This week we discussed the comfort that people felt under authoritarianism. In Eastern Europe many people still alive today remember living under the specter of communism during the Cold War. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, they are relatively new democracies without strong democratic institutions. That creates a situation where it is relatively easy to see why some might have felt better under authoritarianism.
The role the government played in the lives of people under authoritarianism was one that allowed for people to live their lives not having to worry about making any political decisions as you could never question them. Under democracy problems can be blamed on the leaders that have been elected but authoritarianism projects a certain aspect of strength in a regime. Many in the country during authoritarianism could have seen themselves as a part of a country that was strong in their conflict against the West.
Now, globalization and democracy have taken their toll on the people and they have pent up frustrations that causes them to move towards populism over traditional democratic leaders. Populism rises where democracy does not have a strong base and the democracies in Eastern Europe are only 30 years old.
Our discussion this week was centred on Europe and the rise of the far-right. It was particularly interesting how we talked about a nostalgia that many Europeans have who grew up under fascism.
Those who grew up under fascism rules, such as Hitler’s or Mussolini’s, can remember a time when they were guaranteed peace from their leaders so long as they follow the rules set forth. As long as you weren’t apart of an “enemy” religion or group it was easy to live an uneventful life.
This can also be seen as dependence. Like the dancing bears analogy, these people forget how to live without an iron hand telling them what they are worth.
And why shouldn’t they be nostalgic? If you weren’t Jewish or an immigrant then you have nothing to fear and a peaceful future ahead of you.
The speech by Vikor Orban we read is reminiscent of this. While the Prime Minister did not grow up under a fascist rule, his dislike of the liberals is clear. He blames liberals for supporting immigration and promoting a the “European dream” for refugees seeking asylum. It can be read that he thinks this European dream should be reserved for Europeans and not promoted as possible for unwanted immigrants.
Immigration in Europe is a tough subject due to the millions that have fled war and settled there. Although many welcome them, an equal number reject them. It can be seen that those who reject them are worried about being overrun by immigrants and lose the life they know and are comfortable in.
In writing for my personal blog this week I came across two different articles on the return of anti-Semitism in Europe, not just Easter Europe though, France and Germany.
For France, the anti-Semitism is a sentiment that appears to remain from the distant past when Christianity was everything to the nation and the Jewish people were a hated religious minority. Their anti-Semitism was rampant during the second world war, and they actively persecuted the Jewish people.
For Germany the anti-Semitism is also historic but is also influenced by other factors. A recent influx of over a million immigrants and refugees, many of whom are from the Middle East or Muslim has stoked the feelings of anti-Semitism in Germany due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Eastern Europe where countries tend to be, to put it bluntly, less progressive and less liberal anti-Semitism is on the rise again but for different reasons.
For Poland, it is a call to a form of imagined, idealistic nationalism. As Maya Vinokour points out in this article, the new wave of far-right sentiment in Poland has aroused a desire to reclaim and save a pure Polish people. In order to do so, they need to point the finger at the impure, in this case the Jewish people.
Rather than openly attacking the Jewish people, they are choosing to systematically erase Polish involvement in the persecution of Jewish people during the Holocaust, a form of historical revision. Their invented narrative also elevates and prioritizes Polish suffering during the second world war over the suffering of Jewish people.
This a more subtle but still powerful form of anti-Semitism, as memory is a form of power.
The resurgence of nostalgia for nationalist myths helps to explain the anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe alongside the rise of the far-right and totalitarian governments.
Eastern Europe is currently a hotbed for authoritarian leaders, even in the aftermath of the Cold War. We focussed particularly on situations in Poland and Hungary and how their political systems have not evolved into the Liberal Democracy of the West.
The discussion in today’s lecture established that this because neither countries had a real transitional process from part of the Eastern Bloc, to part of a united Europe.
Furthermore, both countries have been subjected, throughout the 20th century alone, to numerous invasions. This has created a heightened sense of nationalism at a time where they have full control over their country. This is the reason Hungary’s Orban is almost declaring war on immigration and Poland has reignited its quest against Anti-semites. Both countries wish to have full control over their country and ensure that these multiple invasions (whether it be by immigrants or tyrannical leaders) do not happen in the 21st century.
The role of the EU is interesting in Eastern Europe. Both Poland and Hungary are part of it but both are going against the fundamentals of western democracy; Hungary is trying to close the European University in Budapest as it encourages the influence of liberalism Judaism, and Poland have dramatically limited free speech and thinking. Yet the EU continues to let these policies thrive. People do fear that a stand-off between Western Europe Liberal Democracies and Eastern One-Party states could lead to the break up of the EU.
On reflection, although it may seem wrong to Westerners that they are rejecting Liberal Democracy in favour of Authoritarianism, I think their reaction is unsurprising; the political parties in power want to take hold of their own destiny rather than be at the hands of others (although both are undoubtedly influenced by both the US and Russia- more considerably the latter). This is a clear example where it is important to understand the history of a country to fathom the direction it is now going in. Both countries are reacting to the 20th century in order to find their path for the 21st.
In a couple of this week’s readings I found that there was an interesting connection in theme between a couple of the assigned pieces. Looking at G.M. Támas’ article as well as the speech from Viktor Orbán there is a somewhat shared idea that liberalism, as we understand it, is on the way out. Now, both these pieces address this in very different ways, but the fact that it is present in both readings is interesting.
Much of Támas’s piece looks at how the term populism is applied to broadly, and that many people who are labelled this are just repeating old patterns of life. I found it especially interesting that he questioned whether or not Donald Trump was a populist. In the final paragraphs of his article, he notes that the political left are disappearing and that this is in part due to the fact that the practice living up to their own standards and ideals has been corrupted.
The speech given by Orbán is much less academically critical in its description of liberal politics, but rather states that being liberal and economically prosperous and content are incompatible things. At one point he states that liberalism can only be put into practice in the realm of ideas.
Both these pieces are interesting because they highlight the feelings about liberalism in Eastern Europe. Orbán’s speech does not seem out of place, seems relevant when considering more recent issues such as debates about free-speech in Poland. These readings raise interesting questions about the function of liberalism, and whether it is truly suffering in the way that these authors say it is, or whether these opinions are based on the history of their own political climates. I was interested to see how different these perspectives are from those we commonly see when discussing Western Europe and North America.