Tag Archives: 1848-1849 revolution

Viktor Orbán’s speech: war against the world

Ever since yesterday morning I have been receiving one e-mail after the other from people who wanted to be sure that I don’t forget about the speech Viktor Orbán delivered amid constant whistling by a small group of demonstrators. The occasion was Hungary’s national holiday marking the constitutional revolution of March 1848 that, at least temporarily, ended centuries of absolutism.

Of course, I had every intention of writing about the speech, especially since it is one of the most frightening and threatening speeches Orbán has ever made. At least this seems to be the consensus among Hungarians on the spot. Ordinary citizens who commented on the speech on György Bolgár’s Klubrádió talk show were outraged not so much by what he had to say about Brussels, because they are accustomed to that, but the way he spoke about them.

If I were to summarize the speech in a single sentence, I would say that it was a declaration of war against the progressive tradition in Hungarian history and all Hungarians who don’t support him as well as a massive attack on those European politicians who, in his opinion, are aiding and abetting the migrant hordes.

Let me start with history because, soon after 1848, Orbán landed in 1919. After I wrote a post on Zsolt Bayer’s anti-Semitic rants a couple of days ago, a few commenters suggested that there is nothing new to say about Zsolt Bayer. In fact, it would be best to ignore him. I disagree because I have the sneaking suspicion that it is Zsolt Bayer who says things that Viktor Orbán himself doesn’t want to say. That perhaps there is a deep understanding between these two men.

I assume we all remember what Bayer wrote about the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and its alleged, perfectly understandable consequence: the massive anti-Semitism during the interwar period. I never thought I would encounter the topic of 1918-1919 again so soon, least of all in Viktor Orbán’s speech on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution. But there it was, front and center.

In Orbán’s view, Hungarians are deliberate and moderate people who don’t immediately grab the sword or the gun. In the last 170 years, there were only two occasions when Hungarians chose that road, in 1848 and 1956. More ominously, he continued: “Our historians also note a revolution in 1918-1919, but that is not preserved on the pages of our glorious past. Nay, it is preserved not on a different page but in a different volume. We find the description of the 1918-1919 revolutions in encyclopedias filled with hatred of Hungarians written for foreign interests and goals, which describe Bolshevik upheavals under the entry ‘frightening examples of intellectual and political degeneration.’” Hungarians have two revolutionary heritages. One, from 1848 and 1956, leads straight to his government’s new constitution and the present regime. “The other heritage’s bloodline begins with the Jacobin predecessors through 1919 and World War II straight into communism and the Soviet world in Hungary.”

Orban march 152

I don’t think that readers of Hungarian Spectrum need a lot of assistance in deciphering the meaning of these sentences, but perhaps it would be helpful if I pointed out that Orbán here rejects not only the Hungarian Soviet Republic but also the revolution of 1918, which marked Hungary’s independence as well as its transformation from a kingdom to a republic. It is another matter that due to the excessive demands for troop withdrawals by the Allies and a possible misunderstanding with the French representative residing in Budapest, Mihály Károlyi, the president of the republic, felt that he had to resign in March 1919. Without his knowledge the Social Democrats made a deal with Béla Kun’s small communist party. It was a desperate move in the naïve hope that a world revolution might make borders superfluous.

Orbán pressed the theme of Hungary’s brief, inglorious past: “The heritage of 1919 is still with us, but luckily it is only smoldering.  … [W]ithout a host the days [of the representatives of this heritage] are numbered. When no new big intellectual and political infusion package arrives from abroad, then the leaves, the branches, the roots themselves shrivel up in the Hungarian soil, which is unfit for internationalism.” Well, that was the last straw for those Hungarians who are critical of Viktor Orbán and his government. The careful listener or reader couldn’t fail to notice that Orbán called them not only communists directed from abroad but also parasites. And they didn’t like it one bit. A former politician and journalist, once a great fan of Orbán, publicly announced yesterday that as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister he will not wear the tricolor rosette, as is customary on March 15.

The “host and parasite” metaphor has been widely discussed in the Hungarian media and online. A friend of mine who knew that I was working on Orbán’s text called my attention to a Facebook post whose author, Péter Sziklai, a professor of computer science at ELTE, wrote the following: “I wonder whether perhaps Orbán’s speech writer subconsciously recalled the following text. Even the soil and the host are there. ‘He is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who, like a harmful bacillus, spreads out more and more if only a favorable medium invites him to do so. But the effect of his existence resembles also that of parasites; where he appears the host people die out sooner or later.’ (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Munich, 1942).”

The attack on Europe came last. One political commentator didn’t think there was anything that hadn’t been said before, but most people I talked to considered it perhaps the most vicious assault yet on the European Union. These people felt that the passages deserve more exposure than the foreign press can give them in short newspaper articles.

The question in 1848, in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s view, was whether Hungarians should remain prisoners or be freed of their shackles. In Viktor Orbán’s opinion, it is a question that Hungarians still must ask. “Today Europe is like a faded, pallid, withering flower that is being gnawed by a secret vermin. After 168 years, after the great revolutions of the European people, our common home, Europe, is not free.” Therefore none of the nations that constitute the European Union can be free. And why not? “Because it is forbidden in Europe to tell the truth. Even if a muzzle is made out of silk, it is still a muzzle.” And he follows up with a long list of items Europeans are forbidden to talk about. It is forbidden to say that immigration will bring crime and terror, that people coming from different civilizations are dangerous to our way of life, and so on. In this long lament there are a few items that are not Viktor Orbán’s usual stock in trade. It is worth highlighting them.

One of Orbán’s outrageous accusations is that “it is forbidden to say that it is not a coincidence that the masses arrived at our doorsteps but is a planned and directed undertaking.” And that people in Brussels “are plotting to move and settle these aliens among us as soon as possible.” It is also forbidden to say that “the goal of this settlement is to redraw Europe’s religious and cultural patterns, restructure its ethnic foundations, eliminating the nation states, which are the last obstacle of the International.” It is also forbidden to say that “today many people in Brussels are working on the plan of a United States of Europe.”

I think western colleagues of Viktor Orbán should ask the Hungarian prime minister the next time they sit around the conference table in Brussels whether he really thinks they are the ones who are encouraging the refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries to come to Europe to destroy the very fabric of their own culture. And whether he really believes that they are agents of the Communist International, which is behind the destruction of the nation states.

The internal enemies, who are the direct descendants of the Jewish communists of 1919, and the EU agents of the Communist International are conspiring against the Christian nationalism of Orbán’s Hungary. One could say that these are the paranoid ravings of a madman, but I think he has thought through his position and means every word of it.

March 16, 2016

Viktor Orbán on freedom and independence

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.

There were enough admirers in front of the National Museum

Admirers in front of the National Museum

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.

Civic courage is returning to Hungary

There were two noteworthy events during the March 15th celebrations, about which I will write more tomorrow. First, a scuffle broke out between Fidesz loyalists waiting for Viktor Orbán’s speech in front of the National Museum and a handful of demonstrators. It was described by the official Fidesz communiqué as “a clash between far-right and far-left elements.” I guess the government party felt it had to distance itself from Fidesz supporters who physically attacked the demonstrators as well as from those people who screamed “Go to Dohány utca,” the street where the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe, is located. The other event was the large demonstration organized by civic groups but supported by all democratic parties with the exception of LMP. It was especially welcome that the organizers came out with a list of demands they propose to put forth for a popular referendum, which could be the first step toward a change of regime. But more about the national holiday tomorrow.

Today I want to call attention to two incidents which may not be earth shattering in and of themselves but which, I believe, signal a change in public attitude. The Hungarian people are beginning to exhibit civic courage.

The popularity of Viktor Orbán and the government is no longer what it was a year ago. Already last year, for the March 15th celebration, either Fidesz or the government hired university students to stand behind Viktor Orbán during his speech. At that point, I assume, they only wanted young faces. This year, however, there seemed to be genuine worry in government circles that the turnout for Viktor Orbán’s speech might be sparse. Robocalls urged people to attend. In addition, KLIK, the employer of all teachers, sent requests (some people claim that it was more an order than a request) to 375 high school principals all over the country to send one teacher and ten students to Budapest to listen to the prime minister’s speech. All expenses would be paid, and lunch would be included. Well, one high school, the Imre Madách Gymnasium in Vác, decided to announce publicly that they will not oblige because “they don’t support or organize student participation in political events.” Of course, some people might argue that a national holiday celebration is not a political event, but we know that this is not the case. Viktor Orbán’s audience comes from the party faithful and his words are addressed to his followers.

A lot of people welcomed this sign of civic courage, including the journalists of Válasz, which is certainly not an opposition paper. But others feared for the jobs of the principal and the 50 teachers who made that decision. And indeed, there was at least one attempt at intimidation by the Fidesz-KDNP mayor, Attila Fördős. He called the principal and vice-principal into his office and demanded to know what kind of “patriotic education” is going on in the school. He said that if he had the power, which thankfully he doesn’t, he would immediately fire them. As it turned out, although it was only the Imre Madách Gymnasium that had the courage to openly announce their opposition to the government’s crude methods, only 44 high schools obliged. The negative feelings toward this latest government or Fidesz ukase are perfectly understandable. There are far too many people who still remember when it was compulsory for students to attend such national celebrations, which included November 7, the anniversary of the Great Russian Revolution of 1917.

Attila Fördős, Fidesz-KDNP mayor of Vác

Attila Fördős, Fidesz-KDNP mayor of Vác

The other story is from the village of Gánt in Fejér County (pop. 860). To people familiar with Hungarian politics, the name Gánt immediately brings to mind Viktor Orbán’s father and his original business venture, a quarry he managed to buy with some financial help from his eldest son’s party. The quarry by now has been exhausted, and Győző Orbán would like to use the empty pit as a landfill site. His goal is to dispose of some 250,000 tons of refuse there a year, mostly bricks and concrete, which must be broken up by heavy equipment. Apparently about 1,000 tons could arrive daily and be processed on the spot. Many people who bought property nearby, close to a nature preserve, are mighty unhappy about the elder Orbán’s latest business venture.

So, the village of Gánt organized a forum to discuss the matter. To their surprise Győző Orbán, in the company of his youngest son Áron, showed up for the meeting. Orbán tried to convince the participants that everything will be fine, but they were adamant. The dust would settle everywhere–on their vegetable gardens, on their vineyards–and the noise eight hours a day would be unbearable. All hell broke loose when Győző Orbán announced that the property is his and he can do whatever he wants on it. After a while Győző Orbán left, followed by his son. He refused to answer questions from “malicious journalists” unless they give two million forints to the old folks home in Gánt.

Orbans departing

Győző and Áron Orbán leaving the Gánt town meeting

But even before the departure of the Orbáns, those present at the meeting pretty well decided to fight the father of the prime minister. One of them already hired a lawyer, and the others put together, right on the spot, a sizable amount of money to cover the initial expenses. They also organized an association to represent their case most forcefully. I am convinced that a year ago such an encounter wouldn’t have happened. I’m also sure that Győző Orbán never in his wildest imagination thought he would be so forcefully opposed and at the end unable to prevent a law suit. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have shown up at the town meeting. It seems that times really are changing in Hungary. The prime minister’s father can no longer ride roughshod over the people, unopposed, to achieve his aim.

Two Hungarian national holidays: August 20 and March 15

On the eve of one of Hungary’s three national holidays it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about the history of August 20, the “name day” of Steven (István).

Name days evolved from the Catholic custom of devoting one day of the year to a particular saint. Saints are ranked. Some deserve special days that are observed everywhere while others must be satisfied with local fame. For a while St. Stephen’s day made the short list after Pope Innocent XI in 1686 elevated it to universal status. It seems that August 20 was already occupied because, according to the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen’s day was to be celebrated on August 16. But then came Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) who thought that there were far too many saints’ days, whereupon Hungary’s St. Stephen was relegated to the list of saints celebrated only by the Hungarian Catholic Church. Besides Stephen only three saints–Stephen’s son Imre (d. 1031), King László (1046-1085), and Margaret (1242-1270) of Margaret Island fame (where in fact she died)–get special notice from the Hungarian Catholic Church. All the rest of the “Hungarian saints and blessed ones” must share one day, November 13.

It was at the time of Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780) that the veneration of St. Stephen was revived. Maria Theresa was grateful to the members of the Hungarian Diet who didn’t object to her accession to the throne. She showed her gratitude in many ways. For instance, she was the one who managed to secure a mummified right hand from Ragusa (today Dubrovnik) which allegedly belonged to the saintly king. The Holy Right Hand was brought to Buda in 1771, and from that time forward it was the highlight of the religious procession held first in Buda and later in Pest on every August 20th. At least until 1947.

The Holy Right Procession, August 20, 2012 MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

The Holy Right Hand Procession, August 20, 2012
MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

During the period between 1945 and 1990 two new holidays were added to the old ones of March 15 and August 20: April 4, the day when allegedly the last Hungarian village was liberated by the Soviet troops (the date turned out to be incorrect), and November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. March 15, celebrating the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was relegated to a school holiday while August 20th became Constitution Day because it was on August 20, 1949 that the Stalinist constitution was promulgated.

Clearly something had to be done about the Hungarian holidays after the change of regime in 1989-1990. There was no question that November 7th and April 4th had to go. There was also no question that March 15th’s former importance must be restored. Moreover, August 20th could not remain as either Constitution Day or, as it was sometimes called, the day of the new bread. Adding October 23 to March 15th and August 20th was also a given. The only debate centered around which of the three should be primus inter pares.

SZDSZ, Fidesz, and MSZP opted for March 15th, arguing first that it was a secular holiday, not one with religious overtones, and second that 1848 signified the turning point when Hungary left feudalism behind and embarked on the road to a  modern form of parliamentary democracy.  There was a practical argument as well. On the chief national holiday embassies usually hold a reception where members of the government of the host country and representatives of other embassies are invited. August is not exactly the best time to hold such a reception. But the right-of-center government parties that were in the majority won and August 20 became “the” national holiday. Similar arguments developed around the question of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and again the conservative right voted for the crown as opposed to the coat-of-arms used after the dethronement of the Habsburgs in 1849.

The history of March 15 says a lot about Hungary’s history. In the wake of the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence the celebration of March 15 was outright forbidden. After the Compromise of 1867 Emperor-King Franz Joseph understandably wasn’t too happy about this reminder of the very difficult years of the empire. However, as long as celebrations were not too obvious they were tolerated. All was well until 1898 when Ferenc Kossuth, son of Lajos, who was invited to head the Party of Independence, suggested that March 15th should be an official national holiday. Such a move was too much for Franz Joseph as well as for the Hungarian government. A compromise was worked out. The national holiday, it was decided, would be on April 11, the day King Ferdinand V signed the so-called April Laws that transformed Hungary from a feudal state to parliamentary democracy. What followed was typically Hungarian. The Liberal Party celebrated on April 11 and the Party of Independence on March 15. Not much has changed in Hungary, it seems, in more than one hundred years.

The politicians of the Horthy period had an ambivalent attitude toward anything to do with revolutions and March 15th became an official holiday only in 1927. After all, they defined themselves as counter-revolutionaries, so it often happened that the official speeches were not so much about March 15 or even about April 11 as about the thirteen executed generals and about Világos (Arad County, Romania) where the Hungarians surrendered to the Russian General F. V. Ridiger on August 13, 1849. The official programs were held in those days on Szabadság tér amid irredentist statues reminding everybody of the lost territories. Later, as war was approaching, they moved the event to Heroes’ Square where again instead of celebrating parliamentary democracy the event focused on war efforts and regaining lost territories.

Immediately after the war the Hungarian Communist Party was super nationalistic and the 100th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. By 1951, however, March 15 was demoted to be a non-holiday or at least an ordinary working day. It is hard to figure what motivated the Rákosi regime to abandon their tender feelings for 1848. Perhaps there were just too many holidays around March and April, including Mátyás Rákosi’s birthday. Or perhaps, as was the case later in the Kádár regime, they were afraid of the message of 1848: freedom, parliamentary democracy, independence.

This situation became even worse after 1956. Usually only a few hundred people dared to gather in front of the National Museum or at the statue of Sándor Petőfi. However, by 1969 János Kádár felt secure enough to organize a bigger celebration, but it wasn’t really about March 15 and what it meant.  Instead, the regime created a new holiday called Forradalmi Ifjúsági Napok (Days of the Revolutionary Youth). The Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség (KISZ) celebrated March 15, March 21 (the day of the Proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919), and April 4 (the Day of Liberation) in one neat package.

It happened first in 1973 that the police used nightsticks to disperse the young people who gathered to celebrate March 15. From there on such incidents occurred practically every year. The last police attack on the celebrants took place in 1988 in spite of the fact that the Politburo of MSZMP four months earlier, on December 15, had declared March 15 to be a full-fledged national holiday again.

Surely, the socialist regime feared March 15th much more than August 20th.  Yet today’s Hungarian right, which claims to be fiercely anti-communist, prefers the heritage of August 20th which has very little to do with the concerns of today: democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Should we wonder why?