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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe from the Fringe

Jörn Donner
Traduction de Dagmar Brunow

Texte intégral

För att en europeisk värdegemenskap skall bli
verklighet i vardagliga termer krävs politiska beslut och
politisk handling. Det är en lång process. Början har
blivit gjord. Det förutsätter att vi har kunskap om
varandras olikheter och olikartade erfarenheter.
Litteraturens roll är marginell.

1For my entire adult life I have been preoccupied with Europe and I have visited every European country. And yet, apart from the Euro that now unites twelve EU countries, the term “Europe” would hardly be important in my everyday life. Although I live on the fringe, I can imagine the sea (in front of my house) reaching down to the Mediterranean, thus embracing a part of Europe. Europe also borders on that ocean whose opposite coast incessantly influences us and sometimes threatens those values that we would like to call European.

2The big difference between the European center and its periphery is hard to comprehend for those living in the center, which includes a fairly big area: from France to Poland, from the northern coasts of Germany to parts of Northern Italy, including the city of Trieste, which has been eloquently depicted by Italo Svevo and later by Claudio Magris.

3Finland, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece belong to the periphery. According to de Gaulle, in geographical terms Europe usually is said to extend from the Atlantic to the Urals. However, to include big parts of Russia in our discussion on Europe would make it fairly complicated. Although Finland, during its process of nationalization in the nineteenth century, was partly influenced by European ideas imported from St. Petersburg, legislation and the judicial system were the products of Western influences.

4The cultural impact from the European center to the periphery was at its strongest during the years before World War I, when intellectuals and academics used German, French and, to a certain extent, Latin as their lingua francae. This trend came to an end with the increasing influence of Anglo-Saxon, especially American, culture following World War II. In most of the more developed European countries English replaced German and French as the first foreign language, a process that accelerated in the age of the computer and internet. Everyday European life has become dominated by music, film, and TV from the United States. No “defense” has yet been found against this.

5Migration within Europe, sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced, has always been significant. For example, as a punishment for the inhumanity of Nazi Germany, more than ten million Germans were forced to migrate to the West, leaving regions where their families had lived for centuries — and far from each of them actually shared Marion Dönhoffs elevated and sympathetic attitude. Although the German migrants did not have to adapt to a new language, they moved to a diminished country that would be divided for a long time.

6Contrary to the Germans, millions of Hungarians, who were punished for Hungary’s support of the Central Powers during World War I, were forced not only to change their citizenship, but to endure a new linguistic hegemony as well, though in most cases this did not entail leaving their homes. Alsatians changed citizenship in the same manner, without geographical displacement, four times within a period of seventy-five years.

7Migration from within Europe has been at least as important as that from without. Until 1918 Finland was a mere agrarian society, having undergone immense demographic changes during the previous four decades, which involved migration from the countryside to the villages, from the villages to the cities, from north to south, and even to Sweden, where the language was different, but the living conditions similar. As throughout Europe, the process of urbanization was dramatic.

8Before the birth of modern nationalism, when Europe was more open, enterprising Europeans set off to foreign lands in pursuit of a better future. My own family history serves as an illustration. In 1694 a German from Lübeck moved to a fortified Swedish town, which was later to become St. Petersburg, to work as a schoolteacher. He later fled with his pupils via Viborg to Helsinki, and then went on to Stockholm. His offspring, however, married into a family from Gamlakarleby, on the west coast of Finland, as a result of which my grandfather went to study in Helsinki, the site of what at the time was Finland’s only university. There my family settled.

9Migration, voluntary or otherwise, results not only in geographical change, but in linguistic change as well. In the United States, which is monolingual in theory, but in fact multilingual and multicultural, neither academic nor economic success can be achieved without knowledge of English, whereas Europe, with its variety of national languages, has remained a Tower of Babel. However, we often forget to acknowledge the existence of linguistic enclaves on our continent. These fragments are far too often overlooked, their survival depending primarily on the benevolence of the nations to which they belong. An example of this is Sami, a language spoken in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, which has recently experienced a renaissance.

10European languages are often said to enjoy equal rights. This is not true. Especially in the field of literature, we can see a one-way street leading from bigger to smaller languages. To be familiar with the European literary and intellectual heritage implies the knowledge of Montaigne, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, but not a thorough knowledge of the Polish literary tradition. Every now and then the periphery can have an impact on the center, as in the case of James Joyce, who, like Musil and Proust, nonetheless wrote in one of Europe’s major languages.

11If, especially after the expansion of the EU, linguistic unity proves nearly impossible to achieve, what about focusing on something else, such as a common European ideal or idea?

12Against the background of a Europe that caused both world wars and the deaths of some tens of millions of people, such an idea might seem bold.

13Furthermore, the practical problems involved in achieving this cannot be easily overcome; to illustrate this I would like to describe the evolution of my attitude toward Europe, an attitude that is full of paradoxes arising from various historical experiences. I am fully aware of the fact that familiarity with both the history of one’s own country and that of Europe will generally diminish, since the school system tends to focus on market-oriented skills and further education. What does an adult Greek actually know about us?

14In spite of widespread migration, people relate primarily to a region, or even a locality, and only secondarily to a nation or a continent, which in our case happens to be Europe. Because identification with a continent is by no means natural, I do not believe that the majority of people understand Europe as a vivid concept; instead they might associate Europe with certain countries with which they happen to be familiar through books or travel.

15For me, as a Finnish-Swede, the term Europe became defined only gradually, as I will try to explain. I entered adult life during the Cold War years, in the early fifties. By coincidence I first encountered the European continent in Berlin during the summer of 1952. The city was still in post-war condition, which I discovered when I later visited those parts of Europe under Soviet custody, would last until 1989. As early as 1952, the contrast between the two parts of Berlin was striking, though some of the differences could still be explained by the fact that the three united western sectors were the recipients of generous subsidies, while East Berlin already bore the burden of a repressive political system. One of my first conclusions was that political dictatorship did not get along well with the European idea. In that case Europe would be small.

16In 1952 Helsinki hosted the Olympics, in which the Soviet Union participated. In that same year Finland paid the last installment of fairly burdensome war reparations, imposed because the Finns had fought two wars — the first, in 1939–40, in defense of their country against Soviet aggression and the second, between 1941 and 1944, as co-belligerents in Nazi Germany’s aggression against the Soviet Union. According to the terms of the armistice, Finland was forced not only to pay harsh economic indemnities, but also had to promise to expel the Germans from the north of Finland. On April 25, 1945 the last German troops withdrew from the country.

17The Finno-Soviet “Pact of Friendship and Mutual Assistance” cast a shadow over Finland’s connection to Europe. It implied that Finland, allied with the Russians, was supposed to defend itself against an attack from Germany or a German ally, which clearly suggested that Finnish integration into Western Europe would be nearly impossible, both then and in the future.

18In spite of this pact, whose influence on daily life was minimal, Finland underwent a process of development resembling that taking place in Western Europe. Trade relations expanded with the most important export countries, especially Germany. Increasing Anglo-Saxon hegemony left its marks not only on Finnish culture, but on the sciences and technology as well. When traveling became a more general phenomenon thanks to charter tourism, Spain, Italy, and other countries of southern Europe became popular destinations; however, the travelers went in quest not of profound knowledge, but of sun.

19In politics the situation was rather different due to the officially declared “eternal friendship” with the USSR. Any attempt to gain Moscow’s sympathy for the concept of Finnish neutrality in the conflict between the great powers was in vain. Through clever diplomacy, however, the Finnish government eventually managed to convince Moscow to assent to free trade between Finland and Europe, marking the birth of the country’s economic and political integration, though it would take until 1989 before Finland dared to apply for membership to even such a harmless organization as the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

20The question of where we stand and why would become more and more important to me during the Cold War years. Writing was a means of taking a stand on crucial ideological issues. This (but not only this) prompted me to travel around Europe as much as possible. Again, my focus centered on Berlin, which I depicted in my book Report from Berlin, published in 1958. Four years later, in a book about the countries situated along the Danube, I offered a conclusion that seemed natural to me: “The two systems that have been contrasted in this book, communism and liberal Western democracy, are incompatible. They have almost nothing in common; to claim anything else is an illusion. Our Europe is divided by a frontier reinforced with barbed wire, a wall, trenches, death zones.” Many people believed that these two antithetical systems would gradually come closer. The term “peaceful coexistence” was coined to assuage the fear of war.

21Under these circumstances Finland’s unique balancing act seems understandable: on the one hand the official politics that kept the Soviet Union at bay in a loose embrace of friendship; on the other a society that actually subscribed to Western European ideals. In the mass media Finland became a victim of self-censorship, which gave rise to the frequent allegation of “Finlandization.” This might be interpreted as a critique of the fact that Soviet demands were taken into consideration and, above all, that the socialist system had not been the target of open criticism. Finland remained officially neutral, that is, abstained from taking a stand regarding Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, though the news coverage of these events was sufficient.

22Neither then nor later were officials ready to admit what should have been evident: that the country profited from the NATO policy that implied “up to here, but no farther” at the time of the erection of the Berlin wall in 1961 and later. The nuclear threat provided protection against the Soviet Union. At the same time economies in Western Europe expanded at an unprecedented pace. The Russians tried many times to gain diplomatic recognition for their vassal state, the GDR, though Finland gave in only after East and West moved closer as a result of Willy Brandt’s politics of reconciliation.

23During the years I am describing here, many young people espoused more radical political opinions, especially in Germany and France. In Scandinavia these changing attitudes were often reflected in criticism of US policies in Vietnam, as symbolized by Olaf Palme. This student radicalism produced the events of 1968, though, strangely enough, in Finland we had a leftist movement that supported not only China, but the Soviet Union as well. The naiveté was phenomenal. The GDR served as a model for many.

24As in other Western European countries, young Finnish radicals attempted to secure key positions at colleges and universities. They succeeded to some extent. People who held different opinions were labeled “anti-soviet,” a term that was applied to me as well because I had offered outspoken support for the values for which the Western European community stood.

25One of my novels deals with a young man, who resembles me to a certain extent, from whom the Russians wanted to gain information regarding the attitude of intellectuals toward the Soviet Union. This, in fact, happened — and in my case it was accompanied by lavish amounts of food and drink. The Russians quit trying when they realized that I did not know anything that could be of any use or interest to them. However, I became aware at an early stage that the East German secret service was able to recruit a number of Finns as IM (Unofficial Collaborator) and furthermore, that it would likely require a long time for the extensive network of contacts that the GDR had established in my country to be exposed. Information that Western diplomats and journalists could gain through mere conversation, others tried to procure with money and other bribes, though instances of ideologically motivated treason occurred as well.

26Our European reality did not change suddenly during the crucial years between 1989 and 1991, when Hungary opened its borders with the West, the Berlin wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. As for Finland, these events enabled the country to act autonomously, which eventually resulted in its joining the European Union in 1995. In my Report from Europe (1990) I predicted the coming of a period of insecurity, due partly to the enormous social and economic gaps existing between European countries and regions. This insecurity still exists.

27Literature plays only a minor and, in fact, totally subordinate role in this process. Vaclav Havel’s status in Czechoslovakia has often been cited as a counterexample, though this cannot be ascribed primarily to his writings, but to the ideological dimension of his actions and to his symbolical position as a spokesman for change. Although writers did act as a mouthpiece for change in East Germany in 1989, the Monday prayers in Leipzig and the mass demonstrations were actually grassroots phenomena.

28The basis of all of this was the complete failure of socialism as a political and economic system, its effort to standardize opinion, which you could easily observe in Germany just by watching TV, in the same way as Estonians, who were able to watch Finnish TV and were thus able to see the abyss that separated the two even linguistically related countries. Had it not been for the collapse of the Soviet empire, to free the people of Central and Eastern Europe without bloodshed would not have been easy. The words of Willy Brandt came to my mind: “You don’t live of freedom, but in freedom.” That was the crucial point.

29Marx, Freud, and Churchill were ideologues whose writings directly and indirectly exerted a strong influence over Europe, at least if you believe in the historical role of the individual, a fact that is relevant in regard to a destructive role such as Hitler’s, which is based on a single text, written in prison. Still, in spite of the poetic power of the Communist Manifesto, the clairvoyance of Freud’s cultural criticism, and the majestic prose of Churchill in his depiction of the English-speaking world or of World War II, it would be difficult to call these men writers.

30From early in my adult life I have been aware of the limits of writing when it comes to the creation of a more humane society, which is why I later decided to go into politics. In view of the enormous destruction Europe has endured, it would be imperative for us to establish a common ground of values, which is probably defined most succinctly in Karl Popper’s The Open Society, or civil society. However, not even the EU countries seem to agree on the implications of this term. The Copenhagen Agreement of 1993 was an attempt to define the criteria for membership, though not all EU members accept these criteria wholeheartedly.

31What about equality under the law, equal education, a media free of political pressure, the right to unhindered travel, reliable tax systems, and equal income regardless of gender when enormous gaps between the countries and the regions still exist, when the income gaps between rich and poor are still increasing, and when some of the members view with expansion towards the east with thinly concealed animosity because they are afraid of losing some of their subsidies, mainly those to support agriculture? Solidarity reaches as far as one’s own nation, but no further.

32A central question in this context is how people relate to the state and public power. Should our relationship to the state be defined by benevolence or dislike? It is understandable that those who were living under a repressive Soviet system still regard the state with suspicion. However, even in Western Europe there is an increasing tendency, based on the apparent success of the American model, to diminish the role of government in society, maintaining state control only over those functions deemed to be absolutely necessary and leaving to individual citizens complete responsibility for managing themselves and their incomes.

33Two groups suffer directly from such politics: the sick and the unemployed, for whom the state functions as a social and economical security net; and the artists and intellectuals. Especially in a small country it is absolutely impossible to maintain important cultural institutions such as theatres and libraries and media such as television without considerable public subsidy; this is not to mention the work of individual artists, who rarely achieve economic viability in a total market economy on a small national territory.

34This was another reason why I entered politics.

35But what does European openness actually mean when open borders (at least in the Schengen countries) are proclaimed and put into practice, while migration from countries outside the EU, especially from the Balkans, Africa, and Asia, is discouraged, albeit with limited success, because it is believed, though rarely said, that EU-Europe, with its variety of lingual and ethnic minorities, cannot bear further immigration on top of that which it has already absorbed over the last three decades and which has, in fact, transformed several Central European countries, in which assimilation is often nearly impossible, into multicultural societies.

36Europe applies an economic double-standard as well through its trade barriers against countries that would presumably gain greater profit through free trade than through the marginal subsidies given in the form of foreign aid.

37To work with words presupposes that you are part of a linguistic community or a country. However, there is a complication. I write in Swedish in a country in which ninety-four percent of the population is Finnish-speaking. Though I write in Swedish, the market for my books is not in Sweden, but in Finland, translated into Finnish, because the historical experience my writing mirrors is Finnish, not Swedish. This is a specific experience that cannot easily be transferred. This is why, when talking about Europe, I must use political terms in order to describe an imagined community. The fact that I was also inspired by German writers as diverse as Musil, Brecht and Thomas Mann is another story.

38Political decisions and actions are necessary in order to establish a European community of values. This is a difficult process, which, in the long run, requires that we acknowledge one another’s differences and diverse experiences. Literature plays only a marginal role in this process. To understand all this, it is necessary to listen to what Titus Petronius Arbiter said two-thousand years ago: “Those who step on the sand of foreign shores shall grow in stature.”


Further Reading:
Report From Berlin. Translated by Anderson, Albin T. Indiana University Press, 1961.
The Personal Vision of Ingmar Bergman, Indiana University Press, 1964.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Helsinki in 1933, Jörn Donner is a writer, politician, actor, and film director. Having completed his studies at the University of Helsinki, he worked, initially, as a film critic, writer, and author of travel books. In the 1960s Jörn Donner founded his own production company, and from 1978 until 1982 he headed the Swedish Film Institute. Until 1995 he was a member of the Finnish Parliament (as a representative of the Swedish People’s Party) and in 1996 he was appointed to the post of Finnish consul general in Los Angeles and elected as a Social Democratic member of the European Parliament until 1999. Since then he has worked as freelance writer and producer.
Internationally, Donner is best known as a film director. He considers his early works to be his best films: En Söndagi September (A Sunday in September, 1963; Opera Prima Prize, Venice 1963) and Black on White (1968). Nevertheless, he is primarily a writer, having published 52 works (above all fiction, essays, and travel books). His first book appeared in 1951. He received the Finlandia Award in 1985 for his novel Far och Son (Father and Son).
The following is a link to more detailed information on Jörn Donner:

Dagmar Brunow (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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