Old Patterns of the Mind

I was chatting with someone at the range (after we’d both finished and were outside the “eyes and ears* or else” area) about shooting when tired and achy, and why we needed to do it. That wandered around and around to talking about Eastern and Central Europe and the past six years or so, personal safety, and how different countries have responded to the “migrant crisis” as it is delicately phrased. The other party was aware of some of the mess and how Eastern Europe has been, let us say, firm about certain things.

Which led my mind to thinking about old borders and administrations and patterns that return. Until I read Andrew Wheatcroft’s book about the events of 1682-1700, I had never thought about how the constant threat from the Ottomans, be it real or perceived, shaped Habsburg thinking and their responses to things. I also had taken for granted that the Holy Roman Empire of the Germany Nation (HRE 2.0) had been outmoded, useless, and had kept Germany from accomplishing anything until after 1871. If you shift your view point from Berlin to Vienna, things change a little, and readers know I incline toward the Vienna-centric approach to the HRE 2.0. It just makes sense, especially when you start asking questions like, “If it was so useless, why didn’t it disappear earlier, like the 1500s, or especially after 1648?”

But it is the Habsburg/Polish/Hungarian approach to “dangers from the East” that I’ve been chewing on recently. You can argue that it is more about “have the EU benefits without accepting the responsibilities and policies,” and “they’re behind the times and insular and that’s a very bad thing compared to Germany, Belgium, and France.” I’m more curious as to “why has everyone reverted so quickly?” I suspect there are a couple of reasons, some of which don’t apply to all the various countries equally.

The oldest is that danger came from the east. Mongols, Russians, Ottomans, Russians, Ottomans . . . They posed greater threats over the long sweep of time than did the German-speaking peoples to the west. Even at their worst, the German-speaking invaders were recognizably Western in terms of religion and cultural influences. They also didn’t enslave people like the Ottomans did. Keep in mind, we’re talking the 1200s on. The Twentieth Century . . . Is a bit of an anomaly thanks to totalitarianism, but the Soviet Union lived down to the expectations of those who recalled what Imperial Russia had done in the 1800s-1917. So Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech and Slovak lands, Croatia, all had a common long cultural assumption that trouble came from the east and south, and that if they didn’t work together at least on occasion, trouble tended to win. That’s not how the political leaders would phrase it, of course, and until 2016 or so it wasn’t a major concern, although everyone kept a weather eye on Russia just out of habit.

The living memory is, of course, Russia in the form of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Russia wants a friendly buffer zone between them and . . . everyone else. Teutonic knights, then Poland (early 1600s), then Sweden, then Napoleon, then Imperial and Nazi Germany, then NATO. How Russia deals with its neighbors is not always taken as “friendly,” especially after 1918. People remember what Soviet domination was like before 1989, and they don’t like some of the EU policies that seem to echo the USSR. It doesn’t help that certain EU politicians (like those elsewhere) slide into “do it my way or else” language. The “or else” of the USSR was rather too well known. The “or else” of Brussels and Berlin? Not quite as memorable thus far.

The point being, there’s nothing like an outside irritation to get people to drop differences and work together, especially if those people have a common history of “us vs them.” No, the Hungarians don’t love Austrians, and Croats and Slovaks are not racing to join a Greater Hungary. Poland is Poland, and has a long memory, although they seem to consider the Habsburg occupation the lesser of three evils. So when lots and lots of people move into Europe (or are moved into Europe), and those people do not seem interested in adopting Western culture and priorities, old ties snap into place. The old patterns reemerge, not identical, not exact, but . . . The border strip between the HRE 2.0 and Russia and the Ottomans seems to be reverting a bit to “us against the barbarians.”

I see some of it in the US, although not as clearly because we are such a hodge-podge, and because we do not share the blood-and-soil ties to place and culture that Europeans have. We’re based on ideas, and like-minded people seem to be coalescing, intensifying their attitudes and connections, and drawing cultural lines. “These ideas are Us. Those ideas are Not Us. They may just be mistaken, or they may be wrong, or even evil, but they are Not Us. Change your ideas and you’re welcome to join Us.”

History never repeats (although some students do repeat history [or English, or Biology 101, or . . . ]). But patterns seem to remain, because people are people, and patterns are comfortable and familiar. As a historian and writer, the patterns are fascinating, even if I’d prefer not to live in Interesting Times.

*Eye and ear protection is required past a certain point. It’s easier to stop short, get organized, put on safety glasses and ear protection et cetera, then proceed. And safer, because I guarantee you that if you wait to get close to the firing line, the person in the next space over will be shooting something large and loud. The Range Safety Officer on duty will also get loud, even if he or she is not large.


15 thoughts on “Old Patterns of the Mind

  1. Uncle Vanya or Odd Mikhail stealing chickens is one thing. A horde from the east ir south killing the men, pillaging, and stealing all the young women is another. Kill the invader, THEN family and clan feuding. Priorities.

    Russia also has a gimlet eye on piwerd to the west. The U.S. Army has a carefully covered battle streamer on its standard: “Murmansk 1918”. This was not the League of Nations intervention, but an awkward moment of hostility soon stopped (but not forgotten).

  2. The eye and ear zone wasn’t established back in the early 1980s where I was shooting. The range in question had large plywood barriers between the pistol stations, so when I went to set up, I didn’t see that the fellow just left of me was preparing to shoot his revolver, a .44 Magnum, naturally. I have other problems in my ears but a certain amount of my tinnitus traces back to that incident. And yes, I put my ear protection on before getting near the firing lines after that.

  3. I’d simply classify the reluctance to accept hostile immigrants as “not being damned fools”.

  4. “These ideas are Us. Those ideas are Not Us.”

    THIS. So much this. The genius of the USA has been an instinct for finding successful divisions between these two categories. (And our current problems are due to some people trying to force changes to those categories, and other people resisting being forced.)

    The starting point is the Rule of Law: that the laws apply to everyone, and that no one is above the law. We got it from the Brits, although they may have gotten it from the Saxons.

    Then, a large dose of the British common law, filtered by a thousand years of tradition into a system that mostly worked well.

    After that — we import ideas from all over the world, mostly brought by immigrants. And then filter them, Us or Not Us. Recipes? Sure, unless they involve pets, or insects. Those recipes are Not Us. Religion? Whatever you like (we even invent our own), but there are red lines you can’t cross. Human sacrifice, polygamy / polyandry, forced conversions, beheading unbelievers, molesting children, slicing up the genitals of little girls: those things are Not Us. You can ask a lot of your followers (see Mormons and Sikhs) but there are things you cannot do.

    This is turning into an essay, not a blog comment, darnit. I’ll leave off here. But patriotism in the USA is really culturalism, not nationalism. The melting pot works. And “multi-culturalism” will be the death of us.

  5. Well, when you consider that for ‘most’ of European history, an eye to the east was ‘necessary’, it is kinda understandable…

  6. “I see some of it in the US, although not as clearly because we are such a hodge-podge, and because we do not share the blood-and-soil ties to place and culture that Europeans have. ”

    Also, for nigh on a hundred and fifty years we tended to focus on what made us similar, not what made us different. There have always been the d–n fools who brought their prejudices with them, but on the whole if you came here and worked hard and obeyed the law you could get accepted as American. We joined together and built something new. Something great.

    Sadly, all that changed in the early 1970s, when the civil rights movement became a KGB tool. It stopped demanding “let us be part of the greatness that is America!” and instead started demanding “destroy the greatness!”

  7. Of course, not too many years before the period you mention, the Hungarians WERE the trouble to the East. They eventually managed to more-or-less integrate into the West. However, I’d agree that that probably isn’t the way to bet when a new threat arises.

    • No. Too much of Western Civilization has been absorbed by the Magyars for them to abruptly revert to being steppe nomads. 🙂 Although there might be days when the Slovaks and a few others look at their neighbor and murmur something about “Well, it’s only been 1200 years. You never know . . .”

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