Exploring the post-1989 European East West asymmetry with digital newspaper repositories

By Alexandros Sianos

After 1945, “Europe” was  largely confined conceptually, politically and economically  to the western bank of the river Elbe. While the countries of the West embarked on the prosperous road of economic and political integration, the states of the East were placed under the centralised supervision of Moscow. Subsequently, due to their divergent post-war historical experiences, after 1989 the states of Western Europe came to be associated with modernity and prosperity, while the former Soviet bloc states were associated with backwardness and dereliction. This article, based on English-language newspapers from digital repositories draws on articles from the years 1985 – the inaugural year of the ECOC institution – until 2015, but was focused mostly on newspaper articles published a little earlier than 1999, the year when the first city belonging to the former Soviet bloc (Weimar) acquired the ECOC title. It explores how the states of Eastern Europe used the institution of the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in order to “catch up” to the West and to “return to Europe” after a forty-five-year isolation.

Since its inauguration in 1985, fifty-two cities have hosted the ECOC event. Forty of those cities belonged to the Western coalition during the Cold War period, while the remaining twelve were under Soviet influence. This asymmetrical representation of Western and Eastern European cities points to the asymmetrical encounter between the two regions of Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To a certain extent this representational asymmetry can be explained by the disqualification of non-EU member states to participate in the event until 1996 when the council of the Ministers of Culture of the European Union agreed that, “after 1996 not only Member States of the Community, but also other European countries basing themselves on the principles of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law should be able to nominate cities for the event.” It was not until the year 2000, however, when Krakow and Prague acquired the title under the clause that allowed non-EU members to participate in the event that Eastern European cities got to appoint their first ECOC.

The Goethe-Schiller monument in Weimar, Germany. Source: This photo is copyright by Daniel Mennerich and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.
The Goethe-Schiller monument in Weimar, Germany. Source: This photo is copyright by Daniel Mennerich and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

Nevertheless, the first former-Soviet-bloc city to participate in the ECOC was Weimar in 1999. The reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that Eastern German cities accessed the E.U. instantly because they were incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). This development gave Weimar the opportunity to bid for the ECOC title earlier than other cities that belonged to the former Soviet bloc. For the German authorities, helping Weimar win the ECOC title became a matter of great significance. The event was seen as an opportunity to boost the economy of a city belonging to the newly acquired Länder of the FRG by enhancing its cultural image and by investing in its infrastructure. It was believed that this way the economic divide between East and West Germany would decrease.

How differently local and federal actors perceived the event becomes apparent by research performed on local and national newspapers of that period. According to an article on Weimar as the Cultural Capital of Europe[1], delegates of the Federal government stressed Weimar’s function as an international representative of Germany and of the progress made to its post-1989 East-West integration, whereas local actors cared mostly about the feasibility of the ECOC project and about local participation in it. When a local newspaper asked what needed to be done in order to make Weimar a Cultural Capital of Europe, one citizen responded: “…a lot needs to be done. That starts with the streets which remain under construction for a long time. Who takes care of that? Then a lot of the buildings in downtown need to be restored.” In contrast, Klaus Büttner, the then mayor of Weimar, focused primarily on the international image of the city stating that the nomination ’emphasises the hinge function between the old democracies in the West and the new in Eastern Europe. Weimar is conscious of its responsibility. We also want to include other European cities. This event will radiate beyond Weimar, it has to bring people together.’

This illustrates that, following Germany’s reunification, the Federal government worried mostly about Germany’s image abroad and wanted to use the ECOC title as a stage where it could showcase one of the hidden gems that lay in the East.Weimar was not randomly selected for that role. The city has been dubbed the “Athens of Germany” because it was inextricably linked with the great artists and writers representative of Germany’s humanist-classicist tradition, such as Goethe, Schiller and the Bauhaus Movement. Moreover, Weimar had received positive remarks in the international press in comparison to its Eastern neighbours, and was characterised as ‘Eastern Germany’s most Western town’, in a Guardian article from 1993  tellingly entitled ‘Goethe’s old haunts become playground for rich foreigners’.

Similar to Weimar’s self-positioning, the main motivation behind Krakow’s ECOC bid was, once again, ‘to promote Krakow internationally, to attract investment from state and abroad, and to contribute to Poland’s image in its aspiration to join the E.U.’[2] The Polish authorities decided that their candidate city for the ECOC title would be Krakow, and not some other Polish city, due to the perceived post-1989 East-West asymmetry and the means to overcome it. The authorities believed that the ideal city to represent Poland’s “European” credentials was Krakow, because Krakow had emerged from the Second World War relatively unscathed and had thus maintained its pre-war “European” character. Warsaw, on the other hand, had been flattened out during the war and, even though it was rebuilt based on its pre-war design, it was still affected by the post-war Soviet architecture, which reminded everyone of the “non-European” years. This attitude was reflected in the international press as well. Krakow was widely regarded as the loveliest of all Polish cities, and the ‘jewel’ in the crown. The Polish authorities used Krakow and the ECOC title in a similar manner as the German authorities had used Weimar in 1999. They also perceived the ECOC title as an excellent opportunity to shed their communist image and to illustrate that they were worthy to re-enter “Europe” via participation in the institutions of the E.U. Krakow shared its ECOC year with eight other cities. One of them, Prague, also belonged to a former-Soviet-bloc country. For that reason, even though Prague was already an established tourist destination by 2000, and had nothing to gain from the ECOC title on that particular front, it still applied for the accolade because the Czech authorities believed that it would boost the country’s E.U. accession, improve the city’s infrastructure, and raise the living standard of its citizens.

The city was in a state of limbo. Even though it was not placed under the same cultural category as cities from the East anymore, the city was not associated with cities from the West either. Therefore, the ECOC title was perceived as a certificate of quality before entering the institutions of the West and becoming an official part of “Europe”. In the stated aims for Prague’s bid to gain the ECOC title, the main motivation was, ‘to promote Prague and the Czech Republic before accession to the E.U.’ If we judge by the way newspapers praised Prague after its ECOC year, and after its E.U. accession, it is obvious that both accolades were beneficial for the city. In a 2005 article in the Daily Mail, Prague found itself in the company of the likes of Paris, Amsterdam and Rome.[3] The author of the article claimed that “former Iron Curtain cities like Riga, Bratislava, Tallinn and Vilnius may not trip off the tongue in quite the same way as Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, and Rome. But they [were] proving [to be] a big draw for weekend travellers”.

Similar sentiments were prevalent in the media coverage of Prague’s ECOC year. The Toronto Star declared Prague, “the tourism sweetheart of Eastern Europe, [and] one of the prettiest cities on the planet.”[4] Ruth Lewis, a columnist for the Mail on Sunday found it, ‘hard to believe only eleven years [had passed] since Prague was released from Communist rule, the people were indistinguishable from those of any other trendy European city as they sit and chat on sunny terraces with a glass of wine or pitcher of beer, mobile phones just a fingertip away.[5]

City Centre Prague. Source: Wikimedia Commons
City Centre Prague. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The fact that Prague, itself a former Iron Curtain city, but also a city that had accessed the E.U. in 2004, the same year as Riga, Bratislava, Tallinn and Vilnius, was placed in the same category as cities from the “old” member states, indicates that the ECOC title can indeed reduce the asymmetry gap between East and West, at least on matters of cultural perception. As the aforementioned columnist of the Daily Mail pointed out, even though cities like Riga, Bratislava, Tallinn and Vilnius are culturally rich and definitely worth visiting, they were perceived as second rate destinations in comparison to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome due to their association with communism and their exclusion from “Europe” until 1989. Nevertheless, as the example of Prague illustrates, cities that belonged to the former Soviet bloc can reduce and balance the perceived West-East cultural asymmetry by upgrading their cultural image via the institution of ECOC. This does not necessarily mean that they should discard or disguise the remnants of their communist past, on the contrary, it means that they should find a way to accept and incorporate them in the cultural heritage of Europe which has excluded them until recently.

Digitized newspaper repositories have become integral for historical research. Even for a less complicated project as the above, where no sophisticated digital tools other than a search engine and “key words” were used, the ability to distinguish a certain amount of relevant articles from a vast amount of irrelevant ones saves the researcher valuable time and gives him/her the opportunity to perform close reading on more sources and with a bigger chance of success. For the current project, it would have been much harder and time-consuming to find the relevant evidence in order to support my argument that after 1989 specific cities were perceived as more “European” than others in the ‘collective mentality’ of Europeans. Yet, via these digital repositories we acquire the ability to examine our sources more effectively and we can discern why a non-capital city like Krakow was selected as the Polish ECOC over the capital Warsaw. Whereas in the past one had to be fortuitous to find specific newspaper issues in a vast archive, one can now find a vast amount of various titles stored and sorted in a digital repository, readily accessible from anywhere.


[1] Silke Roth and Susanne Frank, ‘Festivalization and the Media: Weimar, Cultural Capital of Europe 1999’, International Journal of Cultural Policy 6:2 (2000) 219-241.

[2] Palmer-Rae Associates, European Cities and Capitals of Culture: Study Prepared for the European Commission. Vol. 1 (2004), pp.166 , 166.

[3] ‘Flying visits – anywhere!’, Daily Mail, 20 April 2005.

[4] ‘Prague: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful’, The Toronto Star, 25 March 2000.

[5] Ruth Lewis, ‘Trendy Prague embraces the Culture of Cool; a walking tour of the stylish Czech capital where baroque meets Gucci’, Mail on Sunday, 26 November 2000.