Before anything is said about Central Europe, we have to clear up what we are talking about. The term “Central Europe” only went into widespread use in the first half of the 19th century, although it was completely general by the end, or at least by the start of the 20th century. It became the target of all kinds of interpretation over that time. It is an expression written into the history of German expansion and the quest for dominance in general, and it also found application in the movement towards establishing a distance from Orthodox Christianity. But it fundamentally embraces the view that there is a region of Europe clearly distinguished from the West, and yet not Eastern Europe, or indeed the Balkans.[2]

The ambiguity of the term latterly prompted another, somewhat curious expression. After 1990, we often heard the term “Europe in between”. This seems to suggest the existence of two entities with a third in between.[3]

A parallel tendency, which started up in the 18th century, has been to treat the whole of Europe, within specified norms, as a unit. This belongs to the quest for Europe with a capital E, a concept arching above all local differences. There have been three attempts in the modern era to achieve unity through power politics. At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon sought a Europe which was anti-feudal, based on equal civil rights, and under his control. His experiment left behind as its most durable legacy the Code Napoleon, a system of law which indelibly inscribed its letter and spirit into the development of Europe. He pursued his aim with force and the bayonet, but as his foreign minister, Talleyrand, said, much can be achieved by the bayonet, but you cannot sit on it.[4]

A hundred years later, the next pan-European experiment was an attempt for German hegemony rather than French. Hitler did not imagine his pan-European world in terms of equality of civil rights. His was a rather different ideal, based on the “Übermensch” and the “Herrenvolk”. Bayonets were somewhat obsolete by then, but the new weapons were no more comfortable to sit on. This venture left nothing behind except destruction and a void: the void left by those sacrificed to a pan-European experiment based on “superior man”.[5]

The next pan-European project started right after the Second World War. Instead of bayonets and their successors, this pursued its aims – and still does – with a combination of democratic values, economic community and search for consensus. The European Union aspires to be the institutional repository of an ideal: that of democratic political community. Its foundations are the principles of legal security and equality under the law. We can now see where this process is going, but not where it will end. We have become participants in it, but none of us know whether what is today a Union will ever be a state.

What is definite is that the new Europe wants to establish common norms. In doing so, it is in a sense reaching back to the universalism of pre-modern Europe. At that time, the general world view by which Europe contextualised itself was moulded by Christianity. Kings ruled by “the grace of God,” and regarded social arrangements everywhere as the will of God. It was a universalism which engendered something of a universal culture. The Romanesque style, Gothic, Renaissance and the Baroque each dominated the whole of Europe in their respective periods. The order of the Church was similar everywhere. Any variations in frescoes, for example, derived from varying artistic ability rather than qualitative differences in cultural approach. What gave any region its own cultural stamp was only the prevalence of one pan-European style rather than another, and not the creation of art with distinctly regional form and content.[6]

The intention of the new Europe is certainly universal, but this is a secular and democratic universality. It acknowledges differences and – at least for the moment – does not stifle cultural deviations and regionality. It could hardly do otherwise. Christian universalism is fragmented: the advent of secularisation, modernity, national cultures and identities, and of course the individualisation that accompanies civil development, cannot be overwritten by any enforced, centrally-preferred norm. Europe has no option but to acknowledge a paradox: its unity – and the guarantee of that unity – arise from a diversity of distinct peoples.

This Europe cannot avoid its past, its diverse histories – and it does not want to. But diverse histories mean divergent emphases and attitudes.

This brings us back to what we might call the history of Central Europe. It is a separate history within the great history of Europe, and can also be broken down into other histories. It is somewhere between the completely self-contained and the completely general. It is only common history that can create community and establish a distinction from others.

The historic face of Central Europe is not the sum total of each people’s history or of their separate cultures, but neither is it the same as the history or the culture of Europe as a whole. The concept of Central Europe takes its clearest historical expression in the form of an empire which for centuries ruled lands – of varying extent – wedged between the German, Russian and Turkish empires. It is this empire, the Habsburg Monarchy,[7] which forms the framework of common Central European history.

Like every late medieval and early modern empire, the Habsburg monarchy was a dynastic entity, but by the time it was going into decline, the community forged by the dynasty also had innumerable economic and social ties holding it together.[8] Although ultimately unable to withstand the process of emerging nations, the empire did provide a framework for it. Before the breakout of the First World War, the imperial territory, having already lost the Italian provinces, extended to over 670,000 square kilometres, a size surpassed on the continent only by Russia. It was over 100,000 square kilometres larger than Germany and France, not counting their colonies, and 300,000 square kilometres larger than the 19th century’s leading power, Britain. Of course, the colonial powers controlled much larger territories – Britain alone over 30 million square kilometres, for instance. But there is another difference that reinforces the Central European character: since it had no real colonies, it experienced no colonial immigration, with all of the cultural implications, either then or later. The territory of the Habsburg Empire had a form reminiscent of a slightly shapeless dumpling: 1240 km from west to east, Vorarlberg to Bukovina, and 1046 km from north to south, Lobendara in Bohemia to Sutomore in Dalmatia. If we are looking for Central Europe on the map, what we should look for are the borders of the Habsburg Empire. It was bounded by Liechtenstein and Switzerland to the west, the German empire (including Bavaria, Saxony and Prussia-Silesia) to the north-west, the divided Poland and Russia – via Galicia – to the north-east, Romania to the east, the Turkish Empire and the newly-independent Serbia to the south, and the provinces which Italy possessed and had integrated by the 1850s to the south-west.

The importance of territorial extent and geographical boundaries, although great, comes second to the importance of people, with their national backgrounds and cultural identities. The special character which makes central Europe Central Europe derives above all from the people of the region.

At the last census in 1910, the Habsburg Monarchy had over 51 million inhabitants. Within Europe, this number was surpassed only by Russia and Germany, and it was ahead of Britain by 5 million, France by 12 million and Italy by 17 million. But whereas these states were characterised by ethnic homogeneity or at least ethnic dominance, this was not true in the Habsburg Empire. German speakers formed the largest group, with 25%. (I would not say that they were Germans, nor that they were Austrians. This is Central Europe: nothing is as it appears.) 17% were Hungarian, 13% Czech, 11% Serb and Croat, 9% Polish, 8% Ukrainian, 7% Romanian, 4% Slovak, 3% Slovene, 2% Italian and 1% had some other ethnic affinity.

The great ethnic diversity of the Monarchy was coupled with the coexistence of several religions. These included practically every religion and religious culture found in Europe. The Empire straddled the dividing line between western and eastern Christianity, and embraced all European versions of western Christianity, the various sections of the religiously fragmented Jews and, in the Bosnia possession, a substantial Islamic minority. Religious and ethnic divides often coincided, but there were some internal religious differences even within ethnic groups.

In all, eleven highly distinctive ethnic groups and a minimum of seven religious cultures, depending on how these are counted, contributed to the character of the Habsburg Monarchy.

The presence of different cultures side by side, and the way they intermingled, were fundamental to the making of Central Europe. One might say that Central Europe is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural region.

Coexistence meant that everybody followed and was allowed to follow their own religion along with the culture deriving from that religion and the customs of the ethnic group. Although there was a free flow of people and ideas throughout the Habsburg Monarchy, there was no internal colonisation in the 20th century sense; no ethnic group or religion was able to force its own language or norms on the other. This was more of a result than a premise, a point of equilibrium following the reformation and counter-reformation struggles of previous centuries. There had been a liberal breakthrough in the separation of state and church, and forcible assimilation had been proven many times not to work.

There was also a lot of intermingling, by virtue of urbanisation and the establishment of large cities. Both Vienna and Budapest had become a veritable cultural melting pot by the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.[9] On arrival from various parts of the Monarchy, people adapted to each other and in some cases changed their cultural identities. Germans became Hungarians; deeply religious people took up secular thinking; and Czechs even became Germans – just take a look at the Vienna telephone book!

None of this obscured the fact that differing ethnic, religious and cultural identities often defined each other in opposing terms. Antipathy, hatred and patronization were always present, and the Empire was an ideal breeding ground for prejudice. Metternich, the Habsburg Empire’s Chancellor for the first half of the nineteenth century, said that the Balkans started at Karlsplatz. In his world-view, everything east of Vienna was stigmatised as culturally subordinate. Patronization ran in a wave from west to east, and pervaded national cultures. The Czechs somewhat patronized the Slovaks, the Hungarian the Romanians, the Croats the Serbs, and the assimilated Jews the Galician Jews. Identification in mutually opposing terms is a feature of Central Europe that in many respects lives on today. At the same time as peoples were coexisting and even intermingling, patronization and prejudice was generating hatred and building it into the mental culture of Central Europe. It was a mixture of harmony and disharmony that inspired quite strange cognitions and attitudes.

The state provided a stable institutional framework, more or less predictable conditions and durable money, but none of its inhabitants felt that it was really their own country. Scratch an “Austrian” and what you actually found was a German. Someone regarded as German actually turned out to be Austrian. The Empire was large and bureaucratic, but everybody knew that order and “slamperei” existed side by side. Disorder was there in the background, but the imperial order was always able to keep it in check. It is significant that Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy was conceived in Germany and not in the Monarchy. Hungarians had a powerful position because of the dualistic structure, but that never stopped them from grumbling. While pledging allegiance to Francis Joseph, they paid homage to – and even created a cult out of – his enemy, Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848 War of Independence. The Czechs and the Germans were constantly quarrelling, but knew that their wealth depended on mutual confinement.

It became a fundamental maxim of Central European culture that nothing is as it seems. In his work, The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus mentions that a prospective emigrant had to complete a questionnaire asking why he wanted to leave the Empire. The right answer, according to Kraus, would have been that he wanted to stay. The same phenomenon is reflected, this time with Kafka-like sombreness, in Musil’s A Man Without Qualities.

The experience of “nothing being what it seems” fuelled a huge cultural output in the region, with a power that persists today. The fitting reaction was irony, which can give perspective and meaning to the absurd and meaningless. In the world-view of Jaroslav Hašek, idiocy could only be endured with idiocy.[10] The Central European Idiot – Švejk – became the symbolic figure of the entire region, although the Czechs rightly look on him as their own. But in other forms, the same irony is present in the works of the Hungarian Kálmán Mikszáth and the Austrian Arthur Schnitzler. The premise that “nothing is what it seems” was certainly not repudiated by the later history of Central Europe, and so we may look on the Czech film director Menzel, the Hungarian writer István Örkény and the Polish writer Mrožek as carrying on a tradition.

There followed another cultural inference: if illusion reigns supreme, illusion must be aestheticized. The great architects representing an empire bursting with internal tensions produced works which quoted classicism. Their grand public buildings were of a scale often in inverse proportion to the real importance of the institutions they housed, like the Hungarian Parliament.[11] The culture of aestheticized illusion left less of an impression on the 18th century intimacy of Prague, which was not a capital, but put its unmistakeable stamp on the exteriors of Vienna and Budapest. Private buildings, if anything, took this even further. The facades of bourgeois tenement buildings were populated by stucco telamons. Art nouveau came as the rejoinder to this, attempting to replace the aesthetics of illusion with the aesthetics of different illusion.

The quest for harmony in the world of illusion also had a musical dimension, and involved composers of true greatness. The fashion was for the airy waltz, the csárdás and the polka, and most notably found expression in the music of Johann Strauss. It put something of a shine on the Monarchy. And of course there was operetta, which produced works of true excellence. Imre Kálmán’s most famous – and enduringly successful – operetta, the Queen of the Csárdás, with its fantastic melodic style, a plot which bridges social differences, and of course the happy ending, gives the listener, and the viewer, a sense that life holds nothing but beauty and optimism. This takes on an inescapable contextual slant when we are told that the piece was first put on in 1915 in Vienna and 1916 in Budapest, at the same time that masses of soldiers’ corpses in field-grey uniforms were lying on the battlefields of the First World War.

On the mass scale, the model of coexistence in multiethnic and multicultural Central Europe shows up most strongly in gastronomic culture. We find examples of both non-violent internal colonisation and heroic resistance. Deriving from the Italian ideal, but already referring to Vienna in its name, the “Wiener Schnitzel” swept the Monarchy, that is to say Central Europe, and even further – to the shores of the New World, and into America. The wiener schnitzel colonized large parts of the world in a way that the Monarchy itself never did. Another campaign of global expansion was that undertaken by Hungarian goulash. It is tempting to say that goulash is Hungary’s greatest success story, an implicit historical comment on its other success stories. By contrast, the tale of the Czech knedli is one of heroic resistance. It neither yielded nor encroached. Czech beer was more outward looking, and together with its Austrian peers, it won over the wine-accustomed soul of Hungary, becoming the drink of its people. Pluralism was honourably maintained, however, by pálinka, cujka and slivovica – none of these grew at the expense of the other, and all staunchly defended their own positions.

The mixed face of Central Europe also appeared in economic culture. The traditional and the modern, the advanced and the backward, all existed side by side in the region, and still do.

In a small way, the Monarchy foreshadowed the economic stance of the European Union. It had a common currency. There is something truly impressive about the fact that you could pay with the same money in Lemberg and Innsbruck, Karlovy Vary and Opatija. (By consequence of historical development and human progress since then, you would now need four different currencies to buy things in these places: euros, grivnas, koronas and kunas.) There were no barriers to working in the system. The internal market was free, which meant that there was no customs duty to pay. Ganz of Hungary sold his wares freely, as did Skoda in Bohemia and Steyr in Austria.[12] This in turn implied free flow of working culture. German and Czech tradesmen took their work and workers’ culture far and wide, establishing the norms of work and lifestyle for tradesmen wherever they went. It was only in places they did not reach that tradesmen were not distinguished by their hats. East of the Monarchy, with its hatted stalwarts of the workers movement, there were only men in caps, as worn by Lenin.[13]

However, there were wide differences in wealth. Bohemia had a leading position in Central Europe it lost only during socialism, when it was overtaken by Austria, until then in second place. There was a general catching-up elsewhere, but it was uneven. Now, in the 21st century, we seem to be witnessing the reincarnation of the economic power relationships that developed then, with a few variations. Differences buried by the homogenising hand of socialism have resurfaced, surprisingly intact.

By the 20th century, Central Europe had become one of the “hot” regions of the world. Both world wars started here. It was an assassination in the Monarchy’s southern fringe that served as the formal cause of the First World War. The breakout of the Second World War at the German-Polish border was preceded by other serious Central European events: the invasion of Austria and the break-up of Czechoslovakia. The region’s tensions have time and again proved portentous, and led to far-reaching conflicts. Similar things happening in other places have never led to world war.

This brings us back to the fundamental cultural legacy of the notion that “nothing is as it seems”. It goes beyond mere irony or the aestheticisation of illusion. The propensity to trust in illusions and the occasional difficulty in telling illusion from truth are also part of this phenomenon. The pursuit of illusions and the making of faulty judgements have in turn been responsible for all kinds of dreadfulness and misfortune.

The power of illusion is one the most significant and dangerous legacies of our political culture. It manifests itself in the habit, common throughout the region, of believing ourselves to be different and to be greater than we are. The German Nazis did not believe the result of the Anchluss referendum and invaded Austria. Then they held their own annexation referendum and won easily with Social Democrat support. Because nobody knew what Austria really was, and what is really Austrian, and to what extent. Between the two world wars, landlocked Hungary was led by an admiral who made power politics out of an illusion – the restoration of historical Great Hungary. Poland’s leaders had joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia alongside those who not much later fell on Poland. The Croats and Serbs repeatedly boasted their strength against each other until both were invaded by a third. And the loser in the rivalry between Czechs and Slovaks was Czechoslovakia. The people living here have paid a high price for this misproportioned self-assessment and the culture of illusion.[14]

The historical continuity was not to be broken by the surrealism of socialism. It confirmed the sense of apparent truth, and of course rendered the cultural trends of both irony and idiocy redundant. The socialist era apparently – and again we are talking about illusions – wiped away Central Europe, since a large part of the region became part of the Soviet Union, that secular Byzantine-type empire. But the cult imported from the Soviet empire was mostly just imposed on Central Europe and did not become an integral part of it. This is well illustrated by the political course of the disintegration of communism, and the break-up of the Soviet empire, or more accurately the cultural aspect of the transitions. Whereas blood flowed in some regions of the Soviet Union or Romania, there was a velvet-lined end to Communist dictatorship in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. Central Europe, or at least one of its faces, had resurfaced.

But the other face of Central Europe was not far behind. That of putting up barriers and seeking confrontation rather than living together in cooperation. As Communism came to an end, nationalism reawoke throughout the political and cultural spectrum. Czechoslovakia fell apart and Yugoslavia literally – and bloodily – exploded. Nationalist rhetoric was increasingly heard in Hungarian politics. All this was and is accompanied by cults and rituals thought to be long forgotten. New-style nationalism is seeking traditions and finds them in the image of those who gained honours fighting against neighbouring peoples, or excelled in intolerance against other people who live together with their own.


After decades of communism, the Sleeping Beauty of Central Europe has awoken from her dreams. The region is again seeking its own traditions and its own face. It is a part of Europe, not exactly the same as what is known as the West, and of course a lot different from what we call the East. It is different again from the Balkan region, and from northern Europe and Scandinavia.

It has a colour to itself on the map of Europe.

As for Central Europe’s cultural characteristics, and what makes it the same or similar to other regions, these are difficult to describe. If somebody was to ask how I would express the essence of Central Europe, I would say three names. These three names have this meaning only when the three of them are taken together, and not individually.

First I would mention somebody who was born in Braunau in Austria in 1889, and left the Monarchy when he was 24 years old. He served in the German army, where he advanced to the rank of corporal. He painted a bit in Austria, dabbled in architecture and music, and read authors who believed in mystical symbols like the swastika, in the superiority of the Arian race, and in an Austria unified with Germany. He embodied the racialist-nationalist version of the Central European logic of enemy-making. He came from the Monarchy but found his way in Germany. Hindenburg for some reason really did call him the Czech Corporal, but appointed him chancellor nonetheless. After losing his war, he committed suicide in 1945.

The second person I would mention was born in the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós (now Sannicolau Mare in Romania) in the former county of Torontál, eight years before the Austrian, in 1881. From his earliest childhood, he was interested in music, his first great influence being Richard Strauss. When he was 25, he started to collect folk music, and then as a composer he followed the ideal of “becoming a brother to peoples”. He was a highly successful performer, and he put his faith in humanist ideals into his stage works. His most famous works – Cantata Profana, Concerto, 2nd violin concerto – are played throughout the world. In 1940, he left Hungary because of our Austrian. Towards the end of his life, he discovered his own musical predecessor in Ferenc Liszt. He saw the culture of Central Europe as emerging from the mutual interaction of its peoples, something that can only be interpreted as a connected whole. He died in New York in 1945, surviving the suicidal Austrian by 5 months. [15]

Then there is somebody else. He was probably, or rather seems to have been, born in Bohemia, at about the same time as the other two. He is in fact ageless and never existed in reality. As a rank and file soldier in the First World War, he did not even make it to Corporal. He served in the army of the Monarchy and had all kinds of adventures. Since he is ageless, the good soldier may still be with us. He was either completely stupid or so clever that he made everybody believe in his stupidity. He is the little man of Central Europe, who knows that you can and must survive everything. Those in power, as far as he is concerned, might be monsters or representatives of noble ideals. He knows what he knows: that narrow-mindedness protects, and unreflecting stupidity makes you immune to everything.

I think that these three together, and only together, in a very abbreviated and approximate way, express what might be thought of as Central Europe.

They express this region, along with its culture. They express what deserves to be hated and what deserves to be loved, the place that has produced both the worst kind of filth and the purest of values, and of course the little person who is capable of enduring and surviving both of these at the same time.


[1] This text is a version of my essay, which was published in The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy (1867-1918). (Ed.; Co-editor: Zsuzsa Gáspár) New Holland Publishers, London, Cape Town, Sidney, Auckland, 2008.

[2] Central Europe as the target area of German expansion appeared most markedly in the work of Friedrich Naumann. The issue is elaborated in Károly Irinyi: Naumann’s “Mitteleuropa draft” and Hungarian political public opinion. Discussions on history. Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1963. An example of setting boundaries: Oszkár Jászi: Central Europe. In Huszadik Század, 1916. issue I. A historical interpretation of the Central Europe issue is: Jenő Szűcs: Sketch of the three historic regions of Europe. Budapest, Magvető Kiadó 1983. Szűcs addresses the question as put by István Bibó. This does not coincide with my own conception or my interpretation. For this, see: András Gerő: Symbolic politics in conceptual captivity: the Bibó cul-de-sac, in: András Gerő, Imagined History. Budapest ELTE-PolgArt 2004. 247-264 pp.

[3] The expression, “Europe in between” arose in the highly ephemeral post-transition “transitological” literature. Others, such as Jacques Rupnik, used the expression, “the other Europe”.

[4] Of the huge literature on Napoleon, I will only mention one of the best works: Jevgenyij Tarle: Napoleon. Budapest, Gondolat Kiadó 1967.

[5] There is an enormous literature on Hitler and his ideas. One of the latest is: Mária Ormos: Hitler. Budapest, Pannonica Kiadó, 1999.

[6]  The historic power of universalism in a specific culture is analysed in: Georges Duby-Robert Mandrou: A thousand years of French civilisation. Budapest, Gondolat Kiadó, 1975. 20-356 pp. Or in more general terms: A.J. Gurevics: The world-view of medieval man. Budapest, Kossuth Kiadó, 1974.

[7] A similar approach is taken by Claudia Magris [see: C. Magris: The Habsburg myth in Austrian literature. Budapest, Európa Kiadó 1988.]

[8] For the geographical, ethnic and religious distribution: Robert A. Kann: A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London, University of California Press 1974, pp. 603-608 and Alexander Sixtus von Reden: The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Historical documents from the turn of the century to 1916. Budapest – Salzburg, Széchenyi Kiadó – Druckhaus Nonntal Bücherdienst, 1989, pp. 17-18 and pp. 49-77.

[9] On this see: Carl E. Schorske: Fin-De-Siècle Vienna. Politics and culture. New York. Vintage Books, 1981. and Péter Hanák: The Garden and the Workshop. Budapest, Balassi Kiadó 1999.

[10] Hašek first became famous with Švejk. It is lesser known that in 1906 Hašek had already become the prophet of political idiocy when he founded the “Slightly Progressive Within the Bounds of the Law Party”. His writings on this theme are collected in J. Hašek: Excerpts from the history of the Slighty Progressive Within the Bounds of the Law Party. Glória Kiadó and Švejk Society 2002.

[11] Ákos Moravánszky: Architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Budapest, Corvina Kiadó 1988, and Ákos Moravánszky: Competing Visions. Aesthetic renewal and social programme in the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Budapest, Vince Kiadó, 1998.

[12] On this see: David F. Good: The Economic Rise of the Habsburg Empire 1750-1914. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London, University of California Press 1984. 162-256 pp.

[13] András Gerő – Katalin Jalsovszky – Emőke Tomsics: Once upon a time in Hungary. Budapest, Hungarian National Museum 1996.

[14] A thorough history of the region between the wars is Joseph Rotschild: East Central Europe between the Two World Wars. Seattle – London, University of Washington Press, 1977.

[15] Bence Szabolcsi: Life of Bartók Béla. Budapest, Csillag 1955.