Mitteleuropa versus Central Europe

The migration crisis has shown—to the astonishment of European public opinion—that Visegrad countries do not want to be Mitteleuropa.

The migration crisis put an unexpected blow to the German leadership of the European Union. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the darling of the global liberal elite, Time magazine’s Person of the Year and a Nobel Prize candidate, became a widely criticized politician in early 2016; her party lost in support in the local elections (March 2016), while her former protégés, Donald Tusk and the leader of the Bavarian CSU Horst Seehofer, are at the head of coalitions—international and domestic respectively—ready to overthrow her.

The migration crisis, especially in the autumn of 2015, also showed that the countries of Central Europe—in German and British press quite consistently called the East of the European Union—have a fundamentally different attitude towards refugees and immigrants from the Middle East than Western European countries, especially Germany. I would like to look at the European migration crisis from the point of view of this difference.

Weber’s Lesson

In the summer of 2015, we learned that thousands of Syrians and residents of other Middle Eastern countries crossed the sea to Greece and then, not wanting to get lost, walked along a railway line from early 20th century connecting Thessaloniki and Vienna. In the following weeks this route was to be named the Balkan route, from Greece through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary to Austria and Germany. Since then two ways of thinking, one humanitarian and the other based on Realpolitik, were to fight each other in the minds of Europeans. On the one hand we had humanitarianism, inspired either by the Christian love of your neighbor or by the European tradition of secular or even anti-religious tolerance and openness, as well as the faith in the beneficial impact of liberalism, which supposedly is irresistible, regardless of what culture you come from. On the other hand, in the context of Realpolitik, interests, and power, we had an awareness of the high cost of receiving and supporting refugees, of difficulties with adaptation in countries with a substantially different culture, of the necessary spending on schools, hospitals, houses, language and culture courses, professional training, coordination between employers and migrants. Who would assume this burden and in the name of what?

Realpolitik often concealed racism and xenophobia. Nevertheless, thinking in terms of costs and strategies for coping with the refugee problem (that is also inequalities in the access to food, education, and security) does not have to involve racial or religious hostility. More conductive to solving the problem would be an attitude which the German sociologist Max Weber called the ethic of responsibility. In contrast to the ethic of conviction, which defines morally right goals, but ignores the consequences, especially temporary ones, and does not reflect on the methods used, the ethic of responsibility should take all these into account. And such an attitude should characterize professional politicians.

An Illusory Paradox

In the autumn of 2015, the railway station in Budapest became a site of humiliating scenes with refugees being shipped to Germany, still open to them at that time. Then the Hungarian government decided to close its border, while Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland with its newly elected government announced their unwillingness to receive even a small number of refugees according to the quota system previously determined by the EU. It was often asked how it was possible that in Poland, a country with long migration and refugee traditions, with more than one million refugees from this country being accepted in the 1980s by Western European countries, United States, Canada, and Australia, and where job migration was still a common experience, we could observe hostility towards foreigners needing help.

This paradox was only illusory. It is the recent emigration experiences which explain the hostility towards immigrants. For people whose relatives had to seek a better life abroad it must be hard to understand why Poland should accept foreigners in the same period when its citizens are leaving it in search of jobs and better living conditions. Why should we help others settle here, when our grandchildren, children, friends, or neighbors have to settle in other countries? This question had to appear more frequently in Poland than in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, from where a smaller number of young people emigrate. Still, in all these countries of Central Europe emigration traditions are fundamentally different than in Western Europe.

Western European countries, especially in the North, have a highly developed identity of immigration countries. Since the 1940s, that this since roughly three generations, the only experience of migration for them is the experience of immigration, incomers from more or less geographically and culturally remote areas. Since 150 years, that is six generations, people do not emigrate from Germany, Benelux, and Scandinavia, and in the case of England and France they stopped doing that even earlier. Experiences of Central Europe are more similar in this respect to Southern Italy, Greece, or Portugal, which, although they have been members of the European Union for a longer time, have more recent memories of emigration than more developed countries. A 2014 comparative study conducted in seven European Union countries by Pew Global before the migration crisis indicated that Italians and Greeks were much more unsympathetic towards immigrants than Germans, the British, Spaniards, or even Poles.

In Central Europe, migrations are still largely associated with emigration—and memory, passed on in families, of job migrations to industrial centers in Germany, France, and United States at the turn of the 20th century, as well as with contemporary emigration (especially in Poland). There are still few immigrants here. Central European countries have no experience in receiving immigrants from former colonies, in contrast to France or Great Britain, for they have never been colonial powers. They are not so highly developed economically and their demographic situation is still not so bad that they would invite workers from other countries to their factories and farms, as Germany and Austria do.

From today’s point of view it seems that already in the summer and autumn of 2015 Central European countries were guided by the logic of Realpolitik, costs and power, while Western European countries—perhaps with the exception of Great Britain—were still employing the logic of humanitarianism. Today, when the logic of Realpolitik dominates throughout Europe, Central Europe appears to be the bedrock of common sense, ability to anticipate, and skepticism towards German ideas for a political rearrangement of Europe. My wish is that this Realpolitik from last autumn becomes not a policy of selfish nationalism, but a policy guided by the ethic of responsibility. Central Europe, free from guilty feelings regarding colonialism and the fate of the inhabitants of the former colonies, poorer than the West, with recent emigration experiences which put it in the same camp with the rest of the non-Western world, could become a promoter of the ethic of responsibility in the European migration policy. For that to happen, the countries of the Visegrad Group must sort out their attitude towards Germany, non-EU European countries, and the Middle East.

The Return of Mitteleuropa

The term “Mitteleuropa” gained popularity thanks to Friedrich Naumann’s book of the same title published in 1915. Mitteleuropa meant here an area of historical and potential German domination. According to this proposal, the region is constituted by Germany plus countries with significant groups of German population, remaining under a general impact of German culture. So besides Germany it covers large areas east of Prussian borders, inside Russia and towards the Black Sea coast, as well as the territories of the former Habsburg Empire. Mitteleuropa meant here the area of the German Drang nach Osten, a space to be conquered and resettled, potentially providing Lebensraum for the developing German nation. As part of this rhetorical triangle, in contemporary Germany the term Mitteleuropa is used alternately with Zentral Europa. Regardless of other consequences of the international migration crisis, it has shown that—to considerable astonishment of the European public opinion—the Visegrad countries do not want to be Mitteleuropa.

In its turn, the term “Central Europe” enjoyed its renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, which proved to be the beginning of the end for the community of socialist countries and the Cold War division of the world. The promoters of “Central Europe” in the 1980s were writers, intellectuals, anti-Communist dissidents, often émigrés lobbying for the culture of their countries— Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and less often Yugoslavia. They opposed the identification— dominant in the West—of their countries with the Soviet Union and, historically, with Russia. The best-known among them were Czesław Miłosz and Milan Kundera.

Analysts of Central European discourse emphasize that the emancipatory move from the 1980s to separate the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland from Eastern Europe in the 1990s played a strictly political role. It built new divisions and became an ideology for privileging a few countries in their race towards the European Union. Historian Larry Wolff, the most balanced and cautious among these analysts, wrote in 1994 in the introduction to Inventing Eastern Europe: “The advocates of Central Europe today are committed to shattering intellectually the oppressive idea of Eastern Europe, to redeeming the Czech Republic and Hungary, maybe Poland, even perhaps Slovenia. Yet the rubric of Eastern Europe may still be invoked to perpetuate the exclusion of the rest [the countries outside Central Europe], to preserve the distinction that nourishes our own [West European—AS] identity.”

In the 1990s, during the wars in Yugoslavia and strivings for EU accession—the concept of Central Europe turned from emancipatory to restrictive and exclusive. It served not so much the emancipation of weaker countries from the imperial clutches of the Soviet Union and Russia, but setting themselves apart, moving the even weaker Balkan and post-Soviet countries further from Europe and the European Union. After the EU accession in 2004, the Visegrad Group was dead, as if its only goal had been fulfilled. But the current migration crisis has shown that in its interests and identity Central Europe is closer to Balkan than to Western European countries.

It seems that now, for the first time in 30 years, Central Europe (that is Eastern countries of the European Union) may again become a political actor with a positive program, saying what to do and not just from whom to set yourself apart. It seems that in the context of the migration crisis Central Europe has an opportunity to become a region which neither is simply a sphere of German influence nor it attempts to differ from the West and the rest of Eastern Europe. The experiences of job and political migration, imperial dependence (rather than colonialism), and economic weakness distinguish it clearly not so much from the rest of the world, but from Western Europe and Germany especially. These elements may shape a common identity. It would be good if Central Europe returned on the European stage as an actor of political realism and the ethic of responsibility; not as a bulwark of Europe or Christianity, but a guardian of common sense and detector of German radicalism.

The ethic of responsibility, growing from the historical experience of Central Europe, should allow us to see the desire to migrate as a problem originating from differences in economic conditions and lifestyle, including security. Differences in development and standard of living are not only unjust, but in a long-term perspective also unsustainable in a globalized world—they threaten with rebellion, migratory invasion like the current one, or intensification of terrorist attacks. The current migration policy of Germany and France, based on exploiting the pool of cheap labor from poorer countries (in the first generation perhaps fascinated with the new country), is not reasonable. Recent emigration experiences of the residents of Central Europe could have an impact on shaping a wise migration policy of the European Union.

Anna Sosnowska

Scholar, University of Warsaw, author of Zrozumieć zacofanie. Spory historyków o Europę Wschodnią (1947–1994).

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