Monday, September 21, 2009

1989-2009: Habsburg lands borderless again; does anybody care?

Twenty years ago, when I was an exchange student in Budapest, our teachers would tell us how in the early 20th century it had been possible to take a streetcar from Vienna to Bratislava. It had all been one country then -- the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire -- and people moved freely from Krakow to Ljubljana. I remember how, at the time, this seemed so preposterous, given the Iron Curtain -- guards, fences, tank traps, visas -- then dividing Austria from Slovakia.

How times change. For nearly two years now, most of the Habsburg Empire (save Transylvania, Trans-Carpathia, and parts of old Yugoslavia) has been borderless again, recreating the mythic cultural space called Middle Europe. Bratislava's city transportation system doesn't quite make it to Vienna, but you can get as far as Hainburg, and there are plenty of trains of course.

I have two pieces in last week's weekly print edition of the Christian Science Monitor that ask how this is all playing out. Is Middle Europe being reborn? If so, why are Austrian borderlanders so queasy about it? The main piece -- from Sopron, Hungary -- is now online at the Monitor's website but, last I checked, the companion piece on Austria wasn't up yet. [Update: 9/25/09: the companion piece is now online.]

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