The power and impotence of “open societies” – a historical reflection on current events
A few years after its greatest triumph – the overcoming of the European divide as a result of the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe – the European idea experienced an ever-deepening erosion: “Europe has run out of a narrative,” said Munich political scientist Werner Weidenfeld in 2018. It was the solidarity with Ukraine, which was invaded in February 2022, that was supposed to help the “open societies” get off to a new start. However, the autocratic enemies of these societies are also currently experiencing a process of consolidation.
No “End of History“
In his 1975 encyclopedia article “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes”, the Spanish-American political scientist Juan J. Linz wrote that pluralistically constituted, democratic states were an exception among political systems, similar to totalitarian regimes. The most widespread form of government around the globe is authoritarian regimes of all kinds. The immediate future would also belong to them.
A few years after this statement, democracies began to triumph on a global scale. Authoritarian and post-totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa collapsed like a house of cards. When Juan Linz put forward the aforementioned thesis, the pluralistic societies were still islands in the “sea” of dictatorships of various kinds. At the end of the 20th century, however, the balance of power clearly began to shift in favour of “open societies”.
We all know this triumph of the democratic idea was short-lived. The euphoric mood triggered everywhere by the collapse of the dictatorships quickly evaporated due to the difficult transformation processes. The expectations that arose at the time of the “turning point” were only partially fulfilled. In many transition countries, an authoritarian turn took place, which was associated with an extensive dismantling of the already developed civil structures and rule of law.
But the established or consolidated democracies have also abandoned the triumphalism of 1989. This was the year of change, which was expressed particularly clearly in Francis Fukuyama’s treatise The End of History. The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 contributed significantly to this.
The global financial crisis that began in 2008 affected both the “new” and consolidated democracies in a similar way and also shattered their self-confidence. Then came Putin’s annexation of Crimea, an additional huge challenge to the “open societies” in the East and the West.
This was the situation in which the editor of Die Zeit Bernd Ulrich put forward the following thesis:
“(The West) has never been as weak as it is today. Which is surprising when you consider that the supposed peak of western power was just a quarter of a century ago.”
“The fragile counter-powers have lost faith in themselves”
Overall, the quote from Ulrich is a rather questionable statement. He ignores the fact that the western democracies had already experienced a period in the course of the last century in which their situation was even more precarious than it is today. As is well known, this was the European crisis of the 1930s, which was associated with an unprecedented identity crisis in the West.
The awkwardness with which many political groups, both in Germany and in other European countries, reacted to the establishment of the Nazi regime illustrated this identity crisis quite clearly. The significance of the shift at that time was initially only recognised by a few. For example, shortly after Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, Benno Reifenberg, the editor of the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, discussed:
“a hopeless misjudgment of our nation to believe that a dictatorial regime could be imposed on it: the diversity of the German people demands democracy”.
Only a few analysts at the time were aware of the epochal significance of the events of January 30th 1933. These few included the communist dissident August Thalheimer and some exiled Russian intellectuals, who had already witnessed the first “totalitarian experiment” of modern times in October 1917. For example, shortly after Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, the exiled Russian historian Georgi Fedotov was already aware that Germany was now entering a new era:
“Into an age in which the dignity of man is measured by the purity of his blood … There are as yet no funeral pyres on which people are burned (they are still practicing this on books). However, we won’t have to wait too long for the (burning of people). A large part of the road has already been covered.”
Benno Reifenberg’s previously quoted prediction that it would not be possible to “impose a dictatorial regime” on Germany proved to be completely wrong. The process of “bringing the country into line” progressed at such a rapid pace that the French ambassador in Berlin François-Poncet drew the following conclusions about the Nazi regime as early as the beginning of July 1933:
“(Hitler) only had to exhale and the edifice of German politics collapsed like a house of cards.”
The Catholic journalist Waldemar Gurian argued similarly at the time. In November 1934, he wrote:
“The weak counter-powers lost faith in themselves and capitulated to save their lives, not realising that it was precisely because they postponed final decisions that they sealed their fate.”
Peace for our time?
A particularly spectacular indication of the identity crisis in western democracies at the time was their unwillingness to restrain far-right dictatorships, which allowed these new governments to commit one aggressive act after another with impunity. The aforementioned Waldemar Gurian wrote shortly after the Anschluss of Austria:
“The worst thing to be prevented in each case was … the “shedding of blood”, as it was … said. But by “saving” one’s physical existence, one’s moral existence was lost.”
As is well known, the high point of appeasement policy was the Munich Agreement of September 1938, the betrayal by the western powers of Czechoslovakia – their most loyal ally in East-Central Europe and the only democracy in the region. Immediately after the Munich Agreement, Thomas Mann wrote the following:
“(The) democratic fortress in the East, the Czechoslovak Republic (was) destroyed and deliberately turned into a spiritually broken appendage of National Socialism, the continental hegemony of Hitler’s Germany sealed, Europe sold into slavery. The reward was this peace.”
Hitler’s anti-communist rhetoric
The years 1933-38 can be described as a period of unprecedented failure on the part of the guarantors of the Versailles post-war order – both the western powers and Poland. The assumption on their part that Hitler’s political goals were limited in nature made them almost unlimitedly compliant with the Third Reich. They took Hitler’s assertions that the Third Reich represented a bastion against the Bolshevik danger at face value.
As early as the mid-1930s – at the height of the appeasement policy – the social democratic biographer of Hitler, Konrad Heiden, tried to destroy these illusions. According to him, Hitler was not the man with whom a reasonable person could make a deal.
The Warsaw cabinet was one of the first European governments to realise this fact. Germany had lost its predictability, emphasised Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck on March 24th 1939. Hitler had to be confronted with firm determination not yet encountered elsewhere in Europe.
The Polish leadership thus distanced itself from the illusion that it had embraced in the years 1934-38 that an agreement could be reached with the Third Reich on the basis of anti-communism. However, this late realisation could not avert the Polish tragedy that was already in the making. On August 23th 1939, the geopolitical trap in which Poland had found itself for centuries snapped shut again, when its two totalitarian neighbours – the Third Reich and the Stalinist Soviet Union – temporarily set aside their ideological differences and formed an alliance against the western democracies.
The dilemma of the democracies
It was only the dissolution of the totalitarian alliance, formed in August 1939 and broken as a result of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941, that could alleviate the extremely precarious situation of the West. However, defeating Hitler was no longer possible without Stalin. The dilemma of the democracies at that time was characterised by the American historian and diplomat George F. Kennan:
“The West had weakened itself to such an extent that it was no longer in a position to defeat one of the two totalitarian opponents without the help of the other. The West was no longer able to achieve a morally flawless victory.”
Are the 1930s returning?
After Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some authors repeatedly drew analogies between the behaviour of the western powers during the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and that of the West during the Ukraine crisis of 2014. The former economic advisor to the Russian president, Andrei Illarionov, compared the Geneva Agreement reached on April 17th 2014 to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine with the Munich Agreement of September 1938.
However, such comparisons are unfounded. Through the Munich Agreement, leading western politicians had officially legitimised the annexation of the Sudetenland by the Third Reich and virtually rewarded the aggressor, who incidentally was very dissatisfied with the outcome of the Munich Agreement.
Nothing of the sort happened in Geneva. The annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation was and is seen in the West as a blatant violation of international law. Why did Putin decide to take such an adventurous step as the annexation of Crimea in March 2014? There is much to suggest that the ruler in the Kremlin assumed that the West would not be able to react decisively to this massive violation of the international rules of the game.
It should not be forgotten that the annexation of Crimea took place during the Obama administration’s withdrawal strategy, which some analysts regarded as risky and ill-conceived because it left a dangerous power vacuum in many regions of the world. In Moscow, too, the US was considered weak in terms of leadership at the time, and this assessment was certainly one of the most important prerequisites for Putin’s Crimean adventure.
However, at the time of the so-called “Russian Spring”, some imperial-minded Russian groups advocated much more comprehensive annexation plans and wanted to incorporate the entire southeast of Ukraine into Russia. In 2014, however, Putin abandoned the so-called “New Russia project”, at least temporarily. This certainly was connected with the fact that he initially underestimated the strength of transatlantic ties.
The unanimous rejection of his aggression against Ukraine by the EU and the US probably came as a surprise to him. A total confrontation with the West for which radical advocates of “imperial revenge”, such as Alexander Dugin and his like-minded followers, pleaded, was not something he wanted to risk at the time.
Eight years later, after the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24th 2022, Putin and Dugin were already in the same boat. Like in 2014, this destructive and self-destructive act by Putin was certainly preceded by a completely false assessment of the strength of the West and NATO.
Putin was probably convinced that Donald Trump’s four-year presidency had already dealt a death blow to transatlantic ties. NATO’s debacle in Afghanistan in August 2021 was certainly additional proof for him of the West’s final decline. However, almost all his premises turned out to be wrong.
The original plan to subjugate Ukraine through a kind of “blitzkrieg”, which failed across the board due to the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians. Unlike Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Ukraine was not abandoned by the West. And Joe Biden, mocked by Dugin as “senile Joe”, developed into an undisputed leader of the free world within a very short space of time.
However, the autocratic opponents of the “open societies” also experienced an increasingly strong consolidation process following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An alliance now emerged that questioned the model developed by Samuel P. Huntington in 1993, of the impending “clash of civilisations” as the central conflict of the era.
What united the dictatorships of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran was not their cultural proximity, but their vehement rejection of liberal aspirations in their respective spheres of power and beyond.
So, are the “open societies” standing once again with their backs against the wall, as was the case in the 1930s? There are certainly some similarities, but the differences between the two situations are also striking. This is particularly true regarding the “US factor”.
The role of the US in the European post-war orders
The Achilles’ heel of the European post-war order that emerged in 1919 was the fact that the United States – already the most powerful democracy in the world at the time – refused to guarantee this order. Even though the Versailles system was essentially based on the ideas of then American President Woodrow Wilson, such as the right of peoples to self-determination and democratic principles, the US did not join the League of Nations and the American Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
After the defeat of the Third Reich by the anti-Hitler coalition, there certainly was a tendency in the US to withdraw from European developments, similar to the situation after the First World War. Nevertheless, the Truman Doctrine proclaimed in March 1947, which promised American aid to countries threatened by totalitarianism, sealed the US presence on the European continent.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the American protective shield no longer seemed necessary to stabilise European security structures. However, the war that broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991 showed just how much the continent’s security structure depended on the maintenance of transatlantic relations. This became even more obvious after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Hamas’s acts of terror as a new “turning point”?
The horrific terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7th 2023, which claimed the lives of around 1,200 Israelis, brought the Middle East conflict back to the centre of global attention. Reporting about the war in Ukraine temporarily disappeared from the headlines of western media, which certainly seemed to suit Putin’s interests.
There is deep division in world public opinion when it comes to attitudes towards Israel. Back in 2009, the American Middle East expert Walter Laqueur pointed out that Israel was “condemned by the United Nations more often than all other states in the world put together.”
In other words, more often than the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia with its two million deaths, more often than the Maoist regime with its millions of deaths and many more dictatorial regimes. Laqueur writes the following:
“Many in the West saw the state of Israel as a troublemaker: if Israel did not exist, the world would not be threatened by Islamism or terrorism… Osama bin Laden would still be in the trade business, Muslim immigrants would be willing to integrate.”
Laqueur, certainly a harsh critic of Israeli politics, primarily concerning Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territories after 1967, is, however, puzzled by the fact that the outrage of the media and international organisations is primarily focused on Israel.
In comparison, the countless dictatorships and unjust regimes in the rest of the world are pilloried much less frequently than Israel. Eleven years later, things were no different. In 2020, the UN General Assembly passed 17 resolutions against Israel and only six against all other states in the world.
This trend continued after the terrorist attacks of October 7th 2023, especially in the left-wing media. Meredith Haaf wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on October 13th 2023:
“The state of Israel is … on the basis of twisted post-colonial discourses and in the name of freedom practically declared the evilest state in the world and its citizens are thus indiscriminately turned into representatives of evil.”
Many Israeli peace activists and advocates of a two-state solution feel “abandoned” by some “left-wing” groups with which they used to sympathise. The French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz is one of them. She is certainly sensitive to the suffering of the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, she finds it incomprehensible that, for example, in an Israel-critical “open letter” from left-wing intellectuals in the Süddeutsche Zeitung dated October 19th 2023, “the deaths of Israeli civilians (were) not worth mentioning.”
Biden or Trump?
Putin’s hope that the US and its allies would neglect Ukraine because of their increased involvement in the Middle East has not been fulfilled, at least as far as Joe Biden is concerned. In his televised speech on October 19th, Biden emphasised why it was in the American national interest to support both Israel and Ukraine:
“If terrorists and dictators are not stopped, the costs and threats to America will only increase. It is the American leadership that holds the world together.” At the same time, the American leadership is in favour of “humanitarian pauses” in the Middle East war to alleviate the plight of the civilian population in Gaza.
Should Donald Trump win next year’s US presidential election with his “America First” slogan, the US would then once again, as from 2017 to 2020, essentially cease to play a decisive role in global politics. For the aforementioned autocratic alliance, this would be a unique opportunity to shape the world according to its own ideas.
However, this alliance is anything but stable. This applies above all to the Russian-Chinese alliance. Some imperial-minded Russian groups have problems with the fact that Putin has practically turned their country, which has supposedly “risen from its knees”, into a vassal of Beijing.
Moscow political scientist Sergei Karaganov, who is one of the most radical critics of the West among his Russian cohort, warned of such a development as early as October 16th 2022.
Although he considered a Russian-Chinese alliance to be the only realistic option left to Moscow, he nevertheless was afraid of China returning to a policy it had pursued in the Middle Ages, when it tended to “turn its neighbours into vassals”. These warnings were largely fulfilled after the “turning point” of February 24th 2022.
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared on November 3rd 2023 in German in the online magazine Die Kolumnisten.
Translated into English by Eva Schulz-Jander
Leonid Luks is professor of history at the Catholic University in Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany.
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