The politics of the 1930s are still playing out in Eastern Europe

Source: The Washington Post / / By Jackson Diehl /

On the night after the Berlin Wall fell, as I watched crowds of delirious East Germans surge down West Berlin’s broad Kurfürstendamm street, it didn’t occur to me that history was ending. On the contrary, it seemed that in the former captive nations of Eastern Europe, history was making a comeback.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talk at a news conference in Budapest on Thursday. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Soviet-imposed communism, I wrote that night in an article for The Post, had suppressed the politics that drove events in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East Bloc states before World War II. As the wall fell, those currents were suddenly reappearing, as if awakened from a long sleep. Poland’s Solidarity movement was splintering into liberal and nationalist factions that resembled prewar parties. In Yugoslavia, ethnic animosities between Serbs and Croats were resurfacing. Hungary had rediscovered its prewar nationalism in a feud with Romania.

Thirty years later, the politics of the 1930s are still playing out in the former Eastern Bloc. Poland is governed by an authoritarian-minded right-wing government closely aligned with a reactionary Catholic Church. An uneasy peace prevails in the splintered remains of Yugoslavia after a devastating ethnic war. Hungary, which was ruled by a right-wing authoritarian government before World War II, is now dominated by the proudly “illiberal” Viktor Orban, who has tried to rehabilitate former strongman Miklos Horthy.

Though these political movements are sometimes lumped in with the modern-day populists of Western Europe, they are, in key respects, more like their 20th-century predecessors. They are authoritarian and socially reactionary — anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is a favorite theme of Poland’s ruling party. Prewar evils such as irredentism and anti-Semitism are alive in mainstream politics to a degree they are not on the other side of the former Iron Curtain. Just ask emigre Hungarian Jewish financier George Soros, whom Orban cast as his leading opponent in the last national election.

What’s surprising to me is the extent to which communist-era politics have also survived. My assumption in 1989 was that Soviet-syle totalitarianism was an alien implant that would vanish from countries closer to Berlin than Moscow. Yet some legacies of communist rule have proved enduring, perhaps because they are all too compatible with the resurgent illiberal movements.

One is the use of state-run national television for political propaganda. After the establishment of democracy, Poland moved to make its government-owned network independent, similar to the BBC. That abruptly ended when the right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015. Now state television glorifies the ruling party and slimes its opponents in a fashion eerily reminiscent of communist times. In Hungary, Orban has gone a step further, using state resources and friendly businessmen to all but eliminate independent media.

A second legacy is pervasive official corruption. In the morally nihilistic world of Eastern Bloc communism, everyone from traffic cops to Communist Party secretaries felt free to exploit the system for private profit. To a disturbing extent, that has not changed. Only a few months ago was Liviu Dragnea, Romania’s most powerful politician through the 2010s, finally imprisoned for abuse of power. As the New York Times recently documented, European Union subsidies have enriched Orban’s relatives and old friends.

In 1989, I predicted that Czechoslovakia would revert to the model of democratic pluralism it had under Thomas Masaryk, its president from 1918 to 1935. It did at first, thanks to Velvet Revolution leader Vaclav Havel. But the president of the Czech Republic today, Milos Zeman, is a sleazy tool of Russian interests; Prime Minister Andrej Babis was until recently under criminal investigation for fraud. Slovakia’s shady prime minister, Robert Fico, was forced to step down last year after the gangland-style murder of a journalist investigating corruption.

The most insidious communist legacy may be ahistoricism. After the war, while West Germany de-Nazified, East Germans, Hungarians and Poles were told they bore no responsibility for fascism or the Holocaust, which were portrayed as capitalist crimes. Today’s governments follow suit: Poland’s passage of a law criminalizing accounts of the Holocaust that hold Poles accountable is the quintessential example.

It’s hardly surprising that it is in the former East Germany that fascist-friendly movements such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have gained the most traction. In last month’s state election in the eastern state of Thuringia, the AfD won 23 percent of the vote and finished ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Its local leader, Bjorn Hocke, has denounced the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and called for an end to Germany’s “culture of remembrance.”

In many ways, of course, Eastern Europe is far better off than in 1989. Its people are vastly richer and, in spite of creeping authoritarianism, far freer. But the euphoria I saw and shared in that momentous weekend in Berlin seems a little naive 30 years later. We underestimated the tenacity of the culture created by Soviet communism — and the perils of a return to history.