by Gaither Stewart
27 February 2010
La Repubblica in Rome quoted the Russian Chief of Staff General Nikolay Makarov that the US missile shield scheduled for installation in East Europe is blocking the signing by Presidents Obama and Medvedev of a new START agreement (strategic arms reduction treaty) between the USA and Russia.
(Rome) What is the significance today of Central Europe which still retains residues of the era when it was known by its former German designation, Mitteleuropa? Just who are the peoples and nations of the great swath of Central Europe that in the West was called “East Europe” during the Cold War, the cradle of much of our common culture, but also the part of Europe nearer Russia where the US war machine supports anti-Russian governments and where pressures continue to install what remains of Reagan’s Star Wars fantasies in the form of spatial antimissile shields?
Since history does sometimes repeat itself, I propose taking a new look at this part of the Old World, in a sense a world in itself, where today one hears loud and clear multiple echoes of the past and one witnesses historical repetitions, as the USA puts the whole area in its sights. This is the part of Europe where less than a century ago the USA and its allies intervened to encircle revolutionary Russia, thwart the Revolution and circumscribe the very idea of Socialism that Russia dared propose to the world. Yesterday it was economic embargoes and military intervention. Today American missile shields, military bases and anti-Russian regimes again threaten Russia. It is the same old story: occupation of Central Europe, as if it were a vacuum, a nullity, an empty space deprived of its own historico-cultural time and place. The ignorance of history is indeed a dangerous lacuna in international politics.
After Germany’s defeat in World War II and the forty years later collapse of Socialist East Europe, West Europeans were surprised to learn that the culture and significance of the Old World area between Germany and Russia had survived. Like a Phoenix the area once called Mitteleuropa because it was a largely German cultural-economic zone of influence—despite all its particularisms—was reborn, bringing with it the ghosts of former ethnicities but also the character of a people for whom culture is fundamental. The European cultural idea. After travel in that large part of Europe during the Cold War, I came to like the romantic sound of the German translation of Central Europe to describe that Soviet-dominated part of Europe which the West insisted on labeling “East Europe” to differentiate it from “democratic West Europe”. I have used here the terms Mitteleuropa and Central Europe interchangeably.
PRIOR TO WORLD WAR I and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, “Mitteleuropa” was the area’s most descriptive designation. Parts of Central Europe today are well on their way to becoming American Protectorates and again an anti-Russian buffer zone. For despite the wishes of many Central Europeans themselves and America’s apparent ignorance of history to the contrary, old Mitteleuropa is again present, in many respects still what it always was.
Geographically there exists a big and a little Mitteleuropa. Its confines are imprecise and subjective. In its broadest sense, Mitteleuropa comprises the sweep of lands from the Baltic Sea to a little south of the Alps and from Germany, Austria and Italy in the West to Russia in the East and the Black Sea, Greece and Turkey in the southeast. Under Austro-Hungarian domination Mitteleuropa included also Germany and reached as far east as western Byelorussia, Ukraine (especially Galicia), Lithuania and in the South to northeast Italy, Slovenia and Croatia and in the Southeast to Romania and Serbia. Under Russian domination it included all the Communist Peoples’ Republics which for the West was “East Europe.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the economic collapse of USSR, the old name, Mitteleuropa, reappeared, especially in reference to a more restricted Mitteleuropa consisting of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, western Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria.
The word, Mitteleuropa, as well as the term and concept, were German inventions. The word’s meaning may be interpreted politically, culturally, historically and geographically. Though Germany too was part of that geographical area corresponding to contemporary Central Europe, today Mitteleuropa and its ideological concepts are at the same time near to and distant from Germany and Berlin. After the geo-political watershed of 1989, old Mitteleuropa, also geographically at the doors of Trieste, Munich and Vienna, magically re-emerged—good, bad and ugly—from the Socialist experience, merging more and more with the West, entering not only trade agreements but also joining NATO and the European Union, and above all military accords with the USA with anti-Russian overtones. Some West Europeans now wonder just what kind of Mitteleuropa it is that is joining the European Union.
Over a decade ago I did a newspaper reportage on Mitteleuropa. I started my tour from Trieste at the southern gates of Central Europe. Trieste, the frontier city where novelist Italo Svevo and the poet Umberto Sava used to write in the famous Caffé San Marco, a tradition continued today by writer-journalist Claudio Magris. As in the 1800s, the atmosphere of that Mitteleuropa café is again marked by gypsy violins and Viennese waltzes, poetry readings and Sachertorte, fin de siècle lamps, chess players, and Italian, German and Slavic languages, underlining a cultural unity that has survived time and events in Central Europe.
In his monumental book, Danube, the Germanist Magris depicts Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Ulm as the victory of modern Europe over former Hapsburg-Danubian Europe, the latter a world that died with World War I. According to Magris’ interpretation, Napoleon’s triumph was the victory of the unification process over the old Europe of separate nations, of the totalizer over the particular. The dialectical process continued with the rise of unifying Communism in East Europe, and then its fall and the concomitant reawakening of the particulars of Old Europe. Magris notes that we are witnessing the revenge of variegated Mitteleuropa: in his opinion, a positive phenomenon when it means freedom from tyrannies of various sorts; dangerous however when it means the return to the old hates and tensions of particularism. Antiquity can be inserted positively into the process of the construction of the modern, or, it can be merely an instrument of defense and rejection of any change at all. At Magris’ Stammtisch in the Old World café, nostalgia for the good old times is one thing, reality another. The central part of Europe that wants to return to the world scene and manifests traditions of liberalism, the defense of the individual and its great historical cultural traditions has nothing to do with nostalgia for Hapsburg times.
But why the word, Mitteleuropa today? What does it mean? For Magris, Germany is the point. For centuries now Germany has always been the point in continental Europe. Although the German word itself is little used today, one continues to speculate about Mitteleuropa. Magris emphasizes the former concepts of German Kleindeutsch—a small Germany based on Prussia—and Grossdeutsch—a big Germany based on expansion toward Vienna and the East which in a limited way is again the case today. The German word, Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe), was born in the 19th century to indicate German economic and political supremacy—and also racial superiority in its most decadent formulation—recalling Edward Said’s similar theses regarding fundamental Western attitudes regarding the Orient in his book, Orientalism.
When the concept of Mitteleuropa revived in the 1960s, people in the West began guessing at what the word implied for the non-German world of East Europe: though born as a German idea, the German word nonetheless today refers to a non-German world. Yet, many common aspects survive throughout Mitteleuropa: architecture, common cultural traditions in Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Krakow, ideas concerning analytical philosophy, ideological systems to explain the world, pessimism about history, irony, sensitivity for marginal things. The café tradition of hard-working people who like a drink on Sunday: from the Caffé San Marco to the Slavia in Prague, the Café Central in Vienna, the Hungaria-New York Café in Budapest, the old Picador in Warsaw. Vienna today is symbolic of the former Mitteleuropa: again a kind of melting pot of peoples of former Mitteleuropa: Poles and Ruthenians, Ukrainians and Romanians, Hungarians and Transylvanians, Roma gypsies and Eastern Jews, and where in the traditional New Year’s Concert always sounds the famous Radetsky March by Johann Strauss Sr. of 1840. An area of the honesty of “my word is my bond,” a love of literature and art. The idea of “to be rather than to seem.” Which made of those peoples also politically gullible peoples. Much of it Central Europe loves German culture and is still in Germany’s area of economic influence. But it is a world that in theory prefers to maintain a distance from Berlin. The reality is that the greater immediate problem for Europe of the East comes from the western shores of the Atlantic, from an America that prefers to see old Mitteleuropa, right up to the borders of Russia, as its sphere of influence simply because it won the Cold War.
I read a news dispatch from Berlin about Mitteleuropa by an Italian journalist, a romantic attempt to recreate the kind of united Europe that was divided by Yalta after WWII. The most modern idea of Mitteleuropa on the part of East Europeans themselves in effect demands a new role for that other Europe, the Europe East of Germany and West of Russia which seems to westerners dark and mysterious even if it is no longer immune to American foreign policy. Though some of the individual countries have joined the European Union, their aim and goal is a Europe not only of the EU or under the hegemony of big nations like France and Germany. They also stand in defense of the particularities of the forgotten Europe in the center of the continent, in countries such as Slovenia and Czech Republic that Kundera still calls Bohemia. Today, twenty years after Danube, that other Europe is in fact attaining a parity it has never had—and that, despite clumsy, abrasive US interventions, space shields and military installations—precisely within the European Union. Or perhaps another kind of unity will emerge in which states will be less important and ethnic groups and cultures stronger. Old ideas, of course. But Central Europe’s search is for a specific role on the continent of Europe so as not to be swallowed up by the neo-liberal, capitalistic European Union. Perhaps a kind of union of the peoples of the Danube, of peoples that can again perhaps recognize Vienna as its capital. Vienna, so as not to return to the German fold. Yet, nationalism thrives everywhere. As one Slovene friend told me: first a Slovene, second a European.
The Germanist Magris cautions that one should not forget the tensions and hates of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire with which many of its own peoples could not identify. Despite claims of right-wing intellectuals like Kundera, the past of Mitteleuropa was by no means progressive in comparison to Communist East Europe. Moreover the victory of the West over Communism in East Europe should be evaluated carefully. For perhaps the last word has not yet been spoken. Most definitely the question of Socialism is not dead in the East. Not everyone is convinced of the superiority of capitalism. Many Europeans in general are not. The Catholic Church and its popes are not. Bulgarian farmers are not. Hungarian workers are not. There can still be some surprises. One has long hoped that some kind of Mitteleuropean mentality could be the basis for regional cooperation. I believe the only variety would have to be socialistic. For it is in their DNA. Its more universal, humanistic politico-cultural heritage—despite the old particularisms—is in the long run simply too great for capitalistic individualism. The socialist ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood once overcame individualism and can again. The problem for many Central Europeans was that Socialism in practice came to them though the Soviet filter, so that many came to believe that real Socialism developed more in Sweden than in Mitteleuropa. Yet, to know those peoples a bit where the spirit of brotherhood and equality survive is to recognize that real Socialism is at home here. And that it may return. American military bases or space shields notwithstanding.
Recent history shows that one of the most urgent problems facing former Mitteleuropa-Central Europe is the threat of resurgent nationalisms. The end of Communism opened the gates to nationalistic totalitarianism. Modern Central European nations must defend themselves against reactionary nationalism, against which the European Union is supposed to be a shield … though in practice it is an increasingly modest one. Since 2006 Poland has been in the throes of that struggle. A couple years ago a Warsaw friend wrote me that Poland was already then a police state. Meanwhile the peoples in Central Europe want what the West has. And they want it fast. That desire however does not justify rabid nationalism and savage capitalism. Nor does it exclude Socialism; after all Marx too considered well-being the basis for Socialism. In my work in Mitteleuropa I found that though many people rejected the Soviet model, they did not—and still do not—reject Socialism. Nonetheless, considering the threats of US interventionism, Socialism in one country does not seem possible. In Mitteleuropa, it would necessarily have to be a simultaneous development, a bloc movement, in several countries at once.
An old Communist-Socialist acquaintance, Jiri Pelikan, former Czech Communist leader and militant in the “Prague Spring” under Alexander Dubcek, believed a new kind of internationalism was required. A new social contract between governments and the governed. I would add especially today if only to avoid corporate-military regimes as in the contemporary USA. It was an irony of history for many Czechs that the Central European country with the most deeply rooted Western heritage became the prime ideological outpost of Moscow and was cut off from West Europe: the country of “Socialism with a democratic face” the most Soviet loyal. Czechoslovakia, like WWI Germany, was ripe for Socialism. Yet afflicted by contradictions and tensions, betrayed by the West by the 1938 Munich Pact and handed over to Nazi Germany, though still the center of Europe between East and West and torn between past and present, Czechs suffered from a national schizophrenia. Disappointed Czechs drinking record quantities of their famous beer, strangers in their own city, convinced of their inability to change either people or events, living in a Kafkaesque world escaping into alcohol. I remember the words of a Czech student leader: “West Europeans who no longer understand us are far away but Russians too are far far away from us. Russians are romantic people, while we Czechs are very practical.” That is Mitteleuropa speaking.
Once in the famous literary café of Prague, Slavia, I noted in block letters the following:
MISTRUST OF THE WEST
FASCINATION WITH SOCIALISM
MISTRUST OF SOVIET ACHIEVEMENTS
LURE OF THE WEST
In the last century everything happened so fast in Central Europe—World War I, Nazism-Fascism, WWII, Communism and now capitalism—that people there today, though beginning to get acclimated to their new post-Cold War condition, are still drunk with “freedom,” as evident in Ukraine. One should hope they do not throw overboard their special cultural awareness in favor of the promised material well-being of savage capitalism. It is easy to criticize the dangers of comfort and ease of the “chewing gum society” of the West; yet East Europeans very much want the chewing gum. The Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, returned to that subject at the end of his life: “Nazism,” he said in his controversial affirmation, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil,” with the emphasis on “necessary.” His words were interpreted to mean that Socialism is necessary to combat unlimited and uncontrolled Capitalism.
What were the bloody wars in ex-Yugoslavia about but the ghost of the nationalism that for nearly half a century seemed overcome in Socialist East Europe? Magris reflects that struggle in his assessment of the conflict between the world of the Rhine (Germany and the West) and the world of the Danube (Mitteleuropa), between unitary German culture and heterogeneous, multinational Danubian culture. Former Mitteleuropa was above all the story of the meeting of German, Jewish and many small cultures, using German as the common language. Its culture is more than Pilsner beer and chamber music trios. The difference today is that the Kafkas write in Czech or Slovak or Hungarian or Polish, not in German. And one prefers to speak of Zusammenschluss instead of Anschluss.
Despite his love for and dedication to the concept, Magris is largely pessimistic about Mitteleuropa. He was then concerned about the eventual role of Germany. Today I am certain he worries more about the USA. He worries about countries like Romania with weak economies and strong nationalism. The realities of Hungarians against Romanians, Slovaks against Czechs, Croats against Serbs are troubling phenomena that recall the worst of the past. Damned Bulgarians, charged its neighbors, damned Romanians, said the Hungarians as the two nations fought over Transylvania, damned Hungarians, said the Romanians and built fences between the two Eastern nations while Hungary was tearing down the fences between it and West Europe, damned Croats-damned Serbs, the two brothers swore as they went to war one against the other. Battles of words and not only. Ethnic minorities and religious minorities as Orthodox Serbs slaughtered Moslem Kosovars who long struggled in Yugoslavia for independence. And of more recent vintage, damned Americans, who bombed Belgrade and supported the independence movement in Kosovo in order to erect there one of America’s major military bases.
Fortunately those many diverse peoples, though they cannot change overnight, have long and powerful cultural legacies to fall back on. Moreover, the rules of the European Union, as negative as they are economically, socially and politically, in the long run can help prevent them from attacking each other and reassure them about latent expansionistic aspirations of Germany that today seem to have vanished in history. The chief threat to Central Europe today comes from the West, across the Atlantic. The threat to make of them American colonies.
The concept of Mitteleuropa is also an emotional response to a cultural history that is universal. Writers from east of Germany have long influenced world culture. The work and voices of some of them still play roles in European culture today: the Polish Nobel poet, Czeslaw Milosz; Joseph Roth, the Galician Jew assimilated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire who wrote in German, the great arbiter of East European Jewry for the West (the novel, Radetsky March and the The Legend of the Holy Drinker); Franz Kafka, who in his back and forth between Vienna and Prague depicted the heart of Mitteleuropa; Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georg Lukács. When Poland was still Communist I had the good fortune of interviewing in Warsaw the writers Andrzei Kusniewicz and Julian Stryjkowski, when they were both over eighty, survivors of a generation of Central European intellectuals who hardly knew nationality. For although technically Austro-Hungarian, Mitteleuropa was a Babel of separatism, its writers, the first cultural Europeanists, depicted a cosmopolitan all-European culture. Kusniewicz suggested that to appreciate that former unity you only had to look at “the architecture of nearly identical Sackbahnhöfe (End Train Stations) from Galicia to Trieste to grasp its unity.” Both writers, representative of many others, spent their artistic lives fighting Fascism and describing their multilingual culture of speaking and reading in Polish, Russian, Yiddish, German, English and French.
YUGOSLAVIA AND MITTELEUROPA
Post-WWII East Europe, though in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution (the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague uprising of 1967), social upheavals, ideological purges and the promises and hopes for Socialism, was an exciting historical moment. Already after WWI there had been much enthusiasm for the idea of southern Slav unity and the idea of a Yugoslav (southern Slav) state. Yugoslavia, bordering with Magris’ Trieste, was long a key to the East European conundrum because it broke away from Moscow control and sought another path to Socialism. Only a few hours from Trieste beckoned names like Ljubljana, Zagreb and Beograd, capitals of Yugoslav republics-states held together by the power of the nationalistic Yugoslav Communist League of Marshal Tito and Milovan Djilas. (Djilas later dissented from the party line over internal issues, wrote a damning book, The New Class, was arrested and later lived in internal exile in his apartment in Belgrade where I had the good fortune of interviewing him several times. His book, Conversations With Stalin, provide a rich background in Marxism-Leninism in practice and his views of why it ultimately failed.)
In those early years of Socialism in practice great debates and polemics over Marxist-Leninist internationalism and nationalism shook the Communist world. Yet Tito’s Yugoslavia was very social: comradery, solidarity and expressions of the passions and pathos of the human condition. While various uprisings in Socialist East Europe were put down and the Cold War sharpened, Yugoslavia appeared to be one unified country. In the early days of Yugoslav Socialism, there were few signs of international conflicts and oppressions of minorities. Few signs of what was to happen a generation later when the diverse peoples of different religions but all speaking the same language slaughtered each other. Though in original Leninist theory, also the Yugoslav state was supposed to ultimately “wither away”, neither Tito nor Djilas intended the state’s demise. Therefore Yugoslavia split from Moscow. Yugoslavia’s problem was that neither did Serbia or Croatia or Slovenia or Bosnia or Montenegro or Macedonia intend withering away within the Yugoslav Federation. In the 1980s, at the time things fell apart in the land of the southern Slavs, Djilas told me it would be a bloody struggle: “Just wait till it breaks out in Bosnia,” he said, “blood will flow in rivers.” The unity the Southern Slavs dreamed of in the early 20th century had come full circle and collapsed in a paroxysm of madness in the 1990s.
After the Yugoslav union split up and each republic set out alone and even a certain normality began to develop, American bombers flying from aircraft carrier Italy returned in the 1990s to destroy the old Serb-Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, just as had German bombers in WWII. Allegedly to put a stop to the bloody internecine in the land of the Southern Slavs, the USA in reality aimed at a foothold there –and eventually got it in Kosovo, part of Serbia.
In 2008, Warsaw and Washington struck a deal on deploying ten US long-range interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a global air-defence system which was heavily pushed by the US administration of George W. Bush. Now Obama has launched a review of the controversial system which Washington claims is intended to block potential Iranian attacks, a system fiercely opposed by Russia. The anti-missile system, meant to be ready by 2013, would also include a radar base in the Czech Republic, Poland’s southern neighbour.
Moscow is enraged by what it sees (with ample justification) as the latest US foray into its sphere of influence and has threatened to train nuclear warheads on Poland and the Czech Republic, both of which left the Communist bloc in 1989 and joined NATO 10 years later. Obama’s review of the antimissile system sparked concerns in Warsaw and Prague that after sticking out their necks for Washington, they would be left to take the flak from Moscow amid a thawing of ties between the two giants. Though President Obama has apparently eliminated Reagan’s technologically weak Star Wars systems, he has supported the Bush plan for the installation of antimissile shields in Poland and Czech Republic, perhaps also updated radar sites in addition to major US military bases already in Bulgaria in the southeast corner of old Mitteleuropa.
Such talk regularly raises alarm in Moscow which charges the US with accelerating rearmament. Logically Moscow asks, antimissile shields against whose missiles? The Iranian threat, America answers. A system to protect Europe. That is indeed bullshit. Though America considers as an alternative the installation of the shield in Turkey, the question of US threats to and fears of Russia, Communist or not, remains.
Many American military men agreed with some WWII Germans that the United States had fought the wrong World War II. German generals and even Admiral Karl Donitz, Hitler’s successor for a few days, hoped up that the Allies would allow them to surrender to the West and then fight the real war in the East together. The generals were ready. Like Napoleon and Hitler, General Patton too dreamed of a triumphal march straight to Moscow. Because of general fatigue and nuclear fears Allied troops couldn’t march east at war’s end but for subsequent decades many Nazi policies vis-a-vis the USSR were to be followed to the letter by the United States. Former Nazis and their collaborators in Central Europe, including countless war criminals, became America’s allies. America’s embrace of such unsavory characters only made plain the nation’s leadership’s willingness to ally with the devil if necessary to protect its class interests.
After the collapse of the USSR and the end of Cold War, the whole world changed. But not US ruling class attitudes toward Russia. The fear of Russia remains, a fear communicated to the masses via the always compliant corporate media. Why, one wonders? Is the Russian bear on the warpath? Is Russia pressing against West Europe and establishing military bases all over the world? Is Russia a dangerous Fascist dictatorship? Or is today’s Russian capitalism only sham to cover up what is in reality masked Communism? Perhaps Socialism still lives in Russia?
I found some telling statistics of the year 2009 compiled by Russia’s Gallup Poll, the Levada Center. Only 29% of Russians consider the country better off now than in the Soviet era, while 60% regret the end of the Soviet Union and think it could have been saved. A whopping 51% want more state intervention than today and 63% think the state should provide public services and guarantee a decent standard of living. And as for a dictatorship in Russia, President Medvedv enjoys a popularity rating of 74%, Putin 79%, both elected democratically. Those are terrifying statistics to died-in-the-wool capitalists. Hardly surprising then that in this context American conservatives worry that the passage of a law establishing an absurdly limited National Health Service smacks of—horror of all horrors!—“SOCIALISM.” The “containment” of Russia, and its possible bad example, is therefore once again, necessary. Mitteleuropa is where these paranoias will inevitably play themselves out.
Gaither Stewart, Featured Writer on Dandelion Salad, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He’s based in Rome. His latest book is the master spy thriller The Trojan Horse, soon to be released by Discovered Authors.