Tag Archives: Kádár regime

Viktor Orbán: The brave prime minister who is not a communist

On October 28 József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, gave an interview to Inforádió, a station close to the government party. To long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum or those who have been following Hungarian politics in the last twenty-five years Szájer is a familiar figure. However, since we have a lot of new subscribers who might be less familiar with the leading figures of Hungarian political life, I should say a few words about this man.

Szájer is a real old-timer in Fidesz. He was there from the very beginning, living in the dormitory where Fidesz was born. He held important positions in parliament and in Fidesz between 1988 and 2004, when he was sent to Brussels as the leader of the Fidesz delegation. He is also one of  deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party. Since Hungarian politicians don’t consider the job of MEP a particularly important one, it is hard to fathom why the decision was made to remove Szájer from direct involvement in Hungarian politics. He is supposed to be brilliant although, at least in my opinion, he does not put his brain power to the best use.

Just because Szájer officially holds no position doesn’t mean that he plays no role in the party behind the scenes. For example, Szájer himself proudly announced that he wrote the text of the new Hungarian constitution on his iPad. When the Orbán government is criticized in the European Parliament, it is Szájer who leads the troops in defense of the Orbán regime. And when in March 2013 there was a U.S. Senate hearing on the state of democracy in Hungary it was József Szájer who was dispatched to explain the Hungarian position.

During the interview on Inforádió Szájer defended the introduction of the internet tax with his usual vehemence. A government that dares to tax internet usage is a brave one, he said. “There are times,” he claimed, “when one has to speak in the language of strength.” Such a tax is “no attack on the internet.” After all, we have to pay for our food, but that doesn’t mean that it is an attack against the freedom of eating. The very fact that I had a heck of a time translating this sentence means that the comparison is outright idiotic. I consider the example Olga Kálmán used more apt. Let’s say that we buy a book but we still have to pay extra for being able to read it. Indeed, that is exactly what the internet tax is. Internet subscribers pay for their service, which includes a 27% tax, but in addition the government wants to tax their right to use the material offered by the provider whom they’ve already paid.

The reason that I quoted Szájer’s belligerent words on the brave government that dares to tax the internet is because it took no more than three days for the government to decide not to be so brave. The reason? Apparently, a quick poll was ordered which showed that the people who were at the demonstrations had been apolitical until now. They seemed to have awakened from their long slumber, and that truly frightened Viktor Orbán. Many of the people chanting slogans never even bothered to vote and claimed that they are not interested in politics. Suddenly they became active. This is the last thing Viktor Orbán wants. Among them might be future political leaders who will force this authoritarian government to resign one day.

A typical Fidesz warrior: József Szájer in the European Parliament

A typical Fidesz warrior: József Szájer in the European Parliament

In Viktor Orbán’s interview last Friday there was one sentence that I found especially revealing. He decided to shelve the internet tax because his government listens to the people, and they certainly don’t want to do anything that is unacceptable to the people. After all, they are not “communists.” But the problem is that the governing style of the Orbán government closely resembles that of the Kádár regime. For all practical purposes there is a one-party system in Hungary today.

During the communist period it was the Politburo that made the decisions. The size of that body varied from eight to thirteen members. They met weekly and discussed the day-to-day running of the country. Today the situation is actually worse. As far as we know, there are no weekly meetings of the Fidesz executive board. Decisions are not made by the ministers either because cabinet meetings are exceedingly short and there are practically no discussions. Everything is decided by Viktor Orbán and until he speaks, as someone wittily remarked, no one knows what to think. The people started to see the strong resemblance between the two regimes.

I watched Henrik Havas’s Saturday political program on ATV where the older participants recalled that in the last parliament of the Kádár regime there was a discussion about the Czechoslovak-Hungarian dam to be built on the Danube. The population opposed it, but the government was determined that it be built. The president of parliament called on those who were against the dam to stand up. Twenty some people did. And that was during a communist regime. Today it would be unimaginable for Fidesz MPs to stand up in a similar situation. Or to dare vote against a bill they don’t agree with. This is illiberal democracy in action.

The other side of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó: An ardent communist

There is more to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, the presumed future Hungarian ambassador to Italy, than meets the eye. The picture is complete only if we take a look at the man’s career during the Kádár regime, which he was allegedly ready to fight, if necessary with weapon in hand.

Péter Szabó, who changed his name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, was born on January 8, 1945. According to an interview he gave in 2000, his father, Károly Szabó, studied to be a  lawyer but in the 40s worked as a journalist for a “right-wing paper.” “Luckily” the offices of this unnamed newspaper were bombed during the war, and all traces of his father’s association with the paper disappeared. This way “the communists couldn’t molest him,” as the son remarked. What the father did after the war is not clear except that he was “an archaeologist of language” who wrote a book on the relationship between the Hungarian and the Etruscan languages. It was posthumously published by Karpatia Press, which specializes in far-right and wacky books.

As for Péter Szabó’s early life, we have little to go on except what he revealed about himself. When you try to put the story together, however, troubling questions emerge about the truthfulness of the man. The main problem is with his contention that in 1961, while he was a student at the famous Benedictine high school in Pannonhalma, he organized a day of remembrance for the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1956. Consequently, the story goes, he was not only expelled from Pannonhalma but was barred from all Hungarian high schools. He claims that after this incident he was under constant police surveillance and had to work as a manual laborer. He eventually finished high school at night. The problem with this story is that Szabó finished high school in 1963, exactly when he was supposed to. Moreover, he was immediately admitted to ELTE as a Hungarian-English major. It is hard to fathom that the regime was that lenient with someone who a couple of years earlier was barred from every high school in the country.

Szabó came up with the following explanation about his speedy entrance to university. As a third-year high school student he was the national winner of the annual high school literature competition and therefore did not have to take an entrance exam. He “just marched in,” as he said in the interview. That does not ring true either. If Szabó’s story about his expulsion is correct, he spent only two months as a student during the school year of 1961-62, and that is mighty little time to end up the winner of a national competition. And that’s not all. In the same interview he recounted his first meeting with a well-known writer, adding that he was seventeen at the time and “still a student.” The problem is that this had to be in 1962 when, according to his own recounting, he was no longer a student. So much for Péter Szabó’s veracity.

One of Szentmihályi's sciene fictions Visitor from Infinity (1989)

One of Szentmihályi’s science fiction books
Visitor from Infinity (1989)

Szentmihályi Szabó poses as an ardent enemy of communism. In the interview he said that he “as a young man could never understand how people allowed all those things that would happen to us. [He] decided that he would not allow [the communists] to do the same to him and when the time comes [he] will not shirk from taking part in an armed struggle.” He was still a small boy when he cut out the biographies and pictures of “those horrible politicians” from Szabad Nép, the official paper of the communist party during the Rákosi period, because “politics interested him terribly.”

Indeed, it must have interested him because during his university years he joined KISZ (‘Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) and later even became KISZ secretary of the politically important organization Írószövetség (Writers’ Union). In the interview he quickly added that he was removed from the position because of his counterrevolutionary and clerical activities. He also wants us to believe that in 1975 on the hundredth anniversary of Endre Ady’s birth (Ady was actually born in 1877) he declared in a speech that as long as Hungary is occupied by Soviet troops one cannot really speak about Ady’s work. But again, luckily his friends managed to save his skin.

A quick glance at some of the evidence, however, shows a very different Szabó who by that time had changed his rather common name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. In 1969 the editorial board of Új Írás, a literary magazine, sent out a questionnaire to young writers about their attitudes toward socialist Hungary. Szentmihályi Szabó answered, “I’m so glad that I can be a Hungarian here and now in socialism. Very exciting times. An age that poses great challenges.”

Or here is something else from 1973 that came to light only a couple of years ago when the historian György Németh was researching the history of the Attila József Circle, a gathering of young writers and poets in the 1970s.  It is a letter Szentmihályi Szabó wrote to “Dear Uncle Pista”–most likely István Király, the literary historian and an expert on Endre Ady. The letter can be found in the papers of György Aczél, the man responsible for cultural policies throughout the Kádár years. But before I quote the relevant passage, I have to provide some background.

It was in 1973 that Miklós Haraszti, later one of the founders of SZDSZ, who was 28 years old at the time wrote a sociological study of his own experiences as a blue-collar worker in Ganz-Mávag and in the Vörös Csillag Traktorgyár. The manuscript of Darabbér (Piecework) was confiscated by the authorities, and Haraszti had to stand trial: he received a suspended sentence of eight months. The book was eventually translated into eleven languages, but in Hungary it could appear only in 1989. In the “Dear Uncle Pista” letter Szentmihályi Szabó assures the addressee of his devotion to communist ideals, and he is especially angry over those pseudo-leftist rebels (specifically Haraszti) who turned against the Kádár regime. He is outraged because “we know that Haraszti is an enemy of the regime, our enemy.” Oh, yes, these are the words of the great counterrevolutionary Szentmihályi Szabó who would be ready to fight the communists with weapon in hand.

A few years later he wrote a poem that was published in a volume of poetry entitled Dream of the Mind (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977). Here is a rough translation.

Ungraceful Prayer to Communism

Where are you idling, Communism
my happiness, my pure love?
Our happiness, our pure love.
Horn of plenty! The table of the law!
The spiritual light!
Eat, drink, hug, sleep!
Measure yourself with the infinite!
Instead of exclamation marks
question marks falling on us,
I known it is not urgent.
Just like the apocalypse, only
to the prophets:
your unfulfillment
does not cause sorrow to many.
Where are you idling communism?
The productive forces, the relations of productions,
rattling machines,
and the conscience… subconscious
the state does not want to fade away.
Where are you idling communism?
Spring follows Spring,
my children-eyes blink old;
communism, you, promised,
strain your every muscle,
shake off the parasites.
Communism, grow, my little child.

This same man is now the greatest enemy of the “communists,” the liberals, and the Jews. Actually, he would have gladly accepted the socialist system minus the Soviets and their “henchmen.” “To this day I consider socialism more just than this money-centered capitalism without any ideology.”

I would wager to say that Szentmihályi Szabó was a happier man in the 1960s and 1970s than he is today. In fact, he says in the interview that “those who did not live then can’t really understand that period. It was a much more interesting time than today…. Writers could bargain because Hungary was much more important to the West then…. Every word uttered had weight. The West watched what we wrote…. Who is interested today in what a Hungarian writer has to say?” A disappointed man whose discontent has morphed into hatred and who finds scapegoats in communists and Jews (perhaps the two are intertwined in his mind) for his own shortcomings.

András Bruck’s new encounter with George Orwell’s 1984

Before the holidays I wrote two posts dealing with different interpretations of the system Viktor Orbán established in Hungary in the last three and a half years. Now I offer yet another analysis, this time by András Bruck. It appeared only a week ago in Élet és Irodalom.  Bruck is one of the most astute, and most radical, observers of Hungarian political life. His conclusion is that all those on the left who claim that Hungary is still “a kind of democracy” are kidding themselves. Bruck makes no bones about it: he considers Orbán’s Hungary a dictatorship pure and simple. His essay, which I summarize here, deals with the similarities between George Orwell’s nightmarish Nineteen Eighty-four and Orbán’s Hungary today.

Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four were on the list of forbidden books in Hungary until the mid-1980s, but a few people did manage to get copies already in the 1960s. I personally received requests from friends to bring them along in either 1967 or 1968. It seems that Bruck managed to get hold of a copy only sometime in the early 1980s. He was disappointed. The book was about “a different bad world” from the one in which he lived. While making love he felt neither fear nor hatred. He didn’t consider the three famous slogans of Ingsoc, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH appropriate for Kádár’s Hungary.

This spring he found his copy of Nineteen Eighty-four in the bottom of a box: “it lay there like a skeleton but this time the dead came to life.” Bruck reached the conclusion that “every word of that book from the first to the last is about this sick, deformed regime in which, just like in the novel, the binding agent of power is lying.” Everything  means the opposite of what it is officially called. The Manifesto of National Cooperation is the document of national division; the Peace March is actually a battle march, just as in Orwell’s book the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war. The leaders of these marches are the messengers of hatred, men like Gábor Széles, Zsolt Bayer, and András Bencsik.

Today’s government party has its own Emmanuel Goldstein–Ferenc Gyurcsány, the number one enemy of the people whom it is a patriotic duty to hate. Many of those who are the loudest in his condemnation know nothing about him just as Julia, Winston’s lover, doesn’t have the foggiest idea who Goldstein was.

In Orbán’s Hungary words have lost their meaning. In his world “Hungarian ownership” actually means handing property, factories, land to his own family, friends, and minions. To be national and Hungarian means to agree with his and his government’s decisions. If he says that Hungary’s economy is the most competitive in the region, it means that the country is sliding downward. When he says that everybody in Europe is envious of us this means that everybody is horrified at the changes that have taken place in Hungary since 2010.

Orwell 3

Hungarians are often amazed at Orbán’s temerity when they hear that he is capable of saying one thing one day and on the next its exact opposite. But in Orwell’s novel Winston Smith wonders how it is possible that one day the announcement is made that the chocolate ration was reduced to twenty grams and the next day people are told that it was raised to twenty grams. “Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.”

Then, Bruck quotes a few sentences from Nineteen Eighty-four that he finds appropriate:

“If the facts say otherwise then the facts must be altered.”

“The fabulous statistics continued to pour out of the telescreen.”

One “should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It doesn’t matter whether the war is actually happening.”

“To change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.”

“The proles are not human beings.”

“The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.”

Bruck finds all these in Orbán’s system. Even anti-Orbán analysts don’t understand the nature of the system. They simply refuse to acknowledge that there is dictatorship in Hungary. “But if you deny it you must act as if there is democracy or in the worst case it is a mafia state.” After the disgraceful speech Orbán delivered on October 23 in which “he tossed half the nation in front of a coming train” left-wing analysts on ATV had barely anything to say. “They analyzed. They know and declare that there is no morality and decency in the world of politics and if cannibalism would bring votes then it is the good politician who would chew half an arm right there in the studio.”

Winston Smith, although well versed in the system of Ingsoc, understood how the regime operated but “he didn’t understand why.” In Hungary the left-wing intellectual elite, very much like Smith, can’t understand why Orbán hamstrings the schools, why he drains all the assets of the banks, why he creates hatred, why he makes the lives of the poor even more miserable, why he appoints all those half-wits to important jobs, why he isolates his country, why he turns to the dictators of the tundra, why he wants to see his political opponents in jail, why he takes others’ money, in brief why he is behaving like a dictator. Surely, Bruck continues, all this is not done only to let the mafia state move money more easily from one oligarch to the next. Was all this barbarity introduced only to make it easy for one company to get all the tenders offered by the state? Clearly, Bruck doesn’t believe in the theory of the mafia state.

The answer to Smith’s question about the “why” of the Orwellian state comes from O’Brien: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” Bruck here says, “At last! Someone at last said it. In the depth of my soul I wished for such a sentence. So besides the sheer wanting of power, besides the psychology of the totalitarian mind, there is nothing else…. there is no ideology, no vision, no ideas about the future.”

In order for a dictatorship to function one needs consciously created ignorance, which goes together with the falsification of history. According to Bruck, Orbán and Fidesz began by falsifying the history of the first twenty years that followed the regime change. Then they rewrote the history of 1944, and on October 23 they began the falsification of the history of ’56. Winston Smith says in 1984 that “if the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened–that, surely, was  more terrifying than mere torture and death.” Or later: “And if all others accepted the  lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth.” After all, Bruck adds, a new historical institute is already planned whose name will be Veritas. Perhaps in a better future it can more appropriately be called the Institute of Mendacity. “What else is waiting for us? A few more years and we won the battle of the Don. And not one Jew was deported because the governor didn’t allow it…. Not even the present is taboo anymore. Only recently the prime minister announced that there was no revolution in 2010 when he himself earlier said that there was one, which was endorsed by parliament.” O’Brien has something to say about this also: “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Bruck bitterly concludes his essay with these words. “So, luckily we don’t have to worry because the prime minister himself denies that there was a revolution in Hungary while the whole Hungarian left denies the existence of dictatorship. So, it seems all is well.”

Mária Vásárhelyi: The Renaissance of Homo Kádáricus

Today I will summarize an article by sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi that appeared a couple of days ago in Élet és Irodalom. The article is another attempt at defining the political order that has developed in Hungary in the last three and a half years.

There are at least three good reasons for making the gist of the article available on Hungarian Spectrum. First, because relatively few people can read it in the original. Second, because even those who can handle Hungarian might not be able to peruse it because ÉS is nowadays available only to subscribers. And third, because I hold Mária Vásárhelyi’s work in high regard. The media is the focus of her research, but in this article she talks about the pervasive influence of János Kádár’s regime. We must keep in mind that the Kádár era lasted more than a generation, to be precise 33 years.

She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, a close associate of Imre Nagy who became the spokesman of the second Nagy government on November 1, 1956. When the Soviet troops began their offensive against the rebels on November 4, Vásárhelyi and his family, including his children, joined Imre Nagy and others in the Yugoslav Embassy and after November 23 in Romania. Eventually Vásárhelyi was sentenced to five years in jail.

So, Mária Vásárhelyi’s democratic credentials cannot be questioned. One can’t argue that she or her family was in any way associated with the Kádár regime and that thus she tries to minimize its responsibilities. I heard an interview with her some years back in which she described what it was like to be the daughter of “that Vásárhelyi.”

The article’s title is “The Renaissance of Homo Kadaricus.” It is thus clear from the beginning that Vásárhelyi seeks the roots of the present political system in the Kádár era. She begins on an optimistic note. She is sure that Orbán’s system will collapse because “it is not viable economically, in social terms it is terribly unjust and morally depraved.”

Many analysts have tried to describe and explain the phenomenon of Orbanism. How it was possible that within three short years Orbán and his minions managed to undo the democratic achievements of the regime change that occurred between 1989 and 2010. Explanations naturally vary: the lack of a democratic tradition, centuries of foreign domination, or the lack of a robust middle class. Others argue that in Hungary right-wing influences, especially strong during the Horthy regime, made such an impression on the Hungarian psyche that a large, if not predominant, portion of Hungarian society sympathizes with the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán.

Mária Vásárhelyi, without doubting that all of these influences are important, sees “the largest role in Orbán’s successes in the reminiscences of the Kádár era and the anomalies of the regime change.”

Those who have studied the Kádár regime or who experienced it first hand know that on the surface the period between 1963 and 1985 was considered by many to be the golden age of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Most people were totally satisfied with their lot and expected that every year they and their families would live better. There was a kind of unspoken arrangement by which the people didn’t poke their noses into politics and, in exchange, the party and the government made sure that their material yearnings would be more or less satisfied. Most people had no idea about the serious economic problems that existed already in the 1980s and, even if they did know about them, they didn’t think it was their business to get involved in any way. János Kádár and the others would take care of everything.

The overwhelming concern of most people was material, to which all else was subordinated: morals, compassion, democracy, freedom, human intercourse. They had little sympathy for the practically starving Poles or the oppressed Hungarians in Ceaușescu’s Romania. If they heard about the democratic opposition’s activities, they condemned them because, in their opinion, “they endangered the peace and order of Hungary” or because “they served the interests of the Great Powers.” Today’s Hungarians are to a great extent the products of this age and outlook.

Kadar 1959

János Kádár among his own, 1959

Vásárhelyi thinks that the Orbán regime’s Horthy cult is only an “eyewash” to keep those right-wingers whose vote is necessary to remain in power. Vásárhelyi is convinced that for the great majority of Hungarians the Horthy era means nothing. Some of them can’t even place it in time. Orbán’s real popularity lies in his success at being able to speak the language of the Everyman of the Kádár regime and his appeal to the selfishness of the middle classes that dread their loss of standing. Even “the nationalist rhetoric is no more than the mortar that helps to activate and organize these attitudes into a whole.”

I find Mária Vásárhelyi’s argument compelling–another piece of the puzzle that is the Orbán government.

“What shall I call you?”* The political system of Viktor Orbán

You may recall that a few days ago I published a lecture of Gábor Demszky, former mayor of Budapest, delivered in the Library of Congress. After the text of the lecture I described an exchange between Anna Stumpf, political attaché of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, and Gábor Demszky. Stumpf, the daughter of Viktor Orbán’s right hand man during his first administration and today a member of the Constitutional Court, took exception to Demszky’s description of the dire situation of the media in Hungary today when he claimed that in some ways it is less free than it was in the Kádár regime’s last few years. She exclaimed: “You are not serious!” Gábor Demszky’s answer was, “Yes, I’m serious. I lived in it.” Within a couple of days this footnote to Hungarian Spectrum‘s coverage of the lecture made the rounds in the Hungarian media. It made a splash even in the liberal press because the Hungarian opposition doesn’t quite know what to call Viktor Orbán’s political system. Moreover, they are reluctant to describe the “System of National Cooperation” as a regime that is perhaps worse than the “soft dictatorship” of János Kádár. Bálint Magyar and his coauthors from many disciplines describe Viktor Orbán as the Godfather, the leadership of Fidesz and their friends and relatives as mafia, and the political structure as a “mafia state.” The book this group of political scientists, philosophers, economists, and sociologists published became a bestseller in Hungary since it appeared a few weeks ago, and references to the “Hungarian Octopus,” the title of the book, appear frequently in the written and electronic media. Yet some people are not entirely satisfied with the description. There are a few people, especially those who publish mostly in German, who consider Orbán’s system “fascism” pure and simple.  Magdolna Marsovszky is one of the chief proponents of this theory. Only today she commented on an article in the German-language blogPusztaranger, which dealt with a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. One of the guests was Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the Hungarian National Theater. What Vidnyánszky said at the conference led Pusztaranger to call this new National Theater a “faschistiches Erlösungtheater,” that is, a fascist redemption theater.

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic sybols

A telling pictorial description of the political system of Viktor Orbán. A combination of old socialist and nationalistic symbols / www.deviant.com

A few days ago Ágnes Heller described the present situation in Hungary as “Bonapartism,” which is defined as “a political movement associated chiefly with authoritarian rule usually by a military leader ostensibly supported by a popular mandate.” When pressed, she elaborated by saying that Bonapartism is at its core striving and acquiring power for its own sake. Moreover, such a system, according to her, cannot come to a resting place, a consolidated state of affairs because the very essence of Bonapartism is the continual striving toward greater and greater power and glory. Such a quest, however, must eventually fail. Society cannot be maintained in a constant state of ideological, national, and social warfare. Others, like János Kornai, agree that Orbán’s system is a dead end but, as he wittily said, one can live on a dead end street for a very long time. A society can live under such circumstances for perhaps decades. That was certainly the case with the Soviet Union. Not a pleasant prospect for those people who believe that Hungary’s future lies with the West, which entails a break with its authoritarian and communist past. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the main outline of Viktor Orbán’s devilish plans for his “revolution” were in the making most likely years before the 2010 electoral victory. László Lengyel, a political commentator and economist, thinks that Orbán and his closest collaborators had a completely defined plan for the political edifice they intended to build way before 2010 because as soon as the first session of parliament gathered, the plan for the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or NER) was ready for immediate implementation. And commentators are starting to realize that Orbán’s regime is more than populism. The word “dictatorship” is an increasingly common description. There are just too many signs that Orbán’s world bears a suspicious resemblance to the communist times when one had to fear the authorities. Comparisons are made to the Rákosi regime instead of to the milder Kádár era. By the late Kádár period people’s property, for instance, was left alone. One didn’t have to worry that one day some official would arrive and take away one’s car or apartment. But nowadays private property is not at all safe. If the government decides to take away the livelihood of thousands of slot machine owners, it can do it from one day to the next. Or steal millions in savings. It can do it with impunity. Often the goods taken away are passed on to others who are favored by Viktor Orbán and his friends because they are on the right side, the national side. Again, the charge is that a complete change in ownership structure is being contemplated and slowly achieved. Here again the point of comparison is the Rákosi regime. But at least then the state didn’t turn around and sell the confiscated property to its own clients. Then it was done for ideological reasons. And then comes the soul searching. What did we do wrong in 1989-1990? At first, the participants were certain that their peaceful political and economic transition was ideal; it was certainly judged to be the best in the region by outside observers. A lot of people still cling to that belief. But, others argue, perhaps the introduction of a great number of cardinal laws, which need a two-thirds majority to pass, was a mistake. Ágnes Heller charges, not without reason, that the Budapest intellectuals who made up the democratic opposition really didn’t know the people of the country they lived in. Others rightly point out that the democratic education of the population, especially of the youth, was completely neglected. On the other hand, one cannot accuse Viktor Orbán of not knowing his people. He knows them only too well, and this is the key to his success. But more about this tomorrow. —— *I borrowed the title from one of the best known poems of Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849). The original and its English translation can be found here.

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?

Massive police “inspection” in Budapest on Sunday

I almost missed the 24-hour-long police action in the nine districts of the left bank of the Danube, which means the entire Pest side of Budapest. Thousands of policemen worked diligently starting at “Sunday morning zero hour” to stop and search cars. These guardians of law and order had the authority to examine the clothing of the passengers and could search their cars looking for “instruments that may endanger public safety.” When reporters inquired why this heightened alert, the police refused to reveal the reason for what police jargon calls “increased inspection” (fokozott ellenőrzés).

It was twenty years ago that I first experienced similar Hungarian police tactics. I was riding with relatives when the car was pulled over for no good reason by two young policemen who wanted to see the driver’s license. I was somewhat shaken, but it turned out that this was common practice. Later an Internet friend reported that during a fairly short trip he was stopped three times. In any case, my relatives took the whole incident in stride.

These periodic checks of absolutely innocent drivers are annoying enough, but this latest full-scale “raid,” as Magyar Nemzet called it, is most likely unconstitutional. At least this is what the Hungarian Helsinki Committee thinks. On July 19 the organization, after a similar raid of a private club maintained by a Jewish youth organization, turned to Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, to inquire about the constitutionality of such police raids.

About a month ago the police stepped up its inspection of motorcyclists and bicyclists in Budapest, allegedly “because during the summer there are accidents every day that involve motorcycles and bicycles.” Twenty-five percent of those inspected were found guilty of breaking various rules and regulations. These inspections are ordered because the leaders of the Hungarian police force claim that  they serve the purpose of “reducing the number of crimes, preventing illegal activities and forestalling traffic accidents.” The fines, of course, also bring in much needed revenue.

When the Budapest police chief was asked the reason for this latest mega-inspection, he refused to divulge its purpose. According to Ferenc Krémer, an expert on police matters, not divulging the reason for police actions was “the customary practice of the Kádár regime.” In fact, a policeman who approaches a vehicle during these inspections must inform the passengers of the car of the purpose of his mission and ask for their cooperation. Naturally, in this case no such practice was followed because there was no declared reason for the search.

Now comes the question of what is considered to be a bodily search (motozás in Hungarian). It seems that according to the official police definition such a search includes bodily cavities, and it can be performed only in the presence of a doctor. However, the “search of clothing,” which is currently allowed, is also an intrusion because after all it entails what we call “frisking” in English–that is, searching  for something concealed, especially a weapon, by passing the hands quickly over clothes or through pockets. Well, to my mind this is also “motozás.” Searching the car is also questionable according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, especially since the European Court of Justice already made a ruling forbidding it in a case involving the U.K. police force.

"Increased inspection" MTI / Photo Sándor H. Szabó

“Increased inspection”
MTI / Photo Sándor H. Szabó

The argument that these periodic searches of people and cars are instrumental in crime prevention has no foundation. While the number of police actions has been steadily growing since September 2012 when the new national police chief took over, so has the number of crimes.

As I said, I almost missed this news, mostly because the Hungarian media didn’t pay much attention to it. A well known Hungarian journalist e-mailed me this morning complaining about the scant coverage. Given the secrecy and the large scale of the “increased inspection,” he suspects that the real aim of this and similar raids is intimidation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were right.

Fidesz leaders have certainly used intimidation before. And here’s one small example from today. In a Miskolc hospital eight premature babies died over a short period of time. Viktor Orbán himself stepped in. He suspended the director of the hospital and personally ordered the police to investigate and darkly mentioned the possible role of the National Security Office in the case. I’ll bet that everybody in that hospital is shaking in their boots at the moment. It’s not every day that a prime minister suspends hospital personnel and orders a police investigation of an individual hospital’s practices.

The dark message? The police, the government’s enforcement agency, should be feared and the population should understand that “raids” can come at any time, with no probable cause required and no justification necessary. This kind of intimidation belongs in a police state, not in a democracy.