Europe's Culture Wars


June 28, 1992|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

More than an economic rich-poor gap, a cultural rich-poor gap is growing in the world and turning into a source of much of its social violence. This is particularly apparent in Europe, where open social warfare rages in its eastern parts and cultural rebellions are shaping up in its west.

Culture is the ways a people live, work and think. But it also involves a people's sense of collective identity, who and what they are. When new cultures arise or old ones are threatened, they often can display awesome political force.

That force was recently demonstrated in the decision of the Slovaks to seek a breakup of the common republic they have had with the Czechs since 1918.

Despite disparities in development, the logic of a common economy favors a continuation of the Czechoslovak family. Some dialect variations aside, Czechs and Slovaks speak the same language. Most profess the same religion, Catholicism. And, despite their current dispute, neither harbors violent feelings against the other.

Nevertheless, from the republic's beginnings the two peoples felt themselves so distinct that their union seemed unnatural. And during the Nazi occupation, the Slovaks broke away to form an independent republic. The core of the Slovaks' anger is that they see the Czechs as robbing them of their cultural identity.

The Czechs are largely an educated, middle-class urban people. For centuries they have considered themselves a part of Western Europe's glorious history. They have also looked at the still largely rural Slovaks as country bumpkins who would do best if they became civilized Czechs as fast as possible.

The Slovaks are not just economically poorer than the Czechs but feel culturally poorer. For centuries they were occupied by more "civilized" outsiders: first the Austrians, then the Hungarians, then their sophisticated brother Czechs. Now they have decided on a family breakup, though they are willing to continue working with the Czechs on matters of common interest, especially economic ones.

The Czechoslovak breakup shows how strong the yearning for cultural identity is, even under circumstances where the parties involved harbor no violent antagonism for each other. Similar yearnings can be found all over Europe, but rarely as nonviolent as this breakup.

Throughout the former Soviet Union, culturally subordinate groups are seething with rage against culturally dominant ones. For example, blood is now being shed in battles between minority Russians in newly independent Moldova and the majority Romanian-speaking Moldovans. The latter, now politically dominant, were long looked down on by Russians and Ukrainians as garbage.

Dozens of similar and often violent cultural confrontations exist elsewhere in the sprawling former Soviet Union.

In the former Yugoslavia, culture is at the heart of the mass killing now taking place in Bosnia. Since Yugoslavia's founding in 1918, the Serbs have lorded it over the Croats and Muslims. Yet for centuries Serbian culture was trampled on by Catholic Austrians and Muslim Turks. And like the Slovaks, the Serbs, too, were long regarded by others as country hicks.

Despite Western Europe's moves toward greater unity, older cultural confrontations continue: between Catholic and Protestant Irish, Flemish and Walloons, Basques and Spaniards, Corsicans and French, etc.

But Western Europe's most threatening cultural confrontations loom between the old Europeans and the new immigrants, largely Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. As in the United States, a lot of cultural confrontation is masked by the word "crime," and in both regions "crime" is growing relentlessly.

When people live well, have good jobs and enjoy the pleasure of fine minds, they are culturally rich. Those who do not have these benefits are culturally poor. But whether rich or poor, all peoples have some sense of collective identity, be it social, religious or class. When poverty threatens identity, cultural as well as economic, people will get angry and that anger can easily turn into rage and open cultural rebellion -- as is happening in Europe today.

Franz Schurmann teaches history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and writes a weekly column for Pacific News Service.

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