On 9 November it was 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although the physical border between Western and Eastern Europe has disappeared, a mental separation still exists – even in historiography. It’s time for a turnaround in historical research, says Paul Hulsenboom.With the advent of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a border made up of concrete, fences, barbed wire and minefields was erected through Europe during the Cold War. This physical barrier was accompanied by a mental separation. From a Western perspective, this roughly boiled down to a contrast between the rich, progressive Western Europe on the one hand and the poor, somewhat backward Eastern Europe on the other. The wall has long since gone, but the mental border still exists. We see this, among other things, in Western historiography, which tends to neglect Eastern Europe. This fails to do justice to the rich and complex ties that have existed between East and West for centuries. It is time to break down the mental wall and make European history more inclusive .What are Eastern and Western Europe?‘Eastern’ and ‘Western Europe’ are mental constructs, or frames, which don’t correspond to geographic reality. This is primarily because the geographical definitions of Western and Eastern Europe aren’t fixed. Not everyone uses the same classification: Do the Balkans, for example, belong to Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia to Western Europe, or do they belong to Southern and Northern Europe respectively? Can countries belong to several ‘Europes’? And is there such a thing as Central Europe?The terms Eastern and Western Europe are concepts that have been created and maintained by people. They are a catch-all of images and stereotypes that may be partly true when viewed from a certain perspective, but not at all true when viewed from another. This is because Western and Eastern Europe are not homogeneous areas. To give an example: although we in Western Europe are accustomed to thinking that we are ‘ahead’, we are in fact being overtaken by countries like the Baltic states, Poland and Russia when it comes to the proportion of women in senior management positions. Despite this and many other contradictions, the old mental divide continues to persist, with negative stereotypes about Eastern Europe being particularly stubborn. Just stop and think about how often you hear people referring to the ‘Eastern Bloc’.The idea that Europe consists of two distinct parts, a west and an east, dates back to the eighteenth century. Various travellers and philosophers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, replaced the much older, traditional North-South division of Europe – in which the South stood for cultural refinement and the North for barbarism – with a similar East-West division. Eastern Europe was defined as the ugly mirror image of the cultivated West, to which the travellers and philosophers themselves belonged.Map of Europe, London 1666This notion was reinforced by the divvying-up of the continent after 1945 into two political power blocks that more or less overlapped with the concepts of Western and Eastern Europe. Our conclusion, however, is that these ideas are relatively recent. To come back to cartography: you can spend hours searching in vain for old maps of Europe – especially ones from before the Enlightenment, but also nineteenth-century maps – that make a visual distinction between Western and Eastern Europe in the way we often see today.Thus, the current mental division doesn’t do justice to the rich historical ties between East and West. To take my own research as an example: in the early modern period, the Dutch Republic and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were heavily economically dependent on one another and were engaged in a flourishing cultural exchange. The Polish nobility travelled to Dutch universities en masse and thousands of Dutch traders and farmers settled in Polish territories. All these relationships are recorded in travel journals, letters, poems, pamphlets, prints and paintings.The historiographic separation between East and WestThe mental separation between Eastern and Western Europe is also reflected in modern historiography, especially in the West. In short: in the West, ‘European history’ usually means ‘Western European history’. As a consequence, countries like Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic are regularly – often even systematically – ignored. The situation is slightly different for history from about 1700 onwards – after all, twentieth-century historiography in particular could hardly ignore Eastern Europe – but the focus is confined mainly to Russia. The mental divide between Western and Eastern Europe therefore appears almost natural, and the countries in the east tend to remain ‘different’ and largely unknown. All this while knowledge of our eastern neighbours seems more essential than ever, now that we are living side by side with thousands of Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians, and tensions between Brussels and Hungary, Poland and Russia are on the rise.Our knowledge deficit has several causes. Firstly, the countries in the eastern part of Europe receive relatively little attention in Western history teaching, including here in the Netherlands. Secondly, the lack of language skills is a serious obstacle: there are few historians with a proficiency in Russian or Polish, for example (in the Netherlands, only the University of Amsterdam offers a broad Slavic Studies programme). Eastern European publications are barely read here. Our gaze thus remains firmly fixed on the West, where most publications appear in more accessible languages. English-speaking histories of Eastern European countries could turn the tide, but the decades-long reliance on studies that disregard the countries located east of Germany has perpetuated the mental separation between Western and Eastern Europe, including among historians. We also need to be aware of the political bias that these Western studies may have. A good example is the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German historiography on Poland, which, rather than providing a faithful representation of Polish history, sought to propagate the notion that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been an absurd state, and thus to deny the Poles their history and to legitimize the German claim to Polish territories.These problems cannot be solved overnight, but it helps to be aware of them. It is also relatively easy to take steps in the right direction. For instance, we must remember that the terms Western and Eastern Europe are frames, which are also anachronistic when it comes to history before the Enlightenment. We can attend conferences in Eastern European countries, or invite speakers from there. But above all, we can try to include the histories of our eastern neighbours more actively in our research or our lectures. All this is important for a better understanding of the present time, as well as for a more inclusive look at European history as a whole. Thirty years after the reunification of Europe, we also need to take a sledgehammer to the Wall’s mental legacy in order to reach beyond the separation between East and West. This article is a modified version of the presentation given by Hulsenboom during the Historians’ Days in Groningen this year. Hulsenboom uses quotation marks to show that terms like ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern Europe’, or ‘West’ and ‘East’ are frames. He omits the quotation marks in the remainder of this article. See, for example, the different divisions of Europe used by the United Nations and the German Ständiger Ausschuss für geografische Namen. See, for example https://www.trouw.nl/nieuws/oost-europa-vooraan-op-lijst-met-vrouwen-aan-de-top~b2131e11/?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F, or https://www.consultancy.nl/nieuws/10278/grant-thornton-oosteuropa-meeste-vrouwen-aan-top. See Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford University Press 1994. See Kristin Kopp, Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space, University of Michigan Press 2012.Paul Hulsenboom is a PhD candidate at the Department of Dutch Language and Culture at Radboud University. His research focuses on the early modern Dutch conceptualization of Poland-Lithuania and Polish-Lithuanian conceptualization of the Dutch Republic.This article previously appeared on Over de Muur. Image: Thiémard horlogerie via Flickr.