My newest long-form piece was published in The Tower magazine over the weekend. Here’s the first part.
Europe as we have known it for over five decades has been a stable and prosperous place at peace with itself, famous for its museums, cafes, classical architecture, and graceful retirement from history. But today, it’s under assault. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II is overwhelming the continent, while Jews flee by the thousands. Populist parties so outrageous that they make their American counterparts seem like milquetoast centrists are winning or almost winning one election after another. One of them—Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz—has already transformed Hungary into an authoritarian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin is swaggering like a conquering warlord and winning applause for his exploits as far west as Great Britain. The European Union has already begun to unravel and could be replaced down the road by God only knows what as an aloof United Kingdom decides to go it alone while Europe circles the drain.
Journalist and author James Kirchick lived and worked in Europe for six years, and in his bracing first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, he dives deep into the continent’s turmoil. The cumulative effect is sobering and alarming, but also perversely comforting if misery truly loves company. The book makes it clear that America’s political crisis is part of a larger crisis of democratic liberalism and institutional legitimacy that stretches from Seattle to Athens, and Kirchick does his American readers an invaluable service by informing them, in a can’t-put-it-down style, that they aren’t going through this alone.
Connecting Europe’s seemingly disparate troubles is a continent-wide cratering of the political center and collapsing confidence in the liberal European idea. “In the wake of World War II,” Kirchick writes, “when Europe was divided, both the political left and right valued very highly what the West had and the East coveted: an environment of political and economic freedom, religious openness (even if it often shaded into religious indifference), and peace.” Western Europeans were far more dependent upon the military power of the Pax Americana than they liked to admit, but it paid off for all of us when the Soviet Union finally imploded, calcified communist police states withered away, and Europe’s eastern half rejoined the West.
But a unified liberal Europe only lasted a generation, and the Russian bear is no longer hibernating.
The former Soviet republic of Georgia is a European-like nation located on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains. This places it technically in Asia, which, while hardly excusing Russia’s invasion in 2008, makes it a slightly different affair than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the first territorial aggression against a sovereign European state since World War II. Both of these Russian adventures are more ominous than the Russian-backed uprising in far-away Kyrgyzstan in 2010—an event most Europeans and Americans are not even aware of—because what triggered the wars in Georgia and Ukraine could one day ignite one or more violent conflicts inside the European Union itself.
In each case, Moscow concocted bogus threats against ethnic Russians and other minorities as pretexts for war, and the Kremlin has spent years laying the groundwork for more of the same in Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic states where ethnic Russians live as large minorities, making up, for example, as much as 25 percent of Estonia’s population.
“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones,” Putin said in 2014, “overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
Kirchick points out the obvious implications. “If the ‘Russian nation,’ a unitary entity, had been wrongly ‘divided by borders,’” he writes, “then presumably it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.” Adolf Hitler used precisely that reasoning when he invaded Czechoslovakia, as did Slobodan Milosevic when he and his fellow Serbian nationalists waged genocidal campaigns against Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians after the crackup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
Putin insists he isn’t just mouthing off when he says this sort of thing either. Just a few months after annexing Crimea, he vowed to use “the entire range of available means” to “protect” the Russkiy Mir, the ethnic Russian world outside the country’s borders, and the Kremlin is grooming Russian citizens—schoolchildren especially—for future conquests. A government-endorsed education manual describes its former communist empire as “an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society,” while mourning the loss of its vassals in Central and Eastern Europe. “The Soviet Union lost its security belt,” the manual states, “which a few years later would become a zone of foreign influence, with NATO bases an hour away from St. Petersburg.”
Putin’s state indoctrination has had a measurable effect. Today, 61 percent of Russians agree that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Only 22 percent thought so in 1991.
While all this is happening, the West is losing the will to defend itself. When asked in 2015 if NATO should assist a member state invaded by Russia, a majority of French, German, and Italian respondents said no.
If that weren’t bad enough, regimes resembling Putin’s are rising inside the European Union itself.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have effectively transformed the country into a one-party state. Orbán rewrote the constitution to empower the executive branch of government against the others and transformed the parliament into a tin-pot rubber stamp committee. He persecutes civil society organizations, is empowering a class of loyal oligarchs just as Putin did, and ruthlessly cracks down on independent journalists critical of his rule.
You don’t have to take Kirchick’s word for it. Just listen to Orbán himself. “The new state that we are constructing in Hungary,” he said in 2014, “is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Hungary, he boasted, is “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and are keeping ourselves independent from them.” He cites China and Russia as models and insists that his supporters are transcending “the liberal state and the era of liberal democracy.”
Maps outlining the engorged borders of “Greater Hungary” that existed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire are now ubiquitous on postcards, T-shirts, bumper stickers, political posters, and flags. In the closing days of World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Many Hungarians on the periphery moved “home” to the rump state, but more than three million ethnic Hungarians currently find themselves outside the borders of their ”homeland” in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovakia.
Reacquiring this lost territory motivated Kingdom of Hungary Regent Miklós Horthy to join Hitler and Mussolini’s Axis during World War II. This attempt to achieve a “Greater Hungary” didn’t pan out, but Orbán and Fidesz are ramping up for another try. In 2010, Orbán declared June 4, the anniversary of the Trianon signing, a “Day of National Cohesion” to lament “the unjust and unfair dismemberment of the Hungarian nation by foreign powers,” which, if Orbán is to be believed, is responsible for Hungary’s current political, economic, and psychological problems.
“No other European country has consecrated irredentism with a state holiday,” Kirchick writes. “On the contrary, it is precisely such jingoistic fervor and imperial nostalgia that the European project was created to overcome….If Hungary applied for EU membership today, it probably wouldn’t be admitted.”