Sunday, 29 June 2014


Trying to understand Central Europe

Conductive World, the blog, commenced in 2008 – its associated Facebook page the following year. From the outset a theme in both has concerned social and political trends in Conductive Education's homeland – Central Europe in general and particularly Hungary. From time to time there appear postings on Hungarian politics, addressed primarily to Hungarians who have followed Conductive Education to work abroad, and to non-Hungarians who are their employers, colleagues and clients.

Mentioning Hungarian politics and its rightist tendencies soon attracted sharp comment along the lines that only a Hungarian could possibly understand all this and that non-Hungarians should stay well out of it. I have some sympathy with this position and for a bit tried to avoid trespassing. But to consider Hungarian society without mentioning Jobbik and other right-wing tendencies in Hungary really is Hamlet without the Prince and just can't be done – so, as mindful as I can be of sometimes conflicting sensitivities, I have gingerly continued to tread this path. With minimal feedback I cannot judge how successful I have been, either in my original intentions or in my softly-softly approach. Apologies if I offend.

Central Europe, from the outside

I am aware that an outsider can form at best unnuanced understandings, and that Brits and other Anglo-Saxons may clod-hop insensitively into the world of Europe. Simon Winder, in the Introduction to his sweeping (and very funny) historical panorama of the Hapsburg lands, makes this point more tellingly than can I –
In October 2009 there was a football match in the UEFA Champions League between Chelsea FC and CFR Cluj. Chelsea fans flying into Transylvania for the game thought it would be hilarious to dress up in capes and plastic fangs and duly got off the plane lurching around, flapping their arms and putting on funny accents ('Ach, the cheeldren of the night – I hear their call' and so on). In an interview on a British radio station the next day, a memorably outraged Cluj disc jockey spluttered in perfect English (albeit – fair play – with a slightly funny accent) about how this was a national disgrace, an insult to his people, how Dracula had been 'merely the invention of some Irish novelist' and how vampirism was quite unknown in Transylvania.
All this was true enough, but the interview has hung in my mind ever since because of my own severe anxiety that I am myself merely a Chelsea fan with plastic fangs stumbling off the plane. The former Hapsburg lands are places where a principal battlefield has been the interpretation of history. Indeed the very idea of the study of history has been fuelled by animosities and fantasies about ethnic, religious and class privileges, For me, to enter this highly charged arena is, I am fully aware, foolish. It is very easy to be contemptuous of someone else's nationalism and unaware of one's own. The extraordinary toxic legacy of the [Hapsburg] Empire's obsession with linguistics, archaeology, ethnography, sigillography, numismatics, cartography and so on makes me feel, in my darker moods, that the spread of these subjects and the use to which they were put was nothing but a disaster for Central Eurpe and that academics more than anyone else are (with help from some priests) some of the greatest villains. Indeed, in comparison with the academics, the politicians and military men were mere puppets, with even Hitler simply a disgusting by-product of various poisonous Viennese nationalist and scientific teachings.
The stakes have been so high because each linguistic group has obsessively picked over its past not merely with a wish to entertain itself with fancy-that facts about ancestors, but to use it as the key weapon in establishing its ascendency over other groups. While the Hungarians poured resources into charting their grand ancestry to somewhere out on the Asian steppe and in 1996 celebrated the thousandth anniversary of their arrival in Europe, Romanian academics in parallel scoured excavations for evidence that they were themselves the true owners of the same region, the descendants of soldiers and settlers from the Roman army (even inventing their country's name to make this point). What should have been harmless, indeed loopy antiquarianism became instead the motive force behind terrible events, the least harmful being the abuse shouted by Romanians during anti-Hungarian rallies, 'Go back to Asia?'...
(Danubia, pp. 5-6)

The passage quoted above moves on to the force of ideas, especially here their negative, destructive force. Conductive Education manifests a cluster of simple ideas (positive ones and no less powerful for that!) We Brits are not good on explicit ideas, as our education system and much of our science testify, making the message of Conductive Education particularly difficult to 'get across' in our country and similar ones. I was brought up to think that this particular characteristic of our culture indeed makes us, er, particularly civilised. Maybe so, maybe not. I do like to think, though, that it has spared us some unpleasant trouble over the years.

Simon Winder's highly acclaimed history is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, a Monty Python tale of bizarre twists and funny foreigners, manifesting another supposedly defining British national characteristic. If there are traces of this tendency in Conductive World, then again apologies if it offends – but perhaps this does make some difficult things in life just a little easier.

So, I shall keep on trying. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things this might help bring together Conductive Education's specific past with its more international future, whatever that might be. If this process does not always meet with approval, then that is how things can go.

And as in all human affairs, a bit of reciprocity would be nice – and if at times this should offend a little in return, than so be that too.


Winder, S. (2014) Danubia: a personal history of Hapsburg Europe, London, Picador



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