Refugee crisis, compassion and Eastern Europe

Published 6 October 2015 / By Dace Dzenovska

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Losing Europeanness

Every crisis dismantles and produces Europeanness anew. Greek Europeanness was recently questioned by the financial ‘core of Europe’ led by Germany because Greece refused to behave like a responsible economic subject. In the context of the current refugee crisis, the now moral ‘core of Europe’—once again led by Germany—is juxtaposed to the failed Europeanness of what has emerged as generic ‘Eastern Europe’.

Several Eastern European member states of the European Union objected to the proposed refugee quotas. There were protests in various cities in Eastern Europe against accepting refugees. There were also counter-protests, counter-arguments, and counter-actions. Nevertheless, the liberally inclined print and online media on both sides of the Atlantic quickly filled with commentaries that accused ‘Eastern Europeans’ of lacking compassion and tried to shame them into moral maturity and, by extension, agreeable politics.[1] Some suggested that Eastern Europe was stuck in the rhetoric of suffering, unable to evolve from recipients to providers of assistance. Others wondered whether Eastern Europeans could see the irony in refusing assistance to those in need when they had received so much assistance during the long 20th century. Had they not learned anything from history? Why were Eastern Europeans so racist and xenophobic?

Disagreeable politics and attitudes were traced to moral failures, which amounted to failed Europeanness. Even those who eschewed moralizing began by securing their own Europeanness by distancing from Eastern Europe’s ‘staggering lack of compassion’.[2] In the midst of a spectacular political failure, the moral goodness of the ‘core of Europe’ was reasserted.[3]

Compassion as a political virtue

Compassion deployed in this fashion is not a ‘private sentiment.’[4] It is a political virtue expected to extend to strangers and to inform liberal politics. In this form—as a political virtue with universal value—it has been widely criticized for its depoliticizing and even repressive effects.[5]

According to Hannah Arendt, the private sentiment of compassion risks turning into pity when brought into the public arena, thus preventing engagement with fellow ‘men’ [sic] as political equals.[6] Compassion as a political virtue—not unlike tolerance as a political virtue—does not posit such equality. Instead, it posits a hierarchical relationship between the subjects and objects of compassion.[7] Public compassion is about both fellow feeling and distancing. It can be extended to strangers (they are almost like us!) and to marginalized group members (they are not really like us!). In the midst of refugee crisis, it has also become part of a civilizational discourse extended towards Eastern Europe.

Political opportunity?

Regardless of what one thinks of the asylum politics of Eastern European member states and of the attitudes of their citizens, attributing such politics and attitudes to collective moral failures is a move that needs to be carefully rethought. It is hardly the case that Eastern Europeans are less human in their capacity for compassion than their Western European counterparts. The difference seems to lie in the fact that they either do not use the sentiment of compassion as a basis for politics or limit its application to a particular nation, race or religion.

And yet, Eastern Europeans are grappling with tensions that define Europe beyond particular nation-states: the tension between liberal politics and national states, the tension between the needs of populations impoverished by austerity measures and the needs of refugees, and the tension between proclamations of ‘European values’ and the on-going ghettoization of marginal Europeans and asylum seekers in cities across Europe.

Fence with barbed wireEastern European members of the public, government officials, border guards, and journalists have been learning about these tensions, especially asylum politics, through the media, trips to Western Europe, and a variety of training and twinning programmes. For example, Latvian border guards and government officials have worked with their Finnish, Swedish, French and Belgian counterparts to implement border controls and asylum instruments. They seem to have learned the ‘common law of repression’, but not the redemptive virtue of compassion.[8]

Should Eastern Europeans be taught to accept compassion as a political virtue to be extended to suffering subjects beyond their immediate circles of kinship? It seems unlikely that embracing public compassion will resolve Europe’s definitive tensions and the concrete problems that arise from them. Perhaps the difference that has emerged between Eastern and Western Europe in the context of the refugee crisis is a political opportunity to address these tensions without obscuring them by a moralizing discourse.

[1] For examples, see: Lyman 2015; Gross 2015; Simecka & Tallis 2015; Rupnik 2015; Komorovskis 2015; Krastev 2015; Sabet-Parry 2015; Hockenos 2015; Gressel 2015; Roland 2015.

[2] See Krastev 2015.

[3] See Böröcz 2006 for an early critique. See also Dzenovska 2013.

[4] Arendt 1990; Canovan 1992.

[5] For examples see Ticktin 2011; Fassin 2005, 2011; Bornstein 2012. See also Weiss 2015 and Feldman 2013 for counter-arguments.

[6] Arendt 1990.

[7] For critical analysis of the political virtue of tolerance, see Brown 2006 & Dzenovska n.d.

[8] Fassin 2005: 375.


Arendt, Hannah. 1990 [1965]. On Revolution. Penguin Books.

Bornstein, Erika. 2012. Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Böröcz, Joseph. 2006. ‘Goodness is Elsewhere: The Rule of European Difference’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 48 (1): 110-137.

Brown, Wendy. 2006. Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Canovan, Margaret. 1992. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dzenovska, Dace. n.d. Complicit Becoming: Tolerance and Europeanization After Socialism. Manuscript in preparation.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2013. ‘Historical Agency and the Coloniality of Power in Postsocialist Europe’. Anthropological Theory 13(4): 394-416.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2005. ‘Compassion and repression: The moral economy of immigration policies in France’, Cultural Anthropology 20(3): 362-387.

Feldman, Gregory. 2013. ‘The specific intellectual’s pivotal position: action, compassion and thinking in administrative society, an Arendtian view’. Social Anthropology 21(2): 135-154.

Gressel, Gustav. 2015. ‘Understanding Eastern European attitudes on refugees’. European Council on Foreign Relations. September 11.

Gross, Jan T. 2015. ‘Eastern Europe’s Crisis of Shame’. Project Syndicate. September 16.

Hockenos, Paul. 2015. ‘The Stunning Hypocrisy of Mitteleuropa’. Foreign Policy. September 12.

Krastev, Ivan. 2015. ‘Eastern Europe’s Compassion Deficit’. The New York Times. September 8.

Komorovskis, Broņislavs. 2015. ‘Cilvēcības vārdā’. Ir. September 18.

Lyman, Rick. 2015. ‘Eastern block’s resistance to refugees highlights Europe’s cultural and political divisions’. The New York Times. September 12.

Roland, Gerard. 2015. ‘Why the rift between Eastern and Western Europe on the refugee crisis?’ The Berkeley Blog. September 9.

Rupnik, Jacques. 2015. ‘The Other Europe’. Eurozine. September 16.

Sabet-Parry, Rayyan & Karl Ritter. 2015. ‘Scant sympathy for refugees in Europe’s ex-communist East’. The Business Insider. September 11.

Simecka, Michal & Benjamin Tallis. 2015. ‘Fighting the wrong battle: A crisis of liberal democracy, not migration’. openDemocracy. September 16.

Smilov, Daniel. 2015. ‘The argument against compassion: Europe and the refugees’. openDemocracy. September 14.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weiss, Erica. 2015. ‘Provincializing empathy: Humanitarian sentiment and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. Anthropological Theory 15(3): 275-292.