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Ash, Timothy Garton: The Puzzle of Central Europe




"I'm delighted," said Henry Kissinger, "to be here in Eastern, I mean Central Europe." And for the rest of his talk he kept saying "Eastern, I mean Central Europe." The place was Warsaw, the time, summer 1990, and this was the moment I knew Central Europe had triumphed.

For nearly forty years after 1945, the term was almost entirely absent from the political parlance of Europe. Hitler had poisoned it; the cold war division into East and West obliterated it. In the 1980s it was revived by Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers such as Milan Kundera, György Konrad, and Czeslaw Milosz, as an intellectual and political alternative to the Soviet-dominated "Eastern Europe." At that time, I wrote a sympathetic but also skeptical essay in these pages entitled "Does Central Europe Exist?" In the 1990s, Central Europe has become part of the regular political language. To mark the shift, both the US State Department and the British Foreign Office have Central European departments. Although people still privately say "Eastern Europe", every young diplomat knows that one should refer to the entire post-communist region as "Central and Eastern Europe", a phrase so cumbersome it is often reduced to an abbreviation CEE in English, and MOE Mittel- und Osteuropa in German. Even Queen Elizabeth II has spoken of "Central Europe", in the Queen's Speech to the British Parliament. So it's official. If the Queen and Henry Kissinger say it exists, it exists...

The idea of "Central Europe" exploded during the First World War as a furious argument between those, like the German liberal imperialist Friedrich Naumann, who envisaged a German- and Austrian-ruled Mitteleuropa, and those, like Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the future president of Czechoslovakia, who were fighting for a Central Europe of small states liberated from German, Austrian, and Russian imperial domination. This argument between visions of Mitteleuropa on the one side and of Střední Evropa or Europa Ârodkowa on the other continued throughout the "second Thirty Years War" from 1914 to 1945. It culminated in the Austrian-German Adolf Hitler's attempt to impose his own grotesque version of Mitteleuropa on Germany's eastern neighbors.

So when the term was revived in the 1980s, there was understandable nervousness both among Germany's neighbors and in Germany itself. Many German writers preferred to use the less historically loaded term Zentraleuropa. But recent years have been reassuring. After some discussion, the Masaryk of the 1990s, Václav Havel, invited President von Weizsäcker of Germany to attend regular meetings of "Central European presidents", and the German president has done so ever since. Most German policymakers now accept that the reunited country is firmly in both Western Europe and Central Europe again. As Havel once put it to me, Germany is in Central Europe "with one leg".

Of course, there have been tensions between Germany and its eastern neighbors - especially between Germany and the Czech Republic. And there will be more as the enlargement of the European Union slowly approaches, with Germans fearing that Poles and Czechs will take their jobs, and Poles and Czechs fearing that Germans will buy up their land. (The latter fears are especially pronounced in the formerly German western parts of Poland and in what used to be the Sudetenland, in the Czech Republic.) Yet no one could now argue that there is any fundamental political difference between what a mainstream German politician means by Mitteleuropa and what a Czech leader means by Střední Evropa or a Pole by Europa Środkowa. Increasingly, they are just different words for the same thing. This testifies to the wisdom of all sides, and it is one of the bright spots on the map of Europe at century's end...

The new democracies of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia set out early in the decade to pursue Central European cooperation, symbolized by their forming the "Visegrad Group" in February 1991. They did this partly because they believed in the idea of Central Europe, which Havel and the new Hungarian president, Arpád Goncz, had preached in the 1980s, and wished to preclude any return to the petty nationalisms of the interwar years. But it was also because this tight little regional cooperation would win their countries favour in the West. Which it did.

They had little trouble distinguishing themselves from the new eastern (with a small e) Europe: Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia. More difficult was the south. Romania tried to join the group at an early stage. The door was firmly closed in its face. A good reason for this was that Romania was at that time an undemocratic mess. A less good reason was that Polish, Hungarian, and (then still) Czechoslovak leaders thought they had a better chance of entering or (as the Central European ideology prescribes) "rejoining" the West in a smaller, more homogeneous group. Which they did.

From: Timothy Garton Ash, "The Puzzle of Central Europe", The New York Review of Books, March 18, 1999


Timothy Garton Ash
British historian and journalist. Director of the European Studies Centre and Gerd Bucerius Senior Research Fellow in Contemporary History of St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

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