In April 2017 the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán adopted a legislation tailored with an eye to closing down the English-medium Central European University (CEU). This liberal institution – established in 1991, in the year of the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the demise of the Soviet bloc – has been a thorn in the side of Orbán’s program of ‘illiberal democracy.’ The CEU’s founder, the US financier George Soros, comes from Hungary, where he was born to an assimilated family of non-observant Hungarian Jews who, apart from Hungarian and German, after the Great War, chose to speak Esperanto as neutral language of potentially universal communication for a future more peaceful world. This was not to be. The two totalitarianisms of national socialism and Soviet communism steamrolled over Hungary and most of central Europe. Tens of millions died in the Holocaust of Jews and Roma, in the course of World War II, in the wake of the establishment of Moscow’s communist regimes across the region, and in both nazi and communist concentration camps. Furthermore, between 1933 and 1950, about 60 million people were expelled from their homes in central Europe, or a third of region’s entire population. In the 1930s Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin also made sure to incarcerate and kill most of Esperantists both in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the former case they were seen as ‘traitors of the nation’ led by a ‘cabala of international Jewry,’ while in the Soviet Union Esperantists were denounced as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ that was a code phrase for ‘insufficiently Soviet’ Jews.
Piotr slept well. He turned around under the blanket, yawned and stretched out his arms with a loud cry of contentment. Sunny morning after a successful action, what could be better in life? Yesterday had been busy. He had gone to the march. Bleeding-hearts had been demonstrating. Lame. That’s what liberalismo is about. ‘Liberals, keras, meras, fucki-beras’ he played with the word under his breath. An angry vein swelled across his forehead from the hairline to the base of his nose. He snorted with contempt and energetically jumped out of the bed.
‘It was ridiculous, totally ridiculous’ Ozymandias thought.
He liked the absence of Maria, the nice cleaning lady. From Belarus, he presumed. She was hired by him personally, without alerting the human resources department to this informal arrangement. A nice little perk, courtesy of his contract with the bank. She did not provide any references, nor did he need to commit his signature to paper. An honest working agreement. Ozymandias met her only once, when she was being interviewed and briefed on her tasks by his personal assistant. The main point was that Maria was expected to take good care of the office when he vacated it, regardless of his highly irregular hours. She observed this point religiously, always alerted by the security system which bleeped her on her mobile whenever he left for the night. Maria then had the space of an hour or so to vacuum, dust, spruce things up and to do whatever necessary, as instructed.
In October 2016 I visited the Serbian capital, Belgrade, picturesquely located at the confluence of the River Drava and the Danube. The city developed in line with the 18th-century Austro-Habsburg and Russian imperial model of bulldozing Ottoman buildings and mosques, which were either adapted or built over in ‘European style of progress and enlightenment.’ The four monuments of distinctly Ottoman architecture that survive to this day are all within the walking distance of each other in Belgrade’s, Stari Grad, or Old Town. Two are religious, namely the capital’s sole mosque, together with the turbe (tomb) of dervish Mustafa Bagdađanin. The two other monuments are konaks, or Ottoman-style residences. One built in the 1730s escaped being razed because it used to house Serbia’s first Serbian-language secular secondary school founded in 1808. The other konak, was actually constructed a century later, in 1830, already in autonomous Serbia. This was the official residence for Princess Ljubica, consort of the first Prince of modern Serbia, Miloš Obrenović.
Belgrade looks like any other Russian, Romanian or Bulgarian city, memories of the Ottoman past consigned to dusty tomes. The broad alleys are ill adapted to the Balkans’ snowy winters and hot summers. Unlike Ottoman narrow winding alleys and overhanging roofs, the modern architecture does not offer the coziness of self-contained neighborhoods (mahallas) or protection from elements. The point is to be imposing, hesitatingly imperial, decisively Orthodox and undecided whether to follow the direction leading to St Petersburg or Paris.
The Polish language originated as the sociolect of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, which meant that its standardization was not steeped in a regional dialect, like that of French in the Romance dialect of Paris, or German in the language of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible (in other words, the Germanic dialect of the Electorate of Saxony). In the pre-written period of this language, prior to the 16th century, highly mobile nobles of various ethnic origins from all corners of the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania either contributed to this sociolect from various Slavic dialects or just adopted this coalescing social koine when they happened to be non-Slavophone. Polish continued as the sociolect of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility well into the 19th century, after the erasure of Poland-Lithuania from the political map of Europe in the late 18th century. In the early 16th century, Polish achieved the status of co-official language in the Commonwealth’s Kingdom of Poland, alongside Latin. At that time, Polish was modelled on the pre-Hussite (Catholic, ‘non-heretic’) Bohemian (Czech), both in terms of spelling and vocabulary. The Commonwealth’s political and economic might caused aspiring Orthodox boyars (nobles) from Moldavia and Wallachia (or today’s Romania and Moldova) to adopt it as a language of wider communication. In 1697 the Cyrillic-based Ruthenian (Ruski, seen today as the source of Belarusian and Ukrainian) was banned in the Commonwealth’s Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and replaced with Polish, which became the polity’s main official language, and thus consolidated the cultural Polonization of its nobility (who nevertheless persisted to identify themselves as ‘Lithuanians,’ or the Grand Duchy’s ruling elite). Specifically, the ban applied to the use of ‘Cyrillic letters’, which were ideologically associated with Orthodox Christianity (by the same token, in Muscovy – as Russia was known prior to 1721 – the Latin alphabet and language were disparaged as ‘Catholic’). Hence, Ruthenian written in ‘Polish’ or ‘Catholic’ Latin letters, with an addition of numerous Latin phrases, was perceived as Polish in Poland-Lithuania. As a result, the Polish language at that time straddled, what since the early 19th century has been imagined as, an ‘impassable’ classificatory divide between the ‘West Slavic’ and ‘East Slavic’ languages. (In observed sociolinguistic reality on the ground, both groups of languages actually belong to the North Slavic dialect continuum.)
I have spent the last two decades studying the rise and implementation of the idea of ethnolinguistic nationalism across Central Europe, or the home region of the majority of the world’s Jews for over a millennium until the Holocaust. The gradual establishment of Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Italy, Romania, Germany and Bulgaria as ethnolinguistic nation-states during the 19th century was followed after World War I by the enshrining of the ethnolinguistic nation-state as the sole legitimate model of statehood in Central Europe. It meant the destruction of the polyglot, multiethnic and polyconfessional empires: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and also the detaching of similarly multiethnic borderland areas from Germany and the Russian Empire (soon overhauled into the Soviet Union in 1922). In their place the brand-new ethnolinguistic nation-states were founded, namely Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Albania, together with only briefly independent Belarus and Ukraine that were soon annexed by Bolshevik Russia.
Ethnolinguistic nationalism defines all the speakers of a language as a ‘proper’ nation. In turn, the territory compactly inhabited by the speakers of this language should be made into such an ethnolinguistically defined nation’s nation-state. The language now dubbed as ‘national’ is elevated to the rank of the nation-state’s sole official language. Ideally, no other languages should be allowed in official use and education, and the national language should not be shared with any other state or nation. These onerous conditions of ‘proper’ ethnolinguistic national statehood were successfully implemented across interwar Central Europe, much to the exclusion of speakers of languages other than the national one, but especially to the exclusion of Jews, even if they happened to speak a given national language. Interwar anti-Semitism, hand in hand with ethnolinguistic nationalism, additionally precluded assimilation of Jews, due to their ‘foreign’ religion, which – in line with the ‘science of race’ (Rassenkunde) and its application in the form of ‘racial hygiene’ (Rassenhygiene) – was construed as the biologized marker of the ‘Jewish race,’ and as such the ‘undeniable proof’ of their ‘irreducible Semitic racial foreignness.’
To Michael, with whom I have the privilege to share love of books
Do Michael, leis a bhfuil sé de phribhléid agam grá leabhair a chomhroinnt
Michaelowi, co ukochał książki jak i ja
Michaelowi co, jako i jō przaje knigom
I became a reader in the nineteen seventies, now I realize, it was the golden age of the book. Volumes – we didn’t then know the now commonplace expressions – came as ‘hardbacks’ (w twardych okładkach in Polish) or in ‘soft covers’ (w miękkich okładkach), invariably tight, and also neatly sewn in the former case. When speaking of hardbacks we actually meant ‘books in cloth binding.’ It was unthinkable that a hardback would be enclosed between covers merely made of a harder type of cardboard. Such an underhanded move would not befit any respectable publishing house, and readers would consider it as cheating. Our expectations of paperbacks were also higher than what we demand of them today. A softback might be flimsy and disregarded by the serious connoisseur of belles-lettres, but still manufactured to last for a good while. Its pages were kept safely together with steel clamps. With time, especially on damp shelves, the clamps rusted and leaked tell-tale red stains onto the paper, which became symbolic of paperbacks in the era preceding the glued spine that entered the publishing stage in the latter half of the seventies.
It was the first dissatisfaction in the realm of letters which I encountered as an increasingly conscious and discerning reader. Copies of the books, which I eagerly wanted to read would not open easily, and were a strain on my fingers to keep them open. I was taught to respect books and not to harm them. They were spoken of in these anthropomorphic terms, as if books were living, defenseless creatures. (In a way they were, as proved by the then recent war, World War II: millions of volumes burnt to ashes in the pan-European conflagration, and with them distant lands, surreptitious trysts, memories of days long gone, captivating stories and ideas – even those forbidden – disappeared from the postwar reader’s gaze starved of sought-for reading material.) Forcing a volume to stay open at the page I wanted it to, invariably meant a breach to the flimsy spine. In no time a book originally published in a single volume devolved into two or more disheveled parts brushing sides, all loose, within the same cover.