As an intellectual project, the establishment of the Central European University (CEU) in 1991 in Budapest was part of the ‘revival’ of scholarly and political interest in Central Europe and its implementation in new forms of regional cooperation. In the 1980s, in their attempt to disentangle and then liberate the region from the Soviet political-ideological grip and military occupation, a plethora of thinkers reasserted Central Europe’s own cultural identity and political traditions, distinct from those of the Soviet Union. The revalorization of the concept of Central Europe originated in literary studies. The international debate triggered by Milan Kundera’s 1983 essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ led to the articulation of a new political and intellectual discourse on Central Europe as a historical, cultural, and political space. As Maria Todorova has pointed out, the concept was soon adopted and redefined in academia and in political discourse, before, finally, being implemented in political practice (see, for example, the Visegrád Group as a form of Central European interstate cooperation).
Established at the same time as the Visegrád Group, CEU can be regarded as another successful outcome of the resurgence of this regional identity. The university has its roots in the anticommunist dissident spirit of the 1980s. Its ideal is to foster regional interaction and cooperation in higher education to recreate a ‘republic of letters’ in Central Europe characterized by tolerance, openness, and critical thinking. In its almost three decades of existence, CEU has emerged as a leading intellectual forum that has contributed to shaping intellectual discourses in/on the region and to fostering cooperation. It has trained a new generation of academics and experts able to contribute to the transformation of the region’s academic life. During this time, CEU has transcended, in many ways, its regional focus, and has founded new departments of mathematics and its applications, environmental studies, cognitive science, network science, as well as a School of Public Policy. At the same time, CEU has remained proud of its roots in Hungary and Central Europe, a space with a rich historical heritage and intellectual tradition.
CEU’s regional identity is best reflected in the research and teaching agendas of the Departments of History and of Medieval Studies. The two departments offer multifaceted degree programs focusing on Central Europe (in constant comparison with other historical regions of the world) from late antiquity to contemporary times, aimed at the understanding of persistent themes in the experience of these regions in a longue durée perspective. These themes include patterns of social development, cultural history, and everyday life from the Reformation through the Enlightenment to modernity; problems of modernization, backwardness, and unequal development; modern ideologies; empires and imperial structures, nationhood, and the nation-state; and varieties of authoritarianism such as fascism and communism, and their historical legacies. In order to foster a critical spirit of inquiry and high standards of verification, the empirical themes are supplemented by a solid training in comparative methodology.
Given the long history and political connotations of regional geographical denominations, the label ‘Central Europe’ necessitates certain clarifications. In our usage, it refers to the vast historical space between Germany and Russia, on the one hand, and between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, on the other. For comparative purposes, we divide this large space into three subregions: East-Central Europe, Southeastern Europe (or the Balkans), and Eastern Europe. While largely heterogeneous, this space is characterized by a distinguishable geopolitical position (in the middle of the continent), by multiple imperial legacies — related mostly to the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, the Hungarian Kingdom, the Habsburg Empire/Austria-Hungary, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in Central Europe; to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in the Balkans; and to the Russian Empire in Eastern Europe —, by a common recent communist past, and by common postcommunist challenges, marked by processes of transition from a command to a market economy, political transformations, and integration into European and Euro-Atlantic political, economic, and security organizations.
To promote their comparative research agendas, the two departments have initiated, supported, and hosted a large range of research, educational, and training activities, as well as published a number of scholarly works. In the Department of History, institutional activity in comparative history was first conducted within the framework of the CEU-HESP Comparative History Project, a four-year project (2006-10) that aimed at stimulating teaching and research on comparative history in universities in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. HESP is the acronym for the Higher Education Support Program (HESP) of the Open Society Foundations. The project organized three annual conferences and numerous workshops on comparative history, offered mobility grants to local researchers, and supported the establishment of new teaching programs on comparative history in universities in these regions. One example is a program set up at the Moldova State University in Chişinău, Republic of Moldova.
The study of the Balkans has been an integral part of our comparative explorations in regional history. The history of this complex and diverse region provides a fertile ground for testing new methodologies; its study necessitates interdisciplinary perspectives combining insights from history, oral history, political science, sociology, anthropology, law, and environmental sciences, among others. A 2006 international conference suggestively entitled ‘From the Balkans to Europe: Refocusing South-East European Studies’ aimed at countering the stigmatization of the Balkans as a realm of violence, setting the field on new comparative methodological foundations. In a further attempt to help overcome the stereotypes that still pervade the study of Balkan history, a recent editorial project coordinated by Pasts, Inc. Center for Historical Studies, CEU, entitled Battling over the Balkans. Global Questions, Local Answers, makes available, in English, excerpts from works by local historians in the Balkans. The volume concentrates on five controversial questions from the region’s pre-communist history: (1) pre-1914 Ottoman and Eastern Christian Orthodox legacies, (2) post-1918 struggles for state building, (3) European economic and cultural influence in the interwar period, (4) violence and paramilitary forces in interwar and wartime political regimes, and (5) the fate of ethnic minorities during World War II.
With specialists in fields such as Late Antique, Byzantine, Habsburg, Russian, Islamic, and Balkan studies, CEU has also striven to provide novel and original interdisciplinary perspectives on the interplay of multiple imperial legacies in the region, and to set into conversation fields that have traditionally been considered separately, such as Balkan studies, Middle East studies, and Ottoman and Turkish studies. To this end, the Department of Medieval Studies has set up a focus on Byzantine studies, with the aim of studying the political, cultural, intellectual, and religious history of the Byzantine Empire from the seventh through the fifteenth centuries, especially in relation to the Balkans, the Romanian Principalities, and the Caucasus. In addition, in 2010, CEU started a major focus in Ottoman studies by appointing two new faculty members specializing in Ottoman studies, one in the Department of History, the other in the Department of Medieval Studies. This was followed in 2016 by another appointment in Modern Turkish History. In conjunction with these appointments, CEU’s library has contributed special funds to consolidate its collection in Ottoman and Modern Turkish studies. We see Ottoman history as a large cultural umbrella providing a forum for intense dialogue and exchange across cultural, linguistic, geographic, and disciplinary boundaries. The approach of the new focus has therefore been to study, teach, and research Ottoman history in its entirety, inclusive of all the peoples and cultures that comprised the empire and its successor states. What makes us different from other programs is that we focus primarily on the Ottoman and Turkish presence in Rumeli (i.e. the Balkans), Central Europe, and the greater Mediterranean world in general. In regard to the latter, in 2010 CEU established the Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (CEMS), heir to the Center for Hellenic Traditions (2004/5–2009/10), with a mandate to promote the study of the eastern Mediterranean and its hinterlands, from antiquity to the end of the Ottoman period. In view of these foci, we are committed to recruiting students from Turkey and various Balkan and European countries (such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and the Ukraine), as well as from the US, applying for Ottoman and Modern Turkish studies or for Balkan studies in general. We encourage our students to study not only modern Turkish and Ottoman but also modern Balkan and/or other European languages to better historicize the role of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish cultures in the region. To enable comparative work, starting in 2010/11, students are able to take intensive, high-level courses in the region’s classical and modern languages within the newly created Source Language Teaching Group. The offering includes ancient and modern Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Ottoman, as well as Russian, Hungarian, and modern Turkish.
In addition to teaching, our efforts to integrate more firmly the region’s national histories into common European and global frameworks has fostered novel transnational research perspectives. Stemming from the tradition of comparative history and comparative politics, these frameworks promote new methodologies on ‘shared’, ‘connected’, or ‘relational’ history, legal and political transfers, and histoire croisée. These cross-historical approaches place the analytical emphasis on the multiple levels of interactions at various subnational, national, and supranational levels. The flagships of these research activities in the two departments are four major European Research Council (ERC) grants in historical studies, two of which specifically focus on the Balkans. The first ERC project, ‘Entangled Balkans’, coordinated by Prof. Roumen Daskalov, CEU and New Bulgarian University, Sofia (2009/14), sought to treat the modern history of the Balkans from a relational perspective in terms of shared and connected pasts. This innovative project has resulted in a series of four volumes entitled The Entangled History of the Balkans. It is expected that this path-breaking book series will further stimulate transnational studies on the Balkans. It might be useful to mention, in this respect, that the first two volumes are already available in Bulgarian translation. Another ERC project, entitled ‘The Fashioning of a Sunni Orthodoxy and the Entangled Histories of Confession-Building in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-17th Centuries’, (2015-2020), initiated by Tijana Krstić, investigates the evolution of confessional discourses in the Ottoman Empire in a longer perspective that spans the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Another major field of research and teaching is that of contemporary history. The rich and still under-researched historical experience of the Balkans in the twentieth century—marked by massive demographic and sociopolitical transformations, attempts of large-scale social engineering under fascist and communist dictatorships, and processes of democratization and European integration—presents certain particularities that makes this area a laboratory for comparative methodologies. Until recently, the study of contemporary history has remained encapsulated in national historiographical traditions, a situation leading to academic isolation and politicization. The downfall of the communist system in 1989 and the liberalization of historical discourses, the opening up of new archival collections for scientific research, the end of the Cold War, the intensification of academic exchange, and interaction between local and foreign scholars have all challenged scholars to experiment with new transnational approaches to the study of contemporary history. Against this background, CEU’s Contemporary History Platform provides a meeting ground for comparatively minded scholars from various academic disciplines working on the history of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries (1900 to the present) in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, within the broader frameworks of European and world history. The platform develops connections to a wide range of academic networks, such as the European Network for Contemporary History (EurhistXX), made up of research centers specializing in contemporary history.
In conclusion, over the last twenty-six years, the CEU’s Department of History and Department of Medieval Studies have emerged as leading research centers on transnational history, with a particular focus on Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean area. Yet our focus on historical regions, in general, and on Southeastern Europe as a particular object of research, is not simply a subject matter informed by the academic tradition of ‘area studies’. We believe that concepts of historical regions provide huge analytical potential for scholarly research; yet they should be approached never in isolation (because that might result in parochialism) but in relation to wider, indeed global, questions and concerns, and from the perspective of meaningful, up-to-date scholarly debates in various disciplines. That is why, while focusing on area studies, our research agenda and degree-writing programs increasingly emphasize the study of local, national, and regional topics in a global context. This can only be done while paying careful attention to the cultural heritage in which CEU is located. CEU’s local rootedness gives us a comparative advantage, as broader global tendencies are particular expressions of local experiences. Due to its strategic position at the ‘crossroads’ of Europe, Central Europe in general, and Hungary in particular, have always been at the forefront of political and societal changes in Europe, functioning as a bridge between East and West. Thanks to its location in Budapest, CEU has been uniquely positioned to take advantage of this cultural environment to create a place of research and learning that is truly transnational and interdisciplinary in character. We very much hope to continue our activity in our home.