Ziemowit Szczerek, Intermarium: Travelling through the Real and Imagined Central Europe

Ziemowit Szczerek’s Intermarium is both a symptom and a diagnosis of the exhaustion of nationalistic language. While describing the political situation and public sentiments in Central Europe, the author actually uses the exact same categories he identifies as the source of problems, while wanting to distance himself from it. Watching the failure of the undertaking resembling Baron Munchausen’s idea of dragging himself out of the swamp by his hair paradoxically becomes the greatest benefit from reading this book. 
Szczerek is interested in the condition of Central European countries in what he calls “fleeing the West” or “a peripheral rebellion”. Thus, he examines how countries that entered the European Union with great optimism only a decade ago react to its crisis. The most apparent symptom of this escape is the change of direction towards populism in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or Poland, related to the distrust of Western liberal‑ democratic values and the reinforcement of nationalistic rhetoric. Szczerek examines the contemporary status of ideas concerning Central European solidarity raised by Przemysław Czapliński in Poruszona mapa (Disarranged Map), and sets off on a journey to experience it firsthand. However, while the analysis of the Poznań‑based critic is focused on the idea of Mitteleuropa (in the form described by Milan Kundera), Szczerek turns to the idea of Intermarium, recently reactivated in the political discourse.

We can figure out this much from the book’s title; but the issue of Intermarium appears quite irregularly here, since Szczerek’s book also covers the refugee trail in the Bal‑ kans, seeks traces of German culture on the so‑called “Recovered Territories”, recounts the Independence Day marches, recreates various political and historical fantasies of unity among the Slavs, presents the abridged history of Lusatia, and reports on clashes in Donbas. The author doesn't even limit himself to Central Europe – he also visits the Baltic countries and even Russia.

Ultimately, what ties these varied themes together is not the subject, but rather the object – the author himself. The attempts to understand all these problems are less important than Szczerek’s adventures – he likes Slovakia, parties in Ukraine, and went to Emőd only because he always wanted to. Such unveiling of the self, typical of gonzo reporting, is not a bad thing in and of itself; however, it deter‑ mines the nature of the knowledge the author conveys to the reader. There are no professional analyses, hard data, or more serious diagnoses in Intermarium – all of these are substituted by hunches, conjectures, gossip and opinions. No episteme, only dóksa. Szczerek’s search for the truth leads him to talk to people he meets on his journeys, not political scientists. He’s more trusting of his conjectures than information he can obtain from those who know more about the situation.

As such, no wonder that the privileged sphere Szczerek travels through is not space, but stereotype. In this sense, Intermarium’s introductory words (“This is a travel book. It will talk about journeys and experiences. If you don’t like it – put it down already”) are not satisfied. Sure, Szczerek definitely travelled (and still does), but how he sees reality is deter‑ mined more by what he already knows than by what actually is. For stereotypes are a domain of established knowledge that lacks nuance, boiling down to simple definitions like “Slovakianness is bumpkinness”. Sure, the author approaches these situations slightly ironically (“I pestered them, since sometimes when I”m drunk, I do that – to tell me what constitutes Latvianness. What is its defining characteristic. What is it to be a hundred percent Latvian?”), but also uses stereotypes entirely seriously and tries to use them to interpret what he sees: “What’s common for both Eastern and Central Europe is the anti‑style of the provinces, with dominating worn‑out dark shoes, shapeless jackets, and – in general – shapeless shapes […] If I was to say what’s Western, I’d mention neatness and orderliness. Calmness and pragmatism, which engulf the country like a soothing balm.”

Intermarium is full of such essentialist descriptions, and ethnic categories are here (maybe even in all of Szczerek’s works) the main – if not only – method of perceiving reality. The author treats communities as a natural species – invariant and possible to comprehend by just a few constant features. This is why in his deliberations, he privileges history – preferably medieval history – as he does in the part on the Hungarians to justify the alleged features of their contemporary culture. While he’s at it, he overlooks internal dynamics and the heterogeneity of described societies, which is why he is so eager to use the first person plural: “we were also not ready to admit that Licheń is also us. Sacro polo, disco polo: yes, that is us”. This logic, taken to the extreme, ultimately becomes its own caricature – everything starts to resemble everything, national identities switch places, and knowledge is replaced by empty names (“It was pretty Czech here. Or maybe it was Austrian in the Czech Republic. Or whatever”).

One could assume that in this way, Szczerek achieves a perverse result: while putting to work an overtly outdated nationalistic dictionary and taking it up a notch, he inevitably breaks it (accelerationists would like to do the same with capitalism). If that were the case, Intermarium would be a parody of the nationalist idea, contradicted by an entirely different one: a socio‑political concept, dynamic and oriented towards the process, not the essence: “In the Balkans, Middle Eastern qualities are combined with Central and Eastern European ones. The latter is imprinted onto Scandinavian qualities in the Baltic countries. And Central European qualities in the Czech Republic or Slovenia, into Western European ones. Such is Central‑Eastern Europe – a constant passage‑ way. Constant transformation”.

The problem is, Szczerek’s book both is and isn”t a parody. After every instance of recognition of the inadequacy of the nationalistic language (the passage quoted above appears mid‑read), it reappears like a phantom that cannot be chased away. In an interview for Dwutygodnik, the author claimed: “it seems that it was nationalism, not socialism or democracy, that took the firmest grip on people […] For most people it was a basic identity reference point. Once it was religion – now it is the nationalist idea”. While recognising the deep roots nationalism takes in everyday life and the methods of creating identity – both individual and collective – Szczerek also insists on using it as a cognitive tool. And this is an easy way to go astray.

There’s a kind of fatalism in it. The author knows well that national categories are inefficient, not only cognitively, but also pragmatically (“Nationalistic Hungarians will not reach a long‑lasting understanding with any of their nationalistic neighbours; nationalistic Poland will not communicate with nationalistic Lithuania or the Czech Republic; Croats with Serbs, etc.”). At the same time, he has a large dose of distrust towards the attempts of rejecting it: “there’s no real direction to leave Polishness too. Europe? It’s barely alive, and there’s no European identity anyway. Some ideology‑as‑identity? Which one, then? The “left” is in some weird state of suspension, in a state of under-identity, at the same time feeling bitter towards Polishness only to return to it”.

It is interesting however, that in presenting such a characteristic of national identity, Szczerek does not see the possibility of resolving the stalemate he himself is in – treating the national idea in a manner that will not accept its monopoly while not ignoring its obvious “effect”. For only if we agree to the productive state of “under‑identity”, will we be able to stop limiting ourselves to more or less impressive, but always ineffective parodies, and start to work out new languages to talk about the condition of our societies.

Maciej Jakubowiak

Ziemowit Szczerek, Intermarium: Travelling through the Real and Imagined Central Europe, Czarne – Agora Publishing, Wołowiec–Warsaw 2017

Translated from the Polish by Piotr Czarnota