After twenty years of democracy, Hungary is heading back to its authoritarian past

I have the feeling that we will have a short lull before the storm, so I can wander a bit from politics. Of course, most things that happen these days in Hungary are about politics, at least indirectly, something those young students who demonstrated against the government’s educational policies have yet to realize. They keep repeating that they are civilians who have nothing to do with politics. How long will it take them to understand that they are wrong?

I will take this opportunity to summarize a lecture by the academician Ignác Romsics, a respected historian of the twentieth century. (His book on that subject is available in English.) He is considered to be a fairly conservative man and therefore his lecture reported in today’s Népszava is noteworthy. Romsics is trying to set things straight at a time when the government is encouraging a re-evaluation of the Horthy regime (1920-1945). Although Viktor Orbán and his entourage deny it, the signs are clear: a rehabilitation of the Horthy regime is under way.

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

First of all, it is noteworthy that Romsics delivered his lecture in the Politikatörténeti Intézet (Institute of the History of Politics) which is under attack by the current government. One reason for Viktor Orbán’s dislike of the institute is that before the change of regime it was called the Párttörténeti Intézet (Institute of Party History), and thus the historians connected with the institute are politically suspect in his eyes. The institute has a large library and an extensive archive, considered to be a private collection, which the government recently nationalized. This move is especially worrisome because private individuals’ archives are also stored there. The institute right now is fighting for its survival and for its archives. So, giving a lecture at this particular institute is a kind of political statement, especially from a historian who is not a flaming liberal.

The institute began a lecture series in December and Romsics’s lecture on “The modern Hungarian political regimes” was the fifth in the series. I’m happy to announce that our friend Gábor Egry, who just published a lengthy comment on demographic changes in Hungary and Romania after 1918, will be the next to lecture on the “Nationality problems in Hungary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” The earlier lectures are available on video on the website of the institute and I assume that soon enough we will be able to listen to Romsics’s lecture as well.

So, let’s look at Romsics’ overview of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hungarian political history.

As far as the period of dualism (1867-1918) is concerned, Hungarians like to talk about it as a time of peace and prosperity (boldog békeidők). It was a time of fantastic economic growth, when everything was just perfect. But was it? No it wasn’t because there was no representative government, there was no democracy, and liberalism was greatly constrained. The Emperor-King Franz Joseph I’s power was much wider than that of other western rulers. He influenced foreign policy and defense decisions, and the parliament was able to vote on a piece of legislation only if it was approved by the king ahead of time. Another characteristic of the regime was that very few people had the right to vote. In 1910, at the last election before the war, only 6% of the adult population was able to cast a vote–and not by secret ballot. During the dualistic period government after government had a two-thirds majority, and it happened only once that such a government was removed by a vote of no-confidence. But the victorious opposition had to promise the king before being able to form a new government that it wouldn’t touch the dualistic structure.

During the Károlyi period (1918-1919) no elections were held, but a new electoral law would have made 50-60% of the population eligible to vote, including women. During the Soviet Republic practically the entire adult population had the vote, except it didn’t mean much because of the one-party system.

After the fall of the Soviet Republic the first election took place in 1920 on the basis of the electoral law of the Friedrich government (August 7-November 24, 1919): 40% of the adult population could vote, and vote secretly. This brought about a revolutionary change. The peasantry constituted 60% of the country’s population prior to 1920 but the party representing them had only one or two representatives in a pre-war parliament of 413 members. Now suddenly their number swelled to 30 in a downsized parliament of 219.

One of the first moves of the Horthy regime was to reduce the number of eligible voters. In the larger cities the vote was secret but everywhere else it was again open. By introducing a new electoral system the governments of the interwar period had two-thirds majorities and thus their perpetuation was ensured. The powers of Governor Miklós Horthy were not extensive, but such powers were not really necessary. The system worked without his direct influence.

During both the era of dualism and the period between the two world wars, Hungary had an authoritarian political system. But during the Horthy period even the equal rights of citizens were trampled on by the so-called Jewish laws.

After World War II there was a brief period of “democratic experimentation” that was over by 1949. During the Rákosi and Kádár periods the “role of parliament was only formal.” Real decisions were made within the party apparatus. Parliament had even less of a role to play than it did in the Horthy regime, in which parliamentary debates at least had a moderating influence on the government.

However, and this is an interesting point, “in the late Kádár regime, after the 1985 elections because of the new election law 10% of the members of parliament were elected in opposition to the communist party candidates. It is true that some of these so-called independents were fellow travelers or even party members, but here and there one could hear speeches in parliament that would have been unimaginable earlier.” While “we can certainly label the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes dictatorships, the late Kádár era can be called authoritarian only.”

This is an important statement, especially in light of Fidesz’s penchant for making no distinction between the Stalinist Rákosi regime, the early Kádár period, and the last five years of the one party-system that was already being challenged.

As for the situation under the second Orbán government, “there is no dictatorship in Hungary today because the elimination of the separation of powers hasn’t taken place, there is still a multi-party system, and there is still media freedom. At the same time the steps the government has taken in the last three years have led to such a concentration of power that we can say that Hungary has started on the road toward an authoritarian political system.” I do hope that the world listens.

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Csaba K. Zoltani
Guest

According to LeMonde
http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2013/04/12/la-posture-gaullienne-de-viktor-orban_3159069_3214.html?xtmc=orban&xtcr=2
Victor Orban is following the De Gaulle. A notable example.

zuglo
Guest
Dear Csaba K. Zoltani. Unfortunately, the article you link to cannot be read in its entirety, but no matter: if you wish to compare Orban’s Hungary to de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, here goes. First: France was on the threshold of a coup-d’etat, led by the army, and triggered by the last crisis of de-colonization, when de Gaulle stepped in, in the summer of 1958. When Orban came to power in 2010, Hungary was decidedly NOT on the verge of political collapse. It was as peaceful as could be. A normally scheduled, normally executed election took place. One side won, albeit handily. Second: when de Gaulle insisted that a new constitution be instituted, he put it up to a national referendum. Every Jean, Jeanne, Michel, and Michelle got to vote on a text made perfectly public before it was ever declared constitutional. No such luck in Orban’s Hungary. Third, de Gaulle, while indeed shifting power towards France’s executive branch, never swept away the checks and balances expected in a modern democracy in the form of a meaningful judiciary, equal treatment for opposition positiions in the national media, independence granted to universities, schools, etc. never thought to do such a thing, nor… Read more »
qaz
Guest

De Gaulle, who had little consideration for the bourgeoisie and for journalists, called Le Monde: “l’Immonde” (the squalid). For De Gaulle, the day when “l’Immonde” (Le Monde) would support him would be the day of a national disaster.

buddy
Guest

Éva, for those not intimately familiar with Hungarian history, your mention of the “Soviet Republic” without elaboration might have them scratching their heads. Perhaps not everybody’s aware that Hungary had a homegrown Communist state for 133 days in 1919.

Which reminds me, there’s a new TV quiz show here called “Észbontók” where everyday people try to guess not-too-difficult trivia questions, with hilarious/shocking results. For example, in the first show three young women claimed that humans first landed on the moon in 1949, and that Fahrenheit is a measurement for wind speed. So much for the products of today’s Hungarian education, I suppose.

J Grant
Guest
“I have the feeling that we will have a short lull before the storm, so I can wander a bit from politics. Of course, most things that happen these days in Hungary are about politics, at least indirectly, something those young students who demonstrated against the government’s educational policies have yet to realize. They keep repeating that they are civilians who have nothing to do with politics. How long will it take them to understand that they are wrong?” Dear Professor Balogh! The students and all those who are desperately cling to so called “civil” groups, while rejecting all parties and/or politicians, will realise that they’re wrong when it will dawn on them that you have to have a philosophy, a program, a clear indication to be FOR something, rather than AGAINST something to change society. I am sure they will one day, but this almost total rejection of “politics”, the way that became a dirty word is understandable, if somewhat frustrating to the likes of us who understand the above. I know, or at least suspect, reading your posts and generally your work, that you are not a socialist, or you are but are not prepared to polemicize in… Read more »
Member

Csaba K. Zoltani :
According to LeMonde
Victor Orban is following the De Gaulle. A notable example.

The Fidesz PR machine … bummer. Finally something and it costs 2 Euros to read.

Sandor
Guest

I am putting in a request, not the first time and not so humbly as usual, that those “Jewish Laws” no longer be called Jewish laws, as it sounds so smooth and unobtrusive, whereas they were called in the original: Jew Laws. It is not nice and not politically correct sounding that way, I admit, but let’s just call them as they were: savage, murderous, and barbaric laws and their name should sound just as bad: Jew Laws. That’s what they were.

Dr.Dick Leaks, MD
Guest

Remek tanulmany a Dunamenti Mongoliarol. Sajnos vannak alacsonyabb rendu fajok melyek keptelenek elsjatitani a demokracia alapelveit. Ezek koze tartoznak a Dunamenti Mongolok,

jew mamma
Guest

didnt you mean return to its dirty commie jew past

LwiiH
Guest

Csaba K. Zoltani :
According to LeMonde
http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2013/04/12/la-posture-gaullienne-de-viktor-orban_3159069_3214.html?xtmc=orban&xtcr=2
Victor Orban is following the De Gaulle. A notable example.

And this is a good thing???? De Gaulle is responsible for wiping out more than 70 different language groups that existed in France before 1945.

Anyone expecting a dictatorship in Hungary in the sense of what they’ve looked like historically is fooling themselves. What is happening here won’t or can’t look like Kadar or any other pre-21 century dictatorship simply because the conditions on the ground are very much different. So I expect that any authoritarianism/dictatorship that does form will look more like Venezuela than what existed under old regimes. One of the changes will be that opposition parties will be allowed, they will just have no chance at winning. Isn’t that the case or are we close to that case today?

Guest
London Calling! J Grant your eloquent post tells it like it is – it’s easy for us extra-country armchair observers to not get the perspective of the man on the Győr omnibus. But we have just seen the passing away of Mrs Thatcher – and you will see from sebt’s post (I think) in another place that we in England had just those senses of gloom during her ‘reign’. Whilst they were on a different scale; sometimes we wondered if the nightmare would ever end but it eventually did. Many people are dancing in the streets at her death and there has been a concerted campaign to get the Wizard of Oz song “The Wicked Witch is Dead Ha! Ha! The Wicked Witch is dead” into the BBC pop charts in celebration. And they succeeded – such that the BBC has banned the playing of the full song – just a short excerpt until at least she is laid to rest. And there have been street parties close to where I live. For me this is too over the top – and is insensitive to her close relatives and I thoroughly disapprove. But I understand why. She was such a… Read more »
LwiiH
Guest

Csaba K. Zoltani :
According to LeMonde
http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2013/04/12/la-posture-gaullienne-de-viktor-orban_3159069_3214.html?xtmc=orban&xtcr=2
Victor Orban is following the De Gaulle. A notable example.

While we’re on the subject of De Gaulle…. as a role model, let me bury him for good. Here is a man that waged a subtle on a country that only a few years before sent 10s of thousands of men to liberate it, an act that resulted in many of them being killed or injured. This war almost destabilized a functional democracy and caused the deaths or more people. So, this is the gratitude, the thanks Canada received from De Gaulle for it’s role in liberating France. Mean while, the Dutch still send flowers (http://bit.ly/Kav1L). So De Gaulle may be revered as a hero but all he did was flee to the UK and then hitchhike a lift on a jeep back into Paris. If that makes him a role model then god help us all.

Guest

London Calling!

O/T

Eva, I just wanted to acknowledge during this ‘lull’ how unusually rich and readable your blog has become lately.

Trolls and Racists apart – So many different historical perspectives – Cheshire Cat; Suzi; Sebt et al – all giving a real insight to current history – the Balkans, de Gaulle among other topics – Amazing!

History coming alive.

Alleluya to all that!

Regards

Charlie

Gewirz
Guest

Orbán would love to be the new governor Horthy. Ruling for 25 years without elections, I guess that is his dream and you know what, many (not many, actually hundreds of thousands, if not millions) on the right would love that too. These people need to worship and serve a tough ruler who – perhaps indirectly but – puts Jews (international corporations, banks, the communists, etc.– everything bad, for the Jews, liberals are a symbol only of everything which they fear and hate) back into their place.

LwiiH
Guest

Csaba K. Zoltani :
According to LeMonde
http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2013/04/12/la-posture-gaullienne-de-viktor-orban_3159069_3214.html?xtmc=orban&xtcr=2
Victor Orban is following the De Gaulle. A notable example.

I’d like to add one more comment about the danger of believing in your own rhetoric. Where did we first hear the term, they will greet us a liberators? Dick Cheney? Nope.. it was Madison when he was planning the attack on Montreal during the war of 1812. It didn’t quite work out as planned…. Fortunately for Cheney he went in with overwhelming force and support that the Americans didn’t have when they finally invaded Canada.

999
Guest

Horthy or Mugabe are the choices.

oneill
Guest

“I guess that is his dream and you know what, many (not many, actually hundreds of thousands, if not millions) on the right would love that too. ”

As big a problem are the millions who really couldn’t care one way or the other and for that fact it’s not only the Orban regime’s fault,

Member

Eva S. Balogh :
Yes, Sándor. I remember but I don’t agree with you. The word “zsidó” is both a noun and an adjective in Hungarian. So, “zsidó törvények” surely means “Jewish laws.” So, sorry, I can’t oblige.

This is exactly why Sandor has a point. We automatically assume the word zsidó is an adjactive in the “zsidó törvény”. It’s not. See, “adó törvények, ingatlan törvények” (tax laws, property laws).

Member

Eva S. Balogh :

Sandor :
I am putting in a request, not the first time and not so humbly as usual, that those “Jewish Laws” no longer be called Jewish laws, as it sounds so smooth and unobtrusive, whereas they were called in the original: Jew Laws. It is not nice and not politically correct sounding that way, I admit, but let’s just call them as they were: savage, murderous, and barbaric laws and their name should sound just as bad: Jew Laws. That’s what they were.

Yes, Sándor. I remember but I don’t agree with you. The word “zsidó” is both a noun and an adjective in Hungarian. So, “zsidó törvények” surely means “Jewish laws.” So, sorry, I can’t oblige.

I would call the 1938-1942 laws “[anti-]Jewish laws”

Nagy Gábor
Guest

Sorry my very poor english, I can only read. But to say “the equal rights of citizens were trampled on by the so-called Jewish laws” is very inexcusable (and especially from an Hungarian academician) – who was in power while cca 600 000 Hungarian citizens perished in Auschwitz and other camp?

Member

Eva S. Balogh :
Despite Mutt’s very correct grammatical addition to the Jew versus Jewish controversy, I find “Jew Laws” unacceptable in English.
On the other hand, I like Tappancs’s suggestion for using “anti-Jewish laws.” That sounds like English and covers the intent of these laws.

We also say dog laws. Not anti-Dog laws even if the subject’s animal rights are seriously violated. They are locked up, chained, castrated, forced to work and put down with no reason. Dog law is more insulting since it blatantly suggests the “regulation” of the problem.

Member

Eva S. Balogh :
I agree with you that Romsics is making light of the Hungarian Holocaust here. But I will wait for the final word on that question until I can hear the whole lecture. Let’s not forget that the text I worked from is a very abbreviated description of the lecture.

Professor Romsics was in the middle of a controversy last summer because of his lectures. There was a quite heated debate over how much detail can be considered historical fact about the ethnic background of the 20th century politicians and public figures in Hungary. Some even called him a closet anti-Semite.

Member

Check out the Hungarian Turul Trooper’s latest adventures in foreign languages:

http://demokrata.hu/cikk/nyilt_level_europa_polgaraihoz

These guys are the so called “Peace Marchers”. Beautiful example of the Hungarian self pity. But the good news is “continue to believe steadfastly in the power of love and unity”. The same people who wanted to pour acid on the students at the Fidesz HQ building.

For some reason it is addresses to “Europe’s citizens”. So Americans, Canadians, Australians, New-Zealanders look away. People in Holy Jimmy’s Backyard I believe still can be considered EU citizens, even though the are not on the Continent.

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