In the United States Arthur Finkelstein is not widely known although, as can be seen from his biography, he has been one of the most important movers and shakers in Republican politics ever since the 1970s. He was instrumental in devising a campaign for Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid and, in general, was behind a number of conservative candidates’ spectacular and unlikely wins for the U.S. Senate. In Hungary, by contrast, he is very well known as the man behind Viktor Orbán’s successful political career.
The article that I will summarize and excerpt (part 1 today) is by Mária Vásárhelyi, the well-known sociologist whose works deal primarily with media affairs and public opinion. It analyzes language as an instrument in forming public opinion by the ruling political elite. As you can gather from the title, Vásárhelyi doesn’t share the “educated” Hungarian public’s belief that Finkelstein gave Viktor Orbán the tools of modern communication that can assure him power for years to come. In her view, he merely refined some old tools of totalitarian dictatorships.
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In a short time the name of Arthur J. Finkelstein became a household word. In the eyes of the government’s supporters he is “the miracle doctor” who handed Viktor Orbán the weapon of communication that allows him to get and hold onto power for a long time to come. For the democratic opposition he is the devil incarnate who has supplied the prime minister with the most extreme negative propaganda tools–lies and slander included, which can destroy democratic political culture. What Finkelstein did, however, was no more than the modernization of the instruments of totalitarian dictatorships, including the communist one. The reason Vásárhelyi points to the similarities between the propaganda of the Orbán regime and that of the Third Reich is that we have at our disposal a unique source: Viktor Kemperer’s LTI–Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947), which was translated into English under the title The Language of the Third Reich.
Viktor Klemperer was a literary historian of Jewish origin who in 1935 was stripped of his professorship but who in his home in Dresden kept a diary throughout the remaining days of the Third Reich. He paid special attention to language: how the Nazi regime changed the German language to serve its own image. His diary, which he kept for ten years, is “the linguistic analysis of the propaganda instruments and practices of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. The Language of the Third Reich depicts how the Nazi empire took hold of and formed German society through language.”
Expropriation of the sphere of communication
The secret of Goebbels’ success lay, on the one hand, in the government’s total domination of the field of communication and, on the other, in the transformation of language. Setting up a propaganda ministry was one of the first moves of the leadership of the Third Reich, which very quickly supervised and subordinated all publicly available communication channels. Antal Rogán’s new ministry cannot even dream of such an “ideal” situation.
Goebbels concentrated on radio communication. Already in 1933 he created a Reich Radio Association which every radio employee had to join. At the same time the government removed anyone whom they suspected of a less than loyal attitude toward the new regime. All regional radio stations were placed under one company, the Reich Broadcasting Corporation. Even the manufacture of radios was placed under state supervision. The Nazi state heavily subsidized the manufacture of inexpensive radios. By 1939 70% of all German households owned a radio, a world record.
The subordination of newspapers took longer and followed a multi-pronged strategy. Some of the successful daily papers were purchased by firms sympathetic to the regime. The government tried to ruin other papers not to its liking by withholding advertising money from them. There were more forceful acts as well: intimidation or suspension of the publications. The two official telegraphic agencies were taken over by the state, and thus both domestic and foreign news were effectively controlled. By 1939 two-thirds of all German newspapers were owned by the state company, Eher Publishing House.
It is not difficult to find similarities between the illiberal Orbán regime’s communication strategy and the propaganda of the Third Reich. But since the Orbán regime is not a totalitarian dictatorship and because in the last 80 years developments in communications have made complete central supervision impossible, the comparisons are not in their realization but only in their methods and aspirations. Both in 1998 and again in 2010 one of the first moves of the Fidesz government was the seizure of public radio and television as well as MTI, the Hungarian news agency. At the same time a political purging of undesirable employees took place. They bought up media in private hands deemed unloyal, and, in the case of radio stations, they simply took away their frequencies and gave them to loyal friends. On the positive side the Orbán government, unlike the Third Reich, doesn’t forbid the activities of opposition media, but its plan is to make their existence impossible.
In the Third Reich important ingredients of the propaganda machine were broadsheets and posters which, as Klemperer describes them, “are all the same. One can feel physical strength and fanatic will. All power, firmness, the obvious lack of any thought.” Lajos Simicska already in the early 1990s realized the importance of posters both as a business venture and as a propaganda tool. By the time Fidesz won the election in 1998 Simicska owned 90% of all poster surfaces. By 2010 these posters served as the most important venue for Fidesz campaign communication. The billboards carried aggressive and primitive messages like “The deed is first,” “Only Fidesz,” “Honor the Hungarians,” “Enough,” “Trust Fidesz,” “Now is the time.”
But back to the Third Reich. In July 1933 the new Nazi regime voted in a law on referendums that made holding one practically impossible. Instead, they introduced the practice of “national consultations.” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
In today’s Hungary, in addition to some independent organs, the most important guarantors of democratic norms, however limited their influence, are the new forums of communication, which even the most brutal dictatorships haven’t been able to keep under their supervision. But the Orbán government is trying; it is testing the freedom of the internet. A good example is its successful intimidation of Deutsche Telekom Hungary, leading to the firing of the editor-in-chief of the internet news site Origo. We can also be pretty certain that trolls paid by the government make it difficult if not impossible to carry on intelligent and fruitful political discussions among people of different political views.
To be continued