The Identities of the Danube Region

by Dragan Velikić


1 There are not many geographic terms that cover as much ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious ground as “Mitteleuropa”. This region has so much history, such a vivid past, and it is made all the more tangible through literature.

Only a few areas on this globe can lay claim to mythologies that persist for so long. Central Europe’s popularity and relevance may have to do with the fact that it has played such a central role in literature. Literary works are the only territories we can always return to. This is why, from a long-term perspective, literature is more powerful than the politics of the day could ever be. This is why Central Europe survived so many wars, peace conferences, and iron curtains.

In the days of the Iron Curtain, in fact, the myth of Central Europe was alive in literature. During the existence of the Eastern Bloc, the people who belonged to this region were imprisoned in another geography.

They were just guests in the political east of Europe, which had adopted them after World War II. In times when Europe was divided, the term “Central Europe” had a subversive component in the East, depending on how and where it was being considered. Whether Hungarian or Slovenian, Croatian or Czech, Serb or Slovak – for each, the term smacked of their personal degree of dissatisfaction with the world. The Habsburg monarchy was a geographical entity as well, a common denominator for an extremely diversified world that was home to twelve different population groups. Each had to sacrifice some aspect of its uniqueness so that the whole could function better. Bureaucracy was the operating system providing the underpinning for this world.

The Danube is not only the main artery of Central Europe, it is a powerful royal dynasty that unites this region with its many identities. The Danube’s crown cannot be lost. And the shores of the Danube have grown closer together.

 

2 Over the centuries, various populations have gathered in the Danube region. At times the Danube represented a border, and at times it was a bridge. But in each instance, the various populations coexisted. So there were many “Others” here. They lived together for decades. Sometimes they lived in the same country for an entire century. They shared the same everyday life, understood the customs and conventions of the others, and adopted them.

All of the peoples in the Danube region had the experience of being a majority, but each was also a minority. Historic conditions determined their fate. Wars brought role reversals. For instance, the Serbs were a minority in Vojvodina during the era of the monarchy, and the Germans were a minority there during the era of Yugoslavia.

Regardless of how dangerously historic circumstances constricted the vascular system of the Danube region, regardless of how close individual areas came to the brink of atrophy; its lifestream never came to a complete standstill. Now that the blocs in Europe have disappeared, the Danube flows faster again.

Borders were closed and re-opened due to political decisions from above when the related historic conditions arose. The centuries-old enmity between France and Germany was supplanted by their role as a supporting axis of the European Union. As long as regimes persist where individual freedoms do not have the status of a convertible currency, where the Other is not experienced as a boon, but as a threat to one’s identity, cosmopolitism is an undiscovered stowaway traveling below deck. But the power of belowdecks must not be underestimated. There always comes a time when the stowaways come out to the upper deck.

According to Henri Bergson, there is no such thing as absolute forgetting. Even if we have forgotten the password, we did not forever lose the content it protects. A time and space survives in the seemingly banal habits of everyday life. The memory of the deck is stored belowdecks. The memory of the good old days of peaceful coexistence evolves into a myth, and this myth is above all codified in literature.

This is why I said literary works are the only territories we can always return to. They represent the memories of times and spaces that we have not lived in, but that still are far from excluded from the realm of our experience. How else would I, a person born in Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, have a memory of everyday life in Italo Svevo’s Triest, in Deszhe Kostolany’s Subotica, in Elias Canetti’s Vienna? Where does this recognition come from? Why do I have this sense of kinship with Joseph Roth – as if we were contemporaries? Why is there this identification with his protagonists, characters scattered throughout the region between Galicia and the Adriatic and along the Danube to the Black Sea? It is probably more than a result of the shards of the Austrian Empire that remained embedded in the architecture of the socialist milieu of Pula in the 1950s. More likely, my worldview was colored by the presence of representatives of other people in the environment I lived in, by their cultures and customs. The biotope where we grew up gave us the capacity to recognize and experience the Other. Our background is very important. The question often arises whether we belong to the majority due to our nationality or the minority due to the society in which we live. The experience of the minority teaches us tolerance because it is the condition for being able to regulate circumstances. We are confronted with a situation in which, due to our double affiliation, we participate in the realm of the Other and as a consequence gradually gain the experience of a double agent. We carry two sides within us, and our concept of loyalty is much more complex. The diverse expectations that repeatedly compel us to find our own position give us no respite. They do not permit us to avail ourselves of a simplified worldview.

3 Identity is always an alloy. Identity is not a structure created once and for all, but a process that, just like the universe, neither has an end nor a beginning. Life is growth, and growth is exchange, a physiological activity of body and mind. Exchange is always only possible with others. The Other creates us. We are the Other for someone else.

I believe that the Danube region, whether deliberately or not, practiced coexistence before the other regions in Europe. This had both positive and negative consequences. This reticence, this state of being closed within one’s own four walls, these windows that look as though they were built to be converted into barracks, as though, for some unknown reason, their function and purpose had changed during construction: All this may well be a consequence of the fact that one had to accept the Other, albeit somewhat embittered and with pursed lips. On the other hand, not getting involved in the concerns of the Other may also be a form of tolerance. But the most important thing is that more than others, the people of the Danube region cultivate the custom and tradition of being able to live with each other even when they do not like each other and when their religions and historic backgrounds diverge significantly.

Only in Vienna is there such a high percentage of cafés where a number of tables have only one chair. Is it an attempt to live as an observer, or is it just a pause, an inward look, a circle around one’s own magnetic field? In light of this, it is no coincidence that the “Viennese Café”, this very particular institution, arose in Vienna, the unofficial capital of Central Europe. Alfred Polgar’s definition of this institution is both lucid and accurate: “People who want to be alone, but need company to do so, go to the coffeehouse.” This is the topography of the Danube region: many different peoples, each at their own table, but together in the same café.

 

DRAGAN VELIKIĆ  Serbian author and journalist; Serbian ambassador until recently; was editor-in-chief of one of Serbia’s largest radio stations; member of an antiwar pressure group. His writings have been published in numerous European newspapers.