Another topic I have been thinking about for some time is whether Gyula Gömbös, prime minister of Hungary between 1932 and 1936, was a model for Viktor Orbán. For years I was struck by the similarity of their visions and their methods. Actually I wrote about the topic more than two years ago (June 21, 2008) under the title "Gömbös and Orbán?" I recommend reading or rereading this post because there are many predictions about a future Orbán government that have since become reality. Moreover, I gave a fairly good description of how Gömbös built a mass party in a country where there was no such thing before. Why do I bring up Gömbös again? Because the Fidesz-led local government in the town of Orosháza restored the title of honorary citizen to the former Hungarian prime minister, a title that had been withdrawn in 2002.
Péter Boross, the subject of yesterday's blog, was asked in one of the many interviews he gave between 2006 and 2008 about the political orientation of his family. The answer was that they always voted for the "government party"; he mentioned the three parties that were considered to be "the government party" during that period. The assumption was that they were pretty much the same. Indeed, even historians have a tendency not to distinguish between István Bethlen's Unified Party (Egységes Párt) and Gyula Gömbös's Party of National Unity (Nemzeti Egység Pártja). However, the distinction is clear even in the party names. Bethlen's Unified Party was the result of a conglomeration of several smaller parties, while Gömbös strove for a unified nation without an opposition. Orbán, consciously or unconsciously, follows the lead of Gömbös; he calls his new order "the regime of national cooperation/collaboration/cooperation/consensus" (take your pick), which pretty well represents the idea that Gömbös had in mind. One country, one party.
Gömbös is a controversial figure today as he was in his lifetime. Boross's family "disliked him" but, as Boross said in one of his interviews, not because he was a fascist "because that is rubbish." However, others thought that if he had had time he would have introduced a fascist-type regime in Hungary. By now the majority view is that Gömbös was working on a unique Hungarian road to dictatorship, borrowing ideas from Italian fascism and German national socialism but adding his own ideas as well.
The historian who is currently the expert on Gömbös is József Vonyó (University of Pécs), who happened upon a priceless find in the Baranya County archives: an almost complete set of documents dealing with the way that Gömbös's party (NEP) was organized on the local level.
Gömbös was a professional army officer who became known in 1919-1920 in the National Army of Miklós Horthy, a gathering place for radical right-wing officers. First he joined Bethlen's government party but left it in 1923. A year later he established a party that was commonly known as the Party of Race Defense (Fajvédő Párt). The party first and foremost wanted to reclaim the leading role of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin, which would have required an economic leading role as well. In his eyes the Jews of Hungary were an obstacle to achieving this economic supremacy. Hence his anti-semitism.
It seems that his first attempt at establishing a party of his own was not a success. The Party of Race Defense closed its doors in 1929 and Gömbös was taken back into the fold of the "government party," but only after he promised to stop his anti-semitic agitation. At this point and later during his tenure as prime minister he didn't have much choice because he didn't have the majority of parliament behind him.
He must have been painfully aware of the limits of his political strength. Soon after he became prime minister he began working on building a party of his own. He launched a grassroots program. First Gömbös convinced a few illustrious citizens who, tapping into their social network, invited others to join the party. To my greatest surprise in Vonyó's book I found the name of my mother's lawyer, who happened to live and practice into his later eighties, as one of the leading lights of Gömbös's party. Each new member had to sign a declaration that included the phrase: "the idea of national cooperation that is the prerequisite of the renewal of the nation." Doesn't this seem to find an echo in Orbán's "declaration of national cooperation"?
In each hamlet NEP established a local chapter; their charge was to sign up all those eligible to vote. The ultimate goal was to have only one party in the country. Every new recruit had to promise "to follow the leader (vezér/Führer)."
Each position was personally filled by Gömbös. (That also sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?) By the end of 1934 he managed to establish a totally centralized party in which the "leader" handled every detail. By early 1935 out of the 2.9 million voters 2 million were members of NEP. Thus it was not at all surprising that at the 1935 elections NEP won hands down. Of the 170 members of parliament 98 were followers of Gömbös, representing 57% of all seats. That also sounds rather familiar.
Gömbös didn't succeed in introducing his vision of a totalitarian state, not because of the weakness of his party but because of his death in 1936. Actually, Miklós Horthy wanted to dismiss him earlier, but he postponed his decision because of Gömbös's serious illness. Back then Hungary had a governor who could dismiss the prime minister if he considered his activities to be injurious to the country's interest. Today there is no strong president who could do the same.