Does Central Europe Exist?

The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe

by Václav Havel et al., introduction by Steven Lukes, edited by John Keane
Hutchinson (London), 228 pp., £16.95

The Anatomy of a Reticence

by Václav Havel
Charta 77 Foundation, Voices from Czechoslovakia, No. 1, (Stockholm)., 34 pp., $3.00 (paper)

Antipolitics: An Essay

by George Konrád, Translated from the Hungarian by Richard E. Allen
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 243 pp., $12.95

Letters from Prison and Other Essays

by Adam Michnik, translated by Maya Latynski, foreword by Czeslaw Milosz, introduction by Jonathan Schell
University of California Press, 345 pp., $25.00

Takie czasy…Rzecz o kompromisie

by Adam Michnik
Aneks (London), 140 pp., $7.50 (paper)

KOR: A History of the Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1976–1981

by Jan Józef Lipski, translated by Olga Amsterdamska, by Gene M. Moore
University of California Press, 561 pp., $39.95

Central Europe is back. For three decades after 1945 nobody spoke of Central Europe in the present tense: the thing was one with Nineveh and Tyre. In German-speaking lands, the very word “Mitteleuropa” seemed to have died with Adolf Hitler, surviving only as a ghostly “Mitropa” on the dining cars of the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Even in Austria, as ex-Chancellor Fred Sinowatz has remarked, “until ten years ago one was not permitted so much as to mention the word ‘Mitteleuropa.”’ In Prague and Budapest the idea of Central Europe continued to be cherished between consenting adults in private, but from the public sphere it vanished as completely as it had in “the West.” The post-Yalta order dictated a strict and single dichotomy. Western Europe implicitly accepted this dichotomy by subsuming under the label “Eastern Europe” all those parts of historic Central, East Central, and Southeastern Europe which after 1945 came under Soviet domination. The EEC completed the semantic trick by arrogating to itself the unqualified title, “Europe.”

In the last few years we have begun to talk again about Central Europe, and in the present tense. This new discussion originated not in Berlin or Vienna but in Prague and Budapest. The man who more than anyone else has given it currency in the West is a Czech, Milan Kundera. (See his now famous essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” in The New York Review, April 26, 1984.) Subsequently, the Germans and the Austrians have gingerly begun to rehabilitate, in their different ways, a concept that was once so much their own. The East German leader, Erich Honecker, talks of the danger of nuclear war in Mitteleuropa. The West German Social Democrat, Peter Glotz, says the Federal Republic is “a guarantee-power of the culture of Mitteleuropa“; whatever that means. And Kurt Waldheim’s Vienna recently hosted a symposium with the electrifying title “Heimat Mitteleuropa.” A backhanded tribute to the new actuality of the Central European idea comes even from the central organ of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Trybuna Ludu, which earlier this year published a splenetic attack on what it called “The Myth of ‘Central Europe.”’

There is a basic sense in which the term “Central Europe” (or “East Central Europe”) is obviously useful. If it merely reminds an American or British newspaper reader that East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest are not quite in the same position as Kiev or Vladivostok—that Siberia does not begin at Checkpoint Charlie—then it serves a good purpose. So also, if it suggests to American or British students that the academic study of this region could be more than footnotes to Sovietology. But of course the voices from Prague and Budapest that initiated this discussion mean something far larger and deeper when they talk of “Central Europe.”

The publication in English of the most important political essays of three outstanding writers, Václav Havel, George Konrád, and Adam Michnik, a Czech, a Hungarian, and a Pole, gives us a chance to examine the myth—and …

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