‘Politics of Memory’ Divides the European Union

A divergent view of postwar history is at the root of a split between the EU’s Western and Eastern member states.

When the European Union welcomed eight former Soviet bloc countries in 2004, it reunified the continent after five decades of Cold War division. Bulgaria and Romania joined three years later, extending the EU’s borders to the Black Sea. But, true to European history, the center did not hold. “Old Europe” sought to remake the post-Communist countries by imposing its politics of memory and creed of left-liberalism. Thus, the seeds of today’s bitter political divide between East-Central Europe and the West were sown.

While communism ravaged East-Central Europe during the postwar era, left-liberalism replaced Christianity as the West’s dominant civil religion. Left-liberal ideology apotheosizes unbounded personal autonomy and regards traditional group identities formed around nations, families, and traditional gender roles as oppressive. Thus, the EU’s Brussels-Berlin axis of power regards nationalism as antithetical to freedom  and instead promotes supranational governance and globalized markets.

Unlike Western Europeans, the East-Central EU members do not take national sovereignty for granted. For the West, the end of World War II represented the return to democracy, peace, and prosperity. For the East, it was the beginning of Soviet oppression.

The lack of national self-determination in the region persisted even after the USSR collapsed, as a triumphant West largely ignored the crimes committed by Communist regimes in East-Central Europe. The West also foisted upon the East its view of history and politics of memory.

In the aftermath of World War II, the West drew a topography of political memory in which the Holocaust symbolized a moral-historical rupture that rewrote the “foundational past” of Europe. For the West, the sacralization of Holocaust remembrance, codified in the Stockholm Declaration of 2000, forms an integral socio-ethical rite of passage to becoming genuinely European.

Consider how the American Academy Awards fêtes Central European cinema that advances this Western-centric memory regime:

  • Hungarian films have been nominated 10 times for “Best International Feature Film” and won the Oscar twice. Both Oscar winners, Mephisto in 1982 and Son of Saul in 2016, contend with Nazi crimes against humanity.
  • Polish films have been nominated 13 times and won the Oscar once, in 2015, for the film Ida, which is about a girl orphaned by the Nazis. 
  • Czechoslovakian films won the Oscar twice, in 1965 for The Shop on Main Street and in 1968 for Closely Watched Trains. The former explores the Aryanization program in the Slovak State, and the latter is similarly set during World War II when the country was under Nazi occupation.

The only exception to the pattern of only awarding Oscars to Central European films that focus on the Holocaust is the 1996 Czech film Kolya, set in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. 

No film about Stalin received an Oscar or even a nomination in the postwar era, according to Paul R. Gregory, author of Women of the Gulag (2018). Such asymmetrical treatments of Communism and Nazism caused controversy in post-Soviet Europe, where Stalinism had subjected hundreds of millions to enslavement, massacres, torture, forced deportations, deliberate starvation, ethnic cleansing, and mass genocide. 

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Communists held onto power in East-Central Europe by becoming “social democrats.” Meanwhile, socialist parties controlled the knowledge apparatus and political levers in influential Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and West Germany. Western institutions “seemed to find former communists more congenial than former dissidents [and anti-communists] as partners in politics and business,” John O’Sullivan wrote in his foreword to Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s 2016 book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

These factors complicated the collective and institutional memorializing of communist atrocities in East-Central Europe. Yet post-Communist countries have been eager to confront and reconcile with their Soviet pasts. They contend that recognizing the “gulag memory” and the gruesome geohistorical realities of the region does not detract from the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Nevertheless, the left-liberal West condemns the equation of Communism with Nazism, regarding this false equivalency as a form of anti-Semitism that diminishes the uniqueness of the Holocaust. In 2010, the EU rejected calls from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Lithuania to treat Communist crimes “according to the same standards” as those perpetrated by the Nazis. The impasse remains a thorn in the side of the EU’s plan for a “New Europe” combining East and West.

The 2015 migrant crisis widened the chasm between East and West.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by opening Germany’s borders. Her decision to implement this open-door policy was shaped by the national memory of widescale migrations during both the Holocaust and the 1990 German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall. After opening Germany’s borders, Merkel then made this policy supernational by imposing mandatory quotas to distribute the refugees amongst the EU members. East-Central Europeans perceived her unilateral decision as the unfair universalization of German war guilt.

Moreover, the modern-day influx of migrants into Europe from predominantly Muslim countries conjured a different, equally potent political memory for East-Central Europe: the Ottoman conquest and occupation of the region that began in the Late Medieval period. The Turks waged brutal wars with Poland and Austria and subjugated the Balkans and Hungary for centuries. 

As a consequence of these clashing memory politics, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia voted against Merkel’s compulsory refugee relocation program. Hungary and Poland have since refused to accept migrants, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have only taken just 12 and 16 individual refugees, respectively. 

Right-aligned public intellectuals and politicians in Central Europe amplified rhetoric and policies opposing Brussels on immigration, security, and identity politics. Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which is closely tied to the Catholic Church, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a Protestant, championed a postliberal Christian democratic model of governance that prioritizes national sovereignty and regards Christianity as inseparable from nationhood.

The integration of Christianity with government challenges the modern West’s practice of separating religion from public affairs. State secularism is a key facet of left-liberal democracy. Predictably, Hungary’s new “national, Christian” constitution implemented by the Orbán government in 2012 drew the ire of the West. British left-wing newspaper The Guardian decried the “illiberal” document for committed Hungary to a “whole new set of values, such as family, nation, fidelity, faith, love and labor.” 

Bureaucrats in Brussels retaliated against the Central-European troublemakers by denying Poland access to €36 billion in post-COVID recovery funds and Hungary access €22 billion in “cohesion funds” (meant to help equalize living standards between the EU’s richest and poorest countries). Their justification for these actions was that Hungary and Poland had allegedly violated rule-of-law standards and engaged in “democratic backsliding.” Orbán and his Polish counterparts claim that “democratic backsliding” is a term used to delegitimize countries that challenge the purported moral supremacy of left-liberalism. 

Though the combative Orbán often steals the spotlight, other regional EU members have also been souring on the Western orthodoxy. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) announced a shift in its orientation toward Euroskepticism. BSP leader Kornelia Ninova denounced the pan-European Party of European Socialists (of which BSP is a member). “We are against the flag that the Party of European Socialists has been waving in recent years to recognize a third gender that has no relation to biological sex as a social sex,” Ninova said in an interview with Bulgarian television network bTV.

Slovakia, one of the first countries to adopt the Euro following the 2004 EU expansion, has also seen a dramatic rise in anti-Brussels sentiment. In November 2023, the new Slovak government halted military aid to Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia. 

The war in Ukraine marked the end of the EU’s unipolar order. During the previous decade, growing internecine tensions put EU expansion on hold, with Croatia being the last nation admitted in 2013. Although Brussels had promised all six Western Balkan countries entry into the EU, the accession process stalled with no clear path forward. Then, in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and upended the European political chessboard.

The EU imposed massive economic sanctions on Russia, which backfired by causing a surge in inflation that destabilized financial markets and caused energy prices to skyrocket. The sanctions also exacerbated tensions between EU members, as the countries that heavily depend on Russian oil and gas reserves, such as  Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, were disproportionately harmed.

Furthermore, the Ukraine War reanimated the moribund EU enlargement process. Former skeptics of EU expansion, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, decided that they had to do something to curtail the Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

Accordingly, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022. In doing so, it bypassed Albania and North Macedonia, which had begun sluggish accession talks in July 2022, and Serbia and Montenegro, which received candidate statuses a decade ago. This preferential treatment of Ukraine was a snub to Albania, which had enacted substantive rule-of-law reforms to meet EU standards. It has also reinforced the prevailing
pro-Russian public sentiments in Serbia and Montenegro. 

At the European Council summit in December 2023, EU heads of state voted on opening membership talks with Ukraine and giving it €50 billion in aid. Orbán refused to participate in the membership discussions and vetoed the aid, enacting a humiliating rebuke to the West. He cited the war-torn country’s lack of readiness and its discrimination against Hungarians living within its borders. In recent years, Ukraine has stripped its minorities of the right to receive an education in their own languages. This law has adversely impacted Hungarians in Ukraine, for whom language forms the basis of their cultural identity.

However, Orbán’s critics assert that his primary motives were political and financial. His veto served as pushback against the accusations of illiberalism leveled at his government by Brussels, and as an attempt to secure the EU funds that his country needs.

The standoff represented the climax of the 20-year-long political and cultural struggle between “Old” and “New” Europe. The Orbán government’s performative defiance showed that the EU is losing hegemonic control, and a power vacuum is developing at the heart of Europe. The June 2024 European Union parliamentary elections are poised to widen this rift, as most political observers expect right-wing and Euroskeptic parties to make substantial gains at the expense of the progressive and center-left coalition.

The schism between East-Central Europe and the West, forged by conflicting politics of memory, will encourage the emerging multipolar world. An opportunistic China has been exploiting the spread of anti-Westernism.

Although Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which had held power since 2015, lost a vote of confidence in parliament following the October 2023 election, the country’s new pro-EU government is not likely to change its policies on the critical points of contention with Brussels. The new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, for example, has rejected the “forced” relocation program for asylum seekers. He declared that Poland would not accept a single migrant and that the “survival of Western civilization” depends on checking uncontrolled migration from Islamic countries.

The schism between East-Central Europe and the West, forged by conflicting politics of memory, will encourage the emerging multipolar world. An opportunistic China has been exploiting the spread of anti-Westernism in Central Europe and the Balkans; the resulting power void has allowed China to expand its economic footprint and consolidate its influence. Since joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, Hungary has become a poster child for Chinese foreign direct investment in the region. In similar fashion, China is financing multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. 

Still led by a Baby Boomer generation still fixated on the Cold War, the West has largely downplayed China’s insidious economic and political incursions. Unless the 2024 elections bring to power a pragmatic European Union leadership that seeks lasting unity, East-Central Europe’s break with Brussels may become a bridge to Beijing.

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