NEW YORK – In 1938, Aurel Kolnai, a Hungarian philosopher of Jewish origin living in exile, published his most famous book, The War Against the West, an investigation of the ideas underpinning National Socialism. Kolnai seems to have read every turgid treatise – most written by third-rate thinkers – extolling the martial, self-sacrificing, blood-and-soil virtues of the Land of Heroes, and damning the materialistic, liberal democratic, bourgeois societies in the Lands of Merchants (that is to say, the West).
The Land of Heroes was of course Nazi Germany, and the West, corrupted by Jewish money and noxious cosmopolitanism, was represented by the US and Britain. You had to share the same blood to belong to the heroic German Volk, whereas citizenship in the Anglo-Saxon world was open to immigrants who agreed to abide by the law. This idea of two distinct models of citizenship goes back at least as far as the late nineteenth century, when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II viewed Britain, America, and France with contempt for being mongrel societies, or indeed, in his phrase, “Jewified.”
The “West” won the war, at least in the western half of Europe; the Soviet Union won in the east. And, instead of being punished, the former enemies were educated – through cultural and political programs, richly subsidized by US money – to be more like Americans.
At the same time, the United States, with the help of Britain, set up a new international order after 1945, based on free trade, supranational institutions, and, in theory at least, the promotion of liberal democracy.
And yet the war of ideas never really ended. Once again, liberal ideas, internationalism, and openness to immigrants, are under fire. Only marginal groups openly espouse National Socialism (though they, too, are becoming more conspicuous). But official hostility against cultural or religious minorities is back, as is the loathing of cosmopolitan elites.
There is at least one good test of where people stand: their view of the international investor and philanthropist George Soros. Like Kolnai, Soros is a Hungarian-born Jew, and has lived his adult life in Britain and the US. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s, Soros has done more or less what US government agencies did after World War II. He has spent large chunks of his personal fortune on the promotion of liberal democratic values in former Communist countries. One of the many beneficiaries of his largesse is the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, who studied at Oxford on a Soros scholarship.
Now, biting the hand that fed him, Orbán recently called Soros’s “trans-border empire” a vicious threat to Hungary’s national identity. Soros, in his view, is a “predator” backed by “tons of money.” Orbán is a fiery advocate of “illiberal democracy,” as are other elected autocrats in former Soviet satellites. “In every country, they will want to displace Soros,” he declared in December.
Orbán is right about a few countries at least. The leader of Poland’s governing party, Jarosław Kaczyński, believes that groups backed by Soros want “societies without identity.” Liviu Dragnea, who leads the ruling party in Romania, goes further, saying that Soros has “financed evil.” What Soros is in fact financing in Romania are education programs, international scholarships, and NGOs helping to clean up the environment.
Indeed, Soros might be described as the personification of “the West” as defined by Kolnai. He is everything that nativists and anti-Semites hate: rich, cosmopolitan, Jewish, and a liberal dedicated to what Karl Popper, yet another child of Jewish origin from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, called “the open society.”
When the enemies of the open society were threatening Europe during the 1930s, there was at least a powerful counter model in Britain, and especially the US, bolstered by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Victims of continental European totalitarianism could still find refuge in that “West,” and even those who couldn’t still knew that fascists and Nazis had formidable enemies in London and Washington.
We now live in a very different world. Britain has turned its back on Europe, rejecting the internationalism of the EU, and imbibing the poison from politicians who think that immigration is an existential threat to national identity. And then there is Donald Trump’s election as US president, which Orbán has called a new opportunity – “a gift” – for Hungary. Indeed, Soros emerged as a villainous cosmopolitan conspirator in the propaganda of Trump’s own campaign.
Trump’s views on immigration – those incoming “rapists,” “terrorists,” and so on – have provided a huge moral boost to the enemies of the West. His “America first” approach, Islamophobia, support for torture, and attacks on the mainstream media are being used by anti-liberals and autocrats worldwide to justify closing their borders and crushing “enemies of the people” – with violence if need be.
In this political climate, the counter-model to the closed society is withering. The West, as defined by Kolnai, does indeed face an existential threat, but not from immigrants, Islam, or NGOs financed by Soros. The most dangerous enemies of the West are people who often claim to be saving it, such as Orbán, France’s Marine Le Pen, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Kaczyński, and Trump.
There is, however, one hope in Europe that would have astonished Kolnai, who published his book the same year that Hitler’s soldiers marched into Austria and Czechoslovakia. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, may have made serious mistakes, notably in the way Greece was treated by the EU, but she has also been the staunchest European champion of liberal democratic ideas. We can only hope that Germany, the former Land of Heroes, holds firm in the latest war against the West.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.