Paul Lendvai, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman. A review

Paul Lendvai latest book, which just appeared in English translation, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (London: Hurst & Co. and, soon to be released, Oxford University Press, 2017) is much more than the title suggests. It is a masterfully executed, concise yet complete political history of Hungary from the late 1980s to today. Anyone who’s interested in Hungarian affairs should have this book on hand. In it one can find almost everything that is critical to understanding the admittedly complicated and sometimes baffling recent events in the country. Viktor Orbán is the focus of the book; about half of its 250 pages deals with the Orbán years since 2010.

Although the book was released in England only a couple of weeks ago, several glowing reviews have already appeared, which annoyed the Orbán regime to no end. Zoltán Kovács, the  talented communication maverick in charge of misleading public opinion abroad, has not read the book yet, but he already attacked Paul Lendvai by going after The Financial Times’s reviewer for daring to call Orbán “lord and master of Hungary” when, in fact, he is a three-time democratically elected prime minister. I can well imagine what will happen when they get to the actual text.

The picture of Orbán that emerges from the pages of this book is not pretty. Lendvai acknowledges Viktor Orbán’s extraordinary talents as a politician, but what lies behind his success? Here are a few descriptions, some from Paul Lendvai himself and others from observers and people who knew Orbán personally. Ever since his student days an “absolute will to power molded his character.” One of his college friends described him as “domineering and intolerant.” There was also “an expediency about him, one without any principles.” He is a man “untroubled by any sense of scruple.” He is someone who with “grim determination and clever tactics” exploits the weaknesses of his opponents. He is a reckless opportunist with an “insatiable greed for power and money.” Igor Janke, a Polish journalist who wrote an admiring biography of Orbán (Forward!: The Story of Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban), cited unnamed staff members who described him as “a ruthless chess player of power politics, who has concentrated immense power in his own hands, power that he is unwilling to share, and that is extraordinarily dangerous. Inwardly he is full of passions which are not visible on the outside. Plays chess with people around him but in such a way that they cannot endanger his own position. He takes good care that all substantive decisions remain in his hands and he is not choosy about his methods.”

I was pleased to see that Lendvai dwelt at some length with Orbán’s troubled relations with those members of the Budapest intelligentsia who from the late 1970s had been involved in clandestine activities against the Kádár regime. These people came from professional families. They were well-groomed socially as well as intellectually, and they originally acted as tutors of sorts–politically, socially, and intellectually–to the young students who came from smaller towns or even villages. In 1993 Orbán said in an interview that “I am not a sensitive intellectual of the twentieth generation,” and “there is in me perhaps a roughness brought up from below. That is no disadvantage as we know that the majority of people come from below.” As Lendvai writes, these young students’ “initial admiration for the brilliance of some liberal and left-wing intellectuals evolved over the years into an aversion fed by inferiority complexes, later into almost open feelings of hatred.” This aversion eventually developed into “disdain for cosmopolitan Europhiles.” A “turning away from liberal positions and to the espousal of grassroots nationalist values, in contrast to the ‘alien’ left-liberal governments, has run like a thread through subsequent debates, peaking with Orbán’s open avowal of ‘illiberal democracy’ in the summer of 2014.”

Orbán grew up in irreligious surroundings. He was baptized, but as far as we know he didn’t receive any kind of religious education and refused to have a church wedding when he and Anikó Lévai got married in 1986. But once he moved Fidesz from the left to the right, his contacts with church dignitaries intensified. It was at this time that he met Zoltán Balog, the Hungarian Reformed minister who apparently took it upon himself to give religious guidance to Orbán, who had discovered that a knowledge of religion was essential for his political career. He apparently told Balog: “I was not aware that the Church is so important, such an important part of Hungarian life. I cannot talk to the people about politics if I don’t understand that!” So, it seems that it was politics that led to religiosity. Are these feelings genuine? It is hard to tell. József Debreczeni, the biographer who perhaps knows him best and whom Lendvai quotes, doubts it. As he says, “Viktor Orbán is a man who almost automatically believes in the veracity of whatever he considers to be politically useful to him.”

As I said, this book is much more than a biography of Viktor Orbán. It is a masterful analysis of almost 30 years of Hungarian political history. Starting with a short description of the late Kádár years, Lendvai covers the key aspects of political life during this period. Lendvai’s personal contacts with the political actors are immensely valuable, whether this comes in the form of an interview with Kádár or impressions of Ferenc Gyurcsány. His harshest words are reserved for Orbánism, but he doesn’t spare the socialists either. He reports on conversations with Gyurcsány, during which “he tore the Socialist party to pieces, deriding it as a party incapable of deciding whom and what it represented.” Conversations with Gyurcsány, with his staffers and secret enemies, as well as with independent commentators, confirmed his suspicions that “the Socialist party was not one of common convictions, but rather a disgusting snake pit of old Communists and left-wing careerists posing as Social Democrats.”

Throughout the book Lendvai carefully dissects Orbán’s methods of elaborately constructing  a “bastion of power” that is “impregnable to external assault.” Lendvai agrees with the general view that after two overwhelming electoral victories “the Orbán regime cannot be defeated under ‘normal’ circumstances by any free and fair election in the foreseeable future.”

Here I could cover only snippets from this remarkable book, which I highly recommend. I especially urge “Brussels bureaucrats” to read it; they could learn a lot from Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman.

October 30, 2017
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dos929
Guest

” – Lendvai agrees with the general view that after two overwhelming electoral victories “the Orbán regime cannot be defeated under ‘normal’ circumstances by any free and fair election in the foreseeable future.” -” »»» And he is not alone in his opinion. Orban with his underhanded methods sooner or later will force an uprising against the dictatorial regime he created, and he won’t be the last laughing…

Guest

Thank you for this Éva,
I intend to order the book asap, and will send this blog to others, especially in the UK!
Just today I was talking to a friend here and we agreed that only those who actually live in Hungary understand the dire situation here, but this book might help to expose world-wide the maniacal psycopath posing as Hungary’s Prime Minister.

wrfree
Guest

Yes, a big thank you on the publicity for this essential book on Magyar and biographical history. It will be a must read.

As noted, the English translation helps to provide a much needed and penetrating look into a ‘small’ country in Europe and those who run it not for the ‘greater good’ but for themselves. It helps to open the curtains on that ‘backwater’ of Europe that believes it is in mortal combat with history and Europe.

Mr. Lendvai’s analysis would seem to try to bring some understanding on how character defects in leaders introduce threats to democracies that if not challenged immediately fester as the type of guest who comes to visit and never leave one’s home.

And pretty soon the whole house is run over by homesteaders. The house then cannot be called a home but rather a formidable prison with Orban et al as jailers. The great penal colony of Europe slogging along as histories become repudiated and memory gets forcibly eroded.

Magyarorszag: an example of what happens to a country when generations do not make histories as they dismiss responsibilities and give it to others who are unfit to write the stories.

Member

It is available on the Amazon.com UK site. Price is slightly more than in the US, when arrives, by about $3.00 if the shipping is added.

Ferenc
Guest

Re:Kovacs
As far as I know so far in life I’m lucky to be ‘phobia free’, but if come and have to choose one, I gladly go for:
#I Stand With O.V.phobia!!

PS: Looking forward for reading the book!!

wrfree
Guest

No doubt the school of Kovacsian literary criticism is on the horizon. Prepare for more in the eviseration of each Lendvaian word, sentence and paragraph. Nothing will be considered true in the Magyar firmament but only the denunciations of things that are true.

It remains to be seen if the book will experience literary freedom as ZK no doubt wants it either in the remainder bin or the ash heap.

Michael Kaplan
Guest

A fine review of Lendvai’s book, let alone Orban’s character. I have been reading Lendvai’s books for almost 40 years. I suspect Orban will not sleep well after the full details in this book reach the public. The real question is what will the many opposition groups do.

I still remember the early Fidesz in 1987-88, not like the current regime today. How sad for Hungary that Orban chose a grandiose “chess game”. Well the first indictments came down today for the Trump regime; the Orban regime’s turn will come.

Observer
Guest

“the Orbán regime cannot be defeated under ‘normal’ circumstances by any free and fair election in the foreseeable future.”

Wrong, sort of: Orban would be defeated in free and fair elections, but there won’t be such elections in 2018, the last one was in 2010.

And there is little merit in talking about “Orbanism”, which is just another dictatorship closely resembling classical fascism, but more precisely defined by Balint Magyar’s “post communist mafia state”. The latter definition fits the likes of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc.

Ferenc
Guest

Cont’ ridiculousness
The HU police ordered the Jobbik representative, who filed charges against George Soros, to come to their National Investigation Office (NNI) for questioning.
It seems they haven’t yet ordered any of the in Jobbik’s charges mentioned Fid persons, a.o.Tuzson, Bakondi, Németh, to their office…
https://mno.hu/belfold/soros-elleni-feljelentes-mirkoczkit-kerdeztek-a-rendorok-2424680
…rtbc…

Guest

Not too much OT:
My wife today got her copy of the Nemzeti konsultáció – and proceede to immediately throwing into the garbage can, but I saved it …
It’s such a ridiculous North Korea style paper – I’ll show it to my friends in Germany and we’ll have a good laugh!
Poor Hungarians – or should we say they really deserve it for voting Fidesz (or the other non-options like Jobbik etc).

Goebbels also would be proud …
I’m wondering about the people who design and produce this kind of lunacy – do they really believe in it like those Flat Earthers or Nibiru fans?

Istvan
Guest
An impressive review of the new book by Lendvai, I have shared his book the Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat with many people over the years. I will definitely read the new book in the future. But the question to be answered Eva about the rise of Orban is not only his personally traits, but was his rise an inevitable result the limited economic progress for the masses of Hungarians in the transformation to a market economy? I think you know my answer, it is yes. I think the rise of Putin in Russia also reflects that reality. The creation of the Eastern Mafia states represents one of the greatest failures of both Western Europe and the USA. The shock therapy approach to the market economy theorized by some IMF economists led to rapid massive collapses in state employment and the more gradual approach advocated by European social democracy led to staggered collapses. All of the former communist nations were thrown into a global economy being driven by profits generated by lowering wages and simultaneously increasing productivity. Some have done better than others, but it hasn’t been great for any of these nations when their average wages… Read more »
Guest
Istvan, why is it always someone else’s fault? The former Communist block countries had lots of chances and possibilities, people make much more money than in Communist times (just look at their tvs and cars) – but they aren’t happy … Did they expect to immediately reach the level of their Western neighbours? Even in West-Germany not everybody drives a Mercedes … PS and not too much OT: Today my wife sent me for some last minute shopping at the Lidl – if I compare this store with the supermarkests of 20 years ago when I came to Hungary the first time, I have to shudder! I still remember when we tried after buying the house in 1998 to buy some exclusive meat – even though restaurants were (and still are …) cheap my first wife wanted a barbecue at our new home. We couldn’t get pork fillet or steaks – only cheap cuts, because the good stuff went straight to the restaurants! Hungarians (which normally you didn’t see in the exclusive restaurants in those days …) would use the cheap stuff for their goulash … That was one of the indicators for me over the years that Hungary was… Read more »
Ferenc
Guest

Thanks wolfi, for describing things spot on.
And to Istvan, of course the transition could have been better, but in my view the main problem was/still is, that in general the expectations of people in the former communist countries were/still are by far exceeding each and every possible reality.
Furthermore not really helpful is the general thinking, that things will be better without only minimal input by the people themselves. This is best seen in the state of healthcare, which I suspect to be not only in Hungary in such a dramatic shape, i.e.the more east the worse it gets.

PS: for healthcare the US isn’t a healthy example either…, where afaik an ever bigger part of the people, than in central/eastern Europe, is cut off from decent basic care

wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘Orban and Putin are symbols of our own greed here in the West, they are mirrors of the worst traits of Western Capitalism with little of the democratic freedoms we all tout endlessly’.

Member

What an enormous bullpuky!

wrfree
Guest

All I would add to Istvan’s comments…

*Who has turned the country into a virtual one party state?
* Why has ethics gone missing?
*Why have institutions eroded their values?
*Why do individuals in uniform not part of the military walk boldly in the streets?
*Why do the masses believe bs?
*And how long will all this go on in a country which foregoes responsibilty in its actions?

Alex Knisely
Guest

Annoy some one no end, beyond measure, dreadfully; annoy someone to no end, without any purpose. Perhaps you meant the former.

Member

Thank you Eva.
I already ordered the book from the UK site of Amazon.com.
Was it published originally in German and perhaps they will translate it to Hungarian soon. I’d like to buy it as a gift to some of my friends in Hungary, who don’t read English or German.

Guest

For those who want to read the book in German (appeared 2016 already):
https://www.amazon.de/Orb%C3%A1ns-Ungarn-Paul-Lendvai/dp/3218010381
That page shows other interesting titles too …

Member

I bought the book in German some time ago. Worth reading.

Member

well done to mr lendvai and to hurst for unflinchingly succeeding in conveying truth – where most of the english media has conspicuously failed to convey anything during orban’s last decade of openly dismantling democracy and decency.

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