The Problem of Europeanness in the Debates about Lithuanian National Identity
Eglė Rindzevičiūtė
Published 2002-11-22


national identity
european identity
political and cultural identity

How to Cite

Rindzevičiūtė E. (2002) “The Problem of Europeanness in the Debates about Lithuanian National Identity”, Sociologija. Mintis ir veiksmas, 100, pp. 61-80. doi: 10.15388/SocMintVei.2002.2.6166.


We can distinguish different approaches to European identity in contemporary Lithuanian and European discourses. Western scholars, such as Jacque Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Gerard Delanty, Soledad Garcia, Cris Shore and others, stress (and question) the political and economic basis of European identity. This approach is revealed in both normative discussions and actual policies of European identity, and is supported by public opinion surveys, which attest to the mostly pragmatic motivation of citizens of the European Union to identify with “Europeans.” Traditionally, Lithuanian intellectuals tend to consider “Europeanness” more as a cultural, but not a political or economic phenomenon. This Lithuanian attitude is greatly influenced by the tradition of philosophy of culture, which thrived during the interwar period in Lithuania. The philosophers, among which the most important were Antanas Maceina, Stasys Salkauskis and Vytautas Alantas, created their definitions and visions of nation, state and culture. They shaped a whole framework of nationalist thinking and provided later generations with powerful rhetoric, strongly expressed in the Lithuanian debates in the last decade of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, this traditional approach to Lithuanian identity has been modified during the twentieth century. First, the debates about national identity continued abroad, mostly in the U.S., after the Soviet occupation where a liberal approach to national identity took shape. In the 1980s, the secession from the Soviet bloc facilitated the circulation of Western liberal ideas, developed both by Western scholars and Lithuanian emigrant intellectuals. These ideas, though contested by nationalist approaches, became more and more usual in Lithuanian “identity talk.” Additionally, European integration influenced a more pragmatic attitude towards national identification, as well as acknowledgment of its situational character and relativist nature. This shift is well reflected not only in the writings of intellectuals, but also in the public opinion surveys. The cultural grounds of political identity gained a new meaning, yet continued to matter.

It would be impossible to provide a thorough analysis of the extensive discussions during the century. Therefore I will concentrate on the debates that took place from the 1980s to the end of the decade. I have chosen this period for several reasons. First, these debates in a way encompass the ideas and problems that were formulated throughout all the previous years. The period is important also, since the entire Lithuanian tradition of both nationalistic thinking and thinking about nation starts being reconsidered, supported or criticized. Yet, paradoxically, the issue of Lithuanian national identity and its relation to other regional identities, and what is most important in my case, to European identity, has not gained proper attention among Lithuanian scholars. Identity studies, though extremely popular in the West, are only at the initial stage in Lithuania. Additionally, studies of the problems related to nationalism, which would stimulate to analyze the relation between national and supra-national identities, are still rare in Lithuanian academic discourse.

Speaking about European identity is very complicated, since there is any consensus neither about its content nor functions. Scholars argue about it from very different and often contradictory perspectives. Some of them understand European identity as the factor that strengthens national feelings (Louis Snyder, Jennifer Welsh), others as a real supra-state identity, potential to diminish dangers of nationalisms (Jürgen Habermas, Jacque Derrida). The others see European identity as the utopian aim, created by elites (Cris Shore, Gerard Delanty). While some thinkers call for concrete policies of the promotion of European identity, which consist mostly of ideological revision of history and cultural policies, similar to those of nation states (Simon Mundy), others criticize the policies just because of the ideological dimension and accuse European identity of being manipulative (Antje Wiener, Cris Shore).

The arguments try to solve the tension between economic, political and cultural grounds of European identity. All of them see European history as ambivalent, which may both support and undermine European integration. On the one hand, the history of Europe is the history of many nationalisms, of the fight between political and cultural units for the right of self-determination. Obviously, this “history of conflict” hardly could serve as the ideological glue for European integration. On the other hand, the history of Europe is the history of Western civilization that has developed on the basis of Christian religious and antique philosophical traditions, Renaissance’s humanism, and Enlightenment’s rationality. The aspects of a shared ethical system, rational reasoning and cultural heritage are often employed to create the illusion of inherited, long lasting “cultural” or “ethical” Europe. Many of the EU’s programs stimulate this re-invention of a cultural European tradition, in Eric Hobsbawm terms, while emphasizing the presence of a common cultural heritage in all European countries. Nevertheless, many countries may still interpret that “common European heritage” not only as evidence of the mentality “we, Europeans,” but also as a reminder of past conflicts, when that cultural tradition was imported or even coercively imposed. In this way a shared “European culture” is biased by the potential for completely different interpretations and may serve to absolutely different political and social goals.

Since the beginning, the debates about European identity have been significantly stimulated by actual political and economic reality. European identity has been widely discussed, opposed and promoted during the last decades as related to the issues of the political legitimacy of the European Union. The problem of European identity gradually has become an object of the EU public policies. Discussions about European identity far transcend the boundaries of the Western Europe and are particularly important in Central East Europe. Namely, in this region, which witnessed late modernization, and late creation of modern nation states, Europeanness was a crucial question. Europe has always existed as a notion that reflected different countries in different periods. The “mirror” of Europeannes was one in which features of some nation were seen, or to put it into other words, Europeanness was one of the instruments in the creation of the notion of national identity.

The question of Europeanness has been very significant in the understanding of Lithuanian identity. Because modernization entered Central East Europe as an imported phenomenon, most of the countries felt like smaller brothers of the bigger Europeans. Here Europeanness played an important role in the construction of the sense of national pride. To be Lithuanian has never been to be European, to be equal. In the nationalist discourse it was either to be “less than European,” or “more than European.”

It is possible to distinguish two types of “European talk” among Lithuanians. While one “we, Europeans” means “we, non-Russians” and distinguishes Lithuanians as those of higher working morality and tolerance, the second “we, chasing the train of Europe” connotes continuous backwardness and a desperate need to transcend the “own” in order to overtake “them.” In this talk we can note that Lithuanians see themselves positively as Europeans only in contrast to “non-Europeans,” usually Russians. Meanwhile, Lithuanians do not conceive themselves as full-value Europeans when comparing themselves with Western Europeans. Paradoxically, this allows Lithuanians to think of themselves as “more Europeans,” since then such national values as “spirituality” and the legendary history of the “pagan empire” is juxtaposed against rational and pragmatic, even de-spiritualized “Europeans of the EU.”
This often painful question of what does it mean to be European for a Lithuanian, sometimes tends to diminish the European dimension in general, and some different regional identity, for example, “Baltic” identification, comes to the fore. I will show how biased the question of Baltic identity is. While the future of the Baltic region (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), shaped by a common sad past, is an object of a political skepticism, for the same reason it wins the hearts of people, of which about 80% identify themselves as Balts. Nonetheless, despite abundant manifestations of national victimization, considering the western Other was necessary to define Lithuanian national identity. As David Laitin (2000) puts it, “[t]o an important degree, then, it is the Eastern Europeans who have a stronger interest in a utopian vision of “Europe” as a well-defined (and easily mimicked) culture than culturally secure Europeans who are citizens of the West European states.”


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