by Michael Thumann
Translated from German. The article was published on ZEIT-Online as part of the column “Fünf vor acht.” Photo: Jaap Arriens (WARSAW, 27 February 2016 – On Saturday over 150 thousand people from all over Poland joined in demonstrations against the current government. The march through the city centre is organised by the committee for the protection of democracy (KOD). Poles have been frustrated by actions seen by many as usurpation of power by the conservative Law and Justice party which won the recent elections.)
Currently, a number of cold-war movies are flickering in the cinemas. They convey that lovely feeling of an indeed dangerous, but still comprehensible world of a clear order with discernibility of west from east, right-wing from left-wing, good from evil. Most of all, you can always re‑narrate time and again the story of democracy’s victory over evil, over the Nazis and then over the Soviets.
Those films also seem to express a certain longing, characteristic of our rather confusing times. In those days of the cold war everything was clear: here are the United States, there is the Soviet Union. But today? The pullback of the world power USA, the wars around Europe, jihadists with swords and smart phones, collaborating states, an increasing number of refugees. We are at the beginning of a new era of migration, which—when measured in terms of plain numbers—very well even dwarfs the previous century of expulsion.
The anxiety over the unforeseeable and confusing is growing. And that is increasing the hunger for order and stability, no matter how.
This also explains the rise of the populists and authoritarians. If you look at what the AfD, the Front National or the FPÖ have to offer, it’s mostly truths from bygone times. Anti-globalization gabble from Marine Le Pen has already been uttered decades ago by the long forgotten KPF leader George Marchais. People from the radical left in France and other European countries are talking similar things, likewise the populists in the government palaces of eastern Europe. Le Pen’s party, like the FPÖ and the AfD incites against Islam and call to mind the times fifty years ago, when few Muslims lived in Europe. Some commentators call the AfD a party of people who long back the eighties or even the fifties.
War against the EU
But the actual desire is not at all directed towards politicians like Le Pen, Strache, Wilders and Höcke as such, but the promises implicit in their slogans. Re-establishing order, creating clarity, defeating liberal financial capitalism and besides, Muslims out. After all, Islam does not belong to Europe, or does it?
The populists fight against the EU, but they do so in the name of European values: justice, equality, Christianity, national freedom. In the eyes of many voters of populists, the EU is the epitome of unclarity and unfairness. Does anyone even understand the deals made in Brussels? Why are the big ones in the EU not able to deal with the refugees? Why do they invite Americans with TTIP into Europe to poison us with their chlorine chickens? Why do they impose sanctions on Russia but are so tolerant towards Muslims? Why do they negotiate with Turkey on EU accession? And why are they doing all that without asking us first? These are all questions which are popular among populists.
This is why they love referendums in which they whip up the people against the EU. The force they are able to muster can be seen at Blocher’s quadratic-helvetic campaigns in Switzerland and the Dutch referendum against the EU association agreement with Ukraine. Geert Wilders cheered “democracy won.”
But behind that, an abyss is yawning. A growing number of Europeans is voting for the leftright-wing populists, hoping to attain order and stability. But they will lose what ensures stability in Europe: the EU. And they will reap what they seem to fear most. Political earth quakes, unpredictability, erratic leaders, politics as revengeful business, witch-hunts and growing fear. Populists represent disorder and instability. Those who don’t believe this may look at Poland, where a minority of the population thought to themselves, “Let’s show the lot of these fat liberal elites!” and thought it surly can’t end up that bad. But that lesson is now turning into a conservative revolution. The PiS government is transforming Poland in fast motion into an authoritarian state based on the model of the interwar period. In Hungary premier Orban has already precautiously pointed out Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian leader between 1920 and 1944, “was no dictator, no, no, no.”
The next battle field of the populist Internationale is now going to be Austria, where the FPÖ is marching towards power. Many Austrians love it cozy and calm like in the past, and because of that they vote for populists. With the FPÖ in power, the cozy times will be gone once and for all.
I thank ZEIT-Online and Michael Thumann for their kind permission to publish this translation here.