Central Europe is a slippery term. Although the idea of a central region within Europe has been recognised since the middle ages, and was at that time called ‘Middle Europe’, its exact borders and extent remain difficult to define. Perhaps that vague quality adds to the status and mystique that is central Europe. Indeed although most individuals would state with authority that central Europe lies between the Eastern and Western regions of Europe the specifics of what that means varies with each individual. Germany is confidently named as a central European state yet its neighbour Poland elicits a somewhat more hesitant response. Slovakia may make the grade, but Slovenia…
Perhaps the concept of central Europe is on safer ground when physical geography is laid aside.
Yet again we confidently assert that there is a common central European culture but often fall at the first hurdle of defining what we mean. Perhaps our notion of a central European culture betrays not so much the difficulties we face in framing the definition as our lack of knowledge in even constructing the frame.
If we take as a loose definition, and one that is open to endless argument, a central Europe that comprises the countries of Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia how many of us in western Europe can truly say that we understand the vast diversity and complexity of such a region? Our concept of central European culture is firmly fixed within Germany and Austria with the occasional nod to the Czech Republic and Poland. But why should this be so?
The region has been known as central Europe since, arguably, the 11th century. Its historical credentials remained intact through the fluctuating borders of the Hoy Roman Empire, the upheavals of the Reformation and the revolutions of the mid 19th century. The 20th century, however, saw central Europe divided against itself. The cold war pitted east against west politically and physically and central Europe became a battlegrounds of competing ideologies. But now in the 21st century central Europe is once more a complete entity. And yet despite a thousand year longevity, with only a brief hiatus, the notion of central Europe remains elusive.
We may talk of the culture of central Europe but what do we in the west really mean by that? Do we mean the music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Mendelssohn; our western ignorance is showing. We try harder with Chopin, Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček and then probably start to falter. We fair little better with folk music attempting to remember the names of at least one Klezmer musician, Yale Strom, failing entirely to recognise the music’s roots in eastern Europe and Jewish traditions. And we are no safer on artistic ground. Who in the west knows the names of Hirémy-Hirschl Adolf or Mányoki Ádám let alone anything about their work. In literature the works of Hermann Hess and Erich Remarque may be joined by Franz Kafka but Boleslaw Pruss and Cyprian Norwid remain a mystery. The philosophers of Germany shine brightly through western thought; not so those of Slovakia or Hungary. Arthur Koestler is known in the west primarily as a novelist and one who conveniently died in London.
And yet we do have our perceptions of central European culture. Fed by a diet of poorly translated folk lore, such as the tales of the Grimm brothers and films of the weird and wonderful, Dracula, we accept the easily digestible fantasy rather than attempt a meal of the more meaty and hugely more satisfying facts.
So why should this be so? Is this a matter of simple ignorance or is it tinged with a reluctance to admit our lack of willingness to engage in what is different? The language of Germany and Austria may not be known but is, at least, perceived as attainable. The languages of Poland and Hungary are seen as ‘difficult’. Translations of foreign language books are viewed warily. Religious traditions vary across countries and in the secular west the difficulty of religious nuance can easily be confusing leading to misunderstandings that results in mumbled apologies and fears of having given offence. Unable to understand and bewildered as to where to begin we retreat to the safety of Beethoven and Grimm’s fairy tales. But in doing so we do ourselves a great dis-service. The culture of Central Europe is vast and diverse; it is wonderful and terrifying; it is exhilarating and bewildering. To jump in is to be surrounded by an amazing cornucopia of art, music, literature, philosophy and much, much more. The cultural outpouring that Central Europe has given and continues to give to the world is there for all. It is a gift that asks nothing of us. We can, if we choose, merely dip our toes in the shallows; how much more will we gain if we dive into the deep end?