Beyond East and West: Central Europe is not easily categorized

By: Harlan Cutshall


Editor’s Note: This article is the first in our “Perspectives” series. For the rest of the semester, several of our writers will reflect on their personal experiences with international affairs. Harlan Cutshall studied abroad in Budapest, Hungary during the Fall 2013 semester.


Where does Western Europe start and Eastern Europe begin? Does Central Europe truly exist, or is it a foggy concept conjured by political scientists? Can regions be separated by simply boundaries, or are definitions vaguer, based on cultures, languages and shared histories?


These questions were all the more pertinent last semester. Abroad for the fall in Budapest, Hungary, I was confronted with their complicated answers on a day-to-day basis. I have always been fascinated by Eastern Europe and its politics, histories and cultures—disparate and tumultuous, yet all so interconnected. Like most Americans, I had always thought of “East Europe” as everything behind the now-defunct Iron Curtain, that infamous imaginary border running from West Germany and Austria down to Yugoslavia. During the Cold War, every nation west of the curtain was a capitalist-style democracy. All those east of it (save Greece and Turkey) were communist nations similar to the Soviet Union. Although the collapse of communism across the region in 1989 brought an end to such delineation, the Iron Curtain has remained a symbolic line of demarcation between East and West. However, others argue that Europe is home to too much complexity to be simply split into east and west. Instead, more regions exist—Western Europe, Central Europe, Scandinavia, The Balkans, and, finally, Eastern Europe. To me, the latter argument, one leaving room for nuance and subtle variation between nations, is the most accurate.


I find the question of Central Europe to be the most fascinating. The nations in this group often vary between definitions, but most frequently include the following countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Austria immediately sticks out as the oddity. Despite a completely different history as the only nation of the five to exist outside the Soviet sphere of influence and be spared 50 years of communist rule, there are several similarities with its neighbors. Shared histories are the most obvious connection—these nations have all been, at one time or another, under control of various royal families, most notably the Hapsburgs. Austria-Hungary controlled huge swaths of this area until its dissolution in 1918. Today, traces of the empire are evident in all of its successor states. Hapsburg legacies—in the form of architecture, artwork, food, and opera—are evident today across the region, imparting their influence on contemporary culture and society. These five nations are also some of the most economically stable of the region: the Human Development Index (HDI)—a benchmark which measures social implications of economic conditions in a country—rates all five nations as “very high development” countries, the highest possible ranking.[1] All five nations are European Union members, and all but Hungary uses the Euro. Despite knowing all of this, I was still skeptical of the idea of Central Europe as a unified region even after living in Budapest for six weeks. Then I went to Romania.


Historically ethnically Hungarian, the region of Transylvania was awarded to Romania after World War I through the Treaty of Trianon, which was meant to punish Hungary for its aggression during the war. Through the treaty, Hungary lost 72% of its area and 64% of its population.[2] Ninety years later, discussion of Trianon still stirs nationalist sentiments in Hungarians. In certain company, bringing up the treaty is a poor decision.


My study abroad program facilitated day and weekend trips to culturally significant areas of Hungary. Our trip to Transylvania was the longest, most important trip of the semester, and among the most unique of my life. It also helped reinforce just how great the disparity between so-called “Eastern European” nations can be, and undermines the validity of that phrase. The landscape changed immediately the minute we crossed from Hungary into Romania. Whereas the Hungarian countryside is dotted with neat, quiet villages, in Romania, everything immediately appeared a little more run down, a little more tired, a little more forgotten. On the outskirts of Oradea, the first major Romanian city across the border, abandoned, rusted out shells of former factories trailed the city for kilometers in both directions. Infrastructure had never been rehabilitated or demolished after the regime changes; instead, nature had taken its toll. Long, winding roads through mountains and valleys seemed to have been neglected for years, riddled with potholes and frost heaves, indicative of smaller available funds for infrastructure maintenance. Villages were more rural, more isolated, and more agricultural than what I’d previously seen in Hungary. Romania’s Human Development Index ranking is “high development,” rather than the “very high” levels shared by its neighbors. In person, the differences were evident.[3]


The eight-hour drive from Kalotaszentkirály, Romania to Budapest gave me plenty of time to reflect on what I had seen that weekend. Much of the time was spent reconsidering my personal definition of Eastern Europe. As incredible as Romania was, as gorgeous as the mountains and as friendly as the people were, I couldn’t classify it in the same group of countries as Hungary. Its lack of development and lower living conditions made it seem a world away from Hungary. The two nations vary greatly culturally, as well: Romania is mainly Orthodox Christian, and today still shows the scars imposed by oppressive dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Even in Transylvania, where residents often refer to themselves as “Hungarians living in Romania,” the last ninety years have created a mélange of regional cultures unique to the region. Thus, my definition of Eastern Europe was shattered, while one of Central Europe formed. Simply sharing a communist past is not enough to categorize a country as Eastern Europe. Culture, society, history, and economics impart a greater impact on a nation than a system of government does. So the next time someone thinks that all nations behind the Iron Curtain are easily lumped together, know better—such disparate histories, cultures, and peoples beg more specific classifications.



Harlan Cutshall is a junior studying International Studies and Global Health. His academic interests concern state building and conflict resolution, particularly in post-communist states. Originally from Portland, Maine, he spent fall semester of his junior year in Budapest, Hungary.

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