The Nightmare of Central Europe

A Central European block with Germany is a nightmare and without them it’s a pipe dream.

There is this essay by Zbigniew Brzeziński entitled “The Return of Central Europe” which keeps nagging at me. In it, the former American Secretary of State advances a thesis which shocked the audience present in the London Center for Policy Studies on the 28th of January 1988. He namely stated that Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were ready for a revolutionary outbreak: an outbreak which the West should not “wish, expect or support.” The strategic and historical goal of the West, claimed Brzeziński, “should not be to absorb what in the past used to be called Eastern Europe by what is still called Western Europe, but rather it should be to strive for gradual emergence of a genuinely independent, culturally authentic and, in its essence, neutral Central Europe.”

Fortunately, as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, this vision landed on the scrap heap. Still, I can’t help feeling that we are now witnessing its return, like Cassandra, a warning for the states squeezed between Germany, the majority stakeholder in the Europe Joint Venture, and Russia, experiencing a renaissance of its geopolitical power fueled by hydrocarbons. Again, the phantom of Central Europe is floating above our heads with Central Europe marginalized on the periphery of the West and driveling on regional solidarity as consolation.

Thus, there’s never enough reminding that Central Europe is a carbon copy of Mitteleuropa, a propaganda buzzword used by Friedrich Naumann in 1915 to justify Germany’s alleged territorial rights to the eastern and southern parts of the continent. In fact, only after Germany and the Tsarist Russia had been defeated, did the term begin to be used to designate “the territory eastwards from Germany and westwards from Russia” (Brzeziński’s definition). In this region, in the fall of 1918, several brand new states came into the world including: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or Estonia. The term Central Europe implied, to quote Brzeziński, their “historically well-established base.”

Following the Second World War the eminent historian Oskar Halecki came up with a different, less arbitrary, definition of the notion. In his classic work Historia Europy – jej granice i podziały (The Limits and Divisions of European History), published in 1950 in London and New York, he used the term Central Europe to refer to the territory positioned between the European West, shaped by the Latin tradition and represented by the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic nations, and the European East, formed by the Byzantine tradition but dominated by the Third Rome: Moscow and for this reason identified with Russia.

Central Europe is thus composed of two parts: the Western and the Eastern. The former simply stands for Germany; the latter stands for Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, this territory encompasses ten new Member States of the EU, as well as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Western Balkans.

Of course, such broad a definition of the region is by no means practical. Therefore, in the decadent period of Communism when both the local elites and the émigré elites of the countries located at the Western frontier of the “Evil Empire” decided to do their utmost, in Brzeziński’s words, “not to end up in the dregs like Eastern Europe did, with its political and cultural center in Moscow.” An exclusive idea of Central Europe gained popularity, underlining culture kinship within these states, connected by the shared heritage of the Habsburg monarchy.

However, this concept is wrong for at least three reasons. Firstly, it implies the existence of a fictitious historical and cultural community. Secondly, it equates Central Europe with the West. And thirdly, it arbitrarily excludes Russia from European processes. For that matter it also excludes Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkan states. In short, Central Europe defined in this way becomes a tool for division and exclusion.

Obviously the Polish, Czech and Hungarian elites, for the past ten centuries, have felt like a part of a Western Europe community and have followed its example. But Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary (not to mention Lithuania, Romania and Croatia) have only occasionally belonged to the West. This is similarly true for Germany but to a considerably lesser extent. The title of a classic work by a brilliant historian Heinrich Winkler, The Long Way West, could well be applied to the history all of Central Europe and not, as the author intended, only to Germany.

Czesław Miłosz and Bohumil Hrabal once jokingly said that in America postmodernism is in fact ost-modernism given the immense number of artists and thinkers from the East who co-created the most important postwar intellectual current. However, we should bear in mind that the reason why Central Europeans were so intellectually mobile was, ironically, their civilizational backwardness. All the discoveries and inventions, from three-field rotation and the professional army, to the nation-state and mobile telephony, still got to us from the West with larger or smaller delays. For centuries, we have been emulating the West, trying to become a part of it, but we still remain different.

This applies to Germany as well. Just like Russians, Germans see themselves as the heirs of Rome; they expressed this conviction in the Middle Ages, think of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but also in the modern times, for example, as the Third Reich. The tragedy of Central and Eastern Europe, being the continent’s most diverse region in terms of language, ethnicity, religion and culture, and at the same time the home for most European Jews, relates to the fact that, in contrast to Western Europe, for centuries it got in the way of the Germans and the Russians—and let’s not forget about the Ottomans—and their imperial ambitions.

This is the crux of the alleged shared Central European fate; this is what can be found behind the supposed “cultural authenticity”, which for generations was marked by “transcendental pain”. That’s the term used by Brzeziński who was paraphrasing Mircea Eliade. The millions of inhabitants of our region were able to discover “a redemptive spiritual quality in the fatal and purifying experience of bondage, agony and suffering”.

Today, Central Europe is normally identified with the Visegrád Group countries. This is the result of a well thought out policy pursued by Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian diplomatic elites, who since 1989 sought membership in NATO and then EU accession as matters of priority. However, the narrow notion of Central Europe is dangerously anachronistic.

Oskar Halecki was right when he said that the most vital country in Central Europe is Germany. Any construction of Central Europe must include Germany, otherwise it will be pointless. Yet, any type of Central European block with the participation of Germany will endanger the countries in the region with marginalization and the reduction of their role to a mere subcontractor of instructions sent from Berlin. This is largely attributable to the economic gulf between our economies: the combined economies of Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary altogether are still worth four times less than the economy of Germany.

Unfortunately, the Central European cacophony with respect to the so-called fiscal pact proved once again that the Visegrád Group could facilitate regional cooperation but that it does not work well as an instrument for creating shared positions on key issues related to EU membership. In other words, a Central European block with Germany is a nightmare and without them it’s a pipe dream.

In that case, what should we do? Most of all, forget about the dream of “a genuinely independent, culturally authentic and, in its essence, neutral Central Europe”. Stop thinking about the role played by German sidekicks in the future, new Mitteleuropa. Do what we can to keep the shared idea of the European Union alive and bear in mind that the European Union is a truly Central European union. After all, it presents the first opportunity ever for an unforced and bloodless integration of the whole Central Europe. And prepare for tough times ahead.

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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