Disruption and Return: East-West relations and the Idea of Europe

Welcome to the second chapter of Stories of Europe! Dr. Ville Erkkilä presents us a story of Europe that ties together, somewhat unexpectedly, Estonian stamps and post-World War II land reforms with a certain ambiguous narrative that sees the 20th century in terms of a temporary disruption limited by two huge breaks in European history: the years 1945 and 1989.

Collecting stamps in a static world

Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Stamp (1929) ©️ Wikimedia Commons

When Dr. Ville Erkkilä was a child in the 1980s, Europe was divided into the East and the West. This division was a fact of life and seemed permanent – so permanent, in fact, that when young Erkkilä found an Estonian stamp from the 1930s and excitedly presented it to his teacher, wondering whether one day Estonia might have its own stamps again, the teacher shot the idea down: “We’ll all be pushing daisies before that happens.”

Some years later, the Soviet Union fell apart and Estonian stamps started circulating again. The world Erkkilä grew up in was not static after all, but in a state of flux.

The idea of constant change, in contrast to the very human perception of the world we live in being eternal, has become a unifying theme in Erkkilä’s work and offers interesting perspectives to the problems Europe has faced since the year 1989.  

Europe, interrupted

The year 1989 and the subsequent end of the Cold War have many names and meanings: the Year of Miracles that ended history and the moment that Western liberalism supposedly triumphed over Eastern despotism. These contemporary evaluations have since turned out to be more or less false.

The Year of Miracles celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, and one could say that for post-Cold War Europe, its meaning and legacy are now in the same crisis as most thirtysomethings – searching for meaning, identity and clarity.  

“The year 1945 has been presented as an enormous, clean break which divided Europe into two, both physically and mentally”, Erkkilä explains. “This temporary disruption supposedly ended with another break in 1989, after which the former Soviet bloc returned back to its ‘real’ roots in Europe.” Erkkilä takes issue with many aspects of this narrative, which he calls the narrative of temporary disruption and difficult return 

The turn of the millennium saw a renaissance of the idea of Europe, where politicians, economists, legal scholars and historians alike thought that after the temporary disruption caused by the world wars and the division of Europe, the continent had been given a chance to rediscover itself and that the core of ‘being European would now be within its reach.  

But was it? Not really, says Erkkilä: “When problems arose, the role of the scapegoat fell on the former Socialist republics.” As the former Soviet bloc struggled to adapt to Western European expectations, the narrative of temporary disruption was joined by the narrative of difficult return, in which Eastern Europe was blamed for not adopting European values and ideals fast enough. There was a certain hastiness and impatience in regards to the former Socialist bloc”, Erkkilä says. 

The danger of othering

According to Erkkilä, these two intertwining narratives have been and still are damaging to European unity.  Their direct consequences can be seen in the crises of recent years: populism, election results and the rise of un-democratic movements across the continent. As Western Europe, which stayed outside the disruption, searches for blame in the East, Eastern Europe finds a certain hypocrisy in the West:  

“Living according to the European ideals has been difficult in the Western and Northern parts of Europe as well, even if we don’t like to admit it”, Erkkilä says. “The narrative of difficult return plants dangerous seeds of an othering narrative into the heart of Europe. In times of crisis, the othering narrative can grow into something weird and disturbing, when we define the story of us, of Europe, again and anew.” 

So where exactly did we go wrong? According to Erkkilä, the mistake was made in the 1990s and early 2000s, when European countries assumed that they could leave behind the negative aspects of nation states and that they had matured enough to forgo their history altogether. In other words, Europe tried to forget the barely demolished walls, both physical and mental, which has led us to the current frustrations in the European Union and within the continent at large.  

Picture: Max Letek @Blackprojection/Unsplash.

Berlin wall ©️ Max Letek/Unsplash.

“The impatience in relation to Eastern Europe stems from the expectation that human communities are defined by their societal model and governance only”, Erkkilä says.

“My view is that the identities of individuals and human societies have multiple levels and components which have their own ‘timelines’ – they define the long-term ideas of who we are, and they do not necessarily change at the same pace as societal or governmental models.” 

One aspect of this idea will be the central focus of Erkkilä’s upcoming research project on land reforms on the two sides of the Iron Curtain: in Finland, Soviet Estonia and the GDR. Erkkilä tells us that while he wants to do research on Europe and European people, he wants to do it from a different perspective:

“The narrative of temporary disruption focuses only on political ideology and certain years and dates, as if they are the most important factors in history. It overshadows the focus on people’s mundane, daily lives: how they interact with the landscape and their surroundings. Sure, laws and political decisions affect people, but there are also other things that define us.  

Erkkilä also points out that despite differences in ideology and political regime, European experiences of identity and belonging in relation to property and land use in the 20th century are strikingly similar on both sides of the Iron Curtain. What is different was how these experiences were translated into history books.

In the West, in this case in Finland, the land reform that was done in the aftermath of the Second World War has become known as a great patriotic project. By contrast, the land collectivisations carried out in East Germany and Soviet Estonia are seen as forced, state-led projects that benefited only the regime.

Neither narrative is totally correct nor totally false, as Erkkilä points out: “These reforms are presented as huge undertakings carried out by two opposing ideologies, which led, respectively, to either markedly Western or Eastern results. This view leaves out the people's experiences.”    

Standing by the European promise

According to Erkkilä, prevalence of the narrative of temporary disruption and difficult return tells us that the core idea of 'Europe' is still on somewhat shaky ground. "Instead of trying to define what Europe or being European means or signifies, we should strive for temporally and historically conscious dialogue of where we come from and where we are going", he concludes.

Despite the obvious flaws and darker areas of the European idea, Erkkilä does not advocate for its abandonment, quite the contrary: “At the core of the idea of Europe there is a promise of extremely important values and desirable ways of co-existence. Abandoning that promise would mean abandoning the idea that Europeans should strive together for something better – for justice, community, and rationality.”

In other words, even if Europe remains an unfulfilled promise, it is a promise we should try to keep.  

Picture: Doğukan Şahin/Unsplash

Berlin Wall ©️ Doğukan Şahin/Unsplash 


Ville Erkkilä is a post-doctoral researcher in the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence in Law, History and the European Narratives, in Subproject 1. He is the author of The conceptual change of conscience: Franz Wieacker and German legal historiography 1933-1968 (Mohr Siebeck, 2019) as well as the editor of an upcoming monograph, Socialism and Legal History: The Histories and Historians of Law in Socialist East Central Europe (edited together with Hans-Peter Haferkamp, Routledge, 2020).  

Find Ville Erkkilä on University of Helsinki Research Portal and check out his interesting column on European history at Poliitikasta.fi!


Text: Bea Bergholm & Iida Karjalainen

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