Geographical Europe has always been divided into two halves that have evolved separately: one, linked to ancient Rome with the Latin alphabet as its hallmark, is anchored in the Catholic Church; the other is linked to Byzantium, the Orthodox Church and the Cyrillic alphabet. Since 1945, according to the novelist Milan Kundera in his essay “A Kidnapped West. The tragedy of Central Europe“, the border between the two Europes has shifted several hundred kilometers to the West. In such a way that the inhabitants who had always thought they were Westerners woke up one day to find that they were from the East. These surprised inhabitants are those who occupy the cultural territory that the Czech-French writer calls Central Europe.
Kundera published this essay in 1983, a year before his emblematic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being; at a time when the writer, who had been in France for six years after being exiled from his native Czechoslovakia, was already in the spotlight of Western intellectuals and readers. Kundera’s English publisher, Faber and Faber, as well as other European publishers, have now brought out this essay again, in a different political and cultural context. In 1993, Kundera, a Czech, began writing in French. And, after the fall of Communism in 1989, Kundera-the-essayist moved away from political issues to devote himself fully to cultural matters and focus on the novel as the quintessential European literary genre.
According to him, one of the hallmarks of Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century were the revolts that these countries organized against the Soviets: the Hungarian revolt of 1956; the Prague Spring of 1968; and the Polish uprisings that followed, several times in each decade. These revolts were encouraged by a large majority of citizens and sought above all to preserve the cultural identity of each country. The Russian Empire, according to Kundera, was doing everything possible to ensure that Central Europe would lose its identity as a territory marked by the multicultural tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Empire was a great opportunity to create a strong state in the center of Europe; however, Kundera asserts, the Austrians were torn between following “the arrogant nationalism of greater Germany” and their own Central European mission; that is why they failed to build a federal state of equal nations. Their failure affected Europe as a whole, because the many dissatisfied nations of the region shattered the Empire into pieces, in 1918. The Empire was thus divided into many small countries whose fragility allowed first Hitler and then Stalin to subjugate them.
The fragility of small countries is dealt with in detail in the book. Concerned as Kundera was about literary and social provincialism, he posed a series of questions: would we not have contributed more to humanity if we had united our creative energy with that of a larger nation, whose culture was clearly more developed than Czech culture? Have all the efforts we have expended to resurrect our people been worthwhile? Nevertheless, the writer concludes that the contribution of interwar Czech culture was extraordinary.
“A Kidnapped West” is one of the most lucid and influential essays Kundera ever wrote, and which today, in the midst of the Russian war against Ukraine, has acquired a particular significance, as well as a new relevance. According to him, Central Europe enjoyed maximum diversity within a minimum space. This concept horrified Russia, which is based on the opposite concept, that of seeking the minimum diversity in the maximum space. Nothing could be more alien to Central Europe and its passion for heterogeneity than standardizing and centralizing Russia, which had transformed with fearful determination all the nations of its empire (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians) into one great Russian people. With its centralizing tendencies and imperial dreams, Communism was the culmination of Russian history. And today, forty years after this essay was first published, those tendencies are still intact.
Kundera speaks of Russia’s imperial dreams, of the desire to take over as many nations as possible. At the end of the essay he states that in the nations that “have not yet perished,” (in the words of the Polish anthem), the vulnerability of Europe – of all Europe – becomes visible. In the years when Kundera wrote his essay, and also today, all European nations run the risk of soon becoming small nations and suffering the fate of such nations. In that sense, the fate of Central Europe is clearly an anticipation of the fate of Europe in general, and its cultures have quickly become immensely relevant.
Kundera bases his thoughts not only on modern history and politics but also on Central European literature: In Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, in which History appears as a gradual degradation of values; in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which describes a euphoric society, blissfully unaware that it will vanish in a very short time; in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk, which demonstrates that to impersonate an idiot is one’s last chance of preserving freedom; and in Kafka’s novelistic visions which tell us of a world without memory, of a world after historical time. All the great Central European creations of the 20th century can be understood as a long meditation on the possible end of European humanity.
After its publication in 1983, “A Kidnapped West” quickly gained notoriety, and made Central Europe an obligatory reference until it eventually became part of the general vocabulary. Although several intellectuals, mostly Ukrainian and Russian exiles and dissidents, such as Joseph Brodsky, countered Kundera with articles lamenting that the Czech author did not include their cultures and dissident movements in his essay, which were also rebelling against Russian expansionism.