The History of “Central Europe”

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 7 June 2021

The Idea of Central Europe: Geopolitics, Culture and Regional Identity (2018), by Otilia Dhand, is an engaging and rather ambitious book, a work of intellectual history. Dhand’s core argument is that from the introduction of the term “Central Europe” in the nineteenth century, it did not describe a set geographical zone and the definition was always contested since the term was an attempt to construct local identities, a self separate from some other, as an instrument in the pursuit of geopolitical interests, always revisionist: these were attempts to will something into existence by influencing political behaviour.


“Central Europe” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was bound up with the “German Question”: with the Holy Roman Empire swept away by Napoleon in 1806, the question was what structure should be in its place once Napoleon was defeated.

The Germanic states were ultimately reconstituted as the German Confederation at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, with the Habsburg Monarchy retaining Austria and competing within this Confederation against Prussia for domination, the contest often pursued in the language of “Central Europe”.

During the upheavals of 1848-9, an elected Frankfurt National Assembly was constituted within the German Confederation and it showed the extent to which Austria was divided on whether or not it was part of this pan-German “nation”. The matter was settled in 1866 in a seven-week war: Prussia and Austria would be separate entities. Prussia would be the dominant element in a unified German national polity (formally proclaimed in 1871) and Austria would join itself to Hungary in a Dual Monarchy that ruled over a sprawling multinational Empire of Magyars, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Bosnians, and others.


Probably the most famous “Central Europe” thesis is Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe) by Friedrich Naumann, a Protestant pastor, published in 1915, as the culmination essentially of the thinking on this subject. Naumann proposed that after the war an economic and political union be fashioned on the Continent dominated by Germany—though he was very careful to downplay the political aspect and to phrase his obvious nationalist aspirations non-confrontationally to avoid alarming non-Germans—with the main purpose being to resist being subsumed under the influence of either the Anglosphere powers to the west or Russia to the east. This might sound familiar.

The solidification of “Central Europe” as a German-Austrian union defined against the Entente takes shape during the First World War and Dhand argues that the tendency to trace this back to Friedrich List and Karl Ludwig von Bruck is wrong; they were theorising about a notion of Germany.

The real precursors, Dhand contends, are in the late 1870s and 1880s, Constantin Frantz and Paul de Lagarde, who started with more geographical concepts that gradually took on a political character, and eventually settled on the idea that the polity would be, so to say, “naturally” dominated by Germans.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the “Central Europe” concept is thickened with visions of an economic area that has very hazy borders, drawing on Friedrich Ratzel’s organic growth theory—the state as a living, moving (and growing) organism—and Ratzel in turn is drawing on Carl Ritter, infusing the whole project with Social Darwinism. These two strands—modern economics and scientific racism—stand behind the lebensraum notion, most closely associated with Karl Haushofer.


Austria, which had tried to pursue a customs union with the northern German states before and after it was kicked out of the Confederation, was always very wary of this being extended into political control that encroached on its sovereignty, and the Austrians had good reasons to fear that such designs lay behind Prussian “Central Europe” proposals after 1866.

Dhand explains that while Austria looked generally disfavourably on “Central Europe” nostrums from the 1880s onward that it perceived as a way of institutionalising its subordinate status to Germany, Austrian fears were heightened even further as these ideas took on a more clearly German character: the Habsburgs knew the German speakers were their most loyal subjects, but, particularly as national consciousness began to be incited among the various peoples of the Empire in the late nineteenth century, the Court also knew that any surge in pan-German sentiment would only exacerbate these separatist trends—and the Emperor, Franz Joseph (r. 1848-1916), and those around him, were loyal to the Empire above all.

The great exception comes after 1916, when Franz Joseph dies and is replaced by his nephew, Karl (r. 1916-18), and the Austrian Minister-President, Karl von Stürgkh, is assassinated. The Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza, another great foe of German triumphalism—or anything else that would threaten the integrity of the Empire—is side-lined in the Cabinet led by Heinrich Clam-Martinic that replaces Stürgkh. The Central Europe movement reaches its height under Clam-Martinic and then, after the debacle of the “Sixtus Affair” when Emperor Karl tries to cut a separate peace, despite being totally reliant on Germany, the Spa Accords are forced on Austria-Hungary in May 1918, somewhat formalising its status as a German satellite, albeit only for six months.

During World War One there is also the great flourishing of the non-German—in many ways anti-German—concept of “Central Europe”, among the smaller “nations” of Austria-Hungary, who present their secessionist plans, particularly to President Woodrow Wilson who is enamoured of “national liberation” and “self-determination”, in this format, with this mosaic state under American patronage counter-balancing the Germans. As with all previous proposals along these lines, it failed because of internal rivalries, and in this instance was overtaken by events. One could argue—Dhand does not—that in some ways France adopts a version of this “Central Europe” in the inter-war years with its “Little Entente strategy”, trying to create a coalition with Czechoslovakia, Romania, Jugoslavija, and Poland to contain Germany. That, too, fails.


In the inter-war period, with the rise of Hitler, Mitteleuropa and lebensraum became used interchangeably, says Dhand, and by 1939 most of the old “Middle Europe” advocates—who had held key positions in the Nazi regime—had left the German government, which by now included Austria as one of its territories. Germans began to speak of the Reich rather than Mitteleuropa, which Dhand says looked rather limited and outdated when set against the conquests the Nazis achieved.

Dhand argues that Hitler’s imperial schemes in the East, above all the invasion of the Soviet Union, were a violation of the old Mitteleuropa ideas, which, as the name implies, suggested a “middle”—between Russia and Britain, not instead of them—and this was most clear in Haushofer’s idea of a “Continental bloc”, where the “living space” was for and among Germans, not in place of Slavs. Even if Dhand draws these distinctions rather more sharply than perhaps is warranted, the dispute is a matter of degrees since she notes that Mitteleuropa became “one of many propagandist tools of the Nazi regime” that connected the Nazis firmly with the aspirations of the German people.

During the Second World War, there were quite intensive efforts to create a non-German-dominated Central European federation, particularly with the governments-in-exile of the Czechs and the Poles in Britain, but all such plans hinged on the defeat of Nazi Germany, and that was felt to hinge on cooperation with the Soviet Union, which had no interest in a powerful, independent federation on its border. To the contrary, the Soviets preferred what they got by outmanoeuvring the West at the conferences in 1943-45: an archipelago of weak, dependent, indeed occupied, Communist buffer states.

During the Cold War, there were proposals in the 1950s—mostly among émigrés—for a Central Europe as a neutral zone between East and West, but the idea died out quickly; there was no constituency with power in either camp that supported this idea, and active hostility to the proposal from the Soviet side. “Central Europe” faded from the language for the simple reason that it had faded from reality: there was East and there was West, with any conceivable territory on which to create a neutralist Central Europe divided by the Iron Curtain and, again, no willingness on either side to devote even political capital to a confrontation with the other side to change this fact.


Dhand quotes Timothy Garton Ash as saying that Central Europe was “back” in 1984, and he was not wrong. Austria and Germany were involved in this debate, but this time with a lot of other players.

Austria dabbled with the concept by playing off nostalgia for the Empire, which did have purchase, essentially to pitch for itself having a larger role as a centre of, and actor for, regional coordination.

West Germany was quite resentful of, and a touch alarmed by, Austria’s renewed enthusiasm for “Central Europe”. On the one hand, Germany was hamstrung by its own record: Mitteleuropa had been the intellectual seedbed of the expansionist drive and the post-war period had been an extended exercise in atonement for that. On the other hand, there was the problem that any “independent” Central Europe would fall into the hands of the Soviets. To the extent West German elites embraced “Central Europe”, therefore, it was as a cultural concept, as a set of values that placed them firmly in the Western camp, and any instrumentalization of the concept to abet reunification was subordinate to this overarching definition.

It was this latter form, a culturally-defined “Central Europe”, that caught on in the 1980s as the last iteration of Central Europe and it was, as Dhand explains, the most successful. Put simply, the Captive Nations used the term at the end of the Cold War to cast themselves as Western values-sharing, “heroic nations struggling to break the shackles of alien dictatorship”, and afterwards “Central Europe” was the amulet “to counter the risk of potential relapse back into the Russian sphere of influence … [by presenting themselves] as a kidnapped West ‘returning to Europe’.” This idea “captivated the imagination of as many in the West as in the East”, Dhand notes, and served to fortify the will on both sides to see the transition process through that brought the COMECON states into NATO and the European Union.

Dhand concludes with an irony: the rise of the Visegrád states in the last few years means, arguably, that “Central Europe” has flipped 180 degrees, and now refers to states that are politically Western and culturally Eastern.

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