Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness
HerausgeberInnen | Editors | Éditeurs: Albena Bakratcheva (Sofia)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The wall that fell down flat: Some political habits in southern europe before and after 1989

Plamen S. Tzvetkov (Sofia)



The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 revealed, among other things, that the division line in Europe is between North and South rather than between West and East. Communism turned out to have had a superficial effect on deeply rooted mentalities, and on cultural and civilizational traditions. The Iberian Peninsula, Southern Italy and the Balkans were a contact zone between Islam and Christianity with the ensuing system of religious institutions as an integral part of the state and administrative structure, which was combined with supreme state ownership of land. Back in the Middle Ages and up to Modern Times personal wealth in this area depended on the position in the state and administrative hierarchy while in Western and Northern Europe a particular person's influence on society and state resulted from that person's individual wealth.

These traditions seem to have a strong impact on the way political affairs are conducted in Southern Europe. The Balkan countries that had had the misfortune to be under communist rule returned quite quickly to their pre-World War II habits. Moreover, the very alternation of political forces in power offers a number of similarities between Italy and France, on the one hand, and Rumania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, on the other.


"So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets; and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city." (Josh.6:20)

Similarly to the city of Jericho, the Berlin Wall did not fall down flat after an armed attack but as a result of peaceful mass protests. As a matter of fact, the "Iron Curtain", imposed by Stalin on Europe at the end of World War II, turned out to be neither permanent, nor even hermetically sealed. Less than ten years after Stalin's death (in 1953) young people in the Soviet Empire enjoyed the performances of Elvis Presley and the Beatles in the same way, as did their counterparts in the West. Ironically enough, rock and pop music, the sexual revolution, long hair and short skirts were considered by some conservative circles in the United States as a manifestation of subversive communist elements, while the authorities in communist Russia and in the Soviet dependencies in Eastern Europe persecuted the same fashion as a subversive action of "western imperialism". Among other things, the Balkans, in particular, were distinguished by the eagerness with which both the military junta in Greece and Moscow's men in Bulgaria banned long hair and short skirts.(1)

Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall both West and East was often the scene of more or less identical events. Thus the year 1968 marked a peak in student riots, inspired by basically leftist ideas, no matter whether they were directed against communism or against "capitalist imperialism". In the United States the wave of violent student actions was practically inseparable from the movement for racial equality and civil rights. After a series of racial clashes, following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, the radical Students for a Democratic Society staged riots at Columbia and at a number of other US universities for an immediate end to the Vietnam War. The blame for the war was put on the military establishment, accused of "imperialist" designs.(2)

As it is well known, students were an extremely active element in the 1968 Prague Spring, whose leader, the reform-minded communist apparatchik Alexander Dubcek wanted to build "socialism with a human face". While the Russian dictator Leonid Brezhnev and his eastern European subordinates prepared the invasion of Czechoslovakia in order to smash the Prague Spring, students in Poland started to organize meetings, where they criticized harshly the failure of the local party leader Wladislaw Gomulka to carry out an authentic national political course and to provide the communist regime with more tolerable human dimensions. Significantly enough, all the students wanted was "true socialism", but they obviously meant more rights and freedoms. The state and party authorities responded by throwing mobs of illiterate thugs against the students, which led to violent clashes in the streets of Warsaw from March on.(3)

At that moment the West paid little attention to what was going on in the Soviet Empire but, nevertheless, violence grew fast also in the universities of the Federal Republic of Germany. On April 11, 1968, an attempt to assassinate the leader of the Socialist Students' League Rudi Dutschke led to a series of strikes and clashes and even to the creation of "student and worker soviets".(4)

The turn of France came a month later when some 60,000 students rallied in Paris to protest against the absence of clear prospects for work and career. Although the protesters were clearly hostile to the "capitalist" establishment, many of them were not less inimical to Moscow and the French Communist Party, blamed for having surrendered to the "bourgeoisie" and for having betrayed the "true revolution". This was followed by strikes all over the country with some 10 million strikers. To make things worse the wave of protests degenerated in armed street battles and the French president Charles de Gaulle succeeded in overcoming the crisis only about a month later.(5)

"True socialism" was also the main demand of the students who began to protest in Belgrade at approximately the same time. Dissatisfaction was due to the deepening social differences, resulting from "market socialism". However, the Yugoslav dictator Tito was shrewd enough to express publicly his sympathy with the protesters. In November 1968, though, new student protests broke out in the province of Kosova, where academic circles demanded the secession of Kosova from Serbia but not, for the time being, from Yugoslavia as a whole.(6)

Italy, although among the least stable western democracies of the time, was the last country to be affected by the 1968 student riots. It was only in the month of December that the country suffered from student protests and strikes but these movements hardly went beyond the usual pattern.(7)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 revealed, among other things, that the division line in Europe is between North and South rather than between West and East. Communism turned out to have had a superficial effect on deeply rooted mentalities, and on cultural and civilizational traditions. Back in the Middle Ages the Iberian Peninsula, Southern Italy and the Balkans had been a contact zone between Islam and Christianity with the ensuing system of religious institutions as an integral part of the state and administrative structure, which was combined with supreme state ownership of land. Under the rule of the Arabs, who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 7th century AD, land belonged to God, while the caliph was both a religious and state leader. Christians and Jews were tolerated but as second-class human beings. When the Portuguese and Spanish rulers started to push the Arabs out of the Peninsula, they took possession of the bulk of the land. At the end of the 15th century all Muslims and Jews were forced either to convert to Christianity or to leave the country. Thus most Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire while those, who preferred baptism, were still considered second-class subjects for centuries to come. In the 16th century the Cardinal of Toledo, Ximenes de Cisneros did everything he could to "cover the Church by the State" and the Church became indeed an integral part of the state and administrative structures, although the Pope of Rome was by no means dependent on Europe's secular rulers.(8)

The Church was supposed to be independent from the state in Byzantium and Medieval Bulgaria too, but it had been almost entirely subjugated to the state at quite an early stage, while the bulk of the land was owned by the state. Formally the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was elected by a Synod but in fact he was appointed by the Byzantine Emperor in the same way as the election of the Patriarch of Turnovo was predetermined by the Bulgarian Tsar. A typical example in this regard was the case of Photius who was initially a secular man, yet in 858 the Byzantine Emperor Michael III decided that he had to be the next patriarch. To give effect to this, Photius was hastily ordained within a week to all the sacerdotal degrees including that of Ecumenical Patriarch. When the Ottoman Turks conquered the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries, they had no need to change radically the existing system. Compared to Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian times the Church became even somewhat more autonomous: indeed, the sultan appointed the Patriarch of Constantinople as his Christian predecessors had done, but as a Muslim he could not interfere in the internal Church affairs in the way the Byzantine Emperors and Bulgarian Tsars did.(9)

Within this social and political framework personal wealth in Southern Europe depended on the position in the state and administrative hierarchy while in Western and Northern Europe a particular person's influence on society and state resulted from that person's individual wealth. Hence power in Southern Europe was and still is regarded not as a more or less temporary responsibility but as a source of personal well being, if not as a means of survival. Apart from everything else this explains the noticeably higher degree of corruption in southern European government than in the rest of the world's democracies.

The collectivist and despotic legacy was a serious obstacle to the spread of liberalism and democracy in Southern Europe. Nevertheless, in the course of the 19th century a number of countries in the area, such as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary succeeded in adopting a more or less stable parliamentary rule, based in the case of Bulgaria on universal male suffrage from 1879 on. However, all these countries were unable to avoid the deep crisis of representative government, caused by World War I. In 1922 Italy fell under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In 1919 Hungary suffered from a horrible communist experience only to find a dubious solution in an undemocratic system, headed by the leader of the national forces Miklos Horthy. Greece went through a series of coups d'Etat and military regimes and eventually fell under the dictatorship of General Metaxas. Portugal had a similar development, which ended with the authoritarian system of Salazar, while interwar Spain was marked by the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera from 1923 to 1930 to be followed by the 1936-1939 civil war, resulting in the long personal rule of General Franco. By 1939 only ten European nations still enjoyed a stable democracy and guaranteed human rights and freedoms but the southern European countries were not among them. The 1944-1945 the Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe put a brutal end to all prospects for democracy in the area for the next 45 years.(10)

The amazing thing is that after 1989 the formerly communist countries in Southeastern Europe returned very quickly to their pre-Communist political habits, which made them quite similar to their counterparts on the other side of the "iron curtain". Thus Romania and Hungary saw the alternation of presumably leftist governments under a strong ex-Communist impact with right-wing parliamentary majorities with some nationalistic elements, in more or less the same way as Italy's Left includes formerly communist coalition partners, while Berlusconi's right relies upon the support of the National Union, most of whose activists sympathize with Mussolini and his Fascists. In the late 1990's Austria scandalized the European Union by admitting the xenophobic party of Heider to the government coalition. In France Chirac won his second term as president, by eliminating the radical nationalist leader Jean-Marie le Pen. Only Bulgaria seems to be an exception to the rule insofar as Pan-Slavism is apparently embraced both by former Communists and by newly born nationalists as if to prove that there are no basic differences between Communist, National Socialist or Fascist totalitarianism. On the other hand the same fact seems to indicate that the Bulgarians themselves have very serious problems with their own ethnic and national identity, since they are not Slavs at all.(11)

There is no doubt that, as far as the left-right opposition is concerned, there are still a number of deep differences between southern Europeans on the one and on the other side of the former "iron curtain". The most obvious difference is that in the West Communists are just an accidental element of left-wing coalitions, while in the East Communists still are a powerful factor, determining much of the political, cultural and economic life of the respective countries. The extremely painful transition from communism to democracy in the Balkans revealed that if communism is a mafia in power, then the mafia is communism in opposition. According to some recent publications, there might have even been a kind of bargain at the meeting between President George Bush, Sr., and the last Soviet leader Gorbachev in Malta in the first days of December 1989. It seems that the American administration agreed to allow the Soviet nomenklatura to keep their bank accounts in the West, although this money had come from drug-trafficking, arms sales to various terrorist groups and regimes, as well as from a ruthless plundering of the nations under communist rule. In exchange Gorbachev apparently committed himself to putting no obstacles to the establishment of democratic governments and of a free market economy in Eastern Europe, including Russia. It goes without saying that the United States had serious reasons for such a compromise - since the alternative would have been a bloodshed that would have made Yugoslavia's wars of disintegration appear like child's play. However, the price was the strong position of the KGB mafia in a number of western countries such as Germany and the United States itself, as well as powerful communist parties in most eastern European countries, although repainted as "Socialist". The present situation of Eastern Europeans may be compared to that of the Afro-Americans in the aftermath of the 1861-65 War of Secession: they got their freedom but power and money remained in the hands of the same guys for decades to come.(12)

The curious thing is that in spite of all this there are no strong anti-American feelings in the formerly communist countries, if we do not consider communist circles and nationalist elements, originating from the communist nomenklatura. However, in countries like Bulgaria even communist elements are eager to get a green card, generously provided by the US at a rate of 30,000 per year. Unlike Bulgaria, Greece still is distinguished by this nation's anti-Americanism, caused mainly by the United States' favorable position toward Turkey and by the refusal of the US government to allow the unification of Cyprus to Greece after the end of British colonial rule in Cyprus in the early 1960s. The 2003 Iraq crisis and the ensuing controversies within the European Union clearly showed that in the eyes of the eastern Europeans, no matter whether they are ex-Communists or anti-Communists, the United States is the only power, capable of providing them with security after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

© Plamen S. Tzvetkov (Sofia)


(1) Krieg und Frieden, T.1. Zwischen Bangen und Hoffen. Weltgeschichte von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. Bd.2, Hamburg, Jahr Verlag, 1976, p.140; Plamen S.Tzvetkov, A History of the Balkans: A Regional Overview from a Bulgarian Perspective, Vol.2, San Francisco, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, pp.360-377.

(2) Allan Nevis and Henry Steele Commager with Jeffrey Morris, A Pocket History of the United States, New York, Pocket Books, 1992, pp.580-583; William Langer (ed.), An Encyclopedia of World History, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980, pp.1234-1235.

(3) Richard .J.Crampton, Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century, London, Routledge, 1994, pp.318-356.

(4) W.Langer (ed.), An Encyclopedia..., p.1198.

(5) Pierre Miquel, Histoire de la France, Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1976, p.482.

(6) R.J.Crampton, Op.cit., p.350.

(7) W.Langer (ed.), An Encyclopedia..., p.1190.

(8) Histoire universelle illustrée, T.2, Zurich, Stauffacher, 1965, pp.165-170, 280, 316-322, 371-374, and 453-457.

(9) Plamen S.Tzvetkov, Op.cit., Vol.1, pp.95-338; Stanford .J.Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol.1, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp.55-167.

(10) Plamen S.Tzvetkov, Op.cit., Vol.2, pp.339-422; W.Langer (ed.), An Encyclopedia..., pp.943-1046.

(11) About the origin of the Bulgarians and about the Bulgarian language see Plamen S.Tzvetkov, Op.cit., Vol.1, pp.3-227. Nowadays this seems to be a highly emotional issue even among most objective academic circles, which is due mainly to the fear of a possible kinship with the Turks.

(12) Stojan Trendafilov, "Malta '89", Pro&Anti (an independent Bulgarian weekly), April 12-18, 2002 and April 19-25, 2002.

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Plamen S. Tzvetkov (Sofia): The wall that fell down flat: Some political habits in southern europe before and after 1989. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 25.8.2004     INST