What are You?

No, not “a fish,” or “irritated.” I will assume that most of my readers are mammals, or can pass for mammals. How do you define yourself culturally or in terms of Nation? In the US, this is a question that causes much puzzlement, perhaps amusement, or if you ask the wrong person, a long lecture about identity and why one dare not assume such a thing about a different person. Elsewhere, you will get a clear answer, perhaps. Then, if you go farther and ask “Why are you a/an X?” the reply might take hours of history to understand.

Yes, my mind has drifted into Central Europe again. Part of it is writing related, part is not writing related, and part is because I need a vacation and Medieval Europe seems pretty mellow compared to here and now. (Heck, in some ways the Volkerwanderung seems mellow compared to here and now.) The Middle Ages, AD 800 CE to 1500 or so, is the period when us vs. them expanded past tribe to fellow-religionists, and then to the idea of the Nation, the Volk, the People, a larger-scale “us.” States such as Poland-Lithuania, Hungary, and Bohemia became recognized political and economic units, and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations provided a common government*, economic stability (sort of), and a mediating power in much of Central Europe.

How do you define “Central Europe?” How do you define “Polish,” or “Hungarian,” or for a real challenge, “German?” YOu can use geography, as somewhere between the Urals and Atlantic Ocean, except then a lot of Russia is included, and everyone agrees that Russia is not Central Europe. So between the Atlantic and the Pripet Marshes? What about the Dnieper? Most people would agree on Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, and possible/probably Croatia. So the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Hungary,** and Poland.

All these countries are Western Christian – Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Uniate, Hussite, or Anabaptist – or Jewish (not as common as in the past). All look west for culture and political ideas, more toward Rome-as-Imagined than to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The historian Lonnie R. Johnson adds multi-national empires (multi-ethnic), opposition to the Ottomans, and lagging behind western Europe after the Renaissance. (Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends). You can quibble the details, but there’s a core there that works very well with what I’ve read and observed over the years. Poles and Hungarians most certainly look west, not east, for their history and culture, even if they look west warily. Germany post 1700 is suspect, to put it mildly, and the Poles traditionally tried to avoid getting entangled in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Hungary likewise. Bohemia got in, then tried to get out (or at least to gain more independence within the Empire once the Habsburgs took over. 1620 took care of that for, oh 300 years give or take.)

Language works to define Pole, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian, but Austrians and Germans all speak German, and there are differences in the culture and attitudes of the various parts of Austria and Germany. Someone from Hamburg is rather different from a Styrian. And the Swiss speak German, some of them, even if the Germans and Austrians aver that they can’t read written Swiss, or understand parts of spoken Swiss. But Switzerland is not Central Europe. Hamburg, the Rhineland, and Ruhr are not really Central Europe entirely, if you require Ottoman opposition and lagging behind Western Europe.

I think it comes down to “here’s the general guideline, and we’ll sort out the specifics later.” Sort of like “Hungarian.” Speaks Hungarian, is western Christian (but probably not Lutheran, because Lutheran is German,) or Jewish. Probably lives in or near modern Hungary. Is aware, possibly too aware, of Hungarian history, or a certain understanding of it. Prrrrooooobably no longer swears he or she is a descendant from one of the five founding princes who were the sons of a princess and an eagle, but . . . Poles are Catholic or Jewish or Uniate, not Lutheran, but other flavors of Protestant? Eh, well . . .

There’s a LOT of history in all those definitions and identities. Some of it is documented history, some of it is felt history, some is just understood but not really discussed. For Americans, it seems odd, perhaps anachronistic, downright off-putting perhaps to have the legislature vote to affirm that the Virgin Mary is the Queen of Poland. The US Constitution forbids that. Poland? No problem. Some controversy, but no problem. Ditto Hungary affirming that Mary is the true ruler of Hungary, and that other governments are care-takers. There are deep cultural as well as religious reasons for these choices, and links that go very, very far back, a thousand years back, in the past.

America is an idea and a choice. Central Europe is . . . a wonderful part of the world with too much history to be comfortable, at times. A Romanian writer-associate opined that “You don’t want to live in a place where a lot of history happens.” There’s something to that.

*In the sense that lots of people recognized that it existed, and claimed membership, and at least nominally followed its rules and decrees.

** Hungary claimed Croatia, or vice versa, before 1526, then again after the mid 1700s. Hungary also claimed what is now a chunk of Romania, just to confuse things.

13 thoughts on “What are You?

  1. Have you taken on Philip Bobbett’s =The Shield of Achilles=? Not a light read, and if you don’t grok the introductory matter, you’ll miss the point of the book, but national identity and the form of the State are central.

    • Once, when it had just been released. I was up to my chin in other alligators at the time, and I couldn’t get past the introduction because I couldn’t take the time to make notes and chew on what he was arguing.

  2. “It’s complicated” doesn’t begin to cover the mess. Family, tribe, ethnic, social, religious, trade, military, terrain, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Each separate item is an additional axis in multivariate space. It makes Carpathian geology look rational and simple.

  3. IIRC in many periods of European History, it wasn’t what nation you were part of, but which noble that you had to pay taxes to.

    IE The local nobles were more important (to the average person) than Nation.

  4. Kate’s gift thread is touching on mental health now.

    I identify as crazy, for a couple different reasons. One being that I know I have issues, and fooling myself about tendency to make certain mistakes is a bad idea. Another, it insulates me against manipulation of the ‘surely a sane person only thinks thoughts of the consensus variety’.

    But I also identify as crazy in the cultural sense. American Psychological Association, back in the day, said something about mental health being defined in a cultural context. I thought this was very shrewd. Culturally, I see myself as ‘Crazy American’, in that being American should seem crazy to anyone operating from a foreign cultural context.

    This is part of why I favor politics of subsidiarity. I think it is normal for groups to have differences that prevent being able to negotiate a consensus, and deliver behavior that fits the agreement.

    Some other thoughts, that I will maybe email.

    • =Wonen and Madness=, Phyllis Chesler.
      Also the distinction between ‘honor’ and ‘guilt’ cultures. The web pages on the topic that I was familiar with have aged away.
      In the 1600’s, anyone talking to a small, glowing rectangle and getting an audible answer would have been pressed as a witch. Anyone watching a Marvel movie on a flat screen would have questioned hiz sanity.

  5. What? You’re not even going to touch on the Poland-Lithuania divide?
    (innocent look)

  6. My understanding of the Old Country is that language and religion were the most important factors in one’s identity. Example: a German-speaking family that had lived in Prague for generations would still be considered German, not Czech (which did not end well), and Jews never belonged anywhere (which ended worse). Americans as a rule find this very hard to grasp.

    • Then you get into Cultures where “tribe” is the most important thing.

      Somebody might speak “your” language but is of another tribe so he’s “not your kind”.

    • Yes. The idea that people who had moved into the area in the late 1200s – 1300s (at the invitation of the local nobles because of serious post-Mongol depopulation) would be considered foreign and kicked-out in the 1920s and 1940s . . . Boggles. Being insular in the US is a quirk, to an extent, not grounds for expulsion unless enough members of your group start rebelling against the government and/or society.

      • That’s one of the big reasons I hate watching what’s happening in the US today. The US was supposed to be different – a place where what you were didn’t matter, only who you were. We haven’t always lived up to that ideal, but we’re trying. And yet, there are some very powerful people who think that reverting to tribalism, and setting those tribes at each others’ throats, is going to benefit them. Idiots.


        I think “the idea of the Nation, the Volk, the People” goes back a lot further than the Middle Ages – at least as far as Ancient Egypt, which was conquered several times and underwent lots an’ lots of cultural changes, but never seems to have stopped being one nation.

        On the topic of Central Europe and history… my grandfather was a great world traveler. Several times he went to Central Europe. he was also an avid photographer, so wherever he went he came home with pictures, lots of pictures. A couple of years ago I was looking at some of his photos, of a trip to Bucharest. One look at those photos made it clear that Bucharest was … well, the word that came to mind was OLD. The buildings, the streets, the walls, even the architecture – they all radiated “age”. Communist-era buildings standing side by side with 1800s-style houses, backdropped by recognizably Roman-built bridges, all in the shadow of a huge medieval castle/fortress built atop a nearby hill.
        Quite literally another world from anything I’m familiar with.

        • I don’t think anyone has been able to invent a new evil, for which we should give profound thanks.

  7. Genealogically I’m a mutt. Mix of British Isles (Primarily Irish and English with welsh and Scotts thrown in for fun) with Scandinavian (Swede, Dutch) and French Canadian (and perhaps Mohawk, though I cant see it even 7-8 generations back). As a people I’m a New England Yankee. This is an endangered species, they’re crotchety, rather independent and frugal, they do have a touch of Don Quixote about them (c.f. Abolition, WCTU and a bunch of other hopeless tasks). They have been supplanted by a bunch of overly protected middle class dweebs (many of the Yankee strain). The other group I identify with are the Odds/Nerds/Geeks. There’s a tendency to be outsiders, a fondness for Fantasy/Sci-fi and escapism of all sorts. This is hand in hand with a fair bit of skepticism and a tendency to avoid interaction with non Odds, and to avoid conflict in most cases.

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