A Kidnapped West, or The Tragedy of Central Europe by Milan Kundera | Book Review

“Central Europe: the maximum diversity in the minimum of space.”

“The people of Central Europe are not conquerors. They cannot be separated from European history; they cannot exist outside it; but they represent the wrong side of this history; they are its victims and outsiders. It’s this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory”.

A Kidnapped West by the Czech French writer Milan Kundera includes a speech and an essay: Address to the Czech Writers’ Congress: The Literature of Small Nations (1967) and A Kidnapped West, or The Tragedy of Central Europe (1983). Both pieces focus on the fate of the small Central European nations and how they are perceived by the rest of the world at the time of Kundera’s speech. According to Kundera “a small nation is one whose very existence may be put into question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it.” Having an Eastern European heritage myself, I find these two forms of intellectual expressions extremely relatable still today, especially when I reflect on the war in Ukraine.

In The Literature of Small Nations, Kundera indirectly attempts to define Europe as a value, a place that has harboured freedom of thought, historical continuity, and common culture. He reminds the rest of the world of the importance of a literary tradition in his homeland, at that time today-not-existing Czechoslovakia, and how literature provided the foundation for the modern existence of his nation. Kundera’s voice emphasises that the Czech people had lived at the margins of the world throughout the 19th century as well as the 20th century – it is a nation who is more used to defending its frontiers rather than to crossing them and over the centuries the Czech people had lived more ordeals than many other nations.  

I will now focus on A Kidnapped West, The Tragedy of Central Europe which was first published in Le Debat no.27 in 1983. This essay had an enormous impact on the mental landscape of the 1980s Europe and the understanding of Central European nations. Kundera reminds Western Europe and the rest of the world that Central Europe does exist.  Central Europe has always belonged to the West by its culture and historical continuity. The culture has always been “the sanctuary of the identity” of the small nations in Central Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

This essay is powerful and very personal, Kundera’s anguished voice is clearly noticed. It had an impact on the understanding of Central Europe and its place within Europe as well as to the extent on the enlargement of European Union following the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 and its aftermath. As Pierre Nora notes in his introduction to this essay, Kundera’s piece also exerted the impact on the understanding of the nations within the former Yugoslavia among the European intellectuals and politicians in the early 1990s. As Kundera states the tragedy of Central Europe lies in the West not even noticing its disappearance after 1945 and not understanding its significance. Throughout this essay Kundera poses a question on why Western Europe and the rest of the world does not care about the vanished Central European nations.


Kundera reminds us that the culture in that part of the world was always a value in itself rather than an invention of the privileged elites like in many other countries. The uprising in Hungary and the massacre that followed in 1956, the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Polish revolts in 1956, 1968, 1970 were always supported almost by the entire population. In each case the regime could not defend itself for more than a few hours if it had not been backed by Russia. It’s worth remembering that the collective cultural memory played a decisive role in all the revolts in Central Europe – far greater than it had been in any other European mass revolt.

The revolts in Central Europe were always nourished by “CULTURE”: poetry, theatre, novels, cinema, literary reviews, comedy, cabaret, philosophical discussions, and historiography. Mass media like newspapers, radio or television did not play any role in those revolts (as they were controlled by the state). The culture and its importance on life and political landscape of everyday existence in the revolts in Central Europe during the communist regimes was enormous.

In Hungary it was a group of Hungarian writers formed in a group named after the Romantic poet Sandor Petofi whose critique of the regime led the way to the revolts in 1956. Prior to the 1968 Prague Spring it was the theatre, films and books that led to the revolt, especially articles appearing in one of the biggest Literary Journals in Czechoslovakia. In Poland it was the banning of the play by the Romantic writer Adam Mickiewicz that led to the famous revolt of the Polish students in 1968. In Czechoslovakia the Russians tried to destroy everything that constituted culture including literary reviews – all of them were liquidated during the Russian occupation of 1968. In Prague this was seen as a tragedy, a major catastrophe but in London, Paris, and the rest of the world this was perceived as something insignificant, banal, lacking any importance.

Kundera also refers to the predicament of some Russians fearing that their country could be confused with the brutal regime only. Kundera gives credit to the Russian literary tradition which he considers an important element of the European cultural legacy, However, he also reminds us that we have to remember and understand the Pole who had been subjugated by Russia for more than two centuries and subject to the “Russianisation”. The West and the rest of the world often if not always forget to look at those Central European nations from their perspective, their agency is denied and ignored by the rest of the world. This still happens these days when it comes to Ukraine. There is no shortage of comments flooding the well-established newspapers in Europe, Middle East, Latin and North America and Asia where Ukraine and its people are reduced to some abstract theoretical notion deprived of its long painful history that led to today’s war.


As mentioned earlier for Kundera the tragedy of Central Europe lies in the West not even noticing its disappearance and not understanding its significance (in the context of his times, of the 1980s). The tragedy was that Central European nations vanished from the map and mental landscapes of the outside world and the rest of Europe. Even more tragic was the fact that their disappearance remained invisible. Not many in other parts of the world noticed that Central and also Eastern European nations vanished. They had been separated from the consciousness of Europe.

At the beginning and the end of the essay Kundera refers to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 when the Hungarian journalist famously addressed Europe in his teletext just minutes before the office of the Hungarian news agency was shelled by the Russians saying that “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” In the West most people did not understand this, they thought of the invasion just as a change of a political regime rather than anything else or more. The phrase “to die for one’s country and for Europe” could never be uttered in Moscow but it was absolutely understandable to utter these very words in Prague, Warsaw or Budapest. The meaning of Europe for the Pole, Czech or Hungarian of the 1980s had a drastically different meaning to someone in UK or Spain.

Kundera again reminds us that Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary had been rooted culturally in the Roman Christianity and shared the cultural heritage with Western Europe not for decades but throughout centuries. To many Central Europeans, Europe does not mean just the geographical location, but it often carries a deeper spiritual notion. If Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary are no longer considered a part of Europe by the rest of the world, then the essence of their identity and historical heritage is being denied. For centuries Europe was divided into two spheres which developed differently: one anchored in Rome and connected the Roman Christianity, and the other half tied to the Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. After 1945 that invisible demarcation line between these two halves had shifted and now countries in Central Europe who had always been a part of Western Europe, they now had become a part of the East against their own will. Small nations in Central Europe were geographically located in the centre Europe, culturally in the West and politically in the East. That narrow minded perception has remained until these days.


Central Europe is made of small nations conceived according to the rule: the greatest variety within the smallest space. Meanwhile Russia [Soviet Union at the time of Kundera’s article] was founded on the principle the smallest variety in the greatest space. Kundera points out that Central Europe had always been diverse and decentralised while Russia had been uniform, centralised, and determined to transform every nation of its empire into a single Russian people, or into a single Soviet people (the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, the Latvians, the Armenians, and others).

Central European nations and many Eastern European nations see Russia not just as another powerful country but rather as the other civilisation – a very different perception to the one present in Western Europe and other parts of the world. Kundera reminds us of two great Polish writers: Czeslaw Milosz and his Native Realm as well as Kazimierz Brandys and his Warsaw Diaries which I both highly recommend if you are interested in learning more about Eastern and Central Europe. In his diaries Brandys reflected on the difficult history of Russia and its people but he also confidently noted that the tragedy of Russia was not responsibility of Central Europe and other countries. It was not part of their heritage. It is part of the consicuousness of Russian people. Whereas he admired the value of great Russian novels especially Gogol and Saltykov – Shchedrin, he was terrified by the horror those works of literature evoked. As outsiders we might be fascinated by them, but as Central Europeans we would not want to be a part of that world. Kundera refers to the 1945 division (which happened against the will and without the participation in decision making of those small Central and Eastern nations) was not just a political catastrophe but also it was an attack on the civilisation of Central Europe and their way of life, the essence of their identity.

Kundera reminds the rest of the world that the history of the Poles, Czech, Slovaks, Hungarians had been turbulent, painful, and utmost tragic throughout the centuries. Kundera notes that the Czechs and Russians had never shared a common world, neither a common history nor common culture. The relationship between the Poles and the Russians had always been a struggle of life and death. It is worth mentioning that also the languages of Hungarians and Romanians are not Slavic but somehow are also boxed into the Russian sphere. Defining everything that’s Russian as Slavic and everything in Central Europe as Slavic had created the perception that everything that’s Slavic is Russian. This can be traced back to the 19th century.

Kundera points out to the national struggles throughout the centuries and impossible choices that those small nations had been faced with for generations. These small nations include the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Jews, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Romanians, and others. Central Europe cannot be defined by political frontiers which were often imposed by invasions, occupations. They can, however, be defined  by the imaginary borders which have to be redrawn with each new historical situation, containing the realm inhabited by the same memories, conflicts and common tradition.

Kundera states that the diversity of Central Europe is shown in the life of many representative figures of that region. Sigmund Freud’s parents came from Poland, but he spent his childhood in Moravia. The roots of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth can be traced back to Poland. The Czech writer Julius Zeyer was born in Prague to the German speaking family, but he opted for Czech language in his writing. The father of Franz Kafka was a native Czech speaker, but Franz chose German as the language of his literary expression. The Hungarian writer Tibor Dery was born into the Hungarian-German family and another novelist Danilo Kis was a Yugoslav-Hungarian. All those figures were also Jewish. The Jewish people were an integrating, cosmopolitan and intellectual element in Central Europe, faced with their own distinct struggles throughout centuries.

For Kundera Central Europe is a zone of small nations.

“The small nation is one whose very existence may be put into question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it. A Frenchman, a Russian, or an Englishman is not used to asking questions about the very survival of his nation. His anthem speaks only of grandeur and eternity. The Polish anthem, however, starts with the verse: “Poland has not yet perished…”


Central Europe has its own vision of the world based on a deep distrust of History. Throughout the essay Kundera asks himself how it is possible that the disappearance of Central European nations after 1945 had remained unnoticed by the Western European countries and the rest of the world. The answer he reaches is that the reason for it is that Western Europe does no longer perceive itself as united by common culture but rather by superficial geographical location without sharing common values. Culture does not exist as a supreme value. Europe had become the space from which the culture was slowly withdrawing.

Kundera refers to the speech by Franz Werfel in 1937 at the conference organised the League of Nations about the Future of Literature. During the conference Werfel spoke not only against Hitlerism but the totalitarian threat in the East as well as the journalistic and ideological mindlessness of his times. Robert Musil shared Werfel’s feelings and always strongly opposed fascism and communism and spoke for the protection of culture from the mindlessness of politicisation. Werfel’s and Musil’s remarks were negatively received by the intellectuals in Paris, UK and USA. Almost 50 years later Kundera says he feels a close affinity with both writers which makes him feel irreparably Central European.

Western Europe and the rest of the world perceived Central Europe just as a part of the Soviet empire, nothing more, just as nations without its own history and agency.  They tried to understand them only and only from their own perspective (which is also the case nowadays).

Kundera concludes that the real tragedy for Central Europe is not Russia per se but Europe – Europe that does no longer perceive itself as a value in itself, not a value worth dying for as the Hungarian journalist in 1956 sending the message to the outside world understood – he was ready to die for Hungary and for Europe – it is just that Europe refused to understand, Europe ignored and ridiculed his message.

If you can get a copy of Milan Kundera’s article “The Tragedy of Central Europe” from 1983 and you are interested not only in Central Europe but also in Eastern Europe and their complex and turbulent history I would highly recommend you to have a close reading of this article. It is still extremely relevant as it was in the early 1980s.  It is also important to understand the historical context of the early 1980s and specifically the predicament of Central and Eastern Europe of that era. When you read the text from 1983 you should first gain a good grounding in the history of the region in order not to jump to conclusion or to form opinions based just on the place where you are from or you are familiar with. 

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