Central Europe as a Problem

Leonard Neuger 28 April 2009
Open, Sesame! I want to get out!
Stanisław Jerzy Lec

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there appeared in Germany the idea of Mitteleuropa, a concept related in discursive terms to colonial expansionism, infamous in its intentions. It is worth recalling, however, that the word "colony" (and its derivatives) comes from the Latin colonia, where it meant: a peasant enclosure, a settlement, in order to enter later - via the French colon (one who tills the soil, a settler) - eighteenth-century European dictionaries in its current, rather pejorative, and in any case widely disputed meaning. In the discourse of colonial expansionism, however, it retained a certain heroic aura, since it preferred settlers to nomads, those who cultivated anything at all to ignoramuses. The Latin colonia coincides here with the closely related term "culture" (from the Latin cultus, meaning cultivation, husbandry, breeding) in its original, agricultural association with that which is stable, settled, occupational, subject to care and concern. We should remember, however, that the concept of Mitteleuropa was not only an expression of the specific nationalistic megalomania of the Germans, but that it also easily inscribed itself into the Enlightenment model of the world, where, according to Larry Wolff [Wolff 1994] the hitherto north-south axis, deriving from the Romans and fundamental to the thinking of the Italian Renaissance city states, which divided the savage (or barbarian) from civilization, was complemented by a new geographical and cultural construction: the east-west axis. The boundary of civilization initially mapped here onto the German border with Poland, but after 1795 onto the border with Russia, which included, of course, the Polish lands occupied by Russia. Indeed, there was no questioning (on the part of German Enlightenment thinkers) of their own collaboration with the aristocracy, with Stanisław August Poniatowski or Empress Catherine II; but these were treated as havens or islands of civilization in the sea of barbarity.
Let us take as an example "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", albeit in the version by Théophile Gautier [Gautier 1862]. These adventures are played out as a rule beyond the borders of civilization, in Turkey, or on the moon, but also in Russia, including the Polish territories of the Russian partition, where, during an exceptionally cold winter (a signal of the domination of Nature), the baron encounters half-naked barbarous peasants in a wild landscape controlled by Nature.
The Prussian partition, on the other hand, was perceived as a wild but borderland terrain, more or less receptive to civilizing experiments. At the end of the eighteenth century (1791) Johann Gottlieb Fichte, visiting this partition, clearly expressed his mounting discomfort. In Silesia (Schlesien), where he tried to fathom the genuine Silesian character, he saw (I quote from Wolff, 334): "villages worse than the Saxon ones that already appear very Polish," the ubiquitous Jews, "everything not what it would have been in Saxony." Travelling further, beyond Breslau (Wrocław), Fichte turned his attention to economic and ethnic problems, and also to the landscape: the fields appeared to him "less cultivated," the population "more Slavic," and the language "rougher" (remember, he was talking about the German language) and almost incomprehensible. Having crossed the Silesian border, Fichte notes:
The first village is Ponikowo, German, but a shudder came over me, especially at the sight of the large dogs running freely around... The dress of the peasants takes on here already in the first village something wild and neglected [Wolff 1994, 335].
Once he found himself truly in Poland (Silesia for Fichte was a border terrain), he commented, as Wolff notes, on the subject of Polish women. They all had long black hair, and one especially was "so slovenly (schlumpig), as all Polish women, so inviting, and so dirty." Later he noticed that Polish women demonstrated "a stronger sex drive than German females." [Wolff 1994, 335].
Thus, in my view, it is precisely such a construction, dividing territories into those receptive to civilizing experiments and those which are entirely savage, impossible to civilize, that lies at the root of the concept of Mitteleuropa - a concept, I repeat, dating from the end of the nineteenth century; we may therefore consider it to be a certain framework for modernity. In geographical terms, it was a border which was always fluid, yet clear nevertheless. Fichte delineates a certain borderland space, a specific terrain that belongs to no-one in particular, where the savage is indeed conspicuous yet belongs, at least formally, to the world of the West.
Put in simple terms, we could therefore say: the place at which the discourse of colonial expansionism ceases is the East-West border. One might visit the East for the sake of its more or less perverse attractions, curiosities or riches, which, however, allow the West to crystallize, confirm or consolidate its own identity. This identity is built upon such oppositions as: civilization-barbarity; cleanliness-filth; culture-nature, including unbridled desires, bestiality, and a profusion of colour (Fichte's long- and black-haired Polish women, or ubiquitous Jews); intelligibility-unintelligibility; language-dialect. The attractiveness of, or aversion to, immersing oneself in barbarity, filth, nature, including what is not incomprehensible or badly run (and hence badly cultivated, as with Fichte's fields in Silesia), in bestiality, is more often than not, however, a disguised form of annexation, of conquest, of assimilation, of making something one's own. The East might therefore be a space of savagery lending itself to conquest (and not to colonization).
It was different with the border terrains, detached in one way or another from the East, areas neither external nor sufficiently internalized. They lend themselves in discursive terms to colonization, to being civilized, to modernization. They are changeable geographical spaces and, in contrast to the East, difficult to locate, define and control unambiguously. It is precisely these spaces, in my opinion, that were described by the appellation "Central Europe."
The Wild East, which was still languishing after all in reflections about what constituted Europe, was, however, somewhat extendible: it encompassed likewise Finland, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Hungary and Albania; and the work that convinces one most emphatically of this is Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), where bestial peasants, bloodsucking monsters, non-humans, appear in a nocturnal, wild and inhuman landscape.
And so we have arrived at an initial conception of Central Europe: it is a construction expressing itself in the discourse of colonial expansionism, elicited from the strict Enlightenment division of the world into civilized and savage, to some extent softening that division. Central Europe would be a space between East and West, a space for conversion, civilization, modernization, while its inhabitants, who were basically different, foreign, half-animal, would be the objects of a humanizing operation. Various constructions of foreignness or otherness intersect here: cultural-civilizational, class, gender.
As can easily be observed, the extreme Other here would be a filthy peasant of the female sex, living close to nature, endowed by nature with a large dose of colouring (almost as much as a Negro, God help us!), and obviously, as befitted an animal, giving vent in public to her unbridled appetites and jabbering away in an incomprehensible dialect. Something of the sort was seen by Fichte with his own eyes, by someone whom it is difficult to accuse of rashness. The account remains unbalanced, for we are speaking all the time of a colonized Other, which, if only it would let itself be tamed, has everything to gain. Yes, but what does the colonizer have to gain? He will gain, like Hegel's Master, a powerful identity, precisely because of his position in the discourse. For the subject of such discourse is defined in a distinct and obvious way, even if that definition is only a dumb assumption (otherwise the savage would have little idea of what to strive for). Thus the colonizer possesses or gains an identity, while the Central European basically has no identity; however, as a result of education-civilization-adaptation, he or she can acquire an identity (though still only the promise of one) understood as a process, and will thus become more and more like the prototype. His or her identity will never be identical to that of the colonizer, however; for the closer they are to the border with barbarity, the further away from the metropolis, the more stammering will be their language, the more squalid their dress and the more reprehensible their manners.
The discourse of the Enlightenment was not so homogeneous, however. Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as the German writers of Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") tried to resist it, gazing at the savage in their various ways in hope, at his naivety unsullied by the perverse miasmas of culture. The Romantics obviously went further, not always transcending in their essentialism, like Fichte, the boundary of racism. And an interesting thing: with the Romantics, the structure of Enlightenment discourse did not undergo in fact any radical change; the signs were merely relocated. It was precisely there, beyond the boundary of civilization, far from the metropolis, from universal language (that is from French, English and German in their elite versions) and from universal manners, that they invested their primary values and hopes. In other words, it was precisely beyond the boundaries of civilization, in the hearts (no longer in the one heart) of barbarity (understood in this version as a pool of Gombrowicz-like eccentricity, naivety and authenticity) that they located their discourses of emancipation. Well, at any rate the hope of them. They all launched into the field, set out for the Orient, which occupied besides a considerable portion of Europe in those days, for the boundaries of civilization, for the boundless fields of Ukraine for example, in search of values that had been supplanted by civilization.
Central Europe, as a border space, also offended in this version because of its non-definability. Not savage enough, too civilized to psychoanalyze oneself there, sufficiently different to attract attention to oneself. True, it could provide, and did provide, instances of rebellion motivated by political, metaphysical and religious causes; and it could entice with its otherness, including its linguistic otherness (here: very much desired, and idiomatic enough to be untranslatable) as well as with its discordance with commercial, capitalistic modernity. It was far removed from the sensuality of the Orient, however, or from Russia, perceived to be radical to the core and arousing, frankly, erotic thrills. No, it was a space still receptive to colonization, except that colonization in this version meant something entirely different: it was a space sufficiently virgin to be capable of absorbing the West without losing any of its own innocence and wildness. It was to be the West after psychoanalysis. Thus the young Heinrich Heine, roughly thirty years after Fichte (in 1822 to be precise), noted with approval and hope:
The Pole will wield the pen just as well as he wielded the lance, and will reveal himself to be just as competent in the field of knowledge as he was on the famous fields of battle. Precisely because their minds have lain fallow for such a long time, the seeds of grain thrown into them will yield a more variegated crop. With many European peoples, the spirit has grown dull, because it has worn itself out; and here and there, having carried off the triumph of its strivings, having recognized itself, it has given way to destruction. In spite of this the Poles can profit from the intellectual efforts of the rest of Europe throughout many hundreds of years and take only the positive results; thus, while the peoples that to date have worked hard to build the Tower of Babel known as European culture now feel themselves to be exhausted, our new arrivals will lead the work forward with the deftness characteristic of the Slavs [Heine 1884, 202].
Or, even more emphatically, when he observed the Jews:
The external appearance of the Polish Jews is terrible. Shivers creep up my spine when I recall how, beyond Międzyrzecze [Meseritz] I first saw a Polish village inhabited mainly by Jews [...] ragged, dirty figures; while the high-flown speech of a third-year schoolboy [...] would not have tortured my ears so much as the jargon of the Polish Jews. Soon, however, sympathy took the place of revulsion when I looked closer at the situation of these people and when I saw the pigsty-like holes in which they live, jabber, pray, haggle, and endure their poverty [Heine 1884, 193].
So far, as we can see, Heine's Jews remind us of Fichte's Silesians and Poles; they are dirty, slovenly and speak some awful jargon, even though Heine affords them a special sympathy. Here is why:
And yet, despite the barbarous fur cap with which he [the Jew] covers his head, and the even more barbarous ideas which fill that head [Heine refers here to the Jewish "spiritual world having become bogged down in unedifying superstition," that is to the Talmudic tradition], I value the Polish Jew considerably higher than many a German Jew [...] The Polish Jew with his dirty sheepskin coat, infested beard, smell of garlic and jabbering speech, is always dearer to me than many a [German] Jew with his glorious collection of government bonds [Heine 1884, 193-194].
Obviously, Heine also notices the Polish women and writes about them enthusiastically (because they are unpredictable, changeable, childlike and capricious), concluding as follows:
In a sunny valley covered in flowers [and thus in the Romantic, civilized South - L.N.] I would choose a Polish woman as my companion; in a moonlit glade of lime-trees [that is in the Romantic North] I would choose a German woman. When travelling through Spain, France and Italy [the South] I would wish to have a Polish woman at my side; for my journey through life [in the interests of symmetry, life for Heine would belong in the wild North] - I would choose a German. One finds few models among Polish women of good housekeeping, knowledge of how to raise children, pious humility and all those quiet virtues of German women. [...] Religious feeling is deeper with German women than with Polish. The latter live more the outward than the inner life; they are cheerful children, crossing themselves before a holy image, running through life as though across a beautiful ballroom, whilst they flirt, laugh, dance, and are full of charm. [...] as to the purity of their manners, I am convinced that Polish women do not at all take the place of German women in this respect. The dissipation of several aristocratic Polish women has drawn attention to itself at various times in history by its rampancy [...]. One should also take into consideration the fact that Polish women are very good-looking, but that beautiful women - for reasons well-known - are the most exposed to ugly slander and they will never avoid it, if - like Polish women, they live so gaily, in light-hearted and seductive simplicity [Heine 1884, 199-200].
It is worth noting here that, despite the alteration on the scale of values, Heine's basic cultural diagnosis, including the individuals who contribute to its construction, concurs with that of Fichte. Put simply, what to Fichte was repulsive because it was savage, is desirable, attractive or at least beneficial to Heine, for the very same reason.
Fichte and Heine... One could no doubt find more emphatic and better examples, French for instance, in order to provide a more nuanced picture. However, that is not the purpose of this essay. These two extreme variants of the same discourse construct an interesting image of Europeans. One of these - let us call him the Master, after Hegel - requires Central Europe in order to satisfy his desire for identity, which, without Hegel's Slave, looses its reason for existence; the other - let us call him the Patient - requires Central Europe in order to discover his own lost identity, in order to regain for himself by way of a peculiar form of psychoanalysis, the discarded husks of that identity. The Master longs to colonize Central Europe in order to satiate, in an unending educational and transformational process, his own, powerful identity. The Patient longs to imbibe Central Europe, like a medicine, in order to be born again in an invigorating source of libidinal energy. In 1822, Heine's journey was one beyond the boundaries of civilization, a journey visible on a map, in a concrete space, a mainly horizontal journey dividing the space into "here" and "there."
In the Modernist period this changed somewhat. The horizontal axis was counterbalanced, but not eliminated, by a vertical axis: the savage, albeit asleep or discarded, was also lying in wait right beside us, lying in wait within us. Of course, the person who constructed this idea most consistently and most fully both in theory and in practice was Sigmund Freud. The literary precedents are innumerable, from Franz Kafka, via Elias Canetti and Bruno Schulz to Witold Gombrowicz. I will quote, however, from another coryphaeus of Modernism, who locates his novel at the edge, naturally, of the civilized world (Moravia) and begins thus:
A little station on the stretch leading towards Russia.
Infinitely straight, four parallel iron tracks ran in both directions, between the yellow gravel of the wide track [Musil 2001, 3].
The young hero, Törless, a future writer, arrives at this border with pious aims, directly from the world of civilization: he is to undergo further civilizing, that is education, at the boarding-school there. He sets out for the school with his school-fellows, directly from the station:
When the party of young people reached the first low, hut-like houses, that dull brooding fled from Törless. As if seized by sudden interest, he raised his head and strained to see into the hazy interior of the dirty little buildings they were passing.
At the doors of most of them stood women, in aprons and coarse shirts, with broad, dirty feet and bare brown arms.
If they were young and sturdy, they called out some coarse Slavic jibe, nudged each other and giggled about the 'young gentlemen'. Sometimes, one of the girls cried out, if someone had brushed her breast too hard in passing, or replied with a laughing insult to a slap on the thigh. Some of them only watched after the rushing boys with serious and angry expressions; and if he happened to have joined them, the farmer would smile in embarrassment, half unsure of himself, half good-natured. [...]
Nearly naked children rolled about in the mud of the farmyards, here and there the skirt of a working woman revealed the backs of her knees, or a heavy breast pressed stiffly into the canvas folds of her shirt. And, as though all of this was taking place in a quite different, animal, oppressive atmosphere, there flowed from the hallways of the houses a sluggish, heavy air, which Törless greedily inhaled [Musil 2001, 14-15].
That's exactly it: "greedily inhaled," and along with the air he absorbed into himself that border, so obvious to Fichte and Heine. Central Europe had become, as we can see, internalized, absorbed. And the price? The Master, represented in this essay by Fichte, has lost his own powerful identity forever; having swallowed the Slave, that undefined sphere, uncertain and unclear, he has been smashed to pieces and is unlikely ever to be put back together again. The Patient meanwhile, represented here by Heine, has also absorbed the ideal savagery of his dreams, and from that point on, unstable and incoherent, no longer possesses any strong identity.
Now, he has only two options:
1. Either he can go on pumping himself up in bad faith with the discourse of the Master, since discourses are immortal, and continue to construct the boundaries of civilization and savagery, to convert and colonize, carrying further the old Central Europe into Asia, Africa or South America, or, on the contrary, treating Central Europe just as he always has done
2. Or, as the Patient, he may challenge the sordid exploits of the Master in the hope of encountering the lost, naïve sources of hope, life, meaning, in some kind of geographical, social or gender-related borderland.
A third possibility, however, opens up, occasionally present in some form in the discourse of the Patient, albeit in a peripheral way, open to the Other and to an acceptance of the consequences of being broken up or smashed to pieces. It might then be possible to experiment with the kind of definition of identity that Michał Paweł Markowski treats as "descriptive", but which, as with him, becomes a great project of non-appropriating desire:
[...] I must be myself and only myself (this is at least how the traditional account of identity goes), but I must not be myself not opening myself to others who determine my very existence: to other texts, other people, other things, in sum: to the other as radically different from me. The other, giving me the promise of being different (from him or her, from his or her text, from such and such things), in his or her difference is not external to me, but contaminates all my being, haunts me with incompatibility, making my desire for the full presence of myself to myself altogether futile. This otherness is nothing that would come from the outside, from other space, but something that inhabits me from inside and makes me different and foreign to myself. This internal division undermines the desire for drawing everything into the play of the same, which is very often called identity [Markowski 2003, 11].[1]
According to such an understanding of identity, the concept of Central Europe loses its anthropological validity: it falls apart into an infinite profusion of I cannot say what, because naming it tempts us to a closure, a completeness of presence, thus stifling desire.


Fichte. J, G,1967, Briefwechsel. Vol. 1, ed. Hans Schulz (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung), 1967, p. 175. Quoted in Wolff, 1994.
Gautier, T., 1862, [trans.], Aventures du Baron Munchausen, Paris.
Heine, H., 1884, O Polsce, trans. Wacław Zawadzki, in Heine, Dzieła wybrane. Utwory prozą, Warsaw, 1956, p. 649. Compared also to German original [there appears to be no published English translation]; edition used: Heine,H., Sämmtliche Werke. Neue Ausgabe in 12 Bänden, Hamburg, vol. 5, pp. 189-210.
Markowski, M.P., 2003, Identity and Interpretation, Department of Slavic Languages, Stockholm.
Musil, R., 2001, The Confusions of Young Törless, trans. Shaun Whiteside, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wolff, L., 1994. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Translated into English by Ursula Phillips

[1] Julia Kristeva, considering two Gospel conceptions of signs, that of John and that with which John takes issue, speaks of two models of sign, where one model would be surmounted and the other postulated (John's): the dynamics of the emergence of meaning in the latter would be "circulatory" (from the Same to the Other), heterogeneous (to include meaning and feeling), unfinished (interpretation in play)." Translated into English from the following Polish edition: Julia Kristeva, "Od znaków do podmiotu" in Podmiot w procesie (Lubelskie Odczyty Filozoficzne, Zbiór 7), trans. Tomasz Kotliński, Lublin, 1999, p. 19.