Viktor Orbán is on his way to China from where no appreciable news has yet reached Budapest. Nonetheless, the prime minister’s name is prominent on practically all online news sites today on account of an interview he gave to politico.eu before his departure. Actually, what we can read there is not strictly speaking an interview but only an article based on a 90-minute interview that took place in Budapest. Therefore it is not always clear how faithfully those parts of the conversation have been transcribed that are not direct quotes. In any case, the interview highlights new aspects of Viktor Orbán’s thinking, and anyone who follows the maverick prime minister’s intellectual career should definitely read it. I should, however, warn readers ahead of time. Matthew Kaminski, the reporter, was overly impressed by Viktor Orbán, who most likely used all his considerable charm on the reporter. It is enough to remember former U.S. Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis’s memoirs in which she recounts that all American visitors who met Orbán fell under his spell.
Here I would like to focus on one little scene from the lengthy article.
Getting up from his seat around a large conference table, Orbán walks over to the books stacked on his desk and shelf. He picks up a tract on Europe he’s reading by Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and proponent of a closer, federal EU. “The most dangerous book,” he calls it.
Why is Habermas so dangerous? To find the answer we have to go back to the speech Orbán delivered upon the publication of the booklet “Signs of the Times” on October 30. In this speech he expressed his suspicion that the arrival of close to a million people in Europe is the result of a purposeful plan of left-liberal elements who want to transform Europe into a “cosmopolitan community of world citizens.” He added that “even Ferenc Kőszeg brought up the possibility of a politically constructed world community in one of the weeklies.” He added that he has been thinking about this theory and its political and cultural implications and that he “will have to polish up his thoughts” on the subject before the forthcoming Fidesz Congress.
After some research I found the article by Ferenc Kőszeg that Viktor Orbán was talking about. It appeared in HVG‘s print edition on October 18 and about a week later on the internet. The article’s title is “We need another Trianon.”
First, a few words about Ferenc Kőszeg. We haven’t heard much about him of late, but he was a prominent member of the democratic opposition in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period he was a regular contributor to the famed samizdat publication Beszélő. After the regime change he was a member of parliament (1990-1998) and in 1994 became one of the founders and eventually the director of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. He is the author of several books.
So, what does the article have to say about a possible second Trianon? Kőszeg reminds his readers about how the Hungarian ruling political elite at the turn of the century managed to ruin the good name of the country within a relatively short time in Great Britain, where ever since the revolution of 1848-1849 the British public had followed the fortunes of Hungary with great sympathy. But then came the forceful Magyarization of Hungary’s minorities, and soon enough on the pages of The Spectator under the pseudonym of “Scotus Viator” (Scottish wanderer) articles appeared about the Hungarian situation that turned British public opinion against the country. Hungary, partly because of its deserved bad publicity, was probably treated more harshly than it would have been otherwise. And, says Kőszeg, at the moment Hungary’s reputation is as bad as it ever was because of Hungary’s harsh treatment of the refugees. He brings up the White Terror of Miklós Horthy’s detachments in 1919 and the execution of Imre Nagy in 1958. So, if Viktor Orbán is not careful, he might find his country outside of the European Union because of international public opinion condemning his behavior.
It was in this article that Kőszeg mentioned Jürgen Habermas’s name. The sentence in which his name appeared was this: “If the number and influence of euroskeptics keep growing, then Jürgen Habermas’s concept of a European constitution in which human rights occupy center stage might not be a utopia. Or much less of a utopia than the dreams of Orbán and his friends of illiberal nation states marching to the tune of Hungary.” This was the sentence that aroused terrible suspicions in Viktor Orbán’s mind.
As I learned from Ferenc Kőszeg, he was quoting from Habermas’s Zur Verfassung Europas: Ein Essay (2011) which a year later appeared in Hungarian translation as Esszék Európa alkotmányáról. (In English the title is The Crisis of the European Union.) Most likely it was the Hungarian translation of this book that Orbán was studying to help him define his own position against the ideas outlined in this “most dangerous book.”
What does Viktor Orbán find so objectionable in Habermas’s ideas about the future of the European Union? Let me quote here a succinct summary of the main thrust of his position. According to Anson Rabinbach in the July 10, 2012 issue of The Nation,
Habermas argues that the ethical and political self-understanding of citizens in a democratic community needn’t be rooted in a historical or cultural essence. Simply put, citizens do not have to “feel” that they belong together culturally or ethnically to act in a democratic manner and experience solidarity with their neighbors, especially beyond their borders. It is enough that they share a common set of ethical and civic values and participate in a set of institutions that enable them to communicate and debate.
I might add to all this that, not surprisingly, Habermas, who gave a lecture to an overflowing audience in Budapest in May 2014, is no fan of Viktor Orbán. Before he began his lecture, Habermas talked at some length about the Hungarian political situation and Viktor Orbán’s role in the destruction of liberal democracy. He added that it would be “false politeness” not to talk about the populist nationalist voices coming from Hungary.
I am curiously awaiting the “philosophical treatise” that Viktor Orbán will present at Fidesz’s forthcoming congress. You may recall that the congress was supposed to be held during the weekend of the Paris tragedy but was postponed due to the official day of mourning Orbán declared. It will be held on December 13 instead. This will give Orbán a little more time to find answers to Habermas’s picture of the world sometime in the future in which nation states will have less and less of a hold on their citizens.