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From Kafka to Gorbachev

NEW YORK – On August 2, 1914, Franz Kafka wrote in his diary: “Germany has declared war against Russia. In the afternoon, swimming.” Kafka, the reclusive and visionary Central European writer, gave his name to the twentieth century. Seventy-five years had to pass after Kafka’s swim before Central and Eastern Europe would return to the broader European civilization. A Kafkaesque pause, some might say.

Central and Eastern Europe was never only a place of right and left dictatorships, of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, of perpetual and frozen conflicts, as some now caricature it. It was also the birthplace of a spiritual heritage, of thinkers and artists, of a specific mode of creativity and search for meaning beyond pragmatic negotiations with daily life.

In 1989 the region’s peoples brought with them in their “return to Europe” their diversity and richness; their vivacity, mysteries, and memories; and their old and new aspirations. And they brought the lesson that moving from a closed society to an open one is both possible and extremely difficult.

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