Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well. On December 31, , we threw a party. It was the end of one millennium and the start of a new one; people very much wanted to celebrate, preferably somewhere exotic.
Our party fulfilled that criterion. We held it at Chobielin, the manor house in northwest Poland that my husband and his parents had purchased a decade earlier, when it was a mildewed ruin.
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We had restored the house, very slowly. It was not exactly finished in , but it did have a new roof. It also had a large, freshly painted, and completely unfurnished salon—perfect for a party. To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app. The guests were various: journalist friends from London and Berlin, a few diplomats based in Warsaw, two friends who flew in from New York.
But most of them were Poles, friends of ours and colleagues of my husband, who was then a deputy foreign minister in the Polish government. A handful of youngish Polish journalists came too—none then particularly famous—along with a few civil servants and one or two members of the government.
You could have lumped the majority of them, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right—the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of my guests liberals—free-market liberals, or classical liberals—or maybe Thatcherites. Even those who might have been less definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of nato and on its way to joining the European Union—an integrated part of modern Europe.
As parties go, it was a little scrappy.
There was no such thing as catering in rural Poland in the s, so my mother-in-law and I made vats of beef stew and roasted beets. There were no hotels, either, so our odd guests stayed in local farmhouses or with friends in the nearby town. I kept a list of who was staying where, but nevertheless, a couple of people wound up sleeping on a sofa in our basement. The music—mixtapes, made in an era before Spotify—created the only serious cultural divide of the evening: The songs that my American friends remembered from college were not the same as the songs that the Poles remembered from college, so it was hard to get everybody to dance at the same time.
At one point I went upstairs, learned that Boris Yeltsin had resigned, wrote a brief column for a British newspaper, then went back downstairs and had another glass of wine. At about three in the morning, one of the wackier Polish guests pulled a small pistol out of her handbag and shot blanks into the air out of sheer exuberance. It was that kind of party. We had rebuilt our house. Our friends were rebuilding the country. I have a particularly clear memory of a walk in the snow—maybe it was the day before the party, maybe the day after—with a bilingual group, everybody chattering at once, English and Polish mingling and echoing through the birch forest.
At that moment, when Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.
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That moment has passed. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.
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But others wound up in a different place, supporting a nativist party called Law and Justice—a party that has moved dramatically away from the positions it held when it first briefly ran the government, from to , and when it occupied the presidency not the same thing in Poland , from to Since then, Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian.
After the party won a slim parliamentary majority in , its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, it used a similarly unconstitutional playbook to attempt to pack the Polish Supreme Court. The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. She regularly hosts lunches for him at her apartment and discusses whom he should appoint to his cabinet. I tried to see her recently in Warsaw, but she refused.
Another of my guests—the one who shot the pistol in the air—eventually separated from her British husband. She now appears to spend her days as a full-time internet troll, fanatically promoting a whole range of conspiracy theories, many of them virulently anti-Semitic. I happen to know that both of these women are estranged from their children because of their political views.
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But that, too, is typical—this line of division runs through families as well as groups of friends. We have a neighbor near Chobielin whose parents listen to a progovernment, Catholic-conspiratorial radio station called Radio Maryja. They repeat its mantras, make its enemies their enemies. To be clear about my interests and biases here, I should explain that some of this conspiratorial thinking is focused on me.
As a journalist and his American-born wife, I have always attracted some press interest. But after Law and Justice won that year, I was featured on the covers of two pro-regime magazines, wSieci and Do Rzeczy —former friends of ours work at both—as the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland. Eventually, they stopped writing about me: Negative international press coverage of Poland has grown much too widespread for a single person, even a single Jewish person, to coordinate all by herself.
Though naturally the theme recurs on social media from time to time. In a famous journal he kept from to , the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian chronicled an even more extreme shift in his own country. Like me, Sebastian was Jewish; like me, most of his friends were on the political right. In his journal, he described how, one by one, they were drawn to fascist ideology, like a flock of moths to an inescapable flame.
He recounted the arrogance and confidence they acquired as they moved away from identifying themselves as Europeans—admirers of Proust, travelers to Paris—and instead began to call themselves blood-and-soil Romanians. He listened as they veered into conspiratorial thinking or became casually cruel. People he had known for years insulted him to his face and then acted as if nothing had happened. This is not Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the s.
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Even after the global financial collapse in , the country saw no recession. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind. More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be about which more in a minute , they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass.
What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians?
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Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will. Profound political shifts—events that suddenly split families and friends, cut across social classes, and dramatically rearrange alliances—do not happen every day in Europe, but neither are they unknown.
Not nearly enough attention has been paid in recent years to a lateth-century French controversy that prefigured many of the debates of the 20th century, and has some clear echoes in the present. The Dreyfus affair was triggered in , when a traitor was discovered in the French army: Somebody had been passing information to Germany, which had defeated France a quarter century earlier and occupied Alsace-Lorraine. French military intelligence investigated and claimed that it had found the culprit. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian, spoke with a German accent, and was a Jew—and therefore, in the eyes of some, not a real Frenchman.
As it would turn out, he was also innocent. The ensuing controversy divided French society along now-familiar lines. They pushed a conspiracy theory. Dreyfus was not a spy. To prove the unprovable, the anti-Dreyfusards had to disparage evidence, law, and even rational thought. Science itself was suspect, both because it was modern and universal and because it came into conflict with the emotional cult of ancestry and place. The Dreyfusards, meanwhile, argued that some principles are higher than national honor, and that it mattered whether Dreyfus was guilty or not.