Mezigami Not everybody liked the concept. The author sought to define eyrope notion of Central Europe, setting it against the background of the East-West dichotomy. Europe is still sandwiched between two superpowers with differing worldviews, and small nations can still be the bearers of important truths. There is no room for compromise. The author stresses the role of Kunderx Europe as a former great cultural centre which influenced an entire continent. Although this is a utopia, it is well worth revisiting.
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In November , the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: "We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.
It certainly meant that the Russian tanks were endangering Hungary and with it Europe itself. But in what sense was Europe in danger? Were the Russian tanks about to push past the Hungarian borders and into the West? The director of the Hungarian News Agency meant that the Russians, in attacking Hungary, were attacking Europe itself. He was ready to die so that Hungary might remain Hungary and European. Even if the sense of the sentence seems clear, it continues to intrigue us.
Actually, in France, in America, one is accustomed to thinking that what was at stake during the invasion was neither Hungary nor Europe but a political regime. One would never have said that Hungary as such had been threatened; still less would one ever understand why a Hungarian, faced with his own death, addressed Europe. When Solzhenitsyn denounces communist oppression, does he invoke Europe as a fundamental value worth dying for? In fact, what does Europe mean to a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole?
For a thousand years their nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history. For them, the word "Europe" does not represent a phenomenon of geography but a spiritual notion synonymous with the word "West. After , the border between the two Europes shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East.
In dramatic content and historical impact, nothing that has occurred in "geographic Europe," in the West or the East, can be compared with the succession of revolts in Central Europe.
Every single one was supported by almost the entire population. And, in every case, each regime could not have defended itself for more than three hours if it had not been backed by Russia. That said, we can no longer consider what took place in Prague or Warsaw in its essence as a drama of Eastern Europe, of the Soviet bloc, of communism; it is a drama of the West—a West that, kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed, nevertheless insists on defending its identity.
The identity of a people and of a civilization is reflected and concentrated in what has been created by the mind—in what is known as "culture. That is why, in each of the revolts in Central Europe, the collective cultural memory and the contemporary creative effort assumed roles so great and so decisive—far greater and far more decisive than they have been in any other European mass revolt.
It was the theater, the films, the literature and philosophy that, in the years before , led ultimately to the emancipation of the Prague Spring. And it was the banning of a play by Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish Romantic poet, that triggered the famous revolt of Polish students in This happy marriage of culture and life, of creative achievement and popular participation, has marked the revolts of Central Europe with an inimitable beauty that will always cast a spell over those who lived through those times.
Russia is in a similar situation. It, too, is about to lose its identity. I understand the logic. I also understand the predicament of the Russians who fear that their beloved homeland will be confused with detested communism.
But it is also necessary to understand the Pole, whose homeland, except for a brief period between the two world wars, has been subjugated by Russia for two centuries and has been, throughout, subject to a "Russianization"—the pressure to conform to being Russian—as patient as it has been implacable. In Central Europe, the eastern border of the West, everyone has always been particularly sensitive to the dangers of Russian might.
Frantisek Palacky, the 2 great historian and the figure most representative of Czech politics in the nineteenth century, wrote in a famous letter to the revolutionary parliament of Frankfurt in which he justified the continued existence of the Hapsburg Empire as the only possible rampart against Russia, against "this power which, having already reached an enormous size today, is now augmenting its force beyond the reach of any Western country. And this dream, although never fully realized, would remain powerful and influential.
Central Europe longed to be a condensed version of Europe itself in all its cultural variety, a small arch-European Europe, a reduced model of Europe made up of nations conceived according to one rule: the greatest variety within the smallest space.
How could Central Europe not be horrified facing a Russia founded on the opposite principle: the smallest variety within the greatest space? Indeed, nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, standardizing, centralizing, determined to transform every nation of its empire the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Armenians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and others into a single Russian people or, as is more commonly expressed in this age of generalized verbal mystification, into a "single Soviet people".
Certainly it is both its negation the negation, for example, of its religiosity and its fulfillment the fulfillment of its centralizing tendencies and its imperial dreams. Seen from within Russia, this first aspect—the aspect of its discontinuity—is the more striking. From the point of view of the enslaved countries, the second aspect—that of its continuity—is felt more powerfully.
But am I being too absolute in contrasting Russia and Western civilization? Of course. Moreover, during the entire nineteenth century, Russia, attracted to Europe, drew closer to it. And the fascination was reciprocated. Rilke claimed that Russia was his spiritual homeland, and no one has escaped the impact of the great Russian novels, which remain an integral part of the common European cultural legacy.
Yes, all this is true; the cultural betrothal between the two Europes remains a great and unforgettable memory. I want simply to make this point once more: on the 3 eastern border of the West—more than anywhere else—Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilization, an other civilization.
In his book Native Realm, Czeslaw Milosz speaks of the phenomenon: in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Poles waged war against the Russians "along distant borders. No one was especially interested in the Russians…. The Pole was complaining: his works—all of them—had been banned. She interrupted: "Have you been imprisoned? Brandys observes: Those are typical Russian consolations. Nothing seems horrible to them, compared to the fate of Russia. But these consolations make no sense to us.
That was also my response to Russian literature. It scared me. I would have preferred not to have known their world, not to have known it even existed. It is a world that—provided we are removed from it — fascinates and attracts us; the moment it closes around us, though, it reveals its terrifying foreignness. This is why the countries in Central Europe feel that the change in their destiny that occurred after is not merely a political catastrophe: it is also an attack on their civilization.
The deep meaning of their resistance is the struggle to preserve their identity — or, to put it another way, to preserve their Westernness. But what we forget is their essential tragedy: these countries have vanished from the map of the West. We can locate the cause in Central Europe itself.
The history of the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians has been turbulent and fragmented. Their traditions of statehood have been weaker and less continuous than those of the larger European nations. Boxed in by the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other, the nations of Central Europe have used up their strength in the struggle to survive and to preserve their languages.
Since they have never been entirely integrated into the consciousness of Europe, they have remained the least known and the most fragile part of the West — hidden, even further, by the curtain of their strange and scarcely accessible languages.
The Austrian empire had the great opportunity of making Central Europe into a strong, unified state. But the Austrians, alas, were divided between an arrogant Pan-German nationalism and their own Central European mission. They did not succeed in building a federation of equal nations, and their failure has been the misfortune of the whole of Europe. Dissatisfied, the other nations of Central Europe blew apart their empire in , without realizing that, in spite of its inadequacies, it was irreplaceable.
Perhaps for this reason, in the European memory these countries always seem to be the source of dangerous trouble. And, to be frank, I feel that the error made by Central Europe was owing to what I call the "ideology of the Slavic world.
The Czechs in spite of the severe warnings of their most respected leaders loved to brandish naively their "Slavic ideology" as a defense against German aggressiveness. The Russians, on the other hand, enjoyed making use of it to justify their own imperial ambitions.
It was ignorant because the Czechs, for a thousand years, have never had any direct contact with Russia. In spite of their linguistic kinship, the Czechs and the Russians have never shared a common world: neither a common history nor a common culture. The relationship between the Poles and the Russians, though, has never been anything less than a struggle of life and death.
I, too, know of nothing more ridiculous than this cult of obscure depths, this noisy and empty sentimentality of the "Slavic soul" that is attributed to me from time to time! The division of Europe after —which united this supposed Slavic world including the poor Hungarians and Rumanians whose language is not, of course, Slavic—but why bother over trifles?
Not entirely. At the beginning of our century, Central Europe was, despite its political weakness, a great cultural center, perhaps the greatest. And, admittedly, while the importance of Vienna, the city of Freud and Mahler, is readily acknowledged today, its importance and originality make little sense unless they are seen against the background of the other countries and cities that together participated in, and contributed creatively to, the culture of Central Europe.
With the work of Kafka and Hasek, Prague created the great counterpart in the novel to the work of the Viennese Musil and Broch.
The cultural dynamism of the non-German-speaking countries was intensified even more after , when Prague offered the world the innovations of structuralism and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Or was it rooted in a long tradition, a shared past? Or, to put it another way: does Central Europe constitute a true cultural configuration with its own history?
And if such a configuration exists, can it be defined geographically? What are its borders? It would be senseless to try to draw its borders exactly.
Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation. For example, by the middle of the fourteenth century, Charles University in Prague had already brought together intellectuals professors and students who were Czech, Austrian, Bavarian, Saxon, Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, and Rumanian with the germ of the idea of a multinational community in which each nation would have the right of its own language: indeed, it was under the indirect influence of this university at which the religious reformer Jan Huss was once rector that the first Hungarian and Rumanian translations of the Bible were undertaken.
Other situations followed: the Hussite revolution; the Hungarian Renaissance during the time of Mathias Korvin with its international influence; the advent of the Hapsburg Empire as the union of three independent states—Bohemia, Hungary, and Austria; the wars against the Turks; the Counter-Reformation of the seventeenth century.
At this time the specific nature of Central European culture appeared suddenly in an extraordinary explosion of baroque art, a phenomenon that unified this vast region, from Salzburg to Wilno.
On the map of Europe, baroque Central Europe characterized by the predominance of the irrational and the dominant position of the visual arts and especially of music became the opposite pole of classical France characterized by the predominance of the rational and the dominant position of literature and philosophy.
In the nineteenth century, the national struggles of the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Rumanians, the Jews brought into opposition nations that — insulated, egotistic, closed-off—had nevertheless lived through the same great existential experience: the experience of a nation that chooses between its existence and its nonexistence; or, to put it another way, between retaining its authentic national life and being assimilated into a larger nation.
Not even the Austrians, though belonging to the dominant nation of the empire, avoided the necessity of facing this choice: they had to choose between their Austrian identity and being submerged by the larger German one. Nor could the Jews escape this question. By refusing assimilation, Zionism, also born in Central Europe, chose the same path as the other Central European nations. The twentieth century has witnessed other situations: the collapse of the Austrian empire, Russian annexation, and the long period of Central European revolts, which are only an immense bet staked on an unknown solution.
In November , the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: "We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe. It certainly meant that the Russian tanks were endangering Hungary and with it Europe itself. But in what sense was Europe in danger? Were the Russian tanks about to push past the Hungarian borders and into the West? The director of the Hungarian News Agency meant that the Russians, in attacking Hungary, were attacking Europe itself. He was ready to die so that Hungary might remain Hungary and European.
Growing up in Kundera's Central Europe
Milan learned to play the piano from his father; he later studied musicology and musical composition. Musicological influences and references can be found throughout his work; he has even included musical notation in the text to make a point. He belonged to the generation of young Czechs who had had little or no experience of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic. Still in his teens, he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which seized power in After two terms, he transferred to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague where he first attended lectures in film direction and script writing. In , his studies were briefly interrupted by political interferences.
The new Tragedy of Central Europe
Jonathan Bousfield 7 April Jonathan Bousfield talks to three award-winning novelists who spent their formative years in a Central Europe that Milan Kundera once described as the kidnapped West. It transpires that small nations may still be the bearers of important truths. Milan Kundera, Photo: Elisa Cabot. What initially looked like a requiem, however, soon gained an altogether more optimistic sheen. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, the Soviet Bloc showed signs of opening its windows and then the multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan Central Europe eulogised so evocatively by Kundera was quickly re-spun as a symbol of what Europe could be again, rather than what had forever been left behind.