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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.