One hundred years ago a war began that swept away imperial institutions and national powers that had appeared to be permanent, irremovable and deeply rooted structures of European life. To take the most dramatic example, the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties – with all their aristocratic associations and bureaucratic stability – were defeated in war and soon afterwards more or less evaporated.
In 1917 the totalitarian bacillus was introduced into European political life when Imperial Germany sent Lenin in a sealed train to Saint Petersburg where he exploited the revolutionary chaos of post-Czarist Russia to establish Soviet power. That power expanded to cover the Eastern half of Europe in the next twenty years and divided it from the West. It too looked irremovable; certainly most Western governments treated it as so.
Then, in 1989, Soviet power unexpectedly imploded and in the ensuing two years all its European satrapies collapsed before a wave of popular resistance initiated by Hungary’s decision to open its borders allowing East German holiday-makers to flee to the West.
Within a relatively short time, however, a new European political status quo had been established. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe had transformed themselves into market democracies. NATO and the European Union had expanded to include them in an Atlantic zone of security and prosperity. Post-Soviet Russia had seemingly accepted this new balance of power. The Kremlin sought full membership of the Western market system. It even had a partnership agreement with NATO. Once again there was an irremovable structure of international power – more stable on this occasion than before, it seemed, because no one wanted to remove it.
But is this post-1989 status quo about to suffer the same erosion and eventual collapse that brought down the pre-1914 and post-1947 European orders? That question runs ominously through this issue of Hungarian Review.
It is raised, first, by György Schöpflin in relation to the political future of the European Union following the recent elections for the European Parliament. As he points out, the increase in the number of MPs elected for Eurosceptic parties has created a dilemma for Europe’s conservative and socialist blocs: “if the potential blocking veto by the Eurosceptics is to be evaded, then the largest Euro- friendly parties must come to terms with one another”.
Such cooperation, however, is fraught with difficulties, including – that it would be a dilution of democracy; that it would make the Eurosceptics the sole opposition and thus the likely beneficiaries of any future political failure; that non-German parties might not have the Germanic self-discipline needed for “Grand Coalitions”; and that they may not agree sufficiently to make cooperation work in any event. That final risk is most dangerous in relation to the economy where both main blocs agree that the euro must be sustained but disagree on the level of “austerity” needed to sustain it. Unless they fix on policies to lift the Eurozone out of its doldrums – and Mediterranean Europe out of a deep and prolonged depression – then European instability will increase and with it Euroscepticism.
No less destabilising is Europe’s failure to spend enough on defence to deter aggression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes that all too plain. As Gerald Frost explains, however, Europeans are not only failing to spend sufficiently but they are rationalising their failure away. Thus Germany argues that Ukraine needs a political solution rather than a military one. No doubt. But a militarily strong country will more easily shape the political solution.
As Frederick the Great would have told Chancellor Merkel, “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”. A Europe that is economically sluggish, militarily weak, threatened by powerful neighbours, and politically distracted from reality by utopian dreams of reconstructing society – as Ryszard Legutko demonstrates in his subtle critique of an ossified ideological “liberal democracy” that is neither liberal nor democratic – is at risk of further retreat and erosion. Those risks may at present be remote – though historical risks, like avalanches, tend to catch their victims off guard by their rapid acceleration. When they do, they have terrible human consequences. In two powerful memoirs of life during the worst days of Europe’s totalitarian nightmare, János Horváth and Árpád Kadarkay give vivid personal accounts of how cruelly the collapse of empires and nations treats ordinary people.
Some respond to these trials with bravery and resourcefulness – as did the authors. Some survive. But not all, as Emily Thompson movingly recounts in her biographical essay on the Czech feminist Milada Horáková who was judicially murdered by the Czechoslovak communist state in 1950 after the usual torture and show trial.
Now, of course, those sympathetic to the totalitarian regimes of the past have stepped forward to deny that her show trial was improperly conducted or contrary to any real rule of law. Recently too President Putin justified the Nazi–Soviet pact and denied the secret protocols that included a joint invasion of Poland and a Soviet takeover of the Baltic republics. It was, apparently, all the fault of Neville Chamberlain.
From the standpoint of those nostalgic for Soviet power, such denials are right and sensible. George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” President Putin would benefit from our amnesia. Without memory we would be condemned to endure the past a second time.