Struggling Through Simms

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present

Historians tend to discourage each other from writing sweeping histories. Usually that’s good advice. Few individuals know enough to write “the” history of peasantry or “the” history of the fifteenth century or “the” history of France. Better to devote a few years of your life to writing a thorough history of peasant life in fifteenth-century France than try to be the next Fernand Braudel.

We still want the best historians to at least make an attempt at grand narrative, or we couldn’t see the forest of history through the microhistory trees.

Good examples from recent years include John Darwin’s After Tamerlane (2007) and Peter Frankopan The Silk Roads (2015) for inner, and Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels (2003, 2009) for coastal, Eurasia, and Jack Goldstone’s Why Europe? (2008) for the rise of the West (far superior to Niall Ferguson’s more popular book on the topic).

Brendan Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy is a lesser entry in the genre. Read more “Struggling Through Simms”

How to Keep an Empire for a Thousand Years

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History

Keeping a thousand years of European history readable is no small feat, but Peter H. Wilson manages it.

The Holy Roman Empire touches on everything from high politics to peasant life. Wilson’s central insight: the empire’s perceived weaknesses were its strengths.

The Holy Roman Empire changed composition through the centuries. Its internal organization was in a constant state of flux. Emperors had to negotiate to come to power and compromise to stay in power. Autonomy given to one city or prince did not necessarily apply to another. For a long time, such agreements were not even written down. The empire refused to lay down one law, one language, one religion. It ended up a patchwork of overlapping competencies and jurisdictions that kept bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians busy for centuries. Read more “How to Keep an Empire for a Thousand Years”

How Poland Ended Up Defying EU Law

Warsaw Poland
Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland at dusk, December 4, 2020 (Unsplash/Iwona Castiello d’Antonio)

Poland has escalated its rule-of-law dispute with the rest of the European Union by arguing its own laws supersede the EU’s, and indeed some EU laws are incompatible with the Polish Constitution.

The decision of the Constitutional Tribunal caps six years of legal battle that began when Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party returned to power in 2015.

Here is a timeline of events and a look at what could happen next. Read more “How Poland Ended Up Defying EU Law”

Who Wants to Live in Hungary?

Budapest Hungary
Skyline of Budapest, Hungary (Unsplash/Tom Bixler)

Hungary is having a moment on the American right. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson broadcasted from the country last week and interviewed Viktor Orbán. Rod Dreher blogged from Hungary for The American Conservative. John O’Sullivan, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, has defended Orbán’s power grabs in National Review. Sumantra Maitra defended Orbán in The Federalist. There is even an Hungarian Conservative magazine for English speakers.

Here in the Netherlands, far-right leaders Thierry Baudet and Geert Wilders admire Orbán. The right-wing De Dagelijkse Standaard calls him a “hero”.

Conservative columnist (and non-Orbán fan) David French sees Hungary as “the right’s Denmark”. Progressives want America to become Scandinavia; Trumpists want to become Hungary.

So why don’t they just move there? Read more “Who Wants to Live in Hungary?”

Conservative Wunderkind Loses His Shine

Sebastian Kurz Emmanuel Macron
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and French president Emmanuel Macron speak on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels, April 10, 2019 (BKA/Arno Melicharek)

Sebastian Kurz was the future once. Conservative Christian democrats in Germany longed for a man like him to succeed the middle-of-the-road Angela Merkel. Time magazine declared him one of the ten most promising young world leaders.

Four years later, Kurz is the subject of a criminal investigation, for lying under oath. His People’s Party is down in the polls. Kurz projected an image of renewal, but he merely swapped one network of cronies for another (his own) without changing the way politics is done in Austria.

In my latest for Wynia’s Week, a Dutch opinion blog, I argue there is a better way. Both Austria’s Christian democrats and Bavaria’s were challenged by the nationalist right during the European migrant crisis. Both lurched to the right in a bid to outflank the competition. But whereas Bavaria’s Christian Social Union soon reversed itself, realizing that voters could smell their desperation and didn’t like it, Austria’s People’s Party is stuck with the high-on-flash, low-on-substance Kurz.

Click here to read the whole thing (in Dutch).

First Things First: Vote the Authoritarians Out

Viktor Orbán Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel speak in Brasília, Brazil, January 2, 2019 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Left-wing Americans weren’t happy when the Democratic Party nominated the center-left Joe Biden for the presidency, but, unlike in 2016, few sat out the election.

Nor there were major spoiler candidates on the right. Voting for Hillary Clinton was apparently too much to ask of five million Donald Trump skeptics in 2016, who voted for libertarian Gary Johnson or conservative Evan McMullin. They could have tipped the election in Clinton’s favor.

In 2020, Democrats wisely nominated the least divisive old white guy they could find and anti-Trumpers voted like the republic depended on it. Biden won fifteen million more votes than Clinton and flipped five states, handing him a comfortable Electoral College victory.

Hungarians and Israelis hoping to get rid of their “Trumps” must take note. Read more “First Things First: Vote the Authoritarians Out”

EU “Government Shutdown” Looms

Berlaymont Brussels Belgium
The sun sets on the Berlaymont, seat of the European Commission, in Brussels, Belgium (Shutterstock/Jasmin Zurijeta)

The EU could face its own version of a government shutdown in January if Hungary and Poland veto the bloc’s seven-year budget and coronavirus recovery fund, worth a combined €1.8 trillion, at this week’s European Council.

The far-right governments of the two countries oppose the introduction of a rule-of-law conditionality for EU subsidies. Hungarian and Polish voters, and other European countries, favor the proposal.

If leaders don’t find a solution this Thursday and Friday, the European Parliament would not have time to ratify the spending plans before the new year. The council isn’t due to meet again until March. Read more “EU “Government Shutdown” Looms”

EU Must Hold Firm in Rule-of-Law Dispute with Hungary, Poland

Viktor Orbán Giuseppe Conte
Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Giuseppe Conte of Italy meet with other European leaders in Brussels, February 21 (European Council)

Hungary and Poland are holding up approval of the EU’s seven-year budget and coronavirus recovery fund, worth a combined €1.8 trillion, vowing to jointly veto so long as the rest of the bloc insists on tying funds to compliance with the rule of law.

The countries’ far-right governments, which are already being probed by the EU for politicizing their judicial systems, claim they are defending national sovereignty from foreign interference.

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, said he would not “subject Hungary to a situation where a simple majority imposes issues upon the Hungarian people they do not want.”

The problem with that statement: 25 of the EU’s 27 member states support the proposed rule-of-law conditionality, as do seven in ten Hungarians and Poles.

EU-wide support is as high as 77 percent, according to a poll commissioned by the European Parliament. Read more “EU Must Hold Firm in Rule-of-Law Dispute with Hungary, Poland”

Viktor Orbán’s Authoritarian Playbook

Viktor Orbán
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives to a European Council meeting in Brussels, October 16 (European Council)

For too long has the European Union tolerated the formation of a self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” in its midst. A recent European Court of Justice ruling underscores that Hungary is not only in beach of the rule of law, but violates the very rights and values on which the EU is founded.

The court ruled earlier this month that restrictions imposed on foreign universities — which forced the George Soros-funded Central European University to relocate from Budapest to Vienna — were “incompatible” with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French member of the European Parliament and its rapporteur on the situation in Hungary, commented that the ruling “should send a warning to Viktor Orbán: that it’s time to step back from the brink of autocracy and reverse the Hungarian government’s undemocratic path.”

Orbán, prime minister since 2010, has come a long way. He started his political career as a liberal anticommunist and ended up the most right-wing, authoritarian government leader in the EU.

If the rest of the bloc is to rein him in, it must first understand how he has been able to gain, and keep, his power.

This is Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian playbook. Read more “Viktor Orbán’s Authoritarian Playbook”

Orbán Abolishes Democracy in Hungary

Viktor Orbán Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel speak in Brasília, Brazil, January 2, 2019 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

I try to avoid Nazi-era comparisons, since they’re seldom appropriate, but Viktor Orbán isn’t making it easy. The only thing that could make his power grab in Hungary more like the Enabling Act of 1933 is if, like the Reichstag fire, COVID-19 really had been manufactured (in a Chinese lab funded by George Soros, if we are to believe Russia’s disinformation).

Using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, Orbán has dissolved parliament and postponed all elections — indefinitely.

The Constitutional Court technically still functions, but it is packed with Orbán loyalists and provides no real oversight. For all intents and purposes, Orbán now rules alone. Read more “Orbán Abolishes Democracy in Hungary”