LONDON — On December 31, 1999, as the new millennium dawned, writer and historian Anne Applebaum threw a party at her small manor house in Chobielin, northwest Poland.
She and her husband, Radek Sikorski, then a deputy foreign minister in Poland’s center-right government, felt they and their guests had much to celebrate. Communism had been vanquished, democracy and free markets were in the ascendant, and Poland was on the verge of joining the West.
But, as Applebaum says in her new book “Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends,” that mood has now soured.
“Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” she writes. “They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half of the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.”
Her guests — mostly Poles, but supplemented by a smattering of friends and colleagues from London, Moscow and New York — have been split by what Applebaum terms a “profound divide.”
It is one which, albeit with local variations, has splintered European politics, as well as those of Applebaum’s native United States. Some, such as Applebaum and her husband, have remained loyal to their center-right roots. But others have taken a very different turn and embraced the hard-right populist and authoritarian parties which now dominate Hungary and Poland, compete for power in France, Italy and Spain, and have reshaped the political landscape in Britain and the US.
While Applebaum writes that the estrangements are “political not personal,” in truth they are both. One of her millennium eve guests now spends her time spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — including that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust — on social media. Another is a frequent guest on Polish state television who attacks Jews as “scabby” and “greedy,” calls Jewish organizations “blackmailers,” and has recanted his previous support for Israel. And a Hungarian former colleague is an avid propagandizer of the attacks on the Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros which are peddled by Viktor Orbán’s government.
Applebaum, who has written acclaimed histories of Soviet and East European communism, as well as working for a host of US and British magazines and newspapers, says she had never personally experienced anti-Semitism in the first 30 years or so in which she lived in Poland. But that changed when the populist Law and Justice party came to office in 2015. As critical stories about the party’s various power grabs began to appear overseas, she writes, she was painted by pro-government television and magazines — including some where former friends worked — as “the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland.”
“The attacks on me were pretty clearly anti-Semitic,” she tells The Times of Israel. They began to peter out when, she wrly observes in the book, “negative international press coverage of Poland finally grew too widespread for a single person, even a single Jewish person, to coordinate all by herself.” All the same, Sikorski, who served as foreign minister for seven years in the government ousted by Law and Justice, is still sometimes questioned about his wife’s “anti-Polish activity.”
Alongside virulent homophobia, anti-Semitism played an overt role in this summer’s re-election campaign of Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda. On the eve of his narrow victory, Duda vowed to veto legislation for Jewish compensation claims for assets seized during the Holocaust, while state TV accused his opponent, liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, of being prepared to surrender to “Jewish demands.” (Poland is the only EU country that has not passed comprehensive national legislation to return, or provide compensation for, private property confiscated by the Nazis.)
Law and Justice’s tactics weren’t totally unsurprising. In 2018, the party passed a controversial law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi war crimes and a year later provoked a diplomatic spat with Israel over the Holocaust compensation issue.
But, Applebaum notes, prior to 2015 post-Communist Poland had a strong record in brokering Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
“Poland has been almost ahead of everybody else in Europe. The interest in Jewish history in Poland is very widespread. There was very good teaching about Jewish history in Polish schools. There’s a brilliant museum of Jewish history in Warsaw,” she says. “There were endless government commissions and joint history projects and, for 25 years, there has been an enormous investment of the Polish state into relations with the international Jewish community, with American Jews, [and] with Israel.”
The Law and Justice government, she argues, has “cynically” broken with that quarter-century tradition to build up “the paranoia of its supporters” and suggest there are “supposed Jews who are going to confiscate their property.” But, Applebaum believes, this campaign “has very little to with actual Jews.” Instead, it’s an attempt to present Jews as a part of a wider “foreign cabal” that has designs which are inimical to the interests and values of ordinary Poles.
Applebaum is keen to stress that “at least half the country is appalled by this.” The longstanding investment in education and history will “hopefully eventually win out,” she hopes. Nor does she believe Jews in Poland are presently in any particular danger. “I’m not afraid. There’s no violence towards Jews. A lot of this now is a form of signaling. It’s about sending messages to your group about the shape of the group and creating fear of the outside.”
It’s about sending messages to your group about the shape of the group and creating fear of the outside
This is, she adds, not a return to the “street politics” of the 1930s.
“Now it’s people on Twitter organizing Twitter mobs. It can be unpleasant to be attacked online but it isn’t actually frightening,” Applebaum says, before cautioning: “That doesn’t mean that in some places it couldn’t become frightening.”
More widely, the role played by anti-Semitism in the new authoritarian politics is “a tricky question,” she says.
“Partly, the anti-Semitism is just a function of this kind of populist rhetoric: ‘We’re the real people against the foreigners, against the aliens, against the elites,’ and historically that role has often been played by Jews. Now it’s just as often played by Muslim immigrants.”
The “rampant and very popular” George Soros conspiracy theory — which, in effect, suggests that Jews are secretly plotting to bring Muslims to Europe to undermine Christianity — has “given new legs to anti-Semitism,” Applebaum believes. (In addition to his philanthropic work on behalf of human rights and liberal democratic values, Soros offered generous backing for aid groups assisting migrants during Europe’s refugee crisis.)
However farcical this conspiracy theory may seem, it has become, Applebaum believes, “an important part of identitarian and far-right ideology in Europe.” At the same time, she says, “this is about theoretical Jews rather than real ones. It’s about George Soros who just exists as a symbol and has very little to do with the real George Soros.”
“It’s mostly about myths and threats to the group that need to be undermined and emphasized rather than being about real people,” she says.
But, as Applebaum’s book outlines, Orbán’s rhetoric about Soros and Hungary’s non-existent migrants serves an important political purpose, diverting attention from Russia’s growing influence in the country and the allegations of widespread corruption involving the prime minister’s friends and associates.
“Orbán’s method works: Talk about emotive issues. Set yourself up as a defender of Western civilization, especially abroad. That way nobody notices the nepotism and graft at home,” she writes.
Of course, the political situation in Hungary and Poland are not the same. Applebaum believes that it is not currently possible for an opposition party to win a national election in Hungary. Poland, she argues, is different. “There is still a big independent media here and there is a very vibrant and active opposition,” she says.
Nonetheless, she fears that “the goal of the ruling party is not to lose again… and they have sought to shape the electoral landscape in a way that they can’t lose.”
Law and Justice has thus meddled with the judiciary, fired civil servants, diplomats and army officers not to its liking, and replaced, suspended and leaned on those who head cultural institutions and museums (including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews) who it suspects of being unsympathetic to its values. Taxpayer-funded state media, Applebaum says, is now “really virulent party propaganda of a kind that is reminiscent of what you would see in an authoritarian country: no pretense of objectivity, no opposition figures on TV, very aggressive.”
How did we get here?
But Applebaum’s book doesn’t just seek to describe the changing political landscape in Europe and the United States; she also seeks to explain and understand how many of those she once considered friends, allies and colleagues have been become cheerleaders for an authoritarian populism which she both abhors and views as a threat to democracy. This is no idle intellectual exercise.
Applebaum believes that history suggests that authoritarians and demagogues don’t just need a degree of popular support and people who will “promote the riot or launch the coup” — they also need members of the “intellectual and educated elite.”
“They need people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do,” she writes. “They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future.”
Applebaum is clear that those who she views as collaborators in the rise of authoritarian populism are not society’s “left behinds,” poor, rural or part of an “impoverished underclass.” Quite the opposite: they’re highly educated city-dwellers.
“Resentment, anger and pessimism are things that these kinds of political movements all have in common,” says Applebaum. “For one reason or another, these are people who don’t like their political systems and who are radically or apocalyptically critical of them.”
For some, the motivation is careerism — perhaps combined with a canny sense of which way the political winds are blowing — but this is far from the whole story, she believes. Instead, Applebaum draws on the work of the German-born American historian Fritz Stern. A Jewish émigré to the US in 1938, Stern’s 1961 book “The Politics of Cultural Despair” examined the intellectual climate in the late 19th century which later helped give rise to Nazism.
“What he was describing was people who were disturbed and distressed by modernity and by industrialization and rapid economic and social change. And it seems to me we’re living in a very similar era,” says Applebaum.
The implications, she believes, are potentially far-reaching. “If you think your society is in profound decline and that it is irretrievably going downhill and it’s dying, then you become much more open to very radical means of changing it,” she says.
Brexit, Trump, and what comes next
“Cultural despair” is by no means confined to Eastern Europe. Applebaum detects it in the manner in which some Conservatives in Britain came to embrace both Brexit and, over the past four years, increasingly radical means to deliver it. Applebaum knows this world well, having worked in the 1990s as deputy editor of The Spectator, the house journal of the British Conservative party, which later became a leading voice in favor of the UK’s departure from the European Union.
“The Brexiteer wing of the Tory party has been willing to break a number of taboos and… go after institutions which its members would once have considered sacrosanct like the BBC, the House of Lords, and the judiciary,” says Applebaum. “Games were played with the suspension of parliament last fall that were pretty unprecedented.”
The Tory Brexiteers, she says, also adopted “authoritarian-style political language” which attempted to pit the “real people” against “fake elites.”
And, of course, Applebaum detects a similar trend in the United States. The Republican party that she once supported, she believes, has abandoned the optimism and idealism of Ronald Reagan in favor of what she terms the “restorative nostalgia” of US President Donald Trump.
The president, Applebaum argues, offers only a “return to the xenophobia and inward-looking isolationism of the 1920s.” She cites the example of the Fox News host Laura Ingraham — a former acquaintance from the young conservative circles in which Applebaum once mixed — who now exudes an “apocalyptic pessimism shared by so many others.”
Western civilization, Ingraham has suggested, is “tipping over the cliff.” Fiercely hostile to immigration (despite being the mother of three adopted immigrant children), Ingraham was an early and vociferous supporter of the president.
But it would be a mistake, Applebaum believes, to suggest that the political ruptures of the last few years were unique. Instead, she draws an analogy between the current era and the notorious “Dreyfus affair” which rocked late 19th century France and split its society asunder. The polarization from the trial and wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer labeled a traitor after he was accused of passing secrets to Germany, has much resonance today, she suggests.
Applebaum compares those who vociferously maintained their belief in Dreyfus’s guilt long after his innocence was proved to today’s hard-right populists. The conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic tropes and accusations of a “foreign,” disloyal elite spread by France’s “yellow press” — the equivalent of today’s “far-right trolling operation” — have many echoes today, she contends.
On the other side of the divide stood Dreyfus’s supporters who, like the opponents of the populist right today, she writes, “conceived of the nation not as an ethnic clan but as the embodiment of a set of ideals: justice, honesty, objectivity, the neutrality of the courts.” Thus the issue at stake was not simply the innocence or guilt of one Jewish solider, but a much wider fissure about the very character of the nation and its state.
“The Dreyfus trial struck me as so unbelievably contemporary, and the lines of division between people were so familiar,” Applebaum says.
“What also intrigued me about the Dreyfus story was the way in which is split families and people who previously had been more or less on the same side… and that reminded me so much of what it’s felt like to live in either London or Washington or Warsaw over the last 30 years,” says Applebaum.
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