La Repubblica in Rome quoted the Russian Chief of Staff General Nikolay Makarov that the US missile shield scheduled for installation in East Europe is blocking the signing by Presidents Obama and Medvedev of a new START agreement (strategic arms reduction treaty) between the USA and Russia.
(Rome) The great swath of Central Europe known as Mitteleuropa when it was under German domination, but also the part of Europe bordering Russia, is again a key area in the strategic design of the USA which supports anti-Russian governments and continues its plans to install there its spatial antimissile shields.
Today one hears echoes of the past and one witnesses historical repetitions, as the USA puts the whole area in its sights. It was in this region that less than a century ago the USA and its allies intervened to encircle revolutionary Russia, thwart the Revolution and circumscribe the idea of Socialism that Russia proposed to the world. Yesterday it was economic embargoes and military intervention. Today American missile shields, military bases and anti-Russian regimes again threaten Russia. It is thus an old story: occupation of Central Europe, as if it were an empty space deprived of its own historico-cultural time and place. In international politics the ignorance of history is a dangerous lacuna.
After Germany’s defeat in World War II and forty years later the collapse of Socialist East Europe, West Europeans were surprised to learn that the culture of the area between Germany and Russia had survived. Like a Phoenix, Mitteleuropa was reborn.
Prior to World War I, “Mitteleuropa” was the area’s most descriptive designation. Parts of Central Europe today are on their way to becoming American Protectorates and an anti-Russian buffer zone. Despite the wishes of many Central Europeans and America’s apparent ignorance of history to the contrary, Mitteleuropa is again present.
Mitteleuropa comprises the sweep of lands from the Baltic Sea to south of the Alps and from Germany and Italy to Russia, the Black Sea. Under Austro-Hungarian domination. Mitteleuropa included also Germany and reached as far east as western Byelorussia, Ukraine and Lithuania and in the South to Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, Romania and Serbia. Under Russian domination it included all the Communist Peoples’ Republics of “East Europe.” After the collapse of the USSR, the name Mitteleuropa referred to a restricted Mitteleuropa of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, western Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria.
Though a German concept, today Mitteleuropa is both near to and distant from Germany. When old Mitteleuropa re-emerged from its Socialist experience after 1989, it began merging with the West, entering trade agreements, NATO, the European Union, and into military accords with the USA with anti-Russian overtones.
In his monumental book, Danube, the Italian Germanist Claudio Magris depicts Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Ulm as the victory of modern Europe over former Habsburg-Danubian Europe. Napoleon’s triumph was the victory of the unification process over the old Europe of separate nations, a process which ended after World War I. The dialectical process continued with the rise of unifying Socialism in East Europe, and then its fall and the concomitant reawakening of the particulars of Old Europe. Today we are witnessing the revenge of variegated Mitteleuropa: in Magris’ opinion, a positive phenomenon when it means freedom from tyrannical projects of world unity; dangerous when it means return to the old hates and tensions of particularism. The central part of Europe that wants to return to the world scene and manifests traditions of liberalism, the defense of the individual and its great historical cultural traditions has nothing to do with nostalgia for Habsburg times.
When the concept of Mitteleuropa revived in the 1960s, people in the West guessed at its implications for that world: though born as a German idea, the German word nonetheless today refers to a non-German world. Yet, many common aspects survive throughout Mitteleuropa: architecture, common cultural traditions in Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Krakow, ideas concerning analytical philosophy, ideological systems to explain the world, pessimism about history, irony, sensitivity for marginal things. Again Central Europe is a kind of melting pot of peoples: Poles and Ruthenians, Ukrainians and Romanians, Hungarians and Transylvanians. This area where the honesty of “my word is my bond,” a love of literature and art and the idea of “to be rather than to seem” reigned made of those peoples also politically gullible peoples. Central Europe today is largely free of German domination. The greater immediate problem for Central Europe comes from an America that prefers to see old Mitteleuropa, right up to the borders of Russia, as its sphere of influence simply because it won the Cold War.
East Europeans demand a new role for that other Europe to the east Germany and west of Russia which seems to westerners dark and mysterious. Though some countries there have joined the European Union, their aim and goal is a Europe not only under the hegemony of big nations like France and Germany. They also stand in defense of the particularities of the forgotten Europe in the center of the continent, in countries such as Slovenia and Czech Republic. Today, that other Europe is attaining a parity it has never had—and that, despite clumsy, abrasive US interventions, space shields and military installations. Perhaps a new kind of unity will emerge there in which states will be less important and ethnic groups and cultures stronger. Old ideas, of course. Central Europe’s search is for a specific role on the continent of Europe so as not to be swallowed up by the neo-liberal, capitalistic European Union.
The Germanist Magris cautions that one should not forget the tensions and hates of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The past of Mitteleuropa was by no means progressive in comparison to Communist East Europe. The victory of the West over Communism in East Europe should be evaluated carefully. Perhaps the last word has not yet been spoken. The question of Socialism is not dead in the East. Not everyone is convinced of the superiority of capitalism. Many Europeans in general are not. The Catholic Church and its popes are not. Bulgarian farmers are not. Hungarian workers are not. There can still be some surprises. One has long hoped that some kind of Mitteleuropean mentality could be the basis for regional cooperation. I believe the only variety would have to be socialistic. For it is in their DNA. Its more universal, humanistic politico-cultural heritage—despite the old particularisms—is in the long run simply too great for capitalistic individualism. The problem for many Central Europeans was that Socialism in practice came to them though the Stalinist filter, so that many came to believe that real Socialism developed more in Sweden than in Mitteleuropa. Yet, to know those peoples a bit where the spirit of brotherhood and equality survive is to recognize that real Socialism is at home here. It may return, American military bases or space shields notwithstanding.
One of the most urgent problems facing former Mitteleuropa-Central Europe is the threat of resurgent nationalisms. The end of Communism opened the gates to nationalistic totalitarianism. The European Union is supposed to be a shield against reactionary nationalism, though in practice it is an increasingly modest one. Since 2006 Poland has been in the throes of that struggle. The peoples in Central Europe want what the West has. They want it fast. That desire neither justifies rabid nationalism and savage capitalism, nor does it exclude Socialism; after all Marx too considered well-being the basis for Socialism. In my work in Mitteleuropa I found that though many people rejected the imported Soviet model, they did not reject Socialism. Nonetheless, considering the threats of US interventionism, Socialism in one country does not seem possible. In Mitteleuropa, it would have to be a simultaneous development in several countries at once.
A new kind of internationalism is required, a new social contract between governments and the governed if only to avoid corporate-military regimes as in the contemporary USA. Czechs and Slovaks, like most people of old Mitteleuropa, though culturally in the West, after WWII found themselves suddenly in the East. After the Cold War each country set out along different paths, conservative and quickly infected with Western style consumerism and negation of their natural collective pasts: Czechs lost, pragmatic Slovakia has looked more and more to the right, unchanging Bulgaria is still in joyous celebration to the tune of Western music and the presence of US soldiers, Romania remains in its age-old isolation, Hungary is intent only on economic emergence, authoritarian Poland is crushed between Germany and Russia.
Once in the famous literary café of Prague, Slavia, I noted in block letters the following:
MISTRUST OF THE WEST
FASCINATION WITH SOCIALISM
MISTRUST OF SOVIET ACHIEVEMENTS
LURE OF THE WEST
In the last century everything happened so fast in Central Europe—World War I, Nazism-Fascism, WWII, Communism and now capitalism—that people there today, though beginning to get acclimated to their post-Cold War condition, are still drunk with “freedom,” as evident in Ukraine. One should hope they do not throw overboard their cultural awareness in favor of the promised material well-being of savage capitalism. It is easy to criticize the “chewing gum society” of the West; yet East Europeans want the chewing gum. The Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, returned to that subject at the end of his life: “Nazism,” he said in his controversial affirmation, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil.” His words were interpreted to mean that Socialism is necessary to combat unlimited Capitalism.
What were the bloody wars in ex-Yugoslavia about but the ghost of the nationalism that for nearly half a century seemed overcome in Socialist East Europe? Magris reflects that struggle in his assessment of the conflict between the world of the Rhine (Germany and the West) and the world of the Danube (Mitteleuropa), between unitary German culture and heterogeneous, multinational Danubian culture.
The historian Claudio Magris, I believe, worries more about American influence and action in Central Europe. About countries like Romania with weak economies and strong nationalism. The realities of Hungarians against Romanians, Croats against Serbs, phenomena that recall the worst of the past. Damned Bulgarians, charged its neighbors, damned Romanians, said the Hungarians as the two nations fought over Transylvania, damned Hungarians, said the Romanians and built fences between the two Eastern nations while Hungary was tearing down the fences between it and West Europe, damned Croats-damned Serbs, the two brothers swore as they went to war one against the other. Battles of words and not only. Ethnic minorities and religious minorities as Orthodox Serbs slaughtered Moslem Kosovars who long struggled in Yugoslavia for independence. And of more recent vintage, damned Americans, who bombed Belgrade and supported the independence movement in Kosovo in order to erect there one of America’s major military bases.
Fortunately those many diverse peoples have long and powerful cultural legacies to fall back on. European Union rules, as negative as they are economically, socially and politically, in the long run can help prevent them from attacking each other and reassure them about any latent expansionistic aspirations of Germany. But I repeat: the chief threat to Central Europe today comes from the West, from across the Atlantic. The threat to make of them American colonies.
In 2008, Warsaw and Washington struck a deal on deploying ten US long-range interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a global air-defence system which was pushed by the US administration of George W. Bush. Now Obama has launched a review of the controversial system which Washington claims is intended to block potential Iranian attacks, a system fiercely opposed by Russia. The anti-missile system, meant to be ready by 2013, would also include a radar base in the Czech Republic, Poland's southern neighbour.
Moscow is alarmed by the latest US foray into its sphere of influence and has threatened to train nuclear warheads on Poland and the Czech Republic, both of which left the Communist bloc in 1989 and joined NATO 10 years later. Moscow charges the US with accelerating rearmament. Logically Moscow asks, antimissile shields against whose missiles? The Iranian threat, America answers. A system to protect Europe. That is indeed bullshit. The question of US threats to and fears of Russia, Communist or not, remains.
After the collapse of the USSR the whole world changed. But not US attitudes toward Russia. The fear of Russia remains. Why, one wonders? Is the Russian bear on the warpath? Is Russia pressing against West Europe and establishing military bases all over the world? Is Russia a dangerous Fascist dictatorship? Or is today’s Russian capitalism a sham to cover up masked Communism? Perhaps Socialism still lives in Russia?
I found some telling statistics of the year 2009 compiled by Russia’s Gallup Poll, the Levada Center. Only 29% of Russians consider the country better off now than in the Soviet era, while 60% regret the end of the Soviet Union and think it could have been saved. A whopping 51% want more state intervention than today and 63% think the state should provide public services and guarantee a decent standard of living. And as for a dictatorship in Russia, President Medvedv enjoys a popularity rating of 74%, Putin 79%, both elected democratically. Those are terrifying statistics to died-in-the-wool capitalists. American conservatives, and not only, worry that the passage of a law establishing an absurdly limited National Health Service for Americans smacks of—horror of all horrors!—“SOCIALISM.”
Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, www.wastelandrunes.com