Jonathan Bousfield in Eurozine:
Thirty years ago, Czech novelist Milan Kundera dealt with cultural estrangement and its consequences in his celebrated essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (first published in the French journal Débats in November 1983, then in the New York Review of Books the following April), sparking off a long-running debate about the fate of European cultures caught on the “wrong side” of the Cold War divide.
Kundera's essay initially made for pessimistic reading. Not only did it argue that Central Europe constituted a “kidnapped West” abducted by an alien, Byzantine-Bolshevik civilisation, but it also claimed that the rest of the continent was in too deep a state of decadence to be fully aware of what it had lost. What initially looked like a requiem, however, soon gained an altogether more optimistic sheen. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, the Soviet Bloc showed signs of opening its windows and then the multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan Central Europe eulogised so evocatively by Kundera was quickly re-spun as a symbol of what Europe could be again, rather than what had forever been left behind.
Thirty years on, most of the countries in Kundera's Central Europe have been integrated into the European Union and NATO, and the very term “Central Europe” is no longer necessary, either as an anti-Soviet rallying cry or a badge of cultural belonging. However, the cultural concerns addressed by Kundera have not necessarily gone away simply because the context has changed. Europe is still sandwiched between two superpowers with differing worldviews, and small nations can still be the bearers of important truths.