German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest, February 2015

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Budapest, February 2015

Had I been cryogenically frozen in January 2005, I would have gone to my provisional rest as a happy European. With the enlargement of the European Union to include many post-Communist democracies, the 1989 “return to Europe” dream of my Central European friends was coming true. EU member states had agreed on a constitutional treaty, loosely referred to as the European constitution. The unprecedented project of European monetary union seemed to be confounding the deep skepticism that I and many others had earlier expressed.1 It was amazing to travel without hindrance from one end of the continent to another, with no border controls inside the expanding zone of states adhering to the Schengen Agreement and with a single currency in your pocket for use throughout the eurozone.

Madrid, Warsaw, Athens, Lisbon, and Dublin felt as if they were bathed in sunlight from windows newly opened in ancient dark palaces. The periphery of Europe was apparently converging with the continent’s historic core around Germany, the Benelux countries, France, and northern Italy. Young Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, and Portuguese spoke optimistically about the new chances offered them by “Europe.” Even notoriously euroskeptical Britain was embracing its European future under Prime Minister Tony Blair. And then there was the avowedly pro-European Orange Revolution in Ukraine. As I watched peaceful protesters in Kiev waving the European flag, with its yellow stars on a blue background, I could inwardly intone the European anthem—Beethoven’s music for the “Ode to Joy.”2

Cryogenically reanimated in January 2017, I would immediately have died again from shock. For now there is crisis and disintegration wherever I look: the eurozone is chronically dysfunctional, sunlit Athens is plunged into misery, young Spaniards with doctorates are reduced to serving as waiters in London or Berlin, the children of Portuguese friends seek work in Brazil and Angola, and the periphery of Europe is diverging from its core. There is no European constitution, since that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands later in 2005. The glorious freedom of movement for young Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans has now contributed substantially to a shocking referendum vote by my own country, Britain, to leave the EU altogether. And Brexit brings with it the prospect of being stripped of my European citizenship on the thirtieth anniversary of 1989.

A young liberal hero of 1989, Viktor Orbán, is now a nationalist populist leading Hungary toward authoritarianism and explicitly praising the “illiberal” example of Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Border controls have been reimposed between Schengen countries (“temporarily,” of course), in response to the flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—areas where our so-called European foreign policy has proved little more than waffle. To cap it all, a brave attempt to complete the unfinished business of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine has been rewarded with Russia’s unilateral armed seizure of Crimea and ongoing violent intervention in eastern Ukraine—actions recalling Europe in 1939 rather than 1989. Ichabod! Ichabod! The glory has departed from our common European home.

This spectacular shift from light to dark raises interesting questions about historical periodization and the way historians are influenced by the times in which they write. One of the finest histories of twentieth-century Europe, Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, first published in 1998, is a partial exception, consciously written against the liberal triumphalism of the 1990s. Yet even Mazower concluded that “compared with other historical epochs and other parts of the world today, the inhabitants of the continent enjoy a remarkable combination of individual liberty, social solidarity and peace.”

Few historians could have been more skeptical about the self-congratulatory platitudes of liberal Europeanism than Tony Judt. He dissected and challenged them in a set of lectures originally published in 1996 as A Grand Illusion? Yet even he concluded the last full chapter of his magisterial history of Europe since 1945, Postwar, published precisely at that 2005 moment of apparent triumph, with these boldly optimistic words: “Few would have predicted it sixty years before, but the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe.”

I have always had my doubts about the periodization suggested in Tony Judt’s title, implying as it does that the “postwar” period extended from 1945 to 2005. The developments in every epoch have longer-term causes and consequences than implied by any sharp bookend dates, but it seems to me more persuasive to date the postwar period from 1945 to 1989, or at the latest to 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The period of European history after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 might be called, in shorthand, “post-wall.” But then we face a further question: Are we still in that period? Or did the post-wall era end during my imagined cryogenic slumber, sometime between the high point of early 2005 and the low of today? Such bookend dates are always contestable, but it seems plausible to suggest that the financial crisis of 2008–2009, which started in the US but rapidly spread to Europe, has initiated a new period characterized by three larger crises: of capitalism, of democracy, and of the project of European integration.


There are always continuities across such caesuras and one is the peaceful rise and rise of Germany. Having unexpectedly received in 1989–1990 what Fritz Stern memorably called its “second chance,” with its rapid and peaceful unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has thus far used this chance well. It would surely have been a source of satisfaction to Stern, an incomparable chronicler of modern Germany’s intellectual flowering in the early twentieth century, that in the early twenty-first century Germany’s economic and political strength is accompanied by a certain restoration of intellectual potency. Some of the most incisive analyses of Europe and its discontents now come from German scholars.

Philipp Ther is a German historian at Vienna University. Although the English edition of his book is entitled Europe Since 1989: A History, and he suggests in the preface that he is trying to continue Judt’s Postwar “in terms of time and with a stronger focus on social and economic history,” this is not a history of Europe as a whole. There is only one reference in the index to François Mitterrand and none to Giulio Andreotti. This is a history of post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe, very much including Germany, with one long comparative chapter on Southern Europe. Unlike Judt’s work, it has a central, driving thesis, better captured in the title of the original German edition: “The New Order on the Old Continent: A History of Neoliberal Europe.” At its heart is an argument about what “neoliberal” economic policies did to the societies of post-Communist Europe.

Although dense, Ther’s work is enlivened by personal anecdotes and observations, starting with his first trip to “the East” in 1977, at the age of ten. He has stimulating chapters on what he calls the “cotransformation” of East and West Germany, and on the boom time of capital cities such as Warsaw, so sharply contrasting with the country’s poorer regions, known in Poland as “Polska B.” Unusually for a German scholar, he can sometimes be a bit slapdash, making sweeping judgments on the basis of just one or two sources.3

Nonetheless, his central thesis demands serious consideration. He argues that a “neoliberal train,” put on track in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s United States, began “to cross Europe in 1989.” He says he uses neoliberalism “as a neutral, analytical term,” and rightly distinguishes between its intellectual history and the specific social and political circumstances of its implementation. His summary of the main pillars of neoliberal ideology does not feel entirely neutral:

Blind belief in the market as an adjudicator in almost all human affairs, irrational reliance on the rationality of market participants, disdain for the state as expressed in the myth of “big government,” and the uniform application of the economic recipes of the Washington Consensus. [My italics.]

He maintains that its crucial features, as applied in Eastern Europe, were liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, and that its consequences in social dislocation and growing inequality were very damaging.

Several reservations must be entered about this critique of neoliberalism’s impact on post-Communist Europe. First, as Ther himself carefully notes, the one thing worse than having a neoliberal transformation of your economy was not having a neoliberal transformation. Look at the dismal performance of Ukraine, Russia, and Romania. In 1989, Poland had roughly the same per capita GDP as Ukraine; a quarter-century later, per capita GDP in Poland was roughly three times that in Ukraine. Even more tellingly, he suggests that Poland’s per capita GDP was roughly 10 percent of newly united Germany’s in 1991 but 53 percent just twenty years later.4

Second, his use of the term “neoliberalism” risks overstating the ideological dimension. Yes, there were “Eastern Thatcherites” such as Václav Klaus, the godfather of the Czech Republic’s economic transformation—and Klaus was more Thatcherite than Thatcher. But this was not an ideological mass movement like communism or fascism in the 1920s or 1930s, driven by leaders who believed passionately and dogmatically in their -ism. Most of those who embraced these “neoliberal” policies after 1989 did so pragmatically, for lack of any credible alternative.

Such was the case of Poland’s first post-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who in earlier years had been something close to a Christian socialist. And I remember Bronisław Geremek, a leading Solidarity adviser and subsequently Polish foreign minister, explaining his support for neoliberal “shock therapy” with a metaphor. You see, he told me, the nationalized command economy is like a huge concrete bunker, so it needs a giant bulldozer to take it down. As an endpoint they would have been delighted to have a Scandinavian, social democratic version of capitalism. But first they had to build that capitalism out of the ruins of the Communist bunker.


This leads me to a final reservation. It’s all very well for Ther to wax ironical about Mrs. Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative) and to note, amusingly, that alternativlos was declared the ugliest German word of 2010. But what exactly was the alternative? How else could they have created a market economy? Historians are not absolutely obliged to explore counterfactuals, but it often enriches their work if they do.

All this being said, I think Ther makes an important point. Post-dissident and reformist elites, including those who came from the democratic left, did go very far in their embrace of a radical (neo)liberal economic transformation. Ther gives the example of the veteran Polish dissident Jacek Kuroń. He might have added that Kuroń in his final years bitterly regretted his vocal support, while a minister in Mazowiecki’s government, for an economic liberalism that had such painful social consequences—not least for many of the workers who had been the backbone of Solidarity. Adam Michnik, for the last quarter-century editor in chief of the influential daily Gazeta Wyborcza, famously observed that “my heart is on the left but my wallet is on the right.”

At the very least, Poland’s urban, liberal intelligentsia could have found a better public language to show that they cared about those who were paying the human price of transition. They could have done more to help the workers who had lost their jobs in large state-owned enterprises to find new, worthwhile employment, and, when the budget permitted, they could have pursued a more active social policy.

For that “heart on the left” was barely visible to those millions of Poles in the small towns and poorer regions of “Polska B,” who felt themselves to be marginalized and left behind by the bulldozer of economic liberalism. They were also, it’s important to add, alienated by the social liberalism, on issues such as abortion, gender, and sexual orientation, which came with the opening to Western Europe. Here was the core electorate on the back of which the populists of the Law and Justice party rose to power in 2015, offering a combination of nationalist, Catholic ideology, typical of the right, and generous promises of welfare benefits and state economic intervention, more historically typical of the left. In short, a reaction against the consequences of economic and social liberalism now threatens the achievements of political liberalism.

Ther suggests that Southern Europe may be supplanting Eastern Europe on some Western Europeans’ mental maps, taking its place as the imagined, backward Other. He points to the acronym PIGS, coined for four crisis-torn, Southern European debtor countries of the eurozone: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain. (The insult was originally PIIGS, until Ireland, the second I, lifted itself out by its own efforts.) But Ther’s chapter on Southern Europe feels like King Lear without the king, for he discusses only in passing what is at the heart of the Southern European tragedy: the profound design flaws of the eurozone and inadequate remedies offered by the creditor countries of Northern Europe, meaning mainly Germany.

This is a shared theme of books by Claus Offe, Hans-Werner Sinn, Joseph Stiglitz, and François Heisbourg, to name but four. Coming from very different ideological and national perspectives, all agree that it was a big mistake to create the eurozone with its present design and size—a common currency without a common treasury and shackling together nineteen quite diverse economies. Intended to foster European unity, the “one size fits none” euro is actually dividing Europe. It has revived terrible bitterness between Greece and Germany, and caused widespread resentment in both south and north. Continuing the current policies will at best result in Southern Europe limping along for years to come inside the eurozone, with low growth, high unemployment, and a culture of learned hopelessness.

These writers propose different remedies. With magnificent Cartesian clarity, Heisbourg writes: “The currently existing euro being the cause of the problem, the solution must be to abolish it coolly and by common accord.” This is rational, but is it real? Offe disagrees, asserting that the euro “is a mistake the undoing of which would be an even greater mistake.” Stiglitz and Sinn offer a smorgasbord of more or less radical reforms, which I have neither the space nor the technical competence to assess.

One key to a solution, however, clearly lies in the Germany of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble ceasing to treat economics as a branch of theology. Offe makes the sharp observation that the German word for budget is Haushalt, meaning literally household, and evoking a sense of the proverbial Swabian housewife’s good housekeeping, while the German word for debt, Schuld, also means guilt. The German press, he notes, has repeatedly referred to the PI(I)GS as “fiscal sinners.” To adapt the Bible: the wages of sin is debt.

This chronic illness of the eurozone has nourished populists of left and right, in south and north. The German populist party Alternative für Deutschland, for example, started as an anti-euro party, before gaining a much larger following as an anti-immigration party, after last year’s large-scale influx of refugees. And I have not even begun to discuss that refugee crisis, which is still shaking German society; the Brexit crisis; the Ukraine crisis; the frontal challenge posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia to both European security and European democracies; the terrorism crisis (France, one of the main targets of Islamist terrorism, is still under a state of emergency); the demographic crisis; and the insecurity plaguing many of the continent’s young people, now sometimes known as “the precariat.” All these are distinct but mutually reinforcing parts of an overarching existential crisis that is threatening the entire post-1945 project of European union. And all feed the metastasis of populist politics.

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, Austria decided not to elect a right-wing populist, Norbert Hofer, as president, but he still got some 46 percent of the vote. That same day, amid talk of Trumpismo, Italy voted “no” in a referendum on constitutional reforms proposed by the country’s would-be reformist prime minister Matteo Renzi. Although many voted against the substance of the proposals, this was a boost for the populist Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo and raised the prospect of further instability, especially in the fragile banks of the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

In 2017, we face parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilder’s populist party is doing well, the presidential election in France, where Marine Le Pen seems almost certain to face the conservative François Fillon in the second round, and then Germany’s general election in the autumn. Of these the most dangerous is the French election, which has been described as “Europe’s Stalingrad.”5

I have used the word “populist” several times without pausing to define it. But isn’t it just a woolly, catch-all term for parties, movements, and presidential candidates we don’t like? What is populism? This is the question addressed in an excellent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a German scholar who now teaches at Princeton. Müller recalls that Richard Hofstadter once gave a talk titled “Everyone Is Talking about Populism, but No One Can Define It,” yet he makes the best effort I have seen to give the term a coherent contemporary meaning.

Populists speak in the name of “the people,” and claim that their direct legitimation from “the people” trumps (the verb has acquired a new connotation) all other sources of legitimate political authority, be it constitutional court, head of state, parliament, or local and state government. Donald Trump’s “I am your voice” is a classic populist statement. But so is the Turkish prime minister’s riposte to EU assertions that a red line had been crossed by his government’s clampdown on media freedom: “The people draw the red lines.” So is the Daily Mail’s front-page headline denouncing three British High Court judges who ruled that Parliament must have a vote on Brexit as “Enemies of the People.” Meanwhile, Polish right-wing nationalists justify an ongoing attempt to neuter Poland’s constitutional court on the grounds that the people are “the sovereign.”

The other crucial populist move is to identify as “the people” (or Volk) what turns out to be only some of the people. A Trump quotation from the campaign trail captures this perfectly: “The only important thing is the unification of the people,” said the Donald, “because the other people don’t mean anything.” UKIP’s Nigel Farage welcomed the Brexit vote as a victory for “ordinary people,” “decent people,” and “real people.” The 48 percent of us who voted on June 23, 2016, for Britain to remain in the EU are plainly neither ordinary nor decent, nor even real. Everywhere it’s the “other people” who now have to watch out: Mexicans and Muslims in the US, Kurds in Turkey, Poles in Britain, Muslims and Jews all over Europe, as well as Sinti and Roma, refugees, immigrants, black people, women, cosmopolitans, homosexuals, not to mention “experts,” “elites,” and “mainstream media.” Welcome to a world of rampant Trumpismo.

Populism, Müller argues, is inimical to pluralism. Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional and social checks and balances that prevent any “tyranny of the majority” from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society, and independent, diverse media.

Müller rejects the term “illiberal democracy,” arguing that it allows people like Viktor Orbán to claim that Hungary just has another kind of democracy, authentically democratic in a different way. What Orbán has done, for example in his takeover of the media, undermines democracy itself. Yet I think we do need a term to describe what happens when a government that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship—and may not even necessarily intend to. Words like “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and “populism” are themselves imperfect shorthand for phenomena with significant national, regional, and cultural variations. “Hybrid regime” feels too unspecific, so unless and until someone comes up with a better term, I shall continue to use “illiberal democracy.”

If the post-wall era runs from 1989 to 2009, what epoch are we in now? We almost certainly won’t know for a decade or three. On a bad Europe day, and there were too many of those in 2016, one does feel like going into cryogenic hibernation; but this is no time for freezing. No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era’s economic and social liberalism—and of related developments, such as rapid technological change—have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.