In my last blog post in this series, I tried to understand why the unrest in Palestine between the Israelis and the Palestinians had become so polarised, to the extent that if one criticises the Israeli Defence Force’s recent activities one is likely to be labelled “anti-Semitic”. I compared the situation there with the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with the help of Michael Ignatieff’s book Blood and Belonging. I then wrote a follow-up piece which was not only far too long, but criss-crossed randomly between various aspects of the question of nationality, ethnicity, and race. This and subsequent posts will constitute an attempt to unravel these random thoughts into coherent threads.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that she was “a quarter Welsh and a quarter Polish”. But what did she mean by that? Well, the fractions suggest she was talking about her grandparents – that she had one grandparent who was Welsh and one who was Polish. But how does that Welshness or Polishness transfer to her? Again, there is a strong suggestion here that the link is genetic. But are “Welsh” and “Polish” genetic labels? Well, I guess if you took a large sample of people who live in Wales and a large sample of people who live in Poland, and tested their DNA, you might well find that the members of the first sample had more in common than they had with the other sample. But I would also guess that this would be a rather marginal effect – especially in the case of Poland, large parts of which, only a few generations back, were considered to be parts of Germany or Russia – especially in the case of places like Gdansk, or Danzig; and Wroclaw, which some people still refer to as Breslau.

Let’s unravel my friend’s argument a little. Since only genes can be inherited, and not political opinions, religious belief or language, a very restricted definition of “Welshness” and “Polishness” are being used here. I’d be much more convinced by the “quarter Welsh” or “quarter Polish” argument if I knew that she had spent a quarter of her life living in Wales or Poland, or at least with a family of emigrés immersed in the national traditions and language of their native land (which she might well have done, for all I know).

There are two philosophical questions to be answered here. One is whether, even if a community is “racially pure” in some sense of the word at year 0 and its members breed only with other members of the same community, the descendants of that community, hundreds of years down the line, can be considered to be the same community. In other words, are we justified in using terms such as “the Welsh”, “the Polish”, etc which suggest some sort of continuity? And if we are justified in saying it after only a generation or two, is it still equally valid after several centuries? Now apply the same argument to a community that is only approximately “racially pure”, and allow each generation to interbreed with others outside the community; is there still continuity?

The second question takes the argument back a stage and asks exactly what is meant by this idea of “racial purity” anyway. It is extremely unlikely that any group can claim to all be descended from the same two people, or that even if you could, those “two people” could be classified as people, since we would then be talking about a time so distant as to predate any concept of nation, or, indeed, humanity.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in the second volume of his account of his youthful walk across Europe in 1934, Between the Woods and the Water, discusses the rival claims of Hungarian and Romanian people to the territory of Transylvania. At the time, it had only recently been transferred from Hungary to Romania as a result of the Treaty of Trianon, which apportioned territories in the wake of World War 1; and the Hungarians were still smarting form the loss. Leigh Fermor talked to people in both communities, and likened their respective historical perspectives to “the work of two palaeontologists, one of whom would reconstruct a dinosaur and one a mastodon from the same handful of bone-fragments”.  Basically, the Romanians claimed that they were descended from people who had lived there in antiquity, before the Magyars appeared, while the Hungarians’ version has their own ancestors arriving first. He concludes this account with the statement that “I am the only person I know who has feelings of equal warmth for both these embattled claimants and I wish with fervour they could become friends”.

I have been to Transylvania, and can attest that there is still very much a Hungarian presence there, at least in terms of the language – many towns have three names, in Romanian, Hungarian and German (though when I went to Sibiu, there seemed to be a lot of French-speaking people around as well – a fact I did not understand at the time, but now do, thanks to Leigh Fermor’s scholarly work). But both countries are in the EU now, so presumably one can cross from one to the other without suffering the kind of slightly scary experience I had at the border town of Salonta in 2006 – namely, of having one’s passport taken away for an unspecified period (which however was probably only about 10 minutes).

But what exactly is there to distinguish these two communities from each other? How can we talk about “the Hungarians” and “the Romanians” when there is no clear way of distinguishing those two groups? As Leigh Fermor explains, this part of central Europe has seen the arrival and departure of many racially and religiously distinct groups over the centuries. But there has been plenty of what anthropologists call miscegenation or racial mixing. Although there are still slight differences of appearance, the genes are by now well and truly mixed.

In his fascinating autobiography, My Happy Days in Hell, the Hungarian poet György Faludy tells how he had been called up following the mobilisation of the Hungarian army in the late 1930s, and lay with his platoon on the shore of the River Ipoly, “two hundred yards from the Czechs” (though nowadays we might call them Slovaks, as this border is due north of Budapest and thus east of Bratislava). He recounts how he contacted “the Czechs” by radio, and found that they spoke Hungarian, as they were from a region that had been part of Hungary twenty years earlier. He accepted their invitation to dinner – thus risking court-martial.

Note that there is nothing about race here. His clumsy categorisation of the “enemy” soldiers as “Czech” is due to their citizenship of Czechoslovakia, not any racial affiliation; and what really mattered to him was the language they spoke. So maybe the most important factor determining whether two groups of people will get on is simply whether or not they can communicate with each other.

Although I regret not having tried to find out for sure when I was in Budapest in 2010, I get the feeling that the Hungarians have now got over the loss of Transylvania and other former Hungarian territories, and are living at peace with their neighbours and fellow-EU members. Is it too much to hope that the border between the Jews and Arabs might one day be like this?

Click here for the next instalment.