Hungarian Nightmare: Viktor Orban’s War on George Soros

The Hungarian ‘populist’ has targeted Soros and the great liberal university in Budapest he founded—and which embodies everything Orban and his cronies fear.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

More than the education of 1,500 students will be interrupted if—as now seems likely—the lights are turned off at Budapest’s Central European University. European Union values and Hungary’s future as a member of the democratic family of nations are on the line.

Picture this: 1,500 high-spirited students from 116 countries—rushing to classes taught by teachers from 51 nations, in a spectacular, newly expanded campus near the banks of the Danube. These students will soon join 14,000 others who have already graduated from one of the continent’s world-class universities and carry back to their home countries the most important lesson any school can teach today: to be critical patriots, in CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff’s words, trained to trust evidence, able to separate truth from fakery.

But these are dangerous lessons in the eyes of “populists” like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. CEU embodies everything Orban and his fellow demagogues fear: it is liberal, international, multi-ethnic, and founded 27 years ago by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.

During the past year, Orban has delivered to EU a specious list of objections to its presence in Budapest, even when he suddenly rammed through a new Hungarian Education Law that required the University to open a parallel campus in the United States. With all of these dubious demands, CEU has complied. Yet Orban continues his game of cat and mouse with the lives of thousands of students, faculty and staff—withholding his signature on the agreement.

The threatened shuttering of CEU would extinguish a hopeful experiment in a country with very shallow democratic roots.

The university hangs on, for now. It was reaccredited in late February for another five years, although that hardly means it’s safe for five years. And just this week, Orban—campaigning for elections that will be held in April—launched another assault on Soros. Orban’s foreign minister is a graduate of CEU, and Orban himself went to Oxford on a scholarship funded by none other than Soros himself, but none of this matters now. “We are on one side, millions of people with national feeling, while on the other is the elite of ‘world citizens.’ National and democratic forces are on one side, and supranational and anti-democratic forces are on the other,” Orban said.

As I am a child of that city on the Danube, Orban’s game strikes me as both gratuitous and all too reminiscent of darker days. For me, those days are not so many faded pages from an old text. Only two generations ago, my patriotic Hungarian grandparents were exterminated for the crime of racial impurity. More recently, the Soviet-controlled Peoples’ Republic of Hungary jailed my parents as Enemies of the People.

Orban’s is a state that seems to have learned nothing from its recent history—when racism, xenophobia, and fear of “the Other,” led Hungary—Hitler’s ally in World War II—to collaborate in genocide.  Racism and anti-Semitism has never vanished entirely from Hungary—or from anywhere else. But now the hate mongers—overtly anti-Muslim, are covertly anti-anyone deemed an outsider. CEU, with its stated purpose to train free minds and free spirits, is their target.

In 1995 in Budapest—in the presence of Hungary’s revered President Arpad Gonz—Richard Holbrooke and I got married. Richard, who had worked tirelessly to bring Hungary into NATO and the EU, promised in his wedding toast that we would return each year to Budapest, at long last the capital of a full-fledged democracy.

My late husband, who died seven years ago, would be shocked at today’s Hungary. Once again the press is muted. Orban-controlled TV just charged me with “blasphemy” for criticizing the prime minister. Parliament is a rubber stamp, and hate and fear are daily pumped into the national bloodstream.

The minute you land in Budapest you see it. Billboard after nauseating billboard shows the smiling face of Orban’s scapegoat for all of Hungary’s troubles: George Soros, CEU’s founder, is responsible for a broken health care system, low wages, stagnating economy… the 87-year-old American philanthropist is blamed for all of these. “Don’t let him have the last laugh,” billboards at every bus stop urge citizens.

Some of them show Soros piloting a plane full of armed terrorists—refugees fleeing jihad in the Middle East turned into fearsome jihadis themselves by Orban’s propagandists. There are very few refugees in Hungary, but the government needs the population to be afraid of them anyway. Fear is the oxygen that keeps repressive governments in power.

Of course in every human wave there are bad actors. Orban, like his fellow East European demagogues, singles them out for attention and example. The Italian immigration brought us Enrico Fermi and Frank Sinatra—but with them came the Sopranos. How much poorer America would be without the Italian, or Irish or Vietnamese or, indeed, the Hungarian waves? The percentage of terrorists among the bedraggled migrants who make their agonizing way to Europe is a tiny fraction of the total. Most just want a chance to restart their lives—just as my family was allowed to build new lives in America.

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At the CEU commencement last June, former German President Joachim Gauck recalled that when he was a young East German, living behind the Wall, he was inspired by Hungary leading the way to freedom, first during the failed Revolt in 1956, and again in 1989, when Foreign Minister Gyula Horn cut the Iron Curtain’s chain link fence, allowing East German tourists to surge to freedom. Now, Gauck sadly noted, Hungary is leading the way backward, to the dark days, rejecting the liberal tradition for which so many Hungarians—my parents included—paid such a high price.

CEU will survive—if not in Budapest, somewhere else. That is its debt to those boisterous students from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, and elsewhere who thrive in CEU’s global, multiethnic community. They want a chance to return to their own countries, and make them better. No demagogue can prevent CEU from fulfilling that promise.

Less clear is Hungary’s future. The threatened shuttering of CEU would extinguish a hopeful experiment in a country with very shallow democratic roots.  

That loss feels very personal to me. As a small child during the Revolution, my family was granted sanctuary in the American Embassy, along with Hungary’s Catholic Primate, Cardinal Josef Mindszenty. Like my parents, Mindszenty had recently been liberated from a Communist cell.

Every night the Cardinal blessed my mother and sister and me, “In the name of  the children and mothers of Hungary.” My parents and the Cardinal did not live to see the newly hate-filled land Viktor Orban proclaims Christian. The city, which I reclaimed on my wedding day, is again slipping away.