A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe

19. 7. 2023

Benjamin Cunningham looks back in his article at two late 20th-century essays from the Czech-French writer Milan Kundera under the title “A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe”. The book’s first section centers on Kundera’s 1967 speech to the Czechoslovak Union of Writers. The second includes Kundera’s 1983 essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe,”  and they both perfectly reflect on the actual situation as Kundera does not speak or write with a historical outlook of minutes, days or weeks. He is thinking in centuries.


Moving Forward, Looking Back

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, Milan Kundera

Faber & Faber, 2023, 74 pp

Two priests meet up at U Černého vola. By the time they start drinking their second beer, they find themselves in a deep theological debate. Back and forth the argument goes. But they just cannot come to an agreement. As the priests leave the pub, they decide to write to the Pope and ask for help in settling their dispute.

Back at the monastery, the first priest sits down at his desk. “Dear Holy Father,” he writes. “Is it okay to smoke cigarettes while I pray?” A few weeks go by and eventually the first priest receives a reply. “No, it’s not okay,” the Pope writes. “Prayer is a serious endeavor. When one is communicating with God, it’s important to fully concentrate entirely on prayer.” 

In the meantime, the second priest had also written his own letter. “Is it okay to pray while I am smoking?” He asks the Pope. The Pope responds to this second letter too. “Yes,” he replies, “there is never a bad time to pray. God is always listening.”

In short, the manner in which a question is formulated very much impacts the answer. Albert Einstein once posited that if he had 60 minutes to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes framing the issue and just five working out the solution. In practice, that is rarely how it works. These days hot takes on current events are blasted across the Internet in seconds. When it comes to thinking about geopolitics, the tendency is to dust off an old solution to an old problem and use it again — even in cases where it didn’t work that well the first time. Creativity, thinking rooted in inductive reasoning, is entirely displaced by deductive reasoning.

Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán are dangerous, not because their popularity reflects real flaws in the way society is organized, but because they associate with people who have

Today’s Tweets, op-eds and podcasts insist that we have entered a ‘new’ Cold War. Depending on the day, the US-led West is pitted against China or Russia, or both. When it feels too complicated to specify an enemy, it’s enough to settle for abstractions like authoritarianism, illiberalism or populism. We can also mix these things together in convenient ways. Anything to avoid self-examination. Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán are dangerous, not because their popularity reflects real flaws in the way society is organized, but because they associate with people who have — in a vague but damning phrase — “Kremlin ties”.   

This reflexive referencing of the Cold War — a very unusual historical period based on an infinitesimally rare bipolar international system — frames problems in a way guaranteed to produce flawed solutions. Why is contemporary US-China competition not compared to the late 19th and early 20th century rivalry between the British and German empires that helped spur World War I? Is it because your average newspaper columnist has considered this and then concluded that today’s conditions better resemble the late 20th century? Of course not. We don’t draw this parallel because the people most inclined to do so have all died.

Contemporary governments, media and academia are led by people who came of age in the late Cold War, so they cram current events back into a vintage Cold War box. 

If history is any guide, such recency bias will cause many people to die. It’s the exact same thinking that led World War I generals to send horse-mounted infantry charging into machine gun fire. In the 1930s, it led the French to assume that constructing defenses along the Maginot Line bordering Germany would help them prevail in future trench warfare. That future never came, as the Nazis marched around the fortifications and into Paris. During the Vietnam War, the United States replicated World War II tactics, deploying hundreds of thousands of troops while carpet bombing the enemy. By 2003, advocates of the US invasion of Iraq invoked the 1930s appeasement of Hitler to justify deposing Saddam Hussein. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also hoped to demonstrate he had learned lessons from the Vietnam debacle. So the US Army tried to occupy a vast country of 438,446 square kilometers with insufficient troops. Rumsfeld had forgotten that he was fighting the Iraq War instead of Vietnam War II.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has fueled more talk of a Cold War sequel. It has also provoked comparisons with specific events from the Cold War — the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, for example. This general atmosphere no doubt contributed to Faber & Faber’s decision to republish two late 20th century essays from the Czech-French writer Milan Kundera under the title “A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe”. The book’s first section centers on Kundera’s 1967 speech to the Czechoslovak Union of Writers. The second includes Kundera’s 1983 essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” which first appeared in the French journal La Debát before it was translated and published pretty much everywhere. Each section is preceded by a short introduction — written by Jacques Rupnik and Pierre Nora, respectively.

Kundera does not speak or write with a historical outlook of minutes, days or weeks. He is thinking in centuries. Kundera is interested in ideas like ‘nation’ and ‘language’ and ‘culture’ — not scoring points against political straw men or women.

The publisher makes no claim for historical parallels, but they no doubt hope the buying public will. Readers are fortunate that Kundera does not speak or write with a historical outlook of minutes, days or weeks. He is thinking in centuries. Kundera is interested in ideas like ‘nation’ and ‘language’ and ‘culture’ — not scoring points against political straw men or women. In addition to feeding new Cold War delirium, there are no doubt plenty who might wish to harness Kundera’s writing to craft simple arguments about the merits of liberalism, globalization or democracy. Though Kundera may sympathize with many of those ideals, these two pieces defy expectations. He is thinking aloud, and even if you disagree with his conclusions, engaging with well-communicated complex thinking is a useful exercise. 

Small Nations, Big Thinking

Kundera’s 1967 speech — made when he was 38 years old — is a curious historical document that does not easily fit into the 2023 preferred style of discourse. The speech is most relevant today as an artifact representing the culturally liberalizing Prague Spring era that preceded the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the same conference, another writer, Ludvík Vaculík, gave a much more inflammatory, politically charged, speech condemning the Communist Party’s preeminent role in Czechoslovak society. “Not one human question has been solved in the course of the last twenty years,” Vaculík said of Communist rule, going on to blame it for the country’s “postwar failure”. 

In collective memory, Vaculík’s speech has somehow imbued Kundera’s cultural argument with additional political weight. Kundera’s speech, however, is not overtly political. Nor is it liberal. In fact, it is quite nationalist, and Kundera’s nationality is Czech — not Czechoslovak. Given the topic and tenor of Kundera’s speech, this distinction is important. At its 1918 founding, Czechoslovakia was a diverse, multinational state. Czechs made up less than half the country’s population. That country of 13.5 million housed more Germans than Slovaks, along with Hungarians, Romany, Ruthenians, Poles and more than 100,000 Jews. By the time Kundera spoke in 1967, a good amount of that diversity was gone. The hellish Nazi occupation certainly played a major role, but so too did forced deportations implemented by the Czechoslovak government. In Kundera’s telling, Czech culture is a victim of history, but the full 1967 version of the story was more complicated.

Kundera condemns “vast integrationist approaches” that are looking to “bring about a common history” before adding that “culture is important as ever to justify and preserve our national identity.” Today, Kundera’s nationalism is seen as understandable, even honorable. We know of the brutal Soviet led occupation of the country that would follow. But Kundera does not so much speak of the Soviet or Russian presence as he does glorify the rebirth of culture that began with the 18th and 19th century Czech National Revival. He implies that the cultural flowering of the Prague Spring carries that spirit forward.

So far as anyone talks this way in contemporary Central Europe, they are figures coming from the political right. In a 2019 speech, for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán warned that his country risked “drifting rootlessly away in the storms of history” in a Europe that was being led by people who “do not mind if our continent gives up its culture”.

Kundera and Orbán do not think about culture in the same ways, but nor do they sound like adversaries. In 2023, it’s hard to believe any progressive Czech speaking the way Kundera does.

As a writer, Kundera is interested in language and literature. He is preoccupied with the fate of small nations, but size is a relative concept. He is addressing the Czechoslovak Union of Writers (not just the ‘Czechs’ as the book intimates), and yet he doesn’t once use the word Slovak in his speech. This focus on Czech language and literature looks ironic decades later, as Kundera ceased to write in Czech, trading it for cosmopolitan French. Incidentally, it is also worth noting that the new English language translation presented in this book is actually translated from an already existing French translation of the speech, not directly from the Czech original.

Kundera, to his credit, seemed to realize that he could be misspeaking even as he spoke. In one of the speech’s more profound lines, Kundera notes that historical actors rarely have sufficient perspective to understand their own period in real time. “The Renaissance did not define itself by the narrow naïveté of its rationalism — that quality became visible only after the fact — but rather by a rationalist liberation from earlier boundaries,” Kundera noted.  

The Spirit of Culture

This book is just 74 pages long and can be read at a single sitting. Such brevity, and the handsome, compact hardcover packaging, was no doubt intentional. Even so, it does feel as if Kundera’s pieces could have done with a bit lengthier, contextual, introduction. Though no offense is intended, Rupnik (whose Czech ties are well documented) and Nora are both older French men. Amid the book’s thematic overtones (that smaller nations in Central Europe are often left to the whims of bigger countries and cultures, and that these ideas are still relevant today) it does seem like a missed opportunity to have younger Czech, Central European or Ukrainian thinkers provide introductory thoughts instead.

If Kundera’s 1967 speech is a snapshot of that era, the second essay in this collection feels more timeless. It begins with an anecdote about a Hungarian radio worker who sent a telex (the precursor to the fax machine, which preceded email, which has since been displaced by the SMS) to the world during the 1956 Soviet invasion of his country. “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe,” the message read. He did die, and Kundera picks up the theme of a man willing to die for Europe. It is no coincidence that similar rhetoric has surfaced amid the recent war in Ukraine. In September 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for example, Tweeted that “Ukrainians are fighting bravely for their future. They are also fighting for our common values.”

Readers content to stop there will be satisfied to have a simple parallel between Hungary in 1956 and Ukraine in 2022. But again in this essay, Kundera makes a more complicated argument. Here he has broadened his perspective beyond Czechness to include all of Central Europe. He argues that “Geographic Europe” has always been divided into two halves. One half is “tied to ancient Rome and the Catholic Church,” while the second has been tied to “Byzantine and the Orthodox Church”. A contradiction occurred after 1945 when “the border between the two Europes shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East”. Those places — Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary — found themselves “culturally in the West and politically in the East”. This is the “Kidnapped West” of the book’s title. 

Kundera goes on to celebrate the cultural vibrancy of Central Europe, a good deal of which was centered on the multicultural Habsburg capital of Vienna — but also including poets, painters and philosophers from elsewhere. Here Kundera’s argument is still cultural, not political. “Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate,” he writes. “Its borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation.” And though he did not make this argument when writing this in 1983, he leaves present-day Ukraine in this space (a sliver of which was indeed once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In one footnote, as an aside, Kundera even references Ukraine as “one of the great European nations” and laments that it “is slowly disappearing”.

Kundera’s two most important points are even broader. The first centers on his disappointment that Western Europe simply ignored, that Central European culture was their culture and that it was being stomped out by Communism. Second, Kundera tells an old story of trying to approach Western European cultural figures — not politicians, journalists or academics — who might help rally awareness to the plight of Central Europeans.

As he and a friend tried to figure out the appropriate person to contact, they began to realize, “that this figure did not exist”. Serious culture, even in Western Europe, had ceased to matter. There “were great painters, playwrights, and musicians, but they no longer held a privileged place in society as moral authorities that Europe would acknowledge as its spiritual representatives,” he writes.

I was a toddler when this essay was first published, so it is hard for me to say whether Kundera was right about the world back then, but this certainly seems to be the case today. Our understanding of the world is now shaped by public relations professionals. Discussion of serious politics is left to think tanks, retired politicians and pseudo-intellectual commentaries. This all but guarantees that we see a caricature of a complex world, and it’s exactly how we end up framing things via nonsensical ideas like Cold War II. So far as the republishing of these Kundera essays might accomplish anything, it might go a ways toward reminding readers that complex, critical thought can mediate engagement with public affairs. We could all do with a lot more commentary by the Kunderas of the world and a good deal less from the Applebaums. 

But I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will happen. Rather, I would expect that this book and contemporary geopolitics would continue to be framed entirely in dusty metaphors. The early 20th century intellectual Walter Benjamin famously wrote about the angel of history, an angel whose “face is turned toward the past”. His eyes look back even as a “storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned”. In the meantime, “the pile of debris before him grows skyward,” Benjamin wrote. “This storm is what we call progress.” So far as there is any single lesson to learn from 20th century European history, it’s that preoccupation with the recent past obscures, rather than illuminates, the present — with disastrous results.

Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is the author of “The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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