The tragedy of Central Europe The tragedy of Central Europe
The tragedy of Central Europe

Kundera, Milan

in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 31, n° 7


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Further works by Milan Kundera


Milan Kundera (French, born in Brno, 1 April 1929) is a world famous writer of Czech origin, best known as the author of the novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. One of the leading figures of the 'Prague Spring', Kundera lost his university teaching position and saw his books banned from publication in Czechoslovakia. He has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became naturalised in 1981. Kundera's outstanding novels, written in both Czech and French, have earned him several nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Kundera’s seminal essay 'The Tragedy of Central Europe' was published in 1984. The author sought to define the notion of Central Europe, setting it against the background of the East-West dichotomy. Whilst, as a result of World War II, Central Europe politically belonged to the East, historically, says Kundera, it had always been part of the West from which it was literally 'kidnapped' in 1945 ('Un Occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l'Europe Centrale' was the essay's original French title).

This separation was seen by Central European nations as nothing short of an attack on European civilisation. The author stresses the role of Central Europe as a former great cultural centre which influenced an entire continent. However, such cultural unity no longer exists, which explains, he argues, why the disappearance of Europe's central part went unnoticed in the West. This is what Kundera describes as the 'tragedy' of Central Europe.

Kundera contrasts Western civilisation with Russia, controversially claiming that communism was in line with the logic of Russian history as it made it possible for Russia to fulfil its imperial dreams. In his view this imperialism fundamentally contradicted Western values, cherished in Central Europe.

Kundera's highly influential text has been credited with setting up the background for a wide intellectual debate on the notion of Central Europe and European identity in general.