It was only a few weeks ago that I complained about the difficulties I have been encountering with the Hungarian adjective “polgári” (bourgeois), and as a result a lively discussion on the subject developed among the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. Shortly thereafter Ferenc Kőszeg, one of the very few Hungarians who as a member of the democratic opposition of the 1980s fought against the one-party system, wrote an opinion piece titled “A polgár szó jelentéséhez” (To the meaning of the word ‘polgár’). The article was prompted by Sándor Révész’s article in Népszabadság, “A polgári hazugság” (The bourgeois lie). We should recall that in 1995 the party leadership decided to add “Magyar Polgári Párt” to the original name “Fidesz,” and thus the official name of the party became Fidesz Magyar Polgári Párt.
Kőszeg claims that the origins of the adjective “polgári” can be found in the vocabulary of German communists during the Weimar Republic. They were the ones who labelled parties other than themselves and the left-wing social democrats (who formed their own party in 1917) “bürgerliche Parteien.” The term meant that these parties “behind their liberal, conservative or christian democratic disguises” wanted to maintain a bourgeois class rule. By calling itself a “polgári párt,” Fidesz expropriated a communist term to distinguish itself from the socialists and liberals. Kőszeg rightly remarks in the article that “besides German and Hungarian, this expression makes no sense in any other foreign language.”
As so often happens, I read something one day and the next day in another book on an entirely different topic I discover a common thread. This is what happened when I picked up a book of essays by András Nyerges published recently. Nyerges is a fountain of knowledge about Hungarian intellectual history in the Horthy era. He combed all the important newspapers and came up with a wealth of material on the political attitudes of important intellectuals. Some politically quite embarrassing for later greats of Hungarian literature.
This particular book of essays has the intriguing title “Makó szomszédja Jeruzsálem” (Makó is the neighbor of Jerusalem). There is a very old saying in Hungarian that something is as far as “Makó from Jerusalem,” meaning very far. So, Nyerges’s title indicates that, despite the common belief that two entities are so remote from one another that they cannot be compared, there are sometimes many similarities that make them less distant than most of us believe. In one of the essays that inspired the title for the book, Nyerges writes about the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s, just before Hitler’s rise to power. He finds striking similarities between the politics of the German national socialists and the politics of Fidesz. This essay, it should be noted, was written in 2009–that is, before the national election that gave practically unlimited power to Viktor Orbán’s party.
Nyerges briefly discusses the birth of the labels “bürgerliche Demokratie” and “bürgerliche Parteien,” but he doesn’t linger over this point. His main focus is the Weimar Republic’s bad reputation as the harbinger of Hitler’s rise to power. Most Hungarian intellectuals called him an alarmist when he drew parallels between the Weimar Republic and the Hungarian political scene in 2009. Here, in this essay, Nyerges brings up examples of the behavior of the German national socialists in the Reichstag from 1931-1932 and compares it to the Fidesz strategy in 2008 and 2009.
Nyerges is dealing with two periods that resemble each other insofar as both followed a worldwide economic crisis. In the early 1930s the German chancellor, Heinrich Brünning, rightly or wrongly introduced an austerity program that made his government exceedingly unpopular. Hitler’s national socialists took advantage of the situation and introduced new, unorthodox parliamentary politics, including marching out of the parliament if the vote went against them. When they were asked to submit amendments, they refused to cooperate in any way and instead demanded the dissolution of parliament. Hitler denied that the world economic crisis had anything to do with the economic plight of Germany. It was, he maintained, due solely to “the incompetent political leaders who don’t care about the interests of the people.” At one point Hermann Göring announced in parliament that “Brünning is a traitor because he formed a coalition with the socialists.” Hitler in 1932 declared that “not only people of Jewish ancestry cannot be considered German but also those who are not national socialists.” Reading these lines, one is reminded of Fidesz’s policies while in opposition.
Nyerges quotes a letter of Hitler to Brünning in which he wrote: “when we legally take over the reins of government, then we will decide what is legal.” This is exactly what has happened in Hungary since 2010. The Hungarian parliament in which until recently Fidesz had a two-thirds majority rewrote all the laws they found not to their liking.
There are many other similarities between the two populist parties. The German national socialists had their men placed in important positions, including the judiciary. They claimed that half of the judges were either party members or sympathizers. When in October 1931 some incriminating documents were discovered from which the public learned that “in the event of Brünning’s fall, the SS troops would have been activated,” the prosecutor’s office delayed investigation. Meanwhile, Hitler talked about “socialist provocation” when it was clear that the authors of the documents were members of the party who received high positions after the takeover in 1933. Sounds all too familiar.
Although Nyerges is right in calling attention to the similar strategies and behavior of Hitler’s national socialists and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, most people would counter that the Hungarian situation is very different from the circumstances that existed in the Weimar Republic. Of course, this is true, but at the same time we can’t forget that Viktor Orbán managed to achieve almost total political control without the aid of any external catalyst. He had no Reichstag fire.
The Hungarian people are just lucky that Viktor Orbán turned out to be a less successful prime minister than he was a scheming, unscrupulous opposition leader. It is possible that his “reign” will be over soon and that the “shaman,” as Lajos Kósa called Orbán at one point in 2006 after the second lost election, will disappear forever except in history books as an example of a misguided and undemocratic politician who did not serve his country well.