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The Puzzle of Central Europe

I’m delighted,” said Henry Kissinger, “to be here in Eastern, I mean Central Europe.” And for the rest of his talk he kept saying “Eastern, I mean Central Europe.” The place was Warsaw, the time, summer 1990, and this was the moment I knew Central Europe had triumphed.

For nearly forty years after 1945, the term was almost entirely absent from the political parlance of Europe. Hitler had poisoned it; the cold war division into East and West obliterated it. In the 1980s, it was revived by Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers such as Milan Kundera, György Konrád, and Czeslaw Milosz, as an intellectual and political alternative to the Soviet-dominated “Eastern Europe.” At that time, I wrote a sympathetic but also skeptical essay in these pages entitled “Does Central Europe Exist?”1

In the 1990s, Central Europe has become part of the regular political language. To mark the shift, both the US State Department and the British Foreign Office have Central European departments. Although people still privately say “Eastern Europe,” every young diplomat knows that one should refer to the entire postcommunist region as “Central and Eastern Europe,” a phrase so cumbersome it is often reduced to an abbreviation: CEE in English, MOE (Mittel- und Osteuropa) in German. Even Queen Elizabeth II has spoken of “Central Europe,” in the Queen’s Speech to the British Parliament. So it’s official. If the Queen and Henry Kissinger say it exists, it exists.

Just one problem remains: Where is it? “Central Europe,” wrote the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a newspaper article last year, “has more than 20 countries and 200 million people.”2 Yet we often find the term used to mean just the countries who are joining NATO this spring, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, or the “first wave” of post-communist states negotiating to join the EU: the same three, plus Estonia and Slovenia.

Such disagreement is nothing new. In an article published in 1954, the geographer Karl Sinnhuber examined sixteen definitions of Central Europe. The only part of Europe that none of them included was the Iberian peninsula. The only areas they all had in common were Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia.3 Tell me your Central Europe and I will tell you who you are.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the debate about who did or did not belong to Central Europe had real political significance. So it has today. For to be “Central European” in contemporary political usage means to be civilized, democratic, cooperative—and therefore to have a better chance of joining NATO and the EU. In fact, the argument threatens to become circular: NATO and the EU welcome “Central Europeans,” so “Central Europeans” are those whom NATO and the EU welcome.

The rival definitions are based on arguments from geography, history, culture, religion, economics, and politics. There are also major differences between how countries see themselves and how others see them. Since countries are not single people, and there are many “others,” one has to generalize dangerously from a whole kaleidoscope of national and individual views. I am mainly concerned here with the way the concept is deployed in what we still often call “the West,” meaning primarily policymakers and opinion-formers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and other members of NATO and the EU.

Since Central Europe is, by definition, somewhere in the center, every one of its boundaries is disputed: northern, western, southern, and eastern. By the same token, in delineating Central Europe we also delineate the other major geopolitical regions of Europe today.


Interestingly, and encouragingly, the boundary that was most hotly disputed at the beginning of the twentieth century is largely uncontroversial at its end: the western one. The idea of “Central Europe” exploded during the First World War as a furious argument between those, like the German liberal imperialist Friedrich Naumann, who envisaged a German- and Austrian-ruled Mitteleuropa, and those, like Tomáså? Garrigue Masaryk, the future president of Czechoslovakia, who were fighting for a Central Europe of small states liberated from German, Austrian, and Russian imperial domination. This argument between visions of Mitteleuropa on the one side and of Strå?ední Evropa or Europa Srodkowa on the other continued throughout the “second thirty years’ war” from 1914 to 1945. It culminated in the Austrian-German Adolf Hitler’s attempt to impose his own grotesque version of Mitteleuropa on Germany’s eastern neighbors.

So when the term was revived in the 1980s, there was understandable nervousness both among Germany’s neighbors and in Germany itself. Many German writers preferred to use the less historically loaded term Zentraleuropa. But recent years have been reassuring. After some discussion, the Masaryk of the 1990s, Václav Havel, invited President von Weizsäcker of Germany to attend regular meetings of “Central European presidents,” and the German president has done so ever since. Most German policymakers now accept that the reunited country is firmly in both Western Europe and Central Europe again. As Havel once put it to me, Germany is in Central Europe “with one leg.”

Of course, there have been tensions between Germany and its eastern neighbors—especially between Germany and the Czech Republic. And there will be more as the enlargement of the European Union slowly approaches, with Germans fearing that Poles and Czechs will take their jobs, and Poles and Czechs fearing that Germans will buy up their land. (The latter fears are especially pronounced in the formerly German western parts of Poland and in what used to be the Sudetenland, in the Czech Republic.) Yet no one could now argue that there is any fundamental political difference between what a mainstream German politician means by Mitteleuropa and what a Czech leader means by Strå?ední Evropa or a Pole by Europa Srodkowa. Increasingly, they are just different words for the same thing. This testifies to the wisdom of all sides, and it is one of the bright spots on the map of Europe at century’s end.

Meanwhile, the Austrians quietly pursue their own dream of Central Europe, by which they mean nothing more or less than the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Symbolically, Austria celebrated its first presidency of the European Union with a “Festival of Central European Culture.” More practically, flying Austrian Airlines is now the best way to get around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a new Central European air traffic control center will be located in Vienna. At the same time, Austrians are even more hostile than Germans to the idea of people from their former empire actually coming to live in their country and competing for their jobs.

For completeness, one should add the eastern parts of Italy that have very special ties with Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria—special ties consisting partly in the fact that Italy contains a small, still largely German-speaking piece of what used to be Austria (the South Tirol or Alto Adige) while Slovenia and Croatia have a little bit of what used to be Italy (eastern Friuli, the area around Trieste, and the Istrian peninsula). Some would also include Liechtenstein and German-speaking Switzerland, although the Swiss generally hold themselves above this kind of thing. In all these cases, the historical legacy is still being played out in a hundred intricate ties and tensions. As I write I have before me a purely hedonistic Guida alla Mitteleuropa, published in Florence in 1992, which maps an Italian “Mitteleuropa” from Milan via St. Moritz, Vaduz, and Bayreuth to Prague, then back through Vienna, Budapest, and Zagreb to Trieste, Venice, and Verona.

I find it useful to distinguish between West Central Europe—meaning mainly Germany, but also Austria and that corner of Italy—and East Central Europe. But when people say “Central Europe” in English, they usually mean just the latter. As Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic become Western-style capitalist democracies, join NATO, and (eventually) enter the EU, so the line between Central and Western Europe becomes increasingly blurred. Far from being dismayed, those who revived the term in the 1980s should be delighted by this merging.

The frontier that needs trouble us least is the northern one. In his anxiety to gather all the small nations under the flag, Masaryk included in his Central Europe everyone from Laplanders in the north to Greeks in the south. The region stretched, he implausibly suggested, from “the North Cape to Cape Matapan.” But Scandinavia has a quite distinct identity. To be sure, the Baltic states are an important borderline case. Lithuanians, in particular, will tell you their country belongs both to the Nordic or Baltic area and to Central Europe. Lithuania, they argue, is a bridge between the two. Since, however, Scandinavia is part of the Western capitalist democratic world, and the Baltic states are small, their in-between position is not of itself a political problem, although Russia’s objections to their membership in NATO and the status of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad will be.

The major political argument now is about the eastern and southern edges. As revived by Kundera and others, the idea of Central Europe was directed against the East (with a large E), and specifically against Russia. Central Europe, Kundera suggested, was the “kidnapped West.”4 Until 1945, it had participated fully in all the great cultural movements of the West, from Western Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to Expressionism and Cubism. But politically it was now imprisoned in the East. Out of a cultural canon he made a cannon—firing against the East. As Joseph Brodsky pointed out, this was quite unfair to Russian culture. But politically, it was justified and effective as an antidote to the even more misleading notion of a single “Eastern Europe.”

In the 1990s, the cultural ca(n)non has been directed against the south more than the east. The new democracies of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia set out early in the decade to pursue Central European cooperation, symbolized by their forming the “Visegrád group” in February 1991. They did this partly because they believed in the idea of Central Europe, which Havel and the new Hungarian president, Arpád Göncz, had preached in the 1980s, and wished to preclude any return to the petty nationalisms of the interwar years. But it was also because this tight little regional cooperation would win their countries favor in the West. Which it did.

They had little trouble distinguishing themselves from the new eastern (with a small e) Europe: Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia. More difficult was the south. Romania tried to join the group at an early stage. The door was firmly closed in its face. A good reason for this was that Romania was at that time an undemocratic mess. A less good reason was that Polish, Hungarian, and (then still) Czechoslovak leaders thought they had a better chance of entering or (as the Central European ideology prescribes) “rejoining” the West in a smaller, more homogeneous group. Which they did.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, October 9, 1986. The essay is reprinted in my The Uses of Adversity (new, revised edition, London: Penguin, forthcoming 1999).

  2. 2

    NATO Enlargement: Build a Europe Whole and Free,” International Herald Tribune, April 30, 1998.

  3. 3

    Karl A. Sinnhuber, “Central Europe—Mitteleuropa—Europe Centrale: An Analysis of a Geographical Term,” Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society (London: Institute of British Geographers, Transactions and Papers, 1954).

  4. 4

    Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” The New York Review, April 26, 1984. The version of this essay published in Granta, No. 11, 1984, bore Kundera’s own title, “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out.”

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