Gömbös and Orbán?

József Debreczeni, a publicist with a degree in history, is no friend of Viktor Orbán although he wrote a not unflattering biography of the former prime minister. But that was six years ago, in 2002. Since then Debreczeni changed his mind and has become the most vocal critic of Viktor Orbán. Some people even say that he has developed an Orbán phobia. Meanwhile he became a fan of Ferenc Gyurcsány to whose life he also devoted a biography. Considering that Debreczeni was once a member of parliament as a representative of the conservative MDF and a great admirer of József Antall, there are many people on the right who consider him a traitor to the cause. He, on the other hand, keeps repeating that he is a defender of democracy first and foremost, and in Gyurcsány he sees a democrat while in Orbán he sees someone who is an enemy of democratic institutions.

One of Debreczeni's most recent pieces entitled "Horthy és Orbán" (Horthy and Orbán; Népszabadság June 14, 2008) draws a comparison between the classical authoritarian Horthy regime and Orbán's populism and argues that it is a huge mistake to compare the two. No, Orbán has nothing to do with the conservatism of Horthy and his prime minister, István Bethlen; rather he has a lot in common with Gyula Gömbös and Béla Imrédy, two prime ministers who tried to transform the conservative Horthy regime into a dictatorship. They didn't succeed. Gömbös died in office in 1936, and Imrédy was dismissed by Horthy.

On the right an immediate outcry followed the appearance of the article. János Pelle in an opinion piece in HVG (June 20, 2008) claimed that Debreczeni's comparison between Orbán and Gömbös was "politically incorrect." (How political correctness comes in here, don't ask me. Obviously, Pelle has a peculiar interpretation of the term.) He indignantly asked how anyone could compare Orbán to Gömbös, the antisemite, and Imrédy, the war criminal. Pelle's criticism is unfair. Debreczeni is not talking about their antisemitism but about their attempts to overthrow the democratic institutions of the country and their desire to establish a dictatorship.

Debreczeni focuses on the widely quoted sentences in which Orbán belittles or ignores the role of parliament; the reader doesn't get a refresher course on the political philosophy of Gömbös and Imrédy. Here I would like to spend some time on Gömbös's program; thus perhaps we can come to a better understanding of what Debreczeni had in mind.

There is no question that Gömbös during his tenure as prime minister (1932-1936) tried to establish a fascist type of dictatorship. He failed only because the old conservative elite managed to torpedo his plans. The most detailed description of Gömbös's plans appeared in one of the writings of Béla Béldi (1935). Béldi was head of the propaganda section of Gömbös's party, the Nemzeti Egység Pártja (NEP, Party of National Unity) and therefore his "reorganization plans" ought to be taken as authentic.

According to Béldi, Gömbös wanted to create a new kind of state. He made it clear that the change would be fundamental by saying that "the current text of the constitution cannot be considered taboo." The liberal remnants of the old regime must be completely eliminated. For this task the establishment of a disciplined, well organized, and united society is necessary. The whole nation must be one cooperative whose entire life is based on patriotic and moral principles. [Remember István Stumpf's words about a total reorganization of the current political system and the creation of a constitution fundamentally different from the current one.]

Béldi, in a manner very similar to Orbán, criticized parliament as not being a truly democratic institution because election laws–no matter how they are written, cannot represent the people as a whole. Moreover, the normal legislative work of parliament is too slow. Life, according to Béldi, is much faster and more complicated than in the old days and therefore parliament's role must be reconsidered. And parliament should not represent people on a territorial basis; rather, different interest groups should send representatives who will be appointed rather than elected. [See Stumpf's ideas about an upper house representing different interest groups.] Béldi outlined a plan according to which the full sessions of parliament would be greatly restricted and emphasis would be shifted toward the work of the committees. [Indeed, one of Orbán's very first decisions was to decrease the number of plenary sessions. The Constitution specifies that parliament while in session must hold plenary sessions weekly. During the Orbán government's tenure full sessions were held only every third week. Constitution? What constitution? Law? What law?]

There is another interesting comparison, namely the structures of NEP and Fidesz. First of all, NEP planned to include under its umbrella the entire adult population of the country. They were hoping that if they succeeded, all other political parties and organizations would cease to exist. They worked extremely hard to organize cells in every city, town, and village. These cells consisted of 40-45 people. [See the citizen cells of today attached to Fidesz.]  NEP was organized in a very centralized manner. Gömbös decided almost everything. For instance, the election or dismissal of all local leaders had to be approved by Gömbös. [As we know, this is also the situation in Fidesz since Orbán returned to the active leadership of his party. In exchange for his return he demanded total reorganization: all power is in his hands. A real bolshevik party, some say.]

Gömbös made it known from his first day in office that he was not only the leader of his party, but the leader (vezér) of the country. And his followers exulted him to the point that he seemed more than a mere mortal. He was portrayed as a man of extraordinary powers who was able to solve all the problems of the country. [Orbán's utterances about stopping international economic problems at the country's borders if he is the prime minister reminds me of Gömbös's cult of personality. Or think back to the pictures of older men and women kissing Orbán's hands as if he were the pope.]

Gömbös was portrayed as the only man who could cure the ills of the country and who would lead the people on the "only right road." How would he do this? With the right instinct. This instinct replaced knowledge (about the economy, society, history, law, politics, etc.) that Gömbös lacked. [There is a great deal of that in Orbán's psyche as well. If he is confronted with some hard hitting facts, the answer is: he knows what the Hungarian people think and feel. He listens to the people and that is enough.]

All in all, Gömbös had a program that cannot be described in any other way but an attempt at establishing a dictatorship by "constitutional means" as he himself announced in his plans. His stranglehold on parliament would have ensured the elimination of the parliamentary system itself. This is what Debreczeni is afraid of if Orbán manages to return to power. Indeed, there are too many similarities between Gömbös and Orbán for comfort.

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A very apt comparison and a very apt summary. There is however, a few, shall we say, “back-ground” motives that may also worthy of a look. Gombos was a schwabian descent, of modest family background. His rise to prominence was the result of his opportunistic conduct and consistent right-wing organising during and after the ouster of the communists in 1919. Orban has never been noted for any consistency. He rather conducted himself as a power-technician, doing and saying what he thought expedient. He can change his position within a week to the opposite, if that is his percieved interest. Gombos was indefatiguable in organising, and participating in different political and secret organizations, building himself a wideranging clerical, political and social hinterland. By the time his appointment came, he had an army of followers sprinkled around the administration to press for their man, ready to realize his program. Orban has no political organization to speak of. His party is a mere coterie of a few school bodies. His movement is a hodgepodge of different groups held together his “unavoidable” charisma. He also has no actual political aims or goals, consequently his party has no concrete program. Gombos has modelled his ideas… Read more »

Perhaps one small addition. Gombos and his ideas were very much like that of the Corporate State, That of Dollfuss in Austria.