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.

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP Photo/Newscom
Commemoration: East German Trabant cars drove past the Austro-Hungarian border on June 26, 20 years after the Iron Curtain was first breached there.

For Attila Fersch, the trees lining the narrow country lane between Sopron and the Austrian village of St. Margarethen symbolize all this hometown has been through over the past century.

The newly paved track, reopened just months ago, was the main route between Sopron and the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, back when Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sealed in 1948 with gates and barbed wire, it had become nothing more than a rutted track lined by overgrown mulberry trees.

"These trees were planted before World War I and they've survived the collapse of an empire, two world wars, and the cold war," says Mr. Fersch, a park ranger, as he drives across the unmanned border into Austria. "Now we can drive between them again, all the way across the region, and that gives me a satisfied feeling that there are no limits on us."

The 20th century imposed many limits on Sopron.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled after World War I, the new frontier severed Sopron from its hinterland. The Iron Curtain surrounded it on three sides during the cold war, cutting off roads, trade, and contacts among neighbors, friends, and family.


Today, the Iron Curtain is gone and, since the end of 2007, so is the frontier. Cities and villages across Central Europe are starting to heal together. Vast swaths of the old Habsburg Empire – the fabled lands of Middle Europe – are borderless again, 90 years after the region was shattered into a mosaic of rival nation-states.

"This whole idea of a Central European identity is again evolving," says Pavol Demes, director of the German Marshall Fund's regional office in Bratislava, which was cut off from southern suburbs during the 20th century. "There is a civilizational space that is now being re-created."

Indeed, two years after Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and five other East European countries joined Europe's customs union, residents of the once-militarized borderlands between east and west have begun living transnational lives, much as their great-grandparents did.

Bratislava's bus system now extends six miles into Austria, serving thousands of Slovaks who commute from Austrian villages like Hainburg and Wolfsthal, where home prices are cheaper. Hundreds of Slovaks regularly travel the other way to shop at lower-priced Austrian malls or work in stores and restaurants.

Vienna airport has become a regional hub, a short drive from much of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Austrians pop over to visit the bilingual beauticians, dentists, and plastic surgeons of Sopron, who advertise their services in German and charge competitive prices.

"People now think it's completely natural to have no borders," says Swedish parliamentarian Walburga Habsburg Douglas, who is the archduchess of Austria and daughter of the would-be Austro-Hungarian emperor, Otto von Habsburg. "Public interest is starting to awaken to the deeper historical and cultural ties, but it ... will take time."


Under Soviet rule, there was considerable nostalgia for the old Central Europe of the Habsburgs, whose multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire once included not only what is now Austria and Hungary, but also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and parts of Poland, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania. Intellectuals and artists – many of them exiles who'd fled the Nazi or Soviet regimes – grieved the loss of what the empire almost became: a tolerant federation of diverse peoples protected by a unified state.

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.

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.


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