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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. “National projects” and their regional framework

On European balance and peace

István Bibó
Translated by Dávid Oláh

Full text

1Title: Az európai egyensúlyról és békéröl (On European balance and peace)

2Originally published: written in 1942–1944, in its own time it remained unpublished, though many of its arguments were merged into his essays, published between 1945 and 1947 Language: Hungarian
The excerpts used are from the edition Válogatott tanulmányok (4 vols.) (Budapest: Magvetö, 1986–1990), vol. I, pp. 327–364.

About the author

3István Bibó [1911, Budapest – 1979, Budapest]: philosopher of law, political thinker, politician. He came from a Calvinist middle-class family of civil servants and intellectuals. He studied law at the University of Szeged, and specialized in the philosophy of law. In the late 1930s, he was a member of the populist movement, which had strong roots in Szeged. He was a close friend of the sociologist Ferenc Erdei, who was the most important left-wing ideologue of the populists. After the occupation of Hungary by German troops in March 1944, Bibo was involved in the underground resistance. In the democratic interlude after 1945, Bibó published a series of highly original essays on the key problems of Hungarian politics and history. After serving for a short while in the Ministry of Interior under Erdei, he acted as the head of the ‘Pal Teleki Research Institute’ (later renamed the ‘Eastern European Research Institute’) between 1946 and 1949, and became a prominent figure of the Nemzeti Parasztádrt (National Peasant Party). He also taught political sociology in Szeged. His most important works, analyzing the problems of nationalism in Central Europe and the chances of democratic development in Hungary, were published in this short period. After 1950, he was marginalized. In October 1956, he was a delegate for the Petöfi Party (the reformed National Peasant Party) in the revolutionary government of Imre Nagy. After the fall of the revolution, he wrote a series of memoranda to the international community justifying the revolutionary government’s actions and seeking to find an acceptable compromise respecting the Soviet geo-political interests but safeguarding the democratic and pluralistic political system that had emerged during the revolution. In 1957, he was arrested and was condemned to life imprisonment for his ‘counter-revolutionary activities.’ He was released in the 1963 amnesty, and worked as a librarian until 1971. His works were rediscovered in the 1970s, and became crucial references for the emerging opposition movement. He is considered the most important Hungarian political thinker of the twentieth century.

4Main works: Kényszer, jog, szabadság [Enforcement, right and liberty] (1935); A magyar demokrácia válsága [The crisis of Hungarian democracy] (1945); A kelet-európai kisállamok nyomorúsága [The misery of the Eastern European small states] (1946); Zsidókérdés Magyarországon 1944 után [The Jewish question in Hungary after 1944] (1948); The Paralysis of International Institutions and its Remedies (1976).


5During the first four years of the Second World War, although actually participating in the war on the side of the Axis powers, Hungary seemed to be an island of peace compared to most other countries in the region. It managed to retain a certain degree of autonomy, and the government of Miklós Kállay (March 1942 – March 1944) in particular sought to establish secret links with Allied diplomats, with the intention of maneuvering the country out of the war. In this relatively optimistic atmosphere, the Hungarian public followed the discussions published in the Western press about the plans for a post-war reorganization of Eastern Europe. The general direction of these plans, seeking to solve the endemic nationality question, was towards the federalization of the region (see Milan Hodža, Federation in Central Europe).

6The central concern of the mainstream nationalist public was securing the territories of historical Hungary that had been regained with the help of the Germans from Romania (Northern Transylvania), Serbia (Vojvodina) and Czechoslovakia (some of the southern regions of Slovakia and Carpatho-Ukraine). In contrast, the populist, leftist and liberal intellectual circles tended to sympathize with the federalist option. Seeking to provide a historical and legal framework for a possible post-war consolidation and democratization of the region, István Bibó also entered the discussion on federalization, proposing, however, a radically different solution.

7In his lengthy manuscript, which was written during the Second World War and which served as a basis for his famous essays published after 1945, Bibó gave an interpretation of the emergence of anti-democratic nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe. The text, strongly influenced by the writings of the Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero (1871–1942), was an attempt to formulate an ideological basis for a new democratic government to be established after the end of the war. Taking the Congress of Vienna (which ‘invented’ the principle of legitimacy as an ideological tool to return to a mutually acceptable political and territorial order after the upheaval of the Napoleonic wars) to be an example of successful peace-making, while describing the Versailles Peace Settlement as a tragic failure, Bibó sought to create a ‘reference work’ for the future peace-makers (significantly, the original title he intended for the book was ‘The book of peace-makers’) in order to devise a theoretical framework for settling the national conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe once for all. Significantly, at this point, Bibó tackled the problem of Italy and Germany together with the Eastern European ‘small states.’

8Bibó’s interpretation started from the assertion that the “critical point of the European balance of forces” was the territorial and national chaos of Central and Eastern Europe. This region became the chronic hotbed of conflicts, due to the belatedness and unfortunate outcome of the processes of nation-formation. In his theory, the idea of national self-determination had the same social and ideological roots as the program of “ideological and emotional democratization” of society. According to Bibó, the process of extending the pre-modern privileges of the nobility to the entire national community and thus creating a modern national community unfolded without serious difficulties in the West. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, the multi-ethnic empires blurred the incipient national frameworks, thus hindering their political development. Consequently, for these nations, nobody laid the foundations of a modern national- and state-organization that other parts of Europe had experienced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In order to fulfil their national program, they had to turn to a system of references “behind the actual political establishment,” they had to rely on the ‘popular factors’ and ethnographic realities, deeper than the institutional structures of the states they lived in. Thus the linguistic-cultural criteria became the central problem of national ideologies and linguistic nationalism could emerge as a “triumphant mutant.” The ‘nation-states,’ created or envisioned by the various national revivals, ultimately opted for the linguistic homogenization of their inherited historical territories, thanks to their “tormenting sense of inner insecurity.” This permanent feeling of threat in turn led to the pathological construction of ‘anti-democratic nationalism,’ mobilizing the mass energies precisely against the democratic political agenda. The most radical version of anti-democratic nationalism in Bibó’s interpretation was fascism.

9In Bibó’s interpretation, the solution to the conflicts in Eastern Europe depends precisely on the elimination of this collective psychological obsession. He points out that this hysteria is ultimately centered on the ‘symbolic geographies’ of these countries: political debates became fixated on the question of ‘territorial status.’ Therefore, the task of consolidating the nation-states in the region required the adjustment of this process to the norm of ‘selflimitation,’ that is the abandonment of the historical or fictitious narratives of the “glorious realm,” once extending from the Baltic to the Adriatic sea, or from the Dniester to the Tisza (Cro., Rom., Slo., Srb. Tisa), and so on. This meant a fundamental break with the Hungarian mainstream political discourse of the interwar period which aimed at the restoration of the multiethnic realm of the Crown of St. Stephen under a presumed Hungarian cultural and political superiority, but it also challenged the nation-building narratives of the neighboring states using geopolitical and historical arguments to incorporate territories inhabited by other nationalities. Bibó instead advocated a combination of the ethnographic principle with national self-determination, in which referendums would be held throughout the contested territories and the formation of large groups of ‘national minorities’ exposed to the homogenizing pressure of the majority would be avoided. For Bibó, this was the precondition for drawing fixed and legitimate borders. He suggested that the ensuing territorial stability, in the absence of sizeable minority populations feeding irredentist projects, might reduce emotional agitation, opening the way for the democratization of these societies and eventually supra-national cooperation. In this sense, Bibó’s recommendations were rooted in the Hungarian populist tradition—which focused on building democratic nation-states rather than dreaming about the restoration of multinational polities—but without the ethno-cultural rhetoric of its main protagonists.

10Significantly, even though his practical suggestions were obviously not taken into account, Bibo was among the very few political thinkers in wartime Eastern Europe who did not have to change fundamentally his theoretical argument after 1945. Based on the manuscript of Az európai egyensúlyról és beékéröl, his essays on Eastern European national problems and democratic development had a considerable resonance in the years immediately following the war, but after 1948, in the context of cultural and political Staliniza-tion, his voice could hardly be heard. Released from prison in 1963, he was among the few prominent intellectuals who refused to cooperate with the gradually softening Kádárist regime and was practically banned from publishing his works. Significantly, Bibó’s œuvre became a crucial point of reference for the critiques of the regime in the 1970s. There is a wide range of interpretations from various authors, the most important being the István Bibo ‘Festschrift’ (1979–80), a symbolic joint venture of the reform-communist, liberal and populist wings of the emerging opposition movement, which became once again fragmented in the mid-1980s. This volume contained, among other things, the short version of Jenö Szücs’s famous text on the three historical regions of Europe, which in many ways followed Bibó’s ideas on the historical path of Central and Eastern Europe, but recontextual-ized them in terms of a tripartite model contrasting the Central European structures to those of Western Europe and Russia.


On European balance and peace

The deformation of political culture in Central and Eastern Europe

12It is a generally accepted notion today that Central and Eastern Europe, or, to be more exact, the whole area east of the Rhine between France and Russia is characterized by a certain inherent backwardness with respect to its political culture. Mention is frequently made of the backward and antidemocratic nature of social conditions in the region, the brutality of its political methods, the self-centered, petty and aggressive character of its nationalism; mention is made of the fact that in this region, political power is in the hands of aristocratic landowners, monopoly capitalists and military cliques whom these countries are unable to rid themselves of; it is argued that this area is a hotbed of all kinds of confused, obscure and mendacious political philosophies. All this seems to bear out the conclusion that the peoples and countries of this region are temperamentally incapable of a Western European type of democratic development. This whole concept is based on certain true facts, yet in its final conclusion it is gravely misleading. However, it lends itself ideally to the justification of why the troublesome and uncomfortable ideas related to the consolidation of the region should be shunned, and gives grounds for the various propositions coming from the right and the left, all rather superficial and perilous, which, as much as they differ from one another, share one thing: they are all appalling and dangerous.

13Undoubtedly, these countries are quite a long way from the accomplished and mature democracies of Western and Northern Europe. Furthermore, we have no reason to doubt that the nature of their social structures plays a major role in this fact. The institutions that have provided the elementary school of democracy in Western Europe have reshaped the Central and Eastern European societies in a much less intensive manner. Feudalism in the Western sense, based on personal, contract-like relations extended only as far as the river Elbe, beyond which a rigorous and uniform serfdom prevailed. Progressing from west to east, the dominance of social methods and forms of communication tamed by a bourgeois lifestyle, Christianity and humanism pervaded the lowest layers in a decreasing measure. As a result, the ending of the social role of a unified European aristocracy elicited a much greater shock in Central and Eastern Europe that in the West, where a developed social structure no longer or less typically based on birth privileges was by that time ready to take over the aristocracy’s role. All this, however, fails to alter the fact that for centuries Central and Eastern Europe has been divided from Western Europe only by differences in degree, and that this area was the closest to Western Europe temperamentally as well as geographically. Germany (not to mention Italy) was also rendered an integral part of the West by the intensity of its urban life, the general prevalence of feudalism and the country’s cultural achievements. In the countries east of them remarkable antecedents of political liberty have existed, and in fact one of the greatest hopes of nineteenth century Europe was the very intensity of the reaction that the European concept of liberty elicited in Eastern Europe. This hope remained unfulfilled, but the fact that this region fell behind Western Europe more than it had done before cannot be explained by social causes alone. […]

14Nor it is to be doubted that in these countries the aristocratic landowners, monopoly capitalists and military cliques possess a degree of power and influence that would not be tolerated in a country with a freer spirit and a more unified development. Yet the popular view holds that the petty, self-centered, aggressive and antidemocratic nationalism of this region is caused by the interests of the powerful or influential aristocratic landowners, monopoly capitalists and military cliques in keeping the peoples of these countries in a slavish obedience and diverting their attention from social issues; but this view is frightfully superficial. In this form it makes no sense. These interests are certainly lurking somewhere in the background, and they are indeed glad to find a political movement delivering them obedient masses. However, if this were the crucial factor, then we would have here, not a confined nationalism but mere servitude and beast-like backwardness. Even if it is confined and petty, nationalism is a serious mass emotion closely akin to democratism, and men and groups firmly rooted in interest relations are incapable, as we have argued elsewhere, of either stimulating or really experiencing mass emotions. At the most, they will strive to exploit and reinforce for their own ends the misleading and impeding effect of various historical shocks and fears on the political development of individual countries.

15It is also true that this region provides a fertile ground for the proliferation of the most muddled political philosophies and the grossest political lies which can not even be put into words, let alone appear convincing in countries with healthy development. However, it would be childish to imagine that the distotted development of a political culture can be caused by muddled philosophies or the agitation of a malevolent propaganda. A serious mass emotion can spring only from a strong impulse, and the impulse only from a real experience. The half-truths of muddled philosophies and the lies of propaganda can have a real effect on individuals or communities only if they have intensely terrifying and misleading experiences which render them susceptible to half-truths and lies. The latter can help them justify their self-deceptions, cherish their vain hopes, become inveterate in their false concepts and procure satisfaction for certain strong impulses. Half-truths and propagandistic lies roll off the back of a man with a balanced spirit. The question is what has made the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe unbalanced.

16All the threads point towards some kind of political hysteria, and in dismissing political hysterics the first task is to disclose the historical shocks disturbing the development and balance of these countries. We should be suspicious of two things: the premature, explosion-like character of their democratism and the resulting difficulties in the formation of the national frameworks. Every country east of the Rhine—and this applies to Russia as well, which otherwise does not belong to the whole Central and East European complex—received the system of democratic concepts in a ready-made form, before the inner development and needs of their own societies could have brought about these changes organically. Similarly, nationalism, the democratic communal mass emotion spreading over Europe, overran Central and Eastern Europe earlier and more thoroughly than democratism itself. This is why social development east of the Rhine lacks the harmony of an ideological program and the conditions that have made social development in Western Europe so felicitous. Furthermore, in the case of Germany, Italy and probably Spain a terrible burden on their democratic development has been the fact that the spread of democratic ideas is linked to the historical memory of an unexpected and alien aggression: the Napoleonic invasion. [….]

17The ultimate tipping of the inner political balance was, however, due to the painful and difficult process of nation formation. We have already discussed how in this region the disintegration of Germany and Italy and the establishment of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires had resulted in the disjunction of state and national borders, and how this led to the emergence of linguistic nationalism and through this to the intermingling of all national frameworks here. This in turn meant that the nations living here lacked what the Western European nations possessed in a self-evident and tangible way, both in reality and in the communal consciousness: the actual existence of their own state and national framework, a capital, the harmonious functioning of politics and economy, a unified social elite, etc. In Western and Northern Europe a country’s rise and fall, its role as a great power or its shrinking, the acquisition and loss of colonial empires could remain a mere episode, a distant adventure, a pleasant or sad memory; yet eventually all this could be put up with without a deep shock, because they had something that could not be seized from them and could not become an issue of debate. In contrast, Greater Germany (Gross-Deutschland), a unified Italy (Italia Unita), a reborn Poland (Polonia Resti-tuta), an independent Hungary or a free Czech state—however deeply-rooted psychological realities they may have been, and however strong the emotions associated with them—they were nevertheless only things existing in postulates. It had to be proved that Germany stands above everything else, that Italy is not a merely geographical concept, that Poland is not lost, and so on. That is, the national frame was something that had to be moulded, had to be restored, had to be fought over and something that one constantly had to be concerned for, fearing its loss not only because of the power politics of the existing imperial state frameworks but also because of the indifference from parts of the population and the instability of the national consciousness.

18This situation is responsible for the most typical feature of the unbalanced political mentality in Central and Eastern Europe: the existential fear for the community, an experience shared particularly by the small Eastern European nations. In each one of them, their lives have been overshadowed by an alien and rootless sovereign power sometimes having an influence within European norms and sometimes with an intolerable pressure; a power which—whether he was emperor, tsar or sultan—deprived them of their best sons by offering a career to the dullest and prison or the gallows to the most upright. The conflict of historical and ethnic borders soon induced these peoples to have grudges against each other as well, and whenever they had the chance to do so, they tried out on each other what they had learnt from their emperors, tsars and sultans. Each of them have come to be familiar with the feeling of having the sacred sites of their national history in danger, lost or in the hands of strangers and foes, and of having all or parts of the populace under alien rule or oppression. Each of them have had areas they had reason to fear for or were justified in claiming back, and none of them have been spared from being at the edge of partial or complete annihilation. But neither did Germany and Italy escape this existential anxiety, despite their past, their power, their achievements and their incomparably greater size. They too were unable to rid themselves of the belief that their national unity has not been long-lived and is not complete yet, and they still feared that this unity could be destabilized by some external or internal collapse. For a Western European man the way Hitler or any statesman from a small Eastern European country talks about the “nation’s death” or the “nation’s annihilation” is just an empty slogan: a Western European man can conceive an annihilation, subjugation or slow assimilation, but this overnight and entirely political “annihilation” is not a conceivable reality for him. This is why vulgar Marxism’s rejection of the national idea elicited such a different response in Central and Eastern Europe on the one hand and Western Europe on the other. In the West, where the national frameworks are seen as continuous and real facts with a long history, the Marxist viewpoint was just one possible theory among many, a bit dogmatic but quite constructive; it was one more extravaganza to be tolerated without much anxiety and fear by Western societies. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, the notion that the national concept is an ideology screening the interests of a confined group of capitalists appeared to be mortally dangerous for the very reason that in this region it did have a shade of truth. Not because in these countries the primary beneficiary and vehicle of the national concept have really been the capitalist bourgeoisie; in fact this role was primarily taken over by the so-called national intelligentsia instead of the capitalist bourgeoisie, and in this region these two classes happened not to coincide, and in fact not to be so closely related at all. It was still true, however, that in these countries, large sections of the population, for whom the new national frameworks did not coincide with the historically experienced reality of the dynastic state, have responded with a certain passivity to the national concept, and thus the national intelligentsia has made an immense effort to ‘teach’ the lesson of the nation to the people. Of course, this lesson could in fact only be conveyed by history, but in the meantime the conviction of vulgar Marxism that the national concept serves to cover up the interests of small social groups was a mortal threat to the efforts of the national intelligentsia to “instruct” the people. This is why it was possible to implant a well-nigh psychotic fear of Marxist socialism even in layers of the intelligentsia that had no serious interest in the capitalist system whatsoever.

19Existential fear for the community has been the crucial factor that has made the situation of democracy and democratic development unsteady. One could argue against this statement that the difficulties of a nation’s emergence and the existential precariousness connected to it have also been present in some Western European style countries such as Norway, Finland and Ireland, and that Napoleon subjugated Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland as well without these experiences ever undermining democracy in these countries. This is true. No one claims that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had a free social mentality or have been well-prepared for democracy. But they did start off on the path towards democracy, and except for Western Europe and North America they were closer than any other part of the world to their destination. They have been halted on this path by historical shocks and the anxieties they had caused. Mature democracy is the equivalent of the psychological state of adulthood, whereas the historical shocks experienced by nations parallel the individual shocks that embroil the insufficiently resistant, immature psyche in various kinds of hysteria. Accordingly, the political culture and morals of finished, mature democratic societies are further strengthened by historical shocks instead of being undermined by them, whereas they tend to disturb the development of communities that have newly embarked on the path to democracy, entangling them into irresolvable spasms of collective psychology. To be a democrat means, above everything else, not to be afraid: not to be afraid of people with a different opinion, a different language or race, of revolutions, of conspiracies, of the enemy’s unknown and wicked intentions, of hostile propaganda, of disdain, and more generally of all the imaginary perils that become real perils by the very fact that we are afraid of them. Central and Eastern European countries were afraid because they were not finished and mature democracies, and since they were afraid, they could not become one. The evolution of an undisturbed and free political life devoid of fear would have stumbled over these nations’ fear complexes at the most diverse points: either it would have queried some war preparation or encumbered the implementation of some aggressive foreign policy rooted in fear, or would have made unstable some false political construction, the revelation of whose falsity was prohibited by national fears, or it would have offered too many opportunities to national minorities that were seen as threatening the national unity and alien, indifferent or hostile towards the national frameworks etc.

20Thus, everything that real democracies know only in the hours of real danger has become a rule in such a constant atmosphere of fear and danger: the curtailment of public liberties, censure, the search for “traitors” and the enemy’s “henchmen” and the imposition of order or the appearance of order and national unity at all costs to the detriment of democracy. The most diverse forms of distorting and corrupting democracy have appeared here, from the subtlest and quite often unconscious methods to the most brutal ones: pitting universal suffrage against democratic development, systems of coalitions and compromises based on unhealthy and unsound principles, election systems or corrupt electoral practices hindering or distorting the healthy formation of a common will, as well as coups and temporary dictatorships. […]


Dávid Oláh (Translator)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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