The strength of ‘illiberal democracy’ three decades after the fall of the Berlin wall can only be understood by reference to the prior cold-war trajectories of east and west.
The revolutions of 1989 seemed to signal the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism in Europe. The states of central Europe, which Milan Kundera called the ‘kidnapped west’, abducted from their heritage by the Red Army at the end of World War II, quickly adopted political, legal and economic reforms based on the liberal-democratic model. On May 1st 2004, a mere 15 years later, the first post-Communist states were celebrating their accession to the European Union; the reunification of Europe seemed complete.
Another 15 years on—from the vantage point of 2019—this narrative appears hopelessly naïve and Panglossian. Although EU membership was supposed to turn the border between east and west into a relic, cold war divisions are still salient, with states on either side operating with different understandings of democracy, as well as of the role and value of the nation-state.
In contrast to the postwar system of liberal democracy established in the west, which protects human rights and privileges the rule of law over national sovereignty, in post-Communist Europe a different model of ‘illiberal democracy’ has emerged, which emphasises the popular sovereignty of the ‘imagined community’ of the ‘nation’ over external claims to protection, legal procedure and international law. To understand this bifurcation, we need to pay attention not only to economic and cultural factors but also to the influence of memory cultures on contemporary politics.
While the historical imaginary of western Europe continues to be defined by the defeat of fascism in 1945, across central Europe it is dominated instead by 1989. These divergent frameworks of collective memory bring strikingly different lessons to bear on the present.
In western Europe, collective remembrance is shaped by the traumatic events of the second world war, culminating in the victory over fascism. Immediately after the end of the war, key political leaders concluded that lack of protection of human rights at both the national and international levels had played a central role in enabling the atrocities of the Holocaust. Acting as what Jeffrey Alexander refers to as ‘collective agents of the trauma process’, they argued that pooling sovereignty in institutions beyond the nation-state and establishing systems for the international protection of human rights were the only ways to overcome the national antagonisms which had led Europe into two world wars.
This conclusion had important consequences for postwar democracy. Although popular sovereignty was still important, 1945 showed western Europeans that ‘the will of the people’ could only function properly within a constrained democracy, which privileged the protection of human rights above majoritarian popular sovereignty. The postwar liberal-democratic order in western Europe thus sought to ensure that nation-states could not deploy national law to ‘kill the juridical person’ by taking away basic rights from unwanted individuals—the first step in the administrative process which culminated in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
The lessons of 1945 also have important implications for the relationship between democracy and the nation-state. The postwar fear of nationalism in the west led to the emergence of the EU, which sought not only to ‘make war unthinkable’ through greater political co-operation but also ‘materially impossible’ via a common market and other economic measures of integration. Additionally, the Council of Europe was established to protect human rights at the supranational level, both through monitoring and legally through the European Court of Human Rights, which can enforce the European Convention on Human Rights juridically.
Memory culture in the east developed very differently. While 1945 is also an important symbolic date in central Europe, in this region it stands for the transition from one form of totalitarian occupation to another—from Nazi to Soviet rule enforced by the quick development of one-party states. The legacy of Communism therefore has important consequences for views of democracy and the nation-state.
Ágnes Heller points out that across the region the Communist Party was seen as ‘a mechanism for executing the will of the Central Committee, and thus the will of Moscow’. As a result, in much of post-Communist Europe ‘1989’ does not evoke a turn towards the liberal protection of human rights, but a desire for self-government.
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Just as memory entrepreneurs in the west helped to shape the lessons of 1945 by emphasising the protection of rights and privileging the universalistic state over the parochial desires of the particularistic nation, the post-Communist narrative has also been disseminated and institutionalised by important carriers within these societies. Most notably, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland have both focused on the nation and national sovereignty, creating narratives which treat the past as a history of disasters imposed by external powers. These national leaders thus downplay the dangers of Nazism and nationalism which form the core of the western narrative, in favour of a story that emphasises the need for national self-rule.
These different understandings of democracy, as well as the place of the nation-state within European and international politics, became especially politically salient as the influx of refugees from north Africa, the middle east and beyond increased in 2015. Coming on the heels of the Great Recession of 2008, this so-called ‘invasion’ fuelled xenophobic, right-wing populism across the continent.
However, whereas some governments in the west, as well as the institutions of the EU, have sought to push back against these trends—moving to defend liberal principles by upholding the international right of refugees to claim asylum and developing quotas for the distribution of asylum-seekers at the European level—the post-Communist states responded by tightening asylum laws, rejecting refugee resettlement arrangements, erecting barbed wire and even criminalising assistance to refugees. This has resulted in what the former president of the European Council, Donald Tusk of Poland, called a split ‘between east and west … compounded by emotions which make it hard to find common language’.
It is easy to blame central Europe for holding on to an outdated, dangerous conception of democracy, rooted in nationalism and the nation-state. However, this view disrespects the historical experiences and collective memories of post-Communist Europe. Despite their desire to integrate central Europe into the EU, many western Europeans have found it difficult to understand the importance of 1989 to the post-Communist historical imaginary.
A series of hearings and conferences organised by the Slovenian presidency of the EU in April 2008 thus ‘brought to light a strong feeling that the Member States in Western Europe should be more aware of the tragic past of the Member States in Eastern Europe’. In its subsequent declaration on ‘European conscience and totalitarianism’ (2009), the European Parliament observed that ‘Europe will not be united unless it is able to form a common view of its history, recognises Nazism, Stalinism and fascist and Communist regimes as a common legacy and brings about an honest and thorough debate on their crimes in the past century’.
A greater appreciation of the importance of collective memory in shaping politics in the present also has important implications for international development and attempts to consolidate democracy around the world. Most notably, recognising the importance of history and memory in the consolidation of democracy might help development agencies and international organisations to realise that the very term democracy will mean different things to different people because of their differing historical experiences. This has important implications for democratic consolidation, both in Europe and beyond.
Peter J Verovšek is an assistant professor of politics / international relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War (Manchester University Press, 2020).