“Dictators always look good until the last ten minutes,” said Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in 1936. The pre-war president of Czechoslovakia, a country in the immediate neighborhood of Germany, where Adolf Hitler had come to power three years earlier, showed a great awareness of historical processes. Although he did not personally experience the atrocities of the hell unleashed by Germany, as he died in 1937, he reminded us of the old truth that awareness of the past is greater in Central Europe than anywhere else.
The term “historical politics” recurs so often in various contexts – and the phrase “the end of history,” coined by Fukuyama, has been treated with much more skepticism in Central European countries than in Western Europe and the USA
In this part of the world, it is impossible to do otherwise. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana in the book “The Life of Reason” from 1905. In Central Europe, often, a single mistake can prove disastrous for an entire state or nation.
That is why no one even tries to forget its history – after all, it is well known that learning from mistakes is most effective. In this region, the past is often breathed in – it is the subject of the most fierce disputes and determines many political decisions and conditions for subsequent actions. And this state of affairs does not look set to change any time soon – as Russia’s attack on Ukraine has served as a reminder that the brutal realities of the past are still painfully present in the region.
Everything is history
Karl von Habsburg is the grandson of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor Charles I, the head of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine – and the president of the Pan-Europa organization, which advocates for European integrity. But his vision of Europe is completely different from the one the EU proposed. “As European idealists, we oppose the increasing bureaucratization of Europe through the creation of agencies and organizations of expense Europeans who – financed by taxpayers’ money – act only in their own interests and thus pervert the idea of the free European citizen” – this is how Pan-Europe describes the philosophy behind the organization.
This approach is not surprising. After all, a descendant of the family ruling the Habsburg Empire is actually obliged by his origin to strive to break down the barriers dividing nation-states; such was the nature of the state ruled by his predecessors. At the same time, it seems even natural for him to contest the structures created after the Habsburg Empire collapsed.
The activity of a descendant of the House of Habsburg, who presents his own pan-European projects, best demonstrates how alive the memory of the past is. Not only in Austria but in other countries of Central Europe as well. Last year Czechia spent over USD 20 million on the historical film “Medieval.” The story about the knight Jan Žižka, who became the leader of a popular uprising, had a star-studded cast (*the main roles are played by Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger) and Hollywood panache. The most expensive film ever made in Czechia became the 8. most popular film in Czech cinemas in 2022 (just after such Hollywood blockbusters as “Top Gun” or “Avatar”).
The age of superproductions
Latvia is also looking for historical subjects for film production. Its nominee for the 2023 Academy Awards was the title “January” – this film has previously won at the Tribeca and Rome festivals, among others. This production tells the story of Latvia’s struggle for sovereignty in 1990 when the Soviet Union forcibly tried to crush Latvians’ independence aspirations.
In Poland, the super production “Kos” about the life of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the leader of the late 18th-century national uprising, will hit cinemas this year. In Romania, the documentary “Between Revolutions” was made about life during the communist era in that country – and has already achieved quite a lot of international success, receiving great reviews at the Berlin Film Festival, for example. In 2023, one of the most anticipated premieres in Hungarian cinemas is the latest film by Laszlo Nemes. The author of the acclaimed Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” has created a new film, “Sunset,” about a family tragedy set in Budapest just before the outbreak of the First World War.
These examples of film productions show how much history is present in the lives of the Central European nations. And yet, it is much the same when you look in a bookshop or browse through newspaper publications. Historians play an important role in public debates in the region’s countries – to the extent that they occupy very important state functions.
Petr Fiala, the prime minister of Czechia, has completed a degree in history, similar to the current Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, who also has a history degree. The same goes for Donald Tusk – the previous prime minister of Poland and ex-president of the European Council. The historians are also Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the founders of independent Lithuania, the country’s first president in 1990, and Lennart Meri, co-founder of Estonian independence and former president of the country. This further confirmation that in Central Europe, the attitude to the past is completely different from that in other parts of the old continent.
What we know about the past
History also has a strong bearing on current politics. It is difficult to see traces of a turbulent and difficult past in present relations between, for example, France and Germany or Spain and Portugal. This is not the case in Central Europe, where themes related to the past regularly generate new political tensions. Bulgaria and North Macedonia had to create a special joint historical commission to sort out disputes about their common concerning history – without it, North Macedonia would have no chance of starting negotiations about its membership in NATO and EU.
In March, Romanian politicians loudly expressed their outrage after supporters of the Hungarian national team received permission from the Hungarian Football Federation to display “Greater Hungary” maps on flags or banners during matches of its national team. According to Romanian politicians, such behavior by Budapest is an example of seeking to revise historical processes – after World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to Romania, among others. Prime Minister Viktor Orban often refers to this fact without hiding his attachment to the former Hungarian lands. In November 2022, he wore a “Greater Hungary” map scarf at a national team match.
The fuel inflaming historical tensions has been the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The outbreak of war caused Central European countries to look at their relationship with Moscow – and how they ended the period of Soviet domination – very differently. An example of this change is, for example, the Bulgarian authorities’ decision to dismantle the large monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia. The decision about its demolition was made in 1993, but it has not been implemented. It was only the war that resolved the issue unequivocally.
The same fate befell the 8-meter obelisk topped with Soviet stars, which in the center of Riga commemorated the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany and for years became one of the symbols of the Latvian capital. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, it was demolished – as were dozens of other Soviet-era monuments across the country. Similar situations have occurred in, among others, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland. Even in Vienna, the pressure is growing to topple the huge Soviet War Memorial in the very center of the city.
The Russian aggression on Ukraine has revived historical disputes between countries in the region. “Had Vladimir Putin succeeded in Ukraine, Hungary would have already made territorial claims against Slovakia,” said acting Slovak Foreign Minister Rastislav Káčer. Hungarian authorities reacted with anger to his words, and the Slovakian ambassador to Hungary has been summoned to the Hungarian foreign ministry – but Káčer bluntly underlined that he would not apologize for his words.
The war ends the disputes
But the war also proved to be a catalyst for changes in attitudes. Strong historical disputes had divided Poland and Lithuania, for example, for years – but since Russia’s policy became decidedly more aggressive, relations between Warsaw and Vilnius have improved dramatically. A similar change has also occurred in relations between Poland and the Czech Republic.
It is worth recalling the circumstances under which the Russian aggression against Ukraine began. Just before the attack, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in which he justified the reasons for the attack. What is less relevant in this case is that his arguments were simply lies. More so – the fact that the vast majority of his arguments referred to history. This is the best confirmation of the huge role it plays in Central and Eastern Europe. Besides, many of the reactions that the war provoked were also rooted in the past, including in the 3 Seas Initiative countries.
“The more we know about the past, the more we know is not true about the present,” underlines Prof. Timothy Snyder, a historian, when asked about the meaning of history in Central and Eastern Europe. This is the main reason why historical discussions in the region are so lively. It is for this reason that the term “historical politics” recurs so often in various contexts – and the phrase “the end of history,” coined by Fukuyama, has been treated with much more skepticism in Central European countries than in Western Europe and the USA. And it will remain so for a long time to come. The attitude to history will continue to distinguish Central Europe from Western Europe for many decades to come. The war in Ukraine was a stark reminder of this.