Csaba G. Kiss: The Center of Europe Has an Inferiority Complex

Slovenia and Croatia could be admitted to the V4. The group would then extend from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic. But what are we talking about when 30 years after 1989 it takes ten hours by train to travel from Warsaw to Budapest?—says Professor Csaba G. Kiss interviewed by Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: How will the thirty years that have passed since 1989 go down in the history of Central Europe?

CSABA G. KISS: As a new beginning and a quest for its place in Europe. When we wrote the agenda of the Hungarian Democratic Forum in June 1989, we wanted Hungary to become a neutral country, we were thinking about Finlandization…

…Just like during the 1956 revolution.

Exactly. We didn’t know what would happen next, what plans Moscow or Washington had. We also did not know what capitalism really was, what the buy-out of our assets by Western companies and generally privatization would bring. There were many uncertainties and that’s when the quest began.

And has Central Europe already found its place in Europe?

Not entirely. I would say that it has been done in 60-70%. We are still chasing the West economically. So many millions of people from our region still have to live abroad. Our voice is still hardly heard.

We dreamed of becoming a country of Western Europe, because Central Europe belongs to the West—Hungary, for example, has been part of it since St. Stephen chose Rome, rather than Byzantium, in the ninth century. You remember Milan Kundera writing about this in 1983—the kidnapping of Europe. Meanwhile, we are still at the frontier of Europe, and to some extent the West has become less attractive today. We can see that Western Europe is in crisis.

We dreamed of becoming a country of Western Europe, because Central Europe belongs to the West—Hungary, for example, has been part of it since St. Stephen chose Rome, rather than Byzantium.

What kind of crisis?

This is, above all, a crisis of values.

Such as liberal democracy?

That too, but I am thinking mainly of Christian values. The founding fathers of the European Communities were Christian. But I heard from the Germans some time ago that the European Union is, first and foremost, an economic organization.

And this is what produces the disillusionment of Central European elites in the European Union and, more broadly, in the West? The departure from Christian values?

Yes. Many German researchers say that we are now living in a post-national era. I cannot agree with that. Another thing is that I am against nineteenth-century nationalism, which is why I consider the Visegrad Group a great success. Remember how tense the relations between our peoples were in the interwar period.

It ended with the annexation of Zaolzie by Poland.

And southern Slovakia by Hungary. We also have a common memory that brings us closer together. The basic memory of Europe is the Holocaust, but there is no room in it for Communism beyond the Iron Curtain. For them, Central Europe is an uncharted area. The 75th anniversary of the Normandy landing aroused great interest in the West, but the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising did not.

Our countries should jointly promote the history of the region in the West. In the House of European History in Brussels, Józef Piłsudski is presented as an extremist, almost a fascist. We can perhaps speak about authoritarianism in Poland between the two World Wars, but to call him an extremist?

Western Europe does not know much about our part of the continent. In Poland or Hungary we learn about the English or French Revolution, but they are not learning about the Spring of Nations. In their eyes, we are generally second-class Europeans.

Western Europe does not know much about our part of the continent. In Poland or Hungary we learn about the English or French Revolution, but they are not learning about the Spring of Nations.

Has something changed in the way Western Europeans perceive us over the last 30 years?

Not much. Something has changed, but not much.

And aren’t we ourselves in Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic contributing to us being viewed critically? With Poland and Hungary dismantling the institutions of liberal democracy, Hungary and the Czech Republic flirting with Putin and with aggressive language on the part of the highest-ranking politicians?

Yes, sometimes our policy is aggressive, but isn’t Macron’s policy aggressive too? Absolutely. And the political and economic position of France is weaker than the power of the French voice. We also have our own interests. For example, from the point of view of Hungarian interests, the enlargement of the European Union to the Balkans is important, and the accession of Macedonia and Serbia is particularly significant.

Speaking of enlargements, would it make any sense to expand the Visegrad Group? There are many voices saying that V4 lost its sense of purpose when it fulfilled its role, so perhaps new members would invest the organization with a new dynamic.

I agree. Slovenia and Croatia could be accepted. V4 would then extend from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic, and it could gradually expand this cooperation even further to the Black Sea countries. But what are we talking about when 30 years after 1989 it takes ten hours to travel by train from Warsaw to Budapest?

You mentioned the Balkans. In her book Maria Teodorova names the countries of the region that produce positive associations with the concept of the Balkans.

Only Bulgarians.

Yes, and also the Albanians. What about the concept of Central Europe in our region? In Poland, for example, the first geographical identification for the vast majority of society would be that we belong to Central Europe, which sounds neutral.

For Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks, this term does not have a negative coloring either. The book Mitteleuropa by the German liberal Friedrich Naumann, published in 1915, cast a shadow over it for a long time. He envisaged the Central European region under the rule of an integrated Germany of the Hohenzollern and Austro-Hungarian Habsburgs. For a long time, ideas from this book and the concept of Central Europe were commonly associated with each other.

The Prague Spring was a breakthrough for our generation, it was then that I realized that there was no other way, but to act together. I remember though that in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia or Poland hardly anyone was interested in understanding what Central Europe meant. In 1976 I was happy when I got my hands on the Parisian journal Kultura. I finally found Polish thought about the region! We started to promote the concept of Central Europe in our generation even before Kundera, but he was the one who gave it an international currency.

The Prague Spring was a breakthrough for our generation, it was then that I realized that there was no other way, but to act together.

So to return to your question: yes, the inhabitants of the Visegrad countries see themselves as part of Central Europe. They understand that this is not Western Europe, but it is not Eastern Europe either.

Are you convinced that the Czechs see it this way, too? It seems to me that they rather see themselves as an indigenous part of the West, and they see Poland as the East.

The Czechs feel they are part of Central Europe. It is a pan-European stereotype that our eastern neighbor belongs to an inferior class.

Just like the Austrian politician Klemens von Metternich, who once said that Asia began behind his garden. In your opinion, does Central Europe have any specific features, or perhaps it is a purgatory—no longer Eastern hell, but not yet Western heaven?

We—Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles— have an inferiority complex. This is a shared feature. Being aware of our shared inferiority complex can liberate us from it. We have been affected by a tragic history, and we should be aware of shared traumas.

Sometimes we succumb to megalomania. Do you know that according to a recent OKO.press survey, 74% of Poles believe that it was they who suffered the most out of all the nations of the world? More than Jews, Armenians or Russians. Hungarians think the same. And I hear from the Slovenian intelligentsia that it was the Slovenians who suffered the most. We need to get out of this trap of thinking that we are the ones who have suffered the most. Every country of Central and Eastern Europe had its share of terrible times.

We—Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles—have an inferiority complex. This is a shared feature. Being aware of our shared inferiority complex can liberate us from it.

You said that the West treats us as worse than them. However, how can they see us differently if we ourselves feel worse, if we share their point of view? We demand more from them than from ourselves.

You are right. We think about ourselves either too much or too little. We lack balance.

And what should we do about it?

There is no prescription. But it is worth starting by getting to know our neighbors, and we have failed in that for the past thirty years. We recently organized a camp for translators and provided them with excellent conditions. But we were unable to recruit even three Hungarian-Czech translators. Everyone is focusing only on English. A friend of mine told me about his student defending his doctoral dissertation on democratic changes in Czechoslovakia after 1989.

It turned out that this Hungarian doctoral student based his work on sources in English. It is impossible to understand Czechs, Slovaks or anyone else in this way. In Hungary, we do not have experts on the Visegrad countries. It is our fault, and the problem is not in Berlin or Paris, but in us.

I would risk a claim that Poles would not be able to name a single date from the history of Slovakia apart from the 1989 breakthrough, and from the history of Hungary they would perhaps name 1956, although I am not sure…

…No, they certainly know about 1956.

…and from the history of Czechoslovakia only 1968. We were talking about Central Europe, and only three hundred years ago, before the Northern War, Europe was divided not into Eastern and Western Europe, but into Northern and Southern Europe—for example, Poland belonged to the “better” Northern Europe. Is there a return to this division?

No. In his book Inventing Eastern Europe, Larry Wolf describes how French Enlightenment thinkers invented a second, inferior Europe – Eastern Europe. The West had to create the East, because everyone needs someone inferior to feel superior to. There is a division between the South and the North, but only within Western Europe. But the East has not always produced bad associations. An interesting feature of the history of Hungarian thought was that after the First World War many of our intellectuals said that Hungary was not part of Western Europe, but of Central and Eastern Europe. It was the opinion of the composer Béla Bartók, for example, who started to learn Romanian at that time. He was convinced of the deep affinity between the cultures of Central and Eastern Europe.

It is sad that the main thing uniting the elites of Central European countries is a negative attitude towards refugees, which they focus on only instead of dealing with long-term projects such as transport or education.

During the economic crisis a decade ago, some people announced a return to the intra-European North-South axis, where the North was to be the countries doing well. In this way, Poland found itself in the “superior” camp for a while. And then the migration crisis came and doubts whether we still had the East and the West were dispelled.

It is sad that the main thing uniting the elites of Central European countries is a negative attitude towards refugees, which they focus on only instead of dealing with long-term projects such as transport or education.

And if we catch up with the West economically or politically, will the concept of Central Europe be exhausted and disappear?

Cultural or mental differences will remain. It’s not just about an inferiority complex and catching up.

Professor Jerzy Kłoczowski claimed that in the area that he roughly defined as the Habsburg lands and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there was a civilization of the European frontier.

In a way, he was right. But our common Central European cultural code is not being studied, and instead we are resorting to stereotypes.

Csaba G. Kiss

is a Hungarian literary scholar, cultural historian, university professor, lecturer at a number of Central European universities. Co-founder of the Hungarian Democratic Forum in 1987. The interview was possible courtesy of the International Cultural Centre in Kraków.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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