Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

Andrew Stroehlein E A S T  M E E T S  E A S T :
East Europe and East London

Andrew Stroehlein

Having split my time over the past months between Eastern Europe and East London, I have been struck by the prejudices of others toward these areas. The "East" is unfashionable in both cases, but the comparison only goes so far. The recent racist nailbombings in London illustrate why.

Whether in Eastern Europe or East London, the story is the same. In London an "E" as a post code is a scarlet letter. On the Continent, an "Eastern" country is an address of lesser value, and the Czechs and Hungarians are quick to emphasise that they are "Central Europeans." In both cases "East" suggests poor, run-down and dominated by an "undesirable" ethnic mish-mash.

The ethnic mish-mashes of Eastern Europe are hardly like those of UK cities. Of course, no one could ever claim that ethnic intolerance is unique to Eastern Europe. London's police force has recently been trying to overcome its self-confessed "institutional racism," after its appalling incompetence in the case of Steven Lawrence, a black youth murdered by racist thugs several years ago. Sadly, London has also been recent witness to a nailbomber who struck two ethnic minority areas and the predominantly gay neighbourhood of Soho, killing three and maiming dozens.

Thankfully, the police seemed to have caught the maniac, and the menace is lessened. In the tense three weeks of his bombing campaign, London was fearful, but at its finest, because the entire community pulled together under the threat.

In their pamphlets and Internet pages, several extreme racist groups had called for bombs of just this type to be planted by small cells of activists. They openly call for a "race war," and, ironically recognising the strength of the tolerance they were fighting, they perversely declared that since a race war wasn't likely to start on its own in the current climate, they, the white power extremists, would have to spark it off. For a brief moment, London was threatened with a long hot summer of escalating, inter-ethnic tension. I am pleased to say that now seems light years away, not only because of the recent arrest of the prime bombing suspect but because Londoners loudly resisted the path of hatred.

There was a general determination to resist the racist bomber's call to fear and hatred, and people acted on that feeling. After every bombing, often just hours after the blast, local shopkeepers hung up signs boldly declaring "Business as Usual," and customers re-emerged in confident droves. Some businesses actually reported increased trade as Londoners were adamant about refusing to live in fear and purposely went out just to show their resistance to intimidation

The rejection of hate was seen across the entire political spectrum and in every media outlet; in fact, there was widespread disbelief at how someone could fear or hate people to such a murderous degree simply on the basis of their ethnic origin or sexual orientation. People were horrified by the thought of a mind that could think like the bomber's and formulate such texts as those of the racist pamphlets (excerpts of which were published in the newspapers over the following weeks). How could a person admit to the strength of harmony and yet want to disturb that peace with a "race war"? Even The Sun, the best-selling tabloid newspaper and hardly a bastion of racial tolerance, was indignant toward the hate evinced by the bomber and his ilk.

Most importantly, there was a deep understanding that an attack on one section of the community was an attack on everyone in the community. Everyone knew that he or she would lose if racial tensions were heightened in the community.

The bomber had hoped to intensify inter-ethnic hatred and spark racially motivated retaliations leading to a race war in London and the UK. The racists grossly overestimated the base level of racial hatred and homophobia in London. They relied on a strong foundation of intolerance that simply doesn't exist here. No one heeded their call.

The fact is, no one in London, East or West, wants a race war. Only a pathetic few try to blame other ethnic groups for their own problems. Only a minuscule minority could ever think along those lines -the same lines that have led to millions of people being systematically raped, tortured, murdered or otherwise "ethnically cleansed" in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.

Both the London nailbomber and the genocide in Kosova have recently got me thinking of my other "Eastern" home, the Czech Republic. I wonder whether public opinion there is more like that in the UK or like that in Yugoslavia.

If nailbombs were exploding in Romani neighbourhoods in Prague, would the Czechs feel this was an attack on them, too?

Andrew Stroehlein, 17 May 1999


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