A wave that will well up from the depths of the crisis

The year 1989 in East and Central Europe was the year of democratic revolutions, of reforms flowing into revolutions and revolutions infused with reforms. Ideas of national independence and sovereignty were combined with a democratic, European transformation oriented towards the West.

A new history

However, the first nationalist ethnic revolutions came along as early as 1990-1991, proclaiming another kind of regime change, secession and separation, and attacking national minorities. It began with a pogrom in Romania’’s Târgu Mureș, was followed by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the coarsely velvety splitting up of Czechoslovakia, and it ranged from Csurka’’s ideology of international conspiracy in Hungary to the busybodies of zealotry in Poland. This first wave of nationalism involved anti-Soviet, anti-Russian grievances, a hatred of Germans, anti-Semitism, exclusion of national minorities and a heaping of curses on Europe, America and the Western world.

The fresh anti-liberal and anti-privatisation passions were mixed with historical grievances and anger. The anger was about the fact that what arrived instead of Western affluence was unemployment, high inflation and insecurity.

A new history was beginning to be written: an aggrieved and exceptionalist history, the only truthful and superior Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Ukrainian history.  New states, symbols, anthems and uniforms emerged. All of this floated to the surface from the deep well of the past, and yet everything was born anew.  The history of the former Yugoslav nations was written in blood.  Elsewhere history was written in words that had murderous power.

A double-edged promise

The first wave of nationalism ebbed away in the mid-nineties. It was replaced by a kind of double-edged promise: on the one hand – europeanization, the desire and possibility of joining NATO and the European Union, and on the other – the left-wing politicians’ belief that they could restore the certainties of the Kádár, Husák, Tito or Gierek regimes. A velvet, europeanizing and modernizing restoration.  You just calm down, sort things out among yourselves, let the minorities be, stop bad-mouthing the Jews, and then we can start talking about EU membership: this was the message from Clinton’s America and Kohl’s Germany.

The nations preferred European affluence to national misery.  The competition for the membership in the European club began.

On the threshold of the new millennium, when not just the Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian politicians but most in their societies realized that NATO and EU membership were assured, there set in a sense of a loss of purpose, as well as of a disenchantment by the ceaseless effort required to pursue it.  A merciless zero-sum game ensued in a majority political style marked by contradictions, aimed at the appropriation of European countries’’ political, economic, media and spiritual spheres and at their permanent ownership. A ruthless battle broke out between the nationalists and aliens, modernists and anti-modernists, supporters of Europe and euro-sceptics. And at the same time those who seemed to be excluded from Europe were waiting for some new impulse, similar to the year 1989, so that they, too, could join in and make themselves visible. All this was happening simultaneously with the powerful nationalist and fundamentalist Christian wave that crested in America in the wake of 11 September 2001 and that was more than happy to support the colour revolutions, from Yugoslavia through Georgia to Ukraine.

The war of the bronze soldier

A new ethnic-nationalist wave came along, reaching its peak in Hungary in the spring of 2002 which actually touched the masses.  In March and April of that year, thousands ardently wore a cockade in national colours, while others were ardent about not wearing it, and the two sides engaged in a deadly battle of minds. The Right saw everywhere liberals and Bolsheviks devoid of nationalist feeling, while the Left warned of an impending invasion by twenty million Romanian workers. But then the policy of social populism arrived, covering everything with its sediment and camouflaging every Hungarian politician as a Kádár and his central and local party committee secretaries. That is why Orbán’s FIDESZ failed with its referendum on double nationality in 2004, at a time when the Ukrainian Orange Revolution was just reinvigorating politicians and, to some extent, the populations of the Baltic states, Poland and Romania.

The Kaczyński brothers arrived on the crest of this tumultuous wave in the autumn of 2005, as the mood in the Baltics was turning more and more nationalist. In the spring of 2007 the Estonian-Russian bronze soldier war broke out and thus was born the ideology of defensive nationalist democracy, directed at Russia and the Russian minorities.  However, the success of the moderate Right in the Polish general election, a fragile balance between President Kaczyński and Prime Minister Tusk, as well as the fact that the Romanian extreme right lost all its seats in parliament and Hungary’’s extremists had been marginalized, seems to point to an ebbing tide.  Robert Fico, too, has been adding only just enough nationalist spice to the Slovak political soup to ensure a majority for his coalition and social populism. The Georgian-Russian war, whatever the politicians intended, left the masses unmoved.

Who is to blame?

I might be wrong. Although at a meeting of Hungarian and Slovak intellectuals Rudolf Chmel spoke of cycles of nationalism linked to political forces, Péter Tölgyessy from Hungary and László Szigeti from Slovakia both argued that a steady rise in nationalism can be observed since the regime change.  It is linked to society’’s illusions: people expected to achieve Western standards immediately but they are further and further away from achieving them.  Nationalist voters are not produced by nationalist politicians but vice versa: it is nationalist voters who produce the Ficos, Slotas, Kaczyńskis and Orbáns.  Politicians merely respond to voters’’ demands. In the future, in international relations too, we will see growing nationalism and xenophobia all around the world, László Szigeti concluded. He might be right.

What truly concerns me, however, is a third wave of nationalism. It will well up from the depths of the economic crisis.  The rising middle classes will lose the ground under their feet. Modernizers, supporters of a rapid europeanization, leading industrialists, people who have been buying flats on Swiss mortgages, have already started losing their jobs.

And this time Brussels and Berlin, Milan and Vienna, are not heeding their call for help. This time it’’s not the riffraff, fans of a losing football team who are asking who is to blame, it is the erstwhile victors, who have been vanquished. This time it is the forint nationalists, disappointed by the forint and their leading roles, the zloty nationalists, disillusioned by the zloty and their dreams of a position of a medium-size power, the euro-sceptical Czech crown nationalists who refer to themselves as Western Europeans, as well as the Slovak nationalists, legitimized by the euro, who will cling on to national flags in Győr, Poznań or Mladá Boleslav. This time it is bank officials, engineers in car factories, well-heeled proprietors of real estate and respected judges, who might discover inside them the tribal Hungarian, the real Slovak, the Polish aristocrat, the Czech patriot. Now they can regard the Jew, the Gypsy, the Pole, the Czech, the Slovak, the Hungarian, the European, the American, and anyone else, as the scapegoat who is responsible for their lot, for the Treaty of Trianon, for everything. It’s always someone else’s fault. There is no future, but if there were, it would be a Hungarian future. Or Czech. Or Polish. Or Slovak. Happy 2009.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Hungarian in the Népszabadság on 27 January 2009.

We are grateful to László Lengyel for the permission to publish this text in English.