A steady supply of conspiracy theories helps Eastern Europeans (and many others) to cope – by not coping.
Boyko Vassilev, Transitions Online 2 July 2015
They meet in some shadowy place, work out a plan, and rule the world.
I bet you’ve heard this many times, with only the conspirators changing. They could be freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the secret services, or simply aliens. The belief that somebody else runs your life is as old as humanity. In Central and Eastern Europe there is one such conviction that won’t seem to die – that it is the Great Powers who pull the strings.
You can’t completely blame the locals for that. Before their countries born in the 19th and 20th centuries from the ruins of empires, Eastern Europeans were often the pawns in the power plays of bigger beasts. The Great Powers ruled the day, leaving the rest to please, trick, or escape from them, pledging allegiance to a new master. This order was founded 200 years ago at the Congress of Vienna and lasted until World War I.
Many have no problem with that. Henry Kissinger wrote his doctoral thesis on the Congress of Vienna and revisited the subject in his most recent book, World Order, published last year. Kissinger praises the balance of power as an ultimate virtue of international politics that triumphed in Vienna. Under the supervision of Prince Klemens von Metternich, a uniquely gifted visionary, the congress established a European equilibrium. But although 200 states and statelets participated, key decisions fell to Austria, Russia, Britain, Prussia, and France, the Great Powers of the day.
Most historians give the congress a mixed verdict. In Vienna the victors were unprecedentedly generous with a defeated France. They invited it to the negotiating table and designed together the end of Napoleonic Wars and a long-lasting peace. But they also partitioned Poland, imposed a conservative status quo, and froze conflicts that were doomed to explode later.
What does all that mean today? You can look for similarities between the Poland of 1815 and the Ukraine of 2015, but only to a point: there is no worldwide cabal to partition Ukraine. You can see Kissinger’s point when he advocates involving Russia in the negotiating process today, yet the EU is not the Holy Alliance, nor is Vladimir Putin Napoleon. As Lev Gudkov of the respected Levada Center polling agency in Moscow told me, “Vladimir Putin is trying to resurrect the rhetoric, geopolitics, and constellation of Great Powers from the 19th century.” But the age of the Internet will not tolerate a game of thrones – and no one will accept playing the minor power.
Europe, especially, is no longer a collection of lord and vassal states. Managed by a representative of its smallest member, Luxembourg, the European Union is presided over by a Pole and has its budget balanced by Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who comes from Bulgaria, its poorest country. Germany, the strongest and richest member, is still a reluctant leader. Even with Greece in crisis, everyone sees German and Greek leaders openly negotiate, bargain, and quarrel. This is not 1815.
Great Powers may be a thing of the past, but the conviction that someone mighty runs your life is still alive and well.
Even today, the notion of nefarious foreign schemes makes headlines from Athens to St. Petersburg. In Bulgaria conspiracy theories dress in various clothes. Some believe America schemes against Bulgarian statehood; they raise eyebrows even at at U.S. foundation supporting the national philharmonic. Others think that airplanes’ vapor trails are a secret weapon to make us subservient and stupid.
Roland Wenzlhuemer, a historian at the University of Heidelberg who studies “counterfactual thinking,” says conspiracy theories can run wild when encouraged by propaganda.
“Take the anti-Jewish conspiracy in the Third Reich, or the misuse of the Protocol[s] of the Elders of Zion in the Third Reich and tsarist Russia. Plot theories can be a dangerous tool,” he says.
The most a level-headed person can do, probably, is avoid being duped. We certainly can’t stop conspiracy theories, which are as ancient as they are widespread. The Great Plot is cherished by underdogs, but even citizens of the world’s only superpower are not immune – witness the Americans who believe in the Roswell UFO incident, or that the CIA blew up the Twin Towers. And conspiracy theories are not simply a sign of stupidity. “People search for a meaning. The more complex the world, the more elusive the meaning – and therefore, the more painful the search,” Wenzlhuemer says.
Milos Vasic, a journalist at the Vreme weekly in Belgrade, has another explanation. “We – Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians – fancy ourselves as talented and hospitable, but naïve. So every villain could trick us. And the villains – they have nothing better to do than to conspire against us. This is a powerful psychological mechanism. Instead of facing our own problems, we look for scapegoats elsewhere,” he says.
I cannot but subscribe to Vasic’s way of thinking. In the Balkans, talk of conspiracy and Great Powers is often an excuse for inaction. Add clichés and stereotypes and you will get the song fully composed: “The Great Powers scheme against me. Secret lodges rule my life. The Balkans are haunted by Balkan ghosts and that’s why they can’t change.”
But even the Congress of Vienna was not a plot. Consider this anecdote told by Austrian historian Werner Telesko: “British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh reported upon arrival at Vienna, ‘I have caught Metternich without a master plan.’ Metternich, famous for scheming and string-pulling, was expected to have a plan, but he did not. The Great Powers were expected to have a strategy – something preplanned, refined, long-term. Yet they did not.”
Everything was decided in situ, with shifting alliances, power plays, and realpolitik. In most cases, that’s how life goes. We can choose to believe in perfect plans and conspiracies, or in human trial, improvisation, mistakes, and stupidity.
Sometimes it’s so hard to trust what is right in front of us: that the world is imperfect, and so are we.
Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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