Tag Archives: Germany

Johanna Laakso: Friends and foes of “freedom”

Johanna Laakso is a professor in the Finno-Ugric Department of the Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft at the University of Vienna. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki, where she also taught until 2000, when she moved to the University of Vienna. Besides her native Finnish, she speaks English, German, Hungarian, Estonian, Swedish, Russian, and French. Professor Laakso is known to the readers of  Hungarian Spectrum as Sentrooppa-Santra and is one of our frequent contributors on linguistic topics as well as on politics.  In 2014, at my request, she wrote a post when the Orbán government established one of its newfangled institutes, the Magyar Nyelvstratégiai Intézet (Hungarian Language Strategy Institute). Her article, “Brave New Linguistics,” not only informed us about this institute but also summarized some of the most important developments in the study of linguistics in Hungary over the last couple of centuries.

The Finnish original of this article was published on Professor Laakso’s blog at http://sentrooppasantra.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/vapauden-ystavat-ja-viholliset/

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Mária Schmidt should already be known to the readers of this blog. She is a kind of a court historian of Viktor Orbán, and the general public will probably know her as the director of the “House of Terror” in Budapest, the museum which in a somewhat debated manner shows the Nazi and the Communist dictatorship as two parallel cases. She also played a very visible role in the official programme of the recent memorial year of the revolution of 1956. In her research career, she has worked with the history of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and the fates of minorities in Hungary in the turmoils of 20th-century dictatorships. She also teaches at the Catholic Pázmány university in Piliscsaba. According to the Hungarian Wikipedia, she was ranked by the Napi.hu portal as the 30th most influential person in Hungary in 2017, which is probably due to her political connections rather than to her academic merits. In the years 1998–2002, Schmidt was officially the counsellor of the Prime Minister, and now she leads one of the new research institutes founded by the government: on its homepage, the XXI. Század Intézet (21st Century Institute) states that its tasks comprise “supporting research on politics and numerous other activities connected to the research of politics”.

These numerous other activities, in turn, obviously include a fresh publication which appeared in early December: the book by Mária Schmidt, entitled Nyelv és szabadság (‘Language and Freedom’). Curious to know what Schmidt, a historian, has to say about language, I ordered the book for my holiday reading, despite certain forebodings. Sadly enough, the reality was even more terrible. In what follows, I’ll try to analyze my bewilderment at Schmidt’s book.

The Enemies: Muslim immigrants, left-wing liberal elite, Soros

The book is a compilation of Schmidt’s political columns and opinion pieces from the last couple of years. These texts do not form a logically ordered whole but mostly repeat the same things with slightly different words. Moreover, they do not attempt to argue or to give reasons. It seems that the goal is simply to hammer the basic ideas into the readers’ heads: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what is the real problem in today’s political situation. For the problems, three culprits are identified. First, the “migrants”, especially Muslim ones. Second, the left-wing liberal elites and decision-makers who invite and bring them to Europe, especially the German Chancellor Merkel and her associates. And third, behind all these, pulling the strings – ta-dah, George Soros!

Why “The Man in a Bowler Hat” by René Magritte was chosen as the cover illustration remains a mystery. True, Schmidt’s book does emanate a surreal atmosphere.

The immigrants who flooded Europe in 2015 are, of course, no real “refugees” (menekült), as the “left-wing liberal media” want to call them. In Schmidt’s opinion, they all, as a caste (no exceptions are mentioned), constitute a “mobile intifada”. The “migrants” are violent, they are murderers and rapists, they are men “of fighting age” (katonakorú), they come from “areas controlled by jihadists” (p. 139), they are “militant, combat-trained troops” (p. 132), and their “luggage most certainly is full of weapons, drugs and who knows what” (p. 134). They behave rudely and insolently, even towards the “patient and humane” Hungarian authorities, do not show gratitude for the help they are given, they expect a Western European standard of living without any duties. Their goal, and the goal of Islam in general, always and everywhere, is of course to conquer and repopulate Europe. For Schmidt, Islam is not a world religion with zillions of different interpretations and practices in different environments and traditions (as is the case with Christianity as well) but a monolithic system for terror and world domination. Accordingly, the Muslim invaders do not represent different nations, cultures, or political systems: a herdsboy from a tribal village in Afghanistan and a middle-class urban entrepreneur from Syria are both part of a homogeneous mass of “Muslims”, and behind all of them looms a mysterious power with oil and money.

The flood of immigrants is made possible by the fact that Europe, after losing its national values, has turned powerless, spineless, and unable to defend itself. The words in its languages have lost their meaning, due to the tyranny of political correctness, and the political organs of the EU are held captive by the Marxist elite. What is even worse, this elite has the nerve to criticize Hungary, for instance for harassing NGOs, for closing the archive museum of György Lukács (Schmidt: only because Lukács was a Communist!) or for terminating the newspaper Népszabadság.

As for Népszabadság, the paper of the state-holding party in the party state, it is a shame that even in 2017, there can be members of the European Parliament who dare to position themselves in support of a former Communist paper! As if some thirty years ago people had worried about the fate of the Völkischer Beobachter! (p. 197)

A particularly ferocious attack is directed at Angela Merkel (who, according to Smith, hates Europeans and especially Germans, because of their Nazi past…) and at Germany as a whole: Germany is not only burdened by its Nazi past, but Socialism as well was invented in Germany, Schmidt reminds. The EU, in turn, is in practice ruled by Germany, because Germany more than any other country profits from the EU. Schmidt also plays the Nazi card (“the dream of a unified Europe was already cherished by Hitler”, p. 130), as at the end of the following example, invoking an association to the concentration camp transports:

A normal man or boy will know his duties and defend his wife, daughter, mother, or sister. Only these Germans of today have turned so brain-washed and unmanly that they are not even capable of that. The Merkelian language has by now depoliticized and thus debilitated the whole public discourse in Germany. Not only because it is endlessly tedious and monotonous, but because it lacks any content, because it never says anything, it means just letting out hot air. Merkel let the flood of Muslim migrants invade Europe without showing any need to argue for her strategy or to make her strategy public. The German citizens are content with Wir schaffen das. As if they were merely facing a logistic challenge. These people will arrive here, be collected and selected here, divided into quotas there, and then transported to their goals. If only this logistically oriented mode of action were not so familiar already! (p. 29)

The reason for the weakness of German or, more generally, Western elites is that they have failed in their Vergangenheitsbewältigung, dealing with the past. Schmidt thinks that the Western upper class and intellectuals are clinging to their victim status and guilt. Because “only the victim deserves attention, recognition, and privilege” (p. 48), elites and privileged, well-to-do groups also want to be victims. This gives rise to #metoo campaigns, the collective self-castigation in the spirit of “collective guilt” which is continuously practised especially by Germans, or more generally, the mania of former colonial overlords to blame themselves for all possible wrongdoings the colonized peoples have experienced. (As Schmidt reminds, Hungary, in contrast, has never colonized any country. Of course, one might ask how the Magyarization policies of the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy towards its ethnic minorities in the late 19th century prepared ground for the ethnic conflicts which took place throughout the 20th century. But this is probably not the proper place to discuss these issues.)

This situation, then, creates new opportunities for those interested in “migrant business”. The immigrants are not invading Europe merely out of their own free will or driven by their Islamic ideology, but they are being invited, directed, and transported. This is done by fake NGOs “intertwined with human trafficking gangs”, by diverse human rights organizations and the European Court of Human Rights and other organs of justice, whose actions are causing disaster “like a loose cannon” (p. 133) – because “invoking the state of law means questioning the people’s representation”, it amounts to “juristocracy” (p. 202). For these organizations, human rights are a “rubber concept” which they can “extend and apply at will, depending on each current need” (p. 175). (What “extending human rights” in this respect might mean is not explained in more detail, nor are examples given.) The fake NGOs, in turn, are funded especially by George Soros, the super-villain as shown to the people of Hungary in recent hate propaganda campaigns; Schmidt quite seriously compares Soros with the mighty villains who aspire to world domination in James Bond films.

Both the left-wing liberal elites and the decision-making machinery of the EU are controlled by Soros, Schmidt claims. As evidence for this, she mentions the “gas pipe Socialists” who after or alongside their political career have turned into lobbyists of big enterprises, and – believe or not – the fact that Saturday Night Live once called Soros “the owner of the Democrat Party”. If even the authors of a political satire show “treat this like a fact”, it must be a fact…

Whatever motivates Soros and his buddies to do this (beyond the simple fact of being evil) is hardly taken into scrutiny, no explanations are sought. Is “migrant business” really that profitable? Schmidt does claim that the “migrant business” is based on Western enterprises’ need for cheap labour, but elsewhere (p. 139, for example) she states that the “migrants” are unwilling to work (and unable as well, being largely uneducated analphabets), especially for small wages: they merely expect a comfortable life on welfare.

In any case, alongside the Soros network or the Soros plan there exists even a “Sorosism” or a “Sorosist world view”, probably roughly the same thing as the ideology of the “left-wing liberal elite”. The Central European University was also founded to spread this Sorosist ideology, and there – as in Anglophone universities in general – nobody will be accepted or given the floor who does not agree with “militant Sorosists”… But of course, the 87-year-old Soros is not operating alone, but probably he is being used as a gallion figure by “groups behind him who represent a certain part [egy meghatározott rész] of international speculative capital” (p. 250). Who or what are the people who constitute this “certain part”? No answer is given, but I’m afraid that many readers will find one in no time.

The Heroes: “Populists”, “Patriots” – and especially Viktor Orbán

The opposite to the opportunism and indifference of the “elite” and also the target of the elite’s implacable hate are those whom the elite dubs “populists”.

Populist is what they call a politician who is doing what the voters are expecting from him/her. In other words, a democrat. (p. 14; Schmidt presents this as a quotation from The Spectator, no more precise source is given)

Among those who are called “populists”, especially Eastern Europeans, those to whom Schmidt often refers with the pronouns (“we”, “us”) or inflection forms of the first person plural (“we know”), are particularly dangerous to the Western villains and importers of immigrants. The reason is that these “we” have already during Soviet times learnt to recognize the “Communist, Trotskyist, later Post-Communist or left-wing” (p. 93) method by which the innocent are made guilty and the hostile invaders glorified as heroes. These people, therefore, are immune to the propaganda of Soros and the arrogant Western cultural Marxists, because they still retain their national basic values and a self-respect based on them, which gives them courage.

Courage or audacity (bátorság), in turn, is the central characteristic which Schmidt in one of the last chapters of the book attributes to Viktor Orbán. Audacity is shown, for example, in the campaign to lower utility costs (rezsi), even called “the rezsi fight” (a trick by which especially elderly voters are made happy by seemingly smaller gas and electricity bills). To Schmidt, organizing “national consultations” also counts as an example of audacity, as they are based on the audacious idea that “outside of the elite, even other people can have an opinion which counts” (p. 217). (And this opinion can be expressed by checking a “yes” or “no” box following a suggestive and weighted question.) In general, audacity constitutes the core of Orbán’s political credo:

We should not wonder if these groups, lacking and not understanding any quality, are irritated by Orbán, the freedom fighter. The same Viktor Orbán who on the 16th of June in 1989, at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, on the Heroes’ Square in Budapest burst into the world of politics, being the first one in the whole region to publicly demand free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from the country. This required real audacity, as only twelve days earlier, on the Tiananmen square in Beijing students demanding democracy had been murdered in heaps.

This myth of young Orbán as the first one who dared to challenge the occupation forces of the collapsing empire has, in fact, already been debunked. Already in March 1989, an agreement with the Soviet Union about the withdrawal of the occupation forces had been made, that is, three months before Orbán’s speech, and in April the first Soviet soldiers had already left the country. The agreement was not yet public knowledge, but the committee in charge of the reburial ceremonies was informed, and they had also discussed the issue with Orbán. The reference to China is also somewhat baffling: basically the same regime which had freedom-loving students shot to death is still holding the power, and recently, Orbán has made demonstrative approaches to the decision-makers in China. But obviously Schmidt trusts her fearless and clear-sighted readers not to draw any further conclusions.

Time for confrontation

A major part of the bewilderment which Schmidt’s book can cause in a reader outside her target group is due to style. Although the text is written for a broad and general readership, an academic author, a university teacher, might be expected to base the credibility of her text on rational and logical argumentation. One would thus naïvely expect neutral formulations which strive to objectivity and avoid a heated, emotional tone. However, Schmidt writes in the style of an agitator in early 20th century. She is not afraid of vulgar and colloquial expressions such as komcsi ‘Commie’, migránssimogató (could be freely translated as ‘migrant hugger’), or mocskos bolsi ‘filthy Bolshie’.

Schmidt’s most essential rhetoric tool is confrontation and one-dimensional highlighting and exaggeration of opposites. Whoever fails to support us and our basic values, whoever dares to criticize something we have done or said is not just positioning herself/himself as the infallible supreme judge of all deeds, s/he is our adversary in all respects and the enemy of anything good and noble. There are no options and no nuances, there are only good guys and bad guys. In politics, the choice is only between unconditional loyalty, “adoration” and “implacable hatred”.

There is a remarkable connection in how, when the USA is led by a God-fearing, conservative and value-based government, the anti-Americanism of the left-wing elite in Europe knows no limits, but when a government representing the opposite values takes over, the same Europeans suddenly start adoring America. (p. 21)

If Western European left-wing politicians criticize the policies of Hungary, this means also implying that they alone are entitled to judge others’ actions. Voicing criticism of the actions of Hungarian authorities means denying the sovereignty of the Hungarian nation. Diversity of values and cultures, cultural tolerance, the usual blah-blah of Western liberals, means hating one’s own traditional culture or a “war on traditional values”: Schmidt seems to think that appreciating a foreign culture necessarily means despising one’s own. Acknowledging the value of third-world cultures or the wrongs which third-world nations have experienced means, in Schmidt’s interpretation, that these cultures are considered “more valuable”. Similarly, speaking of the universal human rights of refugees means demanding “privileges” for “invaders”, speaking of the crimes of colonial rulers means denying “that mass murders ever happened in other parts of the world”, and fostering religious freedom and diversity of religion is, of course, “an attack against Christianity”.

This continuous simplification of a diversity of issues into one-dimensional oppositions gives rise to an endless parade of straw men. The liberals of Europe, Schmidt claims, want to “delete the borders” and make “unlimited immigration” possible. They prohibit and censor: Schmidt has also found a reference to a statement given by the German journalist Claudia Zimmermann in a Dutch radio broadcast. Allegedly, Zimmermann claimed that the WDR channel had instructed its employees to report about the refugee crisis in a positive tone, in line with the German government (WDR has demented this claim, while Zimmermann has retracted her statement and apologized for the misunderstanding). Schmidt’s army of straw men also includes the popular allegation that Western liberals do not condemn violations of human rights or equality if committed by Muslims. No examples, of course, and no evidence.

Moreover: it is claimed that liberal elites want to delete gender roles and genders or sexes in general. A good old strawman is brought forward again: “men should no more be called men, women should not be called women”. Concerning political correctness, one of the last chapters presents a rich collection of urban legends and fake news. Schmidt, as we are informed, is well acquainted with Anglophone universities which now are devoted to the “self-realization” of narcissist individuals in the spirit of the post-truth era. Wishing somebody “merry Christmas” is now automatically considered a hate crime, says Schmidt. A Canadian professor of psychology is threatened by jail after he refused to use neologistic gender-neutral pronouns in referring to persons of trans- or non-binary gender. (Refusing to conform to the university code of conduct also as concerns the use of gendered vocabulary might in principle be a problem even in the light of the new Canadian criminal code, but nevertheless the claims of prison punishment are grossly exaggerated, jurists say). Schmidt also claims that at the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London, philosophers from Plato to Immanuel Kant have been included into the index of forbidden books because they were white and male; in fact, a demand of “decolonising the syllabus” was presented by students at some point but never taken seriously. And, as you may have heard, at university campuses in the English-speaking world normal relationships between men and women have become impossible, says Schmidt, because male students are so often terrorized by made-up charges of rape or sexual harassment…

Owls and sparrows

Already somewhere in the first part of the book, I found myself scribbling not only question and exclamation marks to its margins but also the letter combination BV as a note to myself. In my head, I kept hearing the Hungarian saying Bagoly mondja verébnek, hogy nagyfejű (‘The owl says to the sparrow that it has a big head’), the equivalent of “the pot calling the kettle black”. Take, for instance, the above-mentioned claim about how German journalists are instructed to report on the refugee crisis. How can Schmidt claim something like this while her own government has turned the state-controlled media channels into a propaganda tube of the Fidesz party and redistributed most of the existing traditional media outlets to certain circles close to the government? Or how does the alleged double standard of Merkel’s Germany, friendliness to the West and coldness towards Eastern Europe, differ from the political “peacock dance”, as Orbán himself has called his European policy?

“Owls and sparrows” together with diverse logical somersaults of similar character can be found on almost each and every page of the book. For example, Schmidt sneers at the Western elites who whine about their sufferings, without seeing the central role of ritualized self-pity (“boo hoo, our nation has suffered more than any other people in the world”) in Hungarian patriotism ever since the 16th century. The Western Marxist elite (?!) is accused of still concealing and downplaying the crimes of Socialist systems – but this is also done by the Orbán government, which still refuses to publish all the names of collaborator agents in the Kádár era. (According to the historian Krisztián Ungváry, this is already a tradition in post-transition Hungary; different governments have chosen to keep the names secret in order to be able to use the data for political blackmailing.)

The Western Marxist elite, says Schmidt, “will not tolerate debate, open discussion, arguments” (p. 182). Instead of critical thinking, they will repeat mantras and readymade formulations sent in from Berlin (as from Moscow in olden times), because “it is much easier to incite hatred and excommunicate all those who ask and argue than to invest effort into tinkering with the answers” (p. 74). Does it ever occur to Schmidt that this excellently applies to the campaigns against immigration and George Soros as orchestrated by the Hungarian government in the last few years, or to the way in which Orbán and his government avoid all questions and criticism from the opposition? In analysing the programme speech of the rector of the CEU (or “Soros University”), Schmidt points out that Rector Ignatieff will not bother to investigate the flaws of Communism separately but bundles it together with Stalinism – the same accusation, although in the other direction, has also been presented to Schmidt’s own “House of Terror”. And if Merkel’s Wir schaffen das! is an empty and void slogan, not saying anything about what and why (p. 248), in what respect is Orbán’s Magyarország jobban teljesít (‘Hungary performs better’) any better?

Moreover: in criticizing the “immigration business” Schmidt wonders what will happen to the migrants’ countries of origin, as they lose their educated young people to Europe. (Elsewhere in the book, she states that contrary to the expectations of Western liberals, most refugees are illiterate barbarians unable to get integrated.) Now this is a question we could ask of Hungary as well, considering the current exodus of educated and young people which has already led to shortage of trained labour in many areas, not only in the health care system. Schmidt can, of course, make sarcastic allegations to the behaviour of Jean-Claude Juncker, “the leader of Europe who is in a very good mood already before noon”, and the notorious unclarities around his taxation. But take Viktor Orbán, who is also known for seldom refusing a good drink, with his rumoured mental health issues and with the dense cloud of suspicions of corruption surrounding him, his family and friends – is he any better?

In Austria, the decades of “red-black” (Social-Democrats and Conservatives) coalitions did lead to stagnation and “pillarization” of society on the basis of opportunistic party membership, but how can Schmidt criticize the role of party membership in recruitment or allocation of state funding in Austria, considering how critical media in Hungary has been almost completely silenced and the holders of numerous positions and offices owe maximal loyalty (and silence) to the ruling party? And when Schmidt writes about the Western elites who have ended up “lightyears away from those who do not belong to their circles, so that they will not understand each other any more” (p. 103), I must think of the strange charity action by Zoltán Balog, the minister for human resources, four years ago: Balog took 40 poor children to a posh restaurant to eat a fancy meal including, among other things, goose breast in calvados sauce.

And in general – Schmidt, as populist politicians and speakers in general, can rage against “elites” or the “upper class” without noticing that she herself, as holder of high academic and political positions, as a protegée of decision-makers, a businesswoman who a year ago bought the weekly paper Figyelő for 240 million forints, is irrefutably a member of the elite as well. Schmidt also confidently condemns the style and behaviour of today’s “left-wing elites” (“they lack good manners and refined style, they do not offer a model”, p. 154), obviously without asking herself how this relates to her own writing style.

The worse for the facts

Schmidt not only exaggerates and sets up strawmen, she also brazenly presents some completely untrue statements. In general, her pamphlet texts seldom argue, present facts or source references, but where there are references to facts or figures, these are sometimes modified or do not correspond to truth at all. For example, in Sweden, she claims, the Muslim immigration has led to a dramatic increase of rape and violence (in fact, the high rape rates in Sweden are due to the high readiness of victims to report these crimes – in contrast to many other countries – and very wide criteria of “rape”) and more than 15% (p. 59) – or “close to ten per cent” (p. 140) – of the population are Muslims. I don’t know where her figures come from, but this looks like a decimal error. According to the statistics of the central organ of religious communities in Sweden, the membership of all Islamic communities in sum amounts to some 140,000 people (less than 1.5% of the population). The Swedish Wikipedia gives inofficial estimates up to 400,000 but notes that these are based on the country of origin or on personal names and will not help to exclude secularized ex-Muslims or people of other affiliations (for instance, Christian immigrants from the Near East).

Some statements arouse the suspicion that Schmidt is relying on extreme right-wing alternative media with their alternative facts. (As for the so-called mainstream media in Germany at least, Schmidt claims that it has by now deserved the Nazi term Lügenpresse, ‘press of lies’.) At least one such source is mentioned by name: the German Udo Ulfkotte (1960–2017), a political journalist who after the turn of the millennium increasingly published on the alternative fora of extreme right-wing and racist circles. Similar sources are probably behind Schmidt’s statement (which I find difficult not to call a brazen lie) that Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in the Austrian presidential elections of 2016 was “rigged” (p. 152). In fact, there is a vast body of research and reporting on this issue.

The second round of the Austrian presidential elections in 2016, which Van der Bellen narrowly won against the right-wing populist (FPÖ) candidate Norbert Hofer, had to be repeated due to “irregularities” or what some would call typical Austrian sloppiness. In some electoral districts, postal vote envelopes had been opened too early, unauthorized people had been present at the counting of votes or observers had signed protocols without reading them. However, these were mostly electoral districts in the countryside where Hofer had won the vote, so that election fraud in the sense of really manipulating the votes would have required an incredibly cunning precision work. In fact, no evidence of manipulation of votes was ever presented, nor did the mathematical analysis conducted at the University of Michigan find any indications of fraud. Hofer and other FPÖ functionaries never presented any official and explicit accusations, but with continuous insinuations, they maintained suspicions of fraud among their supporters. Although Hofer admitted his defeat after the repeated election, the belief in electoral fraud continues to live on some right-wing populist fora, and Schmidt presents it as follows (this is also a nice example of her style):

Also in the Austrian election of 2016, they [= the left-wing elite] made fools of themselves. With organized fraud, although by a very narrow margin, they managed to get a typical Western politician elected, a representative of everything that we find impossible to accept or digest. A man with a Commie past [Van der Bellen has publicly admitted having voted for a Communist candidate back in his youth, at a local election – J.L.], a freemason, who later tried his luck among the Greens, now an “independent” candidate gathered to his supporters, perfectly naturally, all public figures from the past of Austria, to testify to the hopeless stagnation of the country’s political life. The left-wing liberal elite of Austria, which used to seize and still seizes every opportunity to lecture us, is still trying to hide the fact that the election had to be repeated due to organized and massive frauds and irregularities and international observers were invited for the new election round. This was an unprecedented election scandal in Europe. I hereby declare myself available as an observer, and if needs be, I can also give a short informative lecture on the importance of the integrity of free elections.

Language, freedom, and democracy?

The closing chapter is authored by Márton Békés, research director of the 21st Century Institute, a young historian already well known on certain right-wing fora. The chapter starts with these words (italics as in the original):

This book creates a home in the language. It deals with political freedom as an extension of freedom of language, and it restores the original meaning of words. While reinstantiating the meanings of concepts which already seemed to be disappearing, it will realize a conservative revolution and restore their origins. (…) The author joins Orwell in declaring: one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

Nevertheless, I don’t really understand what Schmidt’s book has to do with language. To me, it doesn’t seem very probable that Schmidt or his afterword author Békés have even read George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English language” (1946), from which they quote. In his essay, Orwell chastises the stupidities of political language use of his times: pretentious diction, vague and meaningless formulations, stale or crippled metaphors… He also gives insightfully chosen examples of different types of stupid texts – and the fourth of them, an excerpt from a contemporary Communist pamphlet, shows a haunting resemblance to Mária Schmidt’s writing. Similar pathetically serious attempts at sarcasm with scare quotes (“the best people”), similar exaggeratedly emotional, yet worn-out attributes, similar political or quasi-religious lingo which, in effect, serves to alienate anybody not devoted to the author’s cause. Just read the following example and compare it with the excerpts from Schmidt’s book given above.

All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Schmidt and Békés are not attempting to bring about “some improvement”; they are merely seeking the “right” language. Like many non-linguists they naïvely believe that each word has its “true” meaning, that is, the meaning that “we” use (and that who belongs to “us” and who doesn’t is a similarly self-evident issue). “Freedom” means freedom in our sense of the word, “corruption” is something that “they” have but “we” haven’t. And the political credo of our leader is based on “courage”, because we have decided to see things that way. This has nothing to do with the facts that this “courageous” leader has already long ago stopped giving interviews to other than his own trusted journalists (not to speak of risking a public debate with a political adversary), that he will answer an opposition politician’s unpleasant question by simply wishing her merry Christmas, or that he can have the protocols of debated political decisions declared secret (as in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant deal).

Freedom is an often-used decoy for freeing a people of its freedom, as the Finnish humorist Olli (Väinö Nuorteva) wrote already decades ago. There is nothing new in questionable uses of the word “freedom”. More interesting questions arise in connection with the concept of democracy or – this term surfaces a few times in this book – “majority democracy” (többségi demokrácia), which Márton Békés in his afterword connects with the concept of majority-rule democracy in the sense of the American right-wing politologist and philosopher Willmoore Kendall (1909–1967). But I will rather leave this to politologists. As a linguist, I’ll return to my own business, silently wondering how a university teacher and a professional scholar can produce – even in a book written for a general readership – such shallow text which seems to shun all rational argumentation.

December 28, 2017

The Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump

On June 9 the White House Office of the Press Secretary announced the upcoming visit of President Trump to Poland at the invitation of Polish President Andrzej Duda in advance of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. At the end of the short statement we learned that, in addition to meeting with Duda and delivering a major speech, “he will attend the Three Seas Initiative Summit to demonstrate our strong ties to Central Europe.”

SouthFront: Analysis & Intelligence announced that “this visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal more about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda than his previous actions.” The opinion piece considered Trump’s presence at the Three Seas Initiative Summit especially meaningful since Poland’s current political elite is advancing the idea of Intermarium, a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. It is supposed to serve “as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the European Union.”

Before we embark on current opinions on the Three Seas Initiative, let’s look at its precedent–Intermarium, or in Polish Międzymorze, between the seas. It was a plan proposed by Józef Piłsudski, an important political figure and military leader of interwar Poland. He envisaged a confederation that, by its third iteration, would have included practically the whole of Central Europe, including Hungary. Nothing came of the plan because there were just too many conflicting national interests at work. In addition, other countries were suspicious of the whole project, which they viewed as an attempt to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the seventeenth century included half of today’s Estonia, all of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, the westernmost parts of Russia, and the larger part of Ukraine.

Józef Piłsudski’s Intermarium Plan and its different stages

A revival of the Intermarium project surfaced after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when the present Euroatlantic arrangement couldn’t prevent the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Donbas. Ukraine and its neighbors were looking for alternative models for regional cooperation. At that time the concept of a modern Intermarium began gaining adherents, among them Polish President Andrzej Duda, who “is attempting to recreate the Polish long-life plan of building a natural defensive alliance among like-minded neighbors in the face of the Russian threat, and with NATO military support.”

Duda looks upon the formation of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as his great diplomatic feat. On August 28, 2016 a two-day meeting took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which was attended by representatives of 12 countries, including Hungary’s president, János Áder. The Croatian president called the area between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea “the lifeblood of Europe.”

It is the second summit of this group that Donald Trump agreed to attend. Trump’s attendance, according to Wojciech Przybylski writing for Euobserver, will definitely put the spotlight on TSI. It is not impossible that Trump’s Polish visit is intended as “a slight against German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron.” In addition, some European leaders fear that the Polish ministry of foreign affairs can’t handle such a diplomatically sensitive visit. There is also the possibility that, after Trump’s visit, the Poles will be even more confrontational than before when dealing with the European Union, Przybylski concludes. Others, like the pro-Russian World Socialist Web Site, use stronger language. They are certain that “Trump’s meeting with the leaders of this alliance is a clear signal that the White House is reintroducing the Intermarium strategy which will exacerbate conflicts with Germany.”

Last December Vit Dostál, writing for visegradplus.org, called the Three Seas Initiative a “pipe-dream coming from Warsaw.” He may have been right because the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza cited at least one Czech diplomat who said that Prague will not attend the Three Seas event because it is far too close to the “concept of Piłsudski.” Sputnik Polska conducted an interview with Adam Wielomski, a Polish political science professor, who considers Trump’s visit to Poland and his presence at the TSI summit “support of Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party and the initiative to forge a Central and Eastern European union.”

The TSI project or, in Hungarian, “Három Tenger Kezdeményezés” was not widely covered in Hungary before the news of Trump’s attendance. MTI reported on the Dubrovnik summit, but no one was really interested in what was described as a round table discussion on energy. On the other hand, in November 2015, at a conference attended by politicians, both Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and LMP’s András Schiffer envisaged Hungary’s future in an East-Central European Union. I have not followed Schiffer’s foreign policy ideas, but Vona’s adherence to such a regional solution didn’t surprise me because a couple of months ago Matthew Kott of New Eastern Europe reported that Intermarium was hijacked by the far right in certain countries of the region.

The only serious Hungarian piece on the Three Seas Initiative and Donald Trump’s decision to attend its summit is by Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign policy analyst, which appeared a couple of days ago. He is skeptical of the success of Duda’s project and Trump’s power to substantially influence the present geopolitical situation in Europe.

Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw is fraught with danger. He knows absolutely nothing about the situation in Poland or, for that matter, about the whole complicated region. His visit will give a boost to the present Polish government, which is good neither for the Polish people nor for the people of the European Union.

June 29, 2017

Mária Schmidt and Zsolt Bayer on the fate of Europe

Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt, has written an article that can perhaps be described as something between a book review and an attack on Germans and Germany. The occasion for her piece was the appearance of a new book by Hans-Peter Schwarz, a conservative political scientist and historian, titled Die neue Völkerwanderung nach Europa: Über den Verlust politischer Kontrolle und moralischer Gewissheiten. Due to Schmidt’s cavalier handling of borrowed text, it is hard to tell how much of the article actually reflects the ideas of Schwarz and how much comes from Schmidt’s own view the world. My sense is that Schwarz’s book is only an excuse for Schmidt to espouse her peculiar views on the state of Europe.

In the article, which bears the title “Egg without its shell, country without borders,” Schmidt vents her anger over the elimination of borders within the European Union. For Schmidt, the removal of borders meant “the abandonment of [the countries’] defense capabilities and thus their national security which are indispensable instruments of national sovereignty.” So, she continues, “Schengen soon became popular among tourists and businessmen, and naturally among drug dealers, human traffickers, prostitutes, pimps, and, naturally, international terrorists.” In brief, it was a dangerous experiment which by now cannot be undone and which leads ever more closely toward federalism. So, if I understand her correctly, if it depended on Mária Schmidt, she would dismantle the single market that seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people throughout the European Union. Some people in Hungary claim that this is the path Viktor Orbán will argue for in the future.

Schmidt’s venom is also directed against the European Court of Human Rights, which is “the favorite organization of federalists.” In Schmidt’s opinion the ECHR is largely responsible for the European Union’s crisis, mostly because, according to the court, human rights have priority over the defense of the borders, which means that the European Union became defenseless against the invasion of outsiders. In her tirade against the court, she recounts all the decisions that went against Hungary. The court, with the effective assistance of Soros-financed NGOs, will bankrupt Hungary, which is trying its best to save Europe from the migrants.

Schmidt’s hatred of Germans and Germany has no bounds. Germany was responsible for a borderless Europe which, as we already learned, is the source of all the evil that has befallen the European Union. The Germans are unable to get rid of their feelings of guilt associated with the Third Reich and what it entailed, and therefore they “dream of a federal Europe hoping to leave Hitler behind.” But in their eagerness to build a real union “they forget that a new German-led, unified Europe was in fact Hitler’s cherished dream.” Thus, Schmidt accuses today’s German politicians of continuing Hitler’s conquest of Europe by other means. And, she adds, “as we know, the ideology of socialism began its conquest of the world in Germany and socialism both in its national and international version is deeply rooted in German thinking.”

Mária Schmidt, very deep down, must know that the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees is unacceptable by any moral standard. She naturally knows what world opinion is of the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees and its anti-refugee propaganda that poisoned the souls of Hungarians. One way of minimizing this anti-social behavior is to belittle the magnanimity and compassion of others. This is exactly what Schmidt does when she writes that “in 2015 the entire German elite and public fell in love with their own goodness and generosity, with their chancellor in the lead. They enjoyed the perception that they are now on the right side of history and that they are good-hearted, generous people, helping people in need.” Of course, the German people were told that it was time to be generous, and “once the Germans are told what to do, they don’t stop until they reach the bunker.” Once they receive the so-called order “wir schaffen das,” the consequences don’t matter. “A command is a command.”

It seems that it is not only the Germans who mask their “sentimental and romantic” nature with “arrogance and cynicism,” but the Council of Europe also believes that “the most important task is to prevent humans from drowning in the sea! Thus, the priority is not to halt the surging crowds but to save humans.” Can you imagine?

Schmidt spends considerable time on misinformation being spread in the West about Hungary in general and about the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees in particular. There is nothing new in her arguments about the manipulated media of the West except for one amusing item. Schmidt uses President Trump’s “memorable” sentence–“The fake news media is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American people”–as an epigraph for her section on “Fake news media.” Quite a literary coup for a man who, according to Philip Roth, is “incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” Decrying all the fake news about Hungary and bolstering her defense with Donald Trump’s attack on the media is pretty low. According to the latest Fact Checker’s ongoing database, Trump in 119 days made 586 false and misleading claims. Moreover, as Ruth Marcus says in today’s Washington Post, Schmidt’s idol “is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood.” To use the words of a liar to pass judgment on others is a peculiar way of defending one’s alleged truth.

Of course, the hero of Europe is Viktor Orbán, who stopped the flow of migrants who otherwise would have run down Europe. He saved Europe with his brave move of stopping the invaders at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The following picture appeared with the article.

This depiction of the alleged result of migration is the death of Europe as we know it. That brown foot tells it all. Schmidt is very careful, the word “white” nowhere appears in her essay, but Zsolt Bayer, another favorite of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, is much more outspoken in his essay that appeared in Magyar Idők today. As far as he is concerned, the Europe Hungarians so fervently wanted to belong to during the Kádár regime in fact no longer exists. That Europe was the world of “white people,” but now the Western Europe of old is gone. He recalls the popular German television series Die Schwarzwaldklinik, which depicted life in the Black Forest where one could see beautifully kept lawns, clean streets, elegant cars, villas, and “white people taking care of their problems who were Europeans like us, only much richer, luckier, happier and freer but still familiar.” Hungary will not accept the demands of the European Union in the name of solidarity. The real solidarity means that “when the European white Christian people lose the battle in the defense of their own past, then we–the humiliated, the betrayed and the despised—will welcome them. However, in the meantime, we will not tolerate lecturing and empty threats. Is that clear?” I guess it is.

May 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

Viktor Orbán, the “great supporter” of European common action

A couple of days ago we pondered the true meaning of the Kohl-Orbán joint communiqué, which emphasized a coordinated European response to the refugee crisis. What could have transpired during the hour Viktor Orbán spent with the ailing Helmut Kohl? What did the former chancellor tell the Hungarian prime minister to entice him to sign a document that emphasizes common action in the face of one of the greatest challenges the European Union has confronted in its existence? We now have the answer.

Today Viktor Orbán gave his customary, carefully choreographed Friday morning interview on Kossuth Rádió. About three-quarters of the conversation was devoted to Orbán’s views on the migration issue. His message was unequivocal. It matters not what he signed after his meeting with Kohl, he hasn’t budged an inch. He totally rejects a common European solution to the refugee problem–unless, of course, the rest of Europe accepts his solution. One could ask why he signed a document that goes against his deeply held beliefs. Because such a gesture at the moment was to his political advantage. For him it was only a scrap of paper without legal consequences.

Today’s interview began with a “little white lie.” Orbán claimed that “every time I visit the southern regions of Germany I visit Chancellor Kohl.” Sure thing, he just calls the Kohl residence announcing that he is somewhere nearby and the next thing we know he is sitting in Kohl’s living room.

He continued the interview by systematically misrepresenting the current German position on the refugee question. He claimed that although it is true that in the past there was “a significant difference between Germany and Hungary on the handling of the migrant crisis,” by now “the Germans have changed their position.” They recognized that Viktor Orbán was right all along, although “Europe doesn’t want to admit that.”

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

It was inevitable that the issue of compulsory quotas would surface in this particular Friday session. After all, the Orbán government is already hard at work preparing the ground for a referendum on the question of quotas. The Hungarian people are supposed to refuse, through a democratic process, to allow any refugees to be settled in Hungary. Orbán is adamant on the issue. His view is that if Angela Merkel “made a decision to accept migrants without any control, then she should take full responsibility for that decision.” Since other member countries, including Hungary, were not consulted, they are not obliged to take responsibility for the consequences of this action.

The reporter, who is of course carefully trained and never asks embarrassing questions, did venture to inquire whether Orbán doesn’t see a contradiction between the Kohl-Orbán communiqué’s reference to common action and Orbán’s emphasis on national sovereignty. The answer is worth translating verbatim.

No, because stronger cooperation means Schengen. My suggestion is that if a country is a member of the Schengen system and therefore enjoys its benefits, which means that its citizens can move freely within the borders, it must also accept the concomitant commitments, which include the defense of the Schengen borders. If a country refuses this obligation, the European Union should take away this country’s right to defend the borders. Well, actually, since we are talking about sovereign states, one cannot force them, but the EU should ask them to hand over the right of defense. If that country refuses to oblige, it should be expelled or its membership in the Schengen zone should be suspended.

I find it interesting that Orbán’s first thought was to use force against a truant state and that it was only a second later that he caught himself offering a solution that disregards the sanctity of sovereignty he so fiercely defends.

Relatively little time was spent on his Schengen 2.0 action plan, but the little there was is interesting. He gave the impression of such staunch German support for his plans that the interviewer summarized her understanding, saying that “there is then strong German support for your ten points.” Well, at that point Orbán had correct her and admit that “not quite, because Brussels in the meantime published its own proposals … [which are] absurd.” According to this “ridiculous idea,” Europe’s demographic situation is so grave that only immigration can solve the problem. This is a totally unacceptable idea according to Orbán, who finds it “unchristian and objectionable from the national point of view.”

The government has already prepared the ground for a forceful campaign for the totally superfluous referendum against compulsory refugee quotas. They dug up an old study the Gyurcsány government commissioned back in 2007 on the demographic problems facing Hungary. Magyar Idők, the government paper, dutifully printed a long article about the evil intentions of the socialist-liberal government. Even the headline is telling: “The left has been waiting for the migrants for the last ten years.”

Magyar Idők’s summary of the document shows it to be a well-reasoned analysis. The study maintains that, with globalization, migration is inevitable and Hungarians, especially highly qualified professionals such as doctors, will leave the country to accept better paid positions elsewhere. This exodus might be lessened by certain government policies, but selective immigration will undoubtedly be necessary to maintain the healthy demographic balance essential for a thriving economy. Natural reproduction cannot solve the demographic problems of the country, and therefore a selective immigration policy should be implemented. It is possible that by 2050 10% of the population might be of foreign origin, the study predicted.

Orbán is now using this study commissioned by the socialist-liberal government as a weapon against the opposition. The highly xenophobic population now can blame not only Brussels for its egregious refugee policies but also the Hungarian socialist and liberal politicians who wanted and most likely still want to flood the country with foreigners. “We must prevent this at all costs. We must stop not only Brussels but also the Hungarian allies of Brussels. We must stop the left because by now anybody can read what kinds of plans they were entertaining.”

This from the mouth of Viktor Orbán, who told us only a couple of days ago that he wants to have a common European solution to the refugee question.

April 22, 2016

The Helmut Kohl – Viktor Orbán meeting

I think the best description of the joint statement of Helmut Kohl and Viktor Orbán after their meeting at Kohl’s residence in Ludwigshafen is “baffling.” In Hungary at least, neither the right nor the left can decide what to make of it. The pro-government papers use the very first sentence of the communiqué “Europe cannot be the new home of suffering millions” as their headline while Népszabadság found another sentence from the text more to its liking: Kohl and Orbán “are in complete agreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel as far as her goals are concerned.” On balance, Viktor Orbán signed a document that goes against everything he previously stood for.

Until now, humanitarian considerations did not enter Viktor Orbán’s mind. Currently hundreds if not thousands of refugees camp outside the barbed-wire fence on the Serb-Hungarian border without food or drink for days on end. Last year the government made almost no effort to give food and temporary shelter to the refugees. Now, however, Viktor Orbán signed a document that emphasizes “the humanitarian aspects” of the question. What’s going on is about “the future of Europe and the peace of the world…. Angela Merkel’s efforts are toward these goals.”

The statement also talks at some length about the irresponsibility of politicians who try “to create political conflicts.” These conflicts certainly don’t help the handling of the refugee issue, which after all involves the fate of millions. Let me note in passing that, earlier, Viktor Orbán judiciously avoided describing the new arrivals in Europe as refugees.

There was an interview today on Deutschland Radio with Michael Rutz, a well-known journalist. In his opinion Kohl does not share Orbán’s policies, and therefore Rutz thought that Helmut Kohl would “send a signal of his concern at the meeting with Orbán.” From MTI’s summary of the statement it looks as if he did. My impression is that most of the conversation between the two men was about Europe today and tomorrow. Orbán seemed to agree with Kohl that “the fate of European people depends on the political union of Europe.” Also, Europe must urgently revive the idea of solidarity because the “unification of Europe” can be done together or not at all. The member states must work together. Kohl added that “solidarity is the most important prerequisite for solving the refugee crisis, terrorism, the stability of the euro and the Eurozone.

Kohl and Orban

Orbán’s answer to this lecture by Kohl was, at least in my reading, ambivalent because I don’t know what to make of the following: “Viktor Orbán again assured the former chancellor that Hungary naturally wants to contribute toward solidarity (szolidáris hozzájárulás).” This sounds to me as if the only solidarity Orbán has in mind is the amount of money he has already promised toward the 6 billion euros the EU member states will pay Turkey in exchange for giving shelter to additional refugees. As for his own thoughts, he offered his Schengen 2.0 plan as a constructive first step toward common action.

A few words about Schengen 2.0. First of all, trying to depict his ten-point plan as tangible assistance to a common policy borders on the bizarre. He himself said in Lisbon, where he presented his plan at a meeting of the Centrist Democratic International, that his proposals are necessary because the European Commission’s solutions are “wrong-headed.” The action plan is in no way a departure from Orbán’s earlier position. It is in no way based on common action. “We think that there are countries that want to solve their problems one way and there are others who think in different terms.” No solidarity here. Each nation according to its own selfish interests.

Yet after the meeting Orbán made some gestures, indicating that he might have been urged by Kohl to show a more positive attitude toward Angela Merkel’s efforts at solving the crisis. He gave an interview to Bild after the meeting in which he said, “I would like to wish all the best to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary and I as the country’s prime minister stand by Berlin, and we will support Angela Merkel with further suggestions as our action plan shows.” I’m afraid his action plan is a non-starter, although Merkel graciously called Orbán’s meeting with Kohl “useful and sensible.” She found the topics covered indispensable.

Viktor Orbán has been a constant critic of Angela Merkel for years and rarely spared words when it came to the German chancellor’s refugee policies. The latest attack against Merkel came from Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, one of the co-founders of Fidesz and a friend of Orbán. Bayer is well known for his unspeakable verbal attacks on practically anyone whose ideas or actions don’t appeal to him. It was only a few days ago that Bayer wrote a piece in which he called Merkel “a vile, lying, rotten wench … who dared to show her pharisaical mug” in the first row in the demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo attack. If Orbán wanted Bayer to stop his disgusting outbursts it would take only a telephone call. But obviously he thinks that Bayer can say certain things that he himself cannot. His old friend serves a useful political purpose: to keep the far-right of his party in line. But the somewhat more moderate pro-government paper, Magyar Idők, is not much kinder to Merkel. In one of its opinion pieces the author talks about the mediocre politicians who cannot be compared to Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and others. In this article Angela Merkel is sarcastically called “the chosen representative of the Brussels aristocracy.” The author of another opinion piece in the same newspaper is outraged that Merkel didn’t apologize to Viktor Orbán for all those attacks on Hungary in the German press.

According to a long opinion piece that appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today titled “The Teacher and His Student,” Thomas Gutschker claims that while in Germany Orbán wanted to have meetings with Winfried Kretschmann (Green), minister president of Baden Württemberg, and Hannelore Kraft (Social Democrat), minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, but apparently he was rebuffed by both. So, for the time being he will have to be satisfied with a meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4. Unfortunately, his staunchest ally, Robert Fico, will not be able to attend since he is recuperating in a Bratislava hospital from a heart attack. Next week Orbán is apparently planning a whirlwind trip to several capitals to promote his Schengen 2.0 plan. I’m curious who will be ready to meet him. Maybe his hearty greetings via Bild to Merkel was an opening bid for a talk. We will see whether he succeeded.

April 19, 2016

Angela Merkel, the refugee crisis, and Christianity

Today’s big news is that a joint survey for RTL and Stern magazine by Forsa shows that Angela Merkel seems to have weathered the refugee crisis. Her popularity, which suffered between August 2015 and February 2016, has been restored to levels that existed prior to the refugee crisis. Fifty-two percent of Germans now say that they prefer having Merkel as chancellor over anybody else. In the last few months her approval rating had slipped to as low as 44%, and it was Merkel’s open-door policies that were blamed for electoral losses for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and for the rise of a right-wing populist party called Alternative Germany (AfD). But according to this last Forsa survey, AfD now has only 10% support (down from 13%) while Merkel’s conservative bloc would capture 36% of the votes if elections were held now. Her socialist rival, Sigmar Gabriel, who would be her challenger for the post of chancellor, would receive only 13% of the votes.

This boost in Merkel’s popularity is attributed by commentators to her successful negotiations, which led to an agreement between the European Union and Turkey resulting in a considerable decrease in the number of new arrivals in Greece. In fact, there are days when not a single refugee lands on any of the Greek islands. Despite all the criticism of the deal, Europe, or to be precise Germany, now has some breathing space, which will allow the German government to work out the details of the settlement and integration of about one million refugees.

This is not good news for Viktor Orbán. The scary internet site, kvota.kormany.hu, will surely not update its information any time soon and will keep repeating, as it did today, that every 12 seconds a new “migrant” arrives in Europe, with a frightening-looking timer counting down the seconds. The site, as its address indicates, is against “compulsory quotas,” which according to government propaganda would mean the forcible settlement of 160,000 migrants. Such a compulsory settlement would increase the danger of terrorist acts, it would threaten Hungarian culture, and, on top of everything else, it would cost a lot of money. According to their estimate, the upkeep of one single refugee would cost taxpayers 130,000 forints a month. The Hungarian minimum wage is only 105,000 per month.

While the government engages in such primitive propaganda, government financed newspapers are full of horror stories about the situation in Germany, Sweden, and Finland. Merkel’s policies, they argue, lead to a dead end. Here are a few op/ed articles from Magyar Idők. On March 27 a certain “retired lawyer,” who has become Magyar Idők’s favorite guest contributor, wrote a piece on Europe where people “vote here and there, keeping traitorous politicians in power who have already sold them to the forces of international financial oligarchs.” In this undemocratic Europe “Angela Merkel is a fanatical believer in immigration and the migrants’ dispersion in the member states.” The author actually calls on the German people to dispose of her because “there isn’t much time and delay is deadly.” Citizens of Europe should “take their future into their own hands and turn these traitorous politicians out.”

Merkel2

On March 18 another opinion piece was published on Angela Merkel. The author, László J. Kiss, gleefully noted that “Angela Merkel is already paying a political price” for her policies. He was, of course, referring to the elections in three German states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Baden-Württemberg. The author was ecstatic about the success of AfD, which “rejects Merkel’s refugee policies.” According to the author, the appearance of AfD may have far-reaching consequences. In fact, it may foreshadow “the possibility of the road to a new Third German Republic.” The transformation of the Bonn republic to the Berlin republic was not as spectacular as the change from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich. In fact, it was “an uninteresting process.” A simple extension of West Germany to the East. But perhaps here is the opportunity. Although, according to Kiss, AfD is not an extremist party, its political leaders are talking about “a real revolution” which may lead to the end of the rule of the old 1968 generation. It is also possible that AfD will put an end to the left-liberal ideology that currently permeates Germany. Clearly, Magyar Idők would be delighted to see a “real revolution,” I guess the kind Viktor Orbán brought about in Hungary. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” one is inclined to say. Anyone who’s grounded in reality must recognize the total absurdity of an Orbán-like revolution in today’s Germany.

A few days later György Nógrádi, a national security expert with a checkered career, claimed that the German people “want a strategic about-face from their chancellor.” At the beginning of March the editors of Magyar Idők were certain that an agreement with Turkey was unlikely. The pro-government propaganda paper was keeping fingers crossed for Angela Merkel to fail and be removed from power. Such a stance is not at all surprising because, after all, Angela Merkel is the polar opposite of everything Viktor Orbán represents.

In this connection I would like call attention to an article by Professor Jan-Werner Mueller of Princeton University, who has written several articles and studies about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The German-born Mueller has family ties to Hungary. The article, “Angela Merkel’s Misunderstood Christian Mission,” appeared in Foreign Policy (March 18, 2016).

Mueller looks at Merkel’s negotiations with Turkey “in the context of the broader moral campaign that she has been waging.” He thinks that “Merkel is effectively forcing believers in Europe to choose between her own brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’ and the ‘Christian, national’ vision of a Fortress Europe propounded by leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński.” After summarizing in a couple of paragraphs the history of Christian Democracy in Germany, he describes Merkel’s “politics of small, carefully calculated steps [which] became her trademark, even globally.” But “everything changed [w]hen Merkel opened the borders for the refugees who were being mistreated in Hungary, she took a clear stance—and has stuck with it even in the face of ever more personal criticisms from within her own party.”

Observers have been debating her motives, and it seems that Mueller thinks that Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, is someone who would like to put the ‘C’ back into CDU. Merkel sees “both Islam and Christianity as having a place in Germany … as springs of moral conduct.” Sixty-one percent of Germans identify themselves as Christians, and “she has thrown down a moral challenge to her people … actually to live their faith.” The churches in Germany do support the chancellor, unlike some politicians in her own party who “declared that an ‘uncontrolled influx of refugees’ was ‘not Christian.’”

Merkel’s critics at home find supporters farther east. Viktor Orbán “was the first to shut the border to refugees in the name of defending a ‘Christian’ Europe. For him, Christianity designates a national culture closed in on itself, as opposed to a set of universal precepts. In [his] rhetoric, ‘openness’ means unfettered capitalism and unlimited individual choices…. For Orbán, Christianity serves as a convenient instrument to conduct identity politics; for Merkel, it is a way to talk about Europe’s moral integrity.”

At the end of his essay, Mueller quotes Rainer Bucher, a Catholic theologian according to whom Merkel “is presenting European Christians with a stark choice: Orbán or Francis?” It seems to me that Francis and Merkel are coming out on top.

March 30, 2016