The New Threat to History

The following lecture was given at the beginning of the academic year at the Central European University, which recently opened in Budapset.

It is an honor to be asked to open this academic year of the Central European University. It is also a curious sensation to do so, since, though I am a second-generation English-born British citizen, I am also a Central European. Indeed, as a Jew, I am a characteristic member of the Central European diaspora of peoples. My grandfather came to London from Warsaw. My mother was Viennese, and so is my wife, though she now speaks better Italian than German. My wife’s mother still spoke Hungarian as a little girl and her parents, at one stage of their lives in the old monarchy, had a store in Herzegovina. My wife and I once went to Mostar to trace it, in the days when there was still peace in that unhappy part of the Balkans. I have had some connections with Hungarian historians myself in the old days. So I come to you as an outsider who is also, in an oblique way, an insider. What can I say to you?

I want to say three things.

The first concerns Central and Eastern Europe. If you come from there, and I assume that almost all of you do, you are citizens of countries whose status is doubly uncertain. I am not claiming that uncertainty is a monopoly of Central and East Europeans. It is probably more universal today than ever. Nevertheless, your horizon is particularly cloudy. In my own lifetime every country in your part of Europe has been overrun by war, conquered, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied. Every state in it has a different shape from the one it had when I was born. Only six of the twenty-three states which now fill the map between Trieste and the Urals were in existence at the time of my birth, or would have been if they had not been occupied by some army: Russia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, for neither post-1918 Austria nor post-1918 Hungary is really comparable to Habsburg Hungary and Cisleithania. Several came into existence after World War I, others since 1989. They include several countries which had never in history had the status of independent state-hood in the modern sense, or which had it briefly—for a year or two, for a decade or two—and then lost it though some have since regained it: the three little Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, not to go further eastward. Some were born and died in my lifetime, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

It is perfectly common for the elderly inhabitant of some central European city to have had the identity documents of three successive states. A person of my age from Lemberg or Czernowitz has lived under four states, not counting wartime occupations; a man from Munkacs may well have lived under five, if we count the momentary autonomy of Podkarpatska …

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