Tag Archives: nationalism

Viktor Orbán’s democracy: Nationalism, pure and simple

We should have gotten accustomed to the fact that by now that news about Hungary and its prime minister is an everyday occurrence. Just today I encountered well over 100 articles about Viktor Orbán in newspapers as well as on internet news sites, from Azerbaijan to Sweden. Most of the articles I came across were from Germany where Viktor Orbán’s interview with Kai Diekmann, the publisher of Bild, created quite a stir.

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

Kai Diekmann and Viktor Orbán / Business Insider

From Orbán’s awkward and occasionally wrong word usage, I assume that the interview was conducted in English, with not the best results. For example, the sentence that is most often commented on in the German press is: “Today, the voices coming from Berlin are coarse, rough, and aggressive.”

Orbán has never been known for his diplomatic skills, and since he has achieved a certain, in my opinion dubious, fame in Europe he thinks he can say practically anything with impunity. For example, when Diekmann quoted Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim that “history will prove Ms. Merkel right,” Orbán’s answer was rude and demeaning. He said, “I think the course of history will not be bothered by Mr. Juncker…. Let us see how history one day will judge Chancellor Merkel without Mr. Juncker’s help.”

The German people will read with delight Viktor Orbán’s opinion that “we owe nothing to Germany, and the Germans owe nothing to us. Germany has supported us in becoming a member of the EU. We are grateful for that. But then Hungary has opened its market for all EU states. Everybody has profited from that. So we are square.” When asked about Hungary’s relations with “the controversial Polish government,” Orbán answered: “I can only say that the peoples of Central Europe and Hungary are a community in fate, to the death. Many of us would spill our blood for Poland any time. And vice versa: in an emergency, many Polish people would give his life to protect Hungarians. This has happened more than once over the course of history.”

Two days ago I brought up my puzzlement over a sentence that Viktor Orbán uttered at the quickly organized press conference at which he announced his decision to hold a referendum on the compulsory refugee quotas. He said at that time that voting against this question would be a proof of loyalty to the country. “Because how could someone be loyal as long as others decide the most important questions?” I added that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to follow Orbán’s logic, I couldn’t see the connection between loyalty and the matter on hand. This interview sheds some light on the subject. Orbán has a very strange definition of “the basic principle of democracy,” which “in the end is loyalty to the nation.” What an incredible, unfathomable statement. Democracy according to this confused man equals nationalism.

At this point I would like to interject a quotation I jotted down from Ian Kershaw’s masterful two-volume biography of Hitler, which I’m in the middle of reading. These lines are from the first volume, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris:

It was more than anything else the ways nationalism had developed in late nineteenth-century Germany that provided the set of ideas that, if often in distorted–even perverted–form, offered the potential for Nazism’s post-war appeal…. Crucial to the character of German nationalism was the pervasive sense … of incomplete unity, of persistent, even widening division and conflict within the nation. What, in the changed conditions after the war, Hitler was able most signally to exploit was the belief that pluralism was somehow unnatural and unhealthy in society, that it was a sign of weakness, and that internal division and disharmony could be suppressed and eliminated, to be replaced by the unity of a national community. (p. 136)

Compare that with Viktor Orbán’s speech at a Fidesz picnic in September 2009 in Kötcse:

Today it is realistically conceivable that in the coming fifteen-twenty years, Hungarian politics should be determined not by the dualistic field of force bringing with it never conclusive and divisive value debates, which quite unnecessarily generate social problems. Instead, a great governing party comes in place, a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues and to stand for these policies as a natural course of things to be taken for granted without the constantly ongoing wrangling.

In brief, differences of opinion, any kind of political division, are signs of weakness in Orbán’s worldview just as the German variety of nationalism feared ethnic and religious differences. So, it is no wonder that Orbán called his regime the “System of National Cooperation.” If you don’t cooperate, you are not part of this nation. Fidesz and its supporters defend the national interest so if someone criticizes Orbán’s policies, this person is the enemy of the nation. As we know, this kind of striving for national unity usually ends in disaster.

By defending the nation Orbán claims to be defending democracy. When Diekmann pressed him on his policies, which may lead to the division of Europe, Orbán’s answer was that “the quota is reframing the ethnic, cultural and religious profile of Hungary and Europe. I have not decided this way against Europe, but for protecting European democracy.”

From these statements we learn that Orbán is defending not democracy but nationalism. At least this time he told the truth.

February 26, 2016

Is democracy a useless slogan in Hungarian political discourse?

I’m pretty sure that all of you have heard over and over from friends and acquaintances that no party that talks too much about the importance of democracy in Hungary can possibly win an election. People are disappointed in democracy, which only brought them misery, a drop in living standards, and systemic corruption. Some commentators go even further: the Hungarian people have always been conservative, bordering on a fascination with the far right, and therefore no party on the left can ever win an election. These are the statements I would like explore in this post.

As things stand now, the best recipe for electoral success seems to be unbridled nationalism and the hatred of strangers. At least this was what brought back into the fold at least half a million voters who had abandoned Fidesz during the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015. But that strategy has been trademarked by Fidesz, and the pitiful imitators on the left only make themselves ridiculous by trying to repeat the worn-out nationalistic phrases coined by the “parrot commando.” Fidesz voters will not be impressed by politicians of the small democratic parties who feel compelled to add the adjective “Hungarian” every time they utter the word “people.” This road leads nowhere.

Another possible way to tilt the odds in favor of the political forces on the left is to offer an immediate financial reward to the state employees—doctors, nurses, teachers—who at the moment are on the lowest rungs of the pay scale. Lately the socialist party (MSZP) has been trying out this tactic, without much success. The apathetic populace no longer believes that their living standards will change for the better any time soon, and they no longer believe politicians’ promises. Moreover, as we know from past experience, a one-time large increase in wages can be forgotten by the electorate within months.

So, let’s go back to the original statement about the alleged hopelessness of winning an election in Hungary in the name of democracy and social justice. I would like to argue against the proposition that the failure of the democratic opposition is due to their emphasis on democracy, which has lost its appeal in the eyes of the electorate. Of the five parties on the left, it is Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) that places the greatest emphasis on the necessity of restoring democratic norms. Gyurcsány finishes every speech with a call for a return of the Third Republic, which basically means a restoration of the pre-2010 period. And yet DK is the only party that has been able to grow steadily, to the point that its level of support practically equals that of MSZP, which has fluctuated between 16% at its height in 2013 and its current 10%. If the mention of the word “democracy” was such poison for a party, then DK should have remained on the level of Együtt (Together) and PM (Dialogue), with 1% support each. Surely, it is not a party’s devotion to democratic values that makes a party successful or unsuccessful.

The structure and leadership of a party is, in my opinion, a much more important factor, and here DK is in a better position than MSZP. Critics rightly point out that DK is so closely associated with Ferenc Gyurcsány, as Fidesz is with Viktor Orbán, that if either of them suddenly disappeared their parties would most likely collapse. However, having one person whose standing within the party is unquestioned lends strength and stability to a political organization. There seems to be solid cohesion in the top leadership of DK as opposed to MSZP, where József Tóbiás has many secret and not so secret critics within the party and where there is no coordinated policy to deliver a common message.

In addition to the personnel problems in MSZP there is an unfortunately obvious hesitancy when it comes to determining the kind of policy the party should follow. MSZP often behaves in a cowardly fashion. Every time they think that a Fidesz proposal might be popular with their electorate they feel compelled to vote for the bill. One might call such behavior pragmatic, but it is unprincipled, and my guess is that what the anti-Orbán electorate would like to see is a sure-footed opposition instead of a party that offers half-measures. This kind of brave, uncompromising attitude might be the key to a party’s success between now and the next election.

And that leads me to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s twelfth speech on “the state of the nation” on January 23. Practically all commentators touched upon the harshness of his criticisms. He described today’s Hungary as a country divided between “the few who live in great style and who are becoming rich as a result of corruption and those toiling multitudes without hope.” In his opinion “a criminal gang that is headed by the prime minister, masquerading as politicians, runs the country.” One cannot possibly more harshly and aptly describe what is going on in Hungary today.

DK's party program will be called "Hungary of the Many"

DK’s party program will be called “Hungary of the Many”

Gyurcsány is ready to take unpopular stands. For example, the refugee issue. MSZP last summer criticized the government’s anti-refugee policies, but by end of September they changed tactics. The MSZP caucus abstained when the question of the army’s participation in building the fence that kept migrants out of the country came up for a vote. They called their new strategy “positive neutrality.” Gyurcsány criticized MSZP at the time, and even today he is unwilling to abandon his belief that Hungary would benefit from a well-regulated immigration policy that would allow a certain number of immigrants to settle in the country. Fidesz immediately announced that Gyurcsány is dangerous.

DK’s motto is “no compromise with the government under any circumstances.” The question is whether such an unbending attitude will be more successful than MSZP’s hesitant and vacillating approach. Only time will tell.

January 25, 2016

Viktor Orbán and the “Christian-National Idea”

“Christian and national.” These two concepts are frequently bandied about by Viktor Orbán. Every time I hear him talking about these concepts in such glowing terms I wonder whether he is aware of the meaning of the “keresztény-nemzeti eszme” or Christian-National Idea. I also wonder whether he ever contemplates the contradiction inherent in coupling these two terms. After all, Christianity is considered to be a universal, supranational concept while “national” is a notion applicable to the particular. This is especially true for the Catholic Church, which even carries the idea of universality in its name.

I also wonder whether non-Hungarians fully understand the true meaning of the term in the Hungarian historical context. Most likely not. The “Christian-National Idea” was the dominant ideology of the Horthy era, and therefore the use of the term should be avoided. Opinions on the nature of the Horthy regime may vary, but I think it is universally acknowledged that it was an authoritarian system that granted only limited political rights to its citizens. Surely, returning to the ideals and practices of such a regime in the name of democracy is more than bizarre and retrograde. It is incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union.

But the notion of the Christian-National Idea should be avoided for another reason: historically, in the Hungarian context, “Christian” meant not someone who professes belief in Jesus as Christ and follows a religion based on his teachings but someone who is “not Jewish.” Strengthening the Christian middle class, which was one of the Horthy regime’s aims, meant preventing the social and economic advancement of Hungarian Jews by blocking their way to higher education.  During the interwar years the churches enthusiastically assisted in the propaganda of the Christian-National Idea and, as the historian Miklós Szabó put it, “they allowed the name of Christianity to be used as a cover-up for anti-Semitism.”

I find it odd that a government that vehemently protests every time it is accused of being anti-Semitic would turn to the Christian-National Idea, one of whose most important elements was anti-Semitism. The other components were revisionism, anti-liberalism, anti-communism, and conservatism. Under the present circumstances revisionism is out of the question, but Orbán and his fellow politicians in Fidesz solved that problem by the “virtual unification of the nation” across borders. To demonstrate the idea of a nation one and indivisible, among the Fidesz European Parliamentary members there are four ethnic Hungarians from outside of Hungary: from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. The other two components of the Christian-National Idea–anti-liberalism and anti-communism–are at the core of the present Hungarian political system. Conservatism, however, has been replaced by a far-right ideology with many references to the peaceful revolution in 2010. Just as a commentator said the other day, it matters not whether the prime minister of Hungary is Viktor Orbán of Fidesz or Gábor Vona of Jobbik. Their ideologies are indistinguishable.

Viktor Orbán’s references to nation, nationalism, and Christianity are abundant, and here I would like to quote only a few that I find most jarring. About a year ago he claimed that “Christian culture is the unifying force of the nation.” It gives “the inner essence and meaning of the state.” And he added that “that’s why we declare that Hungary will either be Christian or not at all.” Or, here is another take on the theme: Hungarians are Europeans not because Hungary is geographically part of Europe but again “because we are Christians.” I won’t even try to make sense of all this, although such ideas even got into the preamble to the Fidesz constitution of 2011: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”

Vktor Orbán's view of the world

Vktor Orbán’s view of the world

By now, as we learned from Viktor Orbán’s speech at Kötcse, the Christian-National Idea is a political creed that he wants to apply to the whole of Europe. The refugee crisis offered Viktor Orbán an opportunity to lead a movement that will replace the liberal blah blah with the Christian-National Idea. I very much doubt that anything will come of Viktor Orbán’s ambitious dreams, but I must say that it would be an interesting twist of fate if the reactionary Horthy regime’s Christian-National Idea became the dominant ideology of the future European Union.

Just like Horthy during the interwar period, Orbán found enthusiastic supporters for his Christian-National Idea among the church leaders. The most important clerical spokesman for the state ideology of the Horthy regime was Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), an early representative of Christian socialism. Because of Prohászka’s vicious anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church didn’t promote his ideas after 1945, some of which were actually quite progressive socially. Since 1990, however, the Catholic Church has embarked on a rehabilitation of Prohászka. By now numerous schools are named after him, and his statues and busts are all over the country. He was the one, by the way, who coined the word “Hungarism” that later was used by Ferenc Szálasi to describe his Hungarian style of national socialism. His writings are full of references to the necessity of a Christian-national Hungary that must battle against Jewish influences that would, left unchecked, lead to the destruction of the nation. Prohászka was one of the forces behind the introduction of the numerus clausus of 1920 that fixed the Jewish presence in higher education at 5%.

In brief, the Christian-National Idea is a loaded concept full of the worst instincts of the Hungarian far right, going back at least a century. There are a number of commentators who claim that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts have no definable ideology. They have only one aim: to remain in power. They adjust their propaganda accordingly. They are simple populists. The recurring theme of the “Christian and National Idea,” however, indicates to me that they wittingly or unwittingly sympathize with the ideology of the Hungarian far right of the interwar period, an ideology that bore striking resemblances to fascism and national socialism.

The two faces of Hungary

Today I would like to share two pieces of writing. One is an article written by Professor András B. Göllner, whom you already know from his astute comments on Hungarian Spectrum. The article originally appeared in Canada’s National Post, a nationally distributed newspaper based in Toronto. The other is a letter addressed to Chancellor Angela Merkel and signed by 43 well-known Hungarians deeply concerned about their government’s behavior. The letter was first published in Népszabadság. These concerned people might be in the minority, but they are the conscience of the nation during these difficult times.

* * *

András B. Göllner: Hungary facing a slow slide into despotism

Last week, Hungary’s nationalist strongman, Viktor Orbán, read the riot act to his diplomats. At a meeting in Budapest, he ordered them to go on the offensive in the Western media and come to the defence of his government’s approach to stemming “the Muslim tide” that is sweeping across Europe from the South.

In his speech, Orbán declared that he will not allow Hungary to become the victim of multiculturalism and promised to do whatever is necessary to ensure that Hungary remains a country populated only by white-skinned Christians. He told his listeners that Western media outlets, including those in Canada, are government mouthpieces that purposefully distort the truth about his country’s handling of the migrant crisis. He ordered his ambassadors to set the record straight. A few days later, his ambassador to Canada, Bálint Ódor, took up the challenge by writing an open letter to the news editors of the CBC and to Canada’s major newspapers, including the National Post. (The full text of the letter is available on the website of the Hungarian Embassy in Ottawa).

rendorseg roszke

In his letter, the Ambassador says that he wants to help our national editors to become better informed. He unfortunately starts off by telling them a monumental lie. He claims that 150,000 of the 160,000 aliens entering Hungary had asked for political asylum in his country. The fact is that hardly any of them did so. Most wanted nothing but to get out of Hungary as fast as their feet could carry them.

Everyone knows that Europe and the world are facing a refugee crisis of epic proportions, sparked by a meltdown in global conflict resolution. No one expected that Hungary, a small and poverty stricken country directly in the path of the tide, should have to solve the problem on its own. But everyone expected that in the process of struggling with the crisis, Hungary would uphold the values that are the sacred trust of the UN and of such bodies as the European Union. The latter expectations are now totally shattered.

The last time Hungary embarked on a racially motivated immigration policy, it was an ally of Nazi Germany.

Through a series of hastily passed laws that will go into effect on Sept. 15, Hungarians and any foreign nationals on the territory of Hungary will face the following conditions. Anyone entering Hungary illegally, regardless of his/her circumstances, will be classified as a felon and face a three-year prison term. Any Hungarian citizen who assists an alien will also be charged. Hungary has erected a 175 km long, four-meter-high razor-tipped fence along its southern border with Serbia. Anyone who climbs over this fence and survives will be faced by members of the Hungarian armed forces, who have been given orders to kill if necessary to arrest trespassers. Hungary’s security forces have been given the power to enter anyone’s home in search of aliens — no warrants are necessary. Those who may offer safe haven to a refugee could have their homes confiscated, and may face imprisonment. The security forces have been given unlimited powers to tap telephone lines, to inspect Internet correspondence, to censure the media that glorifies the felons. A new law is also on the table that will force all Hungarians to possess a face-recognition ID. Their personal data will be entered into a national data bank that can be freely utilized by the country’s security forces without any judicial oversight.

What Prime Minister Orbán is doing today is not unprecedented, but the circumstances under which he is doing them are novel. The last time Hungary embarked on a racially motivated immigration policy, it was an ally of Nazi Germany. Today it is a member of a community — the European Union — that doesn’t allow such discrimination. But this new turn in Hungary is part of a much more serious Volta Face. According to respected constitutional expert Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University, “The Hungarian government’s disregard for the rights of refugees in EU law presages its disregard for the rights of its own citizens in the coming surveillance state.  Over the last five years, the Hungarian government has eliminated all checks on its power and now it is using the refugee crisis to usher in a police state.”

Last year, in a highly publicized speech, Hungary’s Prime Minister declared that he will remodel Hungary’s political system according to the Russian and Chinese templates. It seems that he is staying the course and is doing his utmost to court the support of Harper’s Conservatives for his enterprise. A few weeks ago, the Orbán government gave over $100,000 to “The Victims of Communism” memorial in Ottawa, a pet project of the Harper government. The letter from Hungary’s ambassador to our national media is part of this manipulative exercise, and so far, the strategy seems to be working.

 

* * *

The letter of 43 Hungarian intellectuals to Chancellor Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor Merkel,

We, citizens of the European Union who are signing this letter, are concerned. We are concerned for the thousands of refugees from civil wars around Europe who, as hostages of a failed refugee policy of the European Union and as pawns of a national government that is increasingly escaping any political control, are bound to face, in inhuman circumstances , a most insecure future in Hungary. For the Hungarians with a European sensibility who, for twenty-five years have taken pride in being the first to cause a fissure in the Berlin Wall, this situation is shameful and humiliating.

For several months the Hungarian Government, through billboards and telecasts, is continuously stirring up fear of and hostility against the refugees, thus smashing the stone tablets of European fundamental values. The activity of these politicians aims at criminalizing from the outset, through razor wire fences and administrative strictures, those who seek asylum with us, at creating a pretext for their deportation, and at endearing themselves with far right voters. The Government made a further dangerous step toward this political dead end last Friday when, with the help of the far right MP’s, it obtained authorization to introduce, beginning on the 15th of September, a kind of state of emergency under the pretext of the refugee crisis. This measure would permit the deployment of the army against the refugees. This constitutes a clear mockery of the democratic political system and a vain sabre-rattling. Certainly, these politicians who are openly reneging on solidarity and humanity are Hungarian, but they are also your party allies in the European Parliament. For several months they have been acting in Hungary as if the European People’s Party had announced the Caliphate of xenophobia and the Shariah of intolerance and national self-centeredness.

Resisting the hate campaign of the Hungarian Government, the citizens of Budapest have given proof of their European dignity; through spontaneous civil initiatives they are sharing their modest income and free time with the refugees who, for several weeks by now, have been camping in the train stations. Volunteers are sharing information, looking for interpreters, playing with traumatized children, caring for the sick – often wounded by the Hungarian razor wire fence, while Government politicians are playing their disastrous games on the European floor. Our daily experience teaches us that in these political circumstances we cannot expect from the Hungarian State either a fair assessment of applications for refugee status or a successful policy of integration of the refugees. When, on Wednesday, Mr. de Maizière emphasized the need for the elaboration of common European standards of refugee policy, he spoke from the very heart of all European citizens, including us. All of us are for a proportionate sharing of the burdens. The Hungarian Europeans have sufficiently proven their willingness through donations and their voluntary work in the transit zones. However, until there is a political agreement on the aforementioned standards and they are engraved through practical work of enlightenment in the marble tablets of the hearts and also until their practical implementation is overseen, we cannot entrust the refugees in Hungary to the inhuman machinery of a procrastinating bureaucracy that, from the outset, is aiming at their deportation. Were we doing so, they would remain the hostages of political intrigues.

We, the signatories of this letter, ask you to work on the unique European solution that this historical moment offers. Please help us keep our faith in a common European house and help the refugees of the civil wars to travel to Germany. Do not expose these miserable people to the Hungarian razor wire fence politics.

Sincerely yours,

Ágnes Aczél, sociologist
Judit B. Gáspár, psychologist
Tamás Bulkai, engineer
Margit Bulkai, engineer
Dr. Gábor Demszky sociologist, former Mayor of Budapest
Orsolya Dobrovits, art historian
Sára Gábor, university student
Balázs Galkó, actor
László Garaczi, writer
József Gehér, advisor
Balázs Györe, writer
Eszter Kállay, university student
György C. Kálmán, university professor
Mihály Kiss, educator
Mihály Kornis, writer
Dr. Ilona Kovács, university professor
József Kőrössi Papp, poet
Júlia Lángh writer, journalist
Júlia Lázár, high-school teacher, poet, translator
Júlia Lévai, publicist
László Miklósi, history teacher
Mihály Nagy, university student
András Nyerges, writer
Anna Perczel, architect, president of ÓVÁS! Association
István Perczel, university professor
Péter Perényi, CEO
Viktória Radics, writer, literary critic
Zoltán Radnóti, rabbi
András Schuller, doctoral student
Anna Soproni, physician
Ferenc Szijj, poet
István Sziklai, history teacher
Ádám Tábor, writer
Gáspár Miklós Tamás, philosopher, former director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Science
József Tillmann, university professor
Ildikó Tóth, translator, interpreter
Erika Törzsök, sociologist
Annamária Uzelmann, CEO
Károly Vajda, associate professor
Péter Várdy, retired associate professor (Twente)
Anna Wessely, art historian
Gábor Zalai, real estate developer

Hungarian nationalism, Trianon, and the Day of National Cohesion

Lest we forget, we ought to talk about the 95th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between the victorious Entente powers and by then independent Hungary, which seems to be one of the pet projects of the Orbán government. On June 4, 1920, the territories that Hungary lost after World War I had long been in the possession of the successor states. In fact, certain areas that were to remain on the Hungarian side of the border were still under foreign occupation on that day.

Hungarians at the time and for some time afterwards simply didn’t understand what had happened to them and why. They never really grasped the fact that without the Habsburg Monarchy there could be no such thing as an independent Hungary with its historical borders intact. They had to choose, and in a way they did. The Habsburg Monarchy, with its multinational and multicultural population held together by a supranational monarch, could have developed into a kind of European Union on a smaller scale, but nationalism, especially Hungarian nationalism, worked against such an outcome.

Ever since the sixteenth century Hungarians had an ambivalent attitude towards the Habsburgs. In fact, almost four hundred years were spent in greater or smaller wars and uprisings against Vienna. There were times when Hungarian politicians, in their anti-Habsburg hatred, were even ready to side with the Turks to prevent the “liberation” of the country by the western forces. In this instance, using today’s political parlance, we would say that Hungary, instead of choosing the west, opted for the east. But can you imagine what would have happened to Hungary if the Turks with their corrupt administration had stayed in Hungary until the early nineteenth century? Compare the economic and social development of Hungary and Serbia at the outbreak of World War I and you will see the difference.

At the moment something similar is going on with Viktor Orbán’s war of independence against Brussels. In fact, a few years back he compared Vienna and Brussels when he mentioned an eighteenth-century Habsburg administrative office that was the symbol of Austrian oppression of Hungary at the time. Just as some Hungarian nationalists resisted any influence coming from Vienna and beyond, Viktor Orbán is doing the same by looking upon the liberal European Union as a kind of modern-day Habsburg Empire whose goal is to destroy the Hungarians and deprive them of their independence.

As soon as an arrangement was worked out between the moderate Hungarian political elite and the crown and Hungary received wide-ranging autonomy, an opposition party with varying names over time came into being that was against the 1867 arrangement and wanted total independence. These Hungarian nationalists did their best to create a “nation state” within the historical borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. The “nation state” did arrive after 1918, but not exactly in the way the country’s political leaders imagined it. The Habsburg Monarchy disappeared, and in its place small “nation states” with large ethnic minorities were created. Hungary, because of the very generous borders favoring the successor states, remained almost exclusively Hungarian. These countries remained weak and without the support of the great powers, and they fell prey to eventual Soviet and German aggression.

As Péter Techet, a young, talented right-of-center newspaperman and legal scholar, pointed out, the Hungarian political elite before 1918 when it stood against Vienna also opposed the liberal politics of the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy. Once they were alone in their own country, they exhibited the ultra-conservative and on occasion far-right politics that stood in stark contrast to the multicultural and supranational policies of Vienna.

According to Techet, those people who today put Greater Hungary stickers on their cars are actually, although I assume unwittingly, for “the Habsburg Empire, its diversification, its European nature,” what Hungary was in those days. On the other hand, “those who defend Hungary’s sovereignty, who are against European unity, who incite against immigrants and against minorities within the borders, these people should be happy with their present homogeneous Hungarian nation state. So, they can celebrate the Trianon decision. Hungary became a small, insignificant, poor country of no account, but at least it is theirs,” claims Techet. It is a rather singular view, but not without merit. It is certainly thought provoking.

Surely, it would require a complete re-evaluation of Hungarian history for ordinary Hungarians to realize that total independence and territorial integrity were mutually incompatible and that it was thus in Hungary’s interest to cooperate with Vienna and with the other nationalities that made up the Monarchy. Instead, Hungarians, especially after 1945, removed practically all statues and street names that in any way reminded people of the four-hundred-year coexistence with Austria. As for textbooks, the benefits of the Dual Monarchy are scarcely mentioned.

The Hungarian nationalism that had been tempered somewhat since World War II is now being rekindled by Viktor Orbán, who knows full well what a potent force nationalism can be. C. A. Macartney, the conservative British historian of Hungary, said somewhere in one of his many writings on the Horthy regime that the Hungarian governments of the interwar period had to conduct an irredentist foreign policy because otherwise no Hungarian government could have survived given public sentiment. I disagree. The governments of the interwar period seized every opportunity to rouse public ire against Trianon. This attitude contributed to the Hungarian government’s eventual cooperation with Germany.

And this is not the worst of the many Trianon memorials. Can you imagine the rest?

And this is not the worst of the many Trianon memorials. Can you imagine the rest?

Something like that is going on today. Declaring June 4 a day of remembrance of the signing of the treaty has revived the kind of public outcry (however limited in scope) that was present only in the interwar period. By now there is a National Trianon Society in addition to several local chapters. An incredible number of horrendous Trianon memorials have been erected. One older one, The Statue of Hungarian Suffering by Emile Guillaume, a 1932 gift of Viscount Rothermere who was a zealous supporter of Hungarian revisionism, was restored during the first Orbán government and stands in Debrecen. It was here that the National Trianon Society held its memorial gathering on Thursday where the speaker, who happens to be a high school history teacher, claimed that textbooks don’t spend enough time on Trianon which was, after all, the greatest tragedy in the history of Hungary.

This Hungarian wallowing in the country’s past grievances obviously irritates some of the neighbors. Titus Corlățean, former Romanian foreign minister, suggested that perhaps June 4th should also be a Romanian holiday, when the Romanian flag would be displayed on public buildings. Public television and radio stations should broadcast informational material on the significance of the date. In the foreign minister’s opinion, “the rewriting of history and the repeated assertion of revisionist views in the European Union nowadays are unacceptable.” I agree, but the remedy is not to declare an anti-Trianon day of remembrance. One day, after Orbán is gone, a new government can decide what to do with it. Perhaps it can simply be forgotten. Just as the socialist-liberal governments forgot to renew the old Horthyist Corvin Chain revived by the Orbán government or refused to enforce the language law that regulated foreign words on store fronts and shop windows. As it is, public interest in the whole idea of the Day of National Cohesion converges on zero.

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.

The reception of Viktor Orbán’s speech in the West and in Romania

The world is in such a turmoil that although Viktor Orbán’s open admission of his goal to eliminate the “liberal” component of western-type democracy might be considered a watershed both domestically and in Hungary’s relation with the European Union, it is receiving scant attention. After all, the armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are serious current problems, while Viktor Orbán’s threat to Hungarian democracy and to the European Union would have  negative implications only in the future.

In English I managed to find only a couple of news items about Orbán’s speech. The Associated Press published a short summary which was then picked up by ABC. Zoltán Simon’s reporting from Budapest for Bloomberg was more detailed and to the point: “Orbán Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary.”  This article must have had a large readership judging from the number of comments.

Vox.com quotes an important passage from the speech: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Actually, I trust that this will be a sticking point soon enough. The author of the article also takes issue with Orbán’s contention that illiberal states are economic success stories; they are in fact doing a great deal worse than liberal states. Russia, Turkey, and China are all poorer than Croatia, Poland, or Hungary for that matter.

The German and Austrian papers that are usually full of news about Hungarian politics are silent. Perhaps everybody is on vacation. I found only one German article and even this one only through a Hungarian source. It appeared in the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. The title of the piece is “Enough!,” a reference to the question of how long the European Union will tolerate Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies that have already transformed Hungary into a non-democratic state. “One must urgently pose the question whether Hungary led by Viktor Orbán wants to remain part of the European Union or not.” And while he was at it, the journalist suggested that the European People’s Party should expel Hungary from its delegation.

On the other hand, interest in Orbán’s speech was great in Romania. After all, it was delivered there and its implications can already be felt. Romanian-Hungarian relations are at an all-time low.

Before I turn to the Romanian press I would like to talk about Viktor Orbán’s contradictory messages and how they affect the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Let’s start with Romania. The Hungarian minority in Romania is large: 1.2 million people or 6.4% of the population. Yet, according to the Romanian constitution, Romania is a “nation-state.” The Hungarian minority would like to have Romania be officially transformed into a multi-national state.

Orbán should know full well that the highly charged nationalism he is advocating is not in the interest of the Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Nationalism on one side of the border evokes nationalism on the other side. This is exactly what happened in Romania. Bogdan Diaconu, a nationalist politician and member of parliament, published an article in Adevarul, a leading Romanian newspaper, which was subsequently translated into Hungarian. The nationalistic hate speech of Diaconu there was countered with obscene, equally hateful comments by Hungarians.

nationalism

Surely, Orbán’s nationalism does not make the life of the Hungarian minority any easier in the neighboring countries. Just the opposite. Great suspicion follows every word Orbán utters in connection with his plans for the “nation.” And that is not all. Orbán’s attack on Hungarian NGOs that receive foreign money was also a double-edged sword. He argued that this money is being used to influence the Hungarian government, which cannot be tolerated. But the Hungarian government is financing Hungarian NGOs and parties in Romania and Slovakia. Thus, the Hungarian government is trying to influence the Slovak and Romanian governments on behalf of the Hungarian minority. What will happen if Romania or Slovakia follows Orbán’s example and refuses the receipt of any money from Budapest destined for the Hungarian NGOs? In fact, one of the Romanian articles that appeared in Romania Libera talked about the incongruity of Orbán’s stance on the issue. According to the journalist, if Orbán tries to silence the NGOs financed from abroad, “the bad example” might be imitated in other Eastern European countries where democracies are not yet sufficiently stable. We know which countries he has in mind.

In any case, although for the time being it is unlikely that either the Slovak or the Romanian government will try to imitate Viktor Orbán, Romanian commentators are worried that Hungarian bellicosity will have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. Romanian papers talk about an “illiberal” state’s possible revisionist tendencies which could upset the stability of the region given the presence of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.

All in all, Orbán with this speech declared war on several fronts. Against his own people, against the European Union, against Hungarian civil society, and last but not least by his overcharged nationalist rhetoric against the amity of nations in Eastern Europe.

——

I would like to call everyone’s attention to Hungarian Free Press, a new English-language news portal from Canada. Here are some introductory words from the editor-in-chief:

The Hungarian Free Press, an online newspaper published by Presszo Media Inc., a Canadian federally-registered company based in Ottawa, was launched this morning. The HFP aims to offer informed opinion on current events in Hungary and East/Central Europe, and to expose to a broader English-speaking audience the explicit move away from liberal parliamentary democracy, which now appears to be the overt policy direction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

While pro-government English-language publications, such as the newly launched Hungary Today site, as well as Mandiner’s English-language blog, The Hungarian Globe, aim to create the impression that Mr. Orbán’s government is really no different than any other right-centre or conservative administration and is simply “attacked” by the left for the same ideological reasons, this is not an accurate reflection of the situation. A good case-in-point is Hungary Today’s coverage of Mr. Orbán’s Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) speech, where the prime minister formally declared that the days of Hungarian liberal democracy were over and that his preferred authoritarian political model was similar to that found in countries like China, Russia and Singapore. Hungary Today, in its coverage, made it appear that Mr. Orbán, like most right-centre politicians, was merely challenging the welfare state and was attacked for this reason by the left-centre opposition, thus making the speech and the reactions that followed seem like “business as usual” in the world of parliamentary politics.

In 1961, American President John F. Kennedy was among the most articulate in expressing the media’s role in the long-term survival of multiparty democracy. Kennedy, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961 noted:

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

The HFP joins a very small handful of English publications in exposing the danger that Mr. Orbán and his avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic and openly authoritarian government represent in the heart of Europe.