Wednesday, April 1, 2009



It is hard to determine when the term "Central Europe" first appeared, and who had invented it. This idea challenged the balance of power after World War Two and struck a chord with Central European intellectuals who felt betrayed by the political separation of West and East in Europe. The term started to be widely recognized after revolutionary events in former communist European countries. In 1989, simply dividing Europe into the West and East no longer made sense. In the summer of 1998, the Austrian Cultural Institute in London organized the Festival of Central European Culture. Organizers invited artists from Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Italy. But this is precisely where we face serious difficulties with the term "Central Europe". The question is whether these are the only countries that fit this term or whether others should be added? And if so, which ones?

Germany -- yes or not?
In 1997, the respected U.S. travel publishing house, Lonely Planet, published a book entitled Central Europe on a Shoestring covering the following countries: Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It seemed to perfectly fit the "traditional German concept of 'Mitteleuropa', relied on economic and geopolitical dominance" as described by Emil Brix in a special issue of edition Occasions entitled Central Europe, published for above-mentioned cultural event in London. Between the two World Wars, there had even been a tendency to characterize Germany as a holder of "Kultur" (culture) which ran counter to the Western tendency towards "Zivilisation" (civilization). But according to Milan Kundera (The New York Review of Books, 7/1984), Central Europe is "boxed in by the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other" where "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..."
Kundera's description automatically excluded Germany from the scale of the countries covered by the term "Central Europe" (not to mention his confusing remark about it as a 'the most fragile part of the West' -- in fact, he understands Central Europe as "the eastern border of the West"). But according to the precise reading of the above statement, it also excluded all German speaking countries. This point of view reduce the number of the countries from the nine mentioned by Lonely Planet to five. Another American publishing house, Welden Owen, published a book of pictures edited by Jan Morris and titled Over Europe. In the chapter, "The Central Europeans", only Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary are listed. Of course, this 1992 publication did not reflect the split of Czechoslovakia, but if the author had been aware of it, he probably would have known that the Czechs don't like to include themselves among "Central Europeans". They desperately want to be recognized as an integral part of Western Europe to the extent that in 90ties, their government has sabotaged most of the activities of the so-called, "Visegrad Four", the group of the countries accidentally also covered also by the previously-mentioned publication, Over Europe. So, from the purest point of view, does Central Europe only apply to three countries -- Poland, Slovakia and Hungary?

Who else -- yes, who else -- not?
In his essay, "The Central European Dream" (in E.Busek and G.Wilfinger /Eds./ Aufruch nach Mitteleuropa: Rekonstruktion eines versunkenen Kontinents, Vienna, 1986), György Konrád estimates the population of Central Europe to be between 100 to 200 million people. It is a very rough estimate, but certainly more than Poland, Slovakia and Hungary put together. So where do all of these Central Europeans live? In a publication already mentioned, Emil Brix tried to specify that Central Europeans live in "parts of Europe extending from Poland to Bosnia and Herzegovina and from Austria to the Ukraine". Thus, we now have two more candidates for the Central European club who were missing at the presentation of "Central European Culture" in London -- Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine. Brix is well aware of the eccentric position of the Ukraine when he wrote that "academics in the Western Ukraine are putting stress on Central Europe traditions, because this helps to overcome the lack of European contacts acting from Soviet past." And he suggested even more when he defended the position of Austria within Central Europe. "Because of the cultural traditions, Austria is a Central European country. The same holds true for the northern parts of Italy where the challenge and magic of borders is ever present," he wrote.

The Vilenica festival is a respectable annual literary award for Central European authors. Its Slovenian organizers included Italy as a matter of course. Furthermore, they included Germany in their scope, added all three Baltic states and currently pondering the question of whether Romania is a Central European country. Ultimately, the area we are dealing with ranges from just three up to not less than sixteen countries covered by one geopolitical and cultural term. Consequently it could include 55 million people or far more than 200 millions estimated by György Konrád. However, Milan Kundera was very well aware of the flexibility of the practical realization of "The Central European Dream" when he wrote: "Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation".

(to be continued)

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