It is a long weekend in Hungary, and that means that practically nothing happens on the political front. In fact, darned little happens on any front. Newspapers aren't published, normal television programming is suspended, and therefore a news junkie like me has plenty of time for other things–like reading. There are a fair number of books I bought but haven't yet managed to read. From my "to do" pile I opted for a slim volume: Sándor Kopátsy's Az Orbán jelenség (The Orbán syndrome). It's true that the book was written in 2002, right after Fidesz lost the elections, yet I thought that it might be worth taking a look at, if for nothing else but to see what kind of picture of Viktor Orbán was in circulation in those days.
As for Kopátsy. I encountered him only once, way back in 2000 when he wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Hírlap, then still a liberal paper. Kopátsy, an economist by training, was talking about–what else–Trianon. In the article was a sentence that led me to believe that the author knew very little history. Kopátsy admitted that most Hungarians enthusiastically greeted the outbreak of a war "in which Hungary had no vital interest. We had no business being in Serbia." His conclusion was that Hungary was dragged into the war by Austria against its own interests. I decided to write an article which I entitled "Let's Look at the Map." In it I tried to explain to Mr. Kopátsy that it was precisely the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy that felt and was threatened by a constantly growing Serbia. Thus, let's not blame Austria for the war.
The book about Orbán is easy reading, and it took me less than two hours to finish it. The author, a self-described "left-liberal," claims to have always stood on the side of social democracy against the dark forces of clericalism and the right. As for his assessment of Viktor Orbán, it is a strange mixture of admiration and admonition. Kopátsy considered him to be an exceptionally able politician but condemned him for allying himself and his party with clerical reaction. Although there are some thought-provoking passages in the book, there are many questionable observations as well. Put it this way, the book is not the best introduction to Viktor Orbán. As for Kopátsy, the socialist of yesterday, he seems to be a great admirer of Orbán and his "revolution" today.
However, there was one thing that caught my attention already in the preface. Kopátsy spends a great deal of his book comparing Viktor Orbán to Lajos Kossuth, whose "influence on subsequent events was tragic." Since I also have serious reservations about the Hungarian Kossuth cult, I decided to look around in my library for something that would help put Kossuth's role in a proper perspective. Then I remembered András Gerő's Képzelt történelem (Imagined history). In it Gerő talks about the symbols of nationalism which he calls–I think quite appropriately–"national religion" (nemzetvallás). If we think of the Hungarian national anthem it is really a prayer. National flags were imitations of church flags, and by 1848 the expression "the God of Hungarians" appeared in Sándor Petőfi's Nemzeti dal (Song of the Nation). Just as religions have their own special days, the national religion must also have dates of special importance. By now Hungary has three such national holidays, and which one is emphasized depends on the political ideology of the government in power. Currently, August 20th, St. Stephen's Day, has the honors. According to Gerő, even the "altar" of the nation exists. In Hungary that is Hero's Square (Hősök tere). And finally, "no national religion can be without its own hero. The question in the nineteenth century was who should be the Messiah, the Hero, the father of the nation."
And it is here that Gerő arrives at an examination of the cult of Lajos Kossuth. It is a pretty dense historical treatise with ample references, and therefore here I can mention only the most striking descriptions of the development of the cult. Kossuth in a famous speech in 1840 "connected the business of bourgeois reforms with his own person." He made it clear that the country's fate depended on him. István Széchenyi, his political opponent, said at the time that "Kossuth placed himself on such a high pedestal that he cannot remain there." But Kossuth from that time on was one with the nation. He was the voice of the Hungarians. By 1849 people called him "the Moses of the Hungarians." The peasants, who had just received their freedom, kept talking about Kossuth as their "father." During 1848-49 he discovered that he was an excellent, charismatic speaker. He was a populist blessed with an unusual power of persuasion. In 1849, after the declaration of independence which he wrote by his own hand, he also became "the founder of the modern Hungarian nation."
If he was the Moses of Hungarians or "the Nation's Messiah" (Mór Jókai) he could also name the "Judas of the Nation," because "he can tell who or what is good or bad." After 1867, although Kossuth himself was in exile, his cult at home flourished and "he took care that his myth would be further strengthened." All his life he insisted on being called "governor" and demanded "unquestioned respect of his authority."
If we take a look at the personality and political career of Viktor Orbán we may discover a number of striking similarities to Kossuth. Orbán is certain that he is the embodiment of the nation. He is also certain that all who don't share his vision of the future are traitors. He is–or perhaps better put used to be–an excellent speaker who can move crowds. Some of his admirers look upon him as the Messiah of Hungary who will lead them out of a twenty-year-long wilderness. Some go so far as to kiss his hand, as an old lady did at one of the rallies. He himself likes to use biblical language and at least one time talked about himself as the Messiah who is asking the disciples to spread the good news.
Yet I don't think that an Orbán cult similar to the Kossuth cult will develop in Hungary. Kossuth's "luck" was that after a brief period, in spite of feverish activity in exile, he never again was in the middle of political action. A shooting star that disappeared. Only the memories remained. Since Kossuth was not actively involved in politics and was far away from home, he really couldn't discredit himself. Orbán on the other hand is doing a splendid job of it at the moment.