You’re probably familiar with this simple diagram of Poland: a map of support for various political parties, an outline of railway lines, fertility rates, apartments without access to a bathroom. And the first comment that comes to mind is: “I can see the partitions.”
We looked for examples of similar relic boundaries in Europe, showing historical models of statehood and empires that remain visible today from space and in our lives. It turns out that often those “visible boundaries” are little more than an illusion.
We asked specialists – scientists, cartographers and those whose job it is to erase borders – about these differences. We used statistical data from various areas of life and different time periods.
Dr. Barbara Jaczewska from the Department of Regional and Political Geography at the University of Warsaw indicates four different divisions in Europe.
The first is the enduring East-West divide outlined by Norman Davies. “We can talk about the Latin West and the Greek East,” says Dr. Jaczewska.
Another line shows the influence of the former Roman and Ottoman Empires. Roman territories correspond to wine-growing regions, while Ottoman territories reflect the influence of Islam on the Old Continent.
“The third division can be seen when we draw the most important industrial centres that were established in the 19th century,” she says. To this day, it is a belt of greater urbanisation and population density, increased concentration of companies and a higher standard of living. It even has a name – the blue banana. French geographer Roger Brunet drew this Western European backbone in 1989. It begins in London and extends further south along the curve to include Belgium, the Netherlands and the German lands of Westphalia, Rhineland and Bavaria, continuing on to Austria and Italian Lombardy at the end of the banana. Why blue? There are different theories for this – a reference to the EU flag, to the concentration of blue-collar workers in this area, or the lights that are visible at night in densely populated areas.
The Frenchman omitted Paris in his work, believing that his homeland had lost its economic ties with Europe. Brussels was probably scared of such political incorrectness and quickly ordered a correction. Three years later and with funds from the European Commission, researchers attached Paris to the banana and stretched the tip along an even larger arc from Lombardy to Barcelona.
The fourth division of Europe according to Dr. Jaczewska is related to the Iron Curtain; here the differences are reflected in income, housing and economic conditions.
Diving deeper into these divisions in search of lower-order examples, we notice that despite several decades of European integration, the original Schengen area’s borders are alive in people’s minds. For example: Germany, thirty years after reunification, where unemployment in the east remains higher and income per capita lower. There are also differences in terms of immigrants, who choose Länder depending on where they come from. In the 1960s, Turks were allowed to settle in West Germany under a bilateral agreement as a result of Germany’s economic boom and labour shortage. Guest workers were first invited from Italy, Greece and Spain (1955), and from 1961 from Turkey. Even today, immigrants from Turkey are more likely to choose western Länder. The eastern part of Germany, in turn, is home to a large Vietnamese community, heritage of socialist links and a system of scholarships and internships in industry. There are no such disproportions among other nations settling in Germany. Until recently, Poles chose the western part, but are now settled in the east too.
Dr. Jaczewska also points to differences in education in Europe. “The socialist system influenced the accessibility of education. Poland, Hungary and eastern Germany have a larger ratio of people with higher education, and a lower proportion who did not go beyond primary education. Romanians have the outstanding Cluj-Napoca University established during the Austro-Hungarian era.”
Dr. Jaczewska also recognises a distinctive periphery of Europe, i.e. the eastern wall, which begins just beyond Warsaw and includes southern Europe. In which areas are differences discernable there? “All economic indicators – access to the internet, the activity of the creative sector and modern technologies,” says Dr. Jaczewska. “The east and south stand out from the core.”
Dr. Bartosz Mika from the Institute of Sociology at the University of Gdańsk warns against conventional thinking about a patchwork Europe. It is rather a multi-threaded and complex balance of forces, he says: “Two points of view clash: sociological and historical, in which the role of institutions and culture is emphasised; and economic and critical, in which it is rather argued that prosperity comes before improving the quality of life, including civic life”.
A classic example of such a dispute is the case of Italy and its internal division into north and south, a popular distinction in the 1990s. Political scientists and anthropologists (including Robert Putnam of Harvard and Francis Fukuyama of Stanford) argued that Italian differences stemmed from social capital and civic traditions. Economists such as Ha-Joon Chang, in the book “Bad Samaritans” published in Poland, argue that cultural variables are rather the result of economic factors. “Venice and Florence became rich first, and this enabled them to develop civic communities. There was a surplus, thanks to which part of the growing population could engage in politics, culture and social activities,” says Dr. Mika.
In the nineteenth century, Germany united under the leadership of Prussia and started down the path of industrialisation, provoking resentment in Britain, where the industrial revolution began did not shy away from labelling inhabitants of the newly reunified country as fraudsters, prone to thievery. At around the same time, the American fleet reached the coast of Japan, which created such a moral and intellectual shock among the Japanese that it is considered a turning point in the modernisation and industrialisation of that country. Admiral Matthew Perry reported then that the Japanese were not cut out for industrial production or factory work. Another example of such a mental trap is the transformation of the Eastern Bloc countries after the collapse of the USSR. After all, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were autonomous entities with a history of statehood and strong institutional traditions that preceded the USSR and the Cold War.
Are any of these stereotypes justified today? Often the arguments made depend on whether a given country is successful or not. In the 90s we talked about “homo sovieticus” – a demanding character, used to the top-down system. “It was a convenient explanation for those who did succeed in contrast to those who failed after the regime change. And yet unemployment is part of capitalism and a supporter of the mainstream economy might even say a necessary and hygienic component of the economic order, not the result of a post-Soviet mentality.”
The search for partitions and vestigial borders is deceptive. “I myself come from the Prussian partition and in my family the mental difference between the inhabitants of Wielkopolska and the inhabitants of eastern Poland is often emphasised. I myself am prone to the temptation to explain phenomena in this way. Nevertheless, at the level of naked facts, there is little evidence for this,” says Dr. Mika.
Krzysztof Górny from the Department of Political and Historical Geography of the University of Warsaw points to architecture, which can often be used to identify relic boundaries. “There is a village called Wincenta on the border of Podlasie and the Warmia and Mazury Province, once part of the Duchy of Mazovia and Prussia, Germany and Russia, then the Second Polish Republic and Germany, and finally the Second Polish Republic and the Third Reich. Driving from Warsaw to Masuria, almost every village you pass is wooden, not to mention the old houses and farm buildings. Beyond Wincenta you will encounter brick houses, mainly of red brick. Another example involves Andalusia, which was occupied by Muslims (Arabs and Berbers) starting in the 8th and for the next seven centuries. They left behind the Alhambra fortress in Granada, the Alcazar palace in Seville and the Alcazaba fortress in Malaga. The Giralda, the bell tower of the cathedral in Seville, is a former minaret – a remnant of a mosque, which was modelled on the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh. The differences between the now defunct East Germany and West Germany can also be seen in many cultural aspects, for example, Karl Marx streets and Unification Avenues on the eastern side. The GDR was the beneficiary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the CDU/CSU Union, with its Christian roots, is unlikely to win anywhere in the heavily nationalised east except in eastern Saxony and around Dresden, where the AfD has recently won.”
Then there is the example of Croatian cities – Dubrovnik is a port originally developed by Venetian merchants. The influence of the Venetian Republic is visible all over the eastern Adriatic coast, and Marco Polo lived in Korcula. Divisions are also visible in Great Britain, where the border with Scotland divided English supporters and Scottish opponents of the European Union, a situation that has now shifted 180 degrees. In Lithuania there is the popularity of the Polish language in territories previously under Polish control; and in the Balkans the countries of Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria all display traces of the Ottoman Empire in their religious makeup.
For their part, beer and wine cultures are less a result of history than simply of the climate on our continent.
Dr. Monika Klimowicz, from the Department of European Economic and Social Integration and Regional Development at the University of Wrocław, points to the differences between agriculture in France and Germany, including the size of farms and type of crops.
Crop type affects the size of the farm. Cereals require more land than, for example, olives. In organic farming, plots are smaller and the specialisation is related to the climate. This also draws attention to another stereotype – the lifestyle of southern and northern inhabitants. We perceive Germans or Scandinavians as more enterprising and thrifty, and yet having enough food to eat in winter means that targets had to be reached in summer.
The development of social organisations in the north of Italy is stronger than in the south, because social ties are stronger there. In the south of Italy, where inhabitants have to deal with the mafia, people tend to be more distrustful and reluctant to enter into relationships with people outside of family.