The Other Central Europe

A specter is haunting Central Europe as its countries prepare for EU membership. That promising development is being endangered by a fevered electoral nationalism which seeks to gain votes by promising to reopen old wounds and settle old scores.

The clearest case of this comes from Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban demanded an abrogation of President Edvard Benes' decrees of 1945 (which confiscated the assets of and stripped citizenship from the German and Hungarian populations deported from Czechoslovakia at that time) as part of a re-election campaign that failed narrowly. But Orban is not alone in seeing electoral advantage in summoning the memories of old ghosts.

Orban argued that revoking the "Benes decrees" must be made a condition for the Czech Republic (as well as Slovakia) joining the European Union. The ill will Orban's gambit inspired brought to a halt much of the regional cooperation of the last decade. In its place, an ugly new form of national populism is emerging across the plain that extends between Bavaria and the Danube.

The chain reaction of reawakening nationalisms is altering the political landscape in dangerous ways. Since the election that brought the coalition of Wolfgang Schüssel's and Jorg Haider's parties to power in Vienna, Austria's relations with the neighboring Czech Republic have deteriorated over two issues: a demand that the Czechs shutdown the Temelin nuclear power plant on the Austrian border, and revoke the Benes decrees in which Sudeten Germans were deported from Czechoslovakia and settled massively in Bavaria but also in Austria.