Bitter-sweet. Or what’s in between Europe’s East and West

The text by Iwona Reichardt, thanks to courtesy of New Eastern Europe

Z powrotem w Europie Środkowej. Eseje i szkice (Back to Central Europe. A Collection of Essays). By: Emil Brix. Publisher: Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury (International Cultural Centre), Kraków, 2012

“Austria and Poland may not share a common border but yet the two countries feel a neighbourly connection,” writes professor Jacek Purchla, the head of the International Cultural Centre in Kraków, in an introduction to a recently published collection of essays Z powrotem w Europie Środkowej (Back to Central Europe) by the Austrian historian and diplomat, Emil Brix. A simple sentence and an obvious thought, one might think. And yet, as usually happens with everything that we quickly write off as simple and obvious, a longer reflection shows as that this message is much deeper and the context is far from obvious. Purchla continues: “Emil Brix’s book makes Polish readers realise how little they know about their neighbours residing along the Danube River and the dilemmas caused by the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Indeed, with the dying out of the last generation of Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Czechs and others who lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and still remembered Austria (and cherished its existence by decorating their bourgeois flats with portraits of Franz Joseph I), the relations between the nations in the region, which today we like to call Central Europe, have taken on an entirely new form. The tangible, meaning the shared monarch, was replaced with the intangible, namely, a belief in a common heritage and a sense of connection. Importantly, as often is the case with ideas and beliefs, their role is dependent on historical circumstances, political context and the people’s will, which of course is the result of knowledge and education.
The idea of Mitteleuropa, which is the main theme of this collection, is based on the belief that despite the existing borders, the nations of Central Europe share a connection based on values of diversity, tolerance and sensitivity to history. Not surprisingly, the concept gained great popularity in the second half of the 20th century – that is at a time when the European continent was artificially divided into two ideologically incompatible parts. The idea of Central Europe then became regarded as the panacea to the ongoing uniformisation and Sovietisation of the Eastern Bloc and found steadfast advocates among such prominent thinkers as György Konrád, Milan Kundera and Czesław Miłosz. Importantly, it also inspired two Austrian public intellectuals: a then young historian, Emil Brix, and Erhart Busek, the then deputy mayor of the City of Vienna. In 1986, they jointly authored a publication, which became widely discussed, titled Projekt Mitteleuropa.
Three years later, the vision Brix and Busek presented in Projekt Mitteleuropa was given the chance to face a reality test as the peaceful revolutions, which had been initiated in Poland and continued in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, began to change the political landscape of the artificially divided continent. Time and again in the region, the old was replaced with something new. This time, however, it was not a concept for a monarch or an empire, but rather a concept for a concept. Or to put it simply, the modification of a concept.
And that is precisely why a reading of Back to Central Europe is a valuable experience. In addition to being a well-written collection of deep analyses on the history and current situation of the region, it provides the reader with the unique opportunity to observe the evolving concept of Mitteleuropa in the last 20 years, i.e. a trajectory of the thinking about neighbourly relations and the region as a whole. Brix believes, as we can infer from his writing, that this process has had, in fact, a positive influence on Europe as a whole. This is why in one of the essays he states that: “In the new reality, Central Europe can be found everywhere where one can say that Europe is not an unreachable fortress or a competition steered by a group of superpowers, but as the community primarily based on solidarity.”
A statement like this and many similar ones that can be found in the book, including the title of the collection, all suggest that Brix indeed has a very emotional attitude not only to his home country, Austria, but also to the region as a whole. On a biographical note, it is worth pointing out that in 1990 Brix was appointed Austria’s Consul General in Kraków, a position which he held for five years and which allowed him to actively engage in many cultural projects during the crucial years in the relations between the countries that were once divided by the Iron Curtain.
And yet mistakes should not be made. Brix whom, without hesitation, we can call “Central Europe’s Ambassador”, does not leave the readers with any illusions that this new collection of essays is like reading a fairy tale. Nor is it a pastoral about a backward, yet beautiful, land (think Galicia) where noble savages live and life is slow, although he admits that the latter is characteristic of this region, which is neither Europe’s East nor its West. Seemingly for Brix, the most important barrier to making the region become a truly coherent community is the mentality and perceptions that predominate among its nations today. While in one essay he points to the stereotypes that block Austrians from seeing the richness and beauty of cities such as Kraków, in another essay he points to barriers that continue to exist on the other side of the Danube: “I fear that in the Central European countries people are still convinced that they don’t need to take personal responsibility for anything and that they always rely on somebody else. That’s why, much of the intense work will still need to be done to overcome the mental habits that were once created in Eastern Europe.”
These and many other comments included in the collection also show that the Austrian historian has a rather rare skill. Namely, he is able to present inside problems from an outside perspective; and do so without showing the outsider’s arrogance or forgetting about the ideals that have led him to write each of the essays in the first place. Hence, in addition to the thorough analysis of such concepts as the functional neighbourhood or the history of Austria’s cultural policy, the collection also includes many inspirational statements. Consider the excerpt from Brix’s 2003 speech in which he states: “Contemporary Europe needs to continue its tradition of diversity, which is its power and the hope for a better life for all Europeans, regardless of whether they live in Drohobych or Vienna.”
Altogether, Brix’s essays and the message that is put forward in each and every one of them, shows that the region that we like to call Central Europe does not qualify for a simple classification. Once united by a single monarch, it is today building its identity on a changing concept of mutual heritage. Its existing barriers and inspiring values, which Brix so rightly indicates, are together like that little bitter sweet taste of the old-fashioned chocolate which you can enjoy in many of the bohemian cafés whose walls show us they still remember the fin de siècle.

NEE 1/2013 table of content