The position of the intellectual in central Europe today is quite marginal and muted. One way to understand it is to examine the legacy of two towering figures, Václav Havel and Viktor Orbán, who represent diametrically opposed reactions to the post-communist politics which followed 1989. The choices and legacies of both figures leave contemporary intellectuals in a quandary when addressing the politics of their respective countries. I propose an alternative, illustrated by the deeds of an Austrian intellectual and editor, Walter Famler. But first, let us compare the status of intellectuals in the west and in central Europe and then, quoting from a 1996 debate in Kritika & Kontext, define the concept of the intellectual and the options available during and after the communist era. In the West, the term ‘intellectual’ has been viewed with suspicion since Julien Benda’s damning book La Trahison des Clercs (1927) blamed intellectuals for all the ills of the modern world. Democratic societies are slightly uncomfortable with intellectuals. It is stable democratic institutions and not heroic intellectuals that are supposed to symbolize a grounded political order. Brecht’s remark that one should pity a country that needs heroes works precisely because such countries are in a dangerous and dysfunctional state and heroes-intellectuals are sought and catapulted to the forefront in order to save it.
In recent decades in the West, in a poignant twist, indicating an almost central European malaise, there emerged the category of ‘public intellectual’. These individuals enter the political discourse as the political climate is becoming more and more unpredictable, as the dark demons of the past in the form of nationalism and neo-fascism feel confident enough to venture back in a variety of populist disguises to the public square of Western Europe and North America. Curiously enough, a number of these public intellectuals have spent an extended time in and have written about central Europe. Tony Judt, Timothy Garton Ash, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder directly, and Bernard Henri-Levi, John Gray and Roger Scruton from a distance – but all with great interest – have examined the aftermath of fin de siècle central Europe where, according to some, all the important ideas and ideologies of the 20th century emerged. By default, these still define the present century which, so far, has offered no new ideas, merely regurgitated the old ones. And so these intellectuals, knowing the genesis of demons and angels in central Europe, are able to eloquently analyze developments on both sides of the Atlantic. They are aware of the irony that while central Europe is giving up on the virtues of western liberal democracy, the region’s worst impulses are gradually infecting the West.
In the midst of the current political instability, the present intellectuals of central Europe seem powerless in the face of regimes driven by nationalism, bigotry, populism, and anti-western and anti-liberal rhetoric, led by leaders with authoritarian impulses. The state institutions and independent media that should provide checks on the powerful are increasingly under threat, or in the pay of politicians and oligarchs. The space open to intellectuals is narrowing, their influence dwindling.
Why, then, write about the intellectuals of central Europe if they do not provide any of their traditional guidance? Why not just follow politics, both European and domestic, and expose the excesses of the extremists – the truly deplorable ones? One reason is that the current status of intellectuals is indicative of the condition of central Europe. The other is that today’s grave situation might yet deteriorate further, and when we finally hit the bottom, central European intellectuals will likely become a sought-after commodity again.