EDITORIAL: Barbarians of Central Europe?

The 60th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef in 1908 was one of the most lavish celebrations in the history of the Habsburg monarchy. For three hours, 12 000 people paraded before the Emperor; marching at the head were marshals and representatives of the aristocracy, followed by 19 groups in historical costumes, depicting the history of the House of Habsburg, and finally representatives of the nationalities inhabiting the 50-million Empire, ranging from Galicia to Bosnia and from Innsbruck to Lviv. It would seem the best possible proof of the might of the Habsburg monarchy and Vienna, the European capital of music and entertainment, the city of Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.

But this costly event completely missed the mark. First, Hungarians and Czechs, the two most numerous non-German nations of the Empire, boycotted the anniversary of the Emperor and did not show up at the festivities. Second, “during the spectacle presenting ‘fellow citizens’ largely unknown to anyone, that is Ruthenians, Romanians or Croats,” writes Marc Ferro in his book Resentment in History, “the Viennese suddenly realized that they were ‘no longer at home’. It dawned on them what a multinational Empire really meant and they were terrified.”

The chapter of his book devoted to Austria Ferro entitled “The Abyss of Resentment.” Today the whole Europe wallows in resentment. European Union leaders recently congratulated themselves in Zagreb on accepting Croatia to the EU, but Western tabloids commented on this event in a similar vein to the Vienna Simplicissismus , when in 1908 Croats were shown as ragged bandits “or at least barbarians through and through” (Ferro). In April 2016, the Dutch showed the finger to Ukrainians dreaming about Europe.

The European Union is increasingly resembling the Habsburg monarchy. And many Europeans these days have the feeling that “they are no longer at home.” Western Europeans do not want strangers, for fear of losing their welfare state. Central Europeans do not want strangers, for their welfare states are barely alive. At the same time, contrary to the myth of Central European heterogeneity, Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary are among the most ethnically homogeneous countries in Europe. They ceased to be multinational as a result of World War II, and after 1989 they largely abandoned the imperfect social security system from the Communist era. Now they are offered Western migration solutions without prospects for a Western welfare state.

Not surprisingly, the Central European myth founded on the idea of returning to Europe is now replaced by a Central European utopia. It is a vision of self-sufficient, nationalist-conservative societies, ethnically homogenous, focused on defending their current lifestyle—without refugees, immigrants, Muslims, with a strong welfare state, domestic capital, and industry. In an extreme, proto-fascist version of this myth Central Europe is presented as the last bastion of “normality,” “a redoubt of the white race,” a firewall guarding against multiculturalism and leftist lunacy, progressivism, German hegemony, neo-colonialism, globalization, and so on. And importantly, the sources of the alleged threats are perceived to lie to the West of the Oder and Elbe rather than to the East of the Bug River and the Don.

Thus, the liberal-conservative myth of Central Europe, which so successfully supported the modernization of our part of the world within the prospect of joining the EU, is now replaced by a radical, nationalist-conservative utopia of Central Europe, generating resistance against the West and its institutions such as the EU or NATO. The politicians of the French National Front or the German AfD find worthy partners in the East of the continent. They share their hatred for Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. It is too little to build a common Europe on, but maybe enough to destroy it.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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