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Regions and Eastern Europe Regionalism - Central Versus Eastern Europe

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To confuse the regional issue further, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries presented the competing concept of Central Europe, itself almost as fluid and unstable as Eastern Europe. As is well known, the rise of nationalism and the corresponding ideal of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state gave rise to centripetal and centrifugal geopolitical forces in nineteenth-century Europe. The final unification of Italy in 1870 and of Germany in 1871 represented the culmination of a centripetal process of unification, while events in the Balkan Peninsula and the non-German territories of the Habsburg Empire led to a centrifugal process of secession and fragmentation. One result was the broad regional configuration that would remain in existence until the end of World War I. From the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, "Central Europe" (Mitteleuropa in German) referred essentially to the German Confederation (created at the Congress of Vienna and corresponding in its borders very roughly to present-day Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia). This was the Austrian prince Metternich's dream of a Europe dominated by a central core of German-speaking territories. In 1915, in the middle of World War I, the German theologian and liberal democrat Friedrich Naumann published a work titled Mitteleuropa, in which he called for an economic federation to be established after the war. Naumann's idea was that the federation would have at its center Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire but would also include all European nations outside the Anglo-French alliance, on one side, and Russia, on the other. This large territory would be Mitteleuropa.

Naturally the political settlement at the end of the war, in particular the division of Germany into two separate pieces divided by the Danzig Corridor, made Naumann's plans unrealizable. But events in European intellectual life in the early 1980s revived the concept of Central Europe and the debate about its definition and its broader significance. The process began in 1984, with the publication of Milan Kundera's "The Tragedy of Central Europe" (though Kundera had written some pieces on the topic as early as 1981). It culminated with the publication of two collections of writings, immediately before the downfall of Soviet Communism in 1991: In Search of Central Europe (edited by George Schöpflin and Nancy Wood) in 1989 and a special issue of Daedalus, titled "Eastern Europe … Central Europe … Europe," in the winter of 1990. Curiously, the principal actors in the resurrection of Central Europe, Kundera, Václav Havel, and Czesław Miłosz, were not from Germany or Austria but from areas that might just as easily be classified as Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia and Poland. But in his 1984 essay, Kundera seemed to have in mind territories that, with respect to the Mitteleuropa of Metternich and Naumann, were marginal (which is to say, non-German speaking): Central Europe, he thought, was a region "culturally in the West and politically in the East," and the nations he referred to were Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

There can be no doubt that this debate over Central Europe was largely motivated by the social and political consciousness of groups living between the two Germanys, on one side, and the Soviet Union, on the other—groups, in other words, mindful of their exclusion from the ranks of historically more prominent and powerful neighbors. As Patrick Hyder Patterson put it, "Mitteleuropa emerges as a means for a people worried about their own European credentials to retrieve a place at the heart of European politics and culture" (p. 128). The Hungarian historian Péter Hanák, in 1989, dealt with the regional/definitional issue by simply declaring Eastern Europe to be Russia and then comparing the historical progress of Central Europe with that of the West. In the same year, the Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kus" got around the regionalism issue by speaking wryly of "Central-European East Europeans," a group that included East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and Estonians.

Such reflections on Central Europe took on an entirely new meaning, of course, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. For many observers, they simply became irrelevant. But they serve as a good reminder of the considerable extent to which regional categories in Europe at any given moment are tied to power configurations.

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