David Engels is chair of Roman History at the University of Brussels (ULB )and senior analyst at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznań. He is the author of numerous books, including “Was tun?: Leben mit dem Niedergang Europas.” Considered one of the leading intellectuals in Europe’s conservative movement, he recently delivered a speech at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels on “European Renewal Through National and Cultural Patriotism.”
Remix News: Some European conservatives cultivated a relationship with Russia over the years, not necessarily because they loved the country, but because they saw it as a potential hedge against a dominant liberal Brussels. Was there any merit to this strategy?
Engels: Obviously, neither the leftist governments not the conservative oppositions are able to transform the entire non-Western world into something corresponding perfectly to their respective ideals — the task is simply too gigantic. Hence, the insight that sometimes, we need to make compromises and work with people in states where we would not necessarily like to live, is only natural. Furthermore, I can understand that some people on the conservative side hoped that they might receive the kind of support from Russia they would never get from their own countries for their political aims and thus tried to bargain. From a strategic, Machiavellian point of view, I cannot but say: why not?
However, they were deeply naive in their assessment of Putin’s Russia as a positive role model, as they often thought that it was some form of safe haven for a European-style conservatism, blinded as they were by the type of topics advocated on medias such as “Russia Today” like pro-family policy, Western patriotism, traditional role models, promotion of Christianity, etc. At the same time, I believe many Western conservatives were not only blinded by an erroneous assessment of the Russian reality, but also by their hate for Wokeism. They thought that whoever fought Wokeism must be somehow better than Wokeism itself.
Remix News: So, Russia is not a conservative state in your eyes?
Engels: I strongly doubt whether Russia could be considered a conservative state following Western standards. As I have explained in the past, the chimeric ideal of a “Christian Russia” is more and more discredited by the reality of an Orthodox church undermined by KGB structures and by the exponential expansion of Islam in Russia; the belief in a moral regeneration of Russia and its family life is counterbalanced by the fact that Russia is characterized by a tremendous abortion rate; the point of view that Russia is defending the West against mass migration and wants to fight for culturally homogeneous nation states has also been dispelled by the weaponization of aggressive Muslim refugees sent against the Polish border (or now with the use of Chechen mercenaries against Russia’s alleged Ukrainian “brothers”); and finally, there is the issue that personal liberty, which should be so important for all conservatives, is strongly under threat in Russia, far more than in the West (at least for the moment). In sum, the alliance between certain Western conservatives and Russia, based on the impression that Russia was a deeply “conservative” state, is nothing more than a miscalculation based on a very romantic point of view of Russia, whose reality looks quite different: Putin’s state is an immediate continuation of a KGB, Soviet-style regime just superficially painted over with some Russian patriotism.
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The other area where conservatives were also mistaken was that they believed Russia’s interests in Europe were disinterested and genuine. The Ukrainian invasion, however, has shown that Russia’s main objective is not to be part of the West, but to become a large political power again, to create and to secure its own imperial “Großraum.” Russia is not a classical nation-state, and it never will be. It is a world in itself, a “civilization state”, which, furthermore, is not a part of the Western world — and I am not saying that as a criticism, but just as an objective fact, as I do not believe that the Western civilization, seen in its totality during these last 1000 years, is, in any way, “better” (or “worse”) than other civilizations. Hence, despite some commonalities, I do not believe that Russia can ever be integrated into the West just as I do not think that China or India or the Muslim world can be integrated into it.
Russia’s interest in European conservatives is only limited to its wish to weaken the West from the inside by strengthening conservative opposition parties. It does not want any strong neighbors and thus potential rivals on its flank. And so, assuming conservatives would be victorious in Europe, Russia would probably do the same subversive politics in order to weaken it from within. One typical example of the dishonesty of Russian propaganda: In France and Germany, “Russia Today” massively advocated strong skepticism towards vaccines, while in Russia itself, they favored exactly the opposite approach…
Remix News; Given the war in Ukraine, moving closer to Russia appears to be out of the question for most conservative parties. What other outside large power can European conservatives turn to as an ally given the current circumstances? Do they need such alliances?
Engels: Alliances are always important, and European conservatives, especially in the West of Europe, are clearly a mere minority, so they need to develop some form of healthy Machiavellianism and pragmatism in order to find allies. However, I sometimes wonder whether this desperate quest for outside help is really a necessity or just a sign of the inability of many conservatives in Western Europe to think and to act strategically by themselves. They have been ousted from power for so many decades that they seem mostly toothless and totally unacquainted with the exercise of power.
Instead of developing a convincing plan for gaining the confidence of the people, regaining power, and building up exemplary political parties, institutions, NGOs, schools and media, conservatives instead turn outside, and they assign their lack of success to an inability to obtain outside support. I think this is typical of the negativity many conservatives harbor, depressed by the observation that the West and its tradition are in full decline. Though this is undoubtedly true, conservatives seem to have been infected by a certain defeatism and an inability to really fight back – even against all odds. I personally think that there is only one true power that can help us: that is ourselves. Europe has to save itself. Nobody will do it for us. That is why I am a strong advocate of Hesperialism, an uncompromising conservative Western patriotism.
Russia will not be there in order to help us for our own sake, the U.S. will not do it either, and China certainly not, as all these powers follow their own interest on the European continent. Of course, it is just fair game for conservatives to try and play these different influences against each other in order to benefit their own cause. But in the end, it is up to us to “save” (or at least stabilize) the West.
Have European conservatives lost faith in themselves?
I believe that the search for outside allies is not just a sign of weakness, defeatism and hate of Wokeism, but also a form of desertion of our own real cause. From my point of view, Russia is a foreign civilization, and hence, the admiration for Russia and the wish to explain every decision, every error, every crime of Putin in a sympathetic light is nearly pathological, even more so if we compare this admiration of Russia to the inner division between European conservatives.
Thus, many French or German so-called conservatives call from morning to evening to develop a better understanding of the Russian positions. But the same conservatives are often enough absolutely unwilling to accord the same degree of friendly understanding to their own European partners. Thus, for example, I see in French conservatives a sad inability or even refusal to understand German conservatives — and I see in German conservatives a staunch refusal to understand, for example, Italian conservatives etc.
From my point of view, this is utterly pathological, and the only explanation that comes to my mind is the fact that some conservatives are so completely fed up with their own civilization that they have abandoned any hope of restoring some form of a decent, conservative, united Europe and would prefer to be under the sway of Russian hegemony than really working for their own cause…
Remix News: As you said, a lot of these conservative movements have been out of power for decades. In terms of defeat, there is more or less no bigger political defeat than being out of power for decades. Therefore, is not much of this defeatist attitude rooted in reality? The German conservatives, for example, have two camps there — the CDU and AfD, yet the AfD is the only real party in Germany opposed to mass immigration as a whole. Now, they’re on the verge of being practically banned in the country, and facing serious threats in the court system. They’re not allowed to speak on the talk shows and face a uniformly hostile media. In such a situation, if an outside ally doesn’t aid German conservatives, is it realistic that they have a chance?
Engels: Regarding the AfD, I am not one who would describe this party as a neo-fascist “threat to democracy.” But some of the criticisms directed at the AfD have been self-inflicted as it has tolerated unacceptable people within its ranks who have flirted for much too long with a political and historical vocabulary intolerable in a German (or any well-bred) context. Another problem of the AfD, beside its lack of discipline, is the lack of a real ideology, though this is a problem with many conservative parties in all of Europe. With the AfD, it remains unclear whether they are liberals or socialists; whether they stand for a Christian renewal or rather for libertarian laicity; whether they defend European patriotism or just nationalist sovereignism. The AfD has never really settled these questions and is also suffering from a lot of infighting, with the media and the political establishment paying much attention to the party’s “crazy fringe,” so that it is easy to put this party into a corner into which, at least originally, it certainly did not belong.
Remix News: Whether or not you think that party is objectionable or beyond the pale, the problems they are facing in Germany’s democratic system are clear, and there is a threat they could be removed entirely. They exist now in a very narrow window. Many say that Germany’s CDU is no longer a conservative party. The situation does not seem like an easy one, does it?
Engels: Of course, the situation of conservatism in other European countries is a bit better, Germany being a big exception due to the trauma of totalitarianism and genocide and the specific postwar ideological construction. If you look at France, Spain or Italy, conservative positions are much more acceptable in the public debate, while in Germany, you can probably only say one-tenth of what is already considered as a mainstream opinion in France. However, though Germany is certainly an exception, it is an extremely important one, as Germany is the political and economic heartland of Europe and the European Union: without a change in Germany, there cannot be any change to the status quo anywhere else in Europe.
Remix News: Regarding the recent splits in the Visegrád Four over the war in Ukraine and other issues. As you know, the alliance is an important entity for conservatives in Europe. Do you think these splits are temporary or will they only grow over time?
Engels: Difficult to say. The Visegrád Four alliance was certainly a very good example of how, within an overwhelmingly leftist-liberal European Union, it was possible to build some form of a conservative block that could effectively oppose Brussels — a very positive signal, which now seems threatened. However, these divisions of course go very far back. Already long before the Ukrainian War, Czechia and Slovakia started to build up some distance towards Poland and Hungary due to pressure from Brussels and Berlin. Ironically, this division was made possible by what was the greatest strength, but also weakness of the four states: their very informal organization, as they never really managed to build up a tight confederate organization that could cement their stability and also implement some ideological guidelines. The Visegrád Four have thus always remained a rather informal and flexible agreement designed to fight for the interests of Central and Eastern European countries — an agreement which, due to pressure from Berlin and Brussels, seems to very slowly erode.
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At the same time, the division over the Ukrainian war is probably a bit overstated. Already before the invasion of Ukraine, Hungary has always tried to establish privileged or at least bilateral relationships not just with Russia, but also with China and many other non-European states: After all, Hungary is a very small country of just 10 million inhabitants, which is four times less than Poland, so the pressure from Hungary’s neighbors is immense, and it desperately needs to look elsewhere for support, whereas other countries, such as Poland, are perhaps more self-sufficient in their specific geographical and political areas.
Therefore, I am not surprised by Orbán’s move to keep his distance from the war and his careful handling of the situation. But I am also convinced that, should a Russian defeat or at least a stalemate become obvious, Hungary will immediately join the camp of the winners.
Remix News: What is Poland’s interest in this conflict with Russia? What does it want to achieve?
The situation in Poland is very different. Poland has enormous political and economic interests in the region, as Poland is on the best course to becoming the economic powerhouse of Eastern Europe, a status which Hungary will never be able to achieve because of its size. Ultimately, Poland is hoping for the liberation of Ukraine, possibly even Belarus, from Russian influence, perhaps even the disintegration of the Russian Federation. If that were to occur, suddenly Poland would be able to restore a geopolitical space which would correspond to the borders of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; an area roughly situated between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea — the famous Intermarium, included already now in the somewhat larger Three Seas initiative reaching down to the Adriatic. In such a geopolitical space, Poland would necessarily play a leading role which would dwarf its current status within the present Visegrád Four alliance.
Remix News: So, you’ve said during a speech at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels that Eastern Europe needs to increase its political, economic and media influence on the West. These countries have been growing economically for a very long time and becoming more economically important within Europe. And of course, their brand of conservative politics is well known and often hated in the West, in Brussels, and so on, but it is not ignored. In terms of media, are there any Polish initiatives or anything that you know of that has broken through in any sort of mainstream way? And if not, do you think there needs to be a more dominant English-speaking media coming from these nations?
Engels: I have long been active in trying to convince the Polish public that it is fundamental to present its point of view in Western Europe, something that Poland has not been doing very well for the last years, unfortunately. Hungary, from that point of view, is really doing an enormous task in furthering its own vision of conservatism to the West, including initiatives such as the MCC, the Hungarian Conservative, the European Conservative, the Danube Institute, Visegrád Post and Mandiner; all media and elite-forming initiatives that are managing very well to attract conservatives from the West and to radiate Hungarian political positions towards the West.
Poland, unfortunately, has been somewhat less active, which is probably due to the fact that Hungary is such a small country that it cannot allow itself to just focus on itself because it is so dependent on its neighborhood; whereas Poland, with nearly 40 million inhabitants and an increasingly strong economy, can more easily yield to the temptation to look inward — which also explains why it has been so easy for the Western media to stigmatize Polish politics without much resistance.
Luckily, there are now some new Polish initiatives such as the Collegium Intermarium, TVP World in English or Wszystko Co Najważniejsze in French, but there is still much work to be done.
What can these media initiatives accomplish?
When we look at Western Europe in the context of the Ukrainian war, we cannot but see the fruits of years and years of massive Russian investment into alternative media (such as Russia Today), NGOs and political support, which were all mustered to create the sympathy and support for the Russia we now witness. Poland should have learnt from this example in order to present its own objectives and interests in a favorable light and to develop some form of soft power.
At the same time, Poland does not only need to diversify its political self-representation through media channels, but also its foreign policy. Poland is placed between Germany and Russia, and due to its historical experience of being partitioned by its neighbors, it is very strongly focused on this precarious situation and sees the U.S. as its main ally and guarantor of its independence against its neighbors. This is entirely understandable, but I would strongly advocate that Poland also needs to look out for other players and allies, which are perhaps not so important from a military-economic point of view, but which can still be considered as second-level powers with still quite a lot of influence, such as Brazil, Japan, South-Korea, Mexico, or India.
Remix News: You spoke of Poland’s goal of moving Ukraine into a Christian patriotic conservatism that aligns with Hungary and Poland during the National Conservatism Conference. Maybe Ukraine has a lot in common with Poland, but it also has a lot in common with Russia. It’s consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries, and Zelensky has implemented many undemocratic policies during his time in power, whether it’s banning opposition parties or banning media outlets. He has also maintained a very cozy relationship with oligarchs in a manner not so different from Russia. What hope is there that this is going to be a European nation rather than a nation closer to Russian society?
Engels: I am no expert in the cultural mentality of Ukraine in comparison to Russia, but I would say that one of the major differences is the fact that the majority of Ukrainians want to be a part of the West. Already before the war, 2 million Ukrainians emigrated to Poland in order to work here and become part of Polish society, where they integrated perfectly well and also discovered that it is wholly possible for ex-communist countries to develop a thriving democracy, a free society and a non-corrupt market economy — something Russia has never achieved. Now, 3 million more Ukrainians are enjoying the hospitality of Poland and are discovering this reality.
In contrast, I’m not sure whether the majority of the Russian population would really want to be a part of the West, as I rather think they base their identity on the wish for absolute autonomy from foreign influence and the thrive to establish their own, imperial space. They may live in a poor, heavily militarized, autocratic country, but they want to exist by their own terms rather than being subordinate to a whole series of international institutions and thus lose their standing as a dominating element of a continental-wide imperial space.
In sum, what makes the Ukrainians a part of the West is their desperate wish to belong to the West and to emulate the Polish economic transformation model, though of course, it has still to be seen whether this wish will resist the test of time, as the integration of Ukraine into NATO or the European Union is not a thing that will happen next week or next month, even after a successful fight against Russia, but that will take years and be characterized by many setbacks.
A similar, albeit less tragic dynamic happened with Greece. The country had not only been cut off from Europe for many centuries while being part of the Ottoman Empire, but is also very different from the West culturally speaking because of its orthodoxy, its language and the influence of Ottoman economic structures. Many people thus believed it would not be possible to integrate such a country into an essentially Western European institutional framework, but as a result of many decades of hard work, and despite the grave consequences of the Greek economic crisis, this integration was a success; so, we should not exclude a similar outcome for Ukraine.
And should Ukraine succeed, then the long-term consequences would lead to the establishment of a tightly interlinked economic space comprising Ukraine, Poland and the Visegrád states, the Baltic nations and ultimately also Belarus which would constitute a new European hub that could rival Germany and France when it comes to population size and economic power.
What kind of power could this Central and Eastern European hub have?
For the moment, Poland and Hungary are political outsiders who cause quite a lot of problems for Brussels, though they do not (yet) matter in comparison to the power wielded by Berlin and Paris. But should the Three Seas initiative take off and Ukraine be liberated from Russian influence and integrate into the West, the equilibrium of power in Europe could quickly change and revert to the very different situation we had before the Polish partitions, when in between Germany and Russia, there was a powerful further European player in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
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It is not impossible that such a new equilibrium could be built up. And I am also quite sure that the U.S. would see this development with a certain sympathy, as they may have noticed that Germany and France have not been very enthusiastic in condemning Russia. Of course, that concerns only the economic and political point of view: The ideological perspective is still something very different, as the actual presence of the woke agenda remains a true danger.
Biden once said Poland and Hungary are “totalitarian regimes.” Could that influence a potential alliance with Ukraine?
I think that nations such as Ukraine will keep their conservative roots. I really cannot see Ukraine embracing Western Wokeism with enthusiasm after having fought Russia for many months with so many deaths. I cannot see Ukrainian men suddenly accepting the idea that patriotism is toxic masculinity, and I cannot see Ukraine suddenly accepting that all white people are guilty of systemic racism, colonialism and imperialism. So, I do not think that there is a strong risk of seeing a nation such as Ukraine falling to the left easily. Of course, Ukraine will have to cooperate with the leftist West as long as is needed in order to free themselves from Russian influence, but with the help of the other Eastern European nations, I hope that the inherent conservatism of the Ukrainian society will prevail here as it did there.
It looks like the EU is is going to increasingly sanction Poland and Hungary to the tune of billions of euros, but will these sanctions deliver a death blow for these countries or will they somehow overcome this issue?
The pressure is, of course, becoming ever greater, and the battle between Poland and Hungary on the one side and the rest of the European Union on the other side is very uneven. Even though the Polish economy is one of the European economies faring best with the post-Covid situation, it is still largely dependent on European subsidies. Why? When communism fell and Poland was integrated into the Western capitalist system, its economy became largely dominated by Western capital — until today. The subsidies Poland is receiving now from the European Union were meant as a counterbalance to this disequilibrium.
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But it is exactly this point which makes me a little bit optimistic when it comes to the consequences of withholding EU funds, because this will not just hurt Poland, but, in the long run, also hurt the Western economies, as studies show that a non-negligible part of all the EU funds finally goes back to the West, especially to Germany. So, Germany knows extremely well that the more the EU funds are cut, the more its own economy will be hurt, which is why they will be unable to maintain their bluff for a long time.
Also, in order to protect its economy, Poland could reply to the European threat by imposing certain taxes on Western enterprises while still remaining interesting enough for them to continue investing in Poland. Of course, the battle fought on the backs of the Polish and Hungarian citizens obviously remains a very uneven one, but it could take years before it is lost. Thus, if we have a look at the Hungarian elections, for example, we see that despite these enormous pressures and threats, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population still supports Viktor Orbán instead of giving in to Brussels, and so, I am still quite confident that in Poland next year, the decision could be similar.
Do you think that Christianity is essential to a conservative movement? Western Europe obviously is moving further and further away from Christianity each year. Even Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was considering removing the “Christian” part of its title. So, can conservatives really afford to focus on Christianity as the West continuously abandons it?
It is clear the West has become more and more de-Christianized, though with many regional differences, and that the Churches themselves are divided. On the one hand, we find leftist-liberal Christians following the mainstream churches, which are transforming more and more into some form of spiritual facade of Wokeism. This tendency is especially present in Protestant churches, but it also slowly affects the Catholic church: everywhere, the complex and age-old dogmatic and theological content of Christianity is replaced by just some form of vague and superficial social commitment, which is very often focused on mainstream topics such as helping refugees and saving the climate.
Is Christianity lost? Not necessarily. Of course, the West and Christianity — or rather, our Western civilization and our specific Western form of Christianity — are deeply intertwined, but they are not identical, as there are many forms of Christianity outside of the West, e.g., in sub-Saharan Africa, China or Korea. But of course, any form of restoration of the West must be combined with the restoration of Christian identity, as the idea of a Western civilization devoid of Christianity would be monstrous and could not survive in the long run.
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Trying to drop Christianity, as some libertarian “conservatives” wish for, while going back to the “good old” ’70s where society was still more or less dominated by a conservative frame of mind while allowing for a certain libertarian freedom would be nonsense, as this precarious equilibrium depended precisely on the existence of the last vestiges of Christian morality. Without Christianity, the modern West must fall into pure relativism and nihilism, and I am deeply convinced that more and more Europeans will grasp this simple truth, while Christianity will become more and more conservative.
Already now, though mainstream Christianity declines, traditional Christianity is on the rise, especially in France, and in many priest seminaries, the number of traditionalist new priests is already in the majority. Thus, during the next generation, the number of conventional churchgoers will doubtlessly continue to decrease, but those few remaining will likely “radicalize” themselves and become ever more conservative, and we will witness the rebirth of traditional Christianity, even though it will first just concern a certain minority. However, while Christianity will become more and more traditionalist, it will also become more and more politically conservative, as we see already occurring in France where national patriotism, traditional Catholicism, and Western identitarianism are fusioning.
Could this Christian movement have the power to affect politics?
At first, all this will just concern a tiny elite, but as the large masses of de-Christianized people are already so ignorant about Christianity, there is a chance of transforming it again into a positive political slogan for Western patriots and conservatives (of course, I am not speaking about the immediate future, but the next 10 to 20 years or so). Especially in Western Europe and in countries with large migrant communities such as France, Germany or the Benelux countries, the more the citizens feel under threat and see that their own identity is truly menaced, the more they will want to reassert and fortify their identity. This means they will sooner or later revert, at least culturally, to some form of Christian self-identification, which will also have political consequences. I already see the rise of some form of Christian, patriotic political movements on the horizon of the next generation. But of course, we have to recognize that this new Christianity will be rather an expression of patriotism than of profound spirituality.