Thursday, 6 June 2013

The 'In-Between Space': Eastern and Central Europe as Incubators of Racism, Nationalism, and Fascism?

Budapest with 'traditional' central European climate

The Sexual Automatons are Coming!

On a recent visit to Budapest we came across a liberal English language weekly left lying around various hipster cafés in the upstart grad district that is Erzsébetváros (despite the nasty authoritarian bent of the present government, Budapest is a much more 'hipster' town than Prague, which feels sleepy by comparison). The paper was running with a report on a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party. Writing in a popular right wing daily (Magyar Hirlap), Zsolt Bayer had claimed:

A significant part [sic] of Gypsies is not fit for coexistence and not fit to live amongst people. This part [sic] of the Gypsy world are animals and behave as animals. Seeing anyone, they get into a state of rut... whenever and wherever they want. When they meet resistance, they commit murder...1

Let's not assume the awkward translation (with its interesting grasp of quantity and conjugation) is concealing a smarter logic. Hard at work here is a truly corrosive racism, though one possessed (perhaps unsurprisingly) of an equally far-reaching stupidity. Imagine the exhaustion of the poor Gypsies! To be so powerfully aroused by the sight of anyone! Although this assertion is swiftly contradicted by his insistence that this horniness happens willingly. Gypsies are, therefore, simultaneously automatons at the mercy of their sexual drives, and masters of their own sexual capacities, able to arouse themselves at (literally) the drop of a hat.

Fidesz, of course, is only a centre-right party (by admittedly lax Hungarian standards). Its leader and prime minister Victor Orban was an opposition stalwart during the socialist years. Formed in 1988, and despite its ever growing radical nationalism, the party has somehow maintained a grip on mainstream voters. Apparently, anti-gay legislation, increasing control over the media, and overt racism are all things that were fought for by the opposition in the name of an open, tolerant, civil society. Except, of course, they weren't, and Fidesz's 2010 victory at the polls amounts to a scary nationalist revanchism in the face of a brief pro-EU interlude. You can probably imagine what to expect from the similarly charming far-right Jobbik party, who regularly organise marches against 'Gypsy crime'. One Jobbik MP, Marton Gyöngyösi, recently called for all Hungarian Jews to be 'catalogued' on account of their threat to national security.2 As is so often the case, Fidesz and Jobbik have a weirdly symbiotic relationship (far more so than Europe's centre- and far-left parties do these days) in which Fidesz, despite its growing monopoly over parliamentary power, is occasionally forced to chase Jobbik's radical 10% of voters.

It might seem odd, then, that Hungary was once considered one of the leading-lights of post-Communist Europe. Many had high hopes owing to the country's flirtation with reform communism and market socialism (read: 'state-centralized consumerism') under the Kádár regime. Its underlying civil society was deemed 'mature' because of the grand-bourgeoisie's long association (and at times formal equality) with its Austrian counterpart. Václav Havel included Hungary in the Visegrad group, a sort of geographical and political vanguard of the former socialist states, along with Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Hungary was the stand-out player for a line of thought that strongly believed in a 'Central Europe' that had been artificially separated from 'the West' by historical mishap, and was basically ready to rejoin the latter's cosmopolitan, open society. This picture was, of course, flattering for both.

Heroes' Square

Homage to Horthy

Commentators both within and outside Fidesz are quick to draw parallels with the ultra-nationalism of the Horthy regime, which presided over the deportation of 400,000 Auschwitz-bound Hungarian Jews. Spiegel Online reports the recent unveiling of a statue of Horthy in Kereki in southwestern Hungary.3 However, with their obsession with the Magyar nation and national identity, Fidesz can lay claim to a cultural and historical legacy that reaches back to the years of high Magyar chauvinism, when Hungary was (for a time following 1848) perceived to be in the vanguard of a progressive, nationalist Europe.

How to account for the swing towards racism? Conceived as a symptom of a specific kind of "ethno-linguistic" nationalism, racism in east European countries is seen as an extension of the victory of intolerant, anti-cosmopolitan, illiberal historical currents. For Bideleux and Jeffries, Hungary contains traditions of both this virulent, exclusionary nationalism and another, more liberal strain (imported, of course, from 'the West'). Between 1875 and 1905 the Magyar elite (personified in the Liberal/National Party) centralized power in the state, pursued a policy of cultural 'Magyarisation', and pursued an ideology of demonisation of 'inferior' (Slavic, Jewish, Romani) minorities.4 As a tactic to maintain and consolidate power in the face of the 'liberalising' arrival of capitalism, with all its attendant 'destabilizing' effects, Magyar nationalism was a success insofar as it identified the state with the interests of the Magyar nation and created a linguistic hegemony for Hungarian. More tolerant, inclusive national tendencies were, however, suppressed.

Here's some typically weird footage of today's far-right out in full commemorative force:

This Mess We're In

This account of Magyar nationalism (of which the present Fidesz government is one manifestation), chimes with a more general account of east European nationalism. Here it gets a little confusing. Although many commentators draw a line of cultural and historical distinction between 'Central Europe' (broadly Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and sometimes Slovenia) and the rest of 'the East', they still tend to group the various nationalisms together. In his weighty tome The Balkans: 1804-2012 the journalist-cum-historian Misha Glenny divides nationalist movements in Romania into those influenced by the Romantic (i.e. German or Central European) exclusionary varieties and the republican (i.e. French or Western) inclusive varieties. On the one hand there was allegiance to the soil, the colloquial language, the blood (all exclusionary); on the other, the allegiance to a common cultural ideal (at least potentially inclusive).5 Yet this dichotomy is complicated when one considers the more typically 'cosmopolitan' British model, which with its massive naval empire, established very different grounds for an ideology of national identity (built far more successfully than the French on the idea of a paternal metropole).

In reference to Hungary, Glenny says, "Liberal constitutionalism had too often become inseparable from national intolerance."6 This could be an epitaph for Hungary's internal political conflicts. Indeed, an epitaph for eastern and central Europe more generally. While in western Europe, the argument goes, nationality is defined in territorial terms, its ideology benignly inclusive, in eastern and central Europe nationalism is always defined in terms of blood, soil and ethnic identity. The problem, of course, is that liberal and conservative nationalisms, or tolerant and exclusionary ideologies of national identity, are conceived as separate, mutually antagonistic worldviews. No account is given of the point at which, in order to survive, liberal nationalism transforms into more virulent strands. There is a reason that the prime vessel of Magyar political identity was interchangeably called the National or Liberal party.

Moody black & white Prague by Siobhan 

The Czech Exception?

In her history of Czechoslovakia the American historian Mary Heimann reintegrates the apparently surprising post-War electoral success of the Communist Party into a tradition of corporatist, nationalist socialism stretching far back into the country's history. Against the Whiggish interpretation of (particularly) Czech history, she claims:

A particularly Habsburg way of conceiving of national identity - as tied to language and culture even more than to race and religion - ended twice in the creation, and twice in the destruction, of a state called Czechoslovakia. It also led its peoples into authoritarian demagoguery and caused millions unnecessary suffering.7

This begs the question: where, on the continuum of nationalisms from republican to romantic, are we to place the Czechoslovak one (which itself was informed by Habsburg ways of conceiving individual nations according to language)? Even Soviet-style socialism and the success of the Communist Party, in Heiman's view, become expressions of the legacy of Habsburg imperialism and a reactionary conception of linguistic groups as nations. Czechoslovak nationalism (as articulated by the Philosopher-Liberator T.G. Masaryk) was always decidedly more tolerant than its Magyar cousin. However, this might well have been practical: the Czech-Slovak national coalition could hardly afford to persecute its national minorities (given that there were, in fact, more German speakers than Slovaks in pre-war Czechoslovakia). There is, then, a darker edge to central European ideas of national identity.

Treading similar ground, Timothy Garton-Ash has written: "A superbureaucratic statism and formalistic legalism taken to absurd (and sometimes already inhuman) extremes were, after all, also particularly characteristic of Central Europe before 1914."8 For him the "most exact, profound and chilling anticipations of the totalitarian nightmare" were produced by central European authors - Kafka, Musil, Broch and Roth. Bideleux and Jeffries are in agreement:

The widely assumed superiority of east central Europe over the Balkans has been greatly exaggerated by those who conveniently forget that east central Europe was a major incubator of fascism, the Kafkaesque state, and racial and religious atrocities of the 20th Century.9

All, in the radical depths of their nationalisms (be they Balkan "ethnic", German "ethno-linguistic" or Habsburgian "cultural-linguistic"), are equal in their betrayal of a separate, west European liberal tradition.

Old map of central Europe

Dreams of Central Europe

A countervailing historico-cultural argument, espoused for example by the late Russian regional and religious historian Dmitri Furman, asserts that the very inclusion of that states stretching from Estonia in the north to Hungary in the south in the great (west) European civilisational project left them particularly well-equipped to join the EU.10 Those to the east of that line, however, are sadly consigned to membership of another, Byzantine or Ottoman tradition. Similarly Ramet and Wagner outline an "in-between space" somewhere in central Europe, which "shared with the west most if not all key phases and elements of development: Christianisation, Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, the creation of nation states, even (to some extent) the double revolution of industrialization and democratization."11 Milan Kundera said much the same in his famous essay 'The Tragedy of Central Europe': "For a thousand years [Central European] nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history."12

Even for those attempting to suture central and eastern European history, the motif of a certain 'in-between space' has been vital for cultural approaches to understanding Europe and the inter-relational differences within it. What the West invents the Centre distorts, only for the East, finally, to pervert and destroy. The distinction is usually articulated in 'civilisational' terms, i.e., as part of the expression of a purely historico-cultural inheritance. Yet it's as absurd to believe that the Balkan nationalist wars were the product of power relations in the Ottoman Empire as it is to blame inherent racial characteristics of the constituent people. Cultural interpretations of the series of conflicts that took place in the Balkans between 1989 and 1999 serve only to obfuscate socio-economic causes, specifically the destruction of the Yugoslav federal state and the devastating flight of capital from that country.

For Garton-Ash the "elective affinities" that bind the likes of Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics to the West through the "mythopoeic" manifestations of the "idea of Central Europe" bind them just as readily to an alternative tradition - not one of tolerance, liberalism and scepticism, but one of racism, anti-semitism, and Romantic uber-statism. This phenomenon, in a familiar reductio ad Hitlerum, reaches its apogee in Nazi Germany. It is this view that requires the motif of the 'in-between space' - a 'quilting-point' between eastern barbarism and western civilisation. It was in this way that 'Central Europe' became a political subject; the point of mediation between 'Western Civilisation' and 'Eastern Barbarism'; a crucible where the Century's great conflicts would be played out and European ideals tested. It was through the idea of 'Central Europe' that a generation of intellectuals found the means to articulate a perceived struggle: one that would end in either the redemption of Europe or its total destruction. It is from this perspective that Derek Sayer has called Prague the "capital of the 20th century". And it was also in this mood of historical tumult that Milan Kundera described the various revolts that shook communist regimes throughout the region:

The contradictions of the Europe I call Central help us to understand why during the last
thirty-five years the drama of Europe has been concentrated there: the great Hungarian revolt
in 1956 and the bloody massacre that followed; the Prague Spring and the occupation of
Czechoslovakia in 1968; the Polish revolts of 1956, 1968, 1970, and of recent years. In
dramatic content and historical impact, nothing that has occurred in "geographic Europe," in
the West or the East, can be compared with the succession of revolts in Central Europe.13

The Heimat Manoeuvre 

Central Europe's boosters and detractors all agree on one thing: that the region is home to a dual heritage, half-despotic and half-enlightened. Yet the attempt by liberal critics to write Nazism off as the grotesque flowering of the pan-Germanic Heimat is simultaneously an attempt to wipe out the specifically western legacy of nationalism, imperialism and racial domination. In accounts such as these it is as if slavery never happened and western nationalism was always benignly inclusive, if frumpily paternalistic.

It is probably no coincidence that the high-point of Magyar nationalism (1875-1905) fell entirely within the years identified by Eric Hobsbawm as the 'Age of Empire'. In many ways chauvinist nationalism was the direct inheritor of the revolutions of 1848 (themselves largely the product of a disenfranchised intellectual class) and their eventual suppression. In fact Hobsbawm claims that this period (1875-1914) experienced a "transmutation" in the nature of nationalism. Sovereignty as the project of a flowering people was substituted for autonomy, as it became increasingly important to achieve some ideal, narrowly defined notion of statehood (in many cases, perhaps mirroring generally "protectionist" and "mercantilist" trends in the world economy). Autarky, or self-sufficiency, became a reaction against the expansive territorial empires of the Great Powers. Also, "there was the novel tendency to define a nation in terms of ethnicity and especially in terms of language."14 In many cases the language which was to become the carrier of national identity had to be dredged up and reassembled either from oral or ancient sources, and then fiercely defended. Masaryk, the Czech Liberator himself, had to learn Czech as an adult (his first language was German).

The turn to "ethno-linguistic" conceptions of the nation and nationality should be understood in terms of the causes for which national sentiment was drummed up. The dichotomy between (western) liberal variants and (eastern) ethnic national ideologies may contribute a glimmer of nuance to the usual accounts of Balkan and eastern 'vice', but ultimately fails to account for why the Imperial west went about colonizing much of Africa and Asia, while to its immediate south and east the Imperialists' neighbours ended up taking their losses out on each other.

In the late 19th century, as Hobsbawm shows, all the ingredients that would eventually fuel fascism were latent in the new turn taken by nationalism (apologies for yet another reductio ad Hitlerum): an elevation of ethnicity and language to the role of transmitters of national identity; a strong emphasis on the state as guarantor of sovereignty; imperial/national autarky; a deep suspicion of national minorities. Yet in rejecting the suggestion that Nazism was an extreme product of a supposed Central European 'in-between space' (the embodiment of both good and evil; barbarism and civilisation), I would like only to stress that nationalism as a modern ideology has a definite line of continuity, arguably sub-divided into two strands, perhaps equally pernicious: one belonging to the winners; the other to the losers of the great European scrum.

1qtd., 11-17/01/13, The Budapest Times
4See: Bideleux and Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 253-254
5Glenny, The Balkans: 1804-2012, 63
6ibid., 56
7Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed, 324
8Ash, The Uses of Adversity, 166
9Bideleux and Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 14
10Read his interview with the NLR here:
11Ramet and Wagner, in Central and South Eastern European Politics since 1989, 14
12Kundera, text available here:
13Kundera, The Tragedy of Central Europe, text available here:
14Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 144


  1. I spent only 13 days travelling through Central Europe in December 1997. Our secular ancestors left Central and Eastern Europe before World War I. Is it common for Central European and Eastern Europeans to blame President Wilson for the destruction of Monarchial Europe? For Americans, Monarchial Europe still exists as a sociolunguistic illusion used to pass on our white-bread Anglo-American culture as we only go over there for your usual Art/History backpacking tour and then come back here as almost none of us have any roots over there because we all left before 1914. Actually, my ancestors left between 1904 and 1907. I just wondered what you all thought of Wilson's foreign policy fiasos.

  2. Sorry for the late reply, Robert. I wonder what your impressions of 'monarchical Europe' were? I certainly wouldn't blame Wilson's foreign policy for its collapse, though his principle of national self-determination provided powerful incentives to national leaders to compete for entente sympathies. But Europe was quite capable of bringing about its collapse by itself. In the years leading up to the 1914-18 War ever increasing competition between national and imperial states over markets, resources and colonies drove individual governments irresistibly towards war, despite the honest distaste for it among europe's ruling clans. Monarchical and imperial Europe destroyed itself. National, often republican or constitutional monarchical states were an ideal replacement, though one doomed for reasons of uneven and combined development to failure.