One of the special features of Hungarian history is that the country withdrew from international intercourse from time to time. This did not always happen by choice, but as time advanced, happened with increased frequency and stridency.
The relatively benign period of the late nineteenth century was, behind the façade of tranquility, a long and relentless preparation for a series of such self-removals. The background for the coming disaster was the country’s multi-national character. Only about 50% of its inhabitants were Hungarian-speaking. The reaction was a frantic effort to change the ethnic composition of Hungary.
This quarter century of hysteria on the part of the Hungarian political elite was partly justified, because there was a campaign largely conducted by Czech, Slovak, Croat and other minorities of Austria-Hungary in the interest of transforming the Dual Monarchy into a federation of different nationality groups. That would have meant putting an end to the unitary nature of the Hungarian half of the Monarchy. And that was something that was unacceptable to the Hungarian political elite.
Given the complicated ethnic structure of the Dual Monarchy, entering a war that might end in defeat posed very serious risks. With the exception of the Serb minority that was outright antagonistic at the outbreak of the war, all other non-Hungarians served faithfully throughout the war. No Slovaks joined the Russians on the other side as the Czech legionnaires did. When the war was lost, some voices tried to blame the nationalities or the Jewish businessmen who had “profiteered” from the war. But the war was not lost so much on the battlefield or at home but rather in the diplomatic sphere. Even as the war continued, all sorts of negotiations took place between the Entente powers and the self-appointed representatives of the nationalities living abroad. And there were the smaller allies, Romania and Serbia, two countries with territorial ambitions against Hungary. The Czechs laid claim to the Slovak inhabited areas in the north. All in all, the disintegration of the country was inevitable.
In the fall of 1918 Count Mihály Károlyi declared and attempted to run a republic that was at first quite popular. After all, the long awaited “independence” from Austria was achieved. What was not clear to the Hungarian public was that for this “independence” they had to pay a very heavy price: the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territories and population. The neighbors immediately began a military occupation of the territories they hoped to receive, and Károlyi who had hoped to achieve better terms because of his democratic conviction and reputation began to lose credibility and popularity. At home he was being pressured from both the right and the left and in the spring of 1919 he resigned, handing over the reins of the government to the socialists. Behind his back the socialists made a deal with the newly formed communist party and on March 21, 1919, a soviet republic was declared.
Paris was shocked to hear about the declaration of a second soviet republic in the heart of Europe. What Károlyi couldn’t achieve, to talk face to face about terms with the representatives of the Great Powers, the communist Béla Kun managed to accomplish. The victorious four sent a representative to Budapest to “negotiate” about the demarcation lines. Of course, these lines were not negotiable. They were the recommended future borders between Romania and Hungary that Kun could either accept or not. He didn’t, the Entente representatives went back to Paris, and the Romanian troops kept moving westward. Once they reached Budapest that signaled the end of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Because of political wrangling in Budapest there was no recognized government until late November 1919, and therefore it wasn’t until February 1920 that Hungary was allowed to send a delegation to Paris to “discuss” the final settlement between victors and vanquished. Enter Count Albert Apponyi, the head of the delegation.
This elderly scion of a famous family, a descendant of generations of professional diplomats, fluent in four or five languages, member of parliament seemingly forever, possessing the looks and demeanor of the quintessential aristocrat, was chosen to plead Hungary’s case.
He started out with fairness and justice, but gradually sunk to race and “cultural superiority” as justification for the easing of terms. This was a red flag to the conference: it was clear that no matter what happens, the Hungarians intend to continue their discriminatory policies where they left off. Although Lloyd George offered some words of solace to Apponyi (“You were very eloquent,” he whispered to him the next day), the majority of Hungary’s territory, population, and wealth went to the neighbors.
Hungarian reaction to the harsh treatment was the worst imaginable. Instead of pragmatically accepting the situation in the hopes of later modification, the politicians and diplomats followed a belligerent and in the final analysis self-defeating course. The politics of the next twenty-five years were based on the principle of “Never, Never, Ever!” i.e. Hungary shall never resign itself to accepting the Paris Peace Treaty and its consequences. This Hungarian belligerence eventually led to the formation of the Little Entente (an alliance of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia) and resulted in Hungary’s total isolation.
But enough of the preliminaries. Why am I recounting all this for you? Well, it is obvious that an increasing part of today’s political class has decided to pick up again the discourse of the failed dual monarchy. “Fortified” by the ideologies of the late pre-war period (the rhetoric of the increasingly strident regimes of Gyula Gömbös, Béla Imrédy, Döme Sztójay and finally Ferenc Szálasi), they are ready to do battle to the embarrassment of Hungary again.
There are some who say that there are ultra right groups and parties in all European countries, so why not in Hungary? What’s the big deal? But not so fast! The French, British, German, etc. ultra right are well secluded and reviled, and the local majorities are prepared to isolate them at all times. Not so in Hungary. Support and sympathy for them has been steadily increasing ever since the early 1990s with the appearance of the first couple of openly racist essays.
At first the consternation was louder than the support, but not for long. As soon as some Fidesz members of parliament argued in the House that the socialist government was not really Hungarian because it was “alien hearted” (i.e. Jewish), the party in effect ratified racist rhetoric. They made it clear that it is acceptable to speak in such racist terms even in parliament and that they intended to pursue this line of attack to elicit support from the population at large. They succeeded. The population was so well primed in a few short years that to Fidesz’s greatest surprise, Jobbik, the ultra-right formation marching almost exclusively on the basis of the racist platform, was even more successful in sweeping up support than they were. Today Fidesz finds to their astonishment that they are forced to compete against Jobbik for the hearts and minds of the ever more radicalized population. They unleashed the strident tone in politics and now are increasingly being outperformed at it by their juniors.
These developments did not go unnoticed in the West. Politicians as well as the press from Hamburg to Zurich and from Lisbon to Toronto and New York spoke up. This, however, made no dent in the discourse in Hungary. In fact, it only increased the vulgarity: “they shall not tell us what to think and what to say, they are ‘always’ conspiring against us anyway, they only want our demise.” This is how and what they argue and there is ample willingness on the part of the electorate to buy into this line of “reasoning.”
Since the victory of Fidesz at the next election in 2010 is almost a foregone conclusion, and since the separation between them and Jobbik is even less than a faint rhetorical device, we can reasonably expect that this strident politics will become government policy in as little as ten or twelve months.
All this is eerily reminiscent of the pre-Second World War period’s radicalism, and we can be certain that it will lead to the same results now as it did then: at first derision, then contempt, finally isolation. Particularly because Europe has became a much more enlightened place. The contrast between then and now is obvious to everybody (even to the Catholic Church if the latest Papal Encyclical is any indication), but not to the Hungarian pretenders to government. In fact, they seem to be marching backwards to the darker and darker days of extremist politics of chauvinism and racism.
What is the motive that explains their conduct in the face of such widespread European disapproval? Simply that this stridency will almost certainly bring them electoral victory next year. For them no price is too high to pay to achieve victory, and they would rather voluntarily exile themselves and the country from the community of civilized Europe than to forego winning the election next year. And if that is the price they have to pay, they will gladly pay it since, as they say, there is nothing but enmity to expect from Europe anyway but much to gain by being in power.
Yes, there is a school of thought that says that history repeats itself and that what was tragedy is a farce the second time around. Alas, looking at the looming prospects of Hungarian politics, I see no reason to be amused.