Book Review: Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe

A Hungarian expatriate examines the precarious new democracies of the former Soviet satellites of Central Europe

TVR Books | Justin McCauley | November 2012

Anna Porter fled Hungary after the 1956 ­revolution, emigrating to ­Canada; she is a ­publisher and awarded ­author (Photo: Yanka Van der Kolk)

The Prisoner Syndrome

"We now have democracy," remarked Czechoslovakia’s president Tomas Masaryk in 1918, after the cobbling together of his beloved postwar multinational state, "all we need are some democrats." Unfortunately, the countries of Central Europe were to endure some ninety-odd years of identity crisis, marred by decades of totalitarian rule – both fascist and communist – the shortcomings of "shock therapy" liberalism and crony capitalism, and the obstinate nationalism and xenophobia endemic in their societies.

Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future, attempts to address the demons that lurk in the region’s tragic history – how they have shaped national identities and politics, and how they continue to arrest the development of these young democracies.


A legacy of unresolved issues

Porter, an émigré who fled Budapest during the 1956 revolution, has produced an admirable survey of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, detailing their histories during the Second World War and the Cold War and addressing enduring problems of identity and political foundation. At the heart of Porter’s work is the assertion that the unresolved issues of retribution and penance, and a lack of honest reflection, have stunted Central Europe’s development of liberal democracy. She has done her homework – interviewing presidents and prime minsters, refugees and café owners, and she has a deep knowledge of the region and its complex, often overlapping cultures.

In the aftermath of 1989, Porter contends, what was seemingly a sweeping victory for liberal democracy and market economics left much festering below the surface that would undermine both. Though the heroes of the hour were the philosophers, poets, unionists and dissidents who felled their communist oppressors, these idealistic leaders were quickly confronted by cabals of former regime elements, by nomenklatura and irredentist thugs, all vying for power. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, the Eurosceptic Thatcherite Václav Klaus and the autocratic Slovak nationalist Vladimir Mečiar orchestrated the so-called "velvet divorce," against the wishes of the heroic but furtive playwright-turned-president, Václav Havel.

An elegiac narrative of regression emerges, whereby society turns on the precocious intellectual revolutionaries who defeated communism, in favor of jingoistic populists with facile nationalisms, pestilent anti-Semitic and anti-Roma stances, and their penchant for corruption and kleptocracy. Racism, ethnic chauvinism and provincialism were only buried under the weight of the system – liberal freedoms seem to have allowed them to flourish again, as seen with the vitriolic far-right extremists in the Slovak National Party and Hungary’s Jobbik party.

If all this comes off as rather tautological, it is meant to: What is apparent to a reader with even the most cursory knowledge of totalitarianism is the banality of these trends.

The sources of these latent social and political traits are, according to Porter, to be found in the past. Despite the varying lustration policies of each nation, many of those who were perpetrators in a dark past that includes collaboration in the Holocaust, post-war pogroms, and co-operation with communist secret police, not only survived democratization unprosecuted, but have actually made it back into positions of power. Indeed, the foundations of power, structurally and socially, remain unchanged.

Moreover, the "shock therapy" of the 1990s produced what Polish public intellectual Adam Michnik calls "the prisoner syndrome."

"In jail you dream of freedom," Michnik writes. "Once you’re out of jail, you need to provide your own food and somewhere to sleep. You remember the free food and board and long for the security of your old jail cell." Forced to fend for themselves, many Central Europeans demurred, especially in a system fraught with corruption, oligarchy and all the worst elements of capitalism.

Though the book itself is well-researched and enjoyable to read, Porter never quite decides whether she wants it to be a work of history or an analysis of post-Cold War transition. Thus The Ghosts of Europe tries perhaps to be too many things, and fails to deliver in a slim 270 pages.

The book’s most valuable contribution is undoubtedly its chapter on Slovakia. While studies of Polish, Czech and Hungarian experiences have been exhaustive, both the Cold War history and post-1989 plight of the Slovaks is often overlooked. Porter’s exploration of the centrality of language to Slovak identity, coupled with a millennium under foreign (mostly Hungarian) domination, provides valuable insight into the small nation’s nationalistic tendencies. Prime Minister Robert Fico’s social democrats are a peculiar mix of leftist economics and xenophobic populism. Hatred of Hungarians, bigotry toward the Roma, and traditional strains of anti-Semitism remain widespread. Slovakia, it seems, has yet to come to terms with itself.


Learning from the past

Ultimately, The Ghosts of Europe is ideal as a journalistic overview – an introduction to the principle players and issues in a region often glossed over in larger discussions of "Europe". But in the end, Porter fails to cover new ground, contributing little if anything fresh to existing discussions on the present state and future prospects of Central Europe. Perhaps this is a result of generational hang-ups: A child of World War II and political refugee, her search for identity may lead in a different direction than that of the post-communist youth more familiar with McDonald’s and Lady Gaga than Leszek Kołakowski or Czeslaw Miłosz.

The past is important, and given the complex and fractious history of the region, it is tempting to go over it again and again. But, to end on perhaps a dark note: the illiberal populism espoused by Robert Fico and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remains pervasive. Jews and Roma remain the targets of shamelessly invidious rhetoric, scandalously spoken by ruling parties on the floors of national parliaments.

"There are still intellectuals here," laments the Hungarian novelist and essayist György Konrád, "but there is no longer an intelligentsia." Havel feared that young generations would succumb to consumerism and lose the intellectual and political pursuit of justice in a moral society.

But Havel is dead, and Masaryk’s search for democrats continues. If they are to be found, it will be in the future, not in the past.

The Ghosts of Europe

by Anna Porter

Thomas Dunne Books (2011)

pp. 320           

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