Arnold Toynbee, the deservedly famous British historian and philosopher, in his monumental A Study of History described the rise and fall of dozens of civilisations. Based upon that model it is easy to predict the fall of our western civilisation. But that was predicted already a hundred years ago by Oswald Spengler in his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) published in 1918, in the wake of the devastations of the First World War. It may sound politically incorrect but our present (western) civilisation has overtaken and substantially influenced all others that still exist separately: the Chinese, Hindu, Persian and Arabic civilisations. The fall of the West is not inconceivable but it would be the end of democracy, and also of prosperity and freedom.
THE TRIUMPH OF THE WEST
Marx, Lenin and Mao have proved wrong: the capitalists were not annihilated, the State has not withered away (Soviet Communism has), instead the working class has disappeared. The countryside has not conquered the towns, just the other way round. China is not the classless society of equal citizens; the “cultural revolution” has been suppressed. Those western thinkers who once envisaged the “convergence” of capitalism and (Soviet-style) socialism could hardly believe their eyes when in 1989 the Poles, the Hungarians, the East Germans, then the Czechs and finally the Romanians overthrew “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and opted for liberal democracy and (even more) for the market economy. That was not “the end of history”, only the end of the Cold War. The victory of the West over Communism was due to many factors, but the vigour of NATO and the prosperity of Western Europe (embodied in the Common Market) were among the most important ones. As Hungary’s late Prime Minister Antall expressed his thanks to the Ministerial Council of NATO on 28 October 1991: the preservation of the freedom of Western Europe held out the prospect of liberation for the eastern half of the continent. “We knew that if Western Europe could not remain stable, if the North American presence would cease in Europe, then there wouldn’t be any solid ground left for us to base our hopes upon.”
Sadly 1989, annus mirabilis, the year of the miracles, failed to be the harbinger of a new world order, based on the high principles of the Charter of the United Nations. What followed was more like how Winston Churchill ended his monumental account of The Second World War: “the Great Democracies triumphed and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life”. Our fear was that the West would fail to develop an adequate strategy; that’s why the core countries of Central Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary formed a close political and economic cooperation named Visegrád after the scene of their meeting on 15 February 1991. We believed that on the basis of the common suffering under the dictatorships, and the common acceptance of the Western, Atlantic values, a new solidarity would emerge and all the former Communist countries would follow the example of post-War Western Europe by putting aside all quarrels, and would concentrate on political, economic, environmental and cultural recovery.
Hungary’s first Prime Minister after the regime change, József Antall, always emphasised that Central Europe represented a strategically very important area, a link towards the southern arm of the Atlantic Alliance and an essential hinterland for NATO. He repeatedly called for an active role to be played by NATO in consolidating the changes in Europe and in solving the crisis in Yugoslavia – which was only emerging then. In the first NATO “political-military workshop” held in a former Warsaw Pact country, in Budapest on 3 June 1993, the Hungarian Prime Minister gave a very powerful speech in favour of the early membership of the Visegrád countries in NATO. While he assured his audience that “we are supporters of the renewal of Russia, supporters of Russian reformist endeavours”, he envisaged for NATO a new function in a volatile world, where “social and political fundamentalism may in the North–South conflict manifest itself and assail the world as the Bolshevism of the 21st century”. He hoped that Turkey (then still secular, pre-Erdogan) could act “as a counterbalance to pan-Islamic, fundamentalist (Shiite), and, should occasion arise, Russian imperial endeavours”.
In the fifteen years following the spectacular changes in the eastern half of Europe the performance of the former Soviet Bloc countries was promising and both NATO and the European Union enlarged, moved eastward, in some ways like once the American Frontier did westward. The attractiveness of the West for the rest of the world had many reasons. It meant a kind of new trinity: freedom, democracy and prosperity. In 1989 people in all the Communist-dominated countries, the Soviet Union and even China included, wanted that trinity, especially the last, prosperity, thinking that there was an instant connection between them. The European Community looked very much like a success story, and joining it promised much of the outside economic help which the “new Europe” needed. No one expected that first a financial and then a kind of mental crisis would hit Europe at the beginning of the 21st century.
THE LOSS OF WESTERN CONFIDENCE?
Already in the 1970s I was surprised to notice in Western Europe a kind of loss of self-confidence, especially in its own historical record. Many acquaintances of mine said that they were ashamed over their colonial record, over the nationalism of their ancestors, over the failure to stand up to Nazism in time, and even over the anti-Communist rhetoric of the Cold War. It is always healthy to look at history (both personal and national) with a critical eye, but I think it is ahistorical to feel guilty about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of America. We may even be proud of some of the civilising achievements of colonialism. Of course the First World War was a great folly. Its products, Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism, were horrible European aberrations. The appeasement of Hitler (and later of Stalin) was bad policy, but eventually the West defeated and overcame its own devils. In science and in technological progress the West continued to lead, and its achievements spread all over the world, benefitting all mankind.
In the May–June 1996 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs Charles A. Kupchan was satisfied that “democracy and capitalism have triumphed over fascism and communism”, but warned the West against trying to set up a federal Europe with a common foreign and security policy and a centralised government – such an attempt would founder on the determination of the individual states to preserve their sovereignty. “To preserve and enlarge the West, leaders must scale back their vision”, otherwise the transatlantic community will be undermined “as member states attempt to escape unwanted responsibilities”, he added. Twenty years later those fears materialised. I think and hope that the so-called “Euro-scepticism” does not represent a turning away from traditional democratic values and the repudiation of the Euro-Atlantic institutions, but it expresses Europeans being fed up with the vast and costly bureaucracy of the European Union and its Parliament, with self- seeking politicians, with slow decisions over which there is no democratic control. Brexit reflects that the high hopes and illusions about a more rational, slimmer, more effective and more democratic European Union have failed to materialise. And some of the decisions of the European Union and/or their most influential members were found unacceptable by the newer members of the EU.
The transatlantic community did stick together against the Soviet threat, but when it was gone differences mainly over economic interests emerged. People started to speak of a crisis in financial, environmental, energy, gender and other policies. The response to the devastating terrorist attacks was at first practically unanimous, but controversies soon arose over developments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “Arab Spring” was welcomed with enthusiasm, only to lead to self-doubt and despondency. All that, however, dwarfed when last year a totally unexpected mass migration from Asia and Africa hit Europe. Was the predominantly Muslim crowd composed of only refugees deserving admission and support? Or were those people simply immigrants in search of better, easier life? Did they offer a solution to the increasing serious demographic crisis of Europe, providing much needed young workers? Most of the migrants were driven both by war and the attraction of the prosperous West and its generous welfare policies. Willkomenskultur is OK, but Europe’s secular culture and even more its morals are unwelcome, even repulsive for most of the Muslim arrivals. That, however, does not keep them away, rather gives rise to an intention to introduce their customs, not only the burka and other pieces of cloth, but the sharia legislation as well, at least within their own circles, in the Muslim ghettos in Europe.
THE ROLE OF CENTRAL EUROPE
Central Europe has been part of the western world since the beginning of the second Millennium. It adopted the western version of Christianity, it had its Renaissance, it welcomed the Reformation and the American Revolution with enthusiasm, and in the 19th century it moved rapidly towards a liberal and constitutional political system. The majority of the Central Europeans abhorred both Nazism and Communism. Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, and finally Romanians, too, revolted against the Communist dictatorship. In 1989, with the fall of the European Communist dominoes that region appeared to have “returned” to Europe, but the standard of living of the majority of the population has hardly grown, narrowing the gap between incomes in the “old” and the “new” Europe. Most Central Europeans see certain western tendencies, e.g. “political correctness”, or the rejection of some of the basic tenets of the Judeo- Christian view of the world, including marriage and the family, as aberrations. There is also a widespread notion that the West often betrayed or at least let these people down in history, e.g. at the time of the partitions of Poland, the Munich conference in 1938, the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. Hungarians are also disappointed that the western governments do not stand up to their own standards in the issue of national minorities, and are usually silent about the mistreatment of Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia. But the most recent and most serious cleavage between Western and Central Europe is over accepting or rejecting the unexpected mass of migrants from the Muslim countries. Hungary, followed by Slovenia and even by Austria tries to stem the flow of refugees by erecting fences and being extremely strict in accepting refugees. The present governments of Poland and Hungary are also seriously criticised for the alleged curtailment of press freedom, and for throwing away the “checks and balances” of democracy.
But the present controversy over how immigration and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism should be handled is about practical politics and not about values. It is more apparent than real to assume that the disagreement represents a new East/West divide. At present there is indeed a split between several West European governments and their public over the migrants issue, while in Central Europe the governments and the public tend to agree that immigration from the Third World should be stopped rather than encouraged. The double standards of the western media (shared also by the leftist governments) are really annoying: denouncing the Visegrád Four for “turning away” from democracy while remaining silent about the internal policies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. The common criticism of the Central Europeans over the treatment of their Roma minority is also exaggerated and shows the total lack of understanding of the problem, as well as the misinterpretation of the measures taken by the governments to alleviate the conditions of that peculiar ethnic group.
Central Europe continues to be committed to the traditional values of Europe. All the major political parties profess them. Freedom and political liberties were the battle cry of the opponents of Communism. Regrettably, today we are witnessing a digression from those values by certain individuals and parties in many democracies, but the majority of the population is not likely to turn away from them. That would be a betrayal of all the democratic and liberating revolutions, the repudiation of 1989, of the beliefs of those who brought about the peaceful transformation of the authoritarian regimes. In my view the present differences within the western community could be and should be mended. The failure to do so would threaten our whole civilisation, and it is only the Russian President, Putin, who would benefit from that. The differing views should be discussed openly and sincerely. It is foolish to think that the US, “Brussels”, Chancellor Merkel or George Soros wants the downfall of the West, or that they want to ruin the “new democracies”. The often vociferous criticism of the Central Europeans helps mainly the extremists, the radical Right, but the governments who are subject of criticism should also listen to the critics.
The flagship of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the early 20th century was named Viribus Unitis – “with forces united”. Although that magnificent battleship, commanded in 1918 by the future Regent of Hungary, was blown up by the Italian adversary and went down on 1 November 1918, the spirit expressed by the name is much required today. The problems our world faces today can be tackled only by the joint efforts of North America and the European Union. Our civilisation is not doomed, we are masters of our fate, but we must rise to the challenge.