Could the Real Tragedy of Central Europe Please Stand Up?
A fascinating question that keeps shaping our current political reality and remains to be answered is why the migration crisis has triggered such a reaction in Central Europe. The most vocal response on the quota system was found in the V4, the group which decided to coin its political voice around the issue.
To offer a possible path for understanding the situation, I suggest going back to the notorious essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” written by Milan Kundera as an émigré. Reading it with fresh eyes and in the light of current political events in the Visegrad region, one has to notice that some of the recurrent ideas can be traced back to Kundera’s essay.
The West of Memory
Kundera proposes that the real tragedy of Central Europe is not solely the Soviet invasion – which for him entailed the destruction of the region’s culture – but rather the disappearance of culture from Western Europe. While the Soviets suppressed the cultural identity of the Central European nations in a violent manner, he accuses Western Europe of giving up on its culture voluntarily. “The times had changed and (…) Europe itself…was no longer experienced as a value.”
To understand what he means by this accusation, we need to revisit the meaning of culture in Kundera’s essay. For him, religion once served as a glue of European identity and after the demise of the church, it was culture that provided a similar role of defining identity. It was in the interwar period (1918-1938) when the region of CE was last in touch with this common cultural matrix. Then, two totalitarian regimes removed this contact and sealed CE off. According to Kundera, it was during the revolts such as 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1956, 1968, 1970 in Poland that yearning for Europe manifested itself. “(The) picture (Central European countries had) of the West, then, is of the West in the past, of a West in which culture had not yet entirely bowed out.”
Kundera believed that CE nations had repeatedly tried to join Europe; they even managed to harbor vestiges of European culture under the oppression of Soviets while in the West, Europe changed dramatically. So finally, when dissidents and émigrés entered the West, they were disappointed that “Europe itself…was no longer experienced as a value”.
This strange idea that Western Europe lost its Europeanness may be heard in the rhetoric of the populist nationalists from the region. Orbán and Kaczyński are probably the most vocal in articulating the idea that Visegrad is more European than Europe itself.
It makes little sense unless we investigate Kundera’s understanding of culture. His idea of culture is limited to high culture, that of violins, great novels and cultural magazines read by a wide audience. This culture, he believed, was cherished in Central Europe when it was under attack by the popular culture of the West. “The Central European revolts were not nourished by the newspapers, radio, or television—that is, by the “media.” They were prepared, shaped, realized by novels, poetry, theater, cinema, historiography, literary reviews, popular comedy and cabaret, philosophical discussions—that is, by culture.” Kundera’s approach to popular culture and mass media was that of contempt and feeling of inauthenticity. The new media and the rise of popular culture and postmodernism was seen as alien to true “Culture”.
This whole sphere of innovation and its social context was missing from the CE experience of the West in the interwar period as well as such political events as decolonization and identity movements. Apart from nationalism and feminism, CE was absent from the post-colonial and partially also from the sexual revolution discourse (just think of Ginsberg’s visit to Czechoslovakia where he was enthusiastically greeted for his political views but misunderstood when talking about sexuality as a domain of politics, and it was not just the official institutions monitoring his “deviant influence on the youth” but the students themselves showed little interest in his invitations for exploration in the sphere of the self).
“In Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era,” he proposed. And if we take Kundera seriously then Orbán and Kaczyński are just disciples of this perspective on what being European means. Their project – conservative, nationalistic and revisionist – is not far removed from what Kundera was telling us about culture and Europe, these two terms had been intertwined in his essay.
The end of European humanity
Returning to the trigger point of the so-called migration crisis in 2015 when Visegrad came out as a territory haunted by political fantasies about white Christian Europe, we can add one more idea from Kundera’s essay.
For him, Central Europe as the heir of Austro-Hungarian empire is a territory of small nations pained by a profound feeling of uncertainty over their existence; they may disappear any time just like Poland or Czechoslovakia did repeatedly, or their borders and population may vary – as was the case of Hungary. However, it is their culture that defines them – whatever that means. For Kundera, it is high art, especially novels that carry the spirit of Central-Europeanness. These are defined “as long meditations on the possible end of European humanity”.
The adjective European here is remarkable as it is in tension – if not in contradiction – with the idea of human rights that do not attach any adjectives to humanity. For Kundera, CE writers had been neurotically monitoring the idea of the end of Europe. What he believed he had been witnessing upon his emigration was the end of Europe in Europe itself. This can only be explained by his profound conviction that “real Europeans” or rather “real Europe” survived in CE.
It is not uncommon to come across the idea that joining the EU was a deception. Of course, barometers show a high level of satisfaction with the economic and indeed also political meaning of the Union. However, there has been a recurrent idea that this was not “that Europe”. We can hear an echo of Kundera’s disappointment with Europe that somehow did not wait and changed. “Their picture of the West, then, is of the West in the past, of a West in which culture had not yet entirely bowed out.”
Orbán’s rumbling about the strong identity of CE – he likes to speak for the region and, unfortunately, he tends to be understood as a speaker of Visegrad – about the mission to fight for Europe is again not far from Kundera’s thoughts. Orbán anti-migration zeal, his fight against liberalism as just another stage of communism, his vision of Europe of diversity rooted in strong nation states cooperating together communicates with Kundera. The absurd revisionism of Fidesz, PiS and other assertive political voices in the region are thus rooted in the history of ideas of Central European intellectuals such as Kundera (what an unpleasant finding it is!).
The broad acceptance of these narratives may also provide an explanation why in this region, Houellebecq’s Submission is highly appreciated not as a political dystopia but rather as a depiction of the West that had lost its Europeanness, its touch with Culture and Identity.
The real tragedy
The real tragedy of Central Europe is not merely the kind of conservative nationalism that tries to legitimize itself in the narrative of Central European eschatology but rather it is the political baggage that comes with it, that of corrupt leaders, autocratic tendencies, opposition to human rights and vitriolic xenophobia.
To end on a more hopeful note, there are other intellectual sources that can serve as a backbone for Visegrad’s struggle for recognition that are less corrosive to liberal democracy and the project of the EU (Hodža, Patočka). Such a search for new intellectual sources requires strong political ambitions and forces willing to tell another story of Visegrad that can domesticate the EU as “our” project.