The girl who helps me with my ironing is Polish. She’s clever – too clever for ironing, but she does it because it’s not that easy to come over to Western Europe and find a job just like that. Really, she’s an engineer – mechanical. I found that out the other day as I watched her push the iron across a shirt, suddenly compelled to take it from her hand and give her a hard hat and iron toe shoes instead. They work hard, these people. Harder than us. They form part of a group of people we have designated as Eastern Europeans. We know, without even having to say it, that the economies of their countries are less developed than ours, but we do not stop to wonder why that is the case, just as we do not stop to examine how it is that they have become a sort of poor European cousin, relegated to the back seat while we drive on in the front, as though it is our birthright.
Poland is situated on the fringes of Eastern Europe, west of Russia and north of the Balkans. Together with the Balkan countries below it, which include Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria – not to mention Greece to the south, Poland has a turbulent history. All the Balkan countries do; when you delve into the past of these regions it is as though you are reading the substance of a never-ending nightmare. How did this nightmare come about, and what did it mean for the people who had to endure it?
Amusingly or not, the people of the Balkan countries were once considered, by the people of Western Europe, as barbarians. The term, ‘barbarian’ is an old one, used to describe a people who are ‘uncivilised’. The Goths, from whom many of the Balkan people descend, were once called barbarians because of their wild appearance and manners, and their warrior culture. The Germanic tribes, of whom the Goths were part, lived to the north, in Scandinavia, and the word ‘barbarian’ was once reserved for them. But, as Larry Wolff says in his book, ‘Inventing Eastern Europe’ (Stanford University Press, 1994), in the eighteenth century ‘barbarism shifted from the north to the east’, and the concept of an Eastern Europe was born in our consciousness. By then, the Balkans had had a good deal to endure. They had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire of the Turks. They had been forced by circumstance and destiny to change their faith and adopt a new system, which was entirely feudal in its construction.
While the rest of Europe emerged from the Renaissance and headed towards the Enlightenment, with all the scientific and industrial progress that came with it (not to mention the economic growth) the Balkan countries were still locked in a kind of never-ending system of serfdom. In the end, they had to fight their way out of it – and they did, with the Serb Uprising of 1804 and a second revolt ten years later. Then there was the Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1830. The Greeks were still smarting from the fall of Constantinople, which fuelled animosity between the two old enemies, and bloody battles raged between the Turks and the Greeks for years.
But the worst was yet to come. Just when the Balkan countries thought they had earned their right to growth and change, other empires stepped in to cause yet more havoc. Worried about who would gain control over the Balkans once the Turks had left, the Austro-Hungarians and Germany, the Russians, Britain, France and the US began to intervene, turning the Balkans into a powder keg that was just about ready to ignite in 1914, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo, and Germany made its secret pact with the Ottoman Turks.
The Balkan Wars, first between Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria against the Ottomans, and then between Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, were dreadful. The effect of the subsequent two World Wars on the Balkans would deliver the final blow to the aspirations of a downtrodden people, and even when the Western countries tried to make things better, all they did was make them worse. The region fell under the yoke of dictatorships; all hopes of democracy and self-determination became the dream of a future that would never come. The so-called barbarians of Europe had come to understand the real meaning of barbarity: politics.