The Notion of Central Europe
The notion of Central Europe can be presented on the basis of the different aspects combining historical, geographical, as well as cultural identities at once. There are several interpretations of this concept; one can trace the common identity of this region back to the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, in fact a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe unified as the central European political entity under the concept of the continuation of the Western Roman Empire and fulfilling the idea of the temporal form of a universal dominion with the pope as the spiritual head. However, we will look only in more recent definitions and shortly touch upon only of few of them.
Firstly, it can be regarded for example from the geopolitical point of view in terms of the ‚cordon sanitaire’ (sanitary cordon) established after the World War I in compliance with the outcomes of the Versailles Peace conference system with its belt of ‚reapering‘ countries established on the ruins of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, mainly Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but naturally also Austria itself. On the other hand, it could have included also other countries like the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) and Romania which were to participate in the system of military alliances instituted by France in post-World War I to balance the military power of Germany. In this understanding, the Central Europe covered the interwar period in its widest concept the geographical space between Germany and Russia filling in all the countries separating these countries from each other. It however nevertheless embraced a number of the non-German territories with present German speaking populations being therefore the target area of intended German penetration and domination regarding its economic power as well as the cultural influence.
Secondly, in line with the first concept, this part of the Europe was the long-time target of much earlier policy, referring both to geographical as well as cultural aspects in the German term Mitteleuropa, or Middle Europe in English. In this concept the notion referred to territories under German cultural hegemony, therefore encompassing, besides Austria–Hungary and Germany themselves, also other territories with German speaking population and German cultural dominance. In that sense, it could have included also for the example the Baltic countries north of East Prussia on the one hand, as well as Switzerland on the other hand. This notion was however heavily spoiled by Nazi version of ‘Mitteleuropa’ and further destroyed also by the expulsion of the large population of Germans from some of those countries after the World War II.
Thirdly, in the following decades, the term of Central Europe was on engaged sometimes to describe the belt of countries, which became after the World War II the part of the pro-soviet Eastern bloc and was used to describe especially those westernmost communist countries of the Warsaw Pact which were nevertheless regarded to remain culturally linked to Western Europe. In this sense this notion covered mainly Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but also East Germany for example.
In the post-Cold war the notion of Central Europe has been used in many concepts including sometimes much wider geographical areas then described above. Most often the Central Europe is nowadays used to refer mainly to the cultural heritage of the Habsburg Empire (later Austrian-Hungarian Empire) which quite often includes and it is influential in the countries of the Danube region. In more politically oriented cooperation, in connection to the third offered definition above, the notion reappeared also since 1991 with the establishment of the Visegrád countries group (Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in that time) which was understood as a vehicle for coordinating the aspiration of these central European countries in their path to the European Union achieved in 2004.
After 12 years later, in 2016, is there any prevailing and valid concept of the Central Europe? What are its main characteristics? Or, are we able to provide for the new content of the concept of Central Europe? This is most probably subject to never ending discussions on proper definition of this region which is the crossroad of several influences over the centuries.
“‘Mitteleuropa’ is not the same thing as ‘Central Europe’ in geographical and historical terms. On the contrary, it refers to a particular political idea and historical experience that comes from the 19th Century… The concept of ‘Mitteleuropa’ underscores the specifically historical aspect of the Austrian empire: it is not German, Slavic, or Hungarian. Its political reason for being and moral basis lies in the defense it provides to the small nations that are living along the Danube against German and Russian imperialism.”
(Václav Bělohradský, Mitteleuropa: The Austrian Empire as Metaphor)