What’s the Matter with Hungary?

Victor Orbán is resurrected Hungary’s dark past to keep refugees out and transform the Magyar nation into an illiberal democracy.

When God created the world he invented history a few seconds before he did economics. Being a poet—and, it is said, the Muses are the Daughters of Memory—he liked to let them float beside each other and observe the shapes they made. One of the more memorable but highly shifting shapes was Hungary.

The shape of Hungary, a linguistically isolated island in the middle of Romance-, Teutonic-, and Slavic-speaking peoples, has changed considerably since it first came into being, traditionally in 896 AD when the Hungarians swept into and occupied the Carpathian Basin. The country has seen its fortunes ebb and flow a great deal since then, sometimes to major power status, though it did a great deal more ebbing than flowing after 1526 when Hungarian forces were defeated by Suleiman the Magnificent, whose Ottoman forces remained in control for over 150 years. Immediately on their heels came the Habsburgs, who became the crushing dominant power despite the revolution of 1848, until 1867, when the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established.

There followed a period of some 50 years, which many Hungarians now regard with considerable nostalgia. The great trauma of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 following the defeat and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire burned deep and still does. In the inter-war years, however, a certain independence was maintained under the Regency of Admiral Horthy. That, too, ended badly with defeat at the end of the Second World War, which was followed by Russian occupation until 1990, since when no one has occupied Hungary.

Now the alarm bells are ringing—they ring with the slightest breeze in Hungary—that the Muslim hordes, so reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire, are returning to reclaim control. In actual fact the hordes—or Syrian and other refugees, as most people refer to them (many of the professional class)—have no intention of staying in Hungary. Hungary is a passage through into the rest of Europe.

Bells ring because the government keeps ringing them. It knows that when the tocsin sounds everyone huddles into church and the church of government is right there to accommodate them, complete with hellfire preachers and folk dancing. Hungary is, as Prime Minister Victor Orbán frequently reminds his people, a Christian country, and intends staying that way, Christian, white, and of genuine Hungarian stock. Orbán regards his 800,000 Hungarian Roma as not quite Hungarian, more as a kind of disadvantage that he has so far neglected to loose upon the rest of Europe. In that respect they are like those refugees at the gates. This neglects the fact that the Roma have lived in Hungary for 600 years and consider themselves Hungarian. Elements of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, like their further-right political rivals in Jobbik, are not too sure about the Jews either and protest that despite the deportation of some 565,000 Jews in quick order in 1944, with ready and eager Hungarian help, Hungarians had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of three-quarters of the Jewish population and that Hungarians were as much victims of the Germans as the Jews.

That is the way it works. This posture entails harking back to the 1890s and regarding the ’30s through ever rosier glasses. It means rehabilitating Horthy in the first place, and returning to the literary canon authors who supported not only Horthy but Hitler, too.

It need not have happened this way. In 1989, when fences were cut and walls were falling, and when we were spending most of the year in the country, it could have turned out differently. Even then though, in that great tide of optimism, there were signs it would not. Almost immediately there were demands from people I thought crazy that, for example, the internationally successful record label, Hungaroton, should do its patriotic duty and manufacture Hungarian music by Hungarian performers for Hungarian listeners and no more. And indeed, had I been more attentive, I might have come across a 1984 sonnet by the leading novelist and playwright György Spíro forecasting the advent of the chest-beating patriot brigade:

Here they come again, the patriots, the pure,mystagogues, willowboys, straight from the dung heap.How quiet it is. Not a breath. From where dead poets sleepfinger bones beckon a nation beyond cure.If only we were free to kill once more, they sigh,Oh to drink blood and feast on flesh again...

But that is not the only problem. Expectations were too high, and fulfillment far too low, in 1989. Old political parties fell apart, new ones formed that governed a while, then also fell apart. Only the non-executive and neutral presidency, in the form of the almost saintly Árpád Göncz, held it together for 10 years. But even so there were tensions. Making a radio broadcast in 1995 my producer, Tim Dee, and I were surrounded by a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged right-wingers who accused Göncz of being a secret agent. We escaped without hurt but it was a close thing.

But whose were the expectations, and of what? If history comes, can economics be far behind, to misquote Shelley? The first expectation was that soon, ideally immediately, everyone would be better off. There would still be full employment insofar as it counted as full employment, and people wouldn’t be stuck with those awful rattling East German spin-driers. It wasn’t so much 97 more brands of toothpaste people wanted as the assurance of knowing that they could enjoy life at something close to a Western standard of comfort. Economics meant the reorientation of the Hungarian economy and privatization, and that entailed corruption and quick private profit. It also meant corruption at the more general political level. There were countless skeletons in cupboards to be discovered, and old Communist forms of corruption soon gave way to later, more efficient models. Soon there was unemployment and inflation. The left and centre left kept bobbing about in a faintly Blairite fashion. Social liberalism split from economic liberalism in practice while being identified with it not only in public perception but in terms of political rhetoric too. Disillusion came very fast, almost before illusion had completely faded.

One of the most interesting figures to rise in 1989 was the current prime minister, Orbán. I was in the main public square on the occasion, in June that year, of the reburial of the 1956 prime minister, Imre Nagy. Orbán was the least known of those who spoke from the podium but made the most memorable speech, chiefly because of its boldness and aggression, demanding that Soviet troops leave Hungary as early as possible. Nothing had been settled and such talk was still considered dangerous. A handsome young man with a flop of dark hair, he was photogenic too.

In terms of politics he had joined Fidesz, the then-liberal party formed exclusively of those under 30 (almost more a party than a Party). But both party and Party soon broke up over differences in vision and approach and Fidesz was left in the lap of Orbán, who decided to lead it in a distinctly nationalist direction. The first freely elected government after 1989 was the conservative Democratic Forum (MDF), which was pretty well wiped off the map by the time the next elections came along in 1994. They were succeeded by the MSZP (the liberal socialists of the old regime together with other democratic socialist groupings). After they failed too, Orbán’s Fidesz got its first chance at governing in coalition with what was still left of the MDF and a Smallholders Party left over from the war—in other words, a right-of-centre alliance. They too were kicked out in the next elections and succeeded by a coalition of the socialists MSZP and the Free Democrats (SzDSz), who represented the liberal intelligentsia that had been half the underground resistance to the old regime. After various troubles and scandals—not least the leaked closed-doors in-party address of the then-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány—Orbán swept to power with a super majority in 2010.

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It is the story of what what has happened since 2010 that most directly informs the current narrative. Achieving such a majority, Orbán was entitled to rewrite the constitution, and he did, several times, more or less at the drop of a hat. The idea of the amendments was to concentrate and maintain power in Fidesz’s hands. It entailed repossessing the national bank; filling the senior levels of the civil service with Orbán’s own appointees and making sure that their terms would last well beyond the life of any parliament; pruning and restaffing the judiciary; controlling much the greater part of the press and media; flooding the boards of cultural bodies with Fidesz clones; not renewing the contracts of anyone considered unsympathetic; squeezing the universities; establishing a new “patriotic” library of national literature including old fascists; changing the school syllabus; putting the heat on gays, Roma, and others regarded as deviants; declaring the country a Christian state; encouraging women to have children rather than careers; changing the electoral rules; and, very importantly, giving the vote (in the party-list proportional model) to Hungarians outside the country, in Romania, who would be sure to be grateful. Having changed the constitution to suit himself, he could be pretty certain things would stay that way even in the distant chance of an electoral defeat, partly because the civil service was his but also because the constitution can only be changed by a party elected with a two-thirds majority.

With each turn of the screw Orbán has managed to progress toward his ideal of the “illiberal democracy” that he espoused on one of his annual addresses at Baile Tusnad in Romania (Tusnádfürdő in Hungarian) in 2014. He offered the following models on the occasion:

“This is why, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful. Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia.”

Orbán is in a very strong position in Hungary. Ever since Gyurcsány’s leaked behind-closed-doors speech of 2006 the opposition has been in pieces, unable to unite and offer a feasible left-of-centre alternative, or even a credible leader. He has control of all the important media. His majority and personal power is so great that he can introduce law with a word to the parliamentary leader of the Fidesz fraction and have it passed almost immediately without any serious examination or revision. Despite the defection of 23 percent of his voters, having manipulated the electoral rules, he was re-elected with another whacking two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014 on only 44.5 percent of the votes cast. He knows that each time he raises the rhetorical stakes against those he projects as opponents, such as the EU, his popularity goes up. But that is because he has systematically been feeding Hungarian insecurity since his election.

That historical insecurity is central to the understanding of the Hungarian mindset. Having been, as they see it, the victims of history for so long (the national anthem makes a point of that), they take great pride beating their chests and assuring each other that they are lions. Orbán wants to make them feel like lions. His pet lions, of course: The would-be lions are duly grateful.

But not all is rosy on the home front. The same electorate that gave Fidesz 44.5 percent of the vote, gave 20.5 percent to Jobbik, the far-right ultra-nationalist party that has temporarily put away its quasi-military uniforms, grew out its skinhead crops, called half-time on killing Roma and wanting to make a census of Jews, and has tidied itself up, sending volunteers into the countryside to help “real” Hungarians in return for promises of votes. The truly worrying trend is that it is the young, the new and rising voters, who are most likely to vote for Jobbik, ironically enough for much the same psychological reason that the young are likely to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K.: Neither has been in government, both talk straight but quietly now, and both have clean hands.

This is no attempt to smear Corbyn or to paint him in Jobbik’s colors— just to show that radicalism runs to both ends of the spectrum when the old consensus fails.

Jobbik is a real threat to Orbán now. The Jobbik elite—bright, university-trained—know the fault lines of the Hungarian psyche and can exploit them as well an Orbán can. They are winning seats from Fidesz, so the country has a choice between hard right and far right with nothing on the other side. The old liberal intelligentsia does what it can but it cannot pose a real threat now that the very word “liberal” is a term of abuse.

It is hard to be optimistic about the immediate future. Orbán’s bad-mouthing and slandering of the refugees who wanted transit through Hungary has gone down very badly in much of the EU but, having put up his fences, posted his guards, fired his tear gas, and used his water cannon, he has passed the problem on to Croatia and Serbia and is clear of the immediate problem. He can beat his chest to his insecure, chest-beating supporters while ignoring the thousands of his decent, welcoming fellow citizens who offered help, food, and accommodation to stranded refugees.

Nevertheless, Orbán’s posturing cannot help but remind people of that of the young Jobbik mayor of a small Hungarian border village called Ásotthalom. The video made by the mayor is part Charles Bronson, part A-Team: its style familiar from cheap movies with the same cheap script and cheap background music. It posits Hungary as a frontier village somewhere between history and economics, its isolation and shape defined by official vigilantes.