Milan Kundera and the Return of Mitteleuropa

REVIEW: 'A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe' by Milan Kundera

May 28, 2023

Is Mitteleuropa a place, an idea, or a myth? Geographically, Central Europe is roughly congruous with the bygone Habsburg Empire. It ranged eastward from Salzburg in the west to Cracow in Poland and Lemberg/Lviv in Ukraine. Its grand metropolitan centers were Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, rivaling if not outdoing Berlin in its glory days between Bismarck and Der Führer.

So much for the maps. But this space was also an idea and a state of mind, a multinational, multicultural cauldron bubbling with imagination and achievement. The fire underneath was extinguished by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Habsburg is now tiny Austria, famous for its schlag, strudel, and skiing.

Adolf Hitler went first with his murderous assault. Joseph Stalin and successors all but finished the job in a kind of Communist gleichschaltung, asphyxiating thought and inventiveness. Under the Soviet knout, Central Europe became Eastern Europe on our mental map, locked up behind the Iron Curtain and cowed by the Red Army, which periodically crushed revolts in Budapest, Warsaw, and Prague. Central Europe turned into a Soviet satrapy, a place that might just as well have been situated in Outer Siberia.

Hence, the fitting title of Milan Kundera’s slender book, A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe. As he reminds us, "These countries had vanished from the map of the West." Hence kudos to HarperCollins, which brought them back by republishing two luminous pieces written in 1967 and in 1983. Kundera, a Czech who emigrated to France in 1975, is best known in the West for his Unbearable Lightness of Being. His fiction and essays fill a small bookcase.

Why reprint pieces authored in the distant past? One reason is as timely as can be, with Russian president Vladimir Putin committing a twin-crime against Ukraine, starting with last year’s full-scale invasion. Not only is he flattening the country with his systematic strikes on civilians. He is also reenacting Stalin and his successors who tried their worst to extinguish Ukraine’s national culture.

The second reason transcends today’s brutalities. What is Central Europe, asks Kundera, this kidnapped land ground down by Hitler’s armies in World War II and then by Moscow’s divisions? (The last Russian units went home in 1994.) Kundera’s terse answer: This area embodied a "maximum of diversity in a minimum of space."

Not the DEI kind, but the genuine diversity of thinking and speaking that breeds excellence, not deadening group-think. Russia was always an engine of uniformity, never mind such giants as Leo Tolstoy and Dmitri Shostakovich. Why this steamroller? An Asiatic despotism at heart, Russia had defied the Three R’s: Renaissance, Reformation, (democratic) Revolution, plus the E of Enlightenment and the L of Liberalism. Plus, Greek philosophy and Rome’s rule of law in its Republican era.

By comparison, the loosely run empire of Franz Joseph (1830-1916) was a haven of free-ranging discourse. It did try to suppress ethnic nationalism, but not cultural autonomy. Its subjects were largely free to think, write, and strike out on untrodden paths. Never so in the numbing empire next door. It kept expanding power, not liberty.

After the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Habsburg’s newly independent successor states unleashed a veritable tsunami of mold-breaking achievement in the arts and sciences. And that places Central Europe in the West, as Kundera argues, although we wrongly called it Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Think of the giants of Mitteleuropa who revolutionized our thinking, as listed by Kundera: Sigmund Freud with his Polish and Czech roots, Edmund Husserl and Gustav Mahler, who spent their childhoods in Czechia. Joseph Roth was born in Galicia, and Franz Kafka in German-speaking Bohemia. Beyond Kundera’s Hall of Fame, there are Franz Werfel and Arthur Schnitzler, Elias Canetti and the Viennese Karl Kraus with his caustic, subversive wit. During the Manhattan Project, Hungarian scientists like Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Leo Szilard invented the bomb that revolutionized the nature of war.

They were Jews, Kundera recalls, and "no other part of the world has been so marked by Jewish genius. Aliens everywhere and everywhere at home, [they] were lifted above national quarrels," providing an "integrating element" and "intellectual cement," which they could not have done in the clutches of the real East that was despotic Russia. Kundera draws a striking parallel between Jews and non-Jews. Rooted in the Western tradition, Central Europe was the abode of "small nations" squeezed between Germany and Russia. Jews were "the small nation par excellence," a pars pro toto.

"Small is beautiful," to recall a much-cited line by E.F. Schumacher in his eponymous book of 1973—a grand alternative to "bigger is better." Let’s change that to "diversity is better" because the many small create a large market for ideas. It allows, nay, encourages a plethora of competing perspectives that enlarge the mind.

Why the "small nation" of the Jews? Liberated from their ghettos, they were outsiders looking in and then insiders looking out. Not tied down by a dominant dispensation, they could question and defy frozen convictions. They were paradigm breakers akin to the intelligentsia of those small nations in Central Europe caught in the vise of Germany and Russia. If you don’t have the guns, you have to rely on brains, effort, and ambition—like Freud in Vienna and Kafka in Prague who overturned reigning perspectives in psychology and literature.

Even a small dose of liberty fuels the flames. In the Cold War, it took just a glimmer of hope during the brief thaw of the 1960s. Kundera pronounced in 1967, "If today our arts are flourishing, it is thanks to the advances of freedom of thought." He adds: "It may allow us Czechs to ask more pertinent questions and to create myths more meaningful than those of peoples who have not made the same journey." The Russians did not.

In "The Tragedy of Central Europe" written in 1983, he stresses a point even more compelling 40 years later when Ukraine is trapped in a life-and-death struggle. "In Central Europe, the Eastern border of the West, everybody has always been particularly sensitive to the dangers of Russian might." He quotes the Czech historian František Palacký, who had speared Russian ambitions to create a "universal monarchy [which] would be an immeasurable disaster." This was written in 1848!

Kundera reminds his readers that "nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, centralizing, determined to transform every nation in its empire." With eerie foresight, he points to Ukraine, stressing the "continuity" of Russian imperialism. And accuses the West of not "noticing Central Europe’s disappearance." The West had forgotten that this realm is "not a state; it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary and must … be redrawn with each new historical situation."

Another striking premonition: "When the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, they did everything possible to destroy Czech culture." They did so as well in the Ukrainian Holodomor, the genocidal Famine of the Thirties Stalin had inflicted, and they are doing so again in the conquered parts of Ukraine. "Totalitarian Russian civilization," Kundera thunders, "is the radical negation of the West."

Yet this time, the West has not forgotten Mitteleuropa. It may finally have comprehended that it is part of the West, for strategic as well as cultural reasons. At age 94, Kundera is being vindicated. The West is finally treating Central Europe as family. Let’s hope that Putin has noticed.

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe
by Milan Kundera
HarperCollins, 96 pp., $24.99

Josef Joffe, a distinguished fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, teaches international politics and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.