20 September 2019

In Times of Transition and Stability

"Which kind of age are we living in today in what is called the post-Cold War world or even the post-post-Cold War world (the former having ended with the 2008 financial crash)? It is not all that odd that we now date our ages from 1989 rather than Anno Domini. In retrospect the Cold War was a period of remarkable stability in world politics and growing prosperity in the West."

Do we ever have an accurate sense of the nature of the Age in which we live? Surely whatever age we travel through always seems to us to be a case of “interesting times” in the worrying Chinese sense. Our daily life in a world of rapid and widespread communications – Auden’s world of “telegrams and anger” – is a front-row seat at the theatre of crisis and sensation. Only with the passage of time do we grasp if the crises were eddies and disturbances on a largely placid status quo in some periods and indications of a coming storm in others. In some ages, indeed, the storms remain unknown and well below the surface, five fathoms deep where a grumbling earthquake threatens some future tsunami.

Which kind of age are we living in today in what is called the post-Cold War world or even the post-post-Cold War world (the former having ended with the 2008 financial crash)?

It is not all that odd that we now date our ages from 1989 rather than Anno Domini. In retrospect the Cold War was a period of remarkable stability in world politics and growing prosperity in the West. It also lasted a long time from Churchill’s Fulton speech in 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. While it was going on, we gave it names like “the Age of Anxiety” and frightened ourselves with potential catastrophes such as “nuclear winter”. East and West were engaged in constant competition strategically, economically and technically on what seemed equal terms. This superpower competition rested on a “balance of terror” and we feared that some incautious statesman or panicky underling would trip on one of our “nuclear tripwires”.

The Cold War paradox here was that because conflict might destroy civilisation, both sides created elaborate safeguards to prevent accidental wars and restrained their lesser allies from reckless adventures that might lead to hot wars. There were exceptions – Moscow’s gift of nuclear missiles to Fidel Castro who wanted to use them against America, for instance – but in the main both Moscow and Washington conducted hostilities in ways short of actual fighting. Since war was too dangerous, statesmen looked for displacement activities.

One such was cultural competition. At the end of the Second World War when the Soviets still enjoyed considerable moral prestige and the future seemed to be socialist, Moscow launched a series of “peace” congresses across Europe appealing to intellectuals and writers to join them in outlawing war, colonialism, racism, etc. Initially, they had some success and recruited many well-meaning liberal intellectuals to their service as the Comintern’s useful idiots as Orsolya Németh outlines in her (for me) oddly nostalgic introduction to Nicolas Stenger’s interview with Roselyne Chenu on her work for the Congress of Cultural Freedom in Paris in those years.

The Congress was established as the West’s response to this subtle cultural subversion. It held its own conferences, it invited American and Western European writers to defend liberalism and democracy against the Soviet slanders, and as Ms Chenu remembers it particularly sought to keep open the lines of communication between writers in the two worlds, Communist and free, by sending books across the Iron Curtain, inviting dissidents on cultural exchanges, publishing suppressed dissident literature in the West, and when necessary arousing Western public opinion to protect the rights (and often liberty) of intellectuals who had come to the attention of literary critics in the KGB. All these were works of charity and democratic solidarity as well as of public diplomacy. At least as important, however, the Congress created major journals of political and cultural criticism – Der Monat in Germany, Preuves in France, Quadrant (where, full disclosure I served in several editorial capacities) in Australia, and above all Encounter in Britain – which elevated every kind of debate in these countries, thus reminding writers and readers of the inherent superiority of the free society over its peoples’ substitutes.

As both Ms Chenu and Ms Németh remind us, however, the Congress initially recruited its writers and readers mainly from the non-Communist Left. That was not because the European Right lacked democrats – Churchill, de Gaulle, and Raymond Aron testify to that – but because support from the democratic Right could be relied on, and US foreign policy saw the non-Communist Left as a less reliable “swing vote” that needed wooing. It was prudent policy, but it ran into difficulties in the late sixties when America’s Vietnam policy alienated many previous “Cold War liberals” and the scandalous news broke that the Congress was being funded by the CIA through respectable private foundations.

Perhaps surprisingly it was the sensation of little more than a day. As Ms Chenu recalls, most of those working for and with the Congress remained loyal to it, some of its supporters on the moderate Left reflecting that the subsidies to the Congress were the best money the CIA had ever spent. Encounter, Der Monat, and Quadrant continued publishing for many years without such assistance (Quadrant still does), and the Congress continued its mission of helping civilised and imaginative people on both sides of the Iron Curtain to keep each other both informed and hopeful. No one can know how much that mission contributed to keeping the Cold War a manageable conflict and to making its conclusion a peaceful one. We can be certain, however, that it did not inflame the conflict.

The relative stability of the Cold War throws into sharp contrast the instability of two other periods covered in this issue. The first such period is that from the late 1930s to the end of the war, particularly the time from March to October 1944. From a European standpoint, but especially from a Hungarian one, these years and months were cruel times in which Hungarians and Hungary had no good choices, made some avoidable errors, committed and allowed some terrible crimes, notably mass murder, but attempted fitfully and unsuccessfully to get off the locomotive before it arrived at Gehenna. There are outright villains in that time, obviously Eichmann and his Hungarian collaborators such as László Baky, and some decent brave people too, notably Prime Minister Kállay. What of the Regent, Admiral Horthy? In assessing his actions Géza Jeszenszky wrote in our sister publication, Magyar Szemle, last year as follows: “Neither a historian nor the administration of justice in this world can settle whether the (temporary) saving of over a quarter million of  Hungarian  Jews  counterbalances Horthy’s partial responsibility in giving up half a million of his fellow-compatriots to the Germans.” I would describe that as a balanced condemnation. It certainly does not sound like an attempted “rehabilitation” of Horthy of which Dr Jeszenszky was recently accused (in his dual role as contributor and editor of a recent collection of essays on the year 1944) by the Hungarian-American historian, Peter Pastor, in the Hungarian Cultural Review in the United States. Since the Review is an annual publication, he cannot publish his rejoinder to Professor Pastor there for a year. We have therefore offered him an earlier opportunity to do so. We publish; you decide.

The second period of instability, once looming, now all but tangible, is the present. The “current” section of Hungarian Review in this issue consists of four analyses of our present discontents by distinguished contributors who predict that major political and cultural changes are coming to Europe: Australia’s former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, on the spectre of demographic decline in Europe, weakening the continent in world politics; Die Welt’s correspondent in Central Europe, Boris Kálnoky, on the changes in German politics that are replacing its post-war stable bipartisan government of Centre-Left and Right with a new politics of shifting coalitions between four or five new parties with stronger ideological identities such as the Greens and nationalists (and, not incidentally, pointing in a direction different from the emerging politics of Central Europe); Szabolcs Takács on how the Hungarian government in its approach to Brexit must solve a complex Rubik’s Cube political problem by reconciling its loyalty to the EU with its currently good relations with the United Kingdom whose right to depart it respects as a democratic matter, regrets as a matter of immediate Hungarian national interest, but sees as possessing certain longer-term advantages for smaller EU members if a successful Brexit encourages Brussels to restrain its itch to interfere in everything – an itch that Balázs Orbán independently identifies as the factor that threatens to overturn Europe’s basic political compromise that keeps the rule of law, human rights, and democracy in a kind of harmonious balance and thus keeps the whole show on the road.

In addition to the instabilities likely to emerge from the confluence of these four major changes, the distinguished Polish philosopher and MEP, Ryszard Legutko, reviewing the book, The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony, warns that they are likely to be further aggravated by the EU’s de facto rejection of the principle of subsidiarity and its gradual drift from association of nations to a new kind of European empire.

All in all a rich but spicy meal for the mind.

To counter any effects of intellectual indigestion, may I recommend turning to the first sentence of the excerpt from Gabor Bethlenfalvay’s book In Search of an America:

Then one morning, on the sixth day of the voyage, the skyline of New York City emerged from the fog. It was an experience the poor natives are denied. For him it was almost like hearing a booming voice from above announcing: “This is the sixth day. So let there be dry land and let it have structures on it that scrape the sky.”

That experience was not denied to me. In March 1949 my mother dragged me sleepily from my bunk to see the same New York skyline emerge from the mist as the MV Britannic arrived. Mr Bethlenfalvay finds a few words later that the immigration official treats him almost as a friend – “and that was the way Americans turned out to be for him whenever he met them as people”.

I found the same thing seventy years ago. And Europe found the same thing in the Second World War and in the Cold War and in the intellectual struggles waged by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Uncle Sam is that uncle every child secretly likes because he is a loud, noisy and friendly guy who disrupts family gatherings, commits every kind of faux pas, offends your maiden aunts, and who on leaving quietly slips a ten-dollar bill into your pocket with a wink. If the instabilities our authors foresee for the near future come to pass, we should want to have Uncle Sam living in the neighbourhood.

You cannot confuse him with Uncle Joe.






HUNGARIAN REVIEW is published by BL Nonprofit Kft.
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