The End of Democracy? Educator Workshop Looks at the Rise of Authoritarianism in Eastern Europe

Populism and right-wing nationalism have been on the rise around the globe, prompting scholars across disciplines to explore the causes and consequences of this phenomenon. However, such scholarly research rarely appears in mainstream publications and media. To help make this information more accessible, CREECA and the Center for European Studies (CES) at UW-Madison recently held a workshop for K-12 educators from Wisconsin and surrounding states on “The End of Democracy? Eastern Europe 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall.” 19 educators attended the workshop, which took place on March 16, 2019 in Madison. It featured scholars from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee who study Hungary, Poland, and the former East Germany. All three countries underwent democratic transformations after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but have recently experienced the construction of new walls, both symbolic and literal.

Boriana Nikolova, associate lecturer of political science at UW-Madison

Hungary: A Canary in the Coal Mine

Boriana Nikolova, associate lecturer of political science at UW-Madison, kicked off the workshop with a general overview of Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy and the market economy. She discussed how economic reforms in these countries were rushed, and how privatization was prioritized over democratization. This led to widespread corruption, economic disparity, and fomented in citizens a belief that their interests were not being represented by their leaders.

In her lecture, Nikolova focused on Hungary as a particularly alarming example of Eastern Europe’s move towards “illiberal democracy.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the country seemed well positioned to become a successful democracy – its transition to the market economy had begun decades before, and the country had successfully held free and fair elections. But by the time Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010, almost 80% of Hungarians said that they were dissatisfied with how democracy worked in their country. Such dissatisfaction allowed Orbán, an outspoken critic of the media and judicial system, and his Fidesz party to rise to power on a platform of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

In an interview with CREECA following the workshop, Nikolova pointed out that despite the distance and ostensible differences between Hungary and the United States, both countries share a number of striking similarities. First, the US and Hungary are experiencing a spike in populism, driven by dissatisfaction with governments that appear to be neither responsive nor accountable to them. Like in Hungary, many Americans feel unrepresented, disconnected, or left behind.

Second, people in both countries perceive a gap between political and economic elites on the one hand, and ordinary citizens on the other. The wider this perceived gap between “us” and “them” grows, the more susceptible people become to populist and nationalist messages. While the image of the “other” can vary from immigrants and political opponents to the EU and mass media, the effect of this antagonism on society is very similar across political contexts. Nikolova cautioned that “East European democracies are the canary in the coal mine. As newer democracies, they are more vulnerable to the rise of populist politicians and to democratic backsliding.”  However, as recent developments in the UK, France, and the US show, even older, more established democracies are at risk.

Karolina May-Chu, assistant professor of German at UW-Milwaukee

Germany: Portrayals of Right-Wing Extremism in Film

Next to speak was Karolina May-Chu, assistant professor of German at UW-Milwaukee. She discussed the rise of right-wing extremism in Germany since 1989, focusing specifically on developments in the former East Germany. Eastern Germany underwent the same rapid economic and political transformations as the rest of post-communist Eastern Europe; in fact, as May-Chu explained, many were surprised at how rapidly East Germany’s re-unification with West Germany took place. As in Hungary, however, such transformations led to economic disparities and frustrations which, combined with the influx of migrants and the current refugee crisis, have contributed to a resurgence of nationalism.

May-Chu showed clips from three relatively recent films to illustrate the causes and consequences of right-wing extremism in Germany. This included We Are Young, We Are Strong (2014), a film based loosely on the anti-migrant riots which took place in Eastern Germany in 1992; In the Fade (2017), which tells a fictional story inspired by a series of murders committed by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the  2000s; and Look Who’s Back (2015), a satire in which Adolf Hitler awakes in Berlin in 2014, becomes a media sensation, and goes on tour interviewing (real) right-wing sympathizers about what they think is wrong with their country. The film highlights how German nationalists today echo many of the grievances – of non-German “others” taking over, of politicians who do not reflect the will of the people – that were common in the 1930s. May-Chu argued that such films could be great tools for teachers to use in the classroom.

Kathryn Ciancia, assistant professor of history at UW-Madison

Poland: Victimhood and Nationalism

Last to speak was Kathryn Ciancia, assistant professor of history at UW-Madison. Ciancia looked at how the idea of victimhood in Poland has allowed the current government to propose and enact illiberal laws. This includes the infamous “Holocaust Law,” which stated that Poles were not responsible for war crimes committed by the Nazis and those who claim otherwise could face fines or even imprisonment.

Ciancia explained how the ruling, right-wing Law and Justice Party is exploiting the resentment of those who were left behind by the post-1989 economic upheaval to advance their nationalist agenda. This includes eliminating the independence of the judiciary, increasing central-government control over local governments, and putting pressure on independent news outlets that are critical of the government. In a later interview with CREECA, Ciancia argued that a key lesson the workshop participants should come away with is that countries are not immune to illiberal practices, even in places where people fought hard to topple communism and establish democratic institutions, as Poland experienced with the Solidarity movement.

However, this backsliding is not inevitable. Ciancia believes that a deep knowledge of and sensitivity to the historical conditions behind current situations can lead to a better understanding of the present, both in Poland and elsewhere. “We cannot fully comprehend where we are in this very polarizing political moment without acknowledging and analyzing the long-term institutional and structural factors that have brought us here,” says Ciancia. The historian’s toolkit can ultimately empower younger citizens by allowing them to recognize how societal divisions have emerged and how they might be overcome.

Hanna Meister, a history teacher at West High School in Madison, listens to a presentation

Educators: From Workshop to Classroom

The day-long workshop ended with a general Q&A session for teachers to ask follow up questions, and to discuss best practices in the classroom. CREECA later caught up with a couple of the workshop participants to see what they thought of the “End of Democracy” workshop, and how they plan to incorporate what they learned in their own lesson plans.

Bill Gibson, a history teacher at East High School in Madison, has been to many workshops organized by CREECA and CES and spoke to the importance of such opportunities: “Teachers are not scholars. Once we enter the muddy trenches of the profession we are on our own in terms of filling in the enormous gaps in our knowledge base.”

Jody Forsythe, a former teacher at Northwestern High School in Maple, Wisconsin, found the films May-Chu showed to be particularly relevant to the current political atmosphere in the US. She also believed that visual portrayals of complex issues like xenophobia and nationalism would resonate with high school students. “The movies can better allow the younger audience to understand our past,” says Forsythe.

Hanna Meister, a history teacher at West High School in Madison, acknowledges that at times it might be hard to seamlessly incorporate knowledge gained at the workshop into the school curriculum. For instance, the time period she teaches does not cover current events. However, Meister says, “I am going to incorporate information about recent developments in Europe when teaching history of the 20th century, especially as we discuss Russia, Poland, and WWII. Making connections between the present and the past, as well as being able to see common trajectories, is crucial for bringing up good citizens.” Gibson echoes the crucial need to study and understand historical trends: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does instruct,” he concluded.