Central European Identity in Politics

The „Central European identity in politics“ is a difficult topic to discuss for two reasons. First, the concept of Central Europe and, therefore, also the concept of a common identity, are somewhat elusive; second, while there are some positive traditions in Central Europe’s political history, there are also features that are problematic.

If we want to avoid the intricacies of defining Central Europe culturally, including the problematic notion of „Mittleeuropa,“ we may want to look at Central Europe in light of the planned enlargement of the European Union. In doing so, we can define Central Europe as currently consisting of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Traditions and cultures of those five countries are predominantly Western. With regard to religious traditions, all of them are rooted in Western types of Christianity-Catholicism or Protestantism. Each of them was for shorter or longer periods of time part of what could be described as „the German cultural, political, and geographical space.“

This area, unlike that occupied by some West European countries, did not have a strong tradition of political democracy before the new states of Central Europe came to existence in 1918. The Hapsburg Empire was in its last days a constitutional monarchy, where some elements of parliamentary democracy were at work, but, otherwise, the political culture of the Hapsburg state was not a model of tolerance and political transparency. In fact, the tradition of „Rechtstaat“, based on inflated bureaucratic institutions, is much more pronounced in the legacy of the Hapsburg state than traditions of political democracy.

It is also important to note that not all countries that today constitute the notion of Central Europe were entirely part of the Hapsburg monarchy. For example, Poland’s identity is not entirely Central European in that it is also a Baltic country, whose northern regions have natural ties with Scandinavia. Poland is also the only new prospective member that can be considered „a big country“, or a country aspiring to the status of a European power. Therefore, Poland is likely much more than other Central European countries to pursue its own „European agenda.“

Slovenia, although a very small country of only two million people, has three different identities that are going to play a role in its contributions to the EU. First, it is a Central European country with long historical ties to Austria and the German-speaking space in general. Second, some regions in Slovenia were in the past parts of Italy. Third, Slovenia is also partly a Balkan country-although the Slovenes do not like to be described as such.

Negative traditions

The entire Central European region has suffered, in the last 100 years at least, from much turmoil–which has resulted in a degree of instability of political and economic institutions. The region has also been fairly isolated from the mainstream of world politics. In the 19th century, this happened owing to the region’s association with the Hapsburg Empire that in itself was a rather provincial European power. In the second half of the 20th century the countries of Central Europe were under Soviet dominance. This has had a number of negative consequences that Central European countries are coping with still today.
1. The archaic political institutions that the countries of Central Europe inherited from the Hapsburg empire (and in the case of Poland also from Prussia), did not get many opportunities in the 20th century to modernize. Even in the interwar period, when the countries of Central Europe were on their own, they continued to suffer from a lack of both strong democratic institutions and strong democratic culture. At the same time, they suffered from cumbersome bureaucracies and a lack of effective governance. In some of those countries, such as Czechoslovakia, a democratic regime prevailed, in others it was quickly replaced by semi-authoritarian rule.

2. In all Central European countries, political elites were weak throughout the 20th century, as they did not have enough time to develop. For example, in Czechoslovakia political elites were replaced or altered in 1918, 1938, 1939, 1945, 1948, 1968-70, 1989, and 1992. As a result, the ability to govern effectively has been weakened to some extent.

3. There was a lack of reliance on transparent parliamentary mechanisms even during those periods when Central European countries were not under authoritarian rule. Many important decisions were reached through cabinet politics and behind-the-scenes deals. Even in Czechoslovakia, the country which was considered the best working democracy in the region, an extra-parliamentary institution called the Big Five (leaders of the five biggest parties) decided on the most important matters and the parliament just rubber-stamped those decisions.

4. A succession of authoritarian forms of government and semi-democratic regimes forced intellectuals throughout the region to substitute for politicians in political discourse. Intellectuals, cultural figures in particular, played a political role, directly or indirectly, that goes far beyond what is common in established democracies. This had both negative and positive effects.

5. The creation of both nation states and true national identities was delayed in the region in comparison with Western Europe. Nationalism and a tribal mentality have played a much stronger role in most Central European countries than in developed Western countries. Owing to the artificial freezing of the development of national identities under the communist regimes, nationalist sentiments continue to be stronger in some Central European countries than in the West even today.

6. The fact the Central European countries were isolated from the mainstream of world politics for a long time contributed to a degree provincialism that exists with varying intensities in all Central European countries.

7. The region that-if we apply Churchill’s remark about the Balkans to Central Europe-„has produced more history than it can digest,“ still has to reckon with so many historical injustices and traumas which make mutual communication sometimes difficult.

Positive legacy

The tragic political history, combined with a great cultural and intellectual legacy, has significantly strengthened the role of some segments of civil society in Central Europe. In fact, Central Europe suffers from a strange paradox. It has given the world many of its leading philosophers, artists, writers, musicians, and intellectual figures, but it has produced very few outstanding politicians in the last one hundred years.

Politicians coming from the region, whose names are instantly recognizable beyond Central Europe, are very few: Tomas. G. Masaryk, Bruno Kreisky, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa.

At the same time, intellectuals, who were during various periods of the 20th century forced to join the dissident ghettos or allowed to operate only semi-officially, made important contributions to political thinking. Owing to them, political democracy (and previously the fight for political democracy) is now inherently linked to the notion of civil society. In fact, it was the political philosophy of leading dissidents from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia which in a way revived in Western thinking the notion of civil society as an important basis of any democracy.
Another important legacy is the notion that democracy should not be taken for granted. In some ways, the value system supporting democracy in Central Europe is much less ambiguous and relativistic than in „tired“ Western societies.

Central Europe is also a region of multiple ethnic and cultural identities that, despite mutual conflicts, have had to learn how to coexist. The modern Slovak democracy is a good example of a democratic coexistence and cooperation between a majority nation and large ethnic minorities.

The region’s collectivist traditions have had both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, the spirit of egalitarianism makes it difficult to introduce some elements of a vigorous market economy. On the other hand, it also promotes solidarity, which has now become one of them most important features of modern European democracies.

Political philosophies

The Central European region does not have strong traditions of the liberal right. During the last period of the Hapsburg Empire and between the two world wars, the political right in various Central European countries was often populist, nationalistic, and at times semi-fascist. It emphasized more tribal paradigms than the liberal individualism common, for example, in Anglo-Saxon countries.
At the same time, the political left, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, was also not modeled on Western ideas of social democracy. Even leftist parties were often tainted with nationalism.

These traditions, it seems, are playing an important role in the creation of political party systems after the fall of communism. In all Central European countries, liberal parties quickly disappeared or become very small. In some cases, such as the Czech Republic or Hungary, they transformed themselves into traditional conservative/populist groupings exploring nationalist themes.

Paradoxically, the democratic left parties–which in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia were created form the former communist parties–have in some cases promoted market reforms and modernization along EU lines more vigorously than the right-of-center parties. This might have been partly caused by the fact that in the beginning the reemerging political right lacked the skills and management competency that people who had in the past been associated with the communist parties had been able to acquire. In some cases, however, it seems that the increasingly conservative ideology of right-of-center parties was at fault.

The Identity of Central Europe in Politics

Given all of the traditions discussed above, it is clear that the identity of Central Europe, and its contribution to pan-European politics, is a rather mixed bag. On the one hand, Central Europe can, once it has become part of it reinvigorate the EU. Central Europe’s notions of civil society and the importance of human rights can in some ways mitigate the relativist tendencies present in today’s Western democracies.

At the same time, Central Europe needs to overcome some of its less positive legacies, especially its weak political institutions, ineffective governance, and a degree of provincialism. Membership in the European Union is an excellent opportunity to modernize the region’s institutions and elevate political discourse to Western standards.

In some ways, Central Europe can also serve as a useful bridge between the West and the East, as it understands both cultures.

Conference on Central European Identity, Central European Foundation, Bratislava – 6. – 7. 11. 2002


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