Europe’s long peace was built on ethnic cleansing
In the mid-2000s, the small Baltic nation of Latvia had a Janus quality. Riga’s picturesque downtown featured shopping malls, restored medieval architecture, and Western hotels. Snippets of English conversation could be heard by British backpackers and bachelor parties keen to explore a newly accessible (and relatively cheap) European capital. The accession in 2004 of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to the European Union seemed to herald a new era of openness and economic development for the Baltic States.
The outskirts of town, where I volunteered in a foster home to escape a reckless driving charge in Virginia, was quite different. There were no baroque apartments or medieval guildhalls in the suburbs, only drab apartment blocks. The second most common language was Russian, not because it had been widely adopted by Latvians, but because many native speakers had settled in the Baltic countries during the Soviet era. Since independence, significant Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia have campaigned for political autonomy and the teaching of the Russian language in schools. It is no coincidence that the Baltic countries are the target of Russian cyberattacks, aggressive air patrols and other provocations.
Europeans often make complacent references to the continent’s long peace after 1945. In truth, this settlement was built on the continent’s violent reorganization into ethnically cohesive nation states. Even today, the countries and regions on the periphery of Europe are plagued by the same internal conflicts that ravaged the whole continent in the first half of the 20th century.
In the European core, the communities that once inflamed great power rivalries – the Germans of the Sudetenland, the Italians of Dalmatia, the French of Alsace-Lorraine – have disappeared or been reabsorbed by their mother country. It is only on the European periphery, from the Baltic States to the Balkans, that ethnic divisions persist. These regions are still places of political tension, great power maneuvers and, in the case of the former Yugoslavia and now Ukraine, open conflict.
In the Western press, the war in Ukraine is often portrayed as a battle between a brave democratic underdog and the authoritarian bully next door. The ethnic and linguistic divisions that gave rise to the conflict also deserve consideration. The Ukrainian government’s contentious relationship with its large Russian-speaking minority served as a pretext for Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv and moved east, the strategic rationale for war seemed to shift from the rapid overthrow of the Ukrainian government to the consolidation of territorial gains in areas dominated by ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
It is not an endorsement of this war objective to say that by pursuing this strategic objective, Putin could place Ukraine in the position of many Western European countries three-quarters of a century ago. A Ukraine turned to its western provinces and cut off from a troublesome Russian minority could emerge as a politically more stable and nationally cohesive state. In 1996, political scientist Samuel Huntington described Ukraine as a “divided country”, wedged between its Catholic western provinces and the Orthodox and Russian-speaking East. Putin’s invasion brutally flattened the divide, leaving the country smaller but more cohesive. Ukraine, often perceived as backward or retrograde by its western neighbors, is undergoing the same national consolidation that most of Europe experienced in the mid-20th century.
When a European conflict last shocked the conscience of the West, ethnic and religious divisions were also to blame. Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia was the latest in a long line of imperial powers to suppress varieties of South Slavic nationalism. After his death and the collapse of communism, dormant ethnic and religious grievances resurfaced with a vengeance.
Media coverage of the war in Ukraine is reminiscent of the West’s dismayed reaction to the breakup of Yugoslavia, another conflict that shattered the myth that Europe has avoided violence for good. The Balkan Wars, however, did not result in the complete reorganization of the region into ethnically cohesive nation states. Bosnia still encompasses a Bosnian Muslim majority, a large Catholic Croat community and the breakaway Republic of Srpska, a Serbian Orthodox enclave to the east. The 1995 Dayton Accords, intended as a stopgap measure until a more lasting peace settlement can be agreed, remain in place because these ethnic and religious divisions have proven so intractable. As long as these fault lines persist, the Balkans will remain a powder keg.
If the Balkan wars had spilled over into a wider European conflict, ethnic tensions would have been the accelerator. According to American historian Larry Watts, the Hungarian army mobilized along the Romanian border in 1989 to protect the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, with tacit assurances from French President François Mitterrand that he would not object if Hungary recovered its lost province. In 2000, Corneliu Vadim Tudor came second in the Romanian presidential election. During his campaign, he called himself “Vlad the Impaler” and said of the Hungarians of Romania: “We are going to hang them directly by their Hungarian language!”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a controversial figure in Western Europe, in part because he still speaks the language of national grievances. An ethnic conflict between Romania and Hungary is extremely unlikely, mainly because the Hungarian enclave in Transylvania is proportionally much smaller than that of the Russian-speaking Latvians or the Bosnian Serbs. But Orban’s rhetorical support for Hungarian communities abroad recalls an earlier era of nationalistic passions. Echoes of that era linger even in liberal Budapest. As I write this in a downtown cafe, a woman has just walked in with a map of Greater Hungary, which includes large chunks of Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia and of modern Ukraine, tattooed on his left calf.
In Western and Central Europe, the grievances that sparked national passions are largely forgotten, mainly because the minorities that inspired those grievances have been wiped off the map. Before World War I, French generals dreamed of revenge and reconquest of the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine from Wilhelmine Germany. Today, the only reminder that Strasbourg was once disputed territory is the city’s charming Germanic architecture. In the aftermath of World War II, Europe was reorganized through a series of astonishing and mostly forgotten population transfers. Bulgaria sent 160,000 Turks to Turkey, Czechoslovakia exchanged 120,000 ethnic Hungarians with Hungary for the equivalent number of Czechs and Slovaks, and some 600,000 Italians and Germans fled or were forcibly expelled from the Balkans.
The expulsion of Germans from Eastern and Central Europe, rarely discussed due to the war and the Third Reich’s own campaign of ethnic cleansing, is the most dramatic example of Europe’s reorganization into cohesive national blocs. After World War II, almost 3 million Germans left or were expelled from Czechoslovakia alone. In total, some 13 million ethnic Germans resettled in West Germany. “The scale of this resettlement and the conditions under which it is taking place,” wrote New York Times correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick, “are unprecedented in history”.
Further east, around 1 million Poles fled or were forcibly expelled from western Ukraine to accommodate Stalin’s expansion of Soviet borders. Here it should be mentioned that the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” were coined by two jurists trained in Lviv. The city in western Ukraine, once a meeting point of cultures, languages and nationalities, witnessed one of the most brutal ethnic cleansings of the time.
Europeans often attribute the decades of peace they have enjoyed to enlightened attitudes or the gradual enlargement of the EU. The reality is much less comforting. Follow the lines of conflict along the periphery of Europe and you’re likely to find the same grievances that once inflamed an entire continent. Sarajevo, with its mix of Islamic and Habsburg influences, is one of the most interesting cities in Europe. It was also the scene of terrible fighting in the 1990s.
“The incredible, almost comical melting pot of peoples and nationalities that sizzled dangerously at the very heart of Europe,” in the words of Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, no longer exists. The Europe that followed its dissolution is more bland and less culturally fertile. It’s also very peaceful, an inconvenient truth that reflects the stabilizing effects of national homogeneity. As the war in Ukraine drags on, Europeans would do well to remember the brutal history behind the peace they have long enjoyed.
Will Collins is a high school teacher in Budapest, Hungary.