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Britain: Intellectuals Investigate The Concept of Central Europe

London, 23 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Intellectuals from both sides of Europe met in London this week for a discussion on the theme "Central Europe Revisited" -- an opportunity to look back at how this region won its liberty from the former Soviet Union.

The seminar featured Adam Michnik from Poland and Gyorgy Konrad from Hungary who helped set the intellectual and moral agenda for the events leading up to the 1989 fall of communism.

Also taking part were the British writer Timothy Garton Ash, author of many articles and books on Central Europe, and the Czech/French writer Jacques Rupnik, author of "The Other Europe."

The debate focused on the theme of the Rupnik book: How in the early 1980s, from Prague to Budapest, Cracow to Zagreb, people began to assert their Central European identity in opposition both to Soviet domination and the arbitrary post-war partition of Europe.

"Central Europe" is an elusive term, implying a geographical space, a political concept, a cultural experience, even a shared historical fate. But one thing is sure: It has only recently entered the lexicon of political debate.

The term was first commonly used in the early 1980s by Konrad, Havel, Kundera and other intellectuals as a way of protesting that their countries had been forced into the Soviet orbit, that the east-west separation of Europe was not legitimate.

What Konrad called the new "Central European ideology" was later triumphant in the "Velvet Revolutions" that swept through East Central Europe in 1989. Garton Ash says the term, Central Europe, that once would have been dismissed as "the cafe chatter of dissident intellectuals", was picked up by western statesmen:

"The moment I knew that the term had triumphed was when I heard Henry Kissinger speaking in Warsaw in 1990. And Kissinger said, I'm so glad to be here in Eastern -- I mean, Central Europe. And for a whole hour, he kept saying 'here in Eastern, I mean, Central Europe'. And one knew that the term had triumphed. The State Department uses it. The Foreign Office, every 'bien pensant' western politician, uses it. Even the Queen (of England) uses it."

Garton Ash says there is still a lot of disagreement as to what the term, Central Europe, actually means. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote of Central Europe having more than 20 countries with 200 million people. Others use the term to denote the Visegrad Three (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic). But is Germany a member of the "club"? Lithuania? Slovakia? One definition of Central Europe, a post-Hapsburg definition, includes the countries that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Garton Ash says it is hard to define the borders of "Central Europe". The most problematic frontier is to the south.

"What's gone wrong is that the cultural canon (law) of Central Europe, if you'll excuse the pun, which was constructed and directed east against the Soviet Union, has, since 1989, been turned south, and directed against the south. Romania applied to join the Visegrad Group, but it was told in no uncertain terms, 'No thank-you, you're not Central European. You might slow down our progress to the West'. As for the former Yugoslavia, the great dichotomy is: Central Europe bathed in light, the Balkans in darkness."

Garton Ash says a kind of "cultural determinism' has emerged which holds that if countries experienced western Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Hapsburg empire, they are "predestined for democracy." But if they experienced Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Ottoman Empire, they were "doomed to dictatorship." He said many decision-makers in the west regard "Balkan democracy" as "somehow a contradiction in terms." But this kind of thinking is a "dangerous abuse of the term, Central Europe."

Garton Ash says the concept of Central Europe, has been "crudely effective" in ensuring that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary (and Estonia and Slovenia) are first in line for EU membership. It is a way of saying to the west European countries that they need not worry about admitting "an unmanageable swathe of 20" countries, but can "assuage their conscience" for not doing enough after 1989 by limiting membership to just a few Central European democracies.

Garton Ash said this culturally deterministic approach is unfair to the Balkan countries. It would be preferable to judge countries on criteria such as their respect for democracy and human rights, rather than on membership of the Central European "club."

"Adolf Hitler was a Central European. And so I wonder if actually it isn't better to say precisely what we mean, to say democracy, human rights, minority rights, tolerance, rather than to wrap them up into these attractive, seductive but also elusive terms, Central Europe, or even Europe itself. Of course, Central Europe exists but I do worry about this particular use, or abuse, of the term. And in sounding that skeptical note, I hope I am being true to the original spirit of the intellectual Central European debate of Konrad, Michnik and Havel. Because one of the great things they instituted was what Havel called "living in truth", or Konrad called "the politics of truth" against the state that lived by organized lying, but also against more subtle kinds of half-truths."