As Borders Fall Are Europeans Losing Their Cultural Identity

Pundit: 29 December 2014

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade;

Aside from the English Channel, Europe has hardly any significant internal natural borders. Seventy years ago the border between Germany and Poland was settled at the Oder River. At its main crossing point it is no wider than the Waikato at Hamilton, and there is not even a gorge.

On the west bank there is the German town of Frankfurt-on-Oder; on the east the Polish Slubice. Just one bridge connects the two, although it was temporarily closed to all but pedestrians when I was visiting, as they were installing a pipeline for a heating interchange across it. The towns also have a joint sewerage disposal system.

It was not always like that. The border was fully open for only two of the first 34 years after the war, when Frankfurt was in the (communist) German Democratic Republic and the Poles were a part of Russian empire too. Crossing became less onerous after the (Berlin) Wall ‘fell’ in 1989. Following Poland joining the European Union ten years ago, all artificial impediments were removed; you cross the bridge without meeting a customs officer or passport control. (Well not quite. You can take a German taxi from Frankfurt to Slubice but it may not bring you back; you must take a Polish taxi, but it is not allowed to take passenger back either. Taxi systems are sometimes beyond the best intentions of the law.)

Of course the Polish zloty is more commonly used on the east side of the river; Poland is yet to join the European Monetary Union. But they accept the euros used on the west side. Folk from the smaller Slubice go to concerts in Frankfurt, and some inhabitants live on one side and cross to work or shop on the other. Some German boys marry Polish girls (German girls go off to work in the more prosperous west of Germany.) So, as the founders of the European Union hoped, there is mutual engagement across the old border.

But from my observations when I was there as a guest of the German and Polish embassies in New Zealand, the towns remain distinct social entities. This economist was at first surprised for the artificial impediments which created the border had been largely abolished.

When I thought more about it I realised that while there may have been economic and political barriers to social intercourse, culture was much deeper. The history of Europe is of culturally distinct groups living next to one another for centuries, engaging and adapting but maintaining their identities. Poles were split between three empires for 123 years; only in 1919 they formed the modern state of Poland (to again be divided during the Second World War). There was no ‘Germany’ before 1871 but Germans had lived for a thousand years in a variety of jurisdictions whose boundaries frequently changed. While we can never forget the Holocaust and some earlier massacres, neither should we forget that Jewish communities lived peacefully with their neighbours throughout Europe for most of that time too.

Frankfurt and Slubice are even odder. The war devastated the region and all its inhabitants left. The GDR settled German refugees in Frankfurt, Poland settled Poles in Slubice. There connections with the soil are shorter than many Pakeha can claim in New Zealand. Yet those there maintain their historic ethnicities whereas New Zealand has went on to forge one of our own..

It will be a long time before the inhabitants of the EU think of themselves as a common people in the way that, say, Americans do, and Americans still celebrate a local identity and their ethnic origins.

Yet, there is a coming together. Mindful of the terrible things that the Nazis did to the Poles (as well as the Jews) during the War, I asked our Polish guide ‘Will the Poles be supporting the French or the Germans’ in the World Cup quarter finals (the Germans went on to win the cup). Unhesitatingly she said ‘the French’ and then reflectingly added ‘or perhaps the Germans – they have a couple of players of Polish descent’. Brilliant combination; great team.

(This article was made possible by support from the EU Delegation, the Germany and Polish Embassies in Wellington with travel assistance from Air New Zealand.)