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Ash, Timothy Garton: Does Central Europe Exist?

Central Europe is back. For three decades after 1945 nobody spoke of Central Europe in the present tense: the thing was one with Nineveh and Tyre. In German-speaking lands, the very word Mitteleuropa seemed to have died with Adolf Hitler, surviving only as a ghostly Mitropa on the dining cars of the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Even in Austria, as ex-Chancellor Fred Sinowatz has remarked, "until ten years ago one was not permitted so much as to mention the word Mitteleuropa." In Prague and Budapest the idea of Central Europe continued to be cherished between consenting adults in private, but from the public sphere it vanished as completely as it had in "the West." The post-Yalta order dictated a strict and single dichotomy. Western Europe implicitly accepted this dichotomy by subsuming under the label "Eastern Europe" all those parts of historic Central, East Central, and South-Eastern Europe which after 1945 came under Soviet domination. The EEC completed the semantic trick by arrogating to itself the unqualified title, "Europe."

In the last few years we have begun to talk again about Central Europe, and in the present tense. This new discussion originated not in Berlin or Vienna but in Prague and Budapest. The man who more than anyone else has given it currency in the West is a Czech, Milan Kundera. (See his now famous essay "The Tragedy of Central Europe" in The New York Review, April 26, 1984.) Subsequently, the Germans and the Austrians have gingerly begun to rehabilitate, in their different ways, a concept that was once so much their own. The East German leader, Erich Honecker, talks of the danger of nuclear war in Mitteleuropa. The West German Social Democrat, Peter Glotz, says the Federal Republic is "a guarantee-power of the culture of Mitteleuropa"; whatever that means. And Kurt Waldheim's Vienna recently hosted a symposium with the electrifying title Heimat Mitteleuropa. A backhanded tribute to the new actuality of the Central European idea comes even from the central organ of the Polish United Workers' Party, Trybuna Ludu, which earlier this year published a splenetic attack on what it called "The Myth of 'Central Europe."

There is a basic sense in which the term "Central Europe" (or "East Central Europe") is obviously useful. If it merely reminds an American or British newspaper reader that East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest are not quite in the same position as Kiev or Vladivostok--that Siberia does not begin at Checkpoint Charlie--then it serves a good purpose. So, also, if it suggests to American or British students that the academic study of this region could be more than footnotes to Sovietology. But of course the voices from Prague and Budapest that initiated this discussion mean something far larger and deeper when they talk of "Central Europe."

The publication in English of the most important political essays of three outstanding writers, Václav Havel, György Konrád, and Adam Michnik, a Czech, a Hungarian, and a Pole, gives us a chance to examine the myth--and the reality. Of course it would be absurd to claim that any one writer is "representative" of his nation, and anyway, Havel, Michnik and Konrad are different kinds of writer working in quite dissimilar conditions.

Havel comes closest to general recognition as something like an intellectual spokesman for independent Czech intellectuals, although there is a great diversity of views even within Charta 77 (as we can see from the other Chartists' essays collected under Havel's title The Power of the Powerless). His "political" essays are rich, poetic, philosophical meditations, searching for the deeper meaning of experience, "digging out words with their roots" as Karl Kraus once put it, but rarely deigning to examine the political surface of things. (He nowhere so much as mentions the name of any of the present communist rulers of Czechoslovakia. Magnificent contempt!) He shows a great consistency, from his seminal essay "The Power of the Powerless," written in the autumn of 1978, through his 1984 address on being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Toulouse, to his open letter to Western peace movements, published in 1985 as The Anatomy of a Reticence. You hear in his writing the silence of a country cottage or a prison cell--for his part in the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) he was himself unjustly prosecuted and imprisoned from 1979 to 1983--the quiet voice of man who has had a long time for solitary reflection, a playwright catapulted by circumstances and the dictates of conscience into the role of "dissident," but not at all by temperament a political activist. Yet his contempt for politics is also more generally characteristic of Czechoslovakia, where most people find it hard to believe that anything of importance will ever again change on the immobile, frozen surface of Husak's geriatric "normalized" regime.
Michnik, by contrast, has seen the earth shake in Poland. Though a historian by training, he has spent most of his adult life actively engaged in political opposition. A central figure in the Social Self-Defence--KOR and then an adviser to Solidarity, he, unlike Havel or Konrád, writes with the knowledge that he will be read for immediate political advice. Activists of underground Solidarity, students involved in samizdat publishing, look to him (among others) for practical answers to the question, "What is to be done?" This gives a sharper political focus to his work, but also makes it more controversial.
Like Havel, he is a hero to many of his compatriots. Unlike Havel, his views are fiercely contested. The KOR tradition, of which he is perhaps the most articulate spokesman (and certainly the most lucid essayist), now vies for popularity in Poland with views that may be characterized, with varying degrees of inaccuracy, as Catholic positivist (in the very special Polish usage of that term), Catholic nationalist, liberal, libertarian, or even neo-conservative. Astonishingly, the greatest part of his work has been written in prison and smuggled out under the noses of General Jaruzelski's jailers. (Besides almost 300 pages of political essays, including Rzecz o kompromisie ("These Times... On Compromise"), he has also produced a 285-page book of literary essays.) His style is often polemical, full of rasping irony--the rasp of an iron file cutting at prison bars--but modulated by a fine sense of moral responsibility and a keen political intelligence. Like Havel, he also displays a great consistency in his political thought, from his seminal 1976 essay "The New Evolutionism" to his 1985 "Letter from the Gdańsk Prison" (first published in English in The New York Review) and his most recent long essay "On Compromise" which has so far appeared only in Polish.
Konrád is different again. He is writing not in and out of prison but in and out of Vienna or West Berlin. We hear in the background of his long excursive disquisitions not the slamming of prison doors but the clink of coffee cups in the Café Landtmann, or the comradely hum of a peace movement seminar. In his book Antipolitics (German subtitle: Mitteleuropäische Meditationen) and subsequent articles, Konrád, a distinguished novelist and sociologist, has developed what I might call a late Jugendstil literary style: colorful, profuse, expansive, and ornate. Antipolitics is a Sammelsurium, an omnium gatherum of ideas that are picked up one after the other, briefly toyed with, reformulated, then abandoned in favour of other, prettier, younger (but alas, contradictory) ideas, only to be taken up again, petted, and restated once more a few pages later. This makes Konrád's essayistic work both stimulating and infuriating. Contrary to a widespread impression in the West, one finds few people in Budapest who consider that Konrád is a "representative" figure even in the limited way that Havel and Michnik are. On the other hand, they find it difficult to point to anyone else who has covered half as much intellectual ground, in a more "representative" fashion.

So Havel, Michnik, and Konrád are very different writers, differently placed even in their own countries, neither fully "representative" nor exact counterparts. Yet all three are particularly well attuned to the questions a Western reader is likely to raise, and concerned to answer them. And all three are equally committed to the dialogue between their countries. Havel's The Power of the Powerless was written specifically as the start of a projected dialogue between Charta 77 and KOR. In discussing the richness of Polish samizdat Michnik singles out the work of "the extremely popular Václav Havel," and both Havel and the Hungarian Miklós Haraszti have appeared alongside Michnik on the masthead of the Polish independent quarterly Krytyka. Konrád refers constantly to Czech and Polish experience, and in one striking passage he apostrophizes a Pole identified only as "Adam"--but the "Adam" is clearly Michnik. So if there really is some common "Central European" ground, we can reasonably expect to discover it in the political essays of these three authors. If we do not find it here, it probably does not exist.

In the work of Havel and Konrád there is an interesting semantic division of labour. Both authors use the terms "Eastern Europe" or "East European" when the context is neutral or negative; when they write "Central" or "East Central," the statement is invariably positive, affirmative, or downright sentimental. In his Antipolitics, Konrád writes of "a new Central European identity," "the consciousness of Central Europe," a "Central European strategy." "The demand for self-government," he suggests, "is the organizing focus of "the new Central European ideology." "A certain distinctive Central European scepticism," Havel comments in The Anatomy of a Reticence, "is inescapably part of the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon that is Central Europe. That scepticism has little in common with, say, English scepticism. It is generally rather strange, a bit mysterious, a bit nostalgic, often tragic and even at times heroic."

Later in the same essay he talks of "a Central European mind, sceptical, sober, anti-utopian, understated"--in short, everything we think of as quintessentially English. Or Konrád again:
"It was East Central Europe's historical misfortune that it was unable to become independent after the collapse of the Eastern, Tartar-Turkish hegemony and later the German-Austrian hegemony of the West, and that it once again came under Eastern hegemony, this time of the Soviet Russian type. This is what prevents our area from exercising the Western option taken out a thousand years ago, even though that represents our profoundest historical inclinations." [my italics]
In this last passage, history has indeed been recast as myth. And the mythopoetic tendency--the inclination to attribute to the Central European past what you hope will characterize the Central European future, the confusion of what should be with what was--is rather typical of the new Central Europeanism. We are to understand that what was truly "Central European" was always Western, rational, humanistic, democratic, sceptical, and tolerant. The rest was "East European," Russian, or possibly German. Central Europe takes all the "Dichter und Denker," Eastern Europe is left with the "Richter und Henker."

The clearest and most extreme articulation of this tendency comes from Milan Kundera. Kundera' Central Europe is the mirror image of Solzhenitsyn's Russia. Solzhenitsyn says that communism is to Russia as a disease is to the man afflicted by it. Kundera says that communism is to Central Europe as a disease is to the man afflicted by it--and the disease is Russia! Kundera's Central European myth is in frontal collision with Solzhenitsyn's Russian myth. Kundera's absurd exclusion of Russia from Europe (not endorsed by Havel or Konrád) has been most effectively criticized by Joseph Brodsky. As Brodsky observes, "The political system that put Mr Kundera out of commission is as much a product of Western rationalism as it is of Eastern emotional radicalism." But can't we go one step further? Aren't there specifically Central European traditions which at least facilitated the establishment of communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and traditions which those regimes signally carry forward to this day?

A super-bureaucratic statism and formalistic legalism taken to absurd (and sometimes already inhuman) extremes were, after all, also particularly characteristic of Central Europe before 1914. That is one reason why we find the most exact, profound, and chilling anticipations of the totalitarian nightmare precisely in the works of the most distinctively Central European authors of the early twentieth century, in Kafka and Musil, Broch and Roth. And then, what was really more characteristic of historic Central Europe: cosmopolitan tolerance or nationalism and racism? As Francois Bondy has tellingly observed (in a riposte to Kundera), if Kafka was a child of Central Europe, so too was Adolf Hitler. And then again, I find myself asking: Since when has the "Central European mind" been "sceptical, sober, anti-utopian, understated?" For a thousand years, as Konrád seems to suggest? In 1948, when, as Kundera vividly recalls in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the most Central European of intellectuals joined hands and danced in the streets to welcome the arrival of heaven on earth? Or is it only since 1968?

The myth of the pure Central European past is perhaps a good myth. Like Solzhenitsyn's Russian myth it is as an understandable exaggeration to challenge a prevailing orthodoxy. Like the contemporary West German myth of the 20 July, 1944, bomb plot against Hitler (the myth being that the conspirators were true liberal democrats, proleptic model citizens of the Federal Republic), its effects on a younger generation may be inspiring. So shouldn't we let good myths lie? I think not. And in other moments, or when challenged directly, Havel and Konrád, among others, also think not.

In the late 1970s, the Czechoslovak historian Ján Mlynárik (writing under the pseudonym "Danubius") started a fascinating and highly fruitful discussion in Prague when he argued that the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans by the non-communist Czechoslovak government in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War was itself an inhuman and "totalitarian" act - a precedent and pathbreaker for the communist totalitarianism to come. "Let us not forget," the Czech writer Jiří Gruša movingly reminded us at the unofficial cultural symposium in Budapest last year, "that it was us (the writers) who glorified the modern state" and that "our nationalist odes may be found in all the schoolbooks of Europe." Havel goes out of his way to underline the lesson of his fellow intellectuals' "postwar lapse into utopianism." And Konrád declares bluntly: "After all, we Central Europeans began the first two world wars." So if at times they indulge the mythopoetic tendency, there is also, in this new discussion of Central Europe from Prague and Budapest, a developed sense of historical responsibility, an awareness of the deeper ambiguities of the historical reality, in short, an understanding that Central Europe is very, very far from being simply "the part of the West now in the East."

And yet I do believe they have a treasure to offer us all. At their best, they give a personal example such as you will not find in many a long year in London, Washington, or Paris: an example, not of brilliance or wit or originality, but of intellectual responsibility, integrity, and courage. They know, and they remind us--vividly, urgently--that ideas matter, words matter, have consequences, are not to be used lightly--Michnik quotes Lampedusa: "You cannot shout the most important words." Under the black light of a totalitarian power, most ideas--and words--become deformed, appear grotesque, or simply crumble. Only a very few stand the test, remain rocklike under any pressure; and most of these are not new. There are things worth suffering for. There are moral absolutes. Not everything is open to discussion.

"A life with defeat is destructive," writes Michnik, "but it also produces great cultural values that heal. [...] To know how to live with defeat is to know how to stand up to fate, how to express a vote of no confidence in those powers that pretend to be fate." These qualities and values have emerged from their specific Central European experience--which is the central European experience of our time. But since we can read what they write, perhaps it may even be possible to learn a little from that experience, without having to go through it.

The Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya once said to be: "You know, George Orwell was an East European." Perhaps we would now say that Orwell was a Central European. If this is what we mean by "Central Europe," I would apply for citizenship.

From: Timothy Garton Ash, "Does Central Europe Exist?", The New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986

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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