Are We Barbarians?

15. 3. 2017


We, Central Europeans.

And why should we be barbarians?

Why? Of course, because:

(1) We are not prepared to accept (Muslim) immigrants, i.e. we are xenophobic or, to be specific, Islamophobic.

(2) We have authoritarian governments, prime ministers, presidents; we are the ones who have elected them.

(3) We are Euroskeptic and not as enthusiastic about the EU as we should be.

(4) We are not as advanced and civilized as West Europeans.

Is there anything we can say in our defense? Or should we just state dolefully: “Nolo contendere: guilty as charged”?

Well, let’s just think this through.

Re (1): Whether one is willing to receive foreigners or not is neither a sign of civilization nor of barbarism. Every polity is free to choose whom it accepts as its future fellow citizens and what criteria it will use to make that decision. It can choose to accept everyone who wants to come; it can choose not to accept anyone; and it can choose to accept any number from none to everyone. Some civilized countries, such as Canada, have liberal immigration policies, while other civilized countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have very restrictive policies. Yet nobody claims that Australia or New Zealand are barbarous.

Denmark and Great Britain adopted the same restrictive approach to receiving Muslim migrants as Central European countries from the outset, in 2015, yet nobody has accused them of barbarous behavior. They have since been joined by Sweden and Austria. Rather than being regarded as extreme, the position Central European countries took last year has become mainstream within the European Union this year. In today’s EU it is the position that demands that all refugees be accepted that has become extreme.

Central European populations do not have a problem with immigrants in general (they have been relatively tolerant to those from Ukraine or East Asia, for example), they just believe that a large-scale Muslim immigration would be a mistake. Seeing what has happened in Western Europe, they feel that Western Europe was wrong to let numerous Islamic communities be created in its midst. Not because the majority of Muslims cause problems but because a small yet virulent minority within the Islamic community has hatefully and violently rejected liberal democratic values. They regard the absence of this virulent minority in Central Europe as one of their few advantages compared to Western Europe.

Re (2): In what way are Central European presidents, prime ministers and governments authoritarian? Have they imprisoned a single opposition politician, journalist, or writer? Or have they consigned any to an even worse fate, as is common in Russia, China, or Cuba?

No, nothing of this kind has happened. Central Europe enjoys full freedom of political expression and discourse. Admittedly, government politicians have tried to dominate the public media, mostly with success. That is a disgrace. But perhaps it is not so very different from the situation in some other EU countries.

Or are they authoritarian because they have personalities with big egos? That is certainly true. But what distinctive politician did not have a big ego? Charles de Gaulle? Margaret Thatcher? Helmut Kohl?

De Gaulle held power continuously for eleven years, as did Mrs. Thatcher; Kohl ruled for sixteen years. Neither Kaczyński, Zeman, Fico, nor Orbán have held power continuously for such a long period, individually or cumulatively. That does not mean one has to agree with them; on the contrary, one can disagree with every one of them (the present writer, were he a citizen of these countries, would be strongly opposed to two of them, ambivalent about the third, and could just about offer his support to the fourth). What this does mean is that they are no more “authoritarian” than were de Gaulle, Kohl, or Thatcher. And Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary are no more “authoritarian” societies than France, Belgium, Ireland, or Cyprus.

Re (3): Are we really that Euroskeptic? No Euroskeptic or extremist party in any Central European country won the European Parliament elections in 2014; every victorious party belonged to one of the three most powerful factions in the Parliament, the European “establishment:” the European Peoples’ Party, Socialists, or Liberals. By comparison, Euroskeptic or extremist parties triumphed at the same election in four EU countries outside Central Europe: Denmark, France, Greece, and Great Britain.

Not a single Central European prime minister has supported or advocated leaving the EU, unlike the British prime minister. Not a single mayor of a Central European capital city has demanded that his country leave the EU and has led an ‘exit’ campaign, unlike the mayor of London.

If Euroskepticism is a criterion of barbarity, is Great Britain barbaric? More barbaric than Central Europe?

To say nothing of countries that are so Euroskeptic that they do not demand leaving the EU for the simple reason that they have repeatedly refused to join it in the first place, even though the EU would be happy to welcome them in its ranks, such as Switzerland and Norway? Are these countries islands of barbarity in Europe? Hardly…

Thus not only is Euroskepticism not a criterion of barbarism but Central Europe is by no means the most Euroskeptic region in Europe.

Re (4): Yes, we are distinct from Western Europe in some ways. Since democracy was reinstated in 1989 there has not happened a single assassination of any opposition politician, such as the case of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. Not a single murderous terrorist organization has emerged along the lines of the IRA in Great Britain, ETA in Spain, or 17N in Greece. None of our prime ministers or presidents has gained power by threatening a military coup the way de Gaulle did in France in 1958 (although he later legitimized his position through elections). Since the fall of the totalitarian regime and advent of democracy we have not seen a single coup of the kind Greece experienced in 1967. No former prime minister has been murdered, as was Italy’s Aldo Moro in 1978. No one in any of these countries murdered children (and a rabbi) in a (Jewish) school, as happened in Toulouse in March 2012. No one in any of these countries has decapitated a soldier in uniform just because he had fought for his queen and country, as happened in south London in April 2013. No one in these countries has murdered the visitors to a (Jewish) museum, as happened in Brussels in April 2014. And no one in any of these countries has gunned down the entire editorial staff of a satirical magazine or the audience of a crowded concert hall as happened in Paris in January and then again in November 2015…

Certainly, in this respect our Central European societies are indeed different from their West European counterparts. Does that make us barbarians?

Roman Joch

is the Executive Director of the Civic Institute in Prague. He is a commentator and lecturer on political philosophy, international relations, with an emphasis on US Domestic and Foreign Policies. He is the author of several monographs and expert studies including: American Foreign Policies and the Role of the US in the World (Studies OI, Prague 2000), Why Iraq? Reasons and Consequences of the Conflict (Prague 2003), and (together with Frank S. Meyer) Rebellion against the Revolution of the 20th Century (Prague 2003).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.