In Search of Central Europe

by Vernon Lowe, On February 10, 2012

In recent decades, a centre-right consensus has emerged in countries that were formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which were subsequently absorbed by the Soviets and their ‘partisan’ allies. This consensus embodies the desire for freedom, including economic freedom, and implies a rejection of the state economy and the insolent plans and schemes of communism. But it goes beyond the affirmation of the individual against corrupt elites. It has a positive side too. The new consensus reaches out for something in which to believe, with which to identify, and through which to justify the institutions of the state. Hence it has a tendency to express itself in nationalist terms.

In the light of history this nationalist tendency is understandable. The old Empire of Austro-Hungary was destroyed by the allies at the end of the First World War. Artificial states were invented to replace it, with boundaries that had no historical foundation and which proved indefensible when the new crisis came. Each country’s laws, institutions, infrastructure, religion, family-life, culture, economy and countryside were pillaged and to a great extent destroyed, either by the Nazis or the communists or both. Only the nation – the elusive but localised synthesis of language, customs and territory – remained. And on this territorial residue, a kind of pre-political identity has been tentatively rebuilt.

I stress that the national revivals in Central Europe are tentative affairs. They are not a matter of military marches or flag-waving displays, but affirmations of the only public thing that the Nazis and the communists did not succeed in destroying, namely the gut feeling of membership, of being bound together in a shared history, a shared destiny, and a shared linguistic and spiritual heritage.  Despite being tentative, however, these national revivals are looked upon with contempt by the international networks, and with alarm by the European Union. The countries of central Europe willingly joined the EU: for it offered rules and procedures, an avenue to inward investment, and open borders – in other words, an economic rebirth and an end to the political vacuum which had prevailed in Central Europe since the Nazi-Soviet pact. But they have rapidly discovered that the price to be paid for membership of the EU is a heavy one. Any nationalist sentiment, should it enter the political sphere, will attract immediate punishment and loud condemnation. And a domineering secular ideology is imposed by laws, regulations and edicts, supposedly included in the Treaties, and discovered there by the politically motivated judges of the European courts. The EU, as everyone now recognises, is not what it originally announced itself to be, a common market in which nations can compete without tariffs, but an unelected political authority, which can police the nations of Europe and force them to conform to a political program that none of them would have chosen if the people had had a voice in it.

This program does not explicitly condemn nationalism. The EU institutions warn, instead, against ‘racism and xenophobia’, implying that love of country lies on a continuum, at the extreme end of which is Auschwitz. To avoid the accusation it is necessary to voice your acceptance of left-liberal orthodoxies, secular values, and the doctrines of ‘non-iscrimination’ enshrined in the mass of European law. And of course all European social democrats laugh at the comparable (and indeed slightly more plausible) claim, that their sentiments lie on a continuum too, the extreme point of which is the Gulag.

It is one of the most notable features of the EU machine that its judgments tend to be echoed on the left in America. Hence the small nations of central Europe are finding themselves increasingly isolated in the world, bullied by the Eurocrats, ignored by their natural supporters in America, and subject to vilification in the American liberal press.

The most striking victim of this dynamic has been Hungary, a country that has been singled out by left-wing commentators – notably Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post and Adam LeBor of The Economist, along with leading writers in The Times, The Financial Times and The Guardian – as a kind of bogeyman. For the Hungarians have made a mistake that liberal intellectuals find impossible to forgive. They have elected a conservative government. Not only that. They have elected it with a two-thirds majority in the legislature. This goes one step beyond bad manners. And when the new Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, begins to talk the language of national sovereignty, and to present a constitution in which the sacred rights of the Hungarian nation, the Crown of St Stephen and the Christian religion are mentioned in the preamble, all the alarm bells begin to ring. Here is a European nation prepared to affirm, in its basic law, the truth about European history: no wonder the Eurocrats are troubled: for nothing is more calculated to remind the world of their own lack of legitimacy.

The defeated socialists, reduced to a tiny rump in Parliament, have petitioned the European Commissioners, urging them to rescue this part of their Empire, since Hungarian democracy is under threat – a normal reaction of socialists when people do not vote for them, but here given a veneer of plausibility by the autocratic behaviour of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister. Their accusations are fed into an international network of sympathisers and repeated in the British and American press. Hungary, they tell us, is on a slide towards authoritarianism. The new constitution (the main item of the government’s mandate) is a ‘power grab’, and all the old skeletons of Central Europe are emerging from their cupboards. Every piece of legislation is interpreted against the Hungarian government, as further proof of its dictatorial intentions. And when the opposition staged a rally outside the opera house in Budapest calling for the restoration of democracy to their homeland, it was reported by the BBC and the Western journalists as a mass uprising, in which the brave Hungarians are finally challenging the new bunch of their oppressors. A far less belligerent rally in support of the government, which occurred a week later and which was attended by three times as many, went virtually unreported in the liberal media.

Now it is true that Mr Orbán is eagerly taking advantage of his Parliamentary majority to consolidate his position. It is true that the new constitution is in many ways defective and gives insufficient scope for loyal dissent. It is true that the absence of effective opposition and articulate criticism are damaging the political process in Hungary. Nobody can think that things are perfect in this small country which has never come to terms with its dismemberment in the wake of the First World War, and which was then reduced without consulting its people from a proud imperial power to an arbitrary territorial fragment.

Still, without wishing to pretend that all is well on the Danube, I feel obliged to protest, not only on behalf of the Hungarians, but also on behalf of the conservative cause in general. It seems to me that the people of Central Europe should be accorded the same benefit of the doubt that we conservatives in the West have always relied upon, when we make the mistake of winning an election. As well as the faults of the new regimes in Eastern Europe, we should acknowledge the virtues that liberals too might value. All the central European nation-states are host to leftwing and internationalist think-tanks, devoted to undermining their regimes – Hungary no exception. All have educational institutions that pump out leftist propaganda, and which the government does not control. The Czechs and Slovaks have granted an amnesty even to the worst of the communist collaborators, while the devoutly Catholic Slovaks tolerate endless ‘gay pride’ events to which the EU and the Western embassies give their enthusiastic support. In these and many other ways, Central European conservatives have shown that they can be in power while keeping their heads down, and even remain acquiescent when the noisiest of their opponents tell the Western media that those heads don’t contain any brains.

The little countries of Central Europe have a right to their national identity. They have a right to record their primary social and historical attachments in their political constitutions. They have a right to reject items of political doctrine that have become iconic among Western elites – for example, the right to abortion and gay marriage – but which cannot be swallowed by the mass of ordinary people. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary features of the attack on Hungary is that the clauses in the new constitution that protect the rights of the unborn and which define marriage as a relation between one man and one woman have been interpreted (by the London Times among others) as further proof of a slide towards dictatorship.

It took me some time to absorb the meaning of this charge. For the implication is that European democracy, as now understood, must offer no concessions to traditional Jewish and Christian morality. I wonder what the Founding Fathers of the European project – Christian Democrats almost to a man – would make of this? I also wondered whether American conservatives have noticed what is being done to their soul mates in central Europe, now that the Cold War is over. Do they not see, I wonder, that the attack on Hungary, even if provoked by mistakes made by the present government, belongs to a wider attack on the whole conservative project? Do they not see that behind this vilification of small, fragile countries attempting to recuperate their identity, is the old liberal desire to be released from history, and to fashion everything anew, as though the past had no rights? If things are not looking as they should in Hungary, it is not only because the Western left is vilifying the country; it is also because Western conservatives and classical liberals – and the American ones in particular – are doing so little to offer friendly criticism to people who need their support and who, without it, might cease to care who commends or condemns them.

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