Eastern Menace: a new European culture war?

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Frobisher 1-3 Eye on the World


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The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was greeted with elation, as many observers saw the ‘reunification’ of Europe as the fulfilment of the continent’s destiny as a beacon of democracy, liberalism and Enlightenment. ‘Now what belongs together will grow together,’ former German chancellor Willy Brandt said in the autumn of 1989. Optimism still prevailed in February 1991 when the leaders of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and József Antall, all of whom had played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet bloc), met in Visegrad to accelerate their countries’ integration into a free, democratic and prosperous Europe.

A generation later, many Western European observers look East with a trepidation that recalls the height of the Cold War. This time, the dark cloud threatening Europe is not Communism, but a kind of populist authoritarianism. The perceived image of the ‘Visegrad Four’ (with Czechoslovakia now divided in two) is that of a reluctant group who are often obstructing, rather than facilitating European cooperation. Moreover, it is frequently suggested that governments in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are an affront to the ideal of European democracy. European societies - even Austria and the former eastern part of Germany - are indicted for not being in line with the democratic norms of their far more advanced cousins in the West. While not yet described as rogue or failed states, they are depicted as ‘illiberal democracies’, chauvinistic, xenophobic, homophobic and reactionary. Imperceptibly a silent and not so silent culture war has erupted, with memories of Weimar Germany rediscovered in the East, and dark forebodings about a new totalitarianism.

There are of course important differences between the cultural values prevailing in the East and West. How are they to be explained and interpreted? Some see the mental legacy of Communist rule still at play in many Eastern countries. Others point to the destabilising impact of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its ties to populist parties (such as Hungary`s Jobbik). But do fears about ‘Eastern’ reaction mirror anxieties about attitudes held by many closer to home, but not mentioned in polite company? Is the apparent East-West divide as much about tensions that exist within the societies of the West as about geopolitics?