A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Europe, Old and New


After 1989, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe followed the same vision. But as the myth of the West declined, their paths diverged and divisions deepened. It’s time to bridge the gaps.

© Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

What is happening to Central and Eastern Europe? Sometimes even well informed observers find it difficult to articulate in which political direction the countries east of the river Elbe are heading today. Their development for over two decades after 1989 seemed comprehensible. Although some managed it better and others fared worse, the quest of equivalence with Western Europe gave everyone one clear goal.

Today, it appears that Central and Eastern Europe has ceased to exist as a distinct political entity. Indeed, it is impossible to present a more diversified image. Hungary has been under Viktor Orbán’s rule for several years, increasingly moving away from democracy toward a mild authoritarian regime. In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the democratic revolution, The Economist hailed Poland as the greatest achievement of democratic transformation; now, to many observers it seems as if it decided to ignore its historic opportunity. However, there are also countries where liberal democracy is doing well. Although skeptical of the European Union, the Czech government has not violated the liberal legal order. Slovakia as well offers hope: just a few months ago, a progressive politician Zuzana Czaputowa won the presidential election.

No other part of Europe, however, is depicted in such broad generalizations. Of course, the adverse news, which mainly concern Poland and Hungary, have darkened the whole picture. From the Western perspective, the image of these countries permeates the entire region, creating a belief that in Central and Eastern Europe, we are dealing now with an illiberal, undemocratic, and even authoritarian wave, which has destroyed the hard-won accomplishments of democratic transformation.

Such superficial assessments actually refer to specific governments, but they affect how societies as a whole are. The countries are being put on par with Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or even compared to the fascist countries of the 1920s and 1930s. The victims of such reasoning are not only the defenders of liberal democracy in those countries where it is really under threat, but also other Central and Eastern European states, including those which have enjoyed stable political systems since they were introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some disgruntled critics in the West have even started to vociferously claim that the so-called eastern enlargement of the European Union was premature or even completely unnecessary.

The Myth of the West

The 30th anniversary of democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe offers a great opportunity to diagnose what is actually happening in this region.

According to Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French political philosopher, revolutions do not erupt when societies are in their deepest crisis. On the contrary, they happen when circumstances improve. This statement appears to prove true for some countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Some of these states have never been in a better situation, economically and with a view to the quality of life. All of the post-communist countries that became EU members in the 2000s developed rapidly. For example, in 1990 the GDP per capita in Germany was $20,173, in France $22,490 and in the United Kingdom $20,808. At that same time it was $3,312 in Hungary, $2,254 in Bulgaria, and $1,626 in Poland. Twenty-eight years later, in 2018, the GDP in Germany was $48,264, in France $42,878, and in the UK $42,558. In Hungary it has grown to $15,924, in Bulgaria to $9,267 and in Poland to $15,431. That growth is impressive. Nevertheless, the West, or the EU, is most criticized in these countries right now.

Major political and social changes are not possible without a powerful collective vision of the future. That was the case with the democratic revolution in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s in Warsaw, Prague, and Sofia, only one myth shaped this vision: the myth of the West.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss defined a myth as a partly unconscious narrative that manifests the thought structures of people in a particular society. The myth of the West that dominated the minds of the Central and Eastern Europeans after the fall of the Iron Curtain functioned similarly.

Lifestyle and Philosophy

When the American liberal writer Paul Berman travelled through the former Eastern bloc in the early 1990s, he noticed an interesting phenomenon. The capitals he visited appeared relatively different, but their inhabitants had one thing in common: a distinct, uncritical passion for everything that came from Western Europe and the United States. The subjects of this passion did not seem to have much in common.

From our biographical perspective, we can confirm that television series such as Miami Vice and the soap opera Dynasty captivated Polish audiences at that time. The viewers were less interested in the plot than in the lifestyle these shows portrayed. They would enthusiastically follow the interiors people in the West lived in, what kind of cars they drove, and what clothes they wore. In Poland in the 1990s, the movie theatres screened only American films for months. At the same time, the sophisticated economic and political ideas imported from the West strongly influenced the local mentality, in particular Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action, and Jeffrey Sachs’ doctrine of radical privatization.

Perhaps for an outsider, the myth of the West might seem like a surprising combination of rather unrelated, often contradictory elements, archetypes and opinions, yet from the perspective of Sofia and Prague everything made sense. Like for Levi-Strauss, this myth not only warranted the interpretation of the present, but also promised a better, more prosperous, and even morally better future. For nearly three decades, it functioned as a drive toward modernization, mobilizing people to tighten their belts and work hard for a better tomorrow.

A Return to Historical Patterns

Over time, however, the myth of the West lost its strength. One of the most important reasons for this was intergenerational dynamics. Those who entered the democratic system as adults, and even their children, deeply believed in this myth. But for the third generation of citizens who have grown up in Central and Eastern Europe in the meantime, the promise of a better tomorrow as “catching up with the West” is no longer satisfactory. Since they did not experience the poverty of the 1980s and early 1990s, they no longer consider it relevant. The transformational success of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria is therefore relative. The most important thing for them is not the past but the present, and countries such as Germany and France are no longer unsurpassed role models, but ordinary neighbors.

There were also other reasons for the decline of the myth of the West. In particular, a more direct familiarity with the countries west of the Elbe revealed that our knowledge was riddled with generalization and misunderstandings. For example, after the Poles and the Czechs had just enthusiastically embraced European integration by voting to join the EU, the French and the Dutch went on to rejected the first draft of a European Constitution. The uncritical pro-American attitude of the Poles, in turn, was “rewarded” with the establishment of a secret CIA outpost in the northern part of their country, where prisoners of US President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” were held and most likely tortured. On top of which, there were the financial, the refugee, and the leadership crises in the EU. The West began to be seen as just as ambivalent economically, politically, and—perhaps most importantly—morally as the East.

The fall of the myth of the West not only meant a demise of a powerful modernization drive in Central and Eastern Europe, but also the dissolution of these countries as a relatively cohesive region with a linear historical narrative, moving from communism, a centrally controlled economy and dependence on the Soviet Union to the Western model of liberal democracy, market economy, and structures such as the EU and NATO. From now on, each country follows its own path, marked by deeply rooted historical practices and current political structures.

Thus, Hungary turns to dictatorship, a pattern that the country had already shown in the past. In Poland, the development is less clear, but we can identify a revival of anti-Western resentment as well as tendencies toward anarchy and privatization of the state, which have been present since the 19th century. In contrast, Estonia leans in the directions of the Scandinavian countries.

The Age of Fear

Shortly before the parliamentary elections in Poland in 2015, the migration crisis became the number one topic in public debate. Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, spoke about “all sorts of parasites and protozoa” that Muslim refugees allegedly brought to Europe. The right-wing media followed, spreading the notion about “hordes of refugees” attacking Polish cities and raping Catholic women. The “dictatorship of Brussels” was omnipresent. Four years later, the Hungarian Fidesz party similarly conducted an anti-EU election against allegedly reluctant EU officials and the American billionaire George Soros who were supposed to be planning to replace current European populations with migrants from Islamic countries.

Of course, the instrumentalization of fear in politics, in particular toward migrants, is a global phenomenon today. And fear has always been an important element in European political discourse. Since the end of World War II, the fear of the horrors of the past has been a fundamental European emotion. For decades, its meaning has been expressed in the German phrase Nie wieder! (“Never again”), which was intended to warn against the repetition of totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. In Western Europe, this fear of the past led to a cultural policy that viewed all forms of nationalism with suspicion. Instead, institutions were strengthened, and the rule of law, constitutionalism, and separation of powers were cultivated. In 1989, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe followed suit. They brought with them the experience of two totalitarian systems: the fear of the Nazis was complemented by the fear of the Communists.

The memories of World War II reached their peak in the 1990s. Later they gradually began to play a more symbolic and less concrete role. Here, too, the most important reason was—probably again—generational change.

An Advantage for Illiberals

German writer Bernhard Schlink pointed out that in just a few more years, not a single person who directly experienced the horrors of World War II will still be alive. Over the decades, many efforts have been made to preserve these memories in form of recordings, research projects, or large museums such as the House of European History in Brussels and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN) in Warsaw. And yet, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once warned, the excess of memory leads to shallowness. In Poland, for example, it is in vogue to wear T-shirts with an anchor, the symbol of the Warsaw Uprising. Very few, however, are aware of the senselessness of a combat without weapons that lasted for weeks.

As the fear of the past faded in Europe, it left a large void that could not remain empty. It was quickly imbued with another kind of fear: fear of the future. This fear has many faces, extending from inequality to the disintegration of the EU. Recently, it has been symbolized by the face of a Syrian refugee, which the mass media have frequently associated with the image of an Islamic terrorist.

The forces that are trying to protect Central and Eastern Europe from the spread of illiberal politics are largely helpless in the face of fear. The illiberals were not only the first to recognize its existence, but they also took the full advantage of this fear. Finding an answer to it will be one of the greatest challenges in Central and Eastern Europe.

Back to the Future?

German politicians regularly emphasize how important the relationships with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are. Angela Merkel never ceases to seek opportunities for dialogue with Viktor Orbán. On the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising this year, Foreign Minister Heiko Mass repeated the declarations of German remorse for the crimes committed in the 20th century. Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Warsaw shortly after her election as President of the European Commission.

And yet Western Europe finds it difficult to see eye to eye on the future of their Central and Eastern European neighbors. Intellectuals from France and other countries maintain for some time now that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are fundamentally different from the so-called “old EU-countries.” There are not only suggestions of building a “two-speed Europe,” but also of a return to a small EU with just a few original founding states.

The frameworks through which we try to understand contemporary Europe are still based on concepts and mentalities originating in the tragic first half of the 20th century. However, the fundamental acceleration of political and technological transformations affects the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as they affect Germany, France, or Italy. These processes demand careful scrutiny, diagnosis, and a quest for solutions rather than premature judgments. Likewise they require a mutual willingness among neighbors both in Central and Eastern Europe and in Western Europe to get to know each other better.

This will take a lot of effort, but only a truly united Europe will be able to face the current challenges.