Krakow in the European Core

Today, an inquiry into Krakow’s metropolitan functions is not merely an investigation of its place in the European settlement network, its relationship with the outside world and the nature of its ongoing change (which is impossible to overlook if one only takes a stroll across the Main Square). It is also a question regarding the competitive assets of cities like Krakow. Presently, large cities seem to have two main characteristics: acceptance of others and intolerance of mediocrity. Interestingly, however, only a selected few urban settlements can foster new intellectual qualities. Studying the map of Central Europe, it is easy to notice that Krakow is the only city without the rank of a capital which lies precisely mid‑way between Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. It is also the only place that does not serve any significant political role, and at the same time remains an important academic hub with over 200,000 students. The level of a city’s creativity depends on multiple factors: political and economic indicators, but also the amassment of cultural, educational and informative elements, offering synergistic possibilities, which are an essential condition for the emergence of creativity and innovation. I believe we should turn to these factors for the source of a new vision for Krakow. It is not, nor will it ever be, a global metropolis, but it has all the makings of a creative city.

Fernand Braudel once said that cities are like power plants – they produce energy. Therefore the question of Krakow’s future is at the same time a question of its position in Poland and in Europe, Central Europe especially. The concept of Central Europe had its ups and downs throughout the 20th century. In the 1970s and 1980s, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, thinkers like György Konrád, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel and Czesław Miłosz, but also Erhard Busek in Vienna and Karl Schlögel in Berlin drew on the distinctive cultural qualities of Slovaks, Czechs, Magyars and Poles in order to pinpoint the main differences between Soviet policies and traditional European values. It cannot be denied that the identity of Central Europe stems from its unique historical experience: a long period of feudalism, belated nation‑making processes, the creation of new nation states only after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the immense scale of appropriation of cultural heritage during the Second World War, the post‑war change of borders and, finally, almost half a century of communism followed by post‑1989 transformation processes. All these phenomena conditioned our realities and identity, and therefore cannot be overlooked in any in‑depth analysis of the specificity of our location in the heart of Europe. In contrast to those in the West, political borders in Central Europe have shifted more frequently than cultural ones. One needs to be aware of this fact if one wants to discuss Krakow. 

Nevertheless, Krakow’s unique character is a product of various coincidences. It happened to be the only major urban settlement in Poland to have escaped devastation during the Second World War. As a result, Polish elites – survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and forced migrants from Lviv, Vilnius or Hrodna – flocked to Krakow. It can be described as a classical bourgeois city – unindustrialised and reactionary. Amazingly, its bourgeois culture man‑aged to outlast decades of communism. It seems that in cities shaped by Central European civilisation, it was easier to endure Sovietisation.

Of course, Krakow is hardly the heart of Central Europe, but it remains part of the urban network that composes its core. It seems, then, that it is worth asking about the specificity of our Kulturraum, the cultural space symbolised by Central European metropolises. What is it that sets them apart from urban settlements elsewhere in the world (if they are indeed perceptibly different)? And has Central European identity suffered as a result of the twenty‑five years of rapid cultural change? • Jacek Purchla

Larry Wolff: One might say that there are two over‑lapping concepts of Central Europe. The first one sees it as a legacy of the Habsburg empire, whose echoes are still recognisable in urban Secession architecture or the culture of cafés— and even in political attempts to establish the rights of different nationalities. We can experience some aspects of this communal spirit in Ljubljana, Vienna and Lviv, but it can also be found in New York and Jerusalem, because twentieth‑century emigration helped to spread these ideals and aspirations beyond Europe. Now, a century after the downfall of the Habsburg empire, this influence naturally has weakened, but it can still be perceived as an important cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, we should perhaps consider another shared heritage of Central European countries, namely the more recent legacy of communism. Crucially, Central European cities are not only post‑Habsburg but also post‑communist – and this shared past accounts for significant links among them.

It is in this context that we should consider issues of human rights, public welfare, and democracy and the relationship between a liberal economy and the public sphere. Frequently we tend to think with nostalgia about the Habsburg period, while the communist legacy is seen as something that mainly poses problems. Yet, the common legacy of communism in Central Europe partly overlays the common Habsburg heritage that constituted Central Europe in a different era.

These two concepts of Central Europe are united in Kundera’s essay The Tragedy of Central Europe (originally published in French as Un occident kidnappé [A kidnapped West], 1983). The writer was the first to examine the Habsburg legacy from a political perspective, and proposed a vision of Central Europe as something that was fundamentally not‑Russia. Obviously, his arguments arose from his strong anti‑communist convictions in the 1980s, but at the same time Kundera showed that a concept such as “Central Europe” could be reconstructed and given new meanings. Re‑reading his text, I was surprised to realise that in his reflection on Central European metropolises, Kundera neglects to mention Krakow. Instead, he writes about Warsaw, and in the essay he does also reference the Polish writers: Gombrowicz, Witkacy and Schulz. It appears that he was not familiar with the oeuvre of Wyspiański from the Krakow Secession, and the Young Poland movement does not feature at all in his cultural arguments. In retrospect, this seems surprising, given that many people have thought of Krakow as one of the typical centres of Central European culture.

On one occasion, I was travelling by a night train from Warsaw to Gdańsk. The journey was slow and the compartments overcrowded – a typical Central European train, one might say. Everybody chatted, and then I mentioned that I was planning to visit Krakow. One of my fellow passengers declared: “Oh, Krakow. Such a beautiful city, as beautiful as Prague.” “Very beautiful indeed,” I replied. “You must have en‑ joyed your stay in Prague a lot.” To which he retorted: “But I’ve never been to Prague.” I started to wonder why was it that Prague had somehow become a reference for Krakow’s charms. Maybe it’s because both cities have preserved their Habsburg urban architecture and thus offer us a direct, palpable link to that period, because we can still feel close to that part of our heritage?

And what about the nostalgia and those little cafés? Well, my mobile phone and Internet connection can make any café into a part of the global public sphere. Hankering after Central Europe, while looking wistfully to the Habsburg 19th century, a by‑ gone world, can also make us insensitive to what is current and pressing, such as the issues pertaining to the European Union, which should be our priority right now. Somehow, when we consider Central Europe, we have to balance the claims of the past and the claims of the present.

I remember my visit to Krakow in autumn 2003, when I entered the Main Square and saw Igor Mitoraj’s exhibition. I was deeply moved. The very idea of entering a public space that doubles as an art gallery felt like a gesture of embracing the present in the context of history and nostalgia for the times gone by. This was a courageous cultural statement and makes an important case for the future of Central Europe.

Emil Brix: Cultural identity in Central Europe is much more stable than its political equilibrium, which has been well exemplified by the last thirty years. It was three decades ago that Erhard Busek and I wrote Projekt Mitteleuropa, where we argued that Central Europe can become a political project. It seemed clear to us that searching for an essence of Central European civilisation was politically dubious, and thus we decided to discuss Central Europe in terms of its cultural roots. It appears to have been the right perspective: firstly, because all attempts to discuss political partnership between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as the heart of Europe within the European Union are practically void; secondly, and I am saying this as the Austrian Ambassador to Russia, we are witnessing a renewed interest in ideologies. This is linked to the Cold War era, as events following the era were not necessarily linked to the cultural idea of Central Europe. Recurring ideology entails a growing interest in ethnicity, history and the search for historical identity.

The Central European experience could help us find a solution to this geopolitical problem. That is why we should carefully investigate what it tells us about the quality and importance of borders and the gravity of cultural cooperation. What does it mean that Central Europe accepts pluralism that fosters creativity? We need to ask ourselves if this attitude still makes sense in the wake of a new Cold War, which has gradually emerged between the East and the West. I am not a pessimist when it comes to the forces of our convictions, but we must remain conscious of the polarisation between the East and the West. Even if Vienna and Krakow are to stand side by side, we still cannot be sure that we can manage to transform the geopolitical situation into one that is more favourable for us. Central Europe is a place populated by Europeans.

We should be glad that we no longer need the concept of Central Europe as much as we did twenty‑five years ago: this is definitely a positive sign. Still, if we examine closely the consequences of those events, we may realise that we cannot be sure what forces are at play now. Again, we are discussing cafés, and I would be curious to know why. Twenty‑five years later, the situation is completely different and we are reaching a point where Central Europe again becomes divided between the West and the East. If we insist on producing one definition, we will end up with precisely what Kundera describes: Central Europe re‑captured by the East. There are those who claim that part of the continent has been kidnapped by the West: after all McDonald’s restaurants, in contrast to cafés, can be found anywhere from here to Novosibirsk. In Moscow, people still remember the opening of their first McDonald’s restaurant.

If Kundera were to write his essay today, he would probably describe a continent abducted by the West, and this is the dramatic shift that we need to appraise in the context of how we perceive the role of Central European cities, including Krakow. I believe that we should be more open to what is happening in the East. Communist heritage is one thing, but new generations are being born and one day the time will come when the communist period will seem as distant as the Napoleonic wars. The Russians discuss Napoleon’s capture of Moscow like they discuss Hitler. That is why beside all the advantages of the Central European programme, we need to be mindful of its downsides, at least as far as politics is concerned.

It seems to me that the present moment offers great opportunities to urban settlements like Krakow – those that are centrally located, right in the heart of the continent. In a place like Krakow, we need to think carefully what it means to be in the centre of Europe. Krakow and similar cities seem to tell us: we know what Central Europe is and what it may become; it stems from our cultural heritage; we know what tragedies befell us in the past. Let us use this knowledge.

Simona Škrabec: My doctoral dissertation concerned the identity of Central Europe. My goal was to trace the roots of this concept and analyse its subsequent development. Central Europe is such a vast and diversified territory that it is not easily grasped, which makes it necessary to apply varied methodology. At the same time, it provides an interesting case study, showing how definitions are coined and legitimised. On the other hand, women and men of letters seldom speak of politics or ideology. Yet thanks to literature we can gain access to the voices of those who are denied the chance to speak, whose calls are too weak to join the mainstream of history.

The map of Central Europe is traditionally divided between German and Slavic nations. In fact, this opposition is a weak one, for these lands are home to other important groups as well. We tend to imagine Central Europe in two different dimensions: chronologically (focusing on our history, roots and identity), and geographically (in terms of all spatial elements). In Serbia, there is a saying that your neighbour’s language is the toughest to learn. Paraphrasing, we may claim that it is especially challenging to learn and understand the history of the neighbouring nations. In order to do this, we must adapt this parallel, geographical perspective and observe things that happen simultaneously. It is in these two methodologies – chronological and geographical – that we should look for the answer to the question of what Central Europe is.

It is worth remembering Peter Handke’s essay, so influential in the 1980s, where he claimed that Central Europe was a meteorological phenomenon. Between Slovenia and Austria there is no iron curtain but rather a mountain range, which is an obstacle for the clouds. That is why we Slovenians can bask in the sun while Austrians are soaking in the rain. Nowadays this is precisely what Central Europe has become: a meteorological phenomenon. We tend not to bother with it too much, and whenever they say on the telly that it will be warm and sunny in Central Europe, I smile to myself, remembering how it was forbidden even to use such terms during the Cold War.

As far as cafés are concerned, I don’t believe that Austria’s legacy should be treated lightly. The term “Central Europe” was used in the 1960s in Claudio Magris’ book Il mito absburgico… (The Habsburg myth…). Why? Because it was impossible back then to discuss German identity and legacy in Europe in a neutral manner, and the nostalgia for pre‑First World War Europe seemed the only way in which we could try and forget the gap between 1914 and 1945.

1989 was an annus mirabilis, but later on in my country, Slovenia, we had the Ten‑Day War and our enthusiasm faded. Soon after, Sarajevo was besieged. And this is precisely why the role of cities is so important: the architect and Mayor of Belgrade Bogdan Bogdanović always described the war in the former Yugoslavia as “culturecide”. The settlements that suffered the most in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo and Mostar) and Dalmatia (Dubrovnik!) were, after all, symbols of peaceful coexistence of various religions and traditions. During the war, these sites became prime targets for those who aimed at imposing new nationalisms. That is why today we can look to the cities if we want to understand how to share space and celebrate our traditions and history, while not forcing anyone to subscribe to it, and how to create a complex reality that is at the same time alive and comprehensible. This is one of the roles that Krakow, Sarajevo or Barcelona (which often showed its solidarity with Sarajevo and provided substantial help) should assume in the contemporary world.

Incidentally, there seem to be many similarities between Barcelona and Krakow. First of all, Barcelona struggles with tourism, which ceased to be a success and started posing significant problems. A city’s beauty and authenticity can only be admired when people still live in medieval houses, so Barcelona does what it can to remain a place where you can still live an ordinary life and get your groceries at a local market. This is an important warning for Krakow for the (not so distant perhaps) future. Secondly, Barcelona remains open. The city was always open to Europe as well as other countries from across the sea. Whenever we think about European divisions, we should not stop at the conflict between the West and the East – for there are tensions between the North and the South as well. There, sleeping demons are stirring awake, which will soon try to tear our continent apart. We must therefore enhance our openness and view our lands as thresh‑ olds and not as borders.

Shlomo Avineri: Krakow has always been a major centre of the printed word in this part of Europe. The first book was published here as early as 1474 – it was the Latin Almanach Cracoviensis. From 1530 to 1939, Krakow was an important site for Jewish printing. We should remember, therefore, that the concept of Central Europe before 1939 was a trans-religious and transnational one. That’s how writers such as Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka viewed it. Many of their fellow artists and thinkers drew on socialist and Marxist ideals.

But something has gone, disappeared. We seem to simultaneously experience the presence and absence of this community. For instance, the vision of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I work, first came from someone linked to this part of Europe – Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who was born in Budapest and educated in Vienna. Many Jewish intellectuals studying in Vienna at that time came from Krakow, Rzeszów or Lviv. That is one of the reasons why modern‑day Israel is such a multicultural state: not only does it have roots in the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, but it also sustains certain traditions of the Russian and Habsburg empires. Suffice it to mention the rich café culture in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

I once spoke to some exchange students who visited Poland and came to see Krakow. They noticed many differences between Warsaw and Krakow: Warsaw is a modern city which also cherishes its past (the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising particularly), while Krakow (and not only because of Kazimierz) is a place where we mainly perceive tradition and heritage which can now be reworked into modernity. Krakow’s presence relies heavily on its past. Interestingly, these differences were strikingly obvious for people who had no links with this part of Europe and had never visited Poland before.

This heritage can still be observed in the political culture. Although few Israelis are aware of this fact, Central European politicians – regardless of whether they represent the right or the left – invariably lean towards the culture of negotiation, coalition, instead of concentrating on the rule of majority, as this al‑ ways implies that some minority groups are excluded. It is no accident that Martin Buber’s family were based in Vienna and Lviv – these lands were once home to multi‑religious, multi‑ethnic ideals of inclusion, not ostracism.

Moreover, not only in Central Europe, but also elsewhere, we are still experiencing the long‑term effects of the fall of communism. In 1990, everybody thought that once communism was vanquished, peoples east of the Iron Curtain would suddenly live in perfect Western‑style democracies. Twenty‑five years later, we can see that is not so easy and the pluralist democratic model still alludes us. This is not only true in Russia but also in the Visegrad Group countries. We need to understand that the opposite of communism is not necessarily democracy, as many intellectuals had hoped. In my opinion, this is a major challenge – not only for Eastern Europe but also for the West. We are confronted with the same problem in Israel, which also seems to be headed in some pre‑ carious, unknown direction.

What happened in Nazi Germany, I mean the extreme form of nationalism, is the quintessence of evil. But nationalism has two faces. On the one hand, obviously, there is the nationalism of the extreme right. On the other hand, however, there exists a positive nationalism, where people do not identify with the world or humanity in general, but rather with their own country, language and memory, which are unique and special. I believe that combining this worldview with a universal vision poses a great challenge. We can see some traces of that in many Western countries, not only in Central Europe. Krakow can be a great example of preserving strong links with the past and cherishing tradition, which is also religious in nature, in a way that stays clear of totalitarianism and cultural hegemony. Stadtluft macht frei, urban air sets you free – this medieval principle remains a source and essence of freedom.

Mykola Riabchuk: The lesson we learnt from communism in Central Europe is most visible in the urban tissue: street names, monuments, buildings. They were the most conspicuous and therefore the easiest to remove. In Krakow, Prague and Lviv, therefore, they were the first to go. It was not as easy, though, with those more entrenched aspects of communism: its impact on societies and culture, broadly understood as a way of life. These areas were especially targeted by totalitarian propaganda; the resulting deformations were severe. Building a brave new world involved eliminating the bourgeoisie as a class because it was deemed reactionary. This, in turn, meant the disappearance of a entire way of life labelled as bourgeois culture. We should remember that in German civil society, it is called bürgerliche Gesellschaft or “bourgeois society” – and this is precisely what communist rulers attempted to eradicate. Soviet civil engineering aimed at completely removing this reactionary caste and replacing it with progressive proletariats. But as the working class was insufficient in number in this part of the continent, the communists came up with an idea of transforming peasants into factory workers. This involved mass forced migrations of rural populations to urban settlements. The paradoxical out‑ come of this strategy was that instead of becoming urbanised by cities, peasants ruralised their new surroundings. This phenomenon was less visible in Krakow as it was in Nowa Huta, which is located further away from the city centre.

Whenever we discuss the effects of communism, we tend to underestimate the nationalisation of private property, especially the expropriation of tenement houses, which had far‑reaching implications for the urban landscape. In Ukraine, this aspect is seldom addressed, and even though we have some important legislation dealing with de‑communisation, there is no talk of reprivatisation. This is alarming, since reprivatisation is an essential part of the de-communisation process and while many years have passed, this is about essential values: compensation and restitution according to the law. These principles have been in force in Europe for eight centuries now, ever since the Magna Carta, which stated that no man should be executed, imprisoned or dispossessed without a trial. Poland has already dealt with reprivatisation. In Ukraine, this issue still needs to be addressed.
Krakow – like Prague or Vinius – was never Sovietised, despite much effort on the part of the communist government, and this accounts for its special character. The question remains: why did these particular cities manage to resist while so many others gave in? There are many possible explanations: the heritage of Latin Christianity, Magdeburg Law that spread as far as the Dnieper, and even architecture. Let me tell you a story. I remember how in the early 1970s, we sat together at a café in Lviv and felt so depressed because of another wave of repression. Many people had been imprisoned, Russification intensified, and manifesting your Ukrainian identity was frowned upon because it was associated with “bourgeois nationalism”. Many of us thought we were doomed. And then one of our older friends, a photographer – which is important, because it meant that he had a keen eye – pointed outside the window to the main market and asked: “Dear friends, do you really think that they can ever Sovietise this city? As if they could possibly put Soviet people, homines sovietici, into this architecture!”. It’s hard to explain, but he was right.

Central European cities – including Krakow – seem to have some special heritage that made them immune to Sovietisation. Adam Zagajewski wrote about it in his excellent essay titled “Wysoki mur” (High wall), describing the admirable strength of spirit that endures despite adversities. Kundera, in turn, described a Hungarian radio broadcaster who in October 1956, just after Soviet troops entered the country, spoke the last sentence into the micro‑ phone: “We’ll lay our lives for Hungary and for Europe.” As Kundera points out, dying for one’s country and for Europe is beyond the realm of plausibility in Moscow and Leningrad, but seems only natural in Budapest and Warsaw. In Krakow, too, I think. And in Lviv, and also, as it turned out, in Kyiv. Those who died in Kiev’s Independence Square in 2004 laid down their lives for Europe. Maybe in today’s Europe this is hard to grasp, but Central Europe still understands that concept. After all, the Orange Revolution had two main sources: it was partially a result of Ukraine’s European legacy, just like the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic. The protests made Kiev more European, but after violence broke out, escalated by the government, another tradition awoke: that of Cossack Zaporizhian Sich.

Referring to Kundera’s words, I would like to stress a revision that is currently taking place in Ukraine. In a recent article, a young philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko wrote:

The concept of kidnapped West proved a solace for Central Europe but deadly to Eastern Europe. Instead of demolishing the wall between the East and the West, it only pushed it further to the east. Rather than fighting totalitarianism as a universal phenomenon, it succeeded in framing it geographically within the Soviet Union, thus interminably ostracising eastern lands. This simplified concept proved vastly successful, however. It is hard to imagine the extension of European Union after the year 2000 without this conceptual shift. Still, since that time this useful scheme has turned reactionary, morphing from a dynamic model into a conformist stereotype, sustaining the status quo. It no longer stands up to criticism on the part of those believing in further expansion of Europe. There is no more such thing as a demonically totalitarian East; freedom may awake in the East just like anywhere else. It’s only a matter of time.

For Ukraine, the heart of Europe beats in European institutions, in Brussels and Strasbourg, which epitomise liberal democracy and the rule of law. Practically, though, Poland proves much more important, supplying us with an immediate practical example of democracy. There are so many differences between Ukraine and Germany or France; Poland, on the contrary, is much closer. If the Poles have done it, if Krakow has done it, we can too (we believe), be‑ cause we belong to the same reality: we used to live in the same political system and formed one political nation. That is why Ukrainian politicians, businessmen and media frequently refer to the Polish experience.

In some respects, Lviv feels very close to Krakow. In both cities, it is difficult to walk out of the centre. Kharkiv, on the other hand, which is located 100 kilometres from the Russian border (and which was once the Ukrainian capital), has always been a cold, unpleasant, Soviet place. Imagine my surprise when I visited it not so long ago, entered a café and discovered it to be clean, warm, pleasant, with a special corner for kids and filled with people speaking in their native Ukrainian. For a moment I thought humourously that this was a provocation: someone must have recognised me and the patrons switched to Ukrainian on purpose, but no. This was rather surprising for such a Sovietised city. And it was the Lviv chain Coffee Mining Manufacture that had opened their branch in Kharkiv, not McDonald’s.

Translated from the Polish by Aleksandra Kamińska

Larry Wolff – professor of History at the New York University, Director of Center for European and Mediterranean Studies.

Emil Brix – diplomat and historian, from 1990 to 1995 he was General Consul of the Republic of Austria in Krakow. Currently, he is the ambassador of Austria in Russia.

Simona Škrabec – literary critic, essayist and translator who lives and works in Barcelona, author of Geografia wyobrażona (Imagined geography, Polish ed. 2013).

Shlomo Avineri – political scientist, economist, former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Mykola Riabchuk – journalist, political analyst, literary critic, translator and writer, research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.