CENTRAL EUROPE FROM CONFLICTTO AD-HOC COOPERATION
Martin Wycisk is a College of Europe student and Senior Analyst at the Institute for Western Affairs in Poznań. His expertise includes climate and energy policy as well as the domestic and foreign politics of Germany and the V4. In his article he addresses the development of the Visegrád Group from a historical viewpoint and argues that an imperfect V4 cooperation is a still a considerable success given the regions’ conflictual past.
The Visegrád Group (V4) gained media attention, when Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland more or
less openly disagreed with Germany on the way the ongoing 2015 migration crisis ought to be addressed. 30 Years after its creation, the V4 is far from being united and coherent despite shared interests. Dynamics of cooperation within the V4 group are often perceived to reflect a degree of weakness. Such perceptions, however, seem more rooted in historical understanding. To what extent does this conceptualization reflect the current reality of the region?
When assessing whether the V4 is a success or not, one cannot omit the numerous political, social,
economic and cultural changes which took place in Central Europe in the last 110 years. In comparison to
this rich and tumultuous history, Western European countries underwent a very limited degree of
geopolitical change from 1914 until today. In Western Europe, only Ireland became a new sovereign entity in 1921, though border changes did take place in the cases of France, Denmark and Belgium as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. The picture is very different in Central and Eastern Europe. Before World War I (WWI) none of the members of the V4 group were considered nation-states. Czechia, Hungary and
Slovakia were part of the Habsburg Empire, while Poland was split between Austria-Hungary, Germany
and Russia. With the end of WWI and the collapse of regional empires, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and
Poland emerged as independent states. Yet, the potential for Central European cooperation was
limited. Drawing new borders in territories which were populated by peoples of different origins inevitably led to conflicts: in January 1919 a short Czechoslovak-Polish border conflict in the Duchy of
the economic consequences of WWI differed widely. While all countries struggled with inflation caused by
the war and the disintegration of old currencies, only Poland and part of Eastern Czechoslovakia witnessed large-scale war devastation. The industry of ohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia were untouched by the conflicts and able to prosper after the war, while Hungary had to face the loss of two thirds of its territory.
The three countries also differed in their political systems. Czechoslovakia was the only one able to
establish a stable, though very centralized, democracy. This did not fail to frustrate the Slovaks who had been promised an autonomous status during the war. Poland had a democratic start as well, though internal problems caused a coup d’état in 1926 leading to a more authoritarian – though by
far not totalitarian – political regime. Meanwhile, Hungary experienced two consecutive revolutions:
first a democratic one, later a Bolshevik one. The latter regime collapsed following defeat in a war
against Romania and the occupation of Budapest, giving way to an authoritarian monarchy without a
Consequently, it is not surprising that open territorial conflicts and distrust characterised the relationship
of Czechoslovakia on the one side and Hungary and Poland on the other. This had catastrophic consequences for the region as a whole, especially with the rise of the III Reich. This started with the
destruction of Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1939. After the Munich accords Poland annexed the
Czech part of Cieszyn Silesia in October 1938 followed by the Hungarian takeover of Southern
Slovakia a month later. On 14 March 1939 the Slovak Republic seceded from Czechoslovakia becoming a fascist satellite state of Germany, whilst the Bohemian lands have been annexed directly into the
III Reich and Hungary occupied Carpatho-Ukraine.
The short-sightedness of such a strategy became evident following the partition of Poland in September 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union. For Hungary the alliance with the III Reich initially led
to further acquisitions of territories lost after WWI, and ultimately to being drawn into a destructive war
against the Soviet Union. This war ended for the Hungarians with the siege of Budapest and some of
the darkest moments in Hungarian history.
Though all three countries had their very own approaches to domestic and foreign policy, they all
ended up in the Eastern Bloc established by the USSR after 1945. Though the communist propaganda
promoted the image of friendship between socialist countries and their people, the reality on the ground
was different. Suppressed historical grievances, closed borders and distrust between communist party
leaderships made any real rapprochement difficult. The eastern bloc and its associated region-building
rationale soon showed its cracks. Uprisings in Poznań and Budapest in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Solidarność movement in Poland in 1980/81 became crystallization points for a partly shared
identity – one that was opposed to the communist regime. This process was not straight forward. In
1968 Polish and Hungarian military units participated in the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia
alongside the Soviet Army. Meanwhile the Czechoslovak public media eagerly depicted the
Poland of the 80’s as a country of chaos. Nonetheless, human solidarity proved this could be overcome. In
1956 Poles donated medicine and blood to support the Hungarian Uprising, in 1968 Ryszard Siwiec
committed suicide by self-immolation in Warsaw stadium to protest Poland’s participation in the
Invasion of Czechoslovakia. An increasing number of dissidents from all three countries came together
and showed that the regions could be organized differently.
With the annus mirabilis 1989 Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland were again faced with numerous
challenges: political and socio-economic transformation as well as integration with the EU and
NATO. Some experts feared the re-emergence of interwar border conflicts, but instead the regions
leaders chose the path of cooperation. On February 15th 1991, the three presidents met in
Visegrád castle to initiate the Visegrád group (soon to grow to 4 member with the independence of Slovakia in 1993).
Over time, cooperation within the V4 group proved tobe inconsistent. On the one hand it lead to the
creation of CEFTA, on the other each of the countries tried to rush into the EU without wanting to
wait for other members. Today the V4 is still a cooperation format which, besides the V4 Fund
supporting cultural and youth events, lacks institutionalization. Its main advantages are the
numerous informal working contacts on various levels of public administration and civil societies.
Accordingly, if a shared interest is identified an ad hoc cooperation can be relatively easily established.
When in March 2020 COVID-19 forced EU member states to close their border, borderlands were
strongly affected . In Cieszyn and Český Těšín– a city divided between Czechia and Poland since 1919 and a locale for violent border disputes until 1945 – the local Poles reacted by hanging up a banner on the border river stating, “I miss you, Czech”. Only hours later a banner on the Czech side appeared with the answer: “And I you, Pole”. Nothing says more about the long way Central Europe went in the last
100 years. And who knows, maybe the experience of closed borders and limited travel will inspire Czechs, Hungarians, Slovakians and Poles to make Visegrád and the European Union work better in the future.
 Teschen is the German name for the Duchy’s capital. The Polish one is Cieszyn and the Czech Těšín. The region is also called Cieszyn/ Těšín/ Teschen Silesia (Śląsk Cieszyński/ Těšínské Slezsko). Both terms describe the territory of the historic Duchy on both sides of the todays Czech-Polish border.
 Georges Mink, “Vie et mort du bloc soviétique”, Paris: Casterman, 1997, p. 13-19.
 Ibid., p. 36-62, 90-95, 115-119.
 Stephan Van Evera, “Primed for Peace: Europe after the Cold War”, International Security 15, no. 3 (1990): 47-50.