I just heard a law professor who specializes in international law say that he has given up trying to figure out what Viktor Orbán’s speeches are all about. A newspaperman who deals with foreign policy called Viktor Orbán’s earlier speech to Hungarian ambassadors “incoherent.” Therefore, at first I thought that I wouldn’t even attempt to decipher the speech he addressed to his followers yesterday on the steps of the National Museum to mark the 167th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 revolution. I changed my mind, however, after I decided not only to read the text but also to watch it on ATV.
Although it might be true that there were fewer people present than in earlier years, the reception was surprisingly enthusiastic. I couldn’t help but compare it to the muted reaction of the invited guests at Viktor Orbán’s “state of the nation” speech a month ago. The difference was so marked that I thought it would be worth taking a look at possible reasons for this difference. Of course, we are talking about two very different kinds of audiences. Invited upper-middle class guests versus the people who most likely go to all the Fidesz rallies. Yet I was not convinced that it was the audience alone that made the difference. So, I began taking note of when the applause was especially fervent. It was when Viktor Orbán talked about Hungarian exceptionalism and the greatness of the nation.
Although even some commentators close to Fidesz expressed their hope that, after last year’s national election, the government would introduce a more tranquil period in the political life of the country, it looks as if the people in front of the National Museum enthusiastically support the kind of belligerence Viktor Orbán is known for. From their reaction I would say that Orbán is on the right track. The only question is how representative these few thousand people are of the core voters who are needed for Fidesz to remain in power even after 2018.
Viktor Orbán found the key to the heart of his followers: unbridled nationalism in defense of a country under threat from the outside.
Of course, national holidays, especially March 15th, are perfect venues for Orbán’s nationalist, historically inaccurate harangues. The theme of this speech was the country’s special relationship to “freedom and independence.” For Orbán these two concepts have been part and parcel of the country’s 1,100-year history. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Stephen I, István Széchenyi, or István Tisza. Never mind that Széchenyi considered the declaration of independence from Austria in 1849 suicidal or that Tisza, very wisely, would never have considered an independent Hungary an option since he knew only too well that independence and territorial integrity were mutually incompatible.
There are some dangerous ideas in this speech. What I found most frightening was that “everything, the constitution, the law codes, the parliament, the government, the national economy, serve only the goal of independence.” The emphasis is not on the rule of law and legal and economic structures, but on the nation. And, he added, “we should never forget that what is the most valuable in the Hungarians is what differentiates [them] from others.” If Hungarians were just like the others, “the world wouldn’t need us.” What an awful thought: the subordination of the individual to a national community. And, he added, if we were not different from others, “on what basis could we ask for the help of God against our enemies?”
With this introduction of the idea of external enemies, he moved on to the defense of the country situated among “nations larger than us.” The goal is the creation of a “free Hungarian world” which is “the basis of our existence.” According to Orbán, every Hungarian knows that “we cannot be free as individuals unless the whole nation is free.” Another dangerous idea and totally false. Individual freedom has nothing to do with the independence of the country. On the other hand, individual freedom can be curtailed by petty tyrants like Viktor Orbán himself. He and his coterie are the threats to individual freedom, not the external enemies he created out of thin air.
I will not spend time on his incoherent summary of Hungary’s 19th and 20th century history, but I would like to call attention to something I find politically important. The appropriate passage starts with the claim that although 167 years went by and the world has changed a lot–for example, democracy was introduced with its “complicated domestic and international rules,” as far as Hungary’s struggle for independence is concerned nothing has changed. Hungarians have always wanted “a place of their own.” Always wanted independence even “after the Compromise of 1867 when they built a country and a capital that the whole world admired. And this is what [they] wanted even after the loss of the country (országvesztés) and when they were looking for ways to regain it during the foggy grayness of socialism.”
Well, let’s parse these sentences. In reality, in 1848-1849 it became obvious that multinational Hungary could not be maintained without an understanding with the Habsburg ruler of the Austrian Empire. The rapid economic development that started already in the 1850s was achieved mainly by the influx of Austrian capital. The golden age of modern Hungary came at a time when Hungary had home rule but not total independence. The long dreamed-of independence came in 1918-1919, but for that independence Hungarians paid a high price. Yet, it looks as if Orbán would include the Horthy era in those years when the government fulfilled its true obligation of defending the independence of the nation. All in all, putting independence at the core of national existence cannot be supported by Hungarian history. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true during the golden age of modern Hungarian history between 1867 and 1914. Even today, if Hungary were not part of the European Union, its economic situation would most likely be even more dire than it is.
The audience was especially elated when Orbán explained to them that “Hungary was always the flagship of freedom and democracy in the western world” and, with a clear reference to the United States, said that “the people of Petőfi and Kossuth can only smile when somebody tries to instruct them about freedom and democracy.”
After exhibiting his ignorance of the country’s history and offering a hodgepodge of erroneous facts, Orbán announced: “if you want to know your future, thoroughly learn your past.” Well, I’m not sure how precisely the past is prologue, but let Orbán solve that problem. His claim, however, that “we Hungarians came to know the labyrinths of the past” is questionable. Most Hungarians are woefully ignorant of the country’s history, and what little they know has been distorted by nationalistic politicians, past and present.