In 1991, following the collapse of their communist party governments in 1989, political leaders from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia met at Visegrád on the Danube in Hungary to establish a regional alliance for cooperative development, as these countries pursued the transition from communist economies and societies toward eventual membership in the Europe Union. Originally a three-member group, it became a group of four in 1993 with the “Velvet Divorce” of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All four countries entered into the EU together in 2004, which marked the consummation of the alliance, and their cooperation was, at that point, partly absorbed into the broader integration of Europe itself.
The Visegrád meeting of 1991 looked to the precedent of a medieval meeting of the Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian kings in the very same place in 1335. In fact, the crucial cultural precedent for this grouping of countries dated back only a decade to the early 1980s when the Czech writer Milan Kundera published a celebrated essay on “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (first in French in 1983 in Le Débat, then in English in 1984 in the The New York Review of Books). This was the era of renewed Cold War, and Kundera’s essay, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983, was also intended as an indictment of the Soviet Union and its Cold War domination of the communist party states of Eastern Europe. Refusing to accept the idea of Europe divided into a communist “Eastern Europe” and a capitalist “Western Europe,” Kundera insisted on introducing a different designation— “Central Europe”— to describe countries that, he insisted, had nothing culturally in common, no eastern historical affinities, with Russia: “What does Europe mean to a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole? For a thousand years, their nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history.”
Kundera boldly suggested that the countries of Central Europe— Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia— had been “kidnapped” from the West by Russia, and he published his essay in Paris and New York to demand that the Western public not forget that Central Europe had been abducted. “There are no longer any illusions about Russia’s satellite countries. But what we forget is their essential tragedy: these countries have vanished from the map of the West. Why has this disappearance remained invisible? We can locate the cause in Central Europe itself. The history of the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians has been turbulent and fragmented. . . Boxed in by the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other, the nations of Central Europe have used up their strength in the struggle to survive and to preserve their languages. Since they have never been entirely integrated into the consciousness of Europe, they have remained the least known and the most fragile part of the West— hidden, even further, by the curtain of their strange and scarcely accessilbe languages.”
When the term Central Europe was first widely used during World War One, it was used by German imperialists— as in Friedrich Naumann’s 1915 book Mitteleuropa)— who believed that these lands on Germany’s eastern border were natural targets for German economic domination. Kundera buried this older negative significance of “Central Europe” and recoined the term as an affirmation of the Western and European affinities of the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Hungarians. He recalled their common cultural experience within the Habsburg monarchy before 1918 (admittedly, only part of Poland, Galicia, belonged to the monarchy), and invoked such culturally European figures as Franz Kafka, Béla Bartók, and Bruno Schulz from Central Europe, figures who, like Kundera himself, were indispensable to the European cultural tradition.
The Visegrád countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic continue to pursue a sense of common purpose within the European Union. The common Habsburg legacy that once bound them together has become increasingly distant, now a hundred years since the dissolution of the monarchy in 1918, and even the post-communist legacy dating from 1989 is now almost thirty years old. Yet, the Visegrád countires have a renewed commitment to defense coodination, especially since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, and their political coordination in Brussels has, ironically, been tinged with Euroscepticism as right-wing populist parties have become increasingly important in the region. In the early 1990s, in the political age of Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, the initial Visegrád declaration was meant to affirm, as Kundera had, Central Europe’s essential European identity, but it remains to be seen— in the current populist decade of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński— what role the Visegrad countries will play in the ongoing project of European integration.
Larry Wolff is Silver Professor of History at NYU, Director of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and Executive Director of the Remarque Institute. His books included Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), Venice and the Slavs (2001), The Idea of Galicia (2010), and, most recently, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage (2016).
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