What’s the Future of Central Europe?

I am hopeful that there will not be a third world war, but I am pessimistic about Ukraine – says British historian Martyn Rady.

Aleksander Kaczorowski: The conventional wisdom that Central Europe is somewhere between Germany and Russia sounds like nonsense to you, doesn’t it?

Martyn Rady: This is a very late twentieth century view. Up until 1918, it was very clear what Central Europe was. It was Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy.

The very first definition of Central Europe occurs at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it consists of the area between France and Russia, between the tyranny of Napoleon and the despotism of the Czar.

It’s only since the Second World War that we’ve forgotten what Central Europe was. Up until 1989, you had Western Europe and Eastern Europe, but in the mid-1980s the term “Central Europe” emerged once again and it very much had a political role. It was used to indicate the area that had been captured by the Soviets, but historically had nothing to do with Russia or the Soviet Union. This was an underpinning for the reform agendas. Central Europe consequently became, post 1990, the term for the countries wanting to join the European Union. It became a way of saying, “We are special and don’t confuse us with the Balkan countries”.

What I was interested in doing in my book The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe (2023) was bringing back the old definition and demonstrating the parallels between German development and Central European development further East.

What parallels are there?

The most obvious is in terms of invasion. These countries, Germany included, have been subject to periodic and very devastating invasions. From Huns, Goths, Avars, Mongols, people from the East, and also the Swedes. In Poland, it is linked to the idea of the Antemurale, the rampart of Christianity. You can also find this idea, however, in Hungary and Croatia, as well as in the rhetoric of West Germany in the late 1940s and 1950s: that Germany is the bastion of democracy and freedom against the hordes coming from the East. And there are some very interesting depictions of what the hordes coming from the East look like. They are all portrayed as sort of Slavonic Untermenschen. This is, of course, the old Goebbels propaganda factory. They were still producing that literature in the 1950s. They’re still using the old Nazi colors on their posters, the red, white and black.

The second point would be the type of political organization in Central Europe during the Middle Ages, which involved the extremely powerful nobilities and parliaments of which Poland is a fine example. The power is reproduced on a local level by very strong popular organizations in cities and in the villages, which have their own customs, their own judicial organization and they have their rights written down.

On top of that, you have the new trends that emerged from the sixteenth century onwards, which put all this into reverse. They’re launched by the arrival of Roman law which emphasizes the power of the ruler. Then you have the influence of the Reformation, which gives princes and rulers of Germany, Hungary and Poland the right to patrol the morals of the people.

Everybody thinks that the Reformation is about what type of confession you follow. From the point of view of rulers, however, it’s actually about good behavior.

Part of it is turning up in the right church, but more specifically it’s about not swearing, going to bed early, reading the Bible and not having too much sex. So a social discipline emerges on the back of the Reformation. And then there was the tremendous growth of state power during the Thirty Years’ War.

You didn’t mention serfdom as a typical Central European institution.

It doesn’t affect the whole of Central Europe. In much of Germany and Austria, it looks quite different than elsewhere. It’s to do with the economic imbalance and the effect that the developing capitalism of the Netherlands, France and England has on the economies of Central Europe, particularly the ones that produce grain.

There’s a tremendously interesting fact that I came across a couple of days ago: it cost more to take cargo by land from the Midlands in England to London in the seventeenth century than to take the same shipment from Gdansk. Water transport is extremely cheap indeed, which explains the development and growth of the Polish grain trade.

So the serfdom and the grain export were not the reason for the Polish backwardness?

One has to be careful. In Poland, serfs were only 70% of the rural population. You’ve got the German communities, you’ve got Polish communities living under what they called German law, you’ve got the Mennonites around the Vistula. All of these were free.

And I wouldn’t overestimate the international grain trade. Population distribution was more important. For Ukraine, you’ve got a density of 5 to 10 people per square kilometer in the seventeenth century, while for Poland it was about 30 to 40. Moving further West, you’re talking about 40 to 50. England is going to be something like 50 by this time. So there’s a tremendous difference in terms of population density.

There are two things you can do if you need labor. One is to make it very attractive to people to come and work for you, which is what happened in England after the Black Death, where there was a population shortage. The other is to tie the peasantry to the soil, and that was the solution engineered in Poland and in large parts of Germany, Transylvania and the Balkans.

You say in your book that the modern state was actually invented in Central Europe, in eighteenth century Prussia and Austria. But why was the Polish Commonwealth an exception? Why was Poland not able to create a modern state in the eighteenth century?

Poland had no Habsburgs. But it did have King Stanislaus Poniatowski. And if you look at Stanislaus, he wasbuilding up the power of the center. The Education Council was interfering in curriculums, setting out new types of provisions for education. His permanent counsel was issuing out decrees to try and sort out things like the alcohol issue. I’m sure if it hadn’t been partitioned, then a fairly analogous type of state structure would have emerged in Poland as well. But of course that’s precisely why Catherine the Great wouldn’t allow it to continue and why she invaded. 

You’re quite critical about the transformation in Central Europe after 1989.

I have always been impressed with the one huge advantage of Central Europe, that is the quality of its educational system. Even the Communists did not mess around too much with that. They’d make people learn about Karl Marx and try to make them learn Russian, but they still placed a stress on foreign languages, on quite demanding science, on mathematics. So you’ve got a tremendously informed population.

Sadly, I think that has changed. I believe that educational experts in Central Europe have read too much stuff published by Americans and have jettisoned an awful lot of the advantages they had. But nevertheless, that is one of the things that has kept Central Europe going, the quality of its educational provision, which has meant that companies could come in and very rapidly establish businesses and find that there was a workforce that was completely capable of understanding what they had to do.

My main concern is over how money is mismanaged. I think it’s less the case in Poland. But in Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czechia to an extent and Romania, there’s a huge amount of corruption, which is linked to political parties.

A well-known example is the murder of the journalist Ján Kuciak, who was going after the Italian mafia in Slovakia.

And there were links to the government of Robert Fico.

A similar thing goes on in Hungary. In the 1970s, you couldn’t stop Hungarians talking about politics, and criticizing the government and telling you scandals and things like that, and by the 1980s, you could virtually read about it in the newspapers. Nowadays, Hungarians don’t want to talk about politics, they’re frightened, because if they start criticizing the government or their local council, they find their job disappears, the taxman turns up demanding to look at their business, they find it difficult to get education for their children. I think in Hungary today it is in many respects worse politically than under Communism.

Do you think that Viktor Orbán has created a mafia state there?

I think it’s always been there. There’s always been a linkage, particularly after 1994. Before that, the country was run by the Hungarian Democratic Forum and they were mostly clean, stupid, but clean. Then you began to see the political parties carving out links with business and semi-criminal groups relying upon dubious brokers.

In large parts of the region, you have two political parties, two networks that are working in competition, they replace one another. In Hungary there’s just one.

Orbán has created a single party apparatus, a single network. And so it’s not being replaced in the same way it is in Romania or Slovakia.

Do you think that Orbán’s system is mainly about getting rich, that these ideological questions are just propaganda?

He uses the ideology, because it fits his business interests. The Soros Open Society Foundation and other groups were looking exactly at what Orbán and the government were up to. So Orbán co-opted a nationalist ideology in order to justify what he was doing against Soros and expropriating the profits of international companies, cracking down on foreign ownership of the media and taking it over by the state. He can argue that he’s nationalizing something or cracking down on Soros, because Soros is a cosmopolitan working against Hungarian national interests. This is more justifiable if you’re using a nationalist agenda, a nationalist slogan.

There’s still a lot of talk about the idea of suspending the voting rights of Hungary in the European Union. Do you think it’s possible and do you think it’s reasonable?

The problem is that this will simply confirm what Orbán has always been talking about. The European Union is a new Soviet Union, the European Union is anti-Hungarian. Being rude to Mr. Orbán is only going to strengthen his position. It’s like making charges against Mr. Trump: the more the charged criminal charges you bring against him, the stronger he gets.

What the European Union needs to do, and it has started doing that, is to remove subsidies for Hungary.At least 25% of these subsidies go missing. It costs more to build a highway per kilometer in Hungary than anywhere else in the European Union, except for Slovenia, but Slovenia has got an excuse in the shape of its mountains.

All the money from structural funds goes missing on consultancies et cetera. In every place that a motorway is going to be built there’s going to be a mayor who will say that he needs an environmental report, and the person to organize the environmental report is his wife. This goes on throughout the whole system and you can end up with literally tens of millions of euros spent on just the initial bribes before anything gets done. You’ll find the same in Greece, but in Hungary the linkage to local government and to governmental organizations is much stronger and much closer than in most other countries.

Is Hungary more corrupt than Ukraine?

No, I think in Ukraine it’s absolutely massive and it’s one of the reasons that Zelensky was elected. It was thought he would clean it up. And he made a start on that. But of course, he’s got other priorities now. Huge amounts of money, that have been allocated for military needs, appear to have gone missing. I’m told that the Mafia is even more powerful and wealthier than it was before the war.

What’s your prediction for Ukraine?

The West will let Ukraine down. It’s too expensive to fight a war indefinitely. America is likely to be more isolationist, and at some point Ukraine is going to be told, “You need to make peace.”

The danger is that Ukraine will be forced into making peace on very disadvantageous terms.

Ukraine won’t get Crimea back. It’ll lose Donbas and will have to give guarantees that it won’t join the European Union or NATO. Ukraine will be forced to make concessions, because its Western allies will no longer have the resources to back it. We will end up with a frozen conflict, a bit like in Abkhazia, Kosovo or Ossetia. You have all these frozen conflicts where you are never going to get a satisfactory peace, so you just leave things as they are and hope for the best.

What’s the future of Central Europe, then? Who is the leader of it? Germany?

Germany is going to lose its edge. Its economy is in a dreadful state. It produces very old-fashioned manufactured goods. They’re not there with artificial intelligence.

The leadership in the EU will possibly go to France, which it’s always wanted. But France has got difficulties of its own.

And there is the resurgence of Russia. It may start on adventures in Moldova or in the Baltic, and it’s very likely that the NATO countries will be divided in their response.

You have got hot points that can spill over all around Central Europe. You’ve got the Suwałki Gap, you’ve got that problem with Kaliningrad, you’ve got the unresolved issue in Transnistria, you’ve got the Kosovo issues, you’ve got Serbia as a very discontented state at the southern flank of Central Europe. All of these problems can be exploited by Moscow and have a destabilizing effect on Central Europe.

Two world wars started in Central Europe, so the main point now would be to avoid a third one?

In Britain, the generals are talking to their friends in the media to write columns about how imminent a third world war is. Of course, they are, because they want more funding. But so far, the war in Ukraine has been contained and behind the scenes there is plenty of discussion between the western democracies and Russia. So, I am hopeful that there will not be a third world war, but I am pessimistic about Ukraine’s future.

Martyn Rady (1955) is Masaryk Professor Emeritus of Central European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London (UCL).  He holds honorary doctorates from Károli Gaspar University in Budapest and Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu in Romania. His most recent books are The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power (2020) and The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe (2023)

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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