Jan Kren

Dve stoleti stredni Evropy. Argo, Prague 2005,  1109 pp.. Edice dejiny Evropy svazek  8.


Reviewed by Jerzy Tomaszewski


The author of this book, a professor at Charles University (between 1969 and 1990 a worker at the Vodni Zdroje company, a signatory to Charter 77, between 1978 and 1990 joint editor of the journal Historicke studie, published outside the censorship) became known in the sixties for some pioneering books on the beginnings of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance movement between 1938 and 1940.  He later carried out research into the history of Czech-German relations from 1780 up to the present, but these works initially appeared outside the censorship, or overseas (also in German translations).  The book currently under review grew out of lectures and seminars at Charles University and is a splendid compendium of knowledge about our part of the European continent from the end of the eighteenth century up to more or less the present day, which will be of use not only to students, but also to a wider readership.  In it professional experts on these centuries will find a great deal of analysis worthy of attention and debate, as well inspiration for their own research.  The survey is distinguished by a skilful depiction of various aspects of the historical process, scepticism towards overly sweeping generalizations and a cautious approach to drawing conclusions; from time to time the writer embellishes it with pertinent anecdotes conducive to an understanding of the atmosphere of the period which is being described.

The whole work comprises 14 chapters.  The first one serves as an introduction to the topic and opens with a discussion of the question what is Central Europe.  Kren states that in the book ‘the concept Central Europe will embrace six direct or historical neighbours : the Poles, the Hungarians, the Slovaks, the Czechs, the Germans and the Austrians’ (p.13).  As justification for the choice of these communities he quotes historical, political and cultural arguments, as well as presenting different viewpoints.  I remain unconvinced by the rationale for such an approach, although I do find some of the arguments, particularly the cultural ones, to be correct.  I continue to maintain that a preponderance of economic, demographic as well as political phenomena argues for a definition of the region as those lands ‘lying between Russia and Germany’.  Arguments over the concept of Central Europe have been going on for a long time, and these suggestions derive not only from an analysis of the historical process, but also from contemporary phenomena.  Irrespective of this, each writer has the right to his own point of view on our part of the continent as well as to his definition of a survey’s scope.

In reality the book’s scope is much greater than the principles outlined in the introduction.  Kren maintains too that it is impossible to present the events of Central Europe without taking into account the influence of the environment, in other words other European countries, and for the twentieth century, also countries on other continents.  The more so since national borders have been fluid in Central Europe, and not only during the two centuries covered – the fortunes of present-day Carpathian Ruthenia serving as an illustration of this.  Furthermore, accepting Poland as one of the constituent elements of the region under discussion, he had also to take into account the specific features of the Russian partition, in other words selected issues of Russian (later Soviet) history.  This has, however, caused a number of problems, since before the Partitions (also to a certain extent between the wars) the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth embraced territory in present-day Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, while the territories annexed by Russia were divided into the so-called incorporated lands, as well as the Congress Kingdom.  The writer does not always perceive the essential dissimilarities between these two parts.

The remaining chapters are essentially chronological, although the writer does not observe caesuras rigidly but successfully links chronological elements to a depiction of the continuity of historical processes outside these dates.  The chapters’ internal structure (partially revealed only in the table of contents) links thematic and geographical criteria.  The survey of events of the second half of the twentieth century comprises chapters formally treating successive decades starting from 1950, but here too the writer has not rigidly adhered to his established divisions and strives to present the continuity of transformations.  Nearly all the chapters are supplemented by ‘capsules’ devoted to  specific issues, such as serfdom, Catholicism, Biedermeier, the Slavs, Central-European liberalism, the Polish and Czech historical novel, Jewish literature, the minorities question, forced migration, socialist realism, samizdat; unfortunately there is no major capsule on the co-operative movement.  There are 30 such ‘capsules’ in all.  In addition to this, some of the chapters dealing with the twentieth century are accompanied by supplements called ‘interpretations (four in all), and all the chapters have ‘portraits’, in other words all told 52 potted biographies of distinguished people, including four historians, as well as two living people: Adam Michnik and Lech Wałęsa.  Most of the ‘capsules’ and ‘portraits’ are the work of Kren’s younger colleagues: Martin Nodl, Pavel Sramek, Vojtech Sustek, Pavel Zeman, Frantisek Svatek.  The book’s complicated structure leads admittedly to a certain amount of repetition which, however, on the whole helps the reader to navigate the various subjects.

Particularly valuable is the writer’s ability to cast a synthesizing eye on Central Europe, its internal differences and attendant conflicts, as well as the bonds linking countries, societies and nations.  The attentive reader will admittedly notice various factual lapses (there are not many for such an extensive piece of work covering the complex issues of two centuries), but they have no significant impact on the essential conclusions, so I shall not write about them.  Let the fact that Stefan Żeromski won a Nobel Prize suffice as an example.  I would just like to point out a couple of problems selected from the book’s rich contents, which I believe merit specific attention.

They are above all issues of Central Europe’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.  Kren, for understandable reasons, pays particular attention to relations on Czech territory where the German language played a significant role alongside Czech and where, in addition to an overwhelming majority of Catholics, there lived Protestants and followers of Judaism.  After the experiences of the twentieth century, the conviction of a long-standing Czech-German conflict has lodged in our contemporaries’ memories.  Kren paints a picture which differs from the stereotype and demonstrates that this conflict  slowly intensified only during the first half of the nineteenth  century, and that the events of 1848 had a decisive influence.  To a certain extent Slovak-Hungarian relations developed along similar lines.  The situation of the Jewish population is connected to this, and the business-like presentation of the complex ethnic and religious relations deserves credit.  The writer discusses too the significance of creative artists of Jewish descent for the cultures of other ethnic communities in the part of Europe under discussion.  The issue of  Czech-Polish relations in Silesia has ended up somewhat on the sidelines and I believe that it is worthy of greater attention.  The writer devotes a great deal of space to the situation of the Jewish population on Polish territory, but in these matters I have a somewhat specific critical view.

I read with great interest the chapters covering the second half of the twentieth  century, since that period’s events represent not only a subject of essential academic discussion, but are also used by politicians, and not only in Poland, for current in-fighting, especially before elections.  Kren’s great contribution is a concern for conciseness and objectivity.  He distances himself from ideological assessments, presents a picture consisting of various colours and tones, far from black and white contrasts, and sees the complexity of the changes after the end of the Second World War and the different causes of negative, as well as positive, phenomena.  A comparative analysis of relations in specific countries which found themselves in the Soviet sphere of influence allows not only for an assessment of which ‘barracks’ in the socialist camp was the most cheerful (it changed), but also of the benefits of modernization achieved in those years, and on the other hand of the negative effects of dependence on the USSR, in economic, as well as in social and political matters.  It is worth noting the depiction of the differences in the traditions of communist movements in specific countries before 1939, which permit an understanding of the different roads to seizing complete power in each one after the war.

In connection with this depiction of the past there is an appropriate conclusion at the end: ‘Although the judgement of the future is in the stars one cannot in the case of the communist half-century a priori unambiguously reject, nor unconditionally accept the idea of a blind alley, or a blind branch of history.  […]  Whether the rejected communist system devalued the lives of its citizens is also not the issue – it is hard not to reply in the affirmative: it without doubt did devalue them; the proper question is to what extent.  There were those, and not just the regime’s hangers-on, who did experience some good times, which many people now recall with nostalgia.  For others those times, or at least some of them, are the blackest of black holes; those held prisoner in the fifties, as well as those who were persecuted have the greatest right to such an opinion.  Contemporaries’ responses, or rather the historical examples or narratives they provide are varied, will be varied and will continue to change.  […]  “Great history” whose main stimulus is the study of history absorbs, or quite the opposite, excludes them.  It is influenced too by their rivalry and selection, although it is not a simple and harmonious whole’ (p.986).  And further on: ‘a wave of denial in historical statements, especially in the media, a reaction as much natural as it is sometimes opportunistic, […] passes with time; this is also a natural phenomenon, and sometimes opportunistic too.  Changes affect historiography too: in the latest works, especially the foreign ones, blanket judgements (or opinions) are also on the way out.  […]  In all these cases tales of light and shadows are re-interpreted; with the passage of time the study of history emphasizes ever more strongly the need for a deeper or a more nuanced examination.  The overall assessment of Central Europe in the second half of the twentieth  century, seen from the vantage point of great historical transformations, is definitely not overly bright and even detailed analyses will not make it so.  […]  An inhabitant of Central Europe, who was born before the First World War and who did not move lived through at least three revolutionary upheavals, three social systems, changed nationality more than once and each time was faced with a new version of history’ (p.987).

The book ends with a quotation by Raymond Aron from 1981: ‘Since I do not know how things will turn out, I have to say that “people are unfinished history” ’ (p.1008).

The work is supplemented by appendices prepared by P. Zeman.  They consist of: 1) diagrams describing the  structure of national government in Austria-Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia up to 1969 (with a separate one for the communist party) and the Polish Republic up to 1997; 2) statistical tables prepared using B. R. Mitchell’s , International Historical Statistics Europe 1750-1988 (New York 1992), as well as Statistical Yearbook 2000, United Nations, New York 2003; 3) 41 little maps and an index of names.

I believe this book to be an important scholarly and political event, and a valuable contribution to depicting Central Europe’s historical place in the European Union; I feel that it merits a Polish edition.


Translated from the Polish by Jarosław Garliński