On Andrea Pipino's book Nationalisms. Illiberal democracies, authoritarian temptations and the identity of Central and Eastern Europe.

In mid-September of this year, the European Parliament adopted a motion for a resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe, at the request of MEPs mainly from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The document aroused considerable controversy and revealed how difficult it is to build a common memory in countries with different sensitivities and different historical experiences. If more books such as Andrea Pipino’s Nationalisms were read by citizens of the European Union, it would be easier for us to understand each other and look for common solutions.

Andrea Pipino, Nazionalismi, Editrice Bibliografica, 2019

A small volume booklet Nationalisms. Illiberal democracies, Authoritarian Temptations and the identity of Central and Eastern Europe written by Italian journalist Andrea Pipino appeared in June 2019 by the publishing house Editrice Bibliografica.

The book consists of seven short chapters – the first is an original introduction on Central European distinctiveness whereas the next six are interviews with representatives of individual countries: Ferenc Laczó from Hungary, Jacek Dehnel from Poland, Martin Pollack from Austria, Lucian Boia from Romania, Slavenka Drakulić from Croatia, and Alexander Verkhovsky from Russia.

The publication acts as a footbridge over the wall that separates two memories – Central and Western European – on which you can meet and see both sides.

It was created for readers from old Europe, who start to observe carefully the Central-Eastern part of the continent. “For the first time in decades, Westerners are looking east to understand in which direction the spirit of the time is heading” (p. 12). Undoubtedly, it should also be read by readers in Central Europe, because it relates directly to the region.

Presenting the specifics of this part of the continent, Pipino draws attention to similarities with Western Europe, while not underestimating the fundamental differences within the countries of the region, which on the one hand includes Hungary that before 1918 was part of one of Europe’s imperial powers and Poland that had been annexed by others; Austria in which until recently a sense of belonging to the Pangerman family was stronger than that of the Austrian nation; and Croatia, which is born from the ruins of war. Pepino manages to avoid harmful generalisations, but at the same time successfully draws universal, often not obvious, conclusions.

“The claim that European values ​​are only those associated with democracy and solidarity is a great historical simplification” (p. 51) – we read in one of the conversations. Perhaps it was excessive optimism and faith in transformational possibilities and a change in mentality that drove pro-democratic and pro-European forces to accept with surprise and certain powerlessness the intensification of nationalism, illiberalism and xenophobia.

Moreover, they still behave as if the ultra-conservative revolution has already reached its climax. Meanwhile, based on various historical experiences, it can be concluded that nationalist ideologies at some point spin out of the control of those who use them and wreak havoc like a devastating tornado, without saving anything they encounter on their way.

Complex phenomenon

Central European nationalism is a complex phenomenon, and Andrea Pipino’s book perfectly demonstrates this complexity. His interlocutors pay attention to various aspects of the history of their nations and social phenomena observed today, which are often overlooked in the international debate. These different perspectives give a more complete picture of what we are dealing with, speaking of a wave of right-wing populism in Central Europe.

For example, Franc Laczó talks about the attitude towards the Roma:

“According to various anthropological and sociological studies, the most hostile to the Roma are white male Hungarians living in small rural centers. These people believe that women’s emancipation threatens their social role, they are unemployed or struggling with economic problems, and are often addicted to alcohol. They are the social group that has lost the most in the last thirty years. At the same time, they believe that they have a huge heritage that distinguishes them from the Roma and makes them more respectable. A legacy that no one can take away from them – their Hungarianness. This identity is their symbolic capital, their only wealth.” (p. 48)

Jacek Dehnel points out, among other things, the change of emphasis in memory of the Second World War in Poland: “Interestingly, before the rule of Law and Justice, the symbol of the Polish resistance during World War II, and then during the Soviet occupation was the government in exile that operated in London from 1940 to 1990. It was an institution not universally recognised, but in a sense completely official, acting as a legitimate entity. Today, its heritage is marginalised, and above all the state honours the heroism of the cursed soldiers. It is like saying: ‘Respect for rights, the rule of law means nothing. What matters is patriotism. Patriotism allows us to do what we want without having to follow the rules of the game, which is democracy'” (pp. 68–69).

An important part of this picture is the events of 1989 and the dynamics of the changes that followed it. “The presence of nationalisms in communist regimes is an essential element to understand today’s situation. […] Disregarding these tendencies of the communist regimes caused a misunderstanding, the effects of which we still feel: in the West, many people did not understand that the 1989 revolutions were also clearly national in nature,” notes Pipino (pp. 16-17).

During the thirtieth anniversary of democratic revolutions in Europe, the topic of unfulfilled promises and disappointed hopes of some Central European societies – to which populist forces most often refer today – seems to be one of the most important threads.

“[…] East and West of Europe are still divided by history,” Slavenka Drakulić argues. – Immediately after 1989, we had the impression that we would be able to blur the differences very quickly, but soon we realized that this would not happen, because in democracy one cannot take shortcuts. And while it is possible to make capitalism function in a short time, it is different with democracy.” (p. 120)

Andrea Pipino does not stop at describing the current situation but shows the evolution of views, change of rhetoric, the wilful polarisation of the societies that led to it. It draws attention to the choice of rally sites, symbols accompanying them, resembles the speeches of leading politicians from a few years ago. It shows that nationalism is not born in a vacuum, but also that it can attach to and use completely different elements, such as the identification of a nation with a religion, or the belief that the ethnic reach of the nation extends far beyond the current borders of the state. Pipino also shows that sovereigns use the rhetoric of a besieged fortress as well as the empire, victims and victors with the same ease.

The great value of the book is that it is both authorial and polyphonic, not seeking justification, but trying to understand. It is also well documented. The attached bibliography is in itself a great value for anyone interested in the subject.

Andrei Pipino’s Nationalisms is a short book to read in a single evening because these days there is no time to waste. It takes reflection and quick action instead of the usual tit for tat. “Replacing national defence rhetoric with European defence rhetoric would be a mistake. This is unnecessary and ultimately also counterproductive. Not wanting to give up hastily the category of a nation that for many Europeans remains the basic horizon of community life, we need today a Europeanism of rights and open citizenship, which will be able to harmonise with the new – republican and liberal – civic patriotism.” (p. 27)


All quotes are the author’s translation from Italian.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was originally published on Res Publica Nowa.

Supporting editor of Res Publica Nowa and Visegrad Insight, translator. A graduate of cultural studies (Mediterranean studies) and philosophy at the University of Warsaw

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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