Democracy cannot be taken for granted

Anne Applebaum starts her book Twilight of democracy, the failure of politics and the parting of friends, and ends her book with a New Year’s Eve party in Poland, the first in 1999 and the second 20 years later in 2019. She herself is American, married to a Polish politician. Their friends, but not any longer the same attended both parties, including well-known politicians, journalists, publicists from the West and the East.
Applebaum sketches the atmosphere at the first party, the eve of the new milleneum, optimistic and full of expectation. On the basis of the guests, what political positions they took and what their motives were, she describes the changes in Europe and America in the years that followed. Because a lot has changed in the political landscape. Brexit is a fact, in Eastern Europe in particular Hungary and Poland democracy seems to be getting out of the picture. Most European countries and America are confronted with populist ideas and parties.
It takes a moment getting used to Applebaum telling how many of the guests she names by name, including real friends of her and her husband, have changed their position. How they now defend visions and leaders in a way that was unthinkable at the time. How democratic principles and values ​​are meanwhile denied. In a number of cases, communication between former friends has been completely broken as a result.
But Applebaum’s book is not a gossip story. She does not go into private matters. She does try to explain how the democratic tide in Western countries is turning and how her then guests fitted in with those changes. It is very interesting to consider the trends she observes and to compare them with our own observations. Who were our personal friends back then in what we believe to be hopeful days on the brink of the new millennium, and who are they now? Have there been political divisions that run through friends and families?
This reminds me of an older colleague of mine, a jovial man, with many friends on all levels. He felt rich with them. He celebrated with them. It was a real unity without the friends hiding their opinions from him. “We agree to disagree” was his motto. Yet over time it happened that friends took different, sometimes for him incomprehensible, paths. He was surprised because he believed they were both heading for the same destination. At several crossroads, friends turned out to be taking other directions, on moral and political grounds. It didn’t leave him indifferent, it hurt him. Not that some friends took other directions in and of themselves. But that they had always had a different goal in mind.
The book ends with the New Year’s Eve party in 2019. In place of some old friends, new, often youthful friends and allies have come.
The atmosphere is less hopeful than in 1999. There are major concerns. Because on the basis of the examples of the friends of the past and the developments in the politics of the countries, it is clear that democracy is under attack from all sides. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. It is not a final destination. It must always be defended, even against former friends and allies. It must always be regained. That takes courage. We must again and again take the step of the sometimes shaky democracy. But there is no guarantee. For example, the global corona crisis can create a self-awareness that people and countries need each other. But it can also be the start of growing state influence and restrictions on individual rights, and nationalism .

Twilight of Democracy is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books 206 p. © Anne Applebaum 2020

(c) Martin Los

The political power of a myth

The Habsburgs. Martyn Rady

Anyone who talks about Europe and its history cannot ignore the Habsburgs. I never realized it that way, although I knew most of the facts, events and names. But the English historian Martyn Rady has amazingly managed to explain and illustrate the unique connection between European history and the Habsburg dynasty. Given the scale of European history and of the Habsburg dynasty, it seems an impossible task to realize this in one book. At least not in a responsible and erudite way. But Martyn Rady managed within the range of no more than 444 pages (in Dutch translation). The secret of the blacksmith is that he has not compiled a collection of short biographies with the historical events as a kind of subtitle for each portrait. Nor has he in reverse written history with his many wars and political developments and limited himself to the prominent role some of the Habsburgs personally played in it. Martyn Rady’s goal was to show that from the first traced ancestor Kanzelin (d. 991) and the Habsburg castle (Haviksburg? Hafenburg?) in Aargau in Switzerland, the Habsburgs had the ambition to survive as a nobility, to hold the possessions together with each other and expand through calculating marriages

These aspirations were passed on to the next generations and instilled. In time, they relied on an ideological foundation. The origin was projected back into the mythical past of classical antiquity. Thus, once the Habsburgs were crowned king and emperor, they became successors to the Roman emperors. Hence the title Roman king. This halo gave them a special, almost divine, shine and meaning in the eyes of the world and themselves. This was further confirmed when under Charles V the Habsburg Empire extended to parts of South and Central America, and Asia. An empire where the sun never set, just as in the time of the famous Roman Emperor August. This mythical lineage fulfilled the consciousness of successive generations and princes, seeing themselves as heirs to the Roman Empire and its divine origin. That is why they also remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Rome and saw to it that this tradition was preserved. The Spanish branch in particular did this rigorously and bloody, see the history of the Republic of the Netherlands that successfully broke away from this Spanish rule. The Austrian Habsburgs were strict or tolerant, usually pragmatic depending on the person of the monarch and the circumstances. The political changes, growing influence of the citizens and the scaling up of the jurisdictions, the increasing bureaucracy –all this illustratively described by Martyn Rady in successive chapters – the Habsburgs survived through what you might call the revolution from above as opposed to the French or American revolutions. Science was given free rein – the princes in Vienna laid the first natural history collections, founded museums of art, a zoo – but everything was controlled and managed from above. Parliaments, land days, printing press, these and other modernizations remained under monarchic control.
Martyn Rady pays special attention to the Baroque architecture, which is so characteristic of the heyday of the Habsburgs and their empire. The paintings in the domes of the churches and palaces seem to make a direct connection between the earth and heaven. The painters and architects did this by using special techniques to trick our human eye. This art was wonderfully in keeping with the myth of the Roman kings who viewed their rule as a reflection of divine authority.

But as often after pride comes the fall, as did the Habsburgs who experienced the decline of their empire and the breakup of the kingdoms and territories over which they had reigned for nearly 1000 years just after the height of their reign. With the Second World War, what was left of the Holy Roman Empire came to an end, and the last remnant, Austria itself, also turned away from the Habsburgs. Their role had been played.
The Habsburgs is a compelling book to the last page. It is certainly not a hagiography or a glossy for romantic followers of the monastry. Martyn Rady writes with respect, but critical and businesslike. Yet also empathetic to place oneself in the self-awareness of a dynasty based on an otherworldly divine myth and its power.

Europe was largely united under Habsburg rule, despite the overwhelmingly many local and regional differences. That sense of belonging together through a dynasty like then or through a shared idea of ​​citizens’ responsibility like in democracy is still alive in Europe. The myth of the divine origin no longer appeals, but the awareness of classical, humanist and Christian values ​​that have been given to us can certainly be and remain a connecting and formative force for Europe and the European Union in de the democracies it unites with its own myth of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Martin Los
The Habsburgs (c) Martyn Rady Basic Bo0ks 2020
Dutch translation (c) 2020 Uitgevrij Unieboek/Het spectrum bv. Amsterdam