. It seems therefore that we have to come back to the idea of István Széchenyi, founder of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who maintained that each nation represented a special value for humanity, not only our own nation.

Europe is composed of many nations. And if the process of integration will successfully go on and extend over new regions, this diversity will even be increased. Europe will never become a uniform, single nation. Integrated Europe can only be a free association of existing nations, great or small, which will all preserve their identity within the common greater framework characterized by traditional plurality and, consequently, by mutual respect, tolerance and better information. A double – national and European – loyalty can well coexist in harmony.

Recently, several authors expressed the opinion that the days of the nation- state are counted. According to Eric Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge 1990), the globalization of economy made the nation-states to lose their former economic role. David Harvey (The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford 1989) pointed out that since 1945 transnational relations and activities passed over the national frontiers and sovereignties, as far as global capitalism and postmodern culture is concerned, and that finance capital will obtain a greater coordinating role in the new world economy than the nation-states.


There is, of course, a great deal of truth in these statements. However, the activities of finance capital did not restrict themselves to national boundaries in the past century either, and transnational capitalism is not quite a recent invention of the postmodern era.

We have the impression that the globalisation of economy will have, of course, a great impact on the role of the existing states, but not immediately, in the near future, and that it will modify and restructure rather than eliminate their functions. At least, this is the broadly speaking unanimous opinion of a team of specialists which recently analysed this problem in a special number of Daedalus, a review edited by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It was mainly in Western Europe and not all over globe that the scope of action of the functions of the nation-state was, to an extent, reduced – in consequence of the process of European integration.

The European Communities were born in a historic moment under the impact of two main factors. The first was that two great nations, the French and the German, having suffered tragic losses in two consecutive, catastrophic World Wars, concluded that it would be better to give hands to and cooperate with each other. The more so, as another factor, an external danger appeared, as a common enemy: the expanding military power of the Soviet Union. The Soviet had already swallowed, after the Second World War, the eastern parts of Central Europe. The enemy was threatening and the fate of the subjugated East-Central European nations was rather bitter. But this dangerous phenomenon offered, to the West, certain advantages as well. It gave an impetus to the Western nations to cooperate. It helped this way the formation of the common market. It also took over the control of and the responsibility for the conquered poorer, eastern part of Europe. It was easier to get rich in the West without having to deal with the problems of the less developed eastern zone.

It is, of course, not our task here to go into the details of the process of European integration. These nation-states and non-nation-states – Belgium is not a nation-state – gave up and pooled certain parts of their national sovereignty while they still retained important functions. The essential fact remains that gradual integration proceeded successfully and it was regarded, from far, by the lost brother in the East, with nostalgic envy.

A certain slowing down in this process could be observed at the turn of the eighties and the nineties. For two reasons. Political regulations of the integrating process have bitten for the first time deeper into the national sovereignties. Probably an even more important factor was, however, the sudden and un- expected collapse of the Soviet Union. The common danger, this useful enemy ceased to exist, at least in its existing form. We cannot exclude, of course, new scenarios with other forms of danger, from local military conflicts which could become serious to the re-emergence of a new power reviving old imperial traditions of expansion.

Former Soviet Countries

In any case, we hope that the process of integration will be continued. Another new problem arose, however, from the fact that the nations of the East- Central zone got rid of the foreign rule and now wished to rejoin their western brother. But they were in a rather poor state of health, especially from an economic point of view. Their former market economy had been suppressed. Their new artificially planned industry lost the collapsing Soviet or Russian market. Democratic political institutions could be more or less easily reorganised. However, under the impact of the shock effect of the long and often cruel oppression they have experienced in the past decades including the severe reprisals which followed the Hungarian revolution of 1956, these societies, with their offended national feelings, became inclined to approach their problems from an emotional, sometimes irrational, instead of a balanced, practical, rational point of view. And this fact helped old and new nationalist, populist tendencies or even passions to arise, in some places of course more than in others. The more so as the former communist regimes have always had an inclination to coquetting and manipulating with old, romantic, nationalist slogans. This was probably the sugar icing with which they tried to sweeten the pill of Marxism-Leninism, too bitter to be swallowed alone. Now, after the political change, the old, remaining communist forces, where they existed – and in some places they existed – joined hands with the nationalists. This alliance is quite evident in some cases, the details of which. I shall refrain from specifying.

The tragic events in what had been Yugoslavia evidently show that the European Community was not prepared to deal with these problems effectively. Instead, divided in this matter, they were unable to take action. The more so, as the European Community is a giant from an economic point of view, but politically still a child and militarily an embryo. And the lack of necessary counter-measures is always helping the aggressors, those who try to create faits accomplis by sheer force and brutal methods. It also encourages those people, in other countries, who are inclined to follow this example.

The South-Slav conflicts and the fortunately peaceful and civilized divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks gave the impression to some western observers that in the eastern zone of Europe, a process of disintegration is taking place. According to them the two halves of Europe are moving in an opposite direction: integration in the West, disintegration in the East. And so, these two parts can never be united. As a historian, I should like to modify, to correct a little this opinion. Before the compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 between Austria and Hungary, a Hungarian statesman, Ferenc Deák, said that if a waistcoat is wrongly buttoned, it has to be unbuttoned entirely in order to be buttoned up again, this time correctly. I think this statement is valid in the present situation of East- Central Europe as well.

In the cases of both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, one had to deal with artificial, false federations created after the First World War when the peacemakers, evoking the national principle, wanted to replace with smaller states old multinational Austria–Hungary, an ex-ally of Germany. In reality, however, neither of these two states were nation-states. They inherited the multinational character and many problems of the old monarchy, and combined them with some new pretensions of a nation-state. We also have to add that in this zone of Europe, with its multiethnic and mixed character, in a region where it was more or less impossible to separate the various nations by a political frontier, practically neither of the new states could be called complete nation- states. One-third of the Hungarian nation found itself separated from the mother country by the new frontiers.

I have to tell you that I am not quite convinced that multinational political frameworks have always played a bad role in the world. In some cases they could fulfil a historical function – think of the common market of the old Habsburg monarchy.

Back to History?

It is surprising how much resistance this old-fashioned political structure could put up – it needed four years of war and the military defeat of the Central Powers to disintegrate. The defeat, of course, put an end to all previous essays of modernisation.

Anyhow, after the First World War East–Central Europe was politically and economically divided. The small states, weakened by national conflicts, were not strong enough to oppose external pressure and were swallowed up by two consecutive dictatorships successively: first by Hitler, and later by Stalin.

But – to return to our starting point – certain events which we are witnessing in some parts of East-Central Europe represent a critical reaction of history against some unsuccessful political attempts. With the dissolution of certain political creations the same process is being continued which started in East-Central Europe with the dissolution of the old monarchy after the First World War. The waistcoat is being unbuttoned in order to be re-buttoned up again in a correct way. Because it is quite improbable to imagine that the new small states, like Slovakia, Slovenia or Croatia, the births of which we can welcome as a normal historical phenomenon, should wish to isolate themselves from the European integration in the future. There are evident signs that all these states, together with their neighbours, are hoping and intending to join the EC sooner or later. The economic, political, cultural progress and the security of all these states, Hungary included, can only be assured within the greater common framework of an integrated Europe. To remain outside, to be marginalised both from economic and political point of view would be a very dangerous experiment indeed.

The dangers of conflict are not an inevitable result of the creation of these new states. The real danger comes from another process, which sometimes goes parallel, and is partly connected with, but which shall have to be clearly distinguished from the birth of the new states. This other phenomenon is an aggressive, exclusive and xenophobic nationalism which appears here and there in this region and which is not a necessary and inevitable concomitant of any nation and of any state. This nationalist tendency, whenever it appears, is incompatible both with the idea of an integrated Europe and with genuine national interest. European and real national interests are not opposed to each other, they can well coexist in harmony. Conflicting with both of them is, however, that obsolete and arbitrary kind of concept of nation-state, which insists on full sovereignty, rejects all international regulations as an interference in its internal affairs, while rendering possible for a dominant national group to consider the given state as its own exclusive property, and as its own unitary, homogeneous nation-state, to deprive other national groups of their cultural and other rights, and to look upon minorities as disturbing elements which should be eliminated as soon as possible. This nationalist concept is harmful to all the nations concerned and incompatible with the basic principles of an integrated Europe. No one is supposed to enter a decent restaurant without having some decent clothing on and without observing some basic rules of behaviour. No country of this region can expect to be able to join the European community without a functioning system of infrastructure and communication, and without observing the rules of environment protection. And – we have to add – without observing the rules of minority protection – rules prescribed by an international system of norms still to be formulated and respected. We are speaking here, of course, of a regional problem in East–Central Europe, where frontiers have moved, and not of Western Europe, with its immigrant problem. Here the states wishing to join the European Community will have to guarantee for all their eventual national minorities the right to use and cultivate their languages, to develop their cultures, to organise their own self-governed institutions, including, eventually, universities as well, in case of large groups, like two millions of Hungarians in Romania; and including free circulation of people, ideas, publications, and information. I particularly wish to emphasize this point because it is often misinterpreted. We are not interested in any territorial problem, in changing any political frontiers, but exclusively in the granting to the national minorities, individual and collective human rights. This does not endanger in any way the integrity, security and internal order of any states. On the contrary, it helps to develop friendly cooperation between all parties concerned much better than any oppressive measure dictated by anxiety.

International Organisations

We know, of course, that human rights were – and still are – often interpreted as individual rights exclusively. However, in certain cases – and that of the national minorities is one of them – individual rights cannot be effectively implemented without the support of collective rights. Let us refer to the peacemakers who, after the First World War, still had an idea of the troubles that might arise from their decisions. Therefore, they compelled the new states of this region to adopt (1919–1924) a system of minority protection. This system was imperfect and in many respects ineffective, but it could have been, later on, improved. Instead, the great change which came about after the Second World War went just in the opposite direction: instead of introducing a new, more efficient system, even the existing one was abolished. At the 1947 Paris peace negotiations it was not intended any more to supplement the new treaties with agreements on the protection of minorities. The problems of the latter were considered as the internal affairs of the respective states. The minorities were delivered into the hands of the governments in power. In this new situation also extremist, chauvinistic ambitions, moreover inhuman, Stalinist methods had got a free way which, by declaring certain ethnic minorities as war criminals, led to moral and legal absurdities, and also a long series of tragedies. Masses of innocent people were expelled, displaced from their native lands, their homes.

I think no one in Western Europe could understand why in our days old Hungarian villages should be forbidden to use also their original name on the signposts in a certain neighbouring country and how this pitiful problem could become a real political issue in the parliament of the concerned state.

For a long time, even the most important international bodies and organisations could hardly take any serious steps to adopt the principle of the protection of national minorities. In the last two decades or so, however, the balance of opinion slowly started to change. We hope that the change will soon be completed.

Eastern and Western Alternatives

Europe stands today, both in the West and in the East, before a difficult choice.

The nations of the eastern zone have to decide if they want to advance towards the 21st century, or to go back to the 19th century. The latter alternative would probably be easier for them for evident reasons, but in the long run it would be much more dangerous. It would involve a return to the early raw capitalism and the social and national conflicts of the 19the century, in an even worse variety, without the great achievements of that period. It would widen the distance separating them from the West. Their more difficult, but much more promising alternative is to adapt their socio-economic structure to the modern system of the West and to ease national tensions by accepting cultural plurality in their national states.

The West also has a difficult choice. It has to decide if it really wants to extend the framework of the European Community to include its eastern neighbours as well, or prefers to stay behind its protecting walls. Again, the latter alternative may seem easier, since the eastern zone, with its economic difficulties and national tensions could be regarded as a heavy burden. Hence certain hesitations, postponements, the tightening of precautionary measures. As if Portugal, when it joined the European Community, had been, more advanced than Bohemia or Czechia, for instance, today. As the chairman of the Hungarian Council of the European Movement, I had some personal experiences with nice declarations and practical difficulties. We even have the impression as if the international scene almost regretted the Soviet withdrawal from East-Central Europe, or at least, the fact that Russia is not in a position to take over the responsibility of supervising this region. In the long run, however, this would be the more dangerous alternative, even to the West. Not only because the European Community would deny its own original purpose and best traditions. The essential problem is that even the West itself would not be able to continue developing, if in its immediate vicinity, in a considerable zone, in one of its own great potential reserves of force, and assets in the global competition, misery and instability would prevail, an open wound on the back of Europe. We believe that it is in the West’s own interest to complete itself gradually, to include East- Central Europe in a not too distant future and so, in a stronger position, to face the next problem.

We could hardly wish something better to each other than a new Europe where both West and East, having chosen the more difficult but more promising alternatives, are living together in peace and in prosperity.


Domokos Kosáry, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences gave the first ”József Eötvös Memorial Lecture” of the Institut in 1992. Árpád Göncz, President of the Republic of Hungary attended the event. Both this speech and the director’s, Ferenc Glatz opening words are published among the ”Mitteilungen”, 103–106.