How about those Hungarian liberals? by S. K.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to remind you how the enlightenment, as a philosophy, led to political ideas and ended up to be the liberal political creed. Nor is it forgotten how quickly did it conquer Europe in a few decades and led to the revolutions of 1848.

In Hungary, much more backward and sedate than the rest of Europe, the outcome was the same; the country seemingly in one fell swoop joined the liberal West, at least in its politics. The revolution brought to the fore a generation of “intellectuals,” actually romantic dreamers, whose political activities determined Hungary’s political future for the remainder of the century. Although the ultramontane monarchy achieved a temporary victory in 1849, the absolutist politics bled to death on the battlefield of Königgrätz in 1866 and the Emperor had no option left but to make a deal with Hungary and its liberals.

Admittedly, this is a very cursory overview so far. I also hasten to add that the emperor himself came under the influence of liberalism, so much so, that during the latter part of his reign he turned out to be a truly liberal person in most respects. (Just to mention one example, next to his palace he kept a villa and in it lived his lover, for decades.) Capitalism and liberalism were the prevailing ethos of those decades and the emperor Franz Joseph husbanded and supported both, occasionally even representing the vanguard of liberalism in some cases. For example, while the emancipation and economic advances of Jews were leading to a definite backlash in both Austria and Hungary, Franz Joseph personally protected and advanced their cause. Perhaps, this was the first conflict in which liberalism and the Jews became linked: the capitalist transformation and the Jews at the cutting edge of it.

Until the start of World War I there was a somewhat monochrome political palette, the government was liberal and the opposition conservative cum nationalist with ideas of total independence from Austria. (Of course, even the latter claimed to be liberal as well in many cases.) From a liberals' point of view this was a bipolar system, the opposition was confessing the same principles but wanted an independent monarchy. Some socialists were lurking below the surface, but they were only an exotic minority, representing an almost imaginary segment of society, yet to be created, and with hardly any electorial prospects.

At the behest of the liberal governments, in the prewar years the emperor granted nobility status to 392 Jewish families, all exemplars of the liberal financial and industrial development, all exceedingly wealthy and all engendering the howling disapproval of the nationalist majority. Liberalism became inextricably linked to Jews. The mention of liberalism no longer invoked automatically the name of Kossuth, but rather the Baron Hatvany family for instance, whose members were almost all excelling, some in their sugar monopoly, some in literature and some in the arts, but all of great influence and all liberal.

Following the chaotic aftermath of the war, the Christian and conservative system of admiral Miklós Horthy managed by all means of persuasion to make liberalism responsible for the disaster and with that also the Jews. There was some justification to this, liberalism was responsible, but they neglected to mention that it was the result of general consensus and refused to recognize their own role in it. Instead they emphasized the role of Jews in that “sinful” liberalism. And once the sins of liberalism was enumerated, might as well add the sins of the communist dictatorship, although that was just as threatening to liberals as it was to everyone else, if not more. To put it simply, the Jews were saddled with not one, but at least two “original sins:” communism and liberalism. (Of course there were others too, like free masonry, regardless of the fact that the free masons refused to take Jewish members in most lodges.)

During the interwar years liberalism was reviled, although there were some liberals in parliament. But this was a new political landscape, the abstract version of the triple hills in the Hungarian heraldry: a large conservative hill, a distant but menacing socialist hill and between the two a small, nonetheless well visible liberal hill. This is how the political landscape became “tri-polar” in the sense that liberalism was an alternative to both extremes; to conservatism as well as socialism.

In the early years of the post-war era liberalism was most ably represented in parliament as well as in public discourse by one Vilmos Vázsonyi, an ingenious lawyer, need I say a Jew, who became a lightning rod of all the hatred and derision accorded to liberalism from all quarters.

The accelerating movement toward the right in the pre-war years left hardly any room for liberalism in Hungary. The association with Jews took care of any expression of liberal views after the Jew-laws were introduced, it was not a question of expression anymore, but rather an existential question; a matter of survival. For those finding the expression crude or jarring let me point out that they were meant to be so. This is not only the precise translation of how these laws were called, but "softening" it to "Jewish Laws" would be also misleading, because that would mean laws enacted by Jews. Jew-laws were the three, progressively savage laws aimed to deprive Jews of first their livelihood, then their possessions and finally their liberty and life.

After World War II and the advent of communist dictatorship the minuscule liberal establishment, if they survived the war, were the preferred targets of the communist terror. Most of them were jailed and many killed already before 1956. Whoever managed to survive that, emigrated in ’56 never to be heard from again.

Although liberalism in Hungary became extinct in its representation during the communist era, naturally, the ideas and ideals remained strong and thrived in Western Europe.

The transformation of 1989 found a nascent, but promising liberal movement in Hungary. It had two constituents, Fidesz, mostly young, mostly from the countryside and mostly from university campuses. The other liberal party was based in Budapest and came from the mature children of communist party cadres and academics. Both had the same goals in mind, but Fidesz was pushing to achieve change by the dint of pressure of youthful impatience, while SZDSZ, the other liberal party, has gone about it scientifically, methodically as was expected of politically astute academics.

The first free election already made it plain that the two liberal parties are one too many, they had to compete for the same liberal votes and while the SZDSZ did have a sizable following, Fidesz was in actual fact only a few highly visible people and an answering machine. Fidesz needed a following which it could only garner from the SZDSZ. However, SZDSZ became quite successful by the referendum it organized to knock the socialists’ presidential ambitions out, so, there was no room for the expansion of Fidesz.

The 1994 election that brought back the socialists into government presented both liberal parties with a dilemma. SZDSZ chose to be in power even at the cost of shacking up with their arch-opponents, the socialists, and compromise their pristine liberal credentials. Fidesz had to realize that in the ranks of liberal voters they would not find sufficient following. As a result both were forced to give up some parts of their identities. SZDSZ gave up its puritanical liberalism and became the junior adjunct of the socialist governance while Fidesz gave up intentionally its liberal identity all together.

We can depart from Fidesz here, they have transmogrified into a right wing, radical party between 1994 and 96, therefore, they played the outsider’s role as far as liberalism was concerned. SZDSZ however, went on as a junior coalition partner of the socialists to this day at the great price of not only losing their identity, but in fact, by now they also have lost their status as a party; their electoral support is imperceptible, they will not be elected to parliament next year.

The liberals of Hungary presently have no party to represent them.

Tomorrow I shall give you the summary of how liberal politics worked, or didn’t work in Hungary in the last twenty years.

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A good start. But shouldn’t one point out at the outset the distinction between ‘liberalism’ in its modern sense — tolerance, social responsibility, individual freedoms — with the same term as it was used in prewar Hungary? My understanding is that the latter was used primarily in an economic sense, and would correspond in some sense to American Reaganite capitalism — on a much smaller scale, of course.

There’s some interesting stuff here. Certainly in contrast with the US and UK, Hungarian liberalism is not a historically left-wing inclination; it seems here more of a consolidated ideology of the elite. Obviously, the restricted suffrage of pre-1914 would not allow mass movements to truly emerge. But liberalism in Hungary, as Jim hints, doesn’t appear to be a mass popular movement, more of a “lifestyle” option. The Emperor kept his mistresses on the side, considered worthy of note in Hungary, but par for the course in most countries. Liberalism is therefore shorthand for a kind of “cultural sophistication” – I’m sure this is a massive mistranslation of the core concepts. So whilst in Britain, the campaign for universal and women’s suffrage was well underway by 1910, it seems in Hungary that liberalism largely lacked the activist “Radical” element, that often became “social liberalism,” interlinking with social democracy and wider social movements. It’s arguable that Hungarians haven’t had an “evolved” version of a liberal party since 1990, as many of the ideas espoused by the SZDSZ since that time are simply big money economics combined with “cultural sophistication.” It’s also arguable that, with the morphing of the MSZP from a communist… Read more »

Good point by Jim. And we might add that also today there are liberals and liberals, ranging from very right wing (like the Neocons) via the center-right (FDP in Germany) to rather left wing (even some Greens call themselves social-liberals).And certainly in Europe, most liberals do not question the essential role a strong state has to play in shaping, regulating and controlling markets (guaranteeing a level playing field, as it is called). That is exactly what EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes has been doing the last few years: using very stiff penalties to force companies to behave well.
One of the problems of the SzDSz has of course always been that it didn’t know what kind of liberal party it was, and one of the problems of Gyurcsány that he tried to implement social-liberal policies from and in a party which is still very much traditionally socialist.


The liberals of Hungary may not have a party to represent them, but given their small numbers in the electorate this seems unsurprising.

Matt L

SK, you present an emotionally satisfying narrative of Liberalism in Hungary, but I am not so sure it always squares with the historiography of liberalism before 1914. I think you omitted two larger issues, namely the noble/gentry adoption and co-optation of Liberalism in the nineteenth century and the agrarian socialism of the turn-of-the-century. These developments were arguably more significant to the future direction of Hungarian politics than a handful urban Jewish liberals.
While I am broadly sympathetic to the liberal agenda in Hungary, I think that you are playing a little fast and loose with history in order to make a political point. I think you do a better job of explaining the last twenty years. Certainly, we can both hope for the revival of a liberal party in Hungarian politics.


Also remember how the liberals co-operated in Germany with the Nazis: the Enabling Act in 1933, and continued involvement in their roles as local bureaucrats.