How much do we learn about people and places from diplomatic communiqués, political speeches, and government white papers? And how much from novels, plays, poems, travel writing and memoirs (those of actresses rather than of statesmen, of course)? Any answer to this enquiry must differ not only according to the identity of the writer but also to that of the reader. Journalists, bureaucrats, diplomats, and even historians find the way that information is processed in the former media highly useful and necessary to their tasks of drawing up new boundaries, adjusting budgetary plans in the light of world economic growth, drafting urban planning regulations, and forecasting election results. Yet these kinds of knowledge, necessary though they are, often encounter formidable obstacles in the opinions of ordinary people and their surprisingly resistant tastes and customs when projects rooted in official knowledge are launched.
It is notorious, for instance, that ordinary citizens often flee tower blocks that win architectural awards and that more people buy newspapers to read the sports results or to learn about the scandalous divorce of a Hollywood star than to understand the workings of the international monetary system. It is not that two different worlds exist in separate compartments; they exist alongside each other and impact each other. But the communication between them is inefficient. The world of government, corporations, the media, and important people talks more than it listens; the world of office workers and blue-collar artisans pays only intermittent attention until it is roused to annoyance or anger by some reform that wound its long way through bureaucratic channels at home and abroad without ever being seen by an actual human being. At that point a crisis is ignited.
So the closer we are to the humble realities of life, the better we are able to judge and correct the plans of the great. That is one of many lessons that emerges from Gordon McKechnie’s vivid account of his visit to the village of Breb in the county of Maramureş in north-Western Romania. Maramureş is one of those districts in Central Europe that have been transferred from one ruler to another – and over one side of a frontier to another – as the fortunes of war, the calculations of diplomats, and the gifts accompanying dynastic marriages have entailed. All these things have had important consequences for the people who live in and around Breb. Their nationality has been a shuttlecock, their religion has been now favoured, now deterred, their language either suppressed or made mandatory, their presence itself a matter of politics. Once Breb had a small community of Jewish farmers who were removed in wartime to Auschwitz. Among them was Elie Wiesel who wrote of this tragedy in his first book, Night. It is possible, even likely, that Wiesel’s memoir was the single result of all the political storms raining on Breb that had the loudest echo in the outside world. So much for the powers and pretensions of princes.
Within Breb, however, as McKechnie observes with a sympathy and admiration that shades into envy at times, the traditional life and customs of the local people have survived astonishingly. That is not to ignore the deaths and disruption and emptiness that power imposed. A neglected Jewish cemetery is one piece of evidence; another is the nearby (and notorious) prison of Sighet where Communism’s Securitate police tortured priests, aristocrats, and anyone who resisted the Ceauşescu regime that in every way sought to dissolve all social and community bonds of citizens, especially Hungarian and other national minorities, in order to create its proletarian utopia. But the people of Breb have in the end overcome all these brutal intrusions, including Ceauşescu’s hideous concrete “modernisation” of their region, and then triumphed over a more subtle attack – that of the inviting prosperity of the modern world.
McKechnie describes not only how local people have discovered how to employ modern materials of glass and steel in making their traditional homes more comfortable but also how those returning from long stays in Santander and Detroit prefer the warmth and family security to be found in what is still a poor village. Like Abbé Siéyès who was asked what he had done in the French Revolution, they can reply that they survived. But they will inevitably feel that the outside world will intrude at intervals to impose its orthodoxies upon them.
As I mention in my essay on György Granasztói’s massive contribution to Hungary’s understanding of its last hundred years of history, I was given a unintended tutorial in the interplay of Central European nationalisms by a Hungarian Communist apparatchik in London in 1985. After he had briefed me on the plans of the “reformist” Communists for liberalisation, I asked if there was anything I could do to thank him.
“Yes”, he said. “Get the London Times to demand that the Romanian government treats its minorities better.”
Innocently I suggested that one Communist government would be more likely to listen to another rather than to the pre-eminent Western bourgeois newspaper on such a matter.
“Oh, they pay no attention to us”, he replied. “But if the West kicks up a fuss, they may do something.”
Well, I did get The Times to include such a demand in a later editorial. So many world-historical moments occurred in the five years after that conversation, however, that any effect it may have had would be quite undetectable. And we live in a different world today.
But as Ambrus Miskolczy documents in his powerful and critical account of the Romanian “secret debate” among historians and linguists on the origins and settlement of the Romanian people, there are no innocent debates on such topics when governments become interested in them. Much ingenuity was wasted on the investigation of false or invented historical trails. At one level it was absurd. Yet what was at stake in that debate, as he concludes, was “the survival and rights of Magyars in Transylvania”. Serious scholars, anxious for their reputation and that of their country, “sabotaged” the official history of Romania that was supposed to result. It remained unfinished. But an anniversary will shortly be upon us – the Centenary this year of the Trianon handover of Transylvania from Hungary to Romania – which may revive some of these recondite ideas and theoretical passions. Governments and scholars should think first of the well- being of the decent people in Breb before injecting scholarly controversies into their bucolic retreat.
We would also do well to accept that there is no single criterion – historical, linguistic, or sociological – for determining what properly constitutes a nation. Nations are many in number and in kind. They are the products of history and of many different historical events – dynasties, wars, revolutions, religious conversions, wanderings of peoples – and the differences between them are benefits to all. We are lucky to have the diversity of arts and customs they bring into our lives. Central Europe has often been faulted for being a patchwork quilt of cultures. Instead we should express gratitude for those gifts.
Indeed, in this issue, as in our previous one, that is what we have done. In particular, we have been glad to celebrate the friendship, mutual assistance and cultural sympathy that have linked Hungary and Poland over the years. Jerzy Snopek describes how George Gömöri, the Hungarian poet and critic, reaching the West in 1956 and graduating in Oxford, championed the work of Polish poets and made their work better known outside Central Europe as well as within it. Not at all incidentally, Jerzy Snopek, who is himself Polish Ambassador to Budapest at present, has been performing the same generous function for Hungarian culture in Poland for decades. Theirs is just one thread in the rich tapestry of cultural and political communication in East Central Europe.
In the aftermath of 1956 there was an efflorescence of Polish and Hungarian cultural expression both in Eastern underground venues and in the Western public square. On this side of the Iron Curtain there was an increasing mutual sympathy and understanding between all the neighbour nations under the grey grip of Communism. Central Europeans were united in their sufferings, their discomforts, their occasional irritations at the blithering idiocy of Western attitudes towards the Soviet Union, and above all in their deep resentments at the degradation of life, culture, community and personal hopes that Communism had inflicted on half a continent. Émigré intellectuals from the region reinforced the reception and popularity of each other’s writings in the West. Over time they helped to restore and reshape a Central European identity that defeated the attempts (often very subtle ones) to divide citizens from each other, cities from each other – Budapest from Warsaw, Prague from Krakow – nations from each other, and most plainly of all Europeans from Europeans. And when they recovered their independence in 1989, they knew they had also found a fellowship in the years before.
We see the fruits of this fellowship in the candid, well-judged, and (alas) necessary articles in this issue from György Schöpflin and Václav Klaus defending Poland and the region from the interventionist “rules” of the European Commission. Now, we should not go overboard; the “rules” of Brussels are not the diktats of Moscow. The people of Breb have survived many worse threats than anything that can be hurled by Brussels. We trust that Poland will survive them too. She will certainly enjoy the support of Hungary and others in East Central Europe in doing so. Surely, however, we have all had enough of having to applaud dutifully when the emissaries of a distant capital arrive in our towns to instruct us on what is correct in politics. Surely we have said Goodbye to all that.