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Think Visegrad


Liehm, Antonín J.: When We Began

It's been more than two decades since the first issue of the quarterly journal Lettre internationale came out in Paris. The Cold War was winding down at the time, but Europe and the world were still divided, and one half viewed the other exclusively through the lenses of half-truths and half-lies. At the time we went to battle against the former with the aim of demonstrating that in the field of culture, at least, Europe was still a single entity, that its riches lay in the diversity of its cultures. But these cultures knew little of each other, and this was true on both sides of the Iron Curtain. We wanted these cultures to confront one another within a single publication on the basis of common themes and subjects, and at the same time we wanted to show that Stalinism had not eliminated culture in the East, nor had it undermined its European-ness, nor its quality, regardless of whether that culture could express itself publicly or in any other way.

One of our main inspirations was the experience of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, which, within communism, had brought forth fruit that the world still admires today. At the same time, we wanted to show that the borders between cultures were not identical with the borders between countries, which of course related to Central Europe, but not exclusively. The Lettre internationale very quickly came out with a series of autonomous national editions and, after 1990, it did not remain limited to the original countries: France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. It began to appear as well, first in Yugoslavia (in two versions, Serbian and Croatian, and for a short time it even had a single editorial board), and then in Czechoslovakia (the articles alternated between Czech and Slovak), and in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere.

Let's return to Central Europe, which the magazine viewed not only as the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but as a group of cultures with a high common denominator, to which belonged Switzerland, part of Germany, Berlin, the Baltic states... The idea of Visegrad was born, and George Soros offered to finance a magazine that, following the model of Lettre, would come out in four autonomous editions. Rudolf Chmel then presented him with a project, but it seemed undoable and too expensive to him, so he withdrew his offer. I felt sorry about that, so I offered to go around to all the Visegrad countries at his expense to try to find another solution. In the end, the Central European Gazette (Středoevropské noviny) was created as a monthly supplement to appear in the major newspapers in the region. It would have a single editorial board, of which I would be the chairman. Rudolf Chmel was named editor-in-chief of the whole project, even though Adam Michnik insisted that the Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, would have complete editorial autonomy.

For the first issue, I wrote an editorial about how Visegrad could and should become something like the Nordic Council, that is, a kind of loose and mainly economic association of four countries that gradually, by developing joint projects, would prepare the ground for a smoother entry into the European Union (which in the case of northern Europe, with the exception of Norway, actually happened). The problem was that post-communism was still in diapers, and after years of cohabitation in an unloved association of states under the Soviet Union, each country wanted to play the game largely on its own terms. Quite simply, the time wasn't yet ripe for Visegrad. In the Czech Republic, this attitude - "they'll only hold us back" - went so far that the government rejected Soros's offer to make Prague the seat of a European University funded by him, and the Prime Minister recalled the ministers who were already on their way to a meeting of Visegrad Presidents with Richard von Weiszäcker. Nevertheless, the Central European Gazette came out; its international editorial board met once every three months, usually in Prague, in the offices of the Czech edition of Lettres. The fact that the time was not ripe was inevitably reflected in the Central European Gazette which, with Soros's support, quixotically pretended that everything was in order and that the Visegrad Group actually existed. I travelled in for regular editorial meetings, but in this pre-internet era, a Central European supplement couldn't be done in Paris, and so it began to languish until finally, after a meeting in Bratislava with Soros, it stopped coming out altogether. Only Gazeta Wyborcza, thanks to its complete autonomy and financial success - in this Michnik had been right - was able to keep it going, though in a different form.

Even Lettre internationale - clearly another quixotic project - did not survive the time in which it was born and to which it spoke. After not quite four years, it died, first in Prague, and gradually elsewhere as well (in Poland, where it was to have been the first edition in Eastern Europe, only two issues came out). Oddly enough, in Hungary and Romania, the journal is still alive, even though it should more properly be called "Lettre Nationale." At the other end of Europe it disappeared, first from Paris (the role of the flagship edition was taken over by the Berlin Lettre) and then all the other editions likewise turned into small national or local magazines (though, oddly enough, a new Danish mutation has appeared). The problem is obvious as well in the European Union, whose allocation for culture is even more laughably small than it is in the budget of its new member states. Today, the Union does not see as its cultural mission the creation of mutual understanding among 30 cultures, whose diversity forms a single identity. Moreover, the prevailing opinion now is that to understand the eastern part of Europe, we don't need a mediator; by now, we can do all that for ourselves. Which is proving to be a mistake.

In Central Europe, however, Visegrad was born again like a Phoenix from the ashes; it has more ways and means at its disposal and, thanks to a consensus that was lacking at the beginning, it has incomparably more opportunities. We have to hope that it can demonstrate that its member states, over time, will come to know more about each other and know each other better, and work together better, than they do now. When it happens, however, I won't be there.

Antonín Liehm
Political scientist, journalist, translator. Founder and editor of Lettre Internationale. Professor at the University of Paris, the City University of New York, the University of Pennsylvania, and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Member of International Pen Club. Lives in Paris.

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