The Europe Trap
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This paper takes a critical approach to the “anthropology of Europe” by warning against the treatment of this pseudo-continent as a culture area or Kulturraum. Drawing on the author’s own field research during and after socialism, primarily in South-East Poland but also in Hungary, the paper argues for the contingent, constructed nature of territory-based collective identities in general. Even the primary differentiating criteria of language and religion do not always permit the drawing of sharp lines. Polish ethnographers once had trouble in defining the exact boundaries of a territory they called Łemkowszczyzna and unwittingly found themselves drawn into politics in the process. Similarly, ethnographers of Europe today should be wary of politicians who reify an identity that does not yet exist as a focus of emotional belonging, and link it tendentiously to certain “norms and values” which are allegedly different from those of neighbors. The last section of the paper focuses on issues of historical memory. The revival of older nationalist narratives after the demise of socialism made it imperative to find supra-national antidotes. But as with European identity, invocations of a “European memory” must be approached critically by anthropologists who, by paying close attention to local circumstances, can show how events are refashioned into powerful narratives at multiple levels. These processes were more complex under socialism than is usually admitted, and contestation has become more overt since. In addition to ongoing processes of minority identification among the Lemkos, the paper notes how the freedoms of the new civil society in Przemyśl were exploited by veterans’ groups to foment opposition to the Ukrainian minority and frustrate its attempts to reassert an east Slav presence in that city. It is too soon as yet to speak of a harmonious European memory in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands.
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