Culture: The fickle heart of Europe

"Central Europe has always been bathed in a nostalgia for the past." Reinhold Volkel's Café Griensteidl, Vienna (1896).
"Central Europe has always been bathed in a nostalgia for the past." Reinhold Volkel's Café Griensteidl, Vienna (1896).
Hospodářské Noviny (Prague)

How should we define Mitteleuropa? For Czech academic Jiri Travnicek, the region of Central Europe is characterised by an ever changing relationship with history, geography and culture. A Hospodářské noviny interview.

HN: Does Central Europe really exist?

JT: It depends on your point of view. If you apply a very strict reading based on history and geopolitics, it is not easy to pin down Central Europe. On the other hand, an approach from the vantage point of a more subtle reading, that is to say a cultural one, will likely yield better results. Central Europe is a markedly feral cultural species, which requires very careful handling. Attempts to identify it with borders, or an empire, or indeed a territory, inevitably lead to quarrels and hysteria. Culture, however, even in its most basic manifestations — and these include culinary culture — provides a more unifying perspective, that pulls things together and acts as a guide in the quest for common ground.

HN: So does Central Europe simply denote a cultural atmosphere, or can we also speak of specific Central European territory?

JT: Most people identify with a cultural atmosphere, but I believe that is not unreasonable to also speak of territory — in a temporal as well as a geographical sense if it is not to remain a wholly ethereal presence. I also think that we should define the scope of this territory: Munich in the west, Szczecin and Gdansk to the north, Vilnius in the east, and Novi Sad and Trieste in the south... And whereas Central Europe may exist independently of Germany, I don't think we can conceive of a Central Europe without Germans and to an even greater extent without the German language, which has always been culturally inseparable from it.

HN: How would you describe the particular mindset of the centre of Europe to a foreigner?

JT: I prefer to define it negatively. I would say that it differs from the mindset in Western Europe with its well established traditions, but also from Eastern Europe (mainly from Russia). You could say that it is situated somewhere between the order of Western civilisation and a more Asian influenced outlook that Metternich claimed emerges somewhere on the road that travels east from Vienna to Rennweg. I would also point out that the concept of Central Europe has survived all kinds of political upheavals, and I would add that it is intimately linked to an experience of exile. In the 1980s, exiled writers like Milan Kundera (born in Czechoslovakia and a resident of France since 1975), and Poland's Nobel prize winning poet and novelist Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who became an American citizen in 1961, made Central Europe and their opposition to the fact that it had become a province of the Soviet Union a major theme in their works. It was on this basis that they spoke of its "stolen history" and even identified it as a "kidnapped West."

In the 1990s, we were once again reunited with Europe, but to a certain extent, Central European identity has once again been excluded by this development, which is why the skeleton in the cupboard remains such a potent theme for us. You only have to consider the case of Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy and his novel Harmonia Caelestis, in which he speaks of his great admiration for his father. Shortly after the book was published, it emerged that his father had actively collaborated with the communist secret police, and the writer had to rework his story in a revised edition. In Central Europe, writers are advised to exercise caution in their choice of heroes, and to avoid publishing novels about people whose reputations can suddenly be exploded by evidence that emerges from communist-era archives.

HN: Listening to you, I have the impression that Central Europe is always characterised by its links to the history of a bygone era...

JT: That has always been more or less the case, at least since 1918. Central Europe has always been bathed in a nostalgia for the past, mainly for the Austro-Hungarian period, but also for the era before Yalta. We are either overcome by nostalgia when we think of the past, or caught up in daydreams about the future. Erhard Busek (an Austrian politician who is very involved on Central European and Balkan issues) argues that Central European consciousness is mainly defined by refusal of the status quo and a revolt against realpolitiks and in that sense, it is always something of deferred presence.

HN: Today we tend to employ the term "Central Europe" to emphasise an identity that is distinct from Eastern Europe. Do believe this is justified?

JT: Yes, but the distinction is not a modern invention. Post-1989, the term was used by Slovenians, and Croats, as well as the inhabitants of the province of Vojvodina (in Serbia) and some Serbs who wanted to highlight their "exit from the Balkans." I have also encountered a number of Belarusians who adhere to the notion of Central Europe as means of distancing themselves from Lukashenko. In that respect, it represents a desire to cut ties with a Big Brother to the east, and a second identity that opens new geographical and cultural perspectives...

Factual or translation error? Tell us.