Communist Histories and the Rise of the Populist Right
If you hope to grasp the current affairs in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is imperative to return to their Communist pasts. A strange interplay has emerged between the Communism of former days and the right-wing populism of the present.
“In Poland, radical youth who feel disillusioned have no alternative but to join the right-wing populist camp.” Michal Syska, director of the Ferdinand Lassalle Center for Social Thought in Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth-largest city, cuts right to the heart of the rise of right-wing populism in his country.
By “no alternative” he refers to the vacuum left by the traumatic experiences of Poland’s its Communist past, which have turned left-wing politics into a forbidden zone. These days, when radical youth with anti-establishment inclinations sought a place to belong, the left offered nothing— while right-wing populism beckoned with open arms.
Traveling through three Central European countries — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — in May and June 2018, I observed first-hand the political ethos in each of these former Communist countries, and the lives of the people there. All of these countries have experienced upsurges of populism, centering on such issues as anti-globalization and anti-immigration, and their national elections have been won perhaps in all cases by candidates who have capitalized on anti-immigration slogans. These movements have presaged populist upsurges in European Union member states further to the West. [To this list I might add Slovakia, formerly a part of Czechoslovakia . . . ]
After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, these four Central European countries formed the Visegrád Group, or Visegrád Four (V4), in order to prepare for integration with the European Union. All four countries joined the EU on May 1, 2004, and since that time the EU has been critical to their economic development and a source of substantial economic assistance. But politically within the EU, these countries have often been outliers. As early as 2015, they opposed a proposal by the European Commission to distribute 40,000 refugees among EU member states.
As Syska says, if you hope to get your head around current affairs in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it’s crucial to revisit their Communist pasts. Between the Communism of former days and the right-wing populism of the present.
The Five-Pointed Star
In Budapest, Hungary’s capital, I joined a Communist-themed tour across the city. Our guide was a young woman named Regina. She was working toward a master’s degree in international relations.
Regina opened with an apology. While two hours were scheduled for our tour, she said, there were in fact very few surviving remnants of Hungary’s Communist past, which had lasted for more than four decades. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, the visual remains of socialism were swept clean away. Statues and public monuments were carted off and taken on a half-hour journey to what is now called Memento Park, an open-air commercial theme park featuring statues of Lenin, Marx and others.
The only Communist monument still visible in the center of Budapest is the Soviet War Memorial in Liberty Square, just a few blocks from the Hungarian Parliament Building.
During the Second World War, which Russians still call the Great Patriotic War against fascism, the Soviet Red Army played an instrumental role in the fighting through Central and Eastern Europe, and an estimated 140,000 Russian soldiers died on the battlefield in Hungary. Atop the five meter high Soviet War Memorial is a golden Communist star. This is perhaps the only one of its kind visiting tourists can expect to glimpse in the city of Budapest, where use of the symbols of the country’s Communist past, including the hammer and sickle and the red star, is severely restricted.
Regina explained to us that taboos and restrictions concerning the use of Communist symbols penetrate every aspect of life in Hungary. They cannot appear, for example, in commercial logos, which is why the trademark of Heineken, the Dutch beer brand, has come under fire in Hungary for its signature red star, which in fact goes back more than 100 years to the second half of the 19th century — when it represented the five key ingredients of the brewing process (barley, hops, water, yeast and the brewer’s magic touch). Still, Heineken’s star could vanish in Hungary, where since 2017 the parliament has been brewing up a ban on all symbols of totalitarianism, including the five-pointed star.
Heineken has said it will closely watch legislative developments in Hungary. But it is certainly clear that Hungary’s right-wing populist government of Victor Orban is exploiting the country’s Communist past to win greater public support.
Regina shared with our group another tale of symbolism in Budapest involving the Hungarian Parliament Building, completed in 1904, and St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Roman Catholic cathedral consecrated in 1905 and named in honor of the first King of Hungary. Both buildings, Liberty Square situated between them, are precisely 96 meters in height — symbolizing the balance of roles between church and state. But in the Communist era, that balance was upset when a massive five-pointed star was added to the top of the dome of the Hungarian Parliament Building, marking the supremacy of the Communist regime. In 1989, this star — and many others like it topping factories and public buildings — were removed.
In an attempt to compensate for the paucity of visible Communist symbols in Hungary’s capital city, Regina brought from home a small memento from the Communist era — a medal in the shape of a five-pointed star given to her grandfather by the Communist government. “As you look at it, please be careful,” she smiled. “If this is damaged, my grandfather will be furious.”
Regina’s grandfather once enjoyed honor and privilege under the Communist system — and people like him, she says, comprise the small minority who still reminisce about those days. But for the vast majority of Hungarians, the Communist era entailed not just totalitarian rule but a humiliating history of invasion.
Across Parliament Square, opposite the Hungarian Parliament Building, you can still see bullet holes pocking the walls of the buildings — traces of the violent suppression by Soviet troops of the Hungarian Uprising that began in October 1956 as thousands marched in the center of Budapest to protest the policies of Hungary’s Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist government. On November 4, a massive Soviet force pushed with their tanks into the center of Budapest, resulting in a week of violent bloodshed in which an estimated 2,500–3,500 people were killed and around 13,000 injured.
Under Parliament Square is a monument to those killed during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, testament to the brutality and terror of that time. Projected onto a large screen and playing in an endless loop is footage of a Soviet tank as it rumbles forward, getting closer and closer, until it swivels its gun toward the viewer and opens fire. Red lighting then bleeds across the floor.
This atmosphere of dread is taken to extremes at another famous sight, the House of Terror. In this museum, located at No. 60 Andrássy Road, in what was once the headquarters of the Nazi party in Hungary and later served as the office of the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB), the twin terrors of Communist rule and Nazi occupation are equally in focus. The exhibits include the holding cells and torture files of the KGB, and a massive black wall on which are written the names of casualties.
These memorials all reinforce a narrative of victimization, depicting the people of Hungary as the innocent victims of German and Soviet invasion, and avoiding mention of the fact that some in Hungary actively collaborated with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Communist Party. This narrative implicitly serves the agenda of right-wing political parties, elevating suspicion of outsiders to a position of primacy over attitudes of self-reflection.
“We are not an Eastern European country!”
In Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, the Museum of Communism similarly displays the horrors of totalitarian rule. A huge red star is suspended at the entrance, where a statue of Marx stands beside three words: “Dream, Reality and Nightmare.”
As a visitor from mainland China, I could easily find resonance in the stories and ideas on display in the museum — propaganda and news censorship, labor camps, Communist Party youth organizations, political discrimination on the basis of family background, waves of Russian language learning. All of these were present in what was then Czechoslovakia under the influence of the Soviet Union.
The difference is that China never suffered Soviet invasion (though the fear of Soviet invasion did hang over political life in China for a long period of time), and unlike the sporadic border clashes that marked the Sino-Soviet relationship, the people of Hungary and the Czech Republic suffered under Soviet tyranny in a very real and brutal way. In 1968, 12 years after the Hungarian Uprising, Soviet tanks similarly crushed the movement of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring, ushering in a long Soviet winter.
How do ordinary people in the Czech Republic see the “nightmare” of the Soviet invasion?
On the road to Kutná Hora, a small city east of Prague, our middle-aged female guide carped constantly about the Communist era as she explained Czech history.
“This highway was built in the Communist era. As it goes through the city center, traffic is often backed up. The planning was astonishingly poor. The quality is terrible too, and repairs are necessary every three to four years, and then the traffic is even worse.”
“Do you see that ugly television tower? It was built in the Communist era to interfere with Western radio signals. It’s so ugly. We can’t stand it.”
“Prague is an ancient historical city. In order to protect its historical integrity, tall buildings cannot be built. But you see these tall buildings here and there. Those were all built in the Communist era. They didn’t care at all about such things.”
“We had a peaceful parting with Slovakia. Now relations between the countries are very good. But in the Communist era relations were poor.”
“In the Communist era, output was very high, but quality was very low. So from the 1990s quality improved. Škoda cars are really high quality now, but in the Communist era they were terrible.”
“In the Communist era there was a shortage of goods, and often you couldn’t buy vegetables, nor were you allowed to have private gardens. But Czech people love to grow vegetables, so they often rent weekend cottages in the suburbs and use these to grow vegetables.”
“In the Communist era there was no way to travel. You could only go to neighboring countries, but not to the West. You couldn’t get a passport.”
“The Communists didn’t care about the environment. Now our environment is improving.”
In Hungary’s House of Terror, in Prague’s Museum of Communism, and in the off-the-cuff remarks of our Czech tour guide, it seemed that the Communist era had become the face of both Comedy and Tragedy, the reason underlying everything deserving of tears, laughter or ridicule. By extension, it was with the fall of Communism that everything started off on the right path.
For our indignant middle-aged tour guide on the road to Kutná Hora, objectionable references to the Czech Republic as an Eastern European country were also a legacy of the Communist period. “It’s very clear that we are right in the center of Europe,” she explained. “Saying that we are Eastern Europe, that’s because Czechoslovakia once belonged to the Communist Bloc. But this is no longer the case. We are a Central European country!”
From time to time, the official state media in mainland China will assert that the people of Central and Eastern Europe “are dissatisfied with their current situation” (对现实不满), or that they “yearn once again for Communism” (重新怀念共产主义). Judging from results at the polls, however, this is serious misrepresentation. In recent elections in the Czech Republic — whether these are for local, regional or parliamentary offices, or for the European Parliament — votes for the Communist Party have fallen to historic lows. The party has no discernible influence within political life, and only the most fragile foundation in public opinion.
The Wishing Well of Historical Experience
My last stop in Prague was the Václav Havel Library. For Chinese intellectuals coming of age after the 1980s, Prague is closely connected with the person and legacy of Václav Havel. This playwright and dissident was the moral leader of the Velvet Revolution that ended the rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1989, and he subsequently became president. His actions and ideas in opposing totalitarian rule, in particular his “Charter 77,” inspired not just Havel’s compatriots but even distant China.
Entering through the door of the library, several American professors joining our tour noticed Havel’s words on the walls and pulled their mobiles out to take photographs. They seemed most moved by these words: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” They were thinking of the American president, and of the slogan many used to speak out against him in the wake of the 2016 election: “Love trumps hate.”
Havel’s words, which once shook the fabric of a totalitarian Communist society, could stir these American intellectuals three decades later, proof of the power of Havel’s spirit. But we might just as easily find this incongruous. In the eyes of the American professors, there were clear similarities between the left-wing totalitarianism of Havel’s time and the right-wing populism of their own. Havel’s ideas could stand against right-wing populism as much as against left-wing totalitarianism.
The people living in the countries of the Visegrád Four are unlikely to see things this way, however. For them, the collapse of Communism has been a boon, but they could not take Havel’s ideas at face value.
At the Václav Havel Library, staff explained that Havel had never been a skilled politician: He was unwilling to change or moderate his beliefs to accommodate public sentiment. His general amnesty, one of the first acts of his presidency, and his shutdown of arms plants, may have accorded with his deeply-held convictions about human rights and pacifism – but they also caused a great deal of public unhappiness.
In that era marked by transformation, Havel relied on intellectuals, students and urban elites for support, and thanks to the hope they invested in him he managed to govern for 14 years. But it’s difficult to imagine Havel having much success today in the sort of direct presidential elections the Czech Republic has held since January 2013.
The Czech Republic’s current president, Miloš Zeman, is a far cry from the moral beacon Havel was. A populist known for his heavy drinking habits and his incessant smoking, some have called him the drunk version of Donald Trump. The current Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, perhaps even more closely resembles Trump: a former businessman who prides himself on acting on impulse, and who at every turn plays the populism card.
Why did Czech voters elect Zeman to a second term as president in January 2018? The explanation I heard most often had to do with the “nightmare” of the Communist era, a nightmare that had arisen from Moscow, and which now made the population more sensitive to concerns over sovereignty and national identity. The level of sensitivity found in post-communist countries like the Czech Republic far exceeds that found in Western European countries. As the latter opened their doors to refugees and immigrants in 2015, former Soviet satellites experienced deep misgivings. Though the number of immigrants and refugees in these countries is extremely small – Poland and Hungary refused outright to accept refugees under a 2015 EU deal to distribute 160,000 refugees then in Greece and Italy – right-wing populists are nevertheless able to exploit the issue, making it about the protection of national borders and the preservation of national identity. The European Union in Brussels, meanwhile, is easily cast as a distant and unwanted master, much as Moscow was during the Communist era.
Right-wing populists in these countries also offer one another mutual support. Syska, the think tank director in Poland, told me that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s staunchly anti-immigration prime minister, is a figure lauded by the right-wing camp in Poland. Right-wing groups now organize trips to Budapest, where they establish contact with likeminded Hungarian organizations. And of course right-wing movements in all of these countries draw encouragement from Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump.
With the “nightmare” of the communist past still haunting present-day politics, are there any opportunities for the left in what our tour guide on the road to Kutná Hora insisted on calling “Central Europe”? The only strategy, Syska says, is for candidates to put politics on the back burner, using personality and charisma to distance themselves from the establishment. One prominent example of this strategy comes in the person of Sebastian Kurz, the 31 year-old elected as chancellor of Austria in December 2017. Kurz managed, through charisma and good looks, to package himself as an anti-establishment politician after a new mold.
But still, the election victory of Sebastian Kurz has a great deal to do with the hardline anti-immigration policies he pursued in his previous post as Austria’s foreign minister. If the left wishes to emerge anew in these countries, it needs not just to employ fresh election strategies, fielding candidates with Kurz-like charisma, but must also offer better policy alternatives to respond to the popular concerns arising from the historical experiences of these countries.
There are a great many holes in the narratives right-wing groups unfold to link history to the present, but these narratives remain deeply attractive to ordinary people.
Can the left construct an alternative narrative strategy? How can it explain to the public that the root causes of suffering are not just foreign invasion on the one hand and left-wing political extremism on the other? How can it find an appropriate point of balance between openness and security, pluralism and tradition? Can it find mutual support from progressive forces in other countries even as there is a global shift to the right?
For countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, these are all extremely challenging questions. And history is never far behind.