Because We Tried: What We Can Learn from Central Europe

Posted By Mandi Lindner on Feb 23, 2017 | 0 comments

Are we entering an age of authoritarianism in American politics? Are sentiments of white nationalism – that seemed to always be on the fringe – now ever-popular and creating an opening for fascism to gain a foothold?

Having never lived under a fascist, authoritarian government before I can’t be sure of the signs. But we can learn from our global allies.

Strategic Dialogue with Global Leaders

I recently had the privilege of attending a listening session at Capitol Hill sponsored by a global conference I was attending by an organization that supports and promotes international exchange programs. The NGO I work for contracts with the government to implement such programs for youth, mid-career professionals and emerging leaders around the world.

Diplomacy is an important component to our nation’s safety. One-third of all current world leaders are alumni if USG exchange programs. Throughout history over 500 world leaders have been alumni. These diplomatic programs are incredibly important to America’s place on the global stage and to increasing understanding between global cultures and everyday citizens.

They represent a minuscule fraction of our national budget, yet may now be under threat from the new administration.

A Bridge is Built from Both Sides

One of the things we tend to forget about these exchange programs is that the learning goes both ways. As we showcase what makes America great (not again, but always), we can learn from the lessons and experiences these visitors have lived in their own countries.

During one of the panels, I asked the Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S., Réka Szemerkényi, if she thought Hungary’s role in relations with Western governments would change as we’ve seen more of a rise of authoritarian leaders in the U.S., Britain, France, etc.

A Bit of Background

You see, I lived in Hungary a few years ago in a mid-sized city that sat at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian border. At the turn of the 20th century the citizens were given the choice of becoming a part of Austria or to join Hungary. They chose Hungary, and that choice would have significant consequences at the close of WWII.

In essence, the population of Sopron lived with freedom in sight for the decades that they were locked behind the Iron Curtain.

My time in Sopron took place a little less than two decades after the curtain fell. It was easy to notice the effects this historic tension had on generations of citizens. In the words of my American colleague, “Hungarians are tough to crack.” They were not quick to trust you or open up to you. They also had a voracious appetite for learning and understanding different perspectives and worldviews.

What I found especially unique – from my purely American upbringing – was their celebration of an attempted revolution against the U.S.S.R. that Hungary led in 1956.

1956 remembrance on Budapest Chain Bridge

I happened to be in Budapest that weekend in October and the entire country shut down. There was a distinct somberness to the festivities, if you can call them that, and I asked my Hungarian colleague why they were celebrating if the uprising was ultimately a failure.

“Because we tried,” she said.

I was taken aback. As an American it was a surprising idea – celebrating a failure. It’d be like if we continued to hold extensive celebratory 4th of July parties but the revolution had never happened and we were still British colony.

So, What the Hell Am I Trying to Say?

So, why my question? Why this memory?

I already knew the answer when I asked Ambassador Szemerkényi what Hungary can bring to the table by taking a more leading, outspoken role in foreign relations. But I wanted everyone else in the audience – representing the international exchange industry around the country and from all walks of political life – to hear it and realize it too.

Because the answer is that nations and citizens have dealt with this political climate before, sometimes to disastrous consequences. And we can learn a lot about the warning signs of when nationalism and isolationism go too far. We can learn that democracy is fragile.

And maybe, by learning from our peers in Central and Eastern Europe, we can again appreciate the freedoms we have and learn to fight for them. Because Ambassador Szemerkényi’s answer was complex, but it really boils down to the fact that we here in the U.S. have been spoiled. We don’t have a collective memory of anything other than democratic freedom. Sure, it’s been a rocky road (to put it very, very mildly), but we’ve always been free in ways other nations have not. And that’s a privilege. And I think that’s what set Hungarians apart to me…that they have joy – not arrogance – in their freedom. They appreciate it and understand how fragile it is.

We could do well to learn from them. And if the pessimists and Chicken Littles are correct and it all goes to hell, well, we can also learn from the Hungarians of 1956. Because they tried.

What do you think?