Tag Archives: Zoltán Ripp

What went wrong in 1990?

This year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Hungarian democracy after fifty years of Soviet domination. To mark the occasion a number of books, articles, and reminiscences will be published. Several interviews with people politically active in those days have already appeared.

These new studies and memoirs will complement books that have already been published dealing with the two or three years preceding the opening of parliament on May 2, 1990. Of course, there are at least two narratives of the same story, but I consider Zoltán Ripp’s Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest, 2006) a book that will have a significant impact on the public assessment of these events for a long time to come. Ripp, as a good historian should, tried to give a balanced view, yet it was obvious that his sympathies lay with those people who later formed the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). I’m unaware of a comparable work written from the point of view of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), although I just read that Imre Kónya, who later became minister of the interior in the Boross government (December 13, 1993-July 14, 1994), is in the process of writing his reminiscences of the period. Of course, the memoirs of a politician, however valuable, cannot be compared to a scholarly work with thousands of footnotes.

Two biographies of József Antall, the first prime minister of the post-communist era, appeared earlier. The first, Antall József távolról (József Antall from Afar), was written by Sándor Révész, a journalist at Népszabadság. It was published in 1996, three years after Antall’s death, not enough time for a balanced assessment. In 2006 József Debreczeni came out with A miniszterelnök (The Prime Minister), which suffers from Debreczeni’s undisguised admiration for Antall.

To understand the political situation twenty-five years ago it is important to recall the results of the elections of 1990 which took place on March 25 and April 8. Considering that it was the first free election after so many years, voter turnout was relatively low: 65%. MDF received 24.7%, SZDSZ 21.4%, the Smallholders 11.7%, MSZP 10.9%, Fidesz 8.9%, and the Christian Democrats 6.4%. MDF couldn’t form a government alone. Eventually, Antall opted for a coalition of MDF, the Smallholders, and the Christian Democrats. The opposition, all from the left of center, were the liberal SZDSZ (93 seats) and Fidesz (21 seats) in addition to MSZP (33 seats). A “grand coalition” of MDF and SZDSZ was out of the question for Antall and other important MDF leaders.

Although it is fashionable on the right to blame SZDSZ for the very sharp divide between the two political groupings, it was not a one-way street. A hatred of SZDSZ was widely shared in MDF political circles. The above-mentioned Imre Kónya published a short article in Magyar Nemzet a few days ago in which he recalls a conversation with Antall during the coalition negotiations. The future prime minister told Kónya that he didn’t want to govern with the liberals because “once they establish themselves in some of the ministries not even God Almighty will be able to get rid of them.” Yet, given the Hungarian constitutional set-up, Antall was forced to come to an arrangement with SZDSZ to ensure the relative stability of his government.

Today some critics, even former members of MDF like Károly Herényi, think that Antall made a huge mistake when he decided to form a coalition of three parties, all from the right. The problems facing the country were so great and the road ahead so difficult that a “grand coalition” would have been the only sensible move. Such an arrangement would have spread the responsibility for the very unpopular measures that lay ahead. And common governing may have blunted the sharp differences between the two groups.

Ever since 2010 there have been signs of a softening of the opposition’s very negative opinion of József Antall. Those who criticized him for years now think much more highly of the former prime minister. This is not surprising after five years of Viktor Orbán. Most people stress the fact that, despite all his faults, he was a steadfast supporter of parliamentary democracy, which is more than one can say about the current holder of the office.

And yet, although MDF could certainly have made a worse choice, Antall’s background and his immersion in Hungarian history didn’t prepare him to lead a new Hungary. This may sound odd coming from a historian, but let me explain what I mean. Normally, one would think that being well versed in history ought to be an asset for a politician. Yes, but not when the history of the country offers no viable models for a democratic future. Moreover, Antall by upbringing brought along the thinking of the “keresztény úriosztály” who were the main supporters of the Horthy regime. What do we mean by “keresztény úriosztály”? Another difficult term to translate. It was a group of upper middle class people, often of gentry background. The majority were Catholics, and many of them were either civil servants or were employed by the municipalities. József Antall, Sr. belonged to this class and held high civil service positions during the Horthy era. József, Jr. naturally attended a Catholic school, the famous Piarist gymnasium in Budapest. Throughout his youth he was steeped in that culture.

Source: www.piarist.hu

József Antall with István Jelenits, Piarist theologian and writer / Source: www.piarist.hu

With this background came a heightened nationalist fervor, which was an important ingredient of post-Trianon Hungary. Imre Kónya in an interview recently explained that what made him an opponent of the Kádár regime was not only the lack of democracy and freedom but also the want of nationalism. Although he sympathized with the fierce anti-communism of SZDSZ, it was the MDF leaders’ nationalism that induced him to join the party. After all, Antall was the one who announced that in spirit he wants to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians, which raised quite a few eyebrows. This nationalism has been the hallmark of the Hungarian right ever since. Unfortunately, in today’s world this nationalism can lead only to isolation and conflict.

The other day I talked about RMDSZ, the Hungarian ethnic political party in Romania. I mentioned its former chairman, Béla Markó, who just yesterday published a remarkable opinion piece in Népszabadság. He was talking about May 9, Europe-Day. He concluded his piece with these words: “Today we celebrate that day [May 9] as Europe Day, when the idea of European cooperation proved to be more important than the delusions of nation states because in a common Europe nations can breathe more freely than they can being locked up in their own hubris. I don’t know whether this will happen or not. But it should happen this way.” An indictment of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism.

The man behind Viktor Orbán’s political ideas: Gyula Tellér

An English-language article on Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech of July 26 claimed that Orbán has a brilliant mind. I don’t know on what basis the author came to this conclusion because most people find Orbán’s ideas incoherent and confused. Moreover, it seems that some of his closest associates considered his “philosophical reflections” on the state of the world unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous. But Orbán defended his decision to deliver the kind of speech he delivered because he as prime minister of Hungary has a unique view of the world which he ought to share with the people.

Here I venture to suggest that it is not his unique political role that has given birth to his “revolutionary” ideas. The “birth mother” is instead a trusted adviser who is described by those familiar with his work as an ideologue. Few people even know his name, although it is becoming ever more apparent that Viktor Orbán’s “system” in large part stems from his adviser’s harebrained ideas.

Who is this man? His name is Gyula Tellér. He is apparently an excellent translator, but his real passion is political theory. He started his political career in SZDSZ but soon enough switched allegiance to Fidesz. Tellér was one of the authors of SZDSZ’s party program of 1990; a few years later he had a hand in formulating Fidesz’s program. To understand this man’s thoughts one ought to read Zoltán Ripp’s excellent essay “Color changes of an éminence grise” (Egy szürke eminenciás színeváltozásai).

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

I cannot summarize Ripp’s long and sophisticated essay in a few paragraphs here. Instead I will concentrate on some less weighty articles that appeared after Gyula Tellér’s ideological influence on the prime minister was discovered.

Ilidkó Csuhaj, who is a political reporter for Népszabadság and therefore not a historian or political philosopher, simply said that “Orbán recited a study of Gyula Tellér in Tusnádfűrdő.” According to Csuhaj, Viktor Orbán was so taken with an article Tellér wrote in the March issue of Nagyvilág (“Was an Orbán system born between 2010 and 2014?”) that he assigned it as compulsory reading for all his ministers.

Unfortunately, the connection between Gyula Tellér and Viktor Orbán goes back much farther than March 2014. From a careful reading of Ripp’s essay and Tellér’s own works it is absolutely clear that Viktor Orbán has been mesmerized by this man’s confused and dangerous ideas.

One of his “theories” explains the force of so-called “solidified structures.” Tellér here refers to the Kádár regime: both its elite and its social structure remain part of life in Hungary. No real regime change, he argues, will take place until those remnants of Kádárism are destroyed on every level: in science, in culture, in art. Everywhere. Anyone who achieved anything in the old regime must be stripped of his position in society. An entirely new middle class has to be created. That’s why for Tellér and hence for Orbán the so-called regime change of 1989-1990 is an increasingly insignificant event.

Another theory of his is that in Hungary there are three societal groups: (1) the old feudal Hungary and its later offshoot, the Hungarian upper middle classes; (2) the bourgeois Hungary; and (3) the old Rákosi socialists who simply changed their colors to become leaders and beneficiaries of Kádár’s Hungary. Initially he was critical of feudal Hungary, but as time went by he began to look upon the Horthy regime as an acceptable and perhaps imitable system.

Tellér started embracing international conspiracy theories, plots hatched abroad against Hungary. He became an enemy of globalization and capitalism. The mover and shaker of Hungarian life in his view became the foreign “investor.” From here Tellér easily arrived at anti-Semitism and is thus considered by Ripp, for example, to be a successor to István Csurka. That’s why Ripp colors Tellér “brown” at the end of his essay. Others are less polite. One blogger (orolunkvincent) calls Tellér “a Nazi madman”  and compares him to Aleksandr Dugin, the man behind Putin’s ideas. The blogger quotes extensively from Tellér’s writings and speeches in which he exhibits fervent anti-Semitic views.

Another blogger (democrat) complains how unfortunate it is that “a single man is behind the whole concept” of Viktor Orbán’s political agenda. Behind Orbán’s “grandiose plan” is Gyula Tellér, whom some people call a crackpot. In Tellér’s paranoid worldview, “the world is against Orbán, who is ready to make the country successful with a brilliant new system, but he is oppressed by the ugly and evil foreign (and Jewish and Marxist) capitalists.”

And here is the latest Tellér gem, uttered at a conference only yesterday. He delivered a long lecture on his interpretation of Hungarian history and politics over the last 50 years. He claimed that “the change of regime began in 1955” when “a well-informed group of people” realized that socialism cannot survive in its present form. Who were they?  They were representatives of “a well-known and significant sub-culture” whose task was “running the economy, the financial system and the press.” He continued by saying that the “members of this group had numerous offspring who learned from their moms and dads that socialism is kaput.” These children of communist parents therefore became liberals and had a large role to play in 1989-1990. So, these people are still with us.

Although Tellér does not name this group, anyone who knows anything about the political culture of the Hungarian right knows that this was an anti-Semitic harangue. Of course, the whole “history” is outright crazy because it assumes that some people are blessed with extraordinary insight into the future. They know exactly what will happen in forty or fifty years and prepare themselves as well as their children for this eventuality.

Today an article appeared on ATV’s website in which Gábor Gavra, its author, gives a list of Tellér’s ideas that can be found in Orbán’s “national system.” The list is too long to repeat here, but it is frightening. Almost as if every aspect of Orbán’s system came straight from Tellér’s ideas. I think it is time to reevaluate Viktor Orbán’s ideology because its origins can be traced to the ideas of a man who holds far-right and anti-Semitic views.

Historian Zoltán Ripp’s analysis of the Hungarian election

Post-election soul-searching and analysis continues in Hungarian opposition circles. I spent two days talking about the remedies offered by MSZP insiders Ildikó Lendvai and István Hiller. Politicians from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, have so far been silent. I understand they are spending this coming weekend analyzing the lessons of the election. On the other hand, DK activists gathered 42,000 supporting signatures, ensuring their participation in the EP election on May 25. Their election slogan, “Europe Is Performing Better,” is a take-off on the government’s claim that Hungary is doing better.

It is extremely difficult to guess how the opposition parties, this time campaigning alone, will do. Turnout for EP elections is usually very low, and Fidesz will most likely get a majority of the 22 seats Hungary is entitled to. Jobbik will probably do even better than in 2009 when they captured three seats, only one fewer than MSZP. The other opposition parties, Együtt 2014-PM and DK, are real question marks because this is the first time they will be able to measure their strength at the polls. Parties need at least 5% of the votes cast to send a delegate.

While the campaign for the EP election is going on, political analysts continue to ponder the consequences of the national election. This time it was Zoltán Ripp, a historian, who tackled the election results. Ripp is deeply immersed in political history, especially the history of the Hungarian communist party in the last fifty years or so. He also wrote a monumental work on the change of regime (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990), which I find invaluable for understanding the political history of those years.

Ripp was described in a review of one of his books as a historian close to MSZP. Well, that might have been the case a few years back but, as evidenced by an article he published in Galamus, Ripp nowadays has a devastating opinion of MSZP’s current leadership. According to Ripp, MSZP politicians “are “culturally empty, morally dubious, and politically feeble.”

Zoltán Ripp / 168 Óra

Zoltán Ripp /168 Óra

So, how does Ripp see the election and its consequences? The title of his long essay is telling: “Opting for  Servitude.” The essay itself is a subjective description of his despair. Ripp, like most historians, doesn’t think much of the so-called political scientists and leaves “objective” analyses to the talking heads. He is convinced that now, after the election, “the constitutional third republic is gone for ever.” The change of regime is final, especially now that Viktor Orbán with the blessing of the electorate won another stunning victory. One can no longer claim that the Orbán regime is illegitimate. Those who voted for Fidesz reaffirmed its legitimacy.

Ripp, of course, realizes that for the core voters of Fidesz Orbán’s regime doesn’t mean servitude at all. On the contrary, they are convinced that they are performing a service in pursuit of a higher and more noble goal. They are lending a helping hand in the task of elevating the nation into future greatness. Viktor Orbán is described as “the chief shaman, ” “the anointed leader” who knows what he is doing. “Who is the embodiment of what is the best in us.” But, the problem is, Ripp continues, that “the party of Viktor Orbán could have won only in a country where society is gravely ill.” What is that illness? “The lack of democratic culture and mentality.” And that is very basic. Ripp claims that the failure of the democratic third republic was bound to happen. It was practically inevitable.

As opposed to many others, Ripp asserts that it was “not material questions that decided the outcome of the election.” Not that they didn’t matter, but the chief culprit was “the revival of the culture of subjugation.” The return of “resignation,” “assuetude.” And the problem with the opposition was, in Ripp’s view, that they didn’t concentrate on the real issue: that with the election of 2010 came a “regime change.” What was at stake in the election was democracy vs. autocracy painted over with a pseudo-democratic gloss. Ripp fears that the regime put in place byViktor Orbán will stay perhaps for decades. “We can get into a situation from which there is no way out by holding elections.”  Those who believe that there will be another chance in 2018 are mistaken, “they don’t understand anything about the nature of the Orbán regime (kurzus).”

In Ripp’s opinion this opposition misunderstood the very threat that Viktor Orbán’s regime was and is posing to Hungarian democracy. So, what should have been done? How should the opposition politicians have handled the situation? The key word in Ripp’s vocabulary is “radicalism,” but he quickly adds that radicalism is not the same thing as using scurrilous language. There should have been a concentrated radical attack on the illegitimate character of the Orbán regime. Democratic politicians should have announced as their goal the total elimination of the whole system Orbán built in the last four years. Instead, “our brave politicians” only managed to come up with the label of “kormányváltó,” which didn’t even make it to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár as an adjective. It simply means “change of government.” As Ripp puts it, “instead of strategy that great zeal degenerated into a whimper.” On such a basis one could not put together a civic concentration of forces that would have produced enough power for the removal of the Orbán regime. Instead, a coalition of parties was formed “based on cheap haggling.”

Ripp knows that “the intellectual giants of MSZP” will call him an idealist who cannot see farther than downtown Budapest and who talks nonsense because he doesn’t grasp the realities of the countryside. Ripp’s answer is that the democratic politicians had four years to explain to the population the connection between the lack of democracy and the rule of law and the quality of material life. He uses a famous line from Sándor Petőfi to illustrate his point: “haza csak ott van, ahol jog is van.”

What were the sins of the individual actors in the drama? Ferenc Gyurcsány’s “chief responsibility lies in the fact that, although he knew and said a thousand times what was at stake, in the end he accepted the rules of a losing game.” Bajnai’s responsibility is great. He gave up his original ideas and “followed the script of MSZP… He deteriorated into a weakish participant in a political battle.” As for Attila Mesterházy, in Ripp’s eyes he was totally unsuited to lead the battle against Fidesz. “Anyone who did not see that should look for some profession outside of politics.” But, he adds, Mesterházy was not the cause of the crisis but its symptom. What an indictment of MSZP! If Ripp is right, the remedies Lendvai and Hiller propose are useless.

Linguistic misunderstandings in a Hungarian context

On a Sunday in the middle of the summer not much is going on, and therefore I’m free to move away from everyday politics and venture into something I find equally exciting. Some history and some linguistics. Well, it is not very high level linguistics I’m talking about but rather the difficulties of understanding the true meanings of words, especially in a foreign language.

By way of background I should mention that Rui Tavares is the latest target of the Orbán government and its satellite media. He is right up there near Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. I happen to think that he’s in pretty good company since I view both Gyurcsány and Bajnai as among the best Hungarian politics has to offer today. Ignorance and bias are the charges most frequently leveled against Tavares. A reporter for HírTV thought that he could unequivocally prove in a single stroke that Tavares is both ignorant and biased.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

Magyar Nemzet triumphantly announced that, interestingly enough, “the discriminatory” Dutch constitution doesn’t seem to bother Rui Tavares even as he tries to find fault with the Hungarian Basic Laws. It turned out that this information about the allegedly faulty Dutch constitution came from a HírTV  reporter. Armed with this “damaging” passage, the reporter went off to Brussels to confront Rui Tavares, who didn’t have a ready “yes or no” answer about the passage in question. The reporter was convinced that he now had proof positive that Tavares, in his zeal to condemn the Hungarian constitution, had turned a blind eye to the discriminatory Dutch constitution. Both Magyar Nemzet and HírTV were elated.

There was one very serious problem with this discovery. Our reporter’s English left something to be desired. The sentence in question in the Dutch constitution reads in English translation: “The right of every Dutch national to a free choice of work shall be recognized.” The Hungarian reporter thought that the word “national” here referred to “those of Dutch nationality” and after all, he argued, there are citizens of the Netherlands who are not of Dutch extraction. But “national” as a noun in English means “citizen” or “subject.”

By the way, the title of  this particular episode of  his TV show “Célpont” was “Tavaris és Tavares,” a stupid pun on “tovarish” or “comrade” in Russian. I don’t think that HírTV ever corrected the false statements about the Dutch constitution. Those who want to take the trouble to watch this episode will have a fair idea of the quality and tone of HírTV.

Well, this was an error committed by a Hungarian interpreting the meaning of a non-Hungarian word. But it can happen the other way around as well. Here is a good example from 1989.

This time we have to go back to the career of Zoltán Bíró, the anti-Semitic literary historian who was just named to head a new research institute that is supposed to rewrite the history of regime change in Hungary. A few days ago I mentioned him and dwelt briefly on his political career. At this point I quoted Zoltán Ripp who wrote an excellent book on the change of regime covering the years between 1987 and 1990. In it he mentions that Bïró had a significant role to play in reviving the old cleavage and enmity between the “népi-nemzeti” and “urbanista” traditions. As I’ve often said, rendering “népi-nemzeti” into English is well-nigh impossible. In any case, the New York Times article which I couldn’t find translated these two troublesome words as “populist-nationalist.” And with it came a huge misunderstanding.

János Avar, the well-known journalist and an expert on U.S. politics and history, e-mailed me right after the appearance of my post on Bíró. He called my attention to an article he wrote on this very subject in 2007. He did find The New York Times article, but because Bíró and others at the time gave the date as September 28 I never suspected that the article in question actually appeared only on October 25. Avar had more patience and was more thorough than yours truly.

The American reporter for the NYT in Budapest at the time gave a fair description of the by-now famous gathering in Lakitelek in September 1987 and mentioned that those who gathered there were “népiesek” and “nemzetiek,” which he rendered as “populists and nationalists.” The Hungarians on the spot had to be the ones who tried to explain to the American the correct meaning of these words.  According to Avar, “népies” is a mirror translation of the German “völkisch” which recently has taken on a fairly sinister meaning. My favorite German on-line dictionary says that “völkisch” means nationalist, nationalistic, ethnic, racist, voelkisch. However, it is certainly not “populist,” which we use to mean appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people.

The völkisch/narodnik/népies Hungarians were up in arms and immediately suspected that the article was the result of some kind of Jewish conspiracy of the urbanists who were trying to blacken their names in the West. They suspected that the article was not really written by the reporter for The New York Times but was “dictated” by one of the Jewish members of the Democratic Opposition. They were convinced that the words “populist” and “nationalist” were code words for anti-Semites.

As János Avar rightly points out in his 2007 article,  neither “Jewish” nor “anti-Semitism” was, as in Hungary, a taboo word in the United States. If the reporter had been told that there was an anti-Semitic tinge to the gathering, he would not have hesitated to say so.

Don’t think that this was just a fleeting episode that is not worth bothering about today. Bíró as well as other right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalists continue to bring up the allegedly unpatriotic and antagonistic behavior of the Democratic Opposition toward themselves, the true patriots. In their eyes the urbanists were not true Hungarians. They wanted to imitate the West instead of returning to true Hungarian roots. Since there were a fair number of urbanists who were of Jewish extraction, the völkisch crowd found its domestic enemies. It was perhaps Bíró’s and some of his cohorts’ bad conscience that assigned unintended meanings to the words “populist” and “nationalist.”