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A Centenary to Celebrate ... Or Not?

One hundred years since the end of World War I is an ambiguous anniversary for many in Central Europe, where statehood and identity have long been subject to integration or empire.

by Martin Ehl 7 November 2018

Marking a momentous anniversary is never easy, but 100 years after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Central European countries are facing an especially complicated celebration. A fragile EU, rising tides of nationalism and populism, and growing distrust toward governing elites pose more than simple problems of etiquette; they prompt the question as to whether there is anything to celebrate at all.


Poland, for example, is into its third year of a conservative government which, on the one hand, stresses the importance of EU membership; public opinion supports the EU, too, to an overwhelming degree – about 70 to 80 percent in favor. On the other hand, this same government refuses to accept EU common rules in the context of changes to the judiciary system; and this government also uses the language of national sovereignty.


In Poland's preparations to mark the centenary, there are already fears that the celebrations will fall hostage to the nationalist far right, as happened last year in Warsaw, during the 11 November anniversary march.


For the two nation-states which constitute the former Czechoslovakia, organizing a party is even more complicated, even after a relatively amicable “Velvet Divorce.”


In the Czech Republic, the centenary is being celebrated in a big way, both officially and unofficially. On 28 October, 100 years since independence was declared in 1918, there was a military parade – a much-discussed rarity in these post-communist times, because people still remember the way the old regime used such parades as an ideological tool. (The last one was 10 years ago.) There have also been numerous concerts and exhibitions, and the National Museum has reopened its historic building in Prague after seven years of extensive reconstruction.


In Slovakia, by contrast, the centenary has not been given the same importance. A law was passed making 30 October 2018 a national holiday to mark the 100th anniversary of when the Slovak elites decided to join the common state of Czechoslovakia. However, this is only one day, and only for this year. The official Slovak celebrations were limited to the northern town of Martin, where the historical proclamation was made in 1918.


Many people in both parts of the former Czechoslovakia have complained that it is nonsense to celebrate the birthdate of a state that failed before it reached its centenary.


A similar argument could be made in Poland, too, because Poland in 1918 was totally different from today's Poland, thanks to dramatic changes in borders and populations at the end of World War II.


The mere concept of all of these nation-states seems somewhat clumsy and even outdated – even though they are less than 100 years old – if you look at what has happened to them and their inhabitants over that period. The American historian Timothy Snyder recently told me that the only purpose of a nation-state is to die for it with glory.


Moreover, he argued, European history is either empire or integration, and this is something we see in our own time, with competing currents of European integration and Russian neo-imperialism.


Central European nation-states have spent the last quarter century fulfilling dreams of integration into the EU and NATO, and constructing interconnected societies and economies. All of this globalization is quite a different picture to that portrayed by nationalists appealing to the mostly imagined “glorious past.”


As far as “empire” goes, Central Europe has become a battlefield again, although the forces in the field are not tank divisions but fake news, information warfare over the internet, and economic interests.


This kind of critical reflection has been missing from centenary events in Central Europe, raising the danger that if we do not learn the right lessons from the last 100 years, we are obliged to repeat at least some of the mistakes.


And the crucial point in such reflection – especially in a globalized world – is the one stressed by Snyder: European history is either integration or empire. The difference now, in contrast with the past, is that each Central European nation can make a choice between the two.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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