Tag Archives: Péter Techet

Viktor Orbán and Charles De Gaulle: The dwarf and the giant

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, a “political scientist” known for his unwavering loyalty to Viktor Orbán, published an analysis of the prime minister’s speech in Tasnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. Most commentators found Orbán’s performance there of little interest because this time he was very careful not to repeat the kind of mistake he made a year earlier when international reaction to his “illiberal” speech was extremely negative. Mráz, on the other hand, discovered great, not-so-hidden meanings in Orbán’s latest speech. According to Mráz, Orbán’s speech offers “a right-wing alternative” to the current ideas of the left concerning the future of Europe. Surely, after this speech no one can accuse the Hungarian prime minister of being anti-European Union. By calling for vigorous defense of “European culture” and “European nations,” he outlined the essence of a future European policy: “A strong Union” and the “defense of national sovereignty.” This policy, Mráz added, bears a strong resemblance to Charles De Gaulle’s vision of Europe. “De Gaulle is the model,” “Orbán is the new De Gaulle.”

To read all this into the speech is an exercise in fantasy because, although it is true that Orbán made a fleeting reference to Gaullism when he said that “looking at our continent from this perspective, we Hungarians are Europe’s Gaullists,” it is far-fetched to assume that Orbán was offering “a right-wing alternative” in any shape or form to current thinking on the future of the Union. Most of this, I’m afraid, is only in Mráz’s imagination.

Every time that Fidesz loyalists compare their idol to a politician who is considered to be a truly important historical figure, as Charles De Gaulle certainly was, critics have a field day. Even the more moderate right, Ákos Balogh of Mandiner for example, found the comparison “a strong and tasteless exaggeration.” A more detailed analysis by Péter Techet accused Mráz of misunderstanding Gaullism and suggested a better comparison: Napoleon III, who “relying on the majority destroyed the parliamentary republic in order to introduce a plebeian dictatorship.” Or a comparison to Mussolini, whose”vision” was limited to holding on to power at any cost, would have been more apt.

It wasn’t only Mráz who noticed the sentence in which Viktor Orbán uttered De Gaulle’s name. Attila Seres, a journalist who wrote an op/ed piece in Népszabadság a few days after the speech was delivered, was also struck by the phrase, but his reaction was very different from that of Mráz. Seres noted that in Orbán’s speeches the turn of phrase “we Hungarians” usually means “I, Viktor Orbán,” and therefore the comparison is really between himself and Charles De Gaulle. The first thought that popped into Seres’s head was a comparison between a mouse and an elephant. De Gaulle was certainly a French nationalist with a huge ego who at times made the other members of the European Union miserable, but he had great faith in a “Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains which will determine the future of the world.” Compare that, said Seres, to Viktor Orbán’s description of Europe. De Gaulle also kept equal distance from the United States and the Soviet Union. Compare that to Orbán’s foreign policy toward Russia.

mouse and elephant

Tibor Várkonyi, the grand old man of Hungarian journalism and a lover of everything French, was naturally outraged at the very idea of comparing Orbán, “a political manipulator,” to De Gaulle, the creator of the Fifth Republic. Viktor Orbán is only trying to appropriate sole responsibility for the Hungarian Third Republic. De Gaulle was the real creator of a new order. The title of his piece is “Őrmester úr” (Monsieur le caporal), who is being compared by Mráz to the general.

Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman of MSZP and nowadays a witty commentator on the political scene, in addition to the usual objections to a comparison between the two men, also called attention to the fact that “De Gaulle during his political career did not increase his wealth…. After his resignation he didn’t accept benefits he was entitled to as president and as general. He lived modestly and the family eventually was forced to sell his estate where no football stations or train tracks were built.”

The funny thing is that it looks as if most people seem to have forgotten that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán was compared to Charles De Gaulle in the media. It was in April 2013 that Yves-Michel Riols, a highly respected French journalist, wrote an article in Le Monde titled “La posture gaullienne de Viktor Orban.” According to Riols, “all the ingredients of Gaullism are present [in Orbán’s career], including resistance to occupiers, triumphant return to power, and ambition to break with the discredited old order.”

This admiring article was not left unanswered. A few days later an article appeared in Causeur titled “Viktor Orbán, un nouveau De Gaulle? Un nain face à un géant.” Not nice: a dwarf facing a giant in a moral sense, according to the author. In his opinion, De Gaulle must be turning over in his grave. The obviously left-leaning anonymous author lists a host of Orbán’s sins, from the rehabilitation of Admiral Horthy to the introduction of a flat tax that is hard on the poorer strata of society. Orbán, unlike De Gaulle, does not respect the rule of law. In brief, the comparison is outrageous.

Soon enough letters to the editor written by outraged readers appeared in Le Monde itself. There were letters in which Orbán was compared to Ceausescu. Others simply called him an autocrat. One letter described him as a right-wing Chavez in the middle of Europe. A Frenchman who wrote from Hungary, where he had been living for years, said that “as a Frenchman I’m ashamed of this article.”

Hungarian commentators were not really surprised about the appearance of Riols’ article. After all, Orbán called De Gaulle his model already in 2012 in Brussels after a session of the European Parliament that dealt with the Hungarian situation. So, I suspect that the original source of the comparison is Viktor Orbán himself. We have always known that he is a very humble man. After all, he himself told us so.

The Hungarian media and the Greek crisis

On January 27, a day after the victory of Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza party, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who happened to be in Ankara, expressed his hope that “within the shortest possible time there will be effective and pragmatic cooperation” between Hungary and Greece because “there are many important international challenges which must be handled together.” Magyar Nemzet, then still the faithful mouthpiece of the Orbán government, immediately responded with a pro-Syriza editorial: “It was enough. This was the message the Greeks sent to their corrupt government.” The fact that Syriza was a “Trotskyist, Maoist, socialist and communist” party didn’t bother Magyar Nemzet because, according to Gábor Stier, the paper’s pro-Russian foreign policy editor, Syriza was no longer as radical as it used to be.

A few days later Anna Szabó, another editor, although she expressed her fear that the new government would not be able to solve Greece’s problems, kept fingers crossed for them. After all, Alix Tsipras is doing now what Viktor Orbán did in 2010. Both said “no” to austerity. As for the state of the two economies, Szabó discovered great similarities: the previous Greek governments were as corrupt as the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments: both cheated and falsified data. Austerity, forced on Hungary after 2008 by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, if continued after 2014 would have led Hungary to bankruptcy just as the same policy led Greece to its current troubles.

The Hungarian government signaled a willingness to have close relations with Greece. At the end of March Szijjártó talked with one of the undersecretaries of the Greek foreign ministry about increased trade relations and discussed the possibility of getting EU financial assistance for a highway and railroad connecting Athens and Budapest.

The Hungarian liberal and socialist media was anything but enthusiastic about the Greek developments. Only a few “true believers,” like Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM), broke ranks. “We resolutely and enthusiastically support Syriza without paying attention to the transparent lies of the ridiculous Hungarian press,” he announced. TGM didn’t reveal who these “we” were. Given the strength of the Hungarian far left, he was maybe talking on behalf of a handful of people. And indeed. According to their website, on March 13, 2015 eleven people established the Balpárt (Left Party), which “considers the examples of the Greek Syriza, the German Die Linke, and the Portuguese Blocco its guiding principles.” The last article about Greece to appear on its website, on July 6, was titled: “Today Athens, Tomorrow Budapest!” The author of the article was the chairman of the party, Szilárd Kalmár, a social worker. The article was subsequently translated into English and published in the Hungarian Free Press (Ottawa).

In addition to this far-left group, there are a couple of economists who have been supportive of the Greek position. Foremost among them is Zoltán Pogátsa, a professor of economics at the University of Western Hungary. Pogátsa has his own website on which he has published several articles about the Greek situation. In his estimate the blame for the crisis clearly falls on the European Union and the other creditors, and he accuses the European Union of abandoning everyman in favor of bankers and capitalists. Interestingly enough, an editorial in the right-wing Válasz also shows great sympathy for the Greek position and practically takes over the arguments of one of Pogátsa’s articles on an English-language Greek site called SigmaLive. In this article Pogátsa explains why the “dear Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Slovenes” must show solidarity with the Greek people although they might be a great deal poorer than the Greeks.

The other economist who takes a more sympathetic view of the Greek position is Péter Róna, an American-Hungarian economist and investment banker, who is politically close to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist LMP. In his opinion, all the troubles Greece is experiencing today stem from the introduction of the euro. His argument is that the introduction of a common currency in countries or states with less developed economies necessarily lead to their further economic deterioration. Therefore, Róna, in an article published in Népszabadság today, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone, the creditors should write off at least half of Greece’s debt, and for the rest there should be at least a ten-year moratorium. In addition, over the next three to five years Greece should receive about 60 billion euros. Róna seems to forget about Greek corruption, graft, and a general reluctance to pay taxes.

So, this is the sum total of pro-Syriza voices in Hungary. The rest, including socialist and liberal commentators, are less than sympathetic. In an editorial in yesterday’s Népszabadság the author compares the Greek situation today to the earlier troubles of Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus–countries which followed the advice of the international financial institutions and in short order saved their economies. But in Greece people refuse to face facts and admit their mistakes. The Greek government doesn’t dare tell the people that “for the current crisis not only the foreigners are responsible.” The Greek people must change their ways.

Péter Techet in HVG is even less polite. The title of his opinion piece is “Solidarity but not with the Greeks.” Techet complains about the European left, which wants to help Greece where the salaries are three times higher than in the former Soviet satellite countries, but which ignores the millions who live in poverty in the eastern periphery of the Union. Syriza’s far-left politics repel him, and he finds the government’s cooperation with the far-right as well as Syriza’s nationalism and “aggression against Macedonia” unacceptable. He, like Róna except for different reasons, thinks that Greece should leave the eurozone before it drags the whole Union into economic chaos.

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

The red flags at the Acropolis made a negative impression in Hungary

Magyar Nemzet reported that Syriza’s followers attacked journalists who were, in their opinion, not supportive enough of the “No” answer. Some of these journalists talk about “a march toward Stalinism” in Greece under Syriza rule. In the same paper a long interview appeared with László Csaba, a professor of economics, who was also very critical of Greek politicians’ handling of the economy in the last decade or so. He pointed out that the black market economy in Greece amounts to a staggering 40% of the GDP. He places the blame largely on the Greek political leadership.

Attila Ara-Kovács in his recent editorial in Magyar Narancs called Syriza “unacceptable,” a sentiment most Hungarian commentators share. In Hungary, only a handful of far-left people representing practically nobody are taking the side of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza.

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.