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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 the reality. Of course it would be absurd to claim that any one writer is “representative” of his nation, and anyway, Havel, Michnik, and Konrád are different kinds of writer working in quite dissimilar conditions.

Havel comes closest to general recognition as something like an intellectual spokesman for independent Czech intellectuals, although there is a great diversity of views even within Charta 77) as we can see from the other Chartist essays collected under Havel’s title The Power of the Powerless). His “political” essays are rich, poetic, philosophical meditations, searching for the deeper meaning of experience, “digging out words with their roots” as Karl Kraus once put it, but rarely deigning to examine the political surface of things. (He nowhere so much as mentions the name of any of the present communist rulers of Czechoslovakia. Magnificent contempt!) He shows a great consistency, from his seminal essay “The Power of the Powerless,” written in the autumn of 1978, through his 1984 address on being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Toulouse, to his open letter to Western peace movements, published in 1985 as The Anatomy of a Reticence. You hear in his writing the silence of a country cottage or a prison cell—for his part in the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) he was himself unjustly prosecuted and imprisoned from 1979 to 1983—the quiet voice of a man who has had a long time for solitary reflection, a playwright catapulted by circumstances and the dictates of conscience into the role of “dissident,” but not at all by temperament a political activist. Yet his contempt for politics is also more generally characteristic of Czechoslovakia, where most people find it hard to believe that anything of importance will ever again change on the immobile, frozen surface of Husák’s geriatric “normalized” regime.

Michnik, by contrast, has seen the earth shake in Poland. Though a historian by training, he has spent most of his adult life actively engaged in political opposition. A central figure in the Social Self-Defense-KOR and then an adviser to Solidarity, he, unlike Havel or Konrád, writes with the knowledge that he will be read for immediate political advice. Activists of underground Solidarity, students involved in samizdat publishing, look to him (among others) for practical answers to the question, “What is to be done?” This gives a sharper political focus to his work, but also makes it more controversial.

Like Havel, he is a hero to many of his compatriots. Unlike Havel, his views are fiercely contested. The KOR tradition, of which he is perhaps the most articulate spokesman (and certainly the most lucid essayist), now vies for popularity in Poland with views that may be characterized, with varying degrees of inaccuracy, as Catholic positivist (in the very special Polish usage of that term), Catholic nationalist, liberal, libertarian, or even neoconservative. Astonishingly, the greatest part of his work has been written in prison and smuggled out under the noses of General Jaruzelski’s jailers. (Besides almost three hundred pages of political essays, including Rzecz o kompromisie [“These times…On Compromise”], he has also produced a 285-page book of literary essays.) His style is often polemical, full of rasping irony—the rasp of an iron file cutting at prison bars—but modulated by a fine sense of moral responsibility and a keen political intelligence. Like Havel, he also displays a great consistency in his political thought, from his seminal 1976 essay “The New Evolutionism” to his 1985 “Letter from the Gdansk Prison” (first published in English in The New York Review1 ) and his most recent long essay “…On Compromise” which has so far appeared only in Polish.

Konrád is different again. He is writing not in and out of prison but in and out of Vienna or West Berlin. We hear in the background of his long excursive disquisitions not the slamming of prison doors but the clink of coffee cups in the Café Landtmann, or the comradely hum of a peace movement seminar. In his book Antipolitics (German subtitle: Mitteleuropäische Meditationen) and subsequent articles, Konrád, a distinguished novelist and sociologist, has developed what I might call a late Jugendstil literary style: colorful, profuse, expansive, and ornate. Antipolitics is a Sammelsurium, an omnium gatherum of ideas that are picked up one after the other, briefly toyed with, reformulated, then abandoned in favor of other, prettier, younger (but alas, contradictory) ideas, only to be taken up again, petted, and restated once more a few pages later. This makes Konrád’s essayistic work both stimulating infuriating. Contrary to a widespread impression in the West, one finds few people in Budapest who consider that Konrád is a “representative” figure even in the limited way that Havel and Michnik are. On the other hand, they find it difficult to point to anyone else who has covered half as much intellectual ground, in a more “representative” fashion.

So Havel, Michnik, and Konrád are very different writers, differently placed even in their own countries, neither fully “representative” nor exact counterparts. Yet all three are particularly well attuned to the questions a Western reader is likely to raise, and concerned to answer them. And all three are equally committed to the dialogue between their countries. Havel’s The Power of the Powerless was written specifically as the start of a projected dialogue between Charta 77 and KOR. In discussing the richness of Polish samizdat Michnik singles out the work of “the extremely popular Václav Havel,” and both Havel and the Hungarian Miklós Haraszti have appeared alongside Michnik on the masthead of the Polish independent quarterly Krytyka. Konrád refers constantly to Czech and Polish experience, and in one striking passage he apostrophizes a Pole identified only as “Adam”—but the “Adam” is clearly Michnik. So if there really is some common “Central European” ground, we can reasonably expect to discover it in the political essays of these three authors. If we do not find it here, it probably does not exist.

In the work of Havel and Konrád there is an interesting semantic division of labor. Both authors use the terms “Eastern Europe” or “East European” when the context is neutral or negative; when they write “Central” or “East Central,” the statement is invariably positive, affirmative, or downright sentimental. In his Antipolitics, Konrád writes of “a new Central European identity,” “the consciousness of Central Europe,” a “Central European strategy.” “The demand for self-government,” he suggests, “is the organizing focus of the new Central European ideology.” “A certain distinctive Central European skepticism,” Havel comments in The Anatomy of a Reticence,

is inescapably a part of the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon that is Central Europe…. That skepticism has little in common with, say, English skepticism. It is generally rather strange, a bit mysterious, a bit nostalgic, often tragic and even at times heroic.

Later in the same essay he talks of “a Central European mind, skeptical, sober, anti-utopian, understated”—in short, everything we think of as quintessentially English. Or Konrád again:

It was East Central Europe’s historical misfortune that it was unable to become independent after the collapse of the Eastern, Tartar-Turkish hegemony and later the German-Austrian hegemony of the West, and that it once again came under Eastern hegemony, this time of the Soviet Russian type. This is what prevents our area from exercising the Western option taken out a thousand years ago, even though that represents our profoundest historical inclinations.

(my italics)

In this last passage, history has indeed been recast as myth. And the mythopoeic tendency—the inclination to attribute to the Central European past what you hope will characterize the Central European future, the confusion of what should be with what was—is rather typical of the new Central Europeanism. We are to understand that what was truly “Central European” was always Western, rational, humanistic, democratic, skeptical, and tolerant. The rest was “East European,” Russian, or possibly German. Central Europe takes all the “Dichter und Denker,” Eastern Europe is left with the “Richter und Henker.”

  1. 1

    July 18, 1985, pp. 42–48.

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