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Central Europe: Small Countries with Big Ambitions / Klara Czerniewska

What exactly is Central, or Central-Eastern, Europe? Does this term refer to the geographical center of Europe, or rather to the Eastern peripheries of the so-called Western world? Or perhaps to both? And does the answer depend on where one stands? What other names were, or still are, used to describe the vast expanses of land that were under Soviet occupation for over four decades, and which have recently joined, or at least allied themselves, with the European Union? How has this region been redefined following these developments? And finally, how does it all relate to design?

Mitteleuropa and Strední Evropa: Two Opposing Concepts of One Geographical Region

According to Ewa Skolimowska, an art historian and scholar of Slavic studies, the concept of a union of Central European states can be traced back to the vision of restoring the Holy Roman Empire propagated by the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), whose imperialist concept of a Greater Germany encompassed the Habsburg monarchy as well as Hungary and the Slavic countries.

In her comprehensive study Central Europe: An Archeology of the Notion, Skolimowska notes that the first study dedicated this region, Central Europe, was published in 1903 in London by Józef Partsch, a professor at the University of Breslau (present-day Wroclaw, Poland), and was translated into German in 1904 as Mitteleuropa. Partsch's notion of Central Europe centered on the German Reich and on Austro-Hungary, and also included the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and western Turkey. The same term, Mitteleuropa, was used in 1915 by Friedrich Naumann to refer to the idea of a federation of countries with a common constitution, economy, army, and a "Central European attitude." This term was subsequently also used by the Nazis to legitimize their expansionist ambitions - the Drang nach Osten, or "thrust towards the east."

Delving into the vast scholarly literature on this topic, Skolimowska traces the different conceptions and descriptions of Central Europe. In this context, she discusses the contrast between the German notion of Mitteleuropa and the concept of Stredni Evropa, which similarly translates as "Central Europe." This latter term was introduced by Czechoslovak thinkers during the First World War and the interwar period, and also further developed and redefined by the Czechoslovak, Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian poets, writers, and dissidents during the period following the Second World War. It was coined by the first president of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, who related it to a vertical (north to south-east) string of small nation-states defending their sovereignty against Germany, Russia, Austria, and Turkey. Masaryk extended this definition to include the Nordic, Baltic, and Balkan countries, as well as Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Greece, and even Turkey, but excluded Austria and Germany. Skolimowska also mentions another, more "horizontal" definition introduced by Professor Karel Stloukal, which encompasses the countries located in the basin of the Danube River and the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire - Czechoslovakia (which he considers to be the geographical center of Europe), Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.

The 20 years between the two world wars is still perceived today as a "golden age" by many Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Romanians. After gaining independence in 1918 as democratic republics (Czechoslovakia and Poland) or kingdoms (Romania and Bulgaria), these countries all underwent a rapid and massive process of modernization. Their position as peripheral entities engaged in a constant yet uneven dialogue (or unrequited love affair) with the centers of Western culture led, during this period, to a series of unique and remarkable avant-garde phenomena - ranging from Czech cubism in architecture to the major avant-garde impact of the Romanian-Jewish artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco.

Europe after Yalta: On the Eastern Side of the Iron Curtain

Milan Kundera, the prominent Czech writer who was exiled to France in 1975, famously asserted that Western Europeans perceive Central Europe as Eastern Europe; the Polish scholar Grzegorz Dziamski, meanwhile, described central Europeans as western souls captured in an eastern body. Both of these statements imply that Central Europe exists only as a mental or discursive construction, an utopia (or, perhaps, a heterotopia) in the minds of those who make reference to it.

Indeed, Central Europeans have always been aware of the unintelligible mechanisms of history, fearing that their national identity and the autonomy of the nation-state are at a constant risk of being swallowed by the neighboring superpowers. More specifically, the notion of Central Europe has always been constructed in reference to the Soviet Union or to Russia, which was identified as barbarian, hostile, non-European and backward, but also as emotional and spiritual - qualities that were juxtaposed with the idea of Western rationality.

The new order established after the Yalta conference in February 1945 created a binary division between the East and West, whose history dates back to the schism of the Christian Church and the formation of two distinct traditions, sets of values, languages and alphabets associated with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Yalta Conference pushed the frontier westwards in favor of the East, thus subjecting the small countries of Central Europe to the Soviet superpower. This demarcation line was subsequently reaffirmed by the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which gave concrete form to Winston Churchill's metaphor of an Iron Curtain.

In Kundera's view, the fact that the Hungarians (in 1956), the Czechoslovaks (in 1968) and the Poles (in 1956, 1968, 1970, and in the 1980s) all rebelled against the Soviet occupation proved their identification with Western European culture. Indeed, these countries' underground cultural scenes were one of the few weapons they had, and they paradoxically flourished under the oppressive communist regime.

As Skolimowska further notes, several other writers and dissidents in the 1980s underscored the role of culture, and especially of literature, as a key value defining Central Europe. What these authors shared, in addition to a wealth of historical, political and cultural experiences, was a common sensibility - which György Konrád describes as a "mysterious union of taste" revealed by the use of irony and of allusions, citations, and reminiscences comprehensible only to Central Europeans.

The Communist Past: A Shared Trauma

The dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 became a symbol of global change. In the years 1989-1991, the existing world order collapsed as the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, and the Ukraine all declared independence. The former Soviet satellites - Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (peacefully divided into Czech and Slovak republics in 1993), as well as Romania (following a bloody revolution that culminated with the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu) and Bulgaria, all regained full sovereignty. The former Yugoslavia, which was governed during the Cold War by the communist leader Josip Broz Tito and was not allied with the USSR, broke up into new nation-states - Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia (in 1991) followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina (in 1992). This process, which brought about a series of long and bloody civil wars, led in 2003 to the formal disappearance of Yugoslavia from the geopolitical maps, and to its replacement by Serbia and Montenegro, which split in 2006.

As this brief overview reveals, it is impossible to adhere to a single definition of Central Europe. Following the recent accession of the former Soviet-block countries to the European Union, one could even argue that in the aftermath of this latest historical development, Central Europe has ceased to exist - becoming instead the "new" Western Europe (or what Vaclav Havel referred to as the "New Democracies").

According to Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski, the term that most aptly defines the countries formerly referred to as "Central" or "Eastern" Europe is "post-communist Europe." This term, which is politically loaded, is nevertheless more concrete: it describes the common denominator of these countries by defining the political and historical background they share, although we must also remember that communism looked different in each of the countries in question. This broader definition also includes the Baltic States, which Piotrowski believes do not fit the definition of "Central European" countries.

Design as a Reflection of Change

As far as design is concerned, the notion of an entity alternately defined as Central, Eastern, or post-communist Europe seems to remain valid. In some cases, it seems to reflect prejudices associated with inferior quality and a copy-paste culture - a point examined by the design historian David Crowley, who traced the formal similarities between Eastern and Western design during the Cold War era. In other cases, it is used as a positive form of branding designed to promote and popularize contemporary design from this region - as did the 2009 exhibition "Real-World Laboratory: Central European Design " (curator: Magda Kochanowska) or the renowned website designeast.eu.

The current exhibition attempts to reflect on the common experiences of designers hailing from "small countries" (as they were viewed during the communist era, and are still viewed in the current capitalist era) by juxtaposing communist-era and contemporary design. During the communist period, designers had no patrons other than the state and state-owned institutions and could only survive professionally by joining the national artists' unions. Such an affiliation guaranteed stability in terms of commissions and income, yet constrained them to work for the hated regime. By contrast, since the early 1990s the free market economy has provided designers throughout Europe with equal opportunities both on the continent and elsewhere in the world, while enabling them to continue drawing on the local skills, values, and sources of inspiration that form an inseparable part of their identities.

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