Farewell to Central Europe

Let us consign the notion of Central Europe to the scrapheap. It imposes on us the idea of a fictitious historical and cultural community that does not match the reality of the region.

1.

In January 1995, on the strength of a few of my articles published by Gazeta Wyborcza, I was offered the position of editor of Gazeta Środkowoeuropejska (Central European Newspaper), a monthly supplement that four dailies in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary had been jointly putting out since 1994. As he gave me the news, Michał Cichy, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza’s culture desk, said: “You’ll learn a lot working with Adam,” handing me a piece of paper with the phone number of Gazeta’s editor-in-chief.

His secretary picked up the phone. I introduced myself and soon heard Adam Michnik’s characteristic booming voice from the other end of the line. We arranged to meet in his office.

The meeting lasted barely ten minutes. It turned out that my utter lack of journalistic experience, lack of computer skills, relatively young age (I was 25) and as-yet uncompleted degree in Slavonic studies at Warsaw University were no obstacle to landing my first-ever job.

My trump card was my fluency in Czech and real interest in, indeed fascination by, independent Czech culture, inculcated in me by the books of Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký, Jan Patočka, Václav Černý, to name just a few, in translations unofficially published in Poland in the 1980s. Thanks to these authors I realized that Czech history, of which I had previously known nothing, represented a peculiar and strikingly different version of the fate that Poland also shared: that of Central Europe.

The notion had been popularized by Milan Kundera’s celebrated 1984 essay “The Kidnapped West, or the Tragedy of Central Europe,” which left a profound impression on me. Nobody before him had articulated with such poignancy something that was on the tip of the tongue of many of us in our part of Europe—the fact that East European countries are, in historical and cultural terms, no less Western than, for example, Austria. And that lumping them with the East alongside Russia is an act of treachery Europe had committed not only with regard to Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia but, first and foremost, with regard to itself.

Kundera’s powerful analogy between the lot of Central Europe, abandoned and forgotten by the West, and Western Europe that had abandoned and forgotten itself (with the attendant risk of also being subjugated, albeit more likely by America than by Russia) made the future of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary a key issue that would determine the future of the West, and most certainly that of Europe. One might say, with some exaggeration, that from that moment the days and hours of the Yalta order were numbered. Kundera had been rather skeptical about prospects of the Czech dissidents around Václav Havel and the Charter 77 movement. He believed that the only hope of changing the political situation of Czechoslovakia depended on integrating the drama of his country, as well as those of its neighbors, into a broader, European context. He achieved his goal, ensuring at the same time that independent Central European circles, both in exile and in their home countries, finally became interested in one another.

New publishing ventures emerged, such as the quarterlies Zeszyty Literackie, published by Barbara Toruńczyk and Antonín J. Liehm’s Lettre Internationale. Never before had Polish, Czech, or Hungarian elites shown so much interest in one another as between 1984 and 1989. Never before (or subsequently) had Western elites been so fascinated by the ideas and writings of authors from these countries. The latter, in turn, were capable of being surprising and inspiring: for instance, Václav Havel, whose essay “Power of the Powerless” (written at Adam Michnik’s instigation) exposed “real socialism” as devoid of values, or György Konrád, who along with Havel postulated and practiced non-political politics. Seen from a present-day perspective, the two men seem to have anticipated not only the birth of civil societies in their respective countries but also the later globalist movement in the wider world.

Thus, ironically, it was the most utopian ideas articulated by authors from two countries whose democratic opposition had never turned into a mass movement like Poland’s Solidarity and which never had to face the challenges posed by the practical struggle for liberalization and, later on, the dismantling of the Communist system, that elicited the greatest international response. The Czech dissidents, who had been squeezed out of real politics, followed the tradition established by the 19th century National Revival, shifting the struggle for civil rights into the realm of culture and thereby turning it into a matter of pan-European importance.

2.

Authors such as Kundera, Havel, Konrád, Michnik, or Miłosz aroused genuine interest in the West because by speaking about the world behind the Iron Curtain they pointed out threats facing the West. Havel conceived of the fate of Central Europe as a mirror in which history allowed the West to see its own reflection. Nevertheless, the importance of the Central European identity of these writers, however construed, was not as great as it appeared.

Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) ultimately turned out to be nothing but a propaganda ploy, invented by the German historian Friedrich Naumann, who had used the term in 1915 to justify the expansion of German imperialism towards the east and south of the continent. The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being did the same in the 1980s to stem Russia’s imperialist expansion to the west. However, soon after 1989 it became obvious that the reality of post-communist Europe had as little in common with Central Europe as the notion of the West— which during the Cold War promoted the idea of a permanent alliance between the Western European and American civilizations—had with the reality of transatlantic relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 stripped both these notions of their purpose.

Kundera’s reference to Central Europe as the “kidnapped West” was an obvious manipulation, albeit justifiable by the historical context in which his text was written. This manipulation was also the root cause of all those endless and unproductive discussions on what does and what does not constitute Central Europe and what actually marks the geographical end of the West—which of the rivers: Bug, Oder, or Elbe? Polish, Czech, and Hungarian elites have been professing their allegiance and aspiring to emulate Western Europe for decades. However, although Poland, the Czech Lands, and Hungary (not to mention Lithuania, Romania, or Croatia) had indeed formed part of the West, just like Germany, they belonged to it only intermittently and to a much lesser extent.

The key to understanding the fate of Central Europe is Germany, since it is itself a part of it. In his seminal book The Limits and Divisions of European History (London and New York, 1950), Oskar Halecki defined Central Europe as the area between the European West, shaped by the Latin tradition and represented by the Romance, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic nations on the one hand, and the European East, shaped by the Byzantine tradition but subjugated by Moscow and, as a result, identified with Russia. The Western part of Central Europe thus comprises solely Germany, which, like Moscow, had for centuries regarded itself as heir to Rome and demonstrated this in the Middle Ages (the Holy German Empire) as well as in much more recent times (the Third Reich).

Thus the drama of East Central Europe, which represents the most diverse part of the European continent in linguistic, ethnic, religious, and cultural terms, consists in the fact that, unlike Western Europe, it had been for centuries a barrier to not only German but also Russian imperial ambitions. And that is why, from Central Europe’s perspective, the European Union is, in fact, a Central European Union—the first chance in history of a voluntary integration of Central Europe, in the sense proposed by Halecki.

3.

A characteristic feature of East Central Europe is its chronic lack of historical continuity. As the Czech poet, essayist, and art historian Josef Kroutvor said in his essay “The Troubles of Central Europe: anecdotes and history,” it is a “region of pettiness, the home of flat feet,” an area between the West, where real history takes place, and the East (Russia) where nothing ever changes and everything remains forever the same because it is a country “ruled not by laws of history but by despotic power.”

In his use of the term Central Europe Kroutvor drew on Milan Kundera’s article “The Legacy of Central Europe,” which appeared in Le Monde in the 1970s. Like his fellow countryman, Kroutvor identifies Central Europe with the countries of the Habsburg monarchy, and also like Kundera he struggles to cite many examples of phenomena that can be labelled Central European (whether in literature, architecture, or politics) and which go back further than the 1848-49 “Springtime of Nations.” Like Kundera, Kroutvor describes as Central European such supranational issues that are, in fact, linked to the birth and evolution of Czech (or Hungarian) nationalism. After all, the writers, composers, painters, or journalists cited by Kundera and Kroutvor did not work in a vacuum but were part of a specific historical, cultural, and linguistic context. Kafka’s sense of uprootedness did not stem from the absence of a Central European history but rather from its rebounding in the form of Czech (and German) nationalism.

Reading these essays by the two Czech authors brings to mind Bismarck, who was rumored to have said that the word Europe is invariably used by those politicians who demanded from him something they would never have dared demand of themselves. A typical feature of Czech self-reflection—distrust of the nation as a category and a tendency to replace it with supranational cultural phenomena such as Central Europe—seems to be a legacy of the 19th century concept of a Pan-Slav community and of the myth of the forgotten splendors of Czech culture, concealed by the darkness of history, spread by the national revivalists of that period. The romantic poet Václav Hanka pens a poetry cycle, only to publish it as an alleged masterpiece of medieval Czech poetry, discovered ten centuries later and antedating the Nibelungenlied. 150 years later Kundera discovers a Central Europe forgotten by everyone in order to prove that Czech culture represents the quintessence of European culture.

The recurrence and persistence of these cultural gestures is not difficult to explain. The current generation of Czech writers, who made their debut after 1989, is the first that does not have to rise to the challenge of working in a country enslaved by foreign violence or ideology. Ironically, this is precisely why it is so hard for them to break through in a broader European context. Authors of Kundera’s and Havel’s generation could feel free—as Bohumil Hrabal observed with his characteristic self- irony—to build on the “Havlíček school,” that is on the writers of the National Awakening, indeed to challenge their views. This is what Kundera did in his speech at the 1967 Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, where he repeated the provocative question posed by the Czech patriot Hubert Gordon Schauer in 1886: “Was the effort expended to reawaken the nation really worth it?”

Nowadays no one in the Czech Republic asks this kind of question. Young writers take for granted the existence of the Czech nation, no less than the Western orientation of Czech culture, and so they write banalities on the subject. Those who seek a wider context, such as Jáchym Topol, in one of the essays published in the collection The Supermarket of Soviet Heroes thrash about like fish out of water.

In “How We Went Looking for Stasiuk,” Topol describes spending a few days with his Czech friends, a well-known journalist and an esteemed publisher among them, hiking in the Dukla region on the Slovak-Polish borderland. In the first village on the Polish side they stumble upon a man called Oleg with whom, it turns out, they have friends in common. Oleg knows the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk as well as Havel. Topol responds by saying he knew Jacek Kuroń. “Did you know him well?” comes Oleg’s tricky question. “No,” answers Topol. “Well, I knew him very well,” says Oleg triumphantly. The author’s friend called Čáp tries to counter by saying he knows Michnik. But the mysterious Oleg knows Michnik “very well” too. The Czechs are reduced to murmurs of appreciation, particularly since Oleg also has Yurii Andrukhovych up his sleeve, whom he knows “very well” as well as Oksana Zabuzhko. As the author rightly points out: “Oleg seems to have been everywhere.”

The myth of Central Europe is reduced to broad comedy. Names that under different circumstances would be evidence of literary refinement or generational initiation have become just an excuse for another drink.

4.

Something is not quite right about the notion of Central Europe if even those writers who reference it directly, such as Andrzej Stasiuk and Yurii Andrukhovych, place it in quotation marks, as in the title of their joint book My Europe. Two essays on the Europe known as Central (2000). Andrukhovych consistently uses the term East Central Europe (hence the title of his essay: “A Review of East Central Europe”), while Stasiuk claims it was the critics who had maneuvered him into the discussion on Central Europe. The fact that both writers have distanced themselves from the term is often dismissed as intellectual provocation or posturing. But this is not the case: Stasiuk and Andrukhovych really are intent on laying this old specter to rest. But the harder they try the more it seems to thrive.

The paradox is particularly striking in Stasiuk’s book On the Road to Babadag. What supreme irony: The author deliberately roams Albania, Romania, Moldova, Montenegro —countries where the dominant religion is Islam or Orthodox Christianity—which are not normally associated with Central Europe, yet his book—in which the term Central Europe rarely comes up—has been described as the record of an “intellectual approach to the Central European experience.”

It is not the critics but the authors who are to blame (of course, I mean “blame” in quotation marks). For however much Stasiuk rejects the myth of Central Europe, he still describes his Europe in a manner that calls to mind the texts that have contributed to the birth of this myth, like Josef Kroutvor’s essay: “History, events, consistency, ideas, plans invariably dissolve in the landscape. Here a long discourse on the spirit of history appears as an idea as lamentable and snobbish as an honourably written novel. Ordinariness rules. There is no natural movement, events lack historical momentum. Life has come to a standstill and one has to tread water just to avoid drowning in interminable boredom.”

At first glance it is almost impossible to tell which of these sentences were written by Stasiuk and which by Kroutvor (a prompt: the first couple of sentences come from Stasiuk’s On the Road to Babadag, the rest from Kroutvor’s aforementioned essay “The Troubles of Central Europe: an anecdote and history”). Disintegration and transience, which the Polish critic regards as hallmarks of Stasiuk’s Central Europe, supposedly distinguishing it from the myth of the “Europe of the middle, particularly heavily exploited in the last few decades,” are in fact no less characteristic and constitutive of this myth as are Café Havelka, Austria Felix, or the The Blue Danube waltz. So who is “invoking the beauty of the rubbish dump, the land lying fallow, tenacious weeds, the ubiquitous dust of peeling plaster, the fetidness of airless rooms, all the odors of a decaying monarchy…” Is it Stasiuk? Certainly. But the quote above is taken from Kroutvor’s book and refers to the writing of Bruno Schulz.

One cannot escape a myth whose roots reach as deep as those of the myth of Central Europe. Stasiuk travels without a guide, deliberately avoiding historical monuments and tourist sites, yet the myth catches up with him whether he is in Michalovce in easternmost Slovakia or the largely Hungarian Székelyföld in Transylvania. On the Road to Babadag depicts a Europe that has no wish to catch up with the West because it is happy to stay where it is. Yet it continues to be the same Central Europe that we encounter in the novels of Joseph Roth, the stories of Bruno Schulz or in Kroutvor’s essay. For everything the latter has written on Central Europe applies to East Central Europe—Kroutvor has written more than he meant to. Stasiuk, on the other hand, has written less than he could have done.

In essence, in On the Road to Babadag Stasiuk elaborates the proposition whose outline he had sketched out in “The Logbook,” an essay published in the book My Europe. Two Essays on the Europe known as Central. In spite of a fifteen- year delay, it is the most gripping Polish contribution to the discussion of Central Europe and, along with Andrukhovych’s essay, also its epilogue. The text’s working title was “A Tribute to Geography” and for those who had followed it as it appeared in newspaper instalments, it might have read as a sketchbook of travels around Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. As a matter of fact, it is bigger than that: It is the record of a search for, and finding of, one’s own place on earth, a testimony saying farewell to history and an acquisition of geography. Stasiuk reports on Europe’s periphery because time flows more slowly there, and space, instead of shrinking in line with the general trend of our times, seems to have no limits. Stasiuk’s Europe (“known as Central”) is, in fact, his refuge.

In order to tell us something new about his Europe Stasiuk may have to go back to a literary form he abandoned some years ago. He would have to write a novel that reveals something more than the disintegration of East Central Europe—its diversity, its plethora of cultures and traditions, the entire grim Central European carnival that Andrukhovych portrays in his novel Twelve Rings. Stasiuk does not share his Ukrainian friend’s Bakhtinesque disposition; he avoids burlesque and buffoonery, in which the co-creator of Bu-Ba-Ba, the Galician group of poets, feels like fish in water. So if he refuses to be the wedding singer for Central Europe, the bride marrying the West, he ought to attend her funeral, to make sure that all the charms of this part of the world, of which one day nothing but a poor copy of Western Europe may remain, shine one more time, maybe for the last time, from the pages of his prose.

5.

So let us consign the notion of Central Europe (as understood by Kundera and his followers) to the scrapheap. It is suspect for three reasons, at the very least. First, because it imposes on us the idea of a fictitious historical and cultural community that does not match the reality of East Central Europe. Second, because it conflates Central Europe with the West, which does not correspond to the truth either, making us underestimate the cultural exceptionality and diversity of our part of Europe and arbitrarily exclude Russia from European processes. And were Russia the only one! The term (just like the term “the West”) has all too often been used as an instrument of exclusion, and that is the third reason why it should be relegated to history.

The Slovaks, Slovenes, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Romanians, or Croatians, and especially Ukrainians, might have something to say about this, as nations who have justifiably felt that historically, culturally, and politically they are as much inhabitants of East Central Europe and just as European as the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, yet have rarely been—and still rarely are—acknowledged as such.

So it is about time we laid wretched Central Europe to rest. It has served its purpose and nowadays it is doing more harm than good.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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