These days few would dispute that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. And because it was “communist”, as its most ardent advocates and its bitterest opponents would declare in splendid harmony, communism became, at least for the critics, the source of all evil. Uttered again and again ad nauseam over the decades, this statement has contributed to the idea that capitalism and democracy are somehow two sides of the same coin, as if Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile and Hitler’s National Socialism weren’t also forms of capitalism. They certainly weren’t shining examples of democracy. Those who stood to profit from capitalism, and had more to lose than chains, had good reason to discredit any alternative. They used every opportunity to reinforce the assumption that the vested interests of the ruling classes are identical to the interests of the general public, for which Karl Marx coined the perhaps rather antiquated, and yet still perfectly functional, term “ideology” or “false consciousness”.
The Hungarian parliament building. Rothschild writes: “Seemingly legitimized by democracy because he was elected with a landslide majority, prime minister Viktor Orbán has, bit by bit, dismantled pretty much every institution that is generally considered a cornerstone of democracy.” Photo: Peter Wallace. Source:Shutterstock
Meanwhile, the theory of trickle-down economics has become a deeply ingrained conviction: if you feed your horse enough oats, the sparrows will also get fat on the leftovers. You don’t need an example as ghastly as the Soviet Union to dispel any alternative to capitalism from the consciousness of those who have more elementary concerns to worry about than the right to read The New York Times or spend their summers in the Riviera. But anyone who has not completely forgotten the crimes for which we hold the Soviet Union to account will discover that they still linger, albeit in a changed form. Since the demise of what we referred to with the misnomer “communist” or “socialist”, the distribution of wealth has changed beyond recognition. The rich today are far richer than the wealthiest party officials ever were, while the poor are also poorer and, more importantly, more numerous than in the worst post-war years of the USSR. Putin is no closer to a flawless democrat than the Tsar was before 1917 or, for that matter, Mikhail Gorbachev, a figure who is idolized by the Germans. Because of reunification, they are more indebted to Gorbachev than his own countrymen are. In other words, the crimes committed in and by the Soviet Union, which simply cannot be glossed over, were not communist crimes; they were Russian.
For Russia lives by the laws of a superpower, even if the country can no longer punch its weight on the international stage in the same way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. The USA is also granted certain rights, whether through necessity or out of conviction, for which smaller states would be condemned – not only morally, but also with sanctions. If the standards that were used to judge Slobodan Milosevic were universal, some might argue that Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush would both face trial in The Hague, and perhaps even Gorbachev and Barack Obama. And yet in the countries that a quarter of a century ago shook off Russian colonial rule and ushered in the capitalist economic order, it’s certainly not a given that democracy has taken root and flourished, no matter what the investors and developers would have had us believe.
The most glaring example at the moment is Hungary. Seemingly legitimized by democracy because he was elected with a landslide majority, prime minister Viktor Orbán has, bit by bit, dismantled pretty much every institution that is generally considered a cornerstone of democracy. Now we have to be careful here. Sadly, the defenders of Orbán’s politics are right when they point out that even the supposedly liberal West is not as impeccable as it presents itself to be. Nowhere is party protectionism as pronounced as in the ostensibly democratic Austria. As Austrian newspaper Der Standard recently reported there are significant links in Austria between party membership and top jobs in government-related industries. The first comprehensive study of the relationship, by the University of Vienna, found that about 50 per cent of senior roles in large companies with a government relationship went to those with party membership. Of course, this comparison does not bolster Hungary’s democratic claims, but only confirms Austria’s underdeveloped democracy.
But in Hungary the mockery of democracy goes far beyond uninhibited nepotism. At its worst, outsiders criticize nationalist tendencies, including small-minded aggression against travellers, Jews and the homeless, and especially anti-EU propaganda.
Here, too, we have to be careful in our interpretation. Where is the borderline between worrying about threatened minorities and defending what Brussels sees as the interests of individual states and global companies?
Orbán was elected to his office by a majority. That much is not in doubt. And yet a majority is no guarantee of democracy. An electoral majority can be just as anti-democratic or fascist as a government. For some, what is happening in Hungary prompts worrying memories of the Weimar Republic, when state institutions looked on helplessly, or even approvingly, as Nazi troops forced their way in. Fidesz, Orban’s ruling conservative party, is not Jobbik, the party of the radical nationalists, but it still woos voters with emotive nationalism. Previously suppressed far-right writers who had links with fascism have been introduced into the school curriculum.
With a little imagination, we can understand Orbán’s success. There is something alluring about the European dream. Doing away with nation states is a utopia with some appeal, although one can’t help but wonder why its proponents are so keen to set the vested interests of Europe against the national interests of the states, instead of setting its sights on the developing world. The reason is, of course, that the EU is, above all, an economic bulwark against the United States, and with time also Russia and China. But precisely because the EU’s concerns are chiefly economic, and in particular in the interests of large multinational companies, and because achieving equal social standards across Europe is far from its driving passion, resentment is quite easy to understand, especially among the population of the smaller member states. The left has made the mistake of leaving it to the right to condemn European bureaucratic centralization. Add to this the rather unappetising alternatives served up by the social democrats, not only in Hungary but in other eastern European countries, and further west by François Mitterrand, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. And that’s before we even consider the corruption cases in which the social democratic parties have been embroiled.
In a sense, the Eurosceptic policies in Hungary echo the campaigns against the hegemony of the German-speaking government in the 19th-century Habsburg Empire. Nationalism, not only in Hungary, was at that time closely associated with democratic demands, where the pursuit of sovereignty within the smaller political unit was by no means reactionary. The jury is still out on whether or not EU economic restraints and interference in the smaller countries’ monetary policies actually help consolidate democracy. But, either way, we don’t tend to hear much talk of solidarity from Germany, France, Italy or the UK if jobs are scrapped in Croatia, Poland, the Baltic states or Hungary.
So while it’s clear to see how Orbán wins the sympathy of his people with his nationalist critique of European meddling, what’s less easy to understand is why this desire for independence needs to be associated with jingoism on the domestic stage. It is this, not its foreign policy, that nudges Orbán’s Hungary in the direction of a fascist regime.
What’s alarming is not the anti-EU stance, but the way the Hungarian government has turned against its own people, discriminating against minorities and dismantling basic democratic rights. In May 2012, the former Austrian federal chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, of the conservative People’s Party, praised his Hungarian counterpart Orbán, expecting that his government would “act fairly when it uses the two-thirds majority it won in parliament.”
The renaissance of nationalism, which we can understand to a certain degree, but which we might ordinarily see as an outdated product of the 19th century, linked to the disastrous experiences of the 20th century, is all the more worrying in that it is not limited to Hungary, but is now the most striking common feature uniting the states of the former Soviet empire. In Hungary, monuments are being erected to Hungarian ruler Miklós Horthy, who agreed an alliance with the Nazis. In Poland, there is a proliferation of Pilsudski streets and squares. When you remind the Poles that Józef Pilsudski as head of state didn’t put on his kid gloves to deal with the opposition, you feel the full force of their wrath. In Slovakia, the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, president from 1939 to 1945, who was hanged as a war criminal in 1947, has been honoured with a plaque in Zilinia, and there is a monument in Bauska to the Latvian Waffen SS. Some argue that because the new (who are also the old) national heroes fought against the Soviet Union and communism, some people are burying the memory of their fascist domestic politics and seeking to legitimize collaboration with the Nazis.
History is being rewritten in eastern Europe. The glorification of the SS is not a marginal hobby confined to a few isolated nutters. In 2012, no less a man than the Latvian president, Andris Berzins called upon his countrymen to honour the men of the Waffen SS; they had fought for their country, after all. If Soviet crimes like the Katyn massacre were once whitewashed, manipulated, relativized, now there is a tendency to do the same with crimes against the Soviet Union. But stylising the Soviet construct as the number- one atrocity of the 20th century, as the unrivalled superlative of evil, has the effect, whether intentionally or not, of exonerating Nazism. Robert Jungk once spoke of the “Napoleonization of Hitler”, a phenomenon that is already well advanced: in Latvia it is not unlikely that you’ll find people identifying with Hitler and Nazism as champions against the greater evil, communism.
Not daring to voice the ultimate consequence of this is the same as distinguishing between the heinous crime that was Nazism and other manifestations of fascism, justifying them on grounds of defending national sovereignty. The unabashed claims now being made in eastern Europe about Pilsudski or Horthy are the sort of things we will perhaps soon hear in Italy about Mussolini, in Austria about Englebert Dollfuss and in Spain about Francisco Franco. It’s a red line that still hasn’t quite been crossed; the portrait of the Austrofascist Dollfuss is still tucked away in the Austrian Christian Democrats (ÖVP) faction’s room in the parliament building, perhaps out of shame, or more likely out of deference to their coalition partner, the Social Democrats. But why shouldn’t an Austrian president follow the footsteps of his Latvian colleague? Why should he not seek to reinstate Dollfuss’s honour in the plenary hall of the parliament? He did fight for his country, after all, and unlike the Latvian Waffen SS troops, he was actually murdered by the Nazis. And yet he was also a fascist.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world, if we’re honest, is no better. The threat of war has not been reduced; it has merely shifted geographically. The military conflicts in the Gulf, Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia saw no respite with the end of the Cold War; the Middle East is still the same powder keg that it was before; and now there is the Crimea. If you point out that the Serbs and the Croats, the Slovenes and the Bosnians, the Montenegrins and Macedonians actually lived together relatively peacefully in Tito’s Yugoslavia, if you remind people that in the GDR there was no threat to foreigners from neo-Nazis, you generally hear the counter argument that these controversies were always simmering under the surface, but were only held in check by the police state. That may be so. But for those affected, it surely makes a considerable difference whether a feud is latent, or whether it is explosive and bloody. An asylum seeker whose temporary accommodation has been the target of an arson attack or a woman who has been raped and had her village overrun by marauding mobs might perhaps see the monitoring of phone lines by the state as a comparatively minor evil. Especially since the Edward Snowden and NSA affair has reminded us recently that the Stasi weren’t alone in dabbling in this little pastime. Again, not everything we find distasteful can be ascribed to one particular ideology.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Europe has certainly enjoyed some of the blessings of capitalism – freedom of movement and a wider range of consumer goods – but it has also witnessed a growing gap between rich and poor that never existed before. Even when it comes to freedom of expression, on which the West prides itself, we have started to hesitate. Orbán has demonstrated that this freedom can indeed be effectively restrained even under the conditions of capitalism. Granted, one no longer faces jail for speaking out against the state, but you could certainly lose your job. And a certain former Austrian chancellor is perfectly happy with that.
And what of the minorities? Their protection at least is as much a criterion for democracy as is the respect for the majority. Have they benefitted from the fall of the wall? The Vietnamese or Africans, who no longer dare to go out in the evening in the “nationally liberated zones” of east Germany? The Roma, who are either trapped in ghettos or deported? The homosexuals who face legally sanctioned harassment in Russia? They are unlikely to feel moved by the rhetoric on the anniversary of the fall of the wall.