After the fall of the wall: Middle Europe reemerges – sort of
The connections of the old Habsburg Empire have reappeared, post cold war, but regional identity has not.
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A century ago, Habsburg Central Europe seemed to be all this. Much of the countryside was an ethnic mosaic, and Vienna, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and Bratislava were cosmopolitan centers with multilingual populations and vibrant Jewish communities. It produced some of Europe's great artists, scientists, and thinkers: Sigmund Freud, Béla Bartók, Rainer Rilke, and Franz Kafka.Skip to next paragraph
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But the empire was also a pressure cooker of pent-up nationalism, subject to rebellions and terrorism. A Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, in 1914, prompting World War I, which resulted in the dismantling of the empire. During World War II, much of the region's Jewish population was wiped out by the Nazis. After the war, the Soviets controlled all countries, save Austria.
Today, residents of the former Habsburg regions lying along the old Iron Curtain are celebrating Central Europe's rebirth.
But move away from the border, and people question a resurgence – or even the existence – of this regional identity.
In the Czech city of Brno, whose Gothic cathedral and 18th- and 19th-century civic architecture mirror those of Vienna, sociologist Radim Marada is skeptical.
"It's a good thing for us to pretend that Central Europe is alive because we can advertise that we are in the heart of Europe," says Mr. Marada, noting that Gregor Mendel did his pioneering genetics work here in Brno, that Freud was born in nearby Pribor, and Kafka in Prague. "This was a vibrant place, but it's gone," he says.
In Budapest, once the joint capital of the empire, former Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky agrees. "The people of the former Habsburg monarchy are not so much thinking about the restoration of that cultural space, but rather, that they've rejoined Europe," says Mr. Jeszenszky, now a historian at Corvinus University there. "When people travel or take employment abroad, they don't stop in Austria – they go to Italy and Britain and Ireland."
He argues that Central European identity was stronger in the region under Communism. "In the 1980s, there was this claim that we were not part of Eastern Europe, an idea among intellectuals and dissidents that we were part of a different place called Central Europe," he says. "Now that idea is not completely dead, but it's much less marked."
In Austria, many people have been alarmed by the elimination of borders, and detachments of soldiers have been deployed to ensure "security."
Istvan Rev, a historian at Central European University in Budapest, says the Central European idea was a mirage cultivated by émigré intellectuals who saw days of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy as "golden times" for ethnic minorities, and "cosmopolitan intellectuals" like themselves. "Today we know much more about the US here than we do about Prague or Poland," he says. "Central Europe is largely an imaginary region."
Austrians shudder, Hungarians cheer as frontiers fall
Rich nation recoils at influx of impoverished neighbors. Click here to read full story.