Central Europe turns postliberal
In his seminal 1984 essay, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” Czech author Milan Kundera describes Central Europeans as cultural descendants of ancient Rome and the Catholic Church who were “kidnapped and displaced” by the USSR after World War II. The hostages longed to break free from the talons of communism, shedding blood and tears for forty years. However, when the Iron Curtain finally fell, they were shocked to find that the West had lost interest in preserving all that had made its civilization exceptional.
Post-communist countries like Hungary and Poland adopted liberalism as the state organizing logic only to discover that they had replaced the old totalitarian system with a new (albeit less murderous) one. Liberal universalism, proselytized by left-wing Western governments with totalitarian zeal, evokes the USSR’s mission to engineer the New Soviet Man as the archetype of a uniform citizenry across its constituent socialist republics and satellite states by erasing ethnic, cultural, and sociological diversity. Indeed, globalization and supranational governing institutions strive to render nationalism obsolete by negating the unique identities of nation-states.
As Western nations have become increasingly de-Christianized and morally relativist, virtue-making institutions that foster family, community, and tradition have waned. A March 2023 Wall Street Journal/NORC survey quantified the shocking extent to which U.S. societal attitudes have deteriorated. Since 1998, there have been drastic declines in importance of patriotism (70 percent to 38 percent), religion (62 percent to 39 percent), childbearing (59 percent to 30 percent), and community involvement (47 percent to 27 percent). The importance of money, however, grew from 31 percent to 43 percent.
By apotheosizing individual rights and personal autonomy — bereft of self-sacrifice, mutual duty, and civic virtue — unbounded liberalism is bent on vanquishing all remaining forms of collective identity. For example, transgenderism seeks liberty from the biology of sex, while transhumanism aspires to overcome the condition of being human. In the economic sphere, profit-chasing libertarianism sacrificed American manufacturing independence and hollowed out the middle class by transferring its jobs and wealth to China and the Global South. These policies also orchestrated the 2008 global financial crisis, which especially devastated the economies of Hungary, Ukraine, Croatia, Romania, and the Baltic states. Alienated and dissatisfied with the lack of their post-communist success, Hungary and Poland began questioning the received wisdom that liberal democracy offers the only legitimate form of governance.
Embracing a postliberal turn, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a new constitution in 2012 called the Fundamental Law. It instituted a rule-of-law based Christian democracy designed to serve the particular needs and interests of the Hungarian polity. The Guardian (a left-wing British newspaper) decried the Fundamental Law for having Christian influences and committing Hungary to a “whole new set of values, such as family, nation, fidelity, faith, love and labor.” A Christian democratic model entails the separation of church and state but not that of church and society. In Hungary and Poland, it offers an antidote to the compulsory atheism, and progressive socio-sexual theater of the absurd, that has been laying waste to Western society.
Critics on the left take particular umbrage at the postliberal recognition of (a) marriage and childrearing as foundational to society and (b) Christianity as inseparable from nationhood. The latter has informed the Hungarian and Polish hard stance against illegal immigration, especially from Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries. It is important to note that the Ottoman Turks subjugated the Hungarian peoples for nearly 150 years (1541–1699) and waged brutal wars against Austrian and Polish forces. In addition to disregarding the sovereignty of Central European nations, proponents of a borderless Arcadia fail to account for the gruesome geohistorical realities and memory politics of the region.
Left-leaning Western governments, supranational bodies like the European Union, and media organizations condemn this Central European pursuit of a new political vision as “democratic backsliding.” Hungary and Poland have been charged with courting illiberal autocracy for any challenge to the ideological hegemony of the liberal order cannot be tolerated. It is this very impulse — utopian in principle and absolutist in practice — that has led liberalism astray.
Meg Hansen is the Budapest Fellowship Program’s visiting senior research fellow at the Danube Institute in Hungary. Previously, she served as president of a State Policy Network–affiliated think-tank in Vermont.