America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

Another Betrayal of the Intellectuals

A historian charts the evolution of her own center-right liberalism.

Jonathan D. Teubner

Members of a far right group march in Poland, 2019; Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Another Betrayal of the Intellectuals

For the better part of a century, Berlin has been a misplaced city. Sitting only about fifty miles from the Polish border, it was an island in the middle of the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. To some extent, it still is. The German Hauptstadt, run by and, to a large extent, for the elites, is in the middle of the state of Brandenburg, which has struggled to keep pace with frenetic Berlin. Berliners are likely to know something about life in Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and the cities clustered along the shores of the Rhine; but if you ask them about Brandenburg, they are likely to shrug, knowing next to nothing about life there.

Berlin is a city of young creatives and old careerists—the perfect blend for the global capitalism of the early twenty-first century. It is not surprising, then, that Germany’s greatest city has seen steady growth for most of the years since the reunification of the country’s two halves in 1990. Brandenburg, on the other hand, though it has done better than many other “eastern” regions, has failed to achieve Berlin-type growth, thus setting up what might have been a perfect storm of envy, resentment, and revenge. Our populist narratives, often driven by a kind of economic determinism, would suggest that the haves of Berlin and the have-nots of Brandenburg would clash. Yet there has been very little populist animosity aimed at the citadel of Berlin from the fields of Brandenburg. But why is this? Why do such divisions spark revolt in some regions, while in others, people, well, get on with it? Why do some democracies seem fragile, teetering on the edge of collapse, while others appear robust even in the midst of the unprecedented challenges of widespread disease, joblessness, and general discontent?

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is an attempt to answer such questions. In a six-chapter journey of privilege and loss, Anne Applebaum takes us into the intensely personal breakup of the anticommunist center-right in Europe, England, and the United States. From the euphoria of early post–Cold War Europe to the recent populist or “authoritarian” uprisings in Poland and Hungary, and the related movements in Brexit-bound Britain and Donald Trump’s United States, Applebaum weaves anecdotes through each chapter as she tells of friends lost to the authoritarian enticements referred to in her book’s subtitle. The result is a social history of the new “conservative” elites that have emerged in Poland, Hungary, Britain, Spain, and, of course, the United States.

A journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, she has lived in Poland irregularly since 1988, as well as London and Washington, making as many friends as she has lost along the way. It’s the friends she lost who drive the narrative of Twilight of Democracy. She reads her former traveling partners in the anticommunist right as characters in Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs, a famous 1927 broadside flaying the intellectual and cultural elites who “betrayed” France in the early twentieth century, notably during the Dreyfus Affair. By tracing their routes into authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, in particular, Applebaum informs, in a sense, on her former friends: Who are they, how do they operate, how do they feel about their work, how do they communicate with each other and their followers, what relationship do they have with American political actors, and what does she recommend for further action?

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