This is not a book, but rather an Atlantic essay puffed into a $25 sale item with grotesquely large type and comically wide margins. The typography offends the eye almost as much as the content offends the mind. It is a barely coherent rant against ex-friends and political opponents. It is a tantrum from a liberal who expected a univeralist millennium after the fall of Communism and discovered to her horror that national identity still matters.
Half a century of Nazi and Communist occupation nearly crushed the spirit of the nations of Eastern Europe; a decade ago they approached the point of no return for demographic extinction. The new nationalists who now govern Hungary and Poland, the objects of Applebaum’s direst imprecations, have rebuilt vibrant economies, raised birth rates, and established viable democracies out of nearly-ruined Soviet colonies. Despite their missteps—which are frequent and sometimes grave—they have restored hope for the future to lands which not long ago seemed like a cemetary of the human spirit.
Anne Applebaum’s list of little Hitlers includes some ex-friends who came to her 1999 New Year’s Eve party in Poland, when her husband Radek Sikorski was a foreign ministry official, as well as former acquaintances like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The renegade party guests somehow morphed from democracy activists into Nazis, because they suffer from “authoritarian personalities,” Applebaum avers. Also on her list are “the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and, with differences, the British right and the American right, too.” It is hard to separate Applebaum’s ideological rancor at friends who moved away from the liberal dogmas of 1989 and her personal disappointment over her husband’s career.
Boris Johnson a crypto-fascist? Who but the overwrought Ms. Applebaum noticed! She would have a pint at the pub with Johnson when she was Deputy Editor of the Spectator and he was Mayor of London, but since then she has discovered that the Prime Minister is a liar, a home-wrecking philanderer, and a budding authoritarian due to Applebaum’s opposition to Brexit. She claims that the rising fascists of the British Isles duped their compatriots into voting Leave by lying about money that might be saved for the National Health Service.
This account of Brexit, like everything else in the book, is utterly mendacious. Whatever one thinks of the “Leave” party’s case, Britain faced an authentic crisis over European Community-mandated immigration. Applebaum does not mention that Britain was inundated by 300,000 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants after those impoverished countries joined the EC in 2014, nor that Britain petitioned the EC in vain for relief from mass immigration. Democracy appeals to Applebaum only when people vote the way she thinks they should. In a textbook example of what William Empson called unintended irony, she champions the imperious, unelected bureaucracy of the European Community as the savior of democracy against alleged authoritarians who won a popular plebescite by a margin of 52 to 48 percent.
Leo Strauss ridiculed the sort of polemical caricature he dubbed reductio ad Hitlerum, and if it is possible to write a caricature of a caricature, Applebaum has managed it. She trots out Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “authoritarian personality,” that is a lonely individual who “without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.’” Along with Arendt, Applebaum quotes the Marxist critic Theodor Adorno, who claimed that a bias towards authoritarianism stemmed from such personality traits as repressed homosexuality. Whether one takes Arendt and Adorno seriously or not, when they used the term “authoritarian personality” they meant to reference actual supporters of Hitler and Stalin who murdered tens of millions of people.
Applebaum then substitutes the qualifier “illiberal” for “authoritarian,” expecting the reader to assume that they are the same thing. If that sounds incoherent, it is not my fault. What she means by an “illiberal” is someone who “wants to undermine courts in order to give himself more power.” This refers to Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which denied her husband Radek Sikorski a hoped-for ministerial position by the nefarious means of winning a popular election. The reader is expected to make the leap from Polish judicial reform to death camps.
Poland’s judicial reforms, the subject of endless tongue-clicking by the nation’s European Community neighbors, falls short of the ideal in statecraft. It was long overdue: The pre-1989 Communist government created and appointed a self-selecting judiciary which survived the fall of Communism largely intact, corrupt, insular, and hostile to democratic norms. Prior to reforms introduced by Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party starting in 2015, no checks and balances constrained Poland’s judiciary. As Pawel Dobrowolski and Matthew Tyrmand explain, “Judges recruit judges into the judiciary. Judges then elevate judges to higher positions in the judiciary. And judges are supposed to hold other judges accountable for their misdeeds. Unfortunately, they have been slow to react to cases of corruption both grand and petty in their own ranks.” No procedure then existed for the impeachment of corrupt judges, and Poland’s Supreme Court was unconscionably slow to act on evidence of judicial misbehavior.
America enjoys an independent judiciary, up to a point: Our most important judges are appointed by officials elected by the voters. Federal judges serve for life, and are not subject to direct political pressures, but the politicians who appoint them must answer to the voters. When judges arrogate unto themselves the role of legislators (or legislators abdicate responsibility to the judiciary), the question of who will appoint their successors commands the undivided attention of the electorate—as in the present US presidential election. The balance of powers among the branches of government works imperfectly, but it usually works. Nevertheless, it can be twisted for political purposes, and badly so. It does not bother Applebaum that senior officials of America’s FBI lied to FISA courts to obtain warrants to surveil the Trump campaign, and framed President Trump’s National Security Advisers in a perjury trap, or that Special Counsel Robert Mueller ran a two-year witch hunt against the president and his associates on the pretext of spurious allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Poland’s present arrangement gives the government more sway over the judiciary than is the case in America, and overshot the mark in moving Poland closer to American-style checks and balances. Law and Justice’s reforms were abrupt and heavy-handed, and made all the worse by Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who combined his post with that of chief prosecutor and exploited his double role to advance his own political agenda.
“Let me declare a personal interest,” Applebaum stated earlier this year in The Atlantic, where she is a staff writer. “I am married to a Polish opposition politician who is now a member of the European Parliament. He knows—we know—that politicized courts could, eventually, be used against us and our friends… politicized judges could… use fake evidence to lock up members of the political opposition.” But the political opposition was not locked up; it was free to contest the government’s agenda in last July’s presidential elections, which it lost by a narrow margin with heavy (68 percent) voter turnout. Poland’s reform addressed an urgent need in a clumsy and sometimes politically-tainted fashion, but it began with the voters’ mandate in free and fair elections and was subsequently ratified by the voters in another round of equally free and fair elections this year. The Polish government did what Franklin Roosevelt tried and failed to do, and what Joe Biden refuses to say he will not do: Pack the courts with judges it likes. That isn’t Montesquieu’s ideal of checks and balances, but neither is it Nazism.
Another of Applebaum’s alleged authoritarians is Hungary’s long-serving President Viktor Orbán, who won his last election with two-thirds of the popular vote. Without doubt, Orbán has used state finances to favor his political friends, especially in the media, but in the Internet age, his opponents have no difficulty promulgating their views. Orbán is wildly popular in large measure because he has been successful. Budapest, a drab backwater ten years ago, is now one of Europe’s most attractive cities, luring startups (including a large contingent of Israelis) with low costs, good infrastructure, and a vibrant culture, including the most buoyant Jewish life anywhere on the European continent. Orbán is less a modern party boss than a throwback to the old Dual Monarchy, except that he wheedles subsidies from Brussels instead of Vienna. European Community support amounts to about 4 percent of Hungary’s GDP.
The principle bone of contention between Budapest and Brussels has been Orbán’s refusal to accept an assigned quota of Middle Eastern refugees, a stance which enjoys overwhelming popular support and helps explain Orbán’s huge electoral majority. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 82 percent of Hungarians believe that “refugees are a burden because they take our jobs and social benefits,” and 76 percent believed that “refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in our country.” The world’s wealthiest Hungarian, George Soros, prominently supports more immigration into Hungary, and this has made him Orbán’s chief political antagonist.
Applebaum claims that:
The propaganda in Hungary… insists that Soros is the chief instigator of a deliberate plot to replace white, Christian Europeans—and Hungarians in particular—with brown-skinned Muslims. These movements do not perceive migrants just as an economic burden or even a terrorist threat, but rather as an existential challenge to the nation itself. At various times, the Hungarian government has put Soros’ face on posters, on the floors of subway trains, and on leaflets, hoping that it will scare Hungarians into supporting the government.
To Applebaum that proves that Orbán is an anti-Semite, because Soros is of Jewish descent. The Orthodox rabbis of Budapest, who meet with Orbán weekly, don’t think so. Budapest is the only city remaining on the continent where a Jew can wear a kippa without fear (because there are very few Muslim immigrants). Soros is a special case. The Soros Foundations’ $400 million in outlays in his native land since 1989 are the equivalent in relative GDP of $60 billion in political spending in the United States. That figure does not include a $250 million donation to the Central European University, based since 1993 in Budapest. Soros is an issue because his giant footprint in Hungarian politics makes him an issue. It has nothing to do with his Jewish descent.
Applebaum doesn’t mention that Orbán, who befriended Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu twenty years ago, provides a reliable veto of anti-Israel resolutions within the European Community as well as the first European leader to establish a government office in Jerusalem. I met Orbán in 2018 and spoke at length with his adviser María Schmidt, whom Applebaum excoriates without mentioning that Mrs. Schmidt’s late husband was Jewish. Orbán and his circle represent a new kind of philo-Semite. Hungary and Israel are countries of similar population, but Israel has become a pocket superpower with the fastest-growing population in the industrial world while the ethnic Magyar population of Hungary is shrinking. Hungarian nationalists like Orbán and Schmidt view Israel as an exemplar, not an ally of convenience; they want to understand and emulate Israel’s success.
Centuries of invasions, occupations, and war left Eastern Europe with an ethnic checkerboard. Only half of Hungary’s pre-1914 population were Magyar; the rest were Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, and other minorities. The 1920 Trianon Treaty stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its land and left half its population to languish as an ethnic minority among its neighbors. Hungary’s present population is just under 10 million, while 3.3 million Hungarians are dispersed in other countries. Poland’s situation is comparable, with a population of 38 million and a diaspora of 20 million, mainly due to voluntary emigration.
Hungary’s fertility rate fell to less than 1.3 during the 1990s (and even lower for the ethnic Magyar population, while Poland’s fell to 1.2). Emigration to wealthier EC countries stripped these countries of their population of child-bearing age. Polish and Hungarian nationalism confronts an existential threat, namely demographic and cultural extinction.
To some extent, the Poles and Hungarians whom Applebaum despises have come back from the brink. Fertility rates are higher thanks to generous incentives to families with children and emigration has begun to reverse. Their concern for Western civilization and their national cultures is not sentimental demagoguery but rather an assertion of the desire to endure. For the struggling nations of Eastern Europe, the European Community is a hospice alleviating a slow, sad death agony. To claim that the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels are champions of democracy against the elected governments of “illiberal” Poland or Hungary is chutzpah.
Often the nationalists are clumsy. Sometimes they are offensive. In an essay for Tablet Magazine, I chided the Hungarian authorities for including in the mandatory high school curriculum nationalist writers of the 1920s and 1930s who supported the Nazis and propagated anti-Semitism. The Polish government, in a clumsy effort to cultivate national pride, came close to outlawing public discussion of Polish collaborators during the Holocaust. But these are deviations from a form of nationalism that embraces Western civilization, religion, and family as the foundation of national life. They look to the United States for leadership and, in many cases, to Israel for inspiration. For all their failings, they offer a hope for national revival. Countries who a decade ago stood at a demographic point of no return show signs of recuperation. They don’t need Ms. Applebaum to tell them how to restore their regimes.