krastev11_ Federico Gambarinipicture alliance via Getty Images_orban kaczynski float Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Metamorphosis of Central Europe

Many liberals are shocked by the rise in recent years of xenophobic nationalism in Poland and Hungary, given that both have made substantial economic progress since joining the European Union. But that simply means that Central Europe’s turn toward populism cannot be explained in economic terms.

VIENNA – In Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, the protagonist Gregor Samsa awakens one morning “from uneasy dreams” to find that he has “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Needless to say, Samsa’s family is shocked and has no idea what to do with the ugly creature he has become.

Europeans know the feeling. In 2018, they were forced to acknowledge that Hungary and Poland have changed from promising models of liberal democracy into illiberal, conspiracy-minded majoritarian regimes. Now, the rest of Europe must decide what to do about the unfamiliar creatures residing in their house.

But first, it is worth considering why these illiberal transformations happened. Why have people who still see themselves as wholly European endorsed a revolt against the European Union, while embracing xenophobia and nativism? And why did liberals across Europe fail to respond in time?