Three days ago my friend, Paul Truszowski (a wine journalist from Berlin born in Poland), posted on social media about enjoying and partying at this time of the year. 1) He describes his Polish grandfather who was taken away to Siberia with mother and grandmother by the Russian army and had their Christmas dinner made of some scarse potatoes offered by a poor mother of three children. Scenes that remind me of the struggling of the poor Polish people in the countryside, written in a wonderful novel A European Education by Lithuanian-French author Romain Gary describing the Polish countryside after the German invasion. 2) At a moment when Champagne and Prosecco bottles are uncorked worldwide, this remark of Truszowski makes one humble, as he says we start to realize how rich we are that we can do all this.. So: is it ok to party?
Truszkowski says ´it is important to realize that life is a gift´. UK philosopher Roger Scruton, who is known for his defense of European culture, although he is not religious, says the same. These short lines tell some essence of recent European history: people fleeing from one country to the other, be it Germans, Russians, Polish people, or others. During the years 1920-1940 some 40 million people had to flee from their home in Europe (estimations by historians as exact data difficult to get). European union was constructed exactly to avoid in the future such situations. Are we learning from it?
I think there is another level. History of the Byzantine empire shows how an interesting and developed culture managed to survive more than 1.100 years following the croll of the Roman empire in a period when in Western Europe there was not much civilization yet. It shows how Renaissance would not have been possible if the Byzantine empire would not have been able to continue Roman and Greek culture during more than 1.100 years. But why is there then such a division between West and East Europe? The reasons are profound: since the beginning of the church the leaders did not agree on the definition of the Holy Trinity, the so called ‘filioque‘ discussion which led to a schisma between western and eastern churches. This schisma is one of the main reasons of the separated development of eastern and western Europe (reality is more complex, but it is an important aspect). It is also the reason why a high level of misunderstanding has arisen between both and political developments after 1945 have not been helpful in opening these barriers.
Now, December 2016, Europe is stil divided in many ways, culturally speaking, and with political differences as consequence. And what´s worse even politicians from western and eastern countries often do not really understand each other. But much of those differences in fact are only in the minds of people and most of them are not correct, they are only based on misunderstandings which have grown during a long period of different development. Nothing else.
As Truszkowski´s grandfather was eating his poor Christmas dinner in Siberia they were just sharing some basic life conditions. Now the Russians are ´east´ and Polish are ´west´ but in the past these differences in Europe have so often changed. If we would know each other better than we would recognize that we – Europeans – share the same basis and the same values, because the Byzantine empire and the late western Roman empire shared them: Christianity. It is only a theological interpretation that created the difference. I think it is urgently needed that west and east Europe understand each other better, including Russia, which is part of Europe and shares our values. At this point politicians are often limited because they are not historians or philosophers, and often as not limit themselves to daily economical problems.
But churches do have a longterm responsability and the fact that Europe has been divided because of a theological debate for such a long period of European history creates a special responsability for European churches. Of course there are talks and meetings between church leaders from east and west but are they really interested in opening these barriers? At least in the daily public life I do not see much of it. Sometimes some wise words are heard but it remains at that. There should be a new council between all western and eastern churches dealing with these matters. And if they do not resolve the filioque problem (which is probable) then they should at least release a common statement about shared values in east and west.
Last September I organized a discussion between a member of the European parliament from Romania and a priest from the Netherlands about our view on Europe. And of course there was the call to look beyond the differences and concentrate on common European values. And of course we learned about the many misunderstandings also on political level between western and eastern european countries (also inside the EU). But all that is known. What is much needed now is to cross those boundaries and look beyond, because there is still more that unites us than divides us and it is important to realize this. I still find many misunderstandings between countries and cultures which are based on only misunderstanding. We are not much different, yes there have been differences in development, but we are still living from the same source and it is important to realize that. And in making the europeans aware of this the combined western and eastern churches should play a more active role.
So: is it ok to party today? All wars and disputes have been fought in order to create the freedom and make us able to do it: so: YES! But at the same moment we should consider that it is thanks to many who are not with us anymore that we are able to do it. And it would be wrong only to party and not consider the gift of live which Truszkowski quoted. And we should realize that all parties and all festivities are part of our shared common culture, east and west. In such a way some poor Siberian potatoes can be better than the best Champagne.
1) Text of post by Paul Truszowski (my translation):
“ No Post, no image, no Video can picture life, and especially not ´einfangen´ when a family has been pushed until the borders of life during a long period because of historical events, and then suddenly even pushed to the last limit, gathers and suddenly there is nothing. All Problems are only ´firstworldproblems´. And when your grandfather through whom you are existing, tells you of his most wonderful Christmas which happened to be in Siberia where he and his family had been deported by the Russian army and where a poor local family took them with hospitality in their house and offered some of their last potatoes, which was their last luxury. Then one realizes how we are living in luxury and how much our life which we consider our daily life is a wonderful gift. “
2) Éducation Européen, by Romain Gary available in English as A European Education. His real name was Roman Kacew, born in Lithuania, he fled with his mother first to Warsaw for the Russian and later to Nice for the German armies, later to become pilot for the French army and French diplomat. His novel describes the suffering of people in the Polish countryside, trying to survive in severe conditions during the occupation by the German army.
3) Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire, by Judith Herrin, Penguin 2007