Central Europe's disappearing cultural heritage became a favorite topic of debate in the 1980s. Milan Kundera, for example, argued in his essay "The Tragedy of Central Europe" that as a consequence of the Yalta agreement, Western Europe had lost a part of itself—namely, Central Europe—which was and always had been a part of the West, historically as well as culturally.
Using Edmund Husserl's idea of Europe as an intellectual concept, Kundera never bothered to identify Central Europe geographically. It was clear, however, that he was referring to the Habsburg Empire: a multiethnic Europe in miniature, without internal borders and possessing a kind of intellectual commonwealth which was destroyed by Hitler and Stalin and had not been seen since.
Often used as an anti-Soviet concept, the function of which was to create an identity that would distinguish this part of Europe from Soviet-made "Eastern Europe," this image of Central Europe was not devoid of nostalgic overtones. Most agreed that Central Europe had vanished with the destruction of the European Jewry and the post-WWII formation of nation-states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, with very small or non-existing ethnic minorities. What was left after 1945 was a set of Soviet-dominated nation-states, and no longer the intellectual commonwealth described in Kundera's essay and other works, such as Czesław Miłosz's Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.
The rest was myth and Habsburg nostalgia, and it would remain so until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then everything happened at once: politicians gave speeches about Central Europe, George Soros founded Central European University, a Czech cultural monthly called Střední Evropa (Central Europe) appeared and finally there was a call for the establishment of Central Europe as a political unit. Would this mean the return of Central Europe? If so, what kind of Central Europe?
Locating Central Europe today
The collection Central Europe: Core or Periphery? addresses these questions from the perspective of a decade after the fall of Communism in the region. A compilation of 15 papers given at a 1998 symposium initatied by the Eleni Nakou Foundation, it provides a good summary of the problems surrounding Central Europe today. The key issue is no longer whether or not Central Europe exists, but rather to what extent the concept is a useful tool in the current debate, particularly concerning the integration of the former East European states into the European Union (EU).
The contributions are organized under six different themes: historical background, interrupted progress, economic factors, Central European and European integration, risk factors and issues of identity. The authors are historians, art and literature scholars, economists, political scientists and politicians. The Croatian novelist and essayist Slavenka Drakulić rounds off the collection with an entertaining and thought-provoking postscript in which she criticizes Western Europe and the EU for having monopolized European identity, leaving Eastern Europe as "the other Europe."
Each of the articles in this book represents a different image and understanding of Central Europe. Miroslav Hroch argues in his article "'Central Europe': The Rise and Fall of an Historical Region" that Central Europe as a European region can be understood only in a historical context. He holds that it is valid as a concept only up to the fall of the Habsburg Empire, at which point Central Europe ceased to be a cohesive political unit on the European scene. He argues that it is anachronistic to apply the concept to the same region today.
A new identity
The contributing economists beg to differ, however. Marie Lavigne and Andras Inotai both argue that one can trace a movement towards a new identity within the field of economic cooperation, most notably within the framework of the so-called Visegrád Group, formed in 1991, and the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), signed in 1992.
Much of the discussion in this book centers on this particular issue, since it includes problems concerning relations between the former East Bloc states and their consequences for regional political stability (discussed in Alexei Arbatov's "A Moscow Perspective" and Joachim Krause's "Eastern Central Europe as a Subject of German Foreign Policy"), as well as for European integration in general.
Visegrád and CEFTA were purely Central European bodies, with the intention of uniting the former East Bloc countries during the economic transition. This venture was not without problems, however, as Lavigne and Inotai show.
A growing rift
In his article "Forgetting the Central Europe of the 1980s," Iver Neumann discusses a growing rift between the core of Central Europe—the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (identified by many Western politicians as the "real" Central Europe)—and the Balkans. As the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland emerge as the economic leaders in this region, a process of disintegration within the Visegrád group appears inevitable.
Center or periphery?
One of the most interesting questions raised in this book is whether, however paradoxical it may seem, the Central European states of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, cheered on by the West in pursuing their goal of acquiring full membership in the Western superstructures, will in actuality be giving up their Central European identity, only to find themselves in the periphery of Western Europe.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection is that it brings together so many different perspectives on questions such as this. The different backgrounds of the contributors and the diversity of the views expressed in Central Europe: Core or Periphery reflect the degree of complexity characterizing this part of Europe. Central Europe is back, and yet it is not.
Dick Nilsson, 23 October 2000
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