We Europeans

Europe’s mistaken identities

History suggests that it may even be easier to create an identity for others than to find one for oneself. The ‘Us and Them’ syndrome, where the ‘Them’ are dumped together in a separate communal basket, makes the process a bit easier…

The Greeks called all foreigners barbaros because they couldn’t decipher their babbling. The philosopher Isocrates made things a bit easier by saying that “we consider Greeks those who partake in our culture”. This sense of cultural superiority clearly helped the cultures concerned to lump all their neighbours into a single disparaging basket.

In the early Middle Ages people of the Islamic faith were indiscriminately called Moors. At the receiving end of the Crusades, the Arabs got their own back by calling all westerners Franks.

According to the historian Norman Davis, the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula also called the Catalans Franks because of their genetic and linguistic links to people further north At the same time, in recognition of a Visigothic kingdom centred on Toulouse, the Catalans referred to the people of southern France as Goths.

Later, the Ottoman Turks responded by indiscriminately calling all inhabitants of the Balkans Greeks, while both sides referred to the good folk manning the fortresses on the borderlands of Transylvania were dubbed Saxons, when many of them came from all over what was to become Germany, as well as Flanders and, to a lesser extent, the Moselle and Wallonia.

The migrants to the Banat and Slavonia, both regions on the banks of the Danube downstream from Belgrade, were labelled Swabians, when they could have come from anywhere in today’s Germany.

From the viewpoint of Westerners, all people east of the Oder were for a long time just called Slavs (a word that mutated to ‘slave’, although some etymologists think it was the other way round).

Rather more mysteriously, throughout Europe, people ranged east of others living further to the west still tend to use words beginning with ‘Wa’ or ‘We’ to describe their generally romanised neighbours: Wallachians (Vlachs from the Slav root Volokh) in the Balkans, Welsch in German for anybody to the southwest, Walliser to describe the inhabitants of the south-western canton of Switzerland (the Valais, to most people) and Waalsch or Walloons in Belgium. Not, however, the Welsh who were anything but romanised: the word used by the English meant ‘aliens’.

There is even a community in the French Vosges mountains speaking a Romance dialect and known as the Welche, i.e. ‘those who do not speak German’.

Maybe all these cases of mistaken identity were, in reality, forgivable. Europe’s history before the emergence of the nation states was essentially one of migration and assimilation, so that fragile ur-identities were easily absorbed and transformed into what came later.

The process of creating a nation often meant running roughshod over individual identities and papering over the ethnic cracks. The inhabitants of Hungary – supposedly as ethnically distinct a body of people as the Finns or, almost, the Basques – are not just Magyars.

Hungary’s citizens include, according to a 1990s study undertaken jointly by a Budapest research institute and a German university, more than one Magyar strain, Armenians, Ruthenians, Croats, Gypsies – and the Swabians again (a splinter group of this ubiquitous race settled in the southern part of the country).

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