Conference reports Berlin and Europe 1989 and now

On May 13--14, 2019 the Körber History Forum took place, where some 200 experts on European history and politics had gathered in the capital of Germany to discuss current European affairs and global issues. In particular, the imminent threat of Russia and the historical roots of the return of “strong leaders” in European politics were in focus in this year’s debates.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:2 pp 102-103
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 18, 2019

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On May 13–14,  2019 the Körber History Forum took place, where some 200 experts on European history and politics had gathered in the capital of Germany to discuss current European affairs and global issues. In particular, the imminent threat of Russia and the historical roots of the return of “strong leaders” in European politics were in focus in this year’s debates.

Organized by the KörberStiftung, the event took place at the Humboldt Carré in the very heart of Berlin, just a few minutes away from the Brandenburger Tor, where the Wall came down in the dramatic fall of 1989, some 30 years ago. Thus, it was inevitable that “1989” should be brought up, both in the opening speech delivered by Thomas Paulsen of the KörberStiftung, and in the keynote address by Mary Elise Sarotte (Johns Hopkins University, Washington). Focusing on the post-Cold War order after 1989, Sarotte noted that the present security situation in Europe is obviously very different from what is was in the early 1990s, and euphoria has thus been replaced with gloomy realism. European security and the issue of NATO expansion remains a very sensitive issue, and with the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the developments that followed 1989 did in the long run produce deepening antagonism between Russia and the West. Sarotte concluded that the short post-1989 era came to an end in 2014, with the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

A special panel discussion was organized to address the issue of strongman rule and threats to democracy, where among others Timothy Snyder (Yale University), Archie Brown (University of Oxford) and Zoltán Balog (Foundation for a Civic Hungary) participated. The debate on strongman rule is not new, but it has become more accented in recent years, not the least with the developments in Hungary and Poland. Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) challenged the whole idea of “strong leaders” in the region, arguing that the individuals that typically come up in these discussions today are in fact neither “strong” nor very much of “leaders”. As for leading, there is simply nowhere to lead their respective countries; since countries like Poland and Hungary don’t want to abandon the benefits that comes with EU membership, the only future someone like Viktor Orbán can offer would be some mythical place in the past — but going there would not necessarily make the real Hungary better off. Moreover, compared to the historical examples of the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called “strong leaders” in the region today are certainly weaker, both in terms of popular support and political visions.Still, that does not mean that people like Orbán, or Putin for that matter, are harmless. If we really take these sort of populist and nationalistic leaders seriously, the EU could probably do more to counteract their illiberal behavior.

Having written a number of books on the subject — among them The Myth of the Strong Leader (2016) and Personality and Power (forthcoming, 2020) — Archie Brown noted that a “strong leader” could simply mean any unscrupulous politician with the ability to get rid of political rivals. That kind of centralized leadership, however, does not necessarily lead to economic development or to making the country  “stronger” in the world, nor is it a sure recipe for political stability. Historically, it is rather collective leadership (like in an ideal parliamentary democracy) that would seem to matter when it comes to strong government, political stability and economic development. Dictatorships, on the other hand, tend to be poor.

The Körber History Forum not only invites scholars to their events, and  people from politics, the diplomacy, media — among them Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Le Monde and Süddeutsche Zeitung — and civil society also participated this year. The panel discussions and lunch seminars covered a number of very interesting topics, including for example Europe and colonial injustice, security issues in the past and in the present, as well as the significance of Europe today, as understood by Former Polish President Bronisław Komorowski (2010—2015). Moreover, to mention just a few, Andres Kasekamp (University of Toronto) held a seminar on cooperation and conflict in the Baltic Sea region, Nikolay Koposov (Emory University, Atlanta) talked about history and memory, and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (Hertie School of Government, Berlin) reflected upon the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe from 1989 and onwards.

Propaganda and “fake news” also received quite a lot of attention at the conference. A panel discussion on “The power of manipulation: On dealing with propaganda and ‘fake news’ in the past and present” attracted a large crowd, as it formally ended the 2019 Körber History Forum. The panel encompassed among others Anne Applebaum (Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics) and Jo Fox (University of London), a specialist in the history of propaganda. The moderator of the panel discussion, Natalie Nougayrède (The Guardian and previously the editor-in-chief of Le Monde), noted that “fake news” is not a very helpful label for the different kinds of political accusations and various forms of disinformation and social media discourses presently found on the net. Maybe just “propaganda” would be sufficient? But of course, modern information technology has already changed the rules of the game. Applebaum, who is perhaps best known for her books Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (2003) and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017), noted that what we have now is a global digital arena, where anybody can reach anybody. In a manner of speaking, Russia can thus take part in the US elections, and China can take part in, say, the Swedish elections, and so on. This could perhaps be referred to the dark side of globalization.

How much should we worry about this? Are we getting closer to what Hanna Arendt once warned us about, in her seminal work on The Origins of Totalitarianism: a post-fact era in which the distinction between fact and fiction no longer matters? We should probably worry more than we do about junk content on the net, just as we worry about junk food in our daily diet. In particular, as underlined by Jo Fox, we should worry about attacks on universities and scientific research.≈

 

  • by Joakim Ekman

    Professor of Political Science and the Director of Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University. Responsible publisher Baltic Worlds.

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