Hungarian traditional dancers in front of a statue of Matthias Corvinus: Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 19 August 2022

Why central Europe has always mattered

Globalism is nothing new


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every time little Englanders — including certain British prime ministers — attempt to persuade us that central European disputes are “quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom we know nothing”, history comes back to bite them. Central Europe matters. As Martyn Rady’s sparkling, witty, elegantly-written and deeply erudite book shows, it has mattered a lot for the last 2,000 years. 

The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe, Martyn Rady (Allen Lane, £30)

They may seem eccentric places with unspeakable languages, where people adopt eccentric dress sense, but more often than not, conflicts in the “Middle Kingdoms” as Rady calls them have changed the world — for good or ill. Tribes and empires from the East (Huns, Goths, Cumans, Tatars/Mongols, Ottomans, Russians) have moved west to conquer vast swathes of territory, creating new states and in time giving birth to new ideas. 

The Thirty Years War in the mid-17th century “engulfed almost the entire continent, with sideshows in Africa, the Caribbean and even Taiwan”, Rady explains. The seizure of Austrian Silesia (contested Polish territory) by Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1740 led to two decades of war, drawing in Britain and France and partly waged in North America and the Indian sub-continent. Globalism is not new. 

Unusually for histories of the region, Rady includes Germany in his definition of central Europe: this is entirely logical, helping to make the point that central Europe is different and singular, but nowhere near as much as we imagine. The ideological revolution that began in central Europe with Martin Luther, the Reformation, transformed the world — as did, arguably, the most revolutionary technological invention of all, Gutenberg’s printing press. Both world wars started there, and much of the dying took place there. 

Today central Europe is as relevant as ever, at the centre of the most important geopolitical conflict of our age and the greatest test of our will as democracies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, as Rady points out, “already the most destructive war waged in Europe for more than 70 years”

Central Europe has often been characterised by what it is not. True, on the whole it is significantly poorer now than more developed western European countries, but that has not always been so. In the late Middle Ages the Polish-Lithuanian empire was vast and considered at the forefront of modernity. 

During the 14th century, Hungary possessed the world’s largest gold reserves. Under Matthias Corvinus the Raven King, in the 15th, the palace at Buda (there was no Budapest until the 1870s) was the most resplendent and opulent in the whole of Europe, built by the finest Italian Renaissance artists and architects. His library was, after the Vatican’s, the largest in the world — until it was destroyed and scattered to the winds in the 1540s by the Ottoman invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent. 

Rady’s point is to make central Europe distinctive, whilst showing how much it has in common with the west. The two regions shared the same mediaeval civilisation. Like England and France, the kingdoms and duchies in Mittleuropa had castles, knights, Catholic churches and monasteries, flourishing cities and wealthy merchants. Central Europe experienced the Renaissance rediscovery of classical learning, religious wars, Enlightenment Romanticism and nationalism. 

Often central Europe embraced these broad movements of history differently, however. Empires were created, but the knightly classes ran them in the eastern part of Europe, not in continents across the oceans. Serfdom on the landed estates developed differently and lasted much longer — well into the 19th century, whereas it had all but disappeared in Western Europe around the time of the Black Death.

No historian has explained why the Holocaust’s roots were in central Europe

Rady illustrates his broad points with vivid storytelling and delightful pen portraits of major figures such as Polish Prince Mieszko. He was baptised Catholic in 966 mainly because his devout wife Ludmila refused him her bed until he became a Christian — surely a heroine of sorts, though today’s Polish women may have doubts. Charlemagne, on the other hand, who spun his reputation as an exemplar of Christian rectitude, had a string of concubines and is alleged to have had incestuous relationships.

Rady is one of the world’s leading experts on the Habsburgs. His portraits are sharp, concise and incisive for Empress Maria Theresa — “a prodigious meddler” who wrote “decrees about the correct blowing of horns and of the design of tobacco pipes” — and of Prince Klemens von Metternich, who ran the Austrian empire for a third of the 19th century.

No historian has adequately explained the Holocaust or why its roots were in central Europe — perhaps no writer can. Rady’s main argument is that it is a direct and logical end point for the type of extreme, race-based nationalism that developed during the 19th century.

This is persuasive up to a point, but seems rather narrow and simplistic considering the enormity of the events. “In the Holocaust, the apparatus and ethos of bureaucracy, technology and automation, and the idea of the exclusive racial state combined to make Central Europe the home of the death factory,” he writes. Surely there were many steps between measuring skull sizes, buying into the pseudo-science of ethnography or the development of railways; and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

However, his narrative is masterly on the descent into the hell of the First World War and the ghastliness of central Europe for much of the 20th century. He makes a relevant point that Germany had no monopoly on antisemitism: the first interwar anti-Jewish laws were introduced by Admiral Horthy’s Hungary in 1920, when Hitler was still speaking to tiny groups of people in Munich beer halls. 

For the postwar period until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was no “central Europe”. There was East and West Europe, divided by the Iron Curtain. Rady’s few pages about the Stalinised Warsaw Pact countries are superb. He never descends into the mistake of describing them as dull and colourless, a conformist Communist mélange. Unfree they may have been, controlled by tyranny, but still (if one opened one’s eyes) recognisable parts of Europe. This became obvious when the Berlin Wall came down. 

Rady is worried for the future, and he ends with a warning. He first addresses the populist, deeply illiberal measures adopted in some countries, which seem to have retreated into a dark past where people on the streets openly use codewords familiar to any Jew — I recently heard “cosmopolitan looks” on the Budapest metro. Although threats to central Europe have come from all directions, historically those from the East have been the most terrible. 

“Huns, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, Turks, Cossacks have all broken over into Europe,” Rady reminds us: “Medieval scribes had a name for the invaders — they were the dogmen, from the Caucasus where Alexander the Great had once enclosed them. Today’s dogmen may lack imaginary snouts and tails, but with their tanks, rocket launchers and drones they are just as terrible.” 

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