Central Europe according to Jerzy Giedroyc

Categories: Talks and IdeasPublished On: 2017 May, 29


What needs to be said at the beginning is that Central Europe did not exist.

I am not going back to classical antiquity or the Middle Ages, I am focusing on Modernity, especially on the last two centuries. It needs to be mentioned though, that historians search for the roots of Europe’s diversity precisely in classical antiquity and in the Middle Ages. The Roman world and its territorial and civilization borders (limes romanus) were undoubtedly the first factors of Europe’s diversification. The historical rhythm of Europe’s christianisation, which at first was Gallo-Roman, then Germanic and finally Slavic, that at the same time was the rhythm to which the states were formed, explains some differences between particular parts of Europe, especially when compared to the borders of  Rome’s and Bysantium’s influence and – in consequence – of catholic and orthodox Christianity.

Thinking about the modern concept of Central Europe we do not necessarily have to make such long excursions, it is enough to keep them in mind. What is most important and what needs to be stressed, is the fact that Central Europe did not exist for most of modern history, roughly marked by the dates 1750-1950; it did not exist at all in the years 1815-1918, that is to say between the Congress of Vienna and the Treaty of Versailles.

Dreikaiserecke – Three Emperors’ Corner – was the symbolic name of a great territory between the ethnic Russia and ethnic Germany, which nowadays includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Chech Republic, as well as Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Moldova. The whole area of these countries is 2 mln km2 and is populated by more than 160 mln people. These quantities are comparable to the area and population of France, Great Britain and Germany, that is to say to the size of three european empires, which at the time were global empires. The consequences of the fact that for an entire age of modern european history neither this huge territory, nor its inhabitants existed as historical subjects – meaning political, national, social and often cultural players – must be understood; the issue of ethnic languages and national education was the key.

To put it tangibly, Dreikaiserecke is a topographic spot on Polish territory, near Cracow, where, between 1815 and 1914, were meeting the borders and military guards of three imperial forces – Russia, Germany and Austria. The domination of these forces in this part of Europe did not only lead to the division of Poland, but also to the historic cancellation of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Great Duchy of Lithuania, Wallachia and Moldova, as well as blocking the independence of Ukraine, Belarus, Slovenia, Slovacchia, Serbia, Croatia, Latvia and Estonia. And while the emancipation of these countries began, during the short interwar period (1919-1939)  in the capitals of the big empires they were not considered as permanent as other, „normal” states of old Europe. That is why Chechoslovakia could be sold to Hitler at the first opportunity, and that is why later the independence of Baltic Countries and Poland – this „bastard of the Treaty of Versailles” – could be made impossible. These states were considered a form of Saisonstaats. Without doubt it was the heritage of the ideology, politics, and mentality of Dreikaiserecke.

These two examples illustrate the permanency of conceptualisations and notions created in the XIXth century. Obviously, political circumstances of these events were very complicated, but I am not a political historian and my task is not to explain them; what interests me, as a cultural historian, are the conceptualisations and notions of Europe in modern history and not their factual run.

XIXth century was not only the age of political, economical and military domination of great European empires, but also the age of the formation of universal literature and art, and especially the age of emergence of modern science, including humanities with all the forms of academic institutionalisation (universities, academias etc.). Obviously, it happened under the protection of the empires and on their behalf. Since none of the nations of Central Europe existed as independent countries – neither did exist the notion of Central Europe – they did not take part in the modernisation of european culture that took place in the XIXth century. As a result they did not participate in the creation of global literature and modern science, and consequently they didn’t exist in European notions and ideas, apart from a few episodes such as the Spring of Nations 1848 and some ethnographic, especially romantic, fascinations. It was at this time, that the idea of global history was devised, modern history and European literature were written, modern art was created, the systems of general education with all of its tools (manuals, atlases, anthologies, readings etc.) were introduced – Central Europe and its constituting nations were not included in these scientific and educational systems. This notion, as well as the historical reality that it represented, were absent from modern European thought and immagination for a very long time. The one who could not be heard, could not be listened to.

The consequences of this exlusion were political, but also economical, social and cultural. For example, in the last two hundred years many artists, writers and thinkers came from Central Europe: Sandor Petöfi, Adam Mickiewicz, Antonin Dvořak, Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, Tomáš Masaryk, Stanislaw Brzozowski and Ivo Andrič, just to name a few. However, despite all the efforts of critics and scholars, and despite the promotion of cultural and scientific politics of independent countries, these artists, thinkers and writers are not a part of the canons of modern European culture, and existed on the pages of cultural history merely as regional curiosities. A few musicians can be named, who crossed this border and became globally known, but the language of music is universal per se; when it comes to writers and thinkers, a similiar success was possible only at the price of changing their language and often also their national identity: the Ukrainian Gogol became a Russian writer, Korzeniowski, a Pole, became an English writer named Condrad, Lukács who was Hungarian, became a German thinker and Ionesco, who was Romanian – became a French playwright. I am not even going to mention the almost uncountable number of scientists (as Maria Skłodowska-Curie) and artists from „the School of Paris” (as Marc Chagall), because what I want to do is single out a certain peculiarity of the cultural and intellectual consciousness of this region – the „natural” sense of being a part of Europe and, at the same time, of  a deep division between Europe and our countries. This ambivalence – not accidental and returning during the last two centuries – in my opinion explains the specificity of our mutual relations.

On the one hand we had a strong awareness of being Europeans, meaning being heirs of ancient and Christian traditions, of medieval knightship and municipal government, of the renaissance’s universitites and church reform, of the debates of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of Human Rights. Many examples from our history can legitimize this awareness: the mission of Cyril and Methodius, Saint Stephen’s crown, the universities of Prague and Cracow, the Baltic Hanseatic towns, the Czech reformation, the noble republic of Poland and Lithuania etc. Every intellectual coming from Central Europe (at the time when it did not exist) felt as a carrier of these values and this amazing heritage – which made him proud, but at the same time – as has been stated before – the carriers of this heritage were not known or appreciated in Western Europe, that constituted the Centre of Europe.

From there comes the inevitable collision of two different views of oneself in the consciousness of a Polish, Hungarian of Lithuanian intellectual, creating intricate complexes of both inferiority and superiority, the existence of which is confirmed by stereotypes recorded in various works of French and Russian literature of the XIXth century. This collision, this complex, determines the ambiguous reaction to the West, which is characterised by both fascination and rejection. Fascination, since all the values and criteria of civilisation by which they were constituted, were connected to the West; rejection, since the West did not acknowledge our participation in the world of European values and  disregarded us altogether. This beloved West, this coveted Centre of Europe was always ready to cheat us and let us down: in Rapallo, in Munich, in Yalta. I need to repeat what I claimed before – I am not writing an essay about political history, I am merely using political examples. The importance of  Jerzy Giedroyc’s activity, that I would like to honor properly, lays in the fact that in „Kultura’s” circle, great artistic, intellectual and political works were created, works that were able to change the deepest cultural foundations. An intellectual from our region got rid of this ambiguous historical baggage and presented himself as an independent individual. Ipso facto Central Europe created  and presented itself as an undeniable value and as an autonomous and essential part of Europe.

Polish historian Andrzej Peciak with J. Giedroyc (at right), 1995. Photo: Wikimedia.


Obviously, these important changes are not only the effect of „Kultura’s” activity. They have been caused by a whole chain of historic events and actions of many subjects during the course of the second half of the XXth century. However in this long and tangled chain of causes and arguments, as in all important historical events, a link must be pointed out, which – I am entirely sure of that – was the key to this huge historical transformation, and which is an original and fundamental contribution made by Jerzy Giedroyc and „Kultura” to European and global history.

We need one more retrospection to understand this link of the chain. Without doubt, the interwar Poland was destroyed by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that led to the invasions of Hitler and Stalin and to a double occupation of our territory. This pact entailed also the loss of independence of the Baltic Countries and the incorporation of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova into the Soviet Union. We must remember that Czechoslovakia was already divided, while Hungary and Romania became Hitler’s vassals. It can be said that the birth of Central Europe was crushed and a new version of the Three Empires’ Corner was imposed on us. Two of them were Hitler and Stalin, the third one were the western forces that remained passive and concessive. That is the reason for a complicated tangle of feelings especially characteristic of Polish attitudes: demonisation of the two tyrants and a sense of disappointment caused by the Western allies. These feelings will be even stronger after the conferences of Yalta, Teheran and Potsdam. Polish government-in-exile (in London), which was a legal continuation of the authorities of the Second Republic of Poland, never acknowledged the results of these conferences. But it was this government that, after the war, lost the recognition of the great forces.

In this general view of Poland’s and other European countries’ relations, one dimention has not yet been mentioned – their mutual relations. I cannot sketch a complete map of these relations, that would consider all nations and all minorities of this region during the interwar period, because it is a task comparable to the creation of cosmology; I shall be satisfied with sketching only Poland’s relations with its neighbours and minorities. In the interwar period all these relations were bad, we were in conflict not only with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, but also with Lithuania and independent Czechoslovakia, and with Ukraine and Belarus included in the Soviet Union. What is more – one third of people living in Poland belonged to different minorities (among others 5 mln Ukrainians, 3 mln Jews, 2 mln Belarussians). With all of these minorities and, consequently, with almost all of our neighbours we had bad, if not hostile relations. It will not be an exagerration, if I dare say that it was a time bomb, ready to explode! I do not know the relations that Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia and other countries of our region had with their neighbours and their minorities, but it is certain that they are possible to compare with Poland’s situation. Before World War II this part of Europe was like a storehouse of timebombs, further fuelled by the influence of totalitarian ideologies and systems, like nazism and stalinism. The explosion of these bombs was provoked and carried out by totalitarian forces: Shoah, the concentration world, resettlement of nations and minorities, ethnic cleansing. It must be remembered, though, that all these genocidal events would not have been possible without the consent of neighbours and national majorities. A very recent explosion of national, religious, ethnic and social conflicts after the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation  can be used as a reminder of these historical possibilities.

Jerzy Giedroyc understood this danger before the war, both as a young journalist and as a political leader, and he criticised Poland’s minority policies, especially toward Ukrainians. After the experience of World War II, he called for a radical change in Poland’s relations with its neighbours and national minorities – this change became the core of his political and personal life, together with his longing for the creation of a real „Central Europe”.

Polish, European and global situation after World War II, and especially after the Iron Curtain, and the bipolar world structure have been strengthened, was obviously hard if not hopeless. Central European countries either became parts of the Soviet Union (like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) or its subordinate satellites (like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria). American policy that determined Europe’s fate did not aim for liberation of these countries, but only for containment of the Soviet Union. Western European countries were busy with post-war reconstructions and the first initiatives that would in the end result in the creation of the union. Polish government-in-exile – as already stated – rejected the consequences of allies’ conferences, demanding return to the pre-war situation.

In this context, the situation of a small group of intellectuals (literally a few people), gathered around Jorzy Giedroyc, who wanted to act for a better future seemed hopeless. There was a time in Kultura’s history (at the end of 1940s and at the beginning of 1950s), when they seemed like a solitary trace of another historical possibility. In this situation they created a sort of wager that can be called Pascalian, since it was rather an ardent leap of faith than a conscious political calculation. Elements of this wager are to follow:

  • the bipolarity of the world is temporary;
  • American forces are not exhausted and the attraction of liberal democracy is still alive;
  • the process of European integration reinforces the influence of this democracy
  • the decay of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc is inevitable and a matter of time
  • the determining factors of this decay will be the aspirations of national independence and political democratization; and finally
  • the return to the pre-war situation is not possible and – when it comes to mutual relations between nations and states of Central Europe – neither is it welcome.

Editor Giedroyc and his companions did not stop after this leap of faith, but started working with all of their inner strenght, searching for the support of external forces, that would allow the implementation of this wager. They worked on creating a new Central Europe, that would not be as weak and divided as before the war.

To accomplish this truly historical work, almost all of the elements of traditional Polish cultural identity, in its historical, social and psychological dimensions had to be changed. That is why, keeping in mind the complexity and multiplicity of the aspects of this work, Jerzy Giedroyc, „Kultura”, and the Institute of Literature always displayed an array of different measures: poetic and political, artistic and journalistic, scientific and social, documentary and ideological. This unique, original and unprecedented work must be studied in all of its aspects and dimensions. These studies will be long, as long as the duration of Polish and European cultures.

I have no way nor competence to describe this work in its entirety. My task is easier and much more functional – I want to indicate and explain this element in the great and multidimensional work of „Kultura” that leads directly to the idea of Central Europe and that will become a constitutive factor in creating modern Europe.

From the long and rich history of „Kultura” I chose just one episode, seemingly strange and meaningless, but in reality fundamental and full of consequences. What I have in mind is the act of recognition of post-war borders, meaning the borders imposed by the systems of Yalta and Potsdam, that is to say by Stalin and the Soviet Union, that absorbed more or less one third of the area of pre-war Poland. These eastern territories were borderlands inhabited by Lithuanians, Belorussians and Ukrainians, but they were annexed with military force. The so called „Soviet republics” that conducted this annexation formally, were political fictions, while these territories, with capitals in Vilnius, Hrodna and Lviv had a great symbolic meaning for the Poles. Jerzy Giedroyc and „Kultura” recognized these borders at the end of 1952, that is to say before Stalin’s death. It was not simply the recognition of the Soviet Union’s annexation, because it was connected with the recognition of Lithuania’s Belarus’s and Ukraine’s right to independence. This granting of rights must be understood correctly – it was equivalent to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the entrance of these countries into the boundaries of an uniting Europe. In this sense this recognition can be understood as an act of foundation of Central Europe.

Seemingly though, it was a strange, meaningless act. This scornful opinion can be reinforced – from the point of view of post-war political realism it was simply a declaration of a small group of emigrant intellectuals, who had no political mandate and did not represent anyone but themselves. How many emigrants from all European countries were scattered all over the world at that time? Did anyone publish an anthology of these declarations, ephemeral because of their number and quality? Jerzy Giedroyc did not represent Polish emmigration as a whole, the emmigration that was mostly loyal to the government-in-exile. This act of recognition entailed a rupture with the emigrant majority! The small circle of „Kultura” had no authority apart from the ideological wager, that is to say a vision of a radically changed historical situation and a daily effort to change it.

Some of the work has already been done – the talks with representants of Czech and Ukrainian emigration were started, the views on Soviet regime and the Russian nation exchanged, the observation of the German situation – already free from the wartime trauma – were begun, antisemitism has been radically rejected and relations between Poles and Jews have been recommenced. But the historical road that layd before these intellectuals was still long and full of obstacles. The years 1956, 1968, 1970, 1980-1981 all brought important historical events which lead us to 1989, the victory of Solidarity in Poland, the end of the Soviet regime, of the order of Yalta and of the Autumn of Nations and is seen as the birth of a real Central Europe. It is not possible to explain all of the causes, arguments and conditions. I do not want to say that what Jerzy Giedroyc and „Kultura” did is the intellectual source of these changes and events, I am only stating that without this action and influence, history might have been different.

To sum up – the position taken by Jerzy Giedroyc and „Kultura” was an act of great political courage and historical sagacity. At the beginning of these intensive and long-term actions they took a position which was polemic on four different levels: towards the government-in-exile, that respected the doctrine of pre-war Poland’s territorial integrity; towards Warsaw’s government, that accepted the post-war borders, dependent on the Soviet Union; towards the Soviet Union itself, because the right to independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania would entail the desintegration of this Union; finally, towards the great forces of the West, because trough the doctrine of „containment” they recognised the stability and integrity of the Soviet Union. The political vision, which was a key term for Jerzy Giedroyc, surpasses the given situation, but it is not a fantastical dream. It is an intellectual engagement, a moral task – it is realised by working daily, persistently and sustainedly. The crew of „Kultura”, a group of Central European intellectuals, prepared and realized a vision of history based on a wager, which was an act of faith. They were truly independent, creative people, real subjects of history.

The main elements of this vision are as follows:

  • Central Europe does exist and it is an integral and specific part of Europe. This existence was disguised by the last form of Dreikaserecke, presented at the time as a historical necessity.
  • Central Europe is a constellation of nations, which have the same right to independence as other European countries. This right must be acknowledged by the external forces, but also mutually by the nations that Central Europe consists of. It can be said that this last issue is the most difficult one, since it must be resolved in a practical way – everyone must acknowledge everyone. The example of acknowledging of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine without any prior conditions creates a model for mutual relations.
  • Mutual political acknowledgement creates a prerequisite which is insufficient for a real historical acknowledgement. A historical acknowledgement, as understood by „Kultura”, means the mutual acknowledgement of subjectivity – of nations, cultures, religions etc. Nobody has the right to impose anything – everything demands mutuality.
  • And finally, the change of mutual relations demands a critical verification of the whole heritage of the past – to eliminate all the obstacles, even mental and psychological ones, and to consolidate all propitious factors. Signing diplomatic treaties is not enough – what is needed is a real, deep change of human attitudes.

If this intention of a peaceful, „velvet” creation of Central Europe as a constellation of independent countries, which are EU members or candidates, can be realised in a mutual understanding and mutual friendship, it will undoubtedly be the realization of Jerzy Giedroyc’s and „Kultura’s” political vision.

On May 26, Prof. A. Mencwel visited Vilnius and took part in the OLF’s cycle of discussions entitled “In the search for the European idea”.