Central Europe: Retrieving History from Myth and Ideology

Now in its third edition, Lonnie Johnson’s masterful portrait of Mitteleuropa charts the evolution of a region reunited after 1989

TVR Books | Nicholas T. Parsons | February 2013

Much ink has been spilt questioning the concept of "Central Europe". Where is it actually? And as a geopolitical entity, does it exist at all?

In an influential article published in Paris in 1983, the Czech writer Milan Kundera located it geographically in the centre of Europe, but culturally in the West, and politically (at least before the collapse of Communism) in the East. Lonnie Johnson, in his now standard work, refines this somewhat simplistic definition, pointing to an historical and cultural divide in the region between Roman Catholicism (and later Protestantism) and Eastern Orthodoxy. On top of this, he fingers the century and a half of Turkish subjugation, together with the different traditions of Orthodoxy, as the culprits for the region’s alleged legacy of "backwardness", particularly at its eastern and south-eastern periphery.

The very notion of "backwardness" of course may be considered controversial in our age of cultural relativism, one that has impinged also on historiography. Yet, however much liberals may shudder at the terminology, the principles they themselves espouse as measures of development and "progress" – property rights, the rule of law, the emergence of a middle class and greater economic sophistication – have been features of Central Europe’s Catholic and Protestant western-style development where it existed, much of which was later to be turbo-powered by 19th century Jewish assimilation.

Johnson makes a good stab at explaining how this came about: Beginning with the Middle Ages, Germans and Sephardic Jews migrating eastward acted as "modernisers" in their new Central European homelands. "Saxons" (actually mostly Rhinelanders) settled in Transylvania, to be followed by the Jews fleeing from Christian intolerance in Spain to Poland; and from the 18th century more Germans to Hungary (so-called "Danube Swabians"), who took over lands vacated by the Turks. Germans were also, in this analysis, the "bringers of culture", into which the highly productive Jews assimilated. German migration and colonisation from 1200 onwards brought German farmers, German burghers with municipal charters founded on the famous Magdeburg Law, and German skills, particularly in the field of mining.

Johnson is alert to the danger that these undoubted historical facts were all too easily woven into a chauvinistic narrative of German cultural and racial superiority. Beginning in the 19th century, this was indeed what happened, culminating tragically in barbaric Nazi doctrines and concomitant violence.

Indeed, the real subject of the book is Nationalism, and Johnson repeatedly illustrates how past events were reframed and reinterpreted to fit a 19th century nationalist narrative, which was at odds with – and finally destroyed – the Habsburgs’ great multi-national empire.

It is a strength of Johnson’s always compelling narrative that he manages to separate clearly the horrific aberrations of the twentieth century from the real history that was misused by ideologues to produce them. For example, he is excellent at describing the way in which Poles, Czechs and Hungarians built their multi-ethnic states, steering a sure course between the Scylla of sceptical hindsight and the Charybdis of starry-eyed romanticism. In the 19th century, pluralist states were challenged by nationalism from both above and below, by both claims of racial and cultural superiority, and by what Hegel termed the "desire for recognition" of "nations without states".

This zero-sum game explains the enduring sense of loss that so affects the Central European psyche: The Czechs lost their crown, religion and nobility after 1620; the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth was the largest state territory in Europe before the 18th century partitions of Poland; and "historic Hungary" lost two-thirds of its territory in 1920 as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Is it any wonder that for Central Europeans, history has been far more than an academic exercise?

To this day, this sense of loss infuses everyday life and politics. The haunting words of the hero of Bassani’s great novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis describe a persistent malaise: "The past counted far more than the present, remembering something far more than possessing it… It was ‘our’ vice to go forward with our heads forever turned backwards."

In all this, the role of Austria, the author’s adopted country, is sketched with deep insight. For most of its history, "Austria" was not a state at all. Its various territories were the hereditary possessions of Habsburg dukes and emperors. Even under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the "Austrian" bit was officially known as "the kingdoms and lands represented in the Reichsrat", collectively "Cisleithania", the lands west of the Leitha River loosely marking the Hungarian border. As Johnson well describes, its 19th century raison d’être was to be a bulwark against the emergent nationalism of the Empire’s component parts.

As a nation state, Austria came into being against its will in 1918, was eradicated in 1938 and brought back to life by the allies after World War II. Today, says Johnson, Austria is a "Paradebeispiel" of "how national identity can be invented and negotiated and succeed."

No doubt there is affectionate – and not altogether misplaced – nostalgia for the Dual Monarchy, but "Austrian" history until the 20th century does not feature, and therefore is not obsessed with, near-obliterations like the Serbs’ defeat on the Amselfeld in 1389, the Hungarian catastrophe at Mohács in 1526 or the Czech capitulation following the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620.

Yet, when the dam broke and the reluctant state of post-imperial Austria fell into the arms of virulent German nationalism, it too slithered, as Austria’s greatest poet Franz Grillparzer had mournfully foreseen, "from humanity through nationality to atrocity."

In this Third Edition’s lengthy supplement covering events from 1989, Johnson shows how Central European nations, some more successfully or faster than others, are voluntarily adapting to the Western European model of parliamentary democracy and free markets. This is a journey either of fulfilment and vindication (Poland) or somewhat against the grain of a nation’s history (Bulgaria or Romania) and sometimes both.

And if you want to understand what that means, read Johnson’s insightful and superbly written book.


Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbours, Friends

by Lonnie Johnson

Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition (2011)

pp. 382

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