Book Review: Authoritarianism, by Oliver Rathkolb and Günther Orgis, eds.

Oliver Rathkolb and Günther Orgis, eds. about History, and Democratic Dispositions in Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic

Authoritarian Attitudes in Central Europe

Is the acceptance of democracy in Central Europe eroding? Oliver Rathkolb’s and Günther Ogris’ edited volume, Authoritarianism, History, and Democratic Dispositions in Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, attempts to answer this question in a new collection of research studies focusing on the impact of fascism and communism in Central Europe. Published earlier this year, the collection has already been frequently cited in the media, especially with regard to its findings about Austrian authoritarianism. Editors Oliver Rathkolb and Günter Ogris are both involved in historical and political social research; Rathkolb as head of the Institute for Contemporary History at University of Vienna, and Ogris as head of the Institute for Social Research and Consulting (SORA) in Vienna.

As a basis for the studies, the editors have settled on a definition of authoritarianism developed in the United States after World War II by the so-called Berkeley Group, which included German émigré social scientists Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and American Nevitt Sanford. According to this definition, authoritarian societies are characterized by conventionalism and submission as well as a lack of criticism towards those in authority and an aggressive stance towards weaker people.

The volume offers new hypotheses on Adorno’s original theses and does an excellent job of comparing Central European authoritarianism rather than focusing solely on individual countries, as previous studies have done. Following that, the book includes a brief overview of the history of each of the four countries studied – Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – to place the results in context and make a comparison possible.

The findings of the country-respective research show that acceptance of authoritarian attitudes has risen in recent years, not only in Austria but also in other Central European nations. But what about the acceptance of authoritarianism in the past? The authors use the concept of anomia – a lack of orientation and a feeling of powerlessness that often occurs as a consequence of social, political, and economic turmoil – as a tool for measuring the authoritarian potential and find that the number of people who view democracy as “the best from of government” has dropped disturbingly by 10 to 15 percent as compared to previous studies.

In the post-communist countries, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, feelings of powerlessness and loss of orientation are much higher than in Austria. For the Hungarians interviewed, life has become so difficult that 58 percent no longer know what is happening in their government or how to react. Of the four countries, Austria is the only one where fewer than 50 percent of citizens believe that they have no influence over what actions their government takes.  A mere 42 percent of Austrians believe that they have no voice.

The basis of the research was 1,000 telephone interviews conducted in each of the countries in December 2007 that were then analyzed to reach conclusions about the prevalence and dangers of authoritarian attitudes within the populations studied.

The research design of the study allows a comparison of Austria with its Austro-Fascist and National Socialist authoritarian and totalitarian past through the three post-communist countries. In all cases, the study found that acceptance of authoritarianism leads to increased intolerance and misanthropy.  Despite the very different roles each of the countries played during the Second World War, acceptance of authoritarianism has evened out so that the numbers are roughly equal, but that in all of the countries, the percentages of those who embrace authoritarian attitudes has increased.

One wishes that the authors might have included other countries in the study as part of the comparison, for example Germany or Slovakia, since these countries could be used as checks on authoritarian attitudes in Austria and the Czech Republic. Also, an analysis of Slovenia, because of its proximity and relative prosperity compared to Hungary, might have been useful.

The authors find a trend in all four countries, namely that the acceptance of World War II crimes correlates with a rejection of minority rights and an increased authoritarian disposition. This fits well with current research into historical memory and offers insights into how countries deal with crimes in their pasts. The findings of the book come as no great surprise, but it is a useful exercise to actually measure authoritarian attitudes and how much Central European nations are showing authoritarian tendencies and embracing authoritarian politics.

In fact, the authors find that every third Austrian views the country as a victim of the Nazi regime. This is seen by some as a “shift to the right,” but, judging from this study, may actually represent a much deeper problem. The appearance of the Hungarian Guard and other right-wing parties in Central European countries leads one to expect a further increase in the future. The study’s findings document the disturbing trend towards a willingness to give up political rights for what seems like security.

This is a slippery slope that has led to acceptance of such authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the past and could do so again in the future if given the proper circumstances.

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