Ten years ago this week the European Union welcomed to its bosom – or at least accepted as members – Cyprus, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Slovenia and Hungary, two smallish Mediterranean islands and eight formerly communist states, most or all of which could be described as central European (though the media has for the most part preferred the designation eastern European).
Jonathan Bousfield, writing in the Krakow-based New Eastern Europe (and republished in eurozine.com), recalls a celebrated essay written by Milan Kundera in 1983, “The Tragedy of Central Europe”. Kundera’s essay strikingly opened with the story of the director of the Hungarian News Agency who, as Russian tanks were starting to pound his building during the 1956 uprising, sent out a telex which ended with the words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”
Bousfield’s essay continues with brief interviews with three writers of a younger generation, a Czech, a Croatian and a Ukrainian, who are asked what, if anything, the term Central Europe might mean to them today. Tomás Zmeskal remembers libraries and bookshops in Prague after the post-1968 “normalisation” (the period immediately following the Russian invasion) as being innocent of any stimulating reading material, but he did turn up, from “somewhere in the cellar”, a polemic between Kundera and Vaclav Havel, in which, it seems, not many holds were barred. Havel found Kundera’s faith in culture as the basis for Central European civilisation rather naive (this culture, Kundera asserted, was well on the way to being lost through indifference in Western Europe while in Czechoslovakia it was being deliberately destroyed by the Russians and their clients). Kundera, however, found Havel’s path of civil resistance to power to be a form of “moral exhibitionism”, given that in his view such resistance was so obviously futile.
For the Croatian Miljenko Jergovic, Central Europe represented, at least to Slovene and Croatian intellectuals, a cultural space to which they might consider themselves to belong but to which their fellow Yugoslavs from Serbia or Montenegro or Macedonia did not. There were several ways to define the region: it was the space between Germany and Russia; it was the place where the Habsburg Empire had once flourished (thus including Slovenia and Croatia); it could also be defined by what it was not – not Orthodox in religion, not Islamic and not Russian.
Bousfield interviewed the Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych in Lviv several months before the beginning of the Euromaidan demonstrations in Kyiv. Andrukhovych said he at first believed that Ukraine’s central European heritage had to be emphasised since it was in danger of being ignored: “We needed a certain amount of Habsburg mythology in the 1990s to provide us with an alternative model for the development of a new Ukrainian culture. We felt that no one in the wider world really understood that the Ukraine was different from Russia, and re-awakening the Habsburg heritage of western Ukraine served as a useful tool to persuade them otherwise.” Now, however, he feels that it is not possible to unite Ukrainians around some Central European idea; rather “it has to be a general Ukrainian idea” (and perhaps not much hope of that any longer either – drb).
As Andrukhovych and Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk argued in their co-written book Moja Europa (My Europe): “The fact of living between the Russians and Germans is Central Europe’s historical mark of character; Central Europeans’ fear historically oscillates between the raising of these two alarms: either the Germans are coming, or the Russians are coming. Central European death is a prison death or a concentration-camp death, and by extension a collective death.”
In the 1980s and 1990s a series of powerful books and essays by Timothy Garton Ash (and also work by Misha Glenny) introduced Western audiences to the idea of Central Europe (more narrowly, Poland, Czechoslovaki and Hungary), a region where heroic dissidents were risking or had risked everything to throw off oppression and create societies based on freedom, democracy, dignity and culture. And the message, from TGA in particular, was that we, in the West, in the rest of the EU, were taking an unconscionably long time after 1989 to let them into the club. Kundera had written:
[W]hat does Europe mean to a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole? For a thousand years their nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history. For them, the word “Europe” does not represent a phenomenon of geography but a spiritual notion synonymous with the word “West”. The moment Hungary is no longer European ‑ that is, no longer Western ‑ it is driven from its own destiny, beyond its own history: it loses the essence of its identity.
Geographical Europe, Kundera went on, had always been divided between the Orthodox and the Roman Christian worlds, a very significant cultural/intellectual border, which after 1945 shifted a few hundred miles further west, leaving nations which had always been part of the West suddenly part of the East. At the time the only alternative to acquiescing in this “fact on the ground” seemed to be renewed world war, and not many in the West were up for that. Nevertheless, the more sensitive may have had a bad conscience, and this was something that the nations of central Europe, in an understandable hurry to be sheltered in the embrace of the EU and NATO while, in the 1990s, the Bear still seemed somewhat dazed and confused, took advantage of – though full EU membership of course still took a decade and a half to arrive.
It may have come as a small surprise to many of us when the Czechoslovak communists, running in a free election in 1990, came in second with 13 per cent of the votes. It may have been a little disappointing that in 2004, in the European Parliament elections in Poland, a country that we had understood to have long been yearning for Europe, under 21 per cent of eligible citizens bothered to vote. Some of us who travelled out there occasionally learned that not everyone around was as nice as Mr Havel or Prof Geremek. Those who take an interest may have noticed that the “radical-right” and certainly virulently, scabrously, anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary polled over 20 per cent in the recent general election. Meanwhile, more towards the political mainstream, the enthusiasm of centre-right parties throughout the region for unrestrained neoliberalism leaves some scratching their heads about the wisdom of the 2004 “big bang” (or inded, for those who wish to go a little further, of the wisdom of letting in the UK, Denmark and Ireland in 1973). The Americans were astute enough, during the Bush presidency, to see that there was a fundamental difference between the attitudes on all kinds of issues of “old Europe” and those of “new Europe”. Among those who would prefer a Europe of social solidarity to one driven by “competitiveness” and “efficiency”, don’t expect too much celebration this week of the new bigger Europe we got ten years ago.