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Visiting Faculty Spotlight: Ferenc Laczó
May 30, 2024

Ferenc Laczó is István Deák visiting assistant professor in the department of History. He is an assistant professor with tenure (universitair docent 1) in history at Maastricht University and a part-time affiliate of the Central European University’s Democracy Institute. He is the author or editor of twelve books on Hungarian, Jewish, German, European, and global themes. His most recent book publication is A Global History of Hungary in two volumes, which he co-edited with András Vadas and Bálint Varga (in Hungarian). His writings have appeared in fifteen languages and his books been reviewed in over fifty publications.

Harriman: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Laczó: I grew up in Budapest. Back in 2000, I started my college degree in the Netherlands, which was somewhat unusual for members of my generation. I got a scholarship specifically for people who were not yet part of the “Western world” in the institutional sense. It was four years before Hungary and its neighboring countries would become part of the European Union.

Afterward, I went back to Budapest to be at the Central European University (CEU) for my master’s and also for my Ph.D. in history, partly because I thought that things would improve substantially there in the near future.

Harriman: And after you graduated you went to work in Germany. Why did you decide to leave Budapest?

Laczó: There was a sense that arriving in the European Union, being part of these Western structures would transform Hungary into a prosperous, stable democracy with a strong welfare state. Of course, this hasn’t happened. The attraction of Western Europe has remained powerful. I should add though that there was no moment when I decided to leave. It is rather that I have never gone back since I have been fortunate enough to pursue an international academic career.

A big part of what I examine now as a comparative historian is why the gap between large parts of Eastern Europe and Western Europe never closed after integration. It’s also something I explored in a course I taught at the Harriman Institute.

Harriman:  The course is called Legacies of Division, and you have an edited volume with a similar title. Can you talk about the ideas behind the course and the book?

Laczó:  The idea emerged during the 30th anniversary of 1989, amidst all these anniversary-related commemorations. My colleagues and I wanted to ask a really substantial and serious question: How have East-West relations evolved since the end of the Cold War?

There was a sense in the 1990s that the two halves of Europe would grow together. That hasn’t really happened. In fact, by the 2010s, there was some kind of mutual resentment. And that’s what we were trying to figure out: Why do Western Europeans speak so negatively about Eastern Europeans most of the time? And why are Eastern Europeans so resentful about their place and role in Europe?

Our sense was that we had to go back to the early post-Cold War period when the intention to integrate the two halves of the continent emerged on both sides. It turned out that the expectations behind this intention were very different.

Western Europeans expected that adding a lot of relatively small and not so well-known countries trying to adopt their model wouldn’t really change the European project as a whole. Eastern Europeans had very high hopes about how their countries would improve.

But, once enlargement was completed, Eastern Europe transformed the European project much more than the Western Europeans had expected. And they were not prepared for that.

Harriman: So, they expected that the conditionality they set up for EU membership would carry Eastern European countries forward without much effort on their part?

Laczó: Exactly, yes. And with promises remaining unfulfilled, and things not getting much better in Eastern Europe or at least the gap remaining substantial, Eastern Europeans started migrating en masse to Western Europe. So, there is resentment in Western Europe about the increasing number of migrants and also about the rightward political turn that some Eastern European countries are taking. And there’s resentment in Eastern Europe about not being respected or fully included in the fabric of European society as well as the fear of losing their national identities to the larger project. All of this has led to more nationalism across the board.

Harriman: You talk in your course description about the need to “decenter” Europe. What do you mean by that and how will it help to shift some of these dynamics?

Laczó: What I mean is to decenter the narrative of Europe so it is not portrayed strictly through the Western European lens.

In the Western European mind, Eastern Europe is often defined by what it lacks, while Western Europe is defined by its “liberal” and “progressive” values, which are seen as the “norm.” To give you an example of the discrepancy with how the two regions are portrayed: there’s a far-right government in Italy right now, yet most Western Europeans do not think this reflects on Western Europe as a whole, even though there are a disturbing number of far-right political movements gaining power there. Meanwhile, when looking at the far-right government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, for instance, Western Europeans often portray this as something that applies to Eastern Europe more broadly.

I am convinced that de-centering Europe and becoming less ignorant about the complex political and intellectual traditions of Eastern Europe could begin to improve relations.

Harriman: What has been most striking for you while observing these dynamics as an Eastern European professor teaching in Western Europe?

Laczó: I teach in the Netherlands, and one of the things I noticed is that I get a lot of students—and for context, I teach more than a hundred students every year—interested in studying Central and Eastern Europe. And yet, by the time they reach my classroom after something like 16 years of study, starting from primary school, they don’t have much knowledge or insight about any of these countries. So, there’s still widespread ignorance about these countries in Western Europe, and yet they are actually very important in the European Union because through the nation state principle, they have almost every second vote.

These discrepancies started to fascinate me and I have recently spent a lot of time trying to understand them.