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In the middle -- and seeking an identity

Eastern Europe has been free to choose its own destiny for only a quarter century. Little wonder that it is wary of the big powers on either side.

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    TRABANT CARS, EASTERN EUROPEAN ICONS, WERE ASSEMBLED IN PRAGUE LAST YEAR TO MARK THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE EXODUS OF EAST GERMAN REFUGEES TO WEST GERMANY.
    DAVID W CERNY/REUTERS
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Three decades ago, “Europe” was a word that thrilled young people across the Continent. On the Western side, Europe meant the end of narrow nationalism, a more cosmopolitan life in a borderless economic community that might one day resemble the United States. As the European Community worked toward greater unity, a friend who lived in France told me he had begun to see himself as a European and noticed others of his age doing the same thing.

In the East, meanwhile, Europe was an even more prized concept. It meant escape from the heavy hand of Soviet communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall ended the communist era and launched the era of Europe. The two leaders who oversaw the conclusion of the cold war, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, endorsed the idea of a united Continent, talking, respectively, about “Europe whole and free” and a “common European home.” Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, and other Easterners were going “back to Europe,” to a culture they were instrumental in creating but from which 20th-century forces had barred them.

The drab gray of socialism gave way to the riotous colors of free enterprise. But newness fades. Second thoughts crop up. In a Monitor cover story (click here), Sara Miller Llana examines the newfound wariness that many Europeans – especially those of the old East bloc – now have of both Moscow and Brussels. While few view the European Union as an outright oppressor, EU economic policy and regulatory dictates can be meddlesome and rigid, making Brussels a bureaucratic version of the distant rulers that long dominated the region. Not that Moscow is more appealing. Vladimir Putin’s muscle-flexing has stirred concern throughout the region.

Eastern Europe – or more precisely Central Europe, since the Continent continues to the Urals – has always had identity issues. The Austro-Hungarian Empire welded the region’s small, linguistically and ethnically diverse nations into a single entity that produced the likes of Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud. But the empire lasted fewer than 50 years and its demise led to two world wars and the cold war.

Little wonder that it is still in search of its identity. Czech writer Milan Kundera describes Central Europe as defined not by borders but by “the same memories, the same problems and conflicts, the same common tradition.” Those memories of domination feed today’s wariness of both East and West.

In 1992 I had the pleasure of dining with Jirí Dienstbier, a once-prominent journalist who had been forced to work for two decades as a janitor because of his role in the short-lived 1968 “Prague Spring.” He became the first foreign minister for what is now the Czech Republic. Europeans “have fought battles for 1,000 years,” he said over chicken and dumplings. “I hope we have come to the conclusion that the fighting was nonsense.”

What I most remember about him was the joy he exuded despite the seriousness of his words. He was free. He, his country, and his continent were masters of their destiny. Then and now, that is an achievement for Europe to celebrate and protect.

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