Reflections on International Space

Neal Ascherson

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

James Fenton, ‘A German Requiem’

The topic of international space is like one of those monstrous catfish which used to loaf around the hot-water outfalls of the Berlin power stations. You could hook it, net it, spear it, or even seize it in your arms if it were not so heavy and slippery. In an effort to get some grip on international space I have followed James Fenton by asking, in three different ways, whether it might be between things – not the houses but the spaces between the houses. It could be looked at as a system of gaps, blanks or crevices between social or diplomatic entities. Or, in an Einsteinian space-time way, as the space which appears when a social or diplomatic house or houses fall down: a vacancy measurable in terms of power, geography and time – usually a pretty short time. Or, lastly, it is possible to understand it as a sort of air-pocket, like the spaces which preserved a few fortunate people in the Gujarat earthquake. What interests me is the space which opens out or is excavated under the reinforced concrete of a tyranny, and within which human behaviour can regain authenticity.

The international community, as we are still rightly reluctant to call it, is a cellular structure whose most obvious spatial component is the nation-state. Most people would probably prefer to hear about concentric multiple identities than about nation-states, but I am discussing international space, not subjective affiliations. Certainly, there is concentricity to be found in international space. Some states contain sharply defined political regions or are formal federations, while many – especially in Europe – are engaged on a programme of pooling sovereignty under a supranational council or commission. This is only part of the historic weakening of the nation-state, as its once absolute authority leaks downwards to the regional level and upwards to the transnational plane. But it is important to recognise that this weakening, which will eventually transform the texture of international space out of recognition, is only in its early stages. For the moment, the political world we inhabit is a cellular honeycomb of nation-states, though some cells are far bigger than others. In power terms, the cellular image can dangerously misrepresent the substance of international relations, in that it suggests a sort of fictional one-state one-voice equality, on the UN General Assembly or OSCE model: it does not illustrate the forces of penetration and control which one strong imperialist state or group of states can exert over others. But international space and its divisions have to be understood in the first place as a form.

Cells have walls. International space, in recent times, has presented a pattern of territorial boundaries, some artificially delimited and others – like the English Channel or the Drakensberg mountains – so-called natural boundaries. The important question is how permeable these cells walls are. At least, it has seemed the important question to Europeans and those under their influence for the last three hundred years or so, and to the post-colonial continents for the last century. This was plainly not always so. The notion of physical boundaries disappears into the past, but most of them were relative rather than total. Any pastoral community knows precisely the stone outcrop and the thorn bush where one common grazing ends and another neighbouring pasture begins, but the rules about where goats can go in such societies are not necessarily the same as the rules about where people can go. Again, Hadrian’s Wall was not the Berlin Wall – a total partition – but something more specialised, at once a motorway toll-station and a radar early-warning line made of stone, timber and earth. Roman emperors constructed similar barriers elsewhere, for example in Germany or the Danube Delta. But apart from obstacles like the Danube, the Alps or the High Caucasus, ancient empires were much less clearly demarcated than the close-packed small farms of Attica or Central Italy in classical times.

It would be a waste of time to narrate the hardening of the cell walls, the advent of the idea of physical frontier barriers which were more than just tollgates. That is part of the story of the early modern nation-state, a Eurocentric story whose most interesting and formative event was the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War, laying down the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. (There is a case for saying that Europeans lived in the Westphalian system until the ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo in 1999.) But it is interesting to watch the parallel development of what could be called a ‘cellular discourse’ outside the strictly political field, especially in the later 19th century.

Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) is mostly remembered for his proposition that human tissue was composed of cells. His most celebrated saying is that ‘omnis cellula ex cellula’ – every cell is derived from another cell. (Actually François Raspail said it first, but Virchow made it much more famous. On the other hand, Virchow has more streets named after him but none as intellectually majestic as the Boulevard Raspail in Paris.) What is less remembered about Virchow is that he was a political thinker – in Prussian 19th-century terms, a liberal. He thought of the human body as a republic of cells, sovereign and equal, and he fought for his republican ideas during the Revolution of 1848, the Springtime of Nations. Later he was elected to the Prussian Diet and then the Reichstag. Bismarck, who thought that international space was a pond full of luscious carp rather than a noble republic of cells, loathed Virchow and tried unsuccessfully to make him fight a duel.

Virchow was also an archaeologist, or more accurately, he was one of those fine old prehistorians for whom physical anthropology, ethnology and archaeological research could still form a single subject. The first true German archaeologist, who insisted that archaeology (Urgeschichte) should be an exclusive discipline out on its own, was Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931). Kossinna despised Virchow’s vision of a worldwide ‘prehistoric anthropology’. Instead, his interests focused on the material culture of the ‘Germanic’ past. He was much younger than Virchow, and – like Bismarck and for some of the same reasons – he detested him. Kossinna, a conservative right-wing nationalist, had no patience with the school of historians who wanted to fit Germany’s early past into the context of classical Greece and Rome, or with the Römisch-Germanisch archaeologists, based mostly in the Catholic Rhineland, for whom the only respectable aspect of German early history was the contact with the Roman Empire. A fervent racialist, Kossinna disliked both Virchow’s holistic approach to learning and his internationalism.

Kossinna, all the same, was another cellular man. The difference between him and Virchow was in a sense over Virchow’s ‘omnis cellula ex cellula’. For Gustaf Kossinna, the human cultures which mattered were not interpenetrating but autochthonous, self-creating. They did not derive from the impact of, or mixture with, other cultures (invaders, migrants, intermarriage across ethnic boundaries), but arose and developed as the consequences of innate biological forces in their own ‘blood’ or gene-pool. A healthy cultural ‘cellula’ had more or less impermeable walls and its contents were more or less homogeneous.

Christopher Hann, discussing what he called the ‘Malinowski period’ of early field anthropology, in Social Anthropology (one of the volumes in the Teach Yourself series), underlined the emphasis laid by Malinowski and his disciples and students on the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each society they inspected – especially small island societies in the western Pacific. ‘The world,’ Hann wrote, ‘was a mosaic of these bounded “peoples”, “cultures” and “societies”. This fitted with the idea of the nation, as it was then gaining strength in Europe.’

For ‘mosaic’, one could substitute ‘cloisonné’ – the technique in which each garnet in (say) the Sutton Hoo belt-buckle is enclosed in a tiny wall of gold. Kossinna, in his own version of the mosaic of bounded peoples, worked out what is still known as the culture-historical approach – his own term was Siedlungsarchäologische Methode, the settlement-archaeology method, which is much less explicit. In 1911, he summed up his method in a celebrated sentence: ‘Sharply-defined archaeological culture areas correspond at all times to the areas of particular peoples or tribes.’ In other words, a specific array of tools, ceramic types, hut-building techniques and so on revealed the presence of a specific ethnic group defined not only by its material culture but by inherited racial traits and by language – wherever that array turned up. Find a particular type of iron spearhead, a particular decoration on pottery and a particular way of setting timbers to support a farmstead, and you could exclaim: ‘This settlement was Germanic! These people spoke proto-Germanic. Here dwelt our ancestors!’

Kossinna’s admirers for a time included the greatest of Marxist archaeologists, V. Gordon Childe. But Childe did not follow Kossinna’s most fervent German disciples as they partitioned Eurasia into ‘Nordic Culture-Regions’ and ‘Germanic/Celtic/North Illyrian Settlement Areas’. Nazi archaeology was almost entirely constructed around Kossinna’s ideas. But the ‘culture-historical approach’ also became rapidly and lastingly popular throughout non-German Central Europe, where it served (especially in pre-1939 Poland) as a method of demonstrating the antiquity of Slav or ‘proto-Slavic’ settlement in the territories of the Polish state. The approach was easily adapted by Stalinist archaeology during the Cold War to ‘prove’ that a wider Slav world had existed in East-Central Europe long before it was disrupted by imperialist Germanic invaders. Though generally discredited in the West, strong traces of Kossinna’s approach still survive in Central and Eastern Europe. And the truth is that the world of Anglo-Saxon scholarship still owes more to Kossinna than it likes to admit. When ‘progressive’ archaeologists in Australia or North America allow their dating results to be used to validate indigenous land claims, almost all of them based on priority of settlement and on ethnic continuity with prehistoric settlers, the ghost of Gustaf Kossinna still rides the night.

Out in the political world, Kossinna’s vision of self-creating, hardwalled, homogeneous cells could serve as a guide to the ‘Modern Nationalism’. This ideology became hugely influential in the later 19th century, though it had long roots into intellectual history. At its core was the view that no state could be strong or secure its rightful place in the sun unless its population was uniform – which usually meant ethnic or imagined racial uniformity. Minorities were a state’s misfortune. The Modern Nationalism was especially popular among the intellectuals of countries which were either struggling for independence or in danger of losing it; it expressed a violent reaction against the apparent failure of loose, multinational and multicultural polities to survive in the shark-pool of international conflict.

One good example of this thinking was provided by Roman Dmowski, founder of the Polish nationalist movement called the Endecja – the National Democrats. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had been abolished by the Partitions in the late 18th century, had been just such a plural polity; all that had been required of its citizens, Poles, Balts, Jews, Germans, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Moslem Tatars or Calvinist Scots, was loyalty to the crown. In the insurrections after the Partitions, men and women from all those communities had fought to regain Poland’s independence. But Dmowski argued that the Commonwealth had been an anachronism, an unhealthy nation-cell infected by substances from other cells. In the future Poland, the ‘true Pole’ could only be a Catholic Slav. Above all, Dmowski preached that the Jews were disloyal, an alien threat to any revived Poland. Dmowski wanted that Poland to be ethnically homogeneous, without minorities – the Poland which in fact emerged after 1945, following the genocide of the Jews, the annexation by the USSR of Belorussian and Ukrainian territories and the expulsion of the Germans.

Cellular, too, was the vision of the Kemalists in Turkey, who eventually constructed a supposedly mono-ethnic state out of the rump of the vast Ottoman Empire, with all its plethora of semi-autonomous minorities, faiths and languages. This was Dmowski’s ideal in action, the first time that the fashionable Modern Nationalism was put into practice. The Armenians were slaughtered, the Greeks expelled, the Kurds suppressed; the racialist fiction of Turkey for the Turks was imposed. And the notion of ethnic homogeneity as the precondition for a strong nation-state – so consequently practised by Hitler and Mussolini – still dominated the outlook of democratic statesmen at the end of the Second World War. Churchill felt guilty about the Allied betrayal of Poland; he tried to make amends by helping to clear some six million Germans out of Silesia and East Prussia so that the new Poland could at least start with the benefit of a united, ‘Polish’ population.

But cellular nationalism of the Kossinna/ Dmowski kind, although disastrously transmitted to many continents by colonial empires, is on the way out. That does not mean that globalisation will reduce international space to a single space. On the contrary, all the evidence is that global markets and communications actually set off a proliferation of cells. The UN had 51 founder members in 1945; by the end of the century it had 192, of which 46 (counting the Vatican) were microstates. Nearly a quarter of the world’s nation-states have fewer than a million inhabitants, some – like Palau with 15,000 – far fewer. This reorganisation of international space is not a simple ‘reaction against bigness’. It has, more importantly, come about because a globalised world economy, free of all but local wars, is a perfect environment for microstates as long as their cell walls are porous. This fragmentation is related to the larger process of the decay of the traditional nation-state, as its authority leaks away upwards to the supranational level and downwards to the more adaptable, sustainable level of regions.

The honeycomb, however, is not the only image for international space. There are several alternative ways of defining it. To start with, try looking not at the cells, but at the space between the cells – not the houses but the spaces between the houses. On the atlas, there is not much white space left. Antarctica remains a sort of common territory, on paper the site of all kinds of ambitious sectoral claims by nation-states but in practice a place of reasonably friendly, treaty-bound co-operation between research stations. The main body of the oceans, their floors and their habitats, remain untenanted international space which will soon – not without struggles – have to be put under some much more restrictive international regime.

In the past, in the early 20th century, there were a number of spaces which were not absolutely unpopulated but whose allocation to empires or nation-states was undecided. Some of them produced postage stamps of strange shapes, decorated with obscure overprints. There were Anglo-French condominia, and Tannu-Tuva, and that diamond-shaped space drawn on the map of Mesopotamia within which RAF biplanes bombed nomads. The Aland islands in the Baltic became one of the few complete successes of modern diplomacy, as Finnish sovereignty compromised with the virtual independence of the Swedish-speaking population. Later in the century, under the increasing threat of renewed European war, less durable spaces appeared between the national cells, like the so-called Free City of Danzig with its League of Nations High Commissioner, its German population and its Polish post office. (Odd to recall that the judge who tried Joschka Fischer for rioting in 1970s Frankfurt was the judge who condemned the defenders of that post office to death in 1939.) International space was pulled into some desperate shapes: the Caprivi Strip in southern Africa, or the Polish corridor to the sea, resembling the siphon of some bivalve – a bit like the little Moldova corridor which has been drawn to give the new state five hundred metres of Danube bank and ‘access to the oceans’.

But the most intriguing intercellular spaces are just gaps, crevices, interstices, oversights. They appear whenever some new international system attempts to demarcate everything sharply, menacingly and in a hurry. For example, there may or may not have been something called the ‘Akwizgran Discrepancy’. A forgotten thread of diplomatic folklore suggested that when the new Kingdom of Belgium emerged in 1831 – much to the annoyance of the Congress Powers who had imposed the Vienna settlement on Europe after 1815 – there had been a demarcation error at the point where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands met. Somewhere between Aachen and Verviers, there existed a tiny triangular space, big enough to contain a house, a patch of field and a few fruit trees, which belonged to nobody. During the Cold War, the Polish writer Stanislaw Dygat got past the censor with a romantic novel about love and freedom in the Discrepancy – if only! He did not have to spell out his point. I have never been able to find the Discrepancy, which probably never existed. But the thought of it was dear to people.

In the same way, the very absoluteness of the Cold War borders left a whole series of chinks and crevices. Some of the best were in Berlin, naturally. There was a whole archipelago of tiny islets of West Berlin territory floating offshore in East Germany, connected to their mainland by barbed-wire causeways. There were also places in what had been the city centre where the Wall had been pulled back a little to make it more defensible, leaving patches of East Berlin territory on the Western side. One of these patches was the ruin of the old Potsdam Station, a sinister precinct inhabited by spies, petty crooks, hermits and dope-dealers. Sometimes they lit fires at night. Few Westerners ventured in there. Legend warned that Volksarmee patrols occasionally dropped over the Wall and seized anyone they found in the ruin as an ‘illegal immigrant to the German Democratic Republic’.

Not far away was the Lenné Triangle. Only the pavement kerbs marked where buildings had once stood; it became a fenced-off wedge of scrubland and small trees. But one day in 1987, the Triangle was occupied by a tribe of ‘alternative’ people (‘autonomes’) in flight from the West Berlin police, who set up a shack and tent city among the bushes, parked their Deux Chevaux against the Wall and invited everyone to come and join them in no man’s land, the space of freedom between worlds. Visitors poured in, to smoke dope and plan new ways of living or merely to watch autonomes making love in the ‘Biotope’. It was too good to last. But when the West Berlin police finally stormed the encampment, East German soldiers suddenly appeared along the top of the Wall and helped the occupiers to escape.

Close to international ‘space between’ is international ‘space after’: the space or gap which appears when something is suddenly removed – Einsteinian space-time. ‘It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.’ A front tooth is pulled, a mosque in the main square is dynamited to rubble, a multinational kingdom collapses. The difference is that when we talk about a ‘space after’ suddenly appearing in a national or international order, rather than in a human mouth or a Bosnian townscape, it has aspects of a vacuum rather than a mere vacancy. The space creates a limited time, as competing forces rush in to fill the vacuum and replace it with new or reinvented structures. When four empires fell apart or were destroyed within a few years, between 1917 and 1919, an inrush began to fill the enormous emptiness they left behind, the inrush of what came to be called ‘successor states’. But it is not just the removal of a state which produces this suction. Assassination can have the same effect. When the ETA car bombers killed Franco’s designated successor, Admiral Carrero Blanco, the possibility of any orderly transmission of Fascist power to another ruler before the aged Franco died was instantly removed, and the inrush to fill the space became a transition to democracy.

Space, here, is being used as a metaphor. Obviously, the sort of international space created by the removal of something, or by the appearance of an overwhelming opportunity, is not literally empty or uninhabited. It is not a space to the indigenous people who live there, whether they are Bushmen, Aboriginals or Belorussian-speaking villagers who answer questions about identity by saying: ‘We are tutejszy – we are from-here people.’ Sometimes it is the indigenes themselves who try to establish mastery over their own place when an external authority has fallen away, as the Poles and Czechs did after 1918, or as the Armenians tried and failed to do in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in 1915. More often, in modern history, outsiders have entered and declared: ‘This is terra nullius, no man’s land, and this handful of savages wandering across its surface will become our colonial subjects.’

The colonising discourse is full of exaltations about ‘emptiness’ and ‘wide open space’. But the Canadian North, the American West, the Cape or the Australian outback, all celebrated by Europeans as ‘virgin’ and ‘empty’ space, were the traditional territories of human beings who had been there for millennia. Most of them were hunter-gatherers. Those who were agriculturalists or nomadic pastoralists had already encountered the colonists as they established themselves near shores and estuaries, before later settler generations embarked on the big trek into the grasslands and temperate forests of the interior.

The terms ‘open space’ and ‘emptiness’ served, of course, as the justification for the global land grab which followed, often accompanied by genocidal massacre. It was as if the notion of occupancy, let alone of collective ownership of land, could not apply to hunter-gatherer communities, who to this day have been denied the right to full title over indigenous land which is granted to farming and ranching societies. This use of the concept of space reduces a whole category of humans to sub-humanity. It was one thing for Afrikaner politicians to maintain that the Bantu peoples were newcomers who had entered an ‘empty’ South Africa from the North only a few years before the entry of Dutch settlers from the Cape. That was simply a lie. It was much worse to treat traditional hunting territories used by the Bushmen at the Cape as if they were unclaimed property, on the grounds that people who lived as they did were too primitive to have title over anything beyond personal property. In The Other Side of Eden Hugh Brody postulates millennia of conflict between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. It is the farmers, he asserts, not the hunters, who are continuously on the move. The farmers are the true ‘nomads’ as they push compulsively onwards and outwards in search of fresh soils, expelling the native hunter-gatherers to the miserable deserts or tundras beyond the margins of the cultivable world. (This view of the coming of agriculture as a result of migration is entirely rejected by ‘processual’ archaeologists. But as an account of how white colonist farmers displaced indigenous peoples, it works.)

The phrase ‘time out of mind’ was used in England mostly about space. It was a legal phrase about customary leases, which may have survived until the abolition of copyhold tenure in the 20th century. But it was an example of how the notion of time is plaited into this notion of assigned space. The danger that assigned space could suddenly turn into a gap, or vacuum, sucking in undesirable new occupants, was always obvious. Accordingly, especially in settled societies, there have usually been ways in which time is used to plug a sudden gap in space.

A tenant dies, but his heirs appeal to ‘time out of mind’ for the right to inherit the tenancy at the same peppercorn rent. The Pequod nation is reduced to a handful of people living on a scrap of reservation in the Connecticut woods. But one old Pequod lady proves capable of invoking time – documented continuity in a homeland since the 17th century – to support the fabulously successful series of land restitution claims which created the large, wealthy and autonomous space at Mashantucket, where the Pequod nation flourishes today.

Reporting from Poland, I have seen many examples of time being used to patch over a dangerous breach in space. For most of my life, the Royal Castle at Warsaw was no more than a fang of brickwork left by the Nazi dynamiters in a monstrous urban gap. But in the 1970s it was rebuilt down to the last detail, and the forty years when the Castle did not fill its space are dismissed almost as an optical disturbance. ‘Look across this courtyard,’ says the guide, ‘and you can see the only Renaissance window which survived the Baroque reconstruction.’ At Gdansk, during Martial Law, I watched newly married couples laying their bridal flowers under the Solidarity monument, erected the year before to commemorate martyred shipyard workers. I said to my Polish companion that this was a freshly-invented tradition. He glanced at me, puzzled, and then replied: ‘Well, but in a way the monument has always been there.’

Episodes like those remind me of the late Edmund Leach’s work on the topology of elastic forms. Time is an elastic sheet which can be used to pull the edges of wounds together. I remember the elderly man I met leaving a Madrid polling station in 1976, during the first free elections in Spain for over thirty years. I asked him how he had voted. ‘I voted Socialist,’ he replied. ‘I always vote Socialist.’

Space can also imply a sufficiency of territory. International space has often been a phrase in disputes about how much space is enough. The tide has gone out on most of those arguments, leaving a few weedy posts in the mud. It used to be said – reassuringly, as I recall – that there was just enough space on the Isle of Wight for the entire population of the world to stand shoulder to shoulder. There is no longer enough space. In any case, there is nothing reassuring now about a human race with standing room only.

‘Enoughness’, the idea of a sufficiency of space, has too many applications and variables to be useful. Enough in stony uplands is much bigger than enough on river-bottom alluvial land. Preparing for war in 1914, the German Empire aimed to absorb geographically tiny territories from France, the sites of strategic factories or minerals, but colossal regions from the Russian Empire. The suggestion that a nation requires more space has always been the prelude not only to crime but to failure; partly because the suggestion at once unites a coalition of hostile neighbours, but even more because the obvious question – ‘Space for what?’ – practically never gets a coherent answer. The German eastward colonisation across the Elbe in the early Middle Ages did succeed, because it was nothing like a planned Lebensraum programme: it was driven by the separate ambitions for land and trade of a large number of individuals and corporations. In contrast, the planned colonisations undertaken by Bismarck and Hitler left shelves of theoretical works about Raum but little else save graveyards. The Poles in West Prussia and Posen bought back their own land from the German colonists, who thankfully streamed home again (Ostflucht). The population transfers and ethnic plantations attempted by Hitler, in the name of exploiting the huge new space cleared by conquest, also came to nothing. That space found only one effective use; its relative remoteness made it a suitable site for genocide.

And yet the longing for enough space, family longings rather than national longings, changed the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is still doing so. The ‘huddled masses’ began to move, heading above all for North America: Jews from congested shtetls, Gaelic Highlanders escaping land hunger and rack-renting to own a rectangle of uncleared forest in Ontario, and the post-Famine outrush from Ireland. Those European generations did, for once, have an idea of what sufficiency of space might mean. The 160 acres offered to settlers by the 1862 Homestead Act in the United States became something like a universal standard.

These people had set out with a vivid awareness of the physical and moral stunting inflicted on their own parents and children by lack of space. It was the writer Artur Sandauer who used to tell of a superstition among Volhynian Jews. They believed that at the moment of birth an angel appears by the baby for a split second, and opens its vast wings. If the wings can be fully spread, the baby will enjoy a free and happy life. But if the room is too small, then the child’s life will be narrow, poor and frustrated. The wise men therefore reasoned that it was best to be born in the open air. Sandauer, who counted himself happy, remarked that he had been born when his pregnant mother had been fleeing from the tsarist police towards the Austrian frontier. Her sledge turned over, rolling her downhill into a snowdrift where she went into labour. I liked this story, and repeated it to the first person I met, who happened to be a Krakow taxi-driver. He nodded without smiling, and said: ‘I was born when my mother was in a Gestapo cell.’

The mother who fell off the sledge was in transit between spaces – from Romanov space to Habsburg space. They were not identical, which was why she was making the journey, but with difficulty they were compatible and mutually accessible. (There used to be a picnic place near the Upper Silesian city of Gleiwitz, now Gliwice, which was called the Dreikaisereck – Three Emperors’ Corner. Families took photographs there, posing by the stone which pinned together the domains of the Hohenzollern Kaiser, Franz-Josef of Austria-Hungary and Tsar Nicholas II.) But there have also been categories of international space which were mutually impenetrable. This was not because of dense rainforest or deserts. It was because different societies conceived of territorial and cultural space in styles so dissimilar that imagination could not cross between them.

My favourite book on this subject is the strange and brilliant work by François Hartog called The Mirror of Herodotus. Hartog discusses the contrast, as observed by Herodotus, between the Scythian pastoral nomads of the Black Sea steppe and the trudging infantry battalions of the Persian Empire under the command of Darius. When Darius invaded Scythia, he was unable to bring the ever-retreating Scythians to battle and was baffled (as were the Greeks) by this encounter with peoples who had no fixed centre, no capital or inner sanctum. He had built a bridge across the Danube as a poros, a means of intercommunication between spaces. But he could not get at the Scythians because they were aporoi – incommunicable. Their space was an aporia, a limitless grassy universe which was trackless, disorienting, ‘ungetatable’. Soon the Persians only wished to find their way safely back to their poros and across the river again, before the alien space swallowed everyone. Hartog goes on to suggest that this was also true of cultures: Greek/Persian and Scythian cultures were aporoi to one another, so that once you had ventured decisively into the other space you could not get back again. Again he quotes Herodotus, who told the fables of Anacharsis and Scyles, two Scythians who in different ways crossed into the space of Greek religion and lifestyle and who both met death when they returned: Scyles handed back to his own people as a hostage and executed the moment he reached Scythian space, Anacharsis making a clandestine landing on the Crimean coast but killed at once by the arrow of a king.

This imagining of a space which is ‘other’, in which the man or woman who enters may be irretrievably changed, which by its very nature is irreconcilable with adjoining space, leads to the idea of space as breathing-space, a survival chamber hollowed out within the foundations of an oppressive system, something like the vacuole within a cell of plant tissue. The Early Christian catacombs were literally such spaces, subterranean galleries where Rome was not present and could not enter physically or metaphysically.

These are spaces of authenticity. Within them, whether they are physical or social or spiritual, people escape prevailing constraints and can behave spontaneously, truthfully, in accordance with what they feel to be their real nature. ‘Real’ is a significant word here. The space outside and the laws which obtain there are judged to be in some way unreal. This may be because that world out there is governed by persons who dwell in darkness; they have not received the enlightenment which reveals the real order of creation and divine authority. Or it may be because the world out there is the sort of tyranny in which everything is available but everything is a fake: fake patriotism and fake history, fake elections and fake public enthusiasm; phoney economic statistics and hypocritical constitutions and imposing, meaningless programmes for scientific research. Even breathing and making love can become as-if activities.

It is at this point that human beings begin to excavate authentic space, in order to survive morally. Often enough, the space is no bigger than a family apartment. German Pietism, for example, has in the past concluded that the best response to satanic regimes is to live a pure and holy life at home, not challenging the public order but bringing up children who do not lie to their parents and who know good from evil. (It was this sort of minimalist resistance which was not enough, finally, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Third Reich.) And there are even smaller spaces. It was either a Pole or a Czech who said of their Communist systems: ‘The one sure way to destroy them is to do your work with absolute honesty and as well as you possibly can.’

A smaller space, but a more ambitious one. Here is the notion that an authentic space is not static – a locked room for the conservation of values – but dynamic: a cave which can be enlarged until it has hollowed out the foundations of the ruling order. Authenticity is like a termite or a death-watch beetle, gnawing away expanding spaces within apparently solid structures. We still don’t really understand why the Soviet Empire in Europe collapsed with such brittle abruptness in 1989. But part of the reason is that it had become riddled with authenticity.

These dynamic spaces of authenticity can take many forms. One is conspiracy. Between plotters at first, and then among a far larger network of supporters and organisers and couriers, there is ‘real’, genuine speech. Not all the truth can be told, but truth is at least the currency. The risk taken is not a fake, and neither is the hope. And when and if the conspiracy breaks surface and becomes an insurrection, then there is often a festival of authentic emotion, of hectic but authentic relationships. The Warsaw Rising of 1944 was like that, a time when masks fell away and the insurgents, reaching out for one another, seemed to discover their own better selves.

The opening of authentic space during the Cold War was less dramatic. Often it required long, patient games to infiltrate authenticity into fake institutions. Party rule meant control of civil society. The local branch of the Slobodnian League of Stamp-Collectors had to submit the candidates for its new committee to ‘the appropriate authorities’ who would amend the list, inserting extra Party names if necessary, and confirm the presence of one or two individuals who could be relied on as informers.

As time passed, this became harder. Occasionally an official organisation would turn authentic, or its committee would go native. That is what happened in Czechoslovakia with the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union. One day, the authorities woke up to find that a Mr Karel Srp and his friends had refunctioned the Jazz Section into a forum where people spoke their minds about politics as well as Brubeck. The section’s journal, technically free of censorship as the organ of a state body, became unobtainable as all Prague rushed to read and copy it. It was some time before Mr Srp could be locked up. Much damage was done, but this technique was not confined to Communist Europe. In Franco’s Spain, the Communist Party contrived to re-function the Falangist trade unions into spaces of authenticity, by inserting into them the genuinely representative Comisiones Obreras.

Another, more dangerous way of creating authentic space was by setting up parallel but unlicensed institutions. In the 1970s, for instance, the Polish opposition set up the so-called Flying University, a clandestine higher-education project in which banned texts were studied and the ‘real’ history of Poland taught. Almost all families had been touched by that history; the experience of being able to discuss with strangers and scholars the role of the Soviet Union in crushing Poland in 1939, in the Katyn massacre or during the Warsaw Rising was overwhelming but also irreversible.

In 1980, a small illegal group called the Free Trade Unions of the Coast opened up another space, the authentic trade union which took the name Solidarity. This space, opening at Gdansk, was soon replicated everywhere, first in big factories and then small ones and then in every office and workplace until the spaces began to run together into the shape of a free country. But this was not just a Braveheart freedom. Poland has always lived with the fear of being no more than the international space between Germany and Russia, a space which internal weakness or disorder could transform into one of those vacuums which powerful neighbours rush to fill. In 1980, everyone was aware of this risk. In 1981, General Jaruzelski’s coup expressed his pessimistic view that authenticity in this particular space would always end in lethal disorder.

Solidarity produced authenticity in several flavours, some of which are not available even in this country today. The union neg0tiated a list of guaranteed civil rights out of the regime, applicable to the whole country. But I am interested in Solidarity’s own ideas about what made a space authentic, a site in which real people did real things.

The first condition was that workers should choose their own representatives, free of intimidation or constraint on expression. The second, much less well-remembered, was that working people should take charge of their own working lives. Part of the fraudulence of daily experience had been the fiction of a workers’ state, complete with dummy charters of shop-floor rights, although in reality the employees had no voice, no job security and no rights over their own labour. Solidarity therefore insisted on a new social-economic democracy of self-management, in which every enterprise would be owned and run by its own workers.

None of that remains in Poland, let alone here. And yet that space to breathe is desperately needed. At home or in the shopping mall, the consumer-citizen is loaded with all the regalia of fake sovereignty. At work, though, new management styles (flexibility, de-layering) enforce abject individual submission. Instead of a share in control, there is pretence consultation. Instead of unions, there are creepy staff associations. The word ‘excellence’ is a label for de-skilling programmes, for the move towards all-purpose cheap labour. Nothing is real; everything in this hyperwork culture is fraudulent and suffocating. It is time to start digging under Britain, to fashion spaces in which we can breathe, plot and be ourselves.