Following the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire, Central Europe was for most of the 20th century one of the main sources of instability in Europe. The small states that emerged from the Hapsburg monarchy were not only too weak to serve as a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Germany; they also suffered various ills related to their lack of traditions of democratic culture. Nationalism ran rampant in most of these new states, reinforcing, in turn, the wave of militant nationalism that swept across Germany. For the Nazi regime, the small, powerless states of Central Europe represented an almost irresistible temptation to fill the power void in the center of the continent.
The Czechs, who after World War I found themselves in a common state with the Slovaks and more than three million ethnic Germans, were among those who suffered due to the weaknesses of the Central European successor states. Although Czechoslovakia turned out to be the most democratic of the newly created countries, its fate was sealed when an expansive totalitarian regime was established in Germany. Truncated after the Munich agreement in 1938 and occupied in 1939, Czechoslovakia proved to be a difficult concept to maintain in the unstable space between Germany and the Soviet Union. With Germany defeated in 1945, Czechoslovakia ultimately ended up under Soviet dominance.
The reason for this brief outline is to show that the European Union means much more to the Czechs and some other Central European countries than just an area of economic cooperation and solidarity. To Central Europeans, the EU is, indeed, an essential provider of stability and security that makes it possible for the small countries of Central Europe to build a sovereign and peaceful future without fear of turmoil. Conversely, including Central Europe in the EU and NATO are the best guarantees for Western democracies that the historically volatile region will not produce new instability. Even if the planned EU enlargement in the end proves to be economically more difficult than expected, it is still the best investment for current EU members into their own security.
Uniting a Common Space
The inclusion of Central European countries in the EU also has other, less tangible benefits. Before its disintegration into small nation states, Central Europe had been a unified area in which many different groups and cultures coexisted. Although this coexistence was not always entirely peaceful, overall the region produced its own specific brand of culture and gave the world leading intellectuals of the time. In fact, while the Hapsburg monarchy in its final stages was a crumbling, weak giant, it was at the same time an intellectual and cultural superpower. Names such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl, Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Jaroslav Hasek, Oskar Kokoschka, Josef Roth, and Leos Janacek are just very few examples of an amazing array of talents which the region managed to produce in a relatively short period of time.
Milan Kundera and many other Central European intellectuals of the late 20th century later bemoaned the loss of this unified cultural space that continued to exist after the demise of the Hapsburg Empire, to some extent, until the Nazis occupied Central Europe. At the same time, many of these intellectuals rightly pointed out that Central European culture was more than just a sum of cultural and intellectual products of various nations that shared a geographic region. The centuries-long interaction and blending of various cultures in the region gave rise to a common identity.
Not all the characteristics of what is considered to be the Central European identity are positive, however. The region, under the Hapsburgs, was a buffer zone not only between two great European powers but also between East and West. Its political culture was a mixture of Western traditions and Byzantine influences. Its political institutions were relatively weak. The Anglo-Saxon type of open democracy based on a civil society was an alien concept in Central Europe; a centralized, bureaucratic „Rechtsstaat“, with is many absurdities, described so ably by Franz Kafka, prevailed.
This is why many successor states to the Hapsburg Empire found it difficult to build functioning democracies. Czechoslovakia was a notable exception, partly because it was, to a greater degree than other parts of Central Europe, industrialized and urbanized when it emerged from the Austro-Hungarian state. Owing to historical circumstances, Czech society, in particular, was more plebeian as well as more middle class and, as such, perhaps more open to democratic procedures.
However, all Central European nations, regardless of their successes or failures in building democracies, inherited from the Hapsburg Empire a degree of provincialism, weak political institutions and bureaucratized systems of civil services. They were also saddled with weak political elites.
Central Europe is thus an interesting paradox. Its unique place in European history and geography, as well as its special blend of national cultures and religions, including a strong Jewish community, gave rise to a powerful culture and a plethora of impressive intellectual achievements. At the same time, the region that produced hundreds, if not thousands, of world-famous writers, musicians, philosophers and other intellectuals, gave the world, in comparison with the West, very few world-renowned politicians. Moreover, some Central European politicians, such as Adolf Hitler, rank among the 20th century’s greatest political monsters.
All Central European countries inherited strong cultural identities, combining their own national cultures and common Central European features, but, at the same time, weak democratic cultures and political institutions. As a result, even during relatively democratic periods of the last century, intellectuals and cultural figures often substituted for weak politicians in public discourse. This characteristic persists even today.
Central Europe as Europe
As unique as it has been, Central Europe has always been at the core of European culture and identity. Certainly, when seen from the outside, for example from the United States, European identity owes a great deal to Central Europe. Its cultural achievements are as important as, for example, Anglo-Saxon political traditions, French rationalism, Italian art, or German intellectual and industrial achievements.
The core values created by the European civilization, such as liberty, equality, solidarity and human rights, as well as the concept of rational discourse, reached Central Europe with some delay, but were eventually absorbed. The region has directly, or indirectly, participated in all major European intellectual revolutions of the last one thousand years-from renaissance to enlightenment to the scientific revolution. Moreover, Central Europe colored those ideas its own way and returned them enriched to the mainstream European thought.
The division of Europe under Communism was thus a most unnatural phenomenon. Although Communism itself was just one of the blind alleys of Western rationalism, the model that was practiced in the Soviet Union and its satellites was a blend of the Western idea of equality and industrial modernization taken to the extreme on the one hand, and of the Byzantine political traditions of Russia on the other.
Surprisingly, forty-something years of Communism left relatively little mark on what we could call the Central European identity. Thirteen years after the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, we can observe a forceful reemergence of old „Central European“ patterns of cultural and political behavior.
Until now, the reemergence of the Central European identity has been limited by the fact that what also emerged from the fall Communism were the relatively small states that came into existence in 1918. Some of them, such as Czechoslovakia, did not survive the fall of Communism in their original shape and disintegrated into even smaller units.
At the same time, however, those states were fortunate to emerge into what is from a geopolitical point of view a totally different environment than what existed before World War II. While the years 1918-1939 were not conducive both to the existence of small states in the center of Europe and the survival of democracy, today the new Central European democracies are surrounded by democratic states that have encouraged the growth of a market economy and democracy in the new states, without jeopardizing their independence.
This democratic encouragement and a relative international stability are totally new historical phenomena for the populations of small Central European nations. At the same time, it is clear that their own internal stability that might be threatened by the reemergence of some of the more negative political traditions of Central Europe depends to a large extent on them integrating into common European structures.
A New Central Europe?
The planned enlargement of the EU will recreate Central Europe as a common space without borders and administrative barriers. Most territories and cultures that constituted the Hapsburg Empire will again be under one roof. It is likely that this development will strengthen the Central European cultural identity. The renewal of a common political space may indeed function as a catalyst for a cultural and intellectual interaction that contributed so much to Europe one hundred years ago.
At the same time, it is clear that a new Central Europe will be based on much more modern political institutions that the Central Europe of the past. The benign influence of the EU has already greatly contributed to the modernization of institutions and political culture as well as to implementing a modern rule of law. From that point of view, Central Europe will never be the same. Some of the old Central Europe’s identity, after all, stemmed from its archaic political institutions and absurdities of a bureaucratic state-that, in turn, represented a challenge for creative minds.
Czechs in the EU
For most Czechs, the integration into the EU cannot be really separated from the integration of other Central European states. In fact, very early after the fall of Communism, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary established the Visegrad grouping, whose main purpose was to coordinate their steps on the way „back to Europe.“
At the same time, going „back to Europe“ has always been understood as an institutional and legal integration with the West, and not necessarily as a confirmation of the fact that Czechs and other Central European nations belong to Europe culturally. As the most westernmost nation in the post-communist world, the Czechs have never had doubts about their European identity. Most Czechs have also taken it for granted that once the country is rid of Communism, it will quickly reintegrate with the West.
In fact, some Czech politicians made the fact that the Czechs were after the fall of Communism economically more advanced and geopolitically more Western than their neighbors into an ideology of Czech superiority, which almost destroyed regional cooperation in the early 1990’s. However, cooperation was eventually restored, as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic realized that they share a common fate on the road „back to Europe.“
„Central Europe“ also became a desired denomination for some countries that historically were never part of the region. While the Visegrad grouping remained limited to the four above-mentioned countries, the Central European Initiative, for example, has grown to include 17 countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltics and Ukraine. It is, therefore, clear that while speaking of Central Europe one needs to distinguish carefully between Central Europe as a cultural phenomenon relying on a common past and Central Europe as a new political entity after the fall of Communism.
Regardless of how we define the region, it is already apparent that Central Europe will eventually become the most influential regional subgroup in the EU. No matter whether it includes only the countries that once, at least partly, belonged to the Hapsburg Empire, or also other states that today aspire to become Central European (because they do not want to be seen as East European), the political voice of Central Europe in the EU will be very strong.
The Czechs, just like the other Central European countries (with the possible exception of Poland that may have its own ambitions) realize that they can achieve their goals in the EU only if they rely on cooperation among all the small states in the region. They, just like Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia-can rely to some extent on the expertise and experience of Austria that managed to escape the Soviet orbit in the early 1950’s and has now been an EU member for several years.
The Past and the Future
To have a common destiny again, however, the Central European nations need not only to look into the future but also to deal seriously with their pasts. Each Central European nation has numerous skeletons in its closet. And some of those „skeletons“ directly affect relations with neighbors.
For the Czechs, for example, it will be necessary to address openly, and without prejudice, the issue of the Sudeten Germans-former citizens of Czechoslovakia, whose property was confiscated after World War II. Eventually, some three million-virtually all of them–were driven out of Czechoslovakia.
Most Czechs, including their political elite, are reluctant to admit that the expulsion constituted one of modern Europe’s biggest acts of ethnic cleansing, based on the principle of collective guilt. They find it difficult to come to terms with the notion that the expulsion of Sudeten Germans was a Stalinist act that greatly contributed to the victory of communism in the country.
The fact the expulsion was sanctioned by the victorious powers at a conference in Potsdam has been used by Czech politicians as an alibi. But this „alibi“ needs to be faced for what it is: Czechoslovakia was not ordered to expel its Germans; it was an act of free will.
The Austrians, Slovaks, and Hungarians, too, need to come to terms with their own historical failures in the period between the disintegration of their common empire and the end of the 20th century. If they fail to do so their renewed coexistence under a common roof may initially be rather acrimonious. Family feuds are always more emotional than feuds among strangers. Some current, cross-border disputes between, for example, the Czech Republic and Austria, are charged with high emotions partly because each of the two nations sees the other as an unpleasant mirror.
On the other hand, if the new common framework of the EU will force Central Europeans to face, among other things, also their past, and discuss it openly, Central Europe may become a region of very fruitful cooperation; a region whose strong identity may once again be a major contributor to European culture.
The Czechs can only benefit from such a development. The independent Czech Republic that was created, somewhat reluctantly, after the split of Czechoslovakia in January 1993, is culturally no match for what Czechoslovakia used to be. While politically stable, the country, whose territory was once a model of multiculturalism and a home to numerous ethnic groups, is now 99 percent ethnic Czech.
It can be argued that this has not been a good development for a nation whose greatest cultural and intellectual feats were achieved partly when the Czechs were part of a productive environment in which they had to confront other ethnic groups. It therefore seems that for the Czechs „a return to Europe“, through the reincarnation of Central Europe, is much more than just a political step. It is a step toward finding again their national identity, parts of which were amputated with the departure, or disappearance, of Germans, Jews, and finally Slovaks from the Czech lands.
Book – Desperately Seeking Europe, Chapter: Central Europe Returns to the Fold Alfred Herrhasen Society, Arechetype Publications, London – 2003