The notion of Central Europe as an interconnected space is one of the oldest and most controversial European ideas. The term does not denote a set geographical entity but represents a political and cultural construct interpreted by Europeans in different ways at different times. For this reason, it seems more appropriate to use the German term Mitteleuropa with its strong political overtones, since historically, Mitteleuropa – in its various manifestations – has usually described a more or less pronounced German claim to power in certain parts of Europe (Le Rider 1994). This article analyzes the conditions and circumstances underlying the renaissance of this idea in the ‘Eastern bloc’ during the 1980s, and against this backdrop, examines the patterns of argument used by a Czechoslovakian, a Hungarian, and a Polish intellectual respectively: Milan Kundera, György Konrád, und Czesław Miłosz. While their ideas found no direct political echo, these authors were representative of the dissident discourse on Europe in their countries and widely discussed in the West as well (Ash 1989; Jaworski 1988).
Conceptions of a Mid-European confederation – that is, attempts to organize a self-constructed centre of Europe mainly in economic-political terms – date back to the early nineteenth century (Meyer 1955; Stirk 1994). These ideas first gained popularity during the Revolutions of 1848 because they appealed to the national-liberal milieu in Germany and in the Habsburg Monarchy. During the First World War, the liberal politician Friedrich Naumann formulated the arguably best-known plan for Mitteleuropa while engaging in debates on war aims. Naumann advocated a confederation of the Central Powers integrated along economic-political lines that was to be extended after the end of the war and eventually to include large parts of Central and South-Eastern Europe. The concept achieved great popularity during the first half of the twentieth century and was crucial for National Socialist visions of Europe as well (Elvert 1999; Vermeiren 2013; Vermeiren 2016: 145-182), but lost its relevance after the end of the Second World War. However, in the 1980s Mitteleuropa reappeared on the political scene under transformed geopolitical conditions and in connection with completely different interests.
Ideas of Mitteleuropa in East-Central Europe in the 1980s
In the 1980s, many Eastern Europeans took up the idea of Mitteleuropa in order to dissociate this region from a negatively perceived ‘East’ (Judt 1990). In essence, they argued that historically, their countries had always belonged to Europe and were only forced into the ‘East’ by the Soviet Union after 1945. Many claimed that Soviet foreign rule had drawn an unnatural border between their region and the Western part of the continent. In this connection, Milan Kundera spoke of a “stolen West”.
While there was a growing interest in the subject in some Western countries, including Austria, the Mitteleuropa debate was far more prevalent amongst Central and Eastern European dissidents. This has numerous reasons: the most significant was certainly the highly critical attitude towards the Soviet political system in the wake of liberalizing tendencies under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Secondly, we must not overlook the fact that while as a result of the rise of Communist rule after 1945 the “cognitive reconfiguration wiped out the concept of ‘Central Europe‘ from political vocabulary, restricting its usage to meteorology”1, the dissidents of the 1980s could draw on historical predecessors. In the interwar period, there had been early attempts in some states, notably in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to develop Mitteleuropean lines of thinking divorced from beliefs in German hegemony. For example, in 1918 Tomáš GarrigueMasaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, envisioned Central Europe as a domain of the small, democratic states that lay between Germany and Russia. During the 1930s, the Hungarian jurist and economic expert Elemér Hantos, a protagonist of the Mitteleuropäische Wirtschaftstagung, which had been established in Vienna in 1925, promoted a similarly named plan for a Danube federation (Pasture 2015: 138f.) without Germany, hoping to alleviate the economic fragmentation of East-Central Europe.
Thirdly, many intellectuals like Kundera had experienced the West while in exile there. Thus, the debate about Mitteleuropa found expression not only in Samizdat publications in the East but also in Western journals like Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, as well as the West German cultural magazine Kursbuch. At the same time, many ‘Eastern bloc’ states endeavored to establish closer relations with a united Western Europe and its institutions. The state-communist parties in many countries distanced themselves from directives from Moscow that forbade them to recognize the European Community, and after the initiation of the Helsinki process and a new policy of détente, they strove to establish close contacts, especially in the economic sphere (Szilágyi 2016). Without doubt, this also opened up new perspectives on Europe.
In any case, from his Paris exile in 1983 Milan Kundera warned against the development of a political vacuum in the “heart of Europe” in the face of the looming breakup of the Soviet-dominated ‘Eastern bloc’. In his well-known essay “Un occident kidnappé” (1983/1984), he deplored the “tragedy of Central Europe“. He criticized Western Europe sharply for having forgotten the states in Central and Eastern Europe, thus denying parts of its own identity. Yet his obvious antagonist or object of criticism was the “eastern civilization”, ostensibly demarcated by a distinct cultural and historical development. In dramatic fashion, he contrasted good and evil, culture and barbarism, Central Europe’s “passion for variety” as opposed to “uniform, standardizing, centralizing” Russia (Konrad 1984: 33). Here, he deliberately spoke of Russia – not the Soviet Union –, which he accused of barbarism, orthodoxy, despotism and totalitarianism. Mitteleuropa was thus detached from its German-nationalist past and presented as a transmitter of culture and community of shared roots, especially the legacy of the Habsburg Empire. In the same vein, Kundera focused on the victim status of the Central European peoples under the Russian yoke: Eastern Europe in the shape of Russia here functions as a clearly-defined European “Other” by means of which the own, Central European position was defined.
In an important essay from 1986, György Konrád used similar arguments, although with much greater moderation. He not only rejected a Mitteleuropa in Naumann’s sense, but also criticized the Soviet Union, to which he accorded the right to enjoy the friendship of Central Europe but not to determine its socio-political system. The Hungarian author stressed the right to individual and collective self-determination for the states of Central and Eastern Europe while simultaneously urging them to strengthen their pan-European sense of identity. Like Kundera, Konrád also held the belief that the smaller states of the region were victims of history. This led him to accentuate their Europeanness and to demand that the West cease turning its back on the East, for Western Europe did not represent Europe in its entirety. Furthermore, we can perceive an obvious similarity to arguments already made by Hantos during the interwar period, according to which the nation was an important regulatory system but to be complemented by transnational cooperation, especially in this region: “A homogeneous national state is the exception in our area, and it cannot be taken as a norm.” (Konrad 1986: 111)
In Poland, the idea of Mitteleuropa was discussed much more tentatively (Żyliński 2003). There were three pivotal reasons for this: First, Polish Samizdat publications had much stronger reservations against the German-nationalist and expansionist background of the term (cf. Tischner 1988). Second, in Poland, unlike Hungary and Czechoslovakia, “Mitteleuropa” could not build on a long tradition dating back to the interwar years. Third, for Polish intellectuals other space concepts such as the Intermarium or the East held greater historical, cultural and emotional significance as a reference. Thus, many Polish dissidents intensively debated European concepts, but avoided and later decidedly rejected the term Mitteleuropa.
Czesław Miłosz, however, argued that “mental lines” could be drawn from Mitteleuropa through the “ways of feeling and thinking of its inhabitants” (Miłosz 1986: 101). He pointed out commonalities of culture and mentality in Central Europe, an area with “a common past in spite of the multitude of languages and nationalities.” (ibid.) Miłosz diagnosed a list of typical Central European attitudes, especially an intense preoccupation with history and a pronounced sense of threat prevalent among intellectuals: “Dark visions of the future […] seem to be the speciality of Central European writers.” (ibid., 105) Yet at the same time, he also discerned a “tinge of nostalgia, of utopianism, and of hope” (ibid., 107). Consequently, he saw art and culture as embodying forces that, in spite of the bleak political situation resulting from the firepower of the “Russian tanks”, were “working for the unification of Central Europe.” (ibid., 102, 107) Miłosz criticized the artificial “division of Europe into West and East” in Western universities with their “Centers for Eastern European Studies” (ibid., 107). While Central Europe was not to be equated with the West, he was certain that, in spite of the Iron Curtain, in terms of art and culture “Warsaw, Prague and Budapest have been more similar to Paris, Amsterdam or London than to Moscow.” (ibid., 108) On the other hand, in his eyes “Russian contemporary art and literature, obstinately clinging to clichés, frozen by censorship” was “sterile and unattractive” (ibid., 103).
In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the new Mitteleuropa discourse was very much shaped by anti-Soviet attitudes. Being a Central European meant above all not being an East European, to dissociate oneself from the Soviet Union as a political entity and from Russia as a cultural reference point. In a speech held at the 1989 Bruckner Festival in Linz, none other than Eric Hobsbawm described this primarily exclusionary usage of the Mitteleuropa idea as undesirable as well as dangerous and even ascribed a racist quality to it (Hobsbawm 1989: 6).
During the long history of the Mitteleuropa idea, there was never a consensus about exactly which regions Mitteleuropa was to encompass – even prior to 1945 it was constantly in flux and open to negotiation. Contrary to a long-standing exclusion of the East from the mental map of Europe by means of cultural criteria that can be traced as far back as the Age of Enlightenment (Wolff 1994), Central and Eastern European dissidents during the 1980s proclaimed countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, but also Romania and Bulgaria the heartland of Europe. In this context, the concept of Mitteleuropa was mirroring both the rhetoric of European solidarity as well as distinct national policies at the end of the Cold War, for although the idea disseminated across national borders, it was adapted quite differently in different countries.
The idea of Mitteleuropa among Central and Eastern European dissidents was not a positive reference to historical-cultural roots or to prospective, promising political or economic goals. Cultural memories of a common Central European past, e.g. under the reign of the Habsburgs, had as little importance for the new Mitteleuropa debate as did potential demands for stronger cooperation among Central and Eastern European states. To a much greater degree, the orientation towards the West signified a deliberate, negative rejection of the Soviet Union and the “East”, which now came to represent a constitutive political and cultural “Other”. In this sense the 1980s discourse on Mitteleuropa in Central and Eastern Europe also has to be viewed as a debate on European identity and values in general (Franke 2008).
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Eastern Europe, Mitteleuropa, Central Europe, Friedrich Naumann, Cold War, Samizdat
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