Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Reader Review: The German Myth of the East

Here is our latest reader review of Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ The German Myth of the East.

By Eric Limbach,

The title of this work is something of a misnomer. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is very clear that the past two centuries have seen no single overarching or monolithic 'German Myth of the East.' Rather, he argues, there were many such myths, some barely more than faint perceptions, others thoroughly engrained through generations of contact. Furthermore, the myths that the author considers are, more often than not, deeply contradictory. Readers with even a passing familiarity with European history will undoubtedly expect a book focused on ideas of violent conquest and German domination. On this account, Liulevicius does not disappoint, but he also presents a much broader picture.

For example, stories of the medieval Teutonic Order and its crusades against the native Prussians and other groups provided the justification for many German actions in Eastern Europe during both world wars (and many smaller wars as well). Yet for every Marienburg, Tannenberg or Barbarossa, there were many other approaches, less violent if no less prejudiced. A recurring theme is the perennial German criticism of ‘Polish management’: the perceived contrast between German skills for clearing forests, draining swamps and creating arable land and the Polish inability to make or maintain such improvements by themselves. These ideas have deep roots in German self-perceptions, and were used as a justification for German colonisation and improvement of unoccupied (and, quite often, Pole-occupied) land well into the 20th century, as well as to criticise Polish control over former German territory after the Second World War.

This contrast between an imposed Germanic order displacing Slavic disorder is thus one persistent and recurring image of the German East. However, Liulevicius notes that even such widespread sentiments were occasionally forgotten or overlooked. Many German liberals and academics supported the Polish uprising of November 1830, adopting the Poles' cause as a surrogate for their own nationalism. Others, like the Hanover-born linguist Georg Sauerwein, sought an active role among the non-German inhabitants of Eastern Europe. In Sauerwein's case, his zeal to prevent the Lithuanian language from dying out in East Prussia led him to criticise Germanisation policies enacted by Bismarck's government. In his support for Lithuanian nationalism, Sauerwein spent two decades living in the area and eventually adopted the Lithuanian name Jurgis Sauerveinas.

While the work's primary focus is on Germany and northern Europe, from the Elbe to the Baltic coast and beyond, Liulevicius does not overlook the Austrians, whose own East stretched down the Danube to Romania and south through the Balkans. In particular, it was the Imperial Austrian notion of internal conflicts along a ‘language frontier' that had a significant impact on both German-speaking states at the turn of the 20th century. This helped to shape later Austrian attitudes towards both their larger German-speaking neighbour and their former Slavic imperial subjects.

Cataloguing this wide spectrum of myths, ideas and perceptions is an ambitious task and one that several generations of German scholars have taken on, with varying degrees of success. However, as the author argues, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, such attempts were themselves bound up with these myths, and often sought to perpetuate one or another set of views. Proponents of this 'East Research' or Ostforschung prospered under both dictatorships and democratic regimes, even as they adapted their research to the political climate of the time. Only in the past two or three decades have German-language scholars begun to come to terms with this part of their academic past.

Although he may not make such an explicit claim, Liulevicius' focus on one of the most problematic aspects of German identity has resulted in nothing less than his own brief history of Germany. While that history may be, as some scholars have argued, a 'long march west', his work shows that the occasional 'glance over the shoulder' has not been missed.

The German Myth of the East, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (Oxford University Press)

Eric Limbach is a PhD student at Michigan State University where he is completing a thesis on East German refugees.

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