PEN 2014: Central Europe, 1989 and Now

Economics Revolution


Central Europe is back again. Rather, the question concerning Central Europe is again in urgent need of an answer. Milan Kundera argued in his epochal 1984 essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” that “Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation.” If this is true, and Central Europe does not signify an objective geographical reality but instead represents a psychic space between East and West, then we must, in my opinion, now include Kyiv, traditionally an Eastern European city, along with Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw in our working list of Central European capitols. The sense of being squeezed between antagonistic great powers is, perhaps, the sine qua non of Central European consciousness, and we can safely say that feeling has descended upon Ukraine.


In that same essay, Kundera—a Czech, whose masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, brilliantly captured the personal and physical estrangement of the generation living in the aftermath of the crushed Prague Spring—calls Central Europe “the eastern border of the West.” Central Europe, if it exists, exits as a liminal space, culturally identifying with the West, but by virtue of language and ethnicity ceded to the Soviet Union the great divvying of territory following the Second World War. “This is why,” Kundera writes, “the countries in Central Europe feel that the change in their destiny that occurred after 1945 is not merely a political catastrophe: it is also an attack on their civilization. The deep meaning of their resistance is the struggle to preserve their identity—or, to put it another way, to preserve their Westernness.”


The Hungarian writer Geörgy Konrád called the results of the Yalta Conference a “great trick of history.” The post-Yalta worldview was one of strict dichotomies. Mitteleuropa was erased in the ideological and geopolitical struggle between East and West, Communism and Capitalism, and nobody even seemed to notice. It seemed natural, apparently, to the architects of the post-war order that the Slavic peoples should be united under Russian, or Soviet, leadership. But herein lies the dirty trick. According to the Czech author Karel Havlicek, writing in 1844, "The Russians like to label everything Russian as Slavic, so that later they can label everything Slavic as Russian."


When Timothy Garton Ash wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in 1986 entitled “Does Central Europe Exist?,” he anticipated that the English-language publications of political essays by Konrád, Vaclav Havel, and Adam Michnik—a Hungarian, Czech, and Pole, respectively—would give us the long-delayed opportunity to assess the being or non-being of Central Europe. At the time, Garton Ash suggested that “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.” His question regarding a common Central European ground received a resounding answer in the events of 1989, when the disparate peoples of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and East Germany emerged from the erasure of 1945’s dirty trick.


The marking of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this historical moment was something of a historical moment itself, when on Saturday, May 3rd Konrád and Michnick were joined by the Dutch journalist Geert Mak, and the Polish sociologist Elzbieta Matynia for a roundtable discussion moderated by Garton Ash (perhaps only the untimely death of Havel in 2011 prevented his attendance, which would have made this a truly momentous occasion). “Broken Dreams” was the title of the talk at the PEN World Voices Festival; certainly appropriate with events in Ukraine unfolding toward a seemingly inevitable, tragic conclusion. Indeed, Russian intervention in Ukraine seems to herald the end of the post-1989 geopolitical order. Equally, however, what we are witnessing is the reemergence of Central Europe, which, following integration into the European community had once again seemed to disappear.


Kundera, in 1984, asked what Europe meant to a Hungarian, a Czech, or a Pole, struggling under Communist regimes. Twenty-five years after 1989, the question of the meaning of Europe vis-à-vis Central Europe once again must be asked. What does Europe means to a resident of Kyiv, or Donetsk? What is the meaning of Europe to a Latvian, or a Moldovan? What is the meaning of Europe in Berlin? Germany, the leading actor in the European Union experiment, is after all a Central European country. Overall, what we have witnessed in the twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain is a remarkable opening of political and economic frontiers across the European continent. What we have witnessed in the five or so years since the global financial crisis, however, is the reestablishment of a new curtain, velvet, perhaps, rather than iron, but marking two worlds nonetheless. The European response to the crisis in Ukraine, as well as it ability to fully integrate the European south, will determine the culture and fate of Central Europe in the twenty-first century.


How can we not hear, echoing through the years, the cry of the director of the Hungarian News Agency, just prior to a Soviet artillery attack in 1956: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” Kundera noted the double-sense of the statement. The man would die for Hungary, and for Europe, so that Hungary may remain Hungary, and European. He was dying for his country, and for an idea. I don’t think it can be disputed that the hundreds of thousands who filled the Maidan in November and December of 2013—struggling against the cold and police violence—were animated by a similar motivation. In 1956, the Soviets mercilessly crushed the Hungarian uprising. How will Europe respond now to the Ukrainians dying for their country, and for Europe? The question of Central Europe is the question of Europe, and it remains to be answered.



Follow all of The Mantle's 2014 World Voices Festival coverage here.



Communism, Europe, European Union, PEN 2014, Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine