Central Europeans see certain Western tendencies—political correctness, the rejection of Judeo-Christian tenets, including marriage and the family—as aberrations. Contrasting attitudes to centralised bureaucracy, migration and Islam bring that perspective into the sharpest focus
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 on 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 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, prosperity and freedom.
Marx, Lenin and Mao have been 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 the poor; 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. As Hungary’s late Prime Minister József Antall expressed his thanks to the Ministerial Council of NATO on October 28, 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 in Europe ceased, 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.” My own fear was that the West would fail to utilise its victory, which was why the core countries of Central Europe—Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary—formed a close political and economic co-operation called Visegrad after the scene of their meeting on February 15, 1991. We believed that on the basis of our common suffering under dictatorship, and our common acceptance of Western, Atlantic values, a new solidarity would emerge and all the former communist countries would follow the example of post-Second World 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 NATO to play an active role by consolidating the changes in Europe and 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 June 3, 1993, the Hungarian Prime Minister gave a powerful speech in favour of the early membership of the Visegrad counries 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 twenty-first century”. He hoped that Turkey (then still secular, pre-Erdogan) could act “as a counter-balance to pan-Islamic, fundamentalist (Shiite), and, should occasion arise, Russian imperial endeavours”.
In the fifteen years after the spectacular changes in the eastern half of Europe the performance of the former Soviet bloc was promising and both NATO and the European Union enlarged, moved eastward, in some ways as once the American frontier had moved 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 prosperity, thinking that there was an automatic 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 twenty-first century.
Already in the 1970s I had been surprised to notice in Western Europe a loss of 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 and stupid to feel guilty about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the discovery and conquest of America, the civilising achievements of colonialism, and the Christian missionaries who taught the natives not to kill or enslave each other. 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, benefiting all mankind.
In the May-June 1996 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs Charles A. Kupchan expressed his satisfaction 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,” he said, otherwise the trans-Atlantic community will be undermined “as member states attempt to escape unwanted responsibilities”. Twenty years later those fears materialised.
I think and hope that “Euro-scepticism” does not represent a turning away from traditional democratic values and the repudiation of the Euro-Atlantic institutions, but rather that it shows how Europeans are 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 reflected the failure of the high hopes about a more rational, slimmer, more effective and more democratic European Union. And some of the decisions of the European Union and their most influential members were found unacceptable by the newer members of the EU.
The trans-Atlantic 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, was dwarfed last year when 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 they simply immigrants in search of a better, easier life? Did they provide a solution to the 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. Willkommenskultur is fine, but for most of the Muslim arrivals Europe’s secular culture and even more its morals are unwelcome, even repulsive. That, however, does not keep them away, rather gives rise to an intention to introduce their own customs, not only the burka and other pieces of cloth, but sharia law as well, at least within their own circles, in the Muslim ghettos in 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 nineteenth century it moved rapidly towards a liberal and constitutional political system. Most Central Europeans abhorred both Nazism and communism. Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, and finally Romanians, too, revolted against communist dictatorship. In 1989, with the fall of the European communist dominoes, that region appeared to have “returned” to Europe.
But most Central Europeans see certain Western tendencies—“political correctness”, 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 has often betrayed or at least let Central Europeans down—the partitioning of Poland, the Munich conference in 1938, the 1956 revolt in Hungary. Hungarians are also disappointed that Western governments do not live up to their own standards on the issue of national minorities and are usually silent about the mistreatment of Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia. The most recent and most serious cleavage between Western and Central Europe is over accepting or rejecting the unexpected mass of migrants from Muslim countries. Hungary, followed by Slovenia and even by Austria, has tried to stem the flow of refugees by erecting fences and being extremely strict in accepting refugees. The 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.
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 division between Western and Central Europe. At present there is a split between several West European governments and their public over migration, while in Central Europe the governments and the public tend to agree that immigration from the Arab world should be stopped rather than encouraged. The double standards of the Western media (visible also in leftist governments) annoyed Central Europe: denouncing the Visegrad Four for “turning away” from democracy while remaining silent about the internal policies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. The common criticism of the Central Europeans over the treatment of their Roma minority is also exaggerated and shows a total lack of understanding of the problem, as well as a misinterpretation of the measures taken by 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 liberty were the battle cry of the opponents of communism. Regrettably, today we are witnessing a deviation from those values by 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 and the beliefs of those who brought about the peaceful transformation of the authoritarian regimes.
The present differences within the Western community could be and should be mended. Failure to do so would threaten our whole civilisation, and only Russia’s President Putin would benefit from that. 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 the extremists, the radical Right, but the governments who are the subject of criticism should also listen to their critics.
The flagship of the Austro-Hungarian navy in the early twentieth century was named Viribus Unitis—“with forces united”. Although that magnificent battleship, commanded by the future Regent of Hungary, was blown up by the Italian adversary and went down on November 1, 1918, the spirit expressed by the name is much required today. The problems our world faces 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.
Géza Jeszenszky is a historian. He was the Hungarian Foreign Minister from 1990 to 1994, and was Hungary’s Ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2002 and to Norway and Iceland from 2011 to 2014. This article was his contribution to the Quadrant symposium “The Future of Civilisation” held in Sydney on September 18