“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.”
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.