A Farewell to Central Europe by Gábor Csordás

Central Europe is not a state: it’s a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation. (Milan Kundera)

First we find a name for a new phenomenon and only after that do we start debating it or even reflecting about it. Doing it any other way would be impossible, since without words we cannot think.

Even though we keep using the term Central or Eastern-Central or Central-Eastern Europe with a meaning that is becoming more and more obscure and more and more symbolic by the day, as well as variable from occasion to occasion, the disintegration of the region and its being swallowed by other structures is marked by the appearance and ever growing use of two new terms. Both denote a group of countries within the concept of Central Europe and order them under new, common notions. When we talk about post-communist countries we mean the countries formerly called Central-European without Austria, combined with the countries formerly called Eastern-European without Russia. And when referring to the “Visegrád countries”, we mean the former Central Europe without Austria and the East-German territories.

The term “Visegrád countries” is political jargon for the fact that Milan Kundera was wrong when stating that this region obviously belongs to the West and was only forcefully annexed by the Soviet Union to its sphere of influence, and thereby made part of the East in the political sense. Kundera’s essay (“Un occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale”, Le Débat, 1983/5.) („A megrabolt Nyugat avagy Közép-Európa tragédiája” („The Abduction of the West or the Tragedy of Central Europe”), Hírmondó, 1984/6-7; „Un occident kidnappé oder die Tragödie Zentraleuropas”, Kommune, 1984/7.) made an impact first and foremost with its debate-provoking naiveté, which is also how he managed to move the notion of Central Europe into the focus of attention once more. He emphasised the Western features in the cultures of the region, while not linking regional specialties, like the superiority of culture above politics, to the Eastern features of social structures, like an underdeveloped civil society and civic public life or the remains of an order-based society etc.

The term “Visegrád countries”, which cuts off Austria and the Eastern territories of a now re-unified Germany, attest to the fact that since the 1990’s at the latest these two regions of Central Europe started going into two different directions. How are we to understand that?

According to a study by Jenő Szűcs („Vázlat Európa három történeti régiójáról”, in Bibó-emlékkönyv (A sketch about Europe’s three historical regions” in A Bibó-Memoir, 1980. ill./and in Történelmi Szemle, 1981/3; “Die drei historischen Regionen Europas”, Neue Kritik, 1990; Les trois Europes, L’Harmattan, 1985), in which he puts Europe in three historical regions based on long-term processes and structural characteristics – three years before Kundera – Central Europe is regarded not so much as a kind of hybrid of Eastern and Western features, rather as a sort of unstable balance between Eastern and Western structures and solutions held together by the dictates of external circumstance (http://unipub.lib.uni-corvinus.hu/1163/1/SE_2014n2_Zsinka.pdf ). A hybrid would require a stable, deep-set combination of heterogenous components, but the region consists of societies which show great variability in the light of historical changes, and sometimes set out toward the East, sometimes toward the West without ever being able to settle on one or the other of two stable models, for the components of the other are always present and render such a decision impossible. As one of the great thinkers of the region, Endre Ady put it, Hungary is a “ferry nation, ferry nation, ferry nation, which even in its most formidable dreams only runs between two shores, from East to West, but preferably backshore.” (“Ismeretlen Korvin-kódex margójára”, 1905, in English in Re-reading Frye, ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky, University of Toronto Press, 1999.)

Bearing this in mind we can understand how socialism, despite having destroyed the institutions of civil society, managed to paradoxically conserve its attitudes, thanks to the society-wide opposition, which – if in nothing else – manifested itself in the people’s refusal to regard the party state forced on them by a foreign power as their own. An important component of the developments after 1989 was that the opposition conserving the civil attitudes ceased without being replaced by a genuine civil autonomy.

In an environment based on feudal dependencies the special incubators of civil autonomy and civil liberties were historically the cities, whose autonomy in the Central-European region was more limited, offering less freedom and building a scarcer network according to Jenő Szűcs. The weak urbanisation in Austria and the East German territories was successfully balanced out by their joining a region where decision processes, albeit somewhat controversially, involve family and tenant communities throughout all layers of society; a method that became one of the main principles of the newly-born European Union, duly named “the principle of subsidiarity”. In the other countries the above deficit in urbanisation could and should have been balanced out by a radical prioritisation of self-government after the 1989 regime changes. A critical condition for that – beyond breaking down the powers of decision-making to the small entities mentioned above – would have been a distribution system which leaves the bulk of taxes with the local institutions and ideally allows but for the measure of redistribution necessary to iron out the regional differences. Apart from some initial, passing fervour this condition was never realised anywhere, instead the central distribution of meagre sources became the rule. Civil society found itself once again under the thumb of the state, while distribution mechanisms lacking proper control led to grand-scale corruption and the canceling of the market’s corrective role. Politics and economy became mostly based on a system of patronage. And by the time these countries joined the European Union it was too late: the grants coming from the EU funds which were supposed to serve structural changes were swallowed by the patronage system.

György Konrád’s essay “Does the Dream of Central Europe Still Exist?”, completed in 1985 (the amended version of his acceptance speech upon receiving the Herder Prize in 1984; in Európa köldökén (At Europe’s Navel), Magvető, 1990) regards the fact that, contrary to the alienation of Western societies, this region preserved some of the intimacy of the rustic past as one of its virtues (http://www.konradgyorgy.hu/eletrajz.php?lang=eng ). Sadly though, this only remained a virtue as long as the unstable balance of Eastern and Western characteristics prevailed. For as soon as the individual’s civil liberties stop allowing for a certain distance from his/her actual communities, as well as from the state representing the virtual national community, and as soon as keeping this distance is not dictated by the individual’s own interests, the aforementioned intimacy – the weak individual’s hanging onto the community – replaces a contractual relationship of equals with a personal dependence and leads once again to the strengthened influence of the state representing the virtual national community, thereby leading to an economic and political system of patronage and the corruption that inevitably comes with it.

Historical changes are cumulative in nature: their occurrence is contingent, but as soon as they occur they become an inevitable necessity, one that cannot be undone. The so-called Visegrád Group shows more and more Eastern characteristics, while its Western structural features and solutions are becoming more and more blurred and ghostlike. The lack of taking individual responsibility leads to a severe deficit in social solidarity; the individual hanging onto the intimacy of the collective can’t even vouch for him- or herself and can only imagine  his or her existence as a subject of the state; a continuously offended national sentiment combined with that of anti-modernisation creates paranoid and self-justifying ideologies; and the diversity of cultures is replaced by the culture of hatred. These changes join together, thereby reinforcing one another, all of which leads to so swift a drift toward the East the likes of which we have not seen in the history of these countries. Perhaps the Central Europe of Jenő Szűcs, Milan Kundera, György Konrád and Danilo Kiš will fade into the group of post-communist countries for good.

By Gábor Csordás

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 21 July 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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