Tag Archives: Orbán regime

Anne Applebaum’s encounter with Mária Schmidt

In an inversion of normal practice, the transcript of an interview that Mária Schmidt gave to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum appeared on Schmidt’s blog, Látószög (Viewing Angle). If Schmidt was the interviewee, how could it happen that that she was the one who translated the interview into Hungarian and published it? János Széky, a columnist for Élet és Irodalom, expressed his astonishment on Twitter: “I just don’t get it.” If Applebaum arranges an interview with “Orbánist ideologist Mária Schmidt, spewing govt propaganda, why is it published on Schmidt’s own blog first?” Good question. As far as Anne Applebaum is concerned, the interview, which she initiated, was part of a research project she was planning for next year. In Mária Schmidt’s version, the interview took place because she “wanted to understand the changes in [Applebaum’s] thinking; why the independence and freedom of the region is no longer important to her.”

Schmidt obviously considered the publication of this interview to be politically significant, so she made sure that the right-wing Hungarian media was informed of its impending release. Identical articles appeared in Origo and Pesti Srácok, two of the most extreme right-wing media outlets of the Orbán government, articles which I suspect she herself wrote. Both had the same title: “Mária Schmidt: We are in a war of cultures.” In it we learned that Schmidt and Applebaum used to be good friends, but because Applebaum wrote several articles recently that “attacked the Hungarian government and the region” they became somewhat estranged. She didn’t neglect to mention that Applebaum was the recipient of the Petőfi Prize established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society in 2010, when Schmidt was on the board of the foundation. The day after the Origo and Pesti Srácok articles, the official government-edited Híradó, which is distributed to all media outlets, announced the interview’s availability. Naturally, her newly-acquired newspaper, Figyelő, also called attention to it. She made sure that the rather lengthy interview would reach a lot of people.

Anne Applebaum began the interview with her reactions to one of Mária Schmidt’s articles, “The grave digger of the left,” which appeared in April on the same blog in which she published the interview. The grave digger is, of course, George Soros. Applebaum was not exaggerating when she said in the interview that the accusations Schmidt piled on Soros are “absurd”; they have nothing to do with reality. But that’s not the only trouble. As I said in the first installment of my two-part review of this infamous article, “Schmidt’s piece is the result of shockingly bad research” or, even worse, an offering of “alternative historical facts.” There is no need to dissect this deplorable piece of scholarship again, but perhaps a quick read of my summary might be in order.

I must say that I’m not as charitable as Anne Applebaum, who thought highly of Schmidt as a historian, at least until she saw this blog post on Soros. I wouldn’t even call her a historian. She is a propagandist. I have never read anything by her that I consider to be a serious piece of scholarship. She has been working hard for years to come up with an alternative Hungarian history and a newly minted present reality. It is time to give up the idea of finding common ground with the Hungarian far right or, as Anne Applebaum called them, the Hungarian “neo-Bolsheviks.” Almost two years ago, Applebaum gave an interview to a Hungarian journalist whose writings at that time were supportive of the Orbán government. He cornered her at the GLOBSEC Tatra Summit Conference, where she expressed her reluctance to engage in political discussions with supporters of the government who refuse to admit the real nature of the regime. I think her instincts at that time were right. There is no use trying to have a rational conversation with someone like Mária Schmidt.

Anne Applebaum has been under attack ever since her op-ed piece appeared in the November 7 issue of The Washington Post on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In this article she committed a mortal sin in the eyes of Viktor Orbán’s minions. She included their hero in a group of politicians—Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Jarosław Kaczyński—and called them neo-Bolsheviks who “have little to do with the right that has been part of Western politics since World War II, and … have no connection to existing conservative parties.” An accurate description of the current state of affairs.

The Hungarian reaction to this article was swift. Zoltán Kovács, the diligent spokesman for the prime minister’s office, announced that Anne Applebaum is suffering from “irrational Orbanophobia.” Instead of thinking of the one hundred million victims of communism, Applebaum used this date “as an opportunity to disparage democratic political parties and leaders—including Prime Minister Orbán—whom she dislikes, bizarrely comparing them to Bolsheviks.” What a disgrace to call him a neo-Bolshevik when in 1989 he “courageously stood up … to demand that the occupying Soviet troops leave the territory of Hungary.” With this article, Applebaum joins “an illustrious group, including the communist collaborator Paul Lendvai.”

The comments of Kovács were at least halfway civil, which one couldn’t say about the articles in government papers. According to János Csontos, one of the worst of the bunch at Magyar Idők, “if political baseness were part of the Olympic Games, The Washington Post would receive a gold medal” for allowing Applebaum to publish that article. Her epithet for Orbán and his populist colleagues is not the result of “stupid prejudice” and “intellectual torpidity.” Here “a new tortuous ideology is being prepared.” In another article, a right-wing commentator alleged that “Applebaum’s pills have rolled away,” a turn of phrase indicating that the person in question has lost his/her mind. 888.hu described her article as “massive screaming,” a term most often used to describe pigs just before they are slaughtered. Another article, also in 888.hu, described her as a woman prone to hysterics who “since her husband is no longer foreign minister [of Poland], has been like an offended beast of prey that circulates around the world.” The article referred to her as Mrs. Sikorski (Sikorskiné). It described her article in The Washington Post as a piece of “overarching triteness.”

As you can see, the loyal followers have been rushing to the aid of their leader. They are aghast. It is bad enough that some critics call Orbán a populist, a fascist, a Mafioso, but a Bolshevik? I suspect that Mária Schmidt felt compelled to join the choir and come up with a contribution of her own, which just happened to be an interview which wasn’t hers. This interview with Anne Applebaum was the perfect vehicle to show her loyalty to “the anti-communist hero,” as she calls him in the interview whom Applebaum dared to call a neo-Bolshevik.

November 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 30, 2017

The Orbán government and its American media supporters

While researching media reactions to Jean-Claude Juncker’s state of the union address, I came across Breitbart News‘s take on the speech, which was illustrated with a photo of Juncker in the company of George Soros. Breitbart, as well as other alt-right publications, are riding high on Soros-bashing. What does Soros have to do with Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe? Nothing. The article otherwise was sprinkled with Nigel Farage quotations. In general, Breitbart News is fascinated with both George Soros and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

I also visited Fox News, where I found an elevating article on the same subject titled “EU power grab: A hunk of Junck” by John Moody, executive editor and executive VP of Fox News. This opinion piece is also peppered with Nigel Farage comments, but Moody also devotes considerable space to Viktor Orbán, who called immigration “poison” and a “Trojan horse for terrorism.” Orbán is Moody’s man, someone who “will not bend” no matter how much he is being threatened by the European Union. “Sounds like a tough-talking populist candidate who bucked the political system in the United States last year. Whatever became of him?” he asks mournfully.

If some of the mainstream English-language newspapers spent as much time on Hungary as Breitbart News does, the world would be a great deal better informed about Hungarian reality. Alt-right publications are indiscriminate supporters of the Orbán regime. Here are a few headlines: “Hungary looks to ‘sweep away’ Soros-linked organizations,” “Hungary: Left-wing EU Soros puppets are attacking us for opposing mass immigration,” “Hungarian PM: We won’t let ‘Europe’s kingmaker’ Soros have the last laugh,” just to mention a few. Many of these articles were written by Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D., the Vatican analyst for CBS, who left the priesthood in 2012 after fathering a child. Two days ago he published an article in which he rejoiced over the fact that “Hungary takes NY Times to school on Europe’s migrant crisis.” He is referring to an article Zoltán Kovács wrote as an answer to a New York Times editorial titled “Hungary is making Europe’s migrant crisis worse,” which appeared on September 8.

Kovács’s answer, which appeared on his official website, was subsequently reprinted in several English-language government publications. Williams located it on abouthungary.hu, and he found Kovács’s answer to the “sanctimonious op-ed rife with errors and misconceptions regarding Europe’s migrant crisis and Hungary’s role in protecting Europe’s borders” to be brilliant.

I took a good look at The New York Times editorial and couldn’t find all the errors and misconceptions Williams was talking about. The editorial bemoans the fact that Hungary, which opened its borders in 1989 because it was guided “by generally accepted international principles of human rights and humanitarian considerations” now behaves very differently. The country now refuses to allow refugees even to enter the country, despite the verdict of the European Court of Justice that found Hungary and Slovakia’s refusal illegal. “It is particularly sad to see countries that so poignantly celebrated the lifting of the Iron Curtain now argue, as Hungary does, that being asked to take in a small number of Muslim immigrants is somehow a violation of European laws and values.”

Zoltán Kovács’s response was titled “The New York Times editors really still don’t get it.” Why did Kovács insert the word “still”? Because Kovács already wrote a letter to The New York Times: “Dear New York Times Editors: You just don’t get it, do you?,” which Breitbart News faithfully reported on at the time. His objections to the Times’s editorial are numerous. He questions the assertion that East European countries “have stubbornly blocked entry to refugees.” He objects to the description of Viktor Orbán as a “hard-liner,” and he bristles at calling Orbán’s demand for EU reimbursement of half of the cost of the fence Hungary built to keep the refuges out “arrogant.” The overarching problem with the editorial, Kovács asserts, is that the editors simply don’t understand the European migrant situation. As he puts it, “Admittedly, it’s not easy to grasp this ‘indisputably difficult problem’ from the comforts of Midtown Manhattan.” However, Kovács is ready to share “some basic facts”–for example, that “Hungary is securing an external border of the 510 million-strong European community,” which is “a meaningful demonstration of [Hungary’s] solidarity.” He objects to the editorial’s references to international law and European values that “appeal to the ‘limousine liberal’ readership of the Times” because there is no international law, no European treaty that gives Brussels the authority to decide on immigration. Kovács closes his response with these ringing words: “As the government responsible for the safety and security of Hungarian citizens—as well as the citizens of Europe—we will not apologize for continuing to assert our right to make our own decisions on immigration and to keep Europe’s borders strong.”

Although Kovács thoroughly dissected the text, he ignored the editorial’s reference to “Hungary’s callousness.” Perhaps he decided to ignore the affront since the treatment of refugees in Hungary is widely known to be glaringly inhumane. Unfortunately, it is not only officials who treat them abominably; ordinary citizens also often show them no mercy. Perhaps you recall Index‘s report on an Iranian-Afghan couple with their three children and a fourth on its way. I told their story in a post titled “Life in the Hungarian transit zones” about a month ago. In this particular instance the husband didn’t get any rations because he had gone through Hungary once on his way to rescue his family in Macedonia. The sequel to their story was just published, which is every bit as heart-wrenching.

The Iranian-Afghan couple at the EU-financed refugee camp

After months of imprisonment in the transit zone came a surprising development: the family received asylum. They could go to a refugee camp in Hungary and be safe but outside of the transit zone they continued to receive harsh treatment. One has the distinct feeling that this behavior is intended to encourage even those who receive asylum to move on. For example, throughout the long trip the officers didn’t allow the couple to have baby formula on hand. As a result, the ten-month-old baby cried bitterly for hours. The husband was forbidden to accompany his wife to the gynecologist, although she doesn’t speak any English. They asked for an interpreter; their request was denied. As for the behavior of ordinary Hungarians, the poor man had another bad experience. He and one of his children, who had cut his hand, were taken to the hospital in Győr (18 km away), but they had to take the bus back to the camp. He gave the driver 5 euros since he had no forints. The driver took the money but wouldn’t allow them on the bus. It took them three hours to walk back to the camp.

Two days after he told his story to the reporter, the family was already in Germany. He is certain that he will not be deported back to Hungary because “people abroad know how Hungarians treat the refugees. The European Court of Justice decided in our favor twice. I have the decisions on my phone. If I tell them what treatment we received here, they will not send us back.” And, indeed, Germany hasn’t sent any refugees back to Hungary since April 11. Defending the borders of Europe is one thing, cruelty is another.

September 15, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: The Dress Rehearsal–The fate of George Lukács and his archives

When the present campaign against the Central European University started I did have some pangs of deja vue, the feeling that this did happen to me, I have experienced this feeling before. And indeed, not long afterwards, as the weekend of April the 22 has arrived I realized that the basis for the recognition was none other than the bizarre goings on surrounding the Lukács Archives.

George Lukács has been a thorn in the side of the right and the ultra-right for a long time. He was the scion of a wealthy bourgeois family, the son of a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, who, nevertheless, signed up for Marxism, Communism and not only did he support those ”unspeakable” tenets, but was actively involved in fighting for them in the Hungarian Commune in 1919.

He was always engaged in cultural issues, but was not averse, at least not in his youth, to take action if necessary. This is how he became shortly after being the commissar for culture, a political commissar in the military. And in this capacity was he embroiled in an event of decimation of his military unit after an unfortunate defeat at Tiszafüred. The actual facts of this episode are unclear, some say he carried out the executions of seven soldiers, other say he prevented the executions and in any case, he was not the one ordering it. Nevertheless, the stigma of this event has remained with him forever.

The apartment house where George Lukács lived

After the commune he emigrated to Austria and eventually to Germany, where he met and impressed Thomas Mann, wrote and published and became involved with the Communist International, but to his detriment, because he was eventually declared a right wing heretic, ”revisionist.” His life from here on was alternating between Moscow and Berlin until finally he was forced to settle in Moscow during the darkest years of Stalinist terror. He kept on working, mostly in the field of literary criticism and aesthetics, probably to avoid notice and managed to stay out of the political infighting until he was finally deported to Tashkent by the NKVD in 1941.

At the war’s end he began his political carrier in Hungary. He was co-opted as the member of the Academy of Sciences, became the member of parliament, was appointed as a professor of the Budapest university and was also made to be the editor of a journal or two. It looked at last, after decades of misery, that he has hit his stride and was the mainstay of the communist establishment. But, of course it didn’t last. As a free spirit he soon became a stumbling stone to the party establishment, he was ”criticized” and applied the then customary ”self-criticism” to himself and soon became a political pariah again.

In 1956 he was appointed minister of culture again in the Imre Nagy government for twelve days. That lead to endless misery and also to internment in Romania. After the revolution he remained in internal exile and banishment, but managed to publish abroad, thanks to his international fame and the fact that he was writing all his works in German, that made him the darling of the western European intelligentsia.

In the nineteen sixties he informally established a kind of philosophy school, or ”circle,” including roughly twelve, or fourteen young students of philosophy, whom eventually became the cutting edge and were collectively called the ”Budapest School” of the discipline. (They were also called the ”Lukács kindergarten.”) Eventually, however, they were one by one discredited for not towing the party line and were forced either to share Lukács’s internal exile, or were forced to emigrate and become respected academics abroad. Also, they were the intellectual vanguard of the opposition that prepared later for the change of the system.

Sometime in 1965, Lukács was finally forgiven, the communist party has readmitted him as a member and for the remaining few years of his life was spent in unbridled public respect if not adulation. He died in 1971 and that was the event that started him out as the unintended hero of a new and even more surreal saga. As long as he only acted as the free spirit that he was, at all times and at all places, eventually he became the opposition of the prevailing order. He insisted on being a Marxist and a communist, but the communist establishment refused to tolerate his independence and intellectual superiority. Therefore, he always ended up censured, in being the minority of one, and the subject of permanent suspicion and exclusion. But that was fine with him, he was content taking the honest, uncompromising intellectual’s position for better and for worse. However, it is also true that in the short periods of power he used his position and doctrinaire nature to make the life of other, non-Marxist writers and philosophers miserable, often forcing them to abandon their calling and resort to a livelihood of physical labor.

It is worth keeping in mind that Lukács’s works were written in a dense German prose, heavily laden with Marxist-Leninist jargon and in any case, they are about the esoteric subjects of ethics, aesthetics, literary criticism and some kind of social science not to be mistaken with sociology. (He never managed to get ready with his all-encompassing, general work of philosophy. Although he has worked for years on the outline and the materiel. And actually, the manuscripts of this “super opus” are, besides of many others, the sought after documents the scholars come to his archives to study.) It is obvious, therefore, that the political right that ceaselessly attack him as long as they can remember, has no quarrels with his works, because they are devoid of the intellect to read and to value any of it. If there is anything that can be regarded as his ”fault,” it is his Marxism, his communism most often mentioned, but frequently with reference to his Hungarianized name that was still Löwinger in his father’s time and that it is a clear and unmistakable reference that in his case we have on our hands an “un-reconstituted, pushy, overachieving, and in any case, intolerable Jew.” This is what the ultra-right cannot forgive.

In 2011 prime minister Orbán’s hand-picked president of the Academy of Sciences has put into motion the fervent wish of all right-wing ignorami that the Lukács Archívum, located in his former apartment at the shore of the Danube, at a magnificent location, and has served the international community of social sciences and philosophy as a research institute, and a place of pilgrimage, should be shut down. Also, the George Lukács Foundation that was taking care of the collection of his books and manuscripts housed there, must be shut down because it is “bearing the dishonorable name of the Marxist-communist: George Lukács.” The Academy obsequiously agreed that the closing becomes effective January 1st 2012. This was the moment when the international outrage begun to gather and it is increasing ever since.

Although I was aware of Lukács over the years, I had no particular interest in becoming acquainted closer until the controversy erupted. Since, however, I was planning to visit his archive, as it is open to all interested researchers, only appointment is required. But, why should I deny it, I never got around to do this until this spring.

It is a recurring spring time ritual in the tourist trade in Budapest, to open certain houses, buildings to the public, usually those celebrating their one hundredth anniversary. This year, however, the buildings standing on the shore of the Danube were chosen, a fascinating array of Budapest trivia, regardless of age, and one of these, one of the most prominent ones, was the art-deco building in which Lukács spent his life from 1945 until his death in 1971. Admission only at Sunday from 5 p.m. At 4:30 there was a sizable line up. I was first. This apartment is indeed at a magnificent location, but is still in municipal possession, dusty and neglected, yet it is hard not to suspect that behind all the machinations to shut down the Archive is somebody’s grubby desire to get possession of the roughly 900 square feet flat. It was touching to see the actual unmistakable signs of obvious penury the great man has lived in. On his cheap, well-worn desk besides the elegant small bronze bust of Goethe, there lies a carton box of cheap cigars and there is the case for his iconic glasses made of papier-mâché. Of course, there are books everywhere. It is tacitly admitted after questioning that the once open book shelves that cover almost every wall, were furnished with glass doors and locks, because in the early years the admiring visitors didn’t hesitate to pinch a book or two as a souvenir of their visit. The visitors now are so numerous that I can only slowly make any progress from room to room, everybody is whispering in respectfully subdued tones, we are at the scene of history and of the battle waged for intellectual freedom. That is what happened here fifty, sixty years ago and just the same, that is happening now as I am ambling from room to room making some photographs. Of the three rooms the middle one where I luckily can speak to one of the archivists. Is it still to be closed down and if so, when will it happen? I ask him. Well, he answers in measured tone, it is no longer imminent, the new president of the Academy is less sanguine and more reasonable. Chances are that the archive will survive. They are optimistic and the visitors, scholars and gawkers alike, just keep on coming.

I was truly touched not only by the spirit of the location, but also by the reverence the other visitors have shown towards it. And then I just went home to find an ad in a weekly paper about an international conference dedicated to the life, work and importance of George Lukács, to start in four days’ time at ELTE university.

I attended this conference’ first and last days. I was amazed to learn that the obscure and impenetrable writing and theories of Lukács are a living and active legacy, practically all over the world. The participants of the conference came from a hundred countries, the presenters came from the US, Brazil, Portugal, Japan, Germany and a lot of other places, not to forget Greece. The language of presentations was mostly English, but there was a whole section’s worth of Portugal speakers too. In many respect I was vastly underqualified to understand the ideas discussed. However, reverence towards them and the intense immediacy and importance of those ideas was truly astounding.

Finally, Agnes Heller, supposedly Lukács’s favorite and certainly most famous disciple gave the closing key note address. It was, as are all her speeches, very simple and very reasonable, devoid of any scholarly frills or embellishments. And after she finished it she announced to go around the room, hearing everybody’s question personally and answering it one by one. At that moment she launched herself at the crowd, the tiny 86, or so years old, and commenced a lively conversation with the more than hundred attendees. I asked her quite early, because I was sitting close to the front, how Lukács had lived, how did he make a living. She told the story that the great man was completely without covetousness, he owned one suit of cloth, one pair of shoes and when the Academy of Sciences provided him with a car and chauffeur, one of the perks of membership at the time, he had no idea what to do with them. She also told of Lukács’ circumstances in Moscow, where he lived in condition so poor that nobody found it worth to denounce him for the sake of acquiring his apartment. This helped him to survive the hard years in Moscow.

Ágnes Heller at the Lukács Conference

The international outrage and protest seemingly managed to stave off the closing of the Lukács Archive for the time being. The attempt to get rid of it may just have been the dress rehearsal for the much greater task, the attack against the CEU. His statue, however, was not nearly as lucky. The ultra-rightists, when they saw that the Archive is probably too tenacious an issue, went full tilt against the statue, standing in a lovely park near the Danube in the last thirty-two years. The park is located in a heavily Jewish populated area, with indelible holocaust memories and here the Jewish Lukács had respect and appreciation. Not to mention that the quality of the statue was also worthy of the man and the locale. The City of Budapest council, however, was not ashamed to decide, at the behest of a young, neo-Nazi alderman, to remove the statue and remove it they did on the 28th of March this year, post haste.

And yet, as the respect and admiration for Lukács doesn’t cease to pour in, and although his statue is taken back, for some rest, to its sculptor for the time being, his Archive is on the verge of revival and a possible renovation was also mentioned. All these toing and froing around him was very similar to what is happening now around the Central European University. This is why I had the feeling of déjà vuThe statue was a small matter city hall could deal with it. But the CEU is bigger, much more important and too much depends on its existence: this is a matter for the government. The government has botched it up, awakened the protest of domestic and international community, the European Union, the United States and the scholarly community near and far. And if the story of the Lukács Archives is any indication, then we have reason to trust that the politicians’ stupidity and ineptitude will prove to be insufficient to slay such edifice of spirit and ideas such as the CEU is.

June 17, 2017

 

 

 

The political credo of László Botka, MSZP’s candidate for prime minister

The original article by László Botka, titled “Az igazságos Magyarországért,” appeared in 160 Óra on January 21, 2017. Thanks to the staff of The Budapest Sentinelit was translated into English and published today. I am grateful to the Sentinel‘s editors for permission to make the translation available to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian left has not been in such a storm battered state during the entire existence of the third republic, yet Hungary has never needed the left as much as it does now.

Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has thrust a country that served in the 1990s as a model for democracy in Eastern Central Europe into autocracy. Any democratic political force that defeats Orbán must return to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. However, the Orbán regime has not only dismantled the rule of law and democracy, but also spread a concept of society that is deeply unjust, runs counter to the basic interests of Hungarian people, and which all true left-wing forces must fight against.

The crisis of the left wing is not only a domestic issue. The rapid advance of national populism means progressive political forces around the world have found themselves on the defensive. Talk in recent years has been about nothing else: from the refugee crisis, via Brexit, to the US presidential election. Populists promised those parts of society that have been left behind, or are just holding on, that they can once again enjoy a secure livelihood – through the repression of other groups. Migrants, the homeless, the unemployed, the “undeserving” poor, ethnic minorities, intellectuals who express solidarity with them, and civic activists are all marked down as enemies of the nation. Hungary is at the forefront of all this: here the breakthrough for national populism came in 2010 with Orbán’s “ballot box revolution”.

Photo: Péter Komka

The left is now charged with a historic task: we must put a stop to this far-right national populism, and make our own vision of society attractive once again. Populists cannot solve the crisis that exists on many levels; they only make the problem worse. A populist is like a dentist who does not dare to tell a patient with toothache what the real cause of the problem is. Instead of treating it, he prescribes painkillers. The patient may well get temporary relief, but in reality his condition is getting ever worse. The left will not get anywhere with false remedies. We must be honest, because lying to a patient is dishonorable, the effects of a painkiller are only temporary, and the problem will only return in a more serious form. The Hungarian left must present a vision of a future Hungary that we would all like to live in, somewhere we can live well.

In this piece – which will be followed by more over the coming weeks – I have undertaken to present a vision of how our homeland could become a more just country. By aiming for this goal, the left could finally haul itself out of its deep crisis. We need a politics of equality that is far removed from that practiced by the left-wing in recent years and one that is diametrically opposed to Orbán’s vision of Hungary.

Orbán dreams of a “work-based” authoritarian state in which government representatives have the last word on every issue, even when they are wrong – one where the powers that be promise a well-functioning and developed economy can be built by ending democratic debate. Some observers of Orbán’s system say the prime minister’s aim is to set up an eastern European Singapore, where Orbán could lead the country for decades as father of the nation, and hurriedly join the developed world by cutting back on political debate. To put it more simply, Orbán is offering prosperity and security in exchange for freedom and democracy.

Hungary cannot accept this deal for two reasons. First of all, because this promise is a lie. Hungary will not be the next Singapore. There is not and never will be an Orbán miracle. Instead of building a developing, authoritarian Singapore, there has been a Putinization of the country, where the promise of prosperity only applies to those favored by Orbán. For the rest there is only poverty, hopelessness and abjection – and restricted freedom. We are talking about a system where, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, capable members of society are carrying Hungary “on their shoulders” while disadvantaged people such as the disabled and the Roma are merely a burden. That is, in its own dishonest way, the government is dividing society into those who “pull their weight” and the “carried”. Yet this “carrying on the shoulders” is another lie, because the government long ago abandoned the disadvantaged to their own problems and difficulties. Society under Fidesz is a cast system in which everyone has their own place and fate. Helping the lower casts is in no way an aim of the Orbán state. This cast system is held together by the power principle. Since 2010, Fidesz has built a new feudalism, and with this it keeps Hungary on the margins of the Western world.

Orbán believes in a labor market where workers are diligent producers and desire nothing but a secure place on the production line. This is the opposite of where the developed world is heading. The knowledge-based economies of the modern world can only take off with the work of creative people. The only route to creating a prosperous, dynamic economy is one where the education system sends students brimming with imagination and creativity out onto the path. It is significant that the education budget as a proportion of GDP has sunk to tragic depths under the Orbán regime. A new left-wing government must set out the goal of transforming Hungary into an innovative, knowledge-based economy by markedly increasing funding for, and radically raising, the level of education.

Equally significant is the fact that Orbán has come up with just one idea to tackle unemployment: workfare. But is not difficult to see that no start-up entrepreneurs are going to emerge from among those on public work schemes. Moreover, it is unfortunately clear that there is no path from the prison of workfare to a real job. Orbán’s work-based state is, for hundreds of thousands of people, nothing but a dead end.

Instead of the Orbán state, where social groups are set against one another and divided into winners and losers, we need a state that actively intervenes to help people achieve their goals and, where necessary, ensure a high level of leverage for this recovery. Hungary can only be successful if an ”only the fittest survive” mentality is replaced with one of “we are all in the same boat”.

It is not only because authoritarianism does not lead to prosperity that we must say no to Orbán’s system. Authoritarianism is unacceptable in and of itself. Orbán’s cast system is unjust to its core and its authoritarianism unacceptable. As one of the 20th century’s most influential egalitarian thinkers, John Rawls, put it: justice is more important than any other parameter for evaluating societies. Equally important is Rawls’ view that freedom, equality and prosperity are indispensable building blocks for a just society, so one cannot sacrifice basic human rights in the interests of material prosperity. Therefore, we cannot choose the route of authoritarianism, because there is a better and more moral path: that of freedom and prosperity. Prosperity for the large majority of society – as the example of Scandinavian society shows – can and should be ensured when freedom and prosperity reinforce one another.

From 2018, the next left-wing government must build a successful and prosperous Hungary on a foundation of justice. To further this aim, I offer a vision of a successful left-wing state based on the ideal of equality for all as an alternative to Orbán’s authoritarian state. The three pillars of egalitarian politics are equality of opportunity, relative equality of wealth, and the principle of equal citizenship.

The ideal of equality of opportunity, a cornerstone of all western democracies since the Second World War is nothing other than the rejection of a cast system. The strong conviction is that social advancement cannot depend on others, only our own talents and endeavors, irrespective of whether we come from a rich or a poor family.

The idea of equality of opportunity cannot be reconciled with Fidesz’s politics. Under Orbán’s regime, the wealthy elite spend millions so their children can study in private schools or in Switzerland. For the poorer parts of society, an uncompetitive or downright segregated school is the first, and often the last, station.

With regard to this basic principle, the left should not shy away from self-criticism. The “third way” social democracy of the 1990s and 2000s – for which former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was the standard bearer in Hungary – moved too far from the idea of equal opportunity. The third-way “New Labor” party that will forever be associated with the names of British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and its successors, gave up on material equality and placed equality of opportunity as the exclusive guiding principle. The third way soon turned hollow: it became clear that it had been naive to think that equality of opportunity alone was enough. Even if it had succeeded in ensuring social mobility in education and the world of work, material inequality and social division would not have disappeared. The left believed, and its followers believed, that modernization would create no losers, only winners. The principle of equality of opportunity promised that everyone could find a place in knowledge industry based on high skill levels, but this remained an illusion. The fate of those left out of the modern knowledge economy became ever more hopeless. Nationalist, chauvinist and populist forces picked up on this, and disappointment gave them a way to reach the people.

Photo: Zoltán Balogh

Nor can a society of equals develop when half of the country is mobile, well trained and wealthy and the other is tied to the land, unskilled and owns nothing. We cannot describe such a country as just. Inequality of wealth today is tomorrow’s inequality of opportunity. This situation in Hungary in this regard is serious. A report by Tárki in 2016 showed that 44% of the population owns no property, and 60% are incapable of adopting a middle class way of life. The most absurd thing about all this is that it we find ourselves at this point under the leadership of a government that continually invokes the name of the middle classes.

Despite Fidesz’s chief economic ideologue saying that criticism of wealth disparities arises purely from jealousy, certain social risks can really only be averted by combating economic inequalities. Research has shown that a raft of new problems arise when wealth inequality gets out of control. In societies with high social inequality, life expectancy is shorter, education is of lower quality, social mobility is restricted, and there is a higher rate of mental illness, drug addiction and crime. Hungarians’ terrible state of health and its catastrophic results in the PISA survey are grimly related to the enrichment of Lőrinc Mészáros.

So the promise of equality of opportunity is not enough to improve the lot of the half of Hungarians that have been left behind. We must also strive for relative wealth equality – this is the second fundamental principle of egalitarian left-wing politics. Instead of sports stadiums and the enrichment of the “national” oligarchy, resources must be spent on citizens. Partly in the form of quality education, partly through social security packages that reduce the lack of food and adequate housing, and risks arising from illness of the loss of a job.

Besides all this there is a third pillar to equality that is less often mentioned: the principle of equal citizenship. In a society based on equal citizenship, the prime minister has to wait in line at the baker’s, the post office or the doctor’s surgery just like anyone else. This notion of equality must become the most important guiding principle for the Hungarian left.

The principal of equal citizenship is breached by the emergence of a new cast of powerful and gracious ladies and gentlemen who do not share public spaces with the common people, do not breathe the same air. It is enough to think of the minister in charge of propaganda, who flies to parties by helicopter, or the chief government minister who shoots hundreds of pheasants while hunting with his partners, and who believes that everybody deserves their lot in life. Meanwhile, the system they put in place locks entire masses into poverty and the world of workfare. This is how Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have corrupted Hungary: in place of a nation of fellow citizens, we have become a nation of lords and lackeys. Politicians of the governing party no longer represent the interests of the people, citizens or the nation in the Parliament, merely the private goals of their separate “elite” cast. It cannot go on like this!

I see the most important task of the left as precisely that of recreating the conditions for equal citizenship. We must become worthy of representing the principles and practicing egalitarianism. We must put an end to the era of unprincipled compromise, climb-downs and putting up with things – our political actions must have a moral basis. Egalitarian politics is just, and suitable for lifting Hungary to the level of the developed Western world.

It follows from this that the next left-wing government must also conduct a principled foreign policy. Viktor Orbán swapped a western orientation based on solid moral principles for opportunistic friendships with dictators. We cannot give up the ideal of an open and free Europe in favor of a new Iron Curtain era. A European partnership built on shared ideals is the right policy, and one that serves Hungary’s interests. However much Viktor Orbán might deny it, we belong to the free world.

In my political career to date, I have used the means at my disposal to work for a free and just Hungary and the politics of equality. If I am given the opportunity by the citizens, this is what I would also like to do as prime minister of Hungary.

January 28, 2017

Brazen falsification of the history of ’56 by the Orbán regime

Yesterday I wrote that because of the political eclecticism of the October Revolution it is easy for people to use those days for their own political ends by latching onto one ideological strain or another. But interpretation, even if in this case necessarily reductionist, is one thing; blatant falsification of history is quite another. Unfortunately, it is the latter that’s going on in Hungary today.

Just to show the scope of the systematic rewriting, and distortion, of the history of the revolution, I will cite two recent examples. The first is an article from the notorious 888.hu, a news site that is supposed to capture the imagination of pro-Fidesz millennials and post-millennials. The other is an exhibit put together by the so-called historians of the House of Terror, whose director is Mária Schmidt, the grand master of historical falsification.

Last night I read an article that enraged me, titled “Gyurcsány falsifies the historical memory of ’56 with pathological cynicism.” His sin? He dared to say, while laying a wreath at one of the monuments to the revolution: “While the revolution of Imre Nagy aimed at advancing the homeland, the current prime minister’s references to his name, memory and legacy are a desecration of this immaculate revolution. It is naked blasphemy.” He added that “while the revolution of Imre Nagy was the revolution of freedom and democracy, the current Hungarian prime minister is the leader of the counterrevolution.”

I perfectly understand that a government-financed publication is unhappy about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s assessment of both the 1956 revolution and Viktor Orbán’s political role. But what followed in the article is the crudest distortion of historical facts. One may argue about the role of Imre Nagy in the early 1950s, but to claim that “neither the majority of historians nor the Hungarian people have ever considered” Nagy to have an important role in the revolutionary period or after is simply preposterous. I was astonished to read that “it was only an accident that Imre Nagy headed the provisional government and it was only his execution that made him more or less an honored historical character.” Further, the author of this incredible piece of prose claims that the only reason Nagy accepted martyrdom was his alleged knowledge that even if he resigned as prime minister, he would have been executed by his communist comrades.

This is, of course, a pack of lies. After 1954 the whole country pinned its hopes on Imre Nagy, and that huge crowd in front of the parliament building on October 23 stood there for hours, not moving an inch until the party chiefs inside the building produced him. Once he spoke, the crowd dispersed peacefully. To say that Nagy played only an accidental role in the revolution is such an incredible claim that it takes one’s breath away.

And now let’s move on to a much more serious act of falsification of ’56. It is more egregious than the 888.hu’s scribbler’s fantasies about ’56 because it was committed by so-called historians. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum have been exposed to enough articles by Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror, to know not to expect much from anyone who works for that institution. In fact, it itself is a crude falsification of history.

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

The story is as follows. Viktor Orbán put Mária Schmidt in charge of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the ’56 revolution. She received 13.5 billion forints for proper celebrations all over the world. The House of Terror also received money to erect a picture gallery of sorts in front of its building on Andrássy út for the edification of passers-by. The exhibit is attractive. The only problem is that the most important actors of the revolution are missing: all those whose political views don’t conform to the present regime’s requirements. When including a person “on the wrong side” is unavoidable, like in the picture gallery of those executed, the historians of the House of Terror made sure that everybody would understand that the martyrdom of the “communists” was not the same as that of the rest. Of the 226 people executed, only three are identified by political affiliation (in all three cases, “communist politicians”): Imre Nagy, Géza Losonczy, and Miklós Gimes. As for the rest of the story of the revolution, important political actors simply don’t appear, as if they never existed.

There is a small civic group which calls itself “Eleven Emlékmű” (Live Memorial). It grew out of the circle of people who have been holding a vigil at the infamous memorial erected to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944. They were the ones who first became aware of the lopsided presentation of the events of the October revolution. Mária Vásárhelyi, daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, one of the prominent participants in the revolution, and Adrienn Molnár were responsible for providing the names of those who, as a result of the present Hungarian regime’s “purification” efforts, either became non-persons or were singled out as communist politicians. The list consists of 60 names. Here I will list only the best-known.

♦ ♦ ♦

István Bibó (1911-1979), Hungary’s most notable politician in the 20th century, minister without portfolio in the last Nagy government. He received life imprisonment.

Tibor Déry (1894-1977), writer. He received nine years in 1957 for his role during the revolution and for his opposition to the Kádár regime.

Ferenc Donáth (1913-1986), politician who was jailed between 1951 and 1954. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He received a jail sentence of 12 years.

István Eörsi (1931-2005), writer, poet, translator. Worked as a journalist during the revolution. He originally received eight years.

Miklós Gimes (1917-1958), journalist. During the revolution he was the editor of a new newspaper called Magyar Szabadság. After November 4 he published a samizdat paper called Október Huszonharmadika. He was executed along with Imre Nagy.

Árpád Göncz (1921-2015), politician, agriculturist, writer, translator, president of Hungary (1990-2000). He originally received a life sentence.

Sándor Haraszti (1897-1982), journalist, politician. In 1951 he was sentenced to death but in 1954 that was changed to a life sentence and later he was set free. On October 31 he was named editor-in-chief of Népszabadság. In November he was deported to Romania. In 1958 he was sentenced to six years.

György Heltai (1914-1994), lawyer, politician. As deputy foreign minister he worked to prepare Hungary for its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He emigrated, and between 1959 and 1963 was head of the Imre Nagy Institute in Brussels.

Anna Kéthly (1889-1976), social democratic politician who had an important role to play in the reorganization of the Social Democratic Party during the revolution. She was a member of Imre Nagy’s last ministry. She traveled to the Vienna conference of the II International in November and failed to return home. Abroad she became president of the Hungarian Revolutionary Council.

Sándor Kopácsi (1922-2001), police chief of Budapest who sided with the revolution. He was second-in-charge of the National Guard, which was headed by Béla Király, who by the way later became an adviser to Viktor Orbán. Király, of course, made it to the House of Terror display. Kopácsi was sentenced to life, a sentence that was commuted in 1963. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada.

Béla Kovács (1908-1959), Smallholder politician arrested by the Russians in 1947 and exiled to the Soviet Union. He was released only in April 1956. He was active in the revival of the Smallholders’ Party during the revolution and between October 27 and November 2 was minister of agriculture in the second and the third Nagy governments.

György Litván (1929-2006), historian who belonged to the opposition that centered around Imre Nagy after 1955. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Professionals. He received six years.

Géza Losonczy (1917-1958), journalist, politician, organizer of the Petőfi Kör, member of the closest circle around Imre Nagy. He was named minister without portfolio on October 30 when Imre Nagy announced the end of the one-party system. He began a hunger strike in jail, where he died under unclear circumstances.

Pál Maléter (1917-1958), army officer, minister of defense in the last Nagy government. He was abducted during his negotiations with the Soviet leadership. He was condemned to death and was executed.

István Marián (1924-2004), army officer, head of the military department of the Budapest Engineering University who became one of the leaders of the Association of Hungarian University and College Students. He originally received a life sentence, which was commuted in 1963.

Imre Mécs (1933-), electrical engineer, active in the organization of the National Guard. In 1959 he was condemned to death, a sentence that was changed to life. He was released in 1963.

Imre Nagy (1896-1958), prime minister and foreign minister. On November 4 he and his close associates escaped to the Yugoslav Embassy, which they left on November 22 with a letter of protection from János Kádár. They were immediately arrested by the Soviets who deported them to Romania. Nagy was brought back to Hungary in April 1957 and was condemned to death on June 15. The next day he was executed.

József Szilágyi (1917-1958), politician. He joined the Imre Nagy faction in 1953. One of the organizers of the demonstration on October 23. First he worked together with Kopácsi at police headquarters and later he was the head of Imre Nagy’s secretariat. He was among those who found temporary shelter in the Yugoslav Embassy. He was also condemned to death and executed.

Zoltán Tildy (1889-1961), Hungarian Reformed minister, head of the Smallholders Party. From October 25 he served as deputy prime minister in the Nagy government. He received six years but was granted clemency in 1959.

Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), journalist. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He took part in the organization of the Petőfi Kör. On November 1 he became the press secretary of the Nagy government. He received five years. In 1990 he became a member of parliament in the first free elections.

♦ ♦ ♦

After going through these names, one wonders what remained of the October Revolution as chronicled by the historians of the House of Terror. I fear not much.

October 24, 2016

Iván Fischer and the City of Budapest: Music and politics

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, need no introduction. BFO is one of the top orchestras in the world. It proudly carries the name of the Hungarian capital and is thus one of the cultural trademarks of the city. There are naturally other orchestras in Hungary, but none has such an international presence as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, due largely to the energetic and imaginative Iván Fischer.

A quick look at the orchestra’s program will give you an idea of BFO’s busy schedule. In the next few months they will perform in London, Bruges, Baden-Baden, Amsterdam, and San Sebastián. In October they will be going to China and South Korea. In between their international performances and concerts in Budapest they make time to give “cocoa concerts” for youngsters, free of charge, to introduce them to classical music. They keep in close touch with Hungarian elementary and high schools, and the orchestra regularly invites school children to attend rehearsals. They visit facilities for older citizens, and they go to very poor villages where they give concerts for people who most likely have never in their lives heard a live orchestra or classical music. Every year they give a large outdoor concert free of charge on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. In brief, Iván Fischer’s orchestra is a jewel of Hungarian musical culture.

Why am I writing about the Budapest Festival Orchestra today? Because Iván Fischer and his orchestra are being threatened by the bellicose mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós. What began, at least on the surface, as a financial dispute over the sum the City of Budapest contributes to the orchestra has by now, a week later, become a full-fledged political attack on Fischer. The reason? He made it clear on several occasions that he is not fond of Viktor Orbán’s regime.

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

Iván Fischer is well known in classical music circles (and beyond), but István Tarlós needs an introduction, although I’ve written about him a few times over the years. My first recollection of him goes back to 2006 when as mayor of Óbuda he got into a lengthy argument with an MDF member of the council, called him all sorts of names, and finally told him “Don’t play games because I will knock your glasses off and will even stomp on them.” Once he became mayor of Budapest he chose a politically extreme actor and an anti-Semitic politician-writer to transform the city’s New Theater into a stronghold of far-right and often anti-Semitic productions. This decision, which prompted several demonstrations, was reported in most major newspapers in Germany and the United States.

Tarlós is also a homophobe, who last summer wanted to expel the Pride Parade from Andrássy Street and move it to a wholesale marketplace in the outskirts of the city. During an interview he shared his “private opinion” that he finds homosexuality “unnatural” and gays “repulsive.” He has a real “soft” spot for the homeless. Led by Tarlós, the Fidesz majority of the city council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Offenders could be jailed or fined up to $650.

And finally, I think we may safely say that Tarlós is not free of anti-Semitic prejudices. In 2013 he gave an interview on HírTV where he complained that Erzsébet Gy. Nagy of the Demokratikus Koalíció “made a statement and began her declaration with ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.’ She quoted from the Book of Psalms. Now it is one thing that when they open the Bible on such occasions it always opens to the Old Testament, but I don’t want to say anything about this here.” And a little later: “I believe in the Lord, although it is true that I read the New Testament more often.” In brief, we are dealing here with a real charmer.

Going back to the current controversy. On April 27 István Tarlós announced that the City of Budapest will give only 60 million forints (€191,000) instead of 260 million forints (€827,000) to the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The announcement came without any prior warning in the middle of the season when the orchestra’s schedule was already set. The immediate explanation from the deputy mayor in charge of culture was that the orchestra gets a large yearly contribution from the central government and therefore is not in need of such major support from the city. Iván Fischer’s answer was a video on which he explained the effect this reduced contribution will have on the offerings of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. They will have to cancel 30 school visits, ten children’s opera performances, three concerts in the Palace of Arts in Budapest, and there will be no free midnight concert in December. In addition, three Bach church concerts and three others in abandoned provincial synagogues will have to be dispensed with. A foreign trip to Ravenna, Vilnius, Riga, and Saint Petersburg must be scrapped.

Tarlós didn’t wait long to answer. He accused Fischer of “losing his self-control” and announced that if “Fischer doesn’t stop his peremptory hysterics, threats, and perturbation we will have to re-think the grant.” He added that “we can use this money on any of the equally internationally famous Hungarian orchestras that don’t kick into our extended hand.” (And no, this is not a mistranslation.) I for one don’t know of another Hungarian orchestra that is as internationally famous. On another occasion Tarlós accused the orchestra of not fulfilling its obligation to the city because “just three or four people visit the pensioners, and there they do a little music making [zenélgetnek]. This is a nice mission, but it is not a performance.”

To make the real motivation behind his action even more transparent Tarlós added that if the orchestra doesn’t get any money from the city then “[Herr] Conductor [actually karnagy úr] will use it as a pretext to talk about political motivation, to disparage the city’s leadership, and to provoke the public.”

That political considerations are at the root of the action of the Fidesz-controlled city council was noticed by The Times, which yesterday compared Tarlós’s attack on Fischer to Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich in the 1930s. The same article suggests, not without reason, that “there may be a more sinister reason than austerity” behind Tarlós’s action. “The outspoken Fischer has enemies in Hungarian circles.” The New York Times also came to the same conclusion. “Mr. Fischer has emerged as an outspoken figure in Hungary as the country has drifted rightward in recent years.” Indeed, Fischer has made no secret of his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” and the country’s dangerous slide toward autocratic rule. In several interviews he expressed his worries about the direction in which the country’s leadership is taking the country.

I assume that what especially upset the Fidesz higher-ups was an e-mail that was found among Secretary State Hillary Clinton’s released documents. It referenced a letter that Iván Fischer had written to Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a close friend of the Clintons. The letter was written on June 28, 2011, just before Hillary Clinton’s visit to Budapest. In it Fischer told Jordan that Mrs. Clinton “should be aware that Mr. Orban’s government is demolishing democracy in Hungary and is introducing a harsh system with disregard of human rights and freedom of speech.”

The Hungarian government would, of course, be much happier with a world-class orchestra whose music director’s political views are closer to its own, but they are stuck with Iván Fischer. Back in 2000 Viktor Orbán did try to promote another national orchestra, but it failed to come close to the stature of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. So he had to accept and reward the success of Fischer’s orchestra, however grudgingly. Currently the BFO receives 4.52 million euros from two sources: the central government and the city of Budapest. This amount is considered to be large by Hungarian standards, but in comparison to other world-class orchestras it is quite small. Well-known European orchestras are generously funded by their cities: Berlin 16.7 million, Munich 19.7 million, Zurich 18 million, etc.

After the initial upheaval there was a lull, but in the last two days the Fidesz media launched an attack against Iván Fischer personally as well as the business model of the BFO. The journalist who led the way was András Stumpf of mandiner.hu, who displayed complete ignorance about how modern, western-type orchestras survive financially. It is certainly not from ticket sales.

In Hungary, with the exception of the BFO, all orchestras are totally dependent on government grants, and they live from hand to mouth. Even a more generous, culturally conscious Hungarian government couldn’t properly fund its symphony orchestras. And so, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, in an act of self-preservation, opted for a mixed financial structure, one closer to the American model though without the benefit of a robust tradition of philanthropy.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is structured as a foundation, with a board of directors and an endowment. The orchestra’s endowment, as is usual in western countries, is invested in stocks and bonds. This very idea baffled András Stumpf, who came to  the conclusion that if an orchestra has money stashed away, its music director shouldn’t complain about not receiving €827,000. Moreover, he added, in 2014 the orchestra actually made money. So, what do they want? I guess, for Stumpf and others in Hungary, BFO would deserve funding only if its coffers were completely empty. Fischer, on the other hand, knows full well that an endowment is not a checking account. Moreover, he thinks that the benefits that Hungary and Budapest derive from the very existence of the orchestra should be appreciated, and that this appreciation should be expressed, at least in part, in monetary terms.

It took about a couple of hours for the government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, to list all of the orchestra’s “riches,” as well as Iván Fischer’s own, that András Stumpf had collected. A day later Ottó Gajdics, one of the worst examples of the right-wing media characters hovering around Viktor Orbán, wrote a vicious editorial “Ne dirigálj, vezényelj, Iván!” which is a play on words, indicating that Iván Fischer shouldn’t order people around but should stick with conducting. This particular editorial is a perfect example of the confusion rampant in certain Hungarian circles. Gajdics would like to force Fischer to resign. As if anyone, outside of the board of directors, had any right to remove the music director from his post. I guess Gajdics still lives in the Kádár regime, when the party leadership could decide who could or who couldn’t be the conductor of the Hungarian State Orchestra. The whole editorial is such a base and ugly piece that it is not worth dwelling on. But there are a couple of words at the end of the piece that merit comment. According to Gajdics, Fischer should stick with music. “But it looks as if instead he wants to meddle in politics. Or, what is possibly even worse, he is being used by sly characters working in the background for their own left-liberal political objectives. These are people who rattle on about the mafia state while they laugh up their sleeves that the regime after all paid [the orchestra] a billion.”

Iván Fischer organized a musical demonstration this afternoon, which was attended by thousands. In his speech he talked about a Budapest where there is more music, more joy, more love, and less hatred. He called attention to those who belong to minorities. Many in the audience brought their own instruments and played together with orchestra members. It was a moving scene.

May 7, 2016