Central Europe: Utopia or reality?

31 August 2004
Only in en

How long has it been since we read Kundera’s essay on the tragedy of Central Europe in the American (!) journal The New York Review of Books and had the feeling that something was said which had been on the tip of our tongue for a long time? Then, in the middle of the eighties, it suddenly seemed that the truths of our lives were no longer ideologies and
the closed claustrophobic spaces of national states but something wider,
deeper and older. Without being aware when, we found ourselves in the “comedy club”, as it was called by the late Slovene writer Marjan Rozanc. “Comic”: because it contained a nostalgia for something which was outlived and
which existed at the beginning of the century, an elusive and
undetermined something which has been searched for throughout from the
Baroque to the Fin de Siecle, from the literature of Musil, Roth, Kafka,
Hasek, Krleza, from Cankar to Kundera, Konrad, Esterhazy and Magas;
comic, because the truth about Central Europe has always been
something vague, a strange Utopia which looked back and forth at the
same time.

But it was a Utopia. We felt that we were reaching beyond
unreasonable ideological schisms, beyond national borders and state
jurisdictions, and things were discussed freely in this comedy club,
discussions which ignored people with their eyes bloodstained by ideological and national hatred. Diversity, pluralism of ideologies, fragmentation, small nations,
several languages spoken; all this cultural Babylon, which in half a
century experienced bloody turmoil, the break up of states, changes of
borders, the rise of ideological eschatology, majestic visions and tremendous disappointments, was the origin of a Utopia without which, as
the Hungarian Konrad wrote, a man becomes stupid and loathsome. Without
Central Europe, he wrote, all of our bigger cities develop into end
stations, border- or perhaps even front-line cities. Many years ago, Peter
Handke, tired of our daydreaming and debates, informed us that for him
Central Europe was a question of weather; a simple meteorological
notion. In an essay I agreed with this important statement, but I allowed
myself to add that while it’s nice to look at the sky and the clouds floating in
it, it’s also good to look under your feet, at least for as
long as this Central Europe is strewn with mine fields, fenced in by
wires and Berlin Walls. It is also good to look around oneself, since
just at that time the border guards of the Yugoslav People’s Army
shot down a Czech family on the Mura river when they were swimming across
from one country to another. From the “meteorological” point of view we
would say: Why in God’s name? Why did they have to swim where there was
shooting? I proposed that – if no-one else – we who like looking at the clouds should invent something which would be equal to meteorological
science. Perhaps a language spoken up there such as and other
names of celestial travellers; in short, a language which would create a possibility
for the ideas, people and goods of Central Europe to circulate in the same
way as the air, wind and clouds above it.

Utopias, I wrote then, have this strange characteristic: they like
to come true. And this one has come true earlier than anyone among us
expected. The walls have fallen, the wires have disappeared: a piece of
the Berlin Wall brought to me by my daughter got put on my shelf alongside a piece
of wire from the Hungarian-Austrian border given me by my
Hungarian translator. The people who died under shots on these
borders are no longer remembered by anyone, life goes on; dust covered
that Berlin stone and that piece of Hungarian wire in the Ljubljana
apartment of this writer, until he stored them in a cardboard box. A grandiose
idea, which had been living in the western part of the continent, has spread with
the speed of light beyond the invisible borders: Europe. Our talk about that Central Europe became even more obsolete than before. It seemed we were advocating a really conservative idea. But the European idea
is not something which first floated to the surface today. In the thirties,
the Paneuropean ideal was very strong. (For an idea of how it worked in literature, see Ödön von Horvath’s The Eternal Philistine.) And this idea, of course modernised, is today awakened with all its force and
is on its triumphant journey. Nothing can stop it now.

We don’t know what will come of all this. We shall see. It is at least clear to eastern
Paneuropeans that Europe will not solve all their problems in the way
that communism promised. Each country will have to make its own
effort to help itself. This is a bitter but useful lesson. Here, people are
inclined to solve problems which are beyond them; we can therefore
expect they will refer to “all solutions” brought by
“Europe”. Each evening somebody thrusts European wisdom at us from the television. But this is nothing new. “The wings of stupidity” hover above Horvath’s Paneuropeans, Kobler and Schmitz; new Paneuropeans, sit in today’s Paneuropean homes and gape at the box which, in a bluish
light, generates a terrible jumble of phrases and the magical babble of an
inhuman language, and which solves issues in a simple and direct
manner: the economy will flourish, standards will be set up, the poor will
be rich, the rich will be even richer. The national question, the social
question, women’s issues… for Paneuropeans everything is settled, and in the
worst case US troops will be sent to the Balkans. Everyone can calculate
as Mr Schmitz did in The Eternal Philistine: there will be no war between
European countries, since today it costs less to take advantage of a
country in a peaceful way. Eastern Europeans understand that. Those who
even yesterday daydreamed of Central Europe and thought of Viennese
operettas today call from the bottom of their hearts: buy us, take
advantage of, just don’t leave us out of Europe.

Don’t worry, responds the modem Mr Schmitz. We’ll just wait a little longer. Fortunately it’s too late for the melting pot for which our modern Europeans long in order to trade more easily, but it’s never late for the wings of stupidity. In none of the systems we’ve seen, and in none of today’s or the European future.

These comments should not be understood as opposition to European integration. Yes, I would like to see our country as part of European
Integration, not least in order to overcome the totalitarian past at least in the
field of the media and political life, and to start living normally. But now
that the daydreaming is over and we face practical challenges, new
questions have arisen:

For example: Does the emergence of a new and united Europe mean the birth of the spirit of philosophy or of the spirit of the economy? Aristotle and Plato or Schröder (or better Kohl) and Chirac? If the new Europe is only a product of the economy and the Brussels administration, won’t its labyrinths at the start of this century be the realisation of Kafka’s labyrinths at the start of the last?

Or: If the new Europe is bom as the answer to the United States,
does this mean that its ties – except the economy, except a common area
of free trade – will only be a popular culture with the lowest possible
common denominator? Is the populism of pragmatic European policy at
all ready to listen to the voice of a creative and intellectual elite?

And: Does the end of the twentieth century in Europe – with the end of the
ideologies, big social and moral eschatological plans for our earthly
existence – also mean the end of utopias? What is the result of the centuries
of hope which ended with gulags and concentration camps? Does it
suffice to know that we must not repeat this story? Are we ready to
renounce any utopia because of this?

Also: What happened to the Europe which was born of the so-called
socialism? Two kinds of Europe will exist for a long time. A fracture of
the fifty years of socialism in the East divided the continent. Without the
experience of Eastern Europe, the western part of the continent cannot
understand the continent as a whole. It is true that people in the East
exchanged one utopia for the other, the socialist for the European. But within
more or less totalitarian systems, critical intellectuals from the eastern
part of Central Europe developed a special feeling for those criteria, from
Antiquity, Christianity and the Enlightenment, which make Europe
more an area of common economy and laws, rather than an area of
common self-awareness with all the blind searching and tragic experience
of history. They also developed a sceptical thinking hardly
known in the West. In short, is the East really only a desert of thought
and creation? Is there no experience and idea in the East that could be and
needs to be part of the understanding of integration?

Last but not least: What happens to the margins of Europe,
small nations and their cultures, which originated from common
European spiritual roots and also had a specific cultural development?
Should we integrate them and let them be absorbed in the flow
towards the centre? Isn’t babbling about the identity of small nations,
their languages and cultures merely an “ecological” question, while their
meaning will be lost sooner or later?

These are the questions which were not been posed in the Comedy Club during our daydreaming about Central Europe, while
utopias were being created. Our “Central Europe” was a floating idea, a blend of literary fictions, artistic projections and vague social concepts. Today I would
put the question more realistically. I’d ask whether today’s Germans
or French know that a community such as that of which they speak today has already existed to a certain extent in miniature. Has anyone thought about learning from its experience? People here once co-existed in cultural diversity and
economic and legislative equality. Central Europe was indeed a model for
what Euro bureaucracy creates today. It seems today as if all the important
currents of the twentieth century were conceived at its beginning. And
today we can see how those different “liberating” ideas prepared
themselves for its devastating and lethal march.

Despite this, today, in 2003, we have to say loudly and clearly that the idea of Central Europe was not an ideology. It can therefore not experience a decline or even the collapse to which all ideologies promising the best of all possible worlds were doomed. “Central Europe” was a debate arising from historical, cultural and geographical facts. These facts are here and are here to stay.

Central Europe represents a two-fold experience: the co-existence of different
cultures and individuals, potent creativity and tolerance as well as
national and social hatred, harmful intolerance and violence.
To live with such an experience, with this two-fold experience, to
really be part of it, means to understand many things, means to be
prepared for the good and bad surprises awaiting us in Paneuropean
integration. Central Europe means understanding the world and life and in
its contradictions
. Therefore the utopia with which we lived in the
eighties is not something about which we could now say: Once upon a
It’s still here… at least as long as we are alive.

Published 31 August 2004

Original in Slovenian
Translation by Drago Jancar
First published in Orient Express

© Drago Jancar / Orient Express / Eurozine