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Experts explore Central European identity

"CENTRAL Europe is a region that has produced more history than it can digest," says Jiří Pehe, rephrasing one of Churchill's remarks about the Balkans. Pehe, who is president of New York University in Prague, was one of the many public figures present at a Bratislava conference entitled Central European Identity.
On November 6 and 7 the Slovak capital played host to an open forum for intellectuals, scientists, politicians and journalists from Central Europe, who came to discuss the region's identity.
Organised by the Central European Foundation (CEF) based in Slovakia, the event brought together people like the former Hungarian president Arpád Göncz, prince Karl Schwarzenberg, former chancellor to president Václav Havel, and Slovak Brigitta Schmögnerová, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).


CONFERENCE participants discuss identity and media.
photo: Ingrid Masárová

"CENTRAL Europe is a region that has produced more history than it can digest," says Jiří Pehe, rephrasing one of Churchill's remarks about the Balkans. Pehe, who is president of New York University in Prague, was one of the many public figures present at a Bratislava conference entitled Central European Identity.

On November 6 and 7 the Slovak capital played host to an open forum for intellectuals, scientists, politicians and journalists from Central Europe, who came to discuss the region's identity.

Organised by the Central European Foundation (CEF) based in Slovakia, the event brought together people like the former Hungarian president Arpád Göncz, prince Karl Schwarzenberg, former chancellor to president Václav Havel, and Slovak Brigitta Schmögnerová, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

According to Erika Csekes, manager of the CEF, the guests discussed what the individual countries in the region have in common, "whether the differences we perceive in everyday life are prevalent or whether there are common values we can agree on". Many of the participating speakers agreed that the time for a revival of Central European identity would come once all the countries in the region are members of the EU.

One of the four sessions held during the event focused on the role of the media.

"It's difficult to speak about a Central European identity when it comes to media because the media in the region is very provincial and has a strong tendency towards the tabloid press," said Martin M. Šimečka, editor-in-chief of the Slovak daily Sme.


PAUL Lendvai talking to Arpád Göncz (left photo) and Brigitta Schmögnerová (right photo).
photo: Ingrid Masárová

Another common feature of the press in Central Europe, according to Gyula Tellér, a Hungarian sociologist, is that "an over-politicisation" often goes hand in hand with "a lack of information and discussion" on important issues.

PAUL LENDVAI was born in 1929 in Budapest and in 1957 he emigrated to Vienna, where he currently lives. He has held various journalistic positions in Austrian television and radio and was Vienna correspondent for the Financial Times between 1960 and 1982. He has published numerous books about Eastern and Central Europe and is the co-publisher and editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Europäische Rundschau.

During the forum, The Slovak Spectator interviewed Hungarian native Paul Lendvai, chairman of the media discussion and one of the conference's most distinguished guests.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Is there such a thing as a Central European identity, and if so, how would you define it?

Paul Lendvai (PL): I am going to quote a great Central European, Franz Kafka, who once said the following about truth: "There is only one truth but it is alive and therefore it has a permanently changing face." This also applies to Central European identity.

Twenty or 50 years ago you could have said that Central European identity consisted of national hatred, the tendency to change frontiers and to settle scores, to suppress minorities and [the fact] that a minority can become a majority. You saw it with Slovaks and Hungarians and Romanians...

Central European identity is when you don't know your roots, you deny your roots and you always deny the right of others to exist in the same area. But Central European identity is also a search for answers, a search for compromise, [an attempt] to live together. It is like when you are looking for true love your whole life, and then you find it and it remains a vision. Central Europe is not something you can touch, like a piece of bread or meat. Central Europe is an atmosphere; you feel it in the air when you are in Bratislava, or in Budapest or Vienna.

TSS: Would you define yourself as a Central European?

PL: I am a product of Central Europe. I am a Hungarian born in Budapest but my family comes partly from Transylvania, partly from Slovakia - my father was born in Košice. My wife is English. I am an Austrian citizen - a very patriotic Austrian - without denying my roots in Hungary. And I am Viennese; I belong to the 'furniture' there.

There were 160 pages about me in the files of the secret service in Prague and Bratislava. They were saying that I had a secret flat in Bratislava, but I only learned about it from the files. This is all part of Central Europe, so in that sense I am really Central European and European.

TSS: How did moving from Budapest to Vienna influence your personal identity?

PL: That is a very difficult and very interesting question. It is difficult not to lose identity... The Hungarian language is an absolutely beautiful language - for poetry, for love and for cursing - but it is a language of luxury, it is very difficult to learn.

The Austrians had a strong positive feeling for the Hungarians, so in 1957 I was received with open arms. I have a Hungarian accent [in German] but the Austrians like it. If I had a Czech or a Slovak accent, it would maybe have been more difficult.

When I am in Hungary, I feel like I am visiting an old aunt. Now I feel at home in Vienna but it doesn't mean that I deny my roots.

TSS: So is language an important factor when it comes to identity?

PL: Yes, it is a very important part. Because every new language gives you, to some extent, a new identity, when you are talking [in that language].

TSS: Do you think Central European identity will change when the countries of the former Eastern bloc enter the EU?

PL: The EU cannot become the pretext for the interests of the strong or medium powers like Italy or Germany. So there will have to be cooperation between the smaller countries, no question. And that will help to fight prejudices. An example is the Hungarians and the Slovaks fighting together against the French farmers. That type of alliance creates solidarity between the small nations.

[Joining the EU] will strengthen [Central European] identity, and won't weaken it. The challenge of Europe is to be European without losing your [nation's] identity. And in that respect, this is a battle against intolerance and against provincialism. You have to work harder, because have to accept certain regulations, but that doesn't mean that your national identity will get weaker.

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