viktor orban Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rhymes from Central Europe

The rise – or better, the return – of “illiberal democracy” in parts of Europe today surprises us, because it refutes the established narrative of progress. But what is odd is not the reappearance of ancient faiths and prejudices, but rather the liberal belief that they could so easily be overcome.

LONDON – On December 3, 2018, the Central European University announced that from September 2019 it would relocate most of its teaching from Budapest to Vienna. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government had, in effect, closed down the CEU, founded by Orbán’s favourite bogeyman, George Soros. “Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” declared the university’s rector, Michael Ignatieff. “It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.”

But not for Orbán, who, as The New York Times reported, “has long viewed the school as a bastion of liberalism, presenting a threat to his vision of creating an ‘illiberal democracy.’” And Orbán’s “desire to shut it down was only deepened by its association with Mr. Soros,” whom he “has spent years demonizing.” In particular, he accuses Soros, who was born in Hungary and survived the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, “of seeking to destroy European civilization by promoting illegal immigration.”

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Sadly, we are a history-blind generation. Most people who read history do so for fun, not for instruction. The European Union is a symbol of overcoming the past, marking out a future guided by insights from science and economics, not from history. Yet disturbing recent developments, not just in Hungary, rhyme with ideas and discourses that most thought had been discarded decades ago.

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