Understanding Hungary?| 01/05/2012
While the DNA of the human race exhibits two or three rotations within a given period, the Hungarian race exhibits nine rotations…, which in turn is identical to the number of rotations of the light travelling to the Earth from the planet Sirius. A result of this fact is the cosmic origin of the Hungarian intelligence, the Hungarian soul and the Hungarian spirit, and this is the basis for why the Hungarian people are the chosen ones. The author of this eminent thesis, published in 2000, held in the same year the post of state secretary in the first government of Viktor Orbán.
The renowned Hungarian political scientist and member of the European Parliament for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, György Schöpflin, lamented recently in an article for the website opendemocracy.net that foreign countries do not understand Hungary, and that “left-wing” foreign countries do not even want to understand Hungary. In such an instance, it is the argument of the context from which everything reported about Hungary is arbitrarily extracted must always apply. Schöpflin attributes this to Hungary’s defencelessness as a “small culture with its own very different language”, whose “voice … is by definition weaker than that of a large cultural community”. The result of this is what he calls a “discursive deficit”.
What, one would like to ask Mr Schöpflin, the intellectual and member of the European Parliament, could this missing context be, in which the DNA analysis quoted at the beginning could acquire even a whiff of discursiveness and rationality? What political rationale, what other outstanding qualifications stood behind the nomination of post-modern racial theorist László Grespik as state secretary of the Republic of Hungary?
But in his article the member of the European Parliament does not wish to provide us with any information for such questions – he fails to mention even a single specific decision made by the government in Hungary, to defend it, to substantiate it, or to explain it to us. This is a matter of principle! Even his article is titled “How to understand Hungary” – although without a question mark. It is more of a mental instruction manual for those who want to understand Hungary. To do so, we must recognise first and foremost that Hungary today is “a deeply divided society”; we are happy to do this. Better still, we must imagine “two Hungarian societies, each with its own idea of the truth”. The problem, however, argues Schöpflin, is that “the international media represent only one side of the argument and reflect only one of the two narratives”.
One could counter that the problem is rather the fact that in the meantime one of the two Hungarian societies has completely dispensed with the form of the argument. And why should they use arguments? They’re in power after all, and power unambiguously prefers a great narrative, as it eludes quick criticism, requiring tedious deconstruction instead.
Just one thing should be made clear before we move on from this not-too-useful instruction manual on understanding Hungary: “[F]ew if any observers seem to notice,” Schöpflin writes, “that the effect of the attacks on the Hungarian government has included a marked strengthening of support not just for Fidesz but also for the right-radical party Jobbik … So much for unintended consequences.”
Those who read this sentence not in Vienna or Berlin but in Belgrade know this warning as a sort of standard trope of political speech: For every bad politician, there is inescapably an even worse one, and he who criticises the less bad one is playing into the hands of the even worse one. In the end, he will look around once more in a changed situation, and would be happy to have the lesser evil – previously so sharply criticised – back again.
In Belgrade – for what it’s worth – the pedestrian crossings are painted with a white paint whose surface becomes as smooth as glass with the slightest frost, producing slippery stripes. For this reason, the Serbian capital has recorded an extremely high number of broken bones in recent weeks at precisely those locations where crossings were created to protect pedestrians. The residents thus came to know in a very practical way what the unintended consequences of political decisions can entail.
In general, it seems as if Hungary can be understood much better when observed from the south than from a north/northwest perspective. Thankfully, Viktor Orbán himself and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (4 March 2012) have taken the effort to remedy the “discursive deficit” (inasmuch as it lies on our side) in a three-way interview, and to make the Hungarian prime minister’s narrative accessible to us. This narrative resembles those of the nationalistic conservatives in Serbia like one egg resembles another.
First of all, there is a tale of Europe’s demise. Orbán: “I have a mental map in front of me [and see] on this map an ever-weaker Europe.” This downfall of Europe encompasses its biological reproduction, its significance in world trade, its “European self-confidence”, and its cultural dominance over the rest of the world. At the root of it all, however, lies its spiritual demise through profanation and the victory of global liberalism.
This is followed by a tale of identity. There are other regions of the world and other cultures which do not suffer from such atrophy phenomena; to the contrary, they are “now ascendant” – above all Islam. They are ascendant because Muslims “stand committed to their spiritual identity”, whereas the old continent “has lost its faith in that which once made Europe great and an influential factor in the world”.
Europe’s erstwhile greatness – it must be explained – in no way resulted from the exercise of colonial and imperial power; rather, it was the historic (and perhaps also divine?) mission of the Occident to take on this role of global leadership, and this would still be its mission today if Europe wouldn’t itself disavow its great duty.
Everything that Viktor Orbán readily tells us about Europe in the FAS fills him “with extraordinary concern”. In doing so, the prime minister of a country that has always refused with the greatest pride and defiant stubbornness to be considered part of the Balkans at no point noticed how extraordinarily Balkan his discourse comes across. All of his tales are reproductions from those old schoolbooks where scraggy Ottomans on wild horses placed a yoke on the south-eastern Occident for centuries – centuries during which the people in this part of Europe took the yoke upon themselves to spare the Habsburgs, the Church, and the Occident.
Up to this point, Viktor Orbán and his former Serbian colleague, Vojislav Koštunica, are in agreement about everything – even despite the border between western and eastern Christendom that separates them. Only now the eastern Church – since the dissolution of Yugoslavia – has decided that it has finally had enough of this sacrifice for a Europe that never really deserved it; by contrast, the prime minister of Hungary – already an EU member state – inevitably struggles on for the Occident’s salvation even though today he must wage this campaign against the majority of the Occident itself rather than fighting it out with the Ottoman hordes. Why?
Because in his eyes the majority of Europe is left-wing – or at least liberal – whereby we arrive at Orbán’s master narrative. Left-wing nations are “nations without character or ambitions”, and as such are “unable to make the European community great”. This is the mother of all tales that must serve to legitimise the policies of Fidesz: that at last, after Hungary’s evisceration in the Treaty of Trianon and after the short intermezzo of a republic (which upon closer examination turned out to be a phase of Jewish dominance ), communism came to Hungary. Now, however, the time has come for Hungary to embark on a radical discontinuity with communism and its legacy, and finally to assert its national identity.
And today this is automatically accompanied by Hungary’s duty in the European Union to lead a campaign against the unravelling of communism into the “European left”. This is Orbán’s personal ambition as well – what worries him the most: “I would like to record the destruction of the left as my own success.”
But there is a peculiar reason for this putative discontinuity. This is apparent from the fact that the governing party in the Hungarian parliament recently rejected a legislative proposal from the opposition LMP without debate that aimed at opening the Hungarian state security archives. At the same time, however, the government is backing – amid great pomp – a commemoration day dedicated to the victims of communism.
What is so disconcerting is this dichotomy (again very akin to its Balkan neighbours) between a grandiose symbolic staging of a break with communism and the concomitant refusal to enable and to consummate this break as a necessary and truly societal process. Observed from a psychological point of view, the break with foreign communism turns out in reality to be a splitting-off of what are completely elements of its own collective psyche. The split is consummated in the field and with the weapons of the great ideological campaigns of 20th-century Europe: here Christendom, there godless communism, here the nation as a cultural community, there faceless internationalism, here Occidental greatness, there an eastern moloch…
But the historic break with communism that Viktor Orbán has codified in his new Hungarian constitution is taking place on the basis of another – albeit more deeply rooted – enduring continuity. This is the continuity of authoritarianism, for all the phenomena he has diagnosed as leading to a collapse of liberal Europe are rooted in a collapse of the system of authority: religious, cultural, and consequentially also political and finally economic. But without authority, there is no greatness, none of “this Gaullist breath of fresh air, this glory” which Viktor Orbán claims in the FAS interview to have felt “as Sarkozy took the stage”.
A favourite rhetorical device of those who defend Orbán’s policies against their European critics is to quote this foreign criticism in its conviction in order to then rebuff it, for example the criticism that the Hungarian government is pursuing an “ethnic agenda” or is led by “ethnic national motifs”. To this, they counter that Orbán’s leitmotif is palpably not ethnic-biological thinking, but rather an insistence on cultural identity. But these are irrelevant quarrels in the theatre of superficial discontinuity.
We did not cite the nine fold rotation of the Hungarian chromosome at the beginning in order to place Hungary’s prime minister in the same box with his state secretary. We only wanted to illustrate that in Hungary (as everywhere else in Europe) there are people who talk this way, and perhaps even think and believe this way – and that they are not contradicted by the present government, that such racist esotericism evidently does not disqualify one in contemporary Hungarian society.
It is not about whether Orbán indulges in ethnic thinking or not; it is about whether we can be certain that he will not play the ethnic card should this become tactically necessary in order to stay in power. It is a criticism of a strategic division of labour with the true ethnic thinkers in Jobbik, who enable Orbán to maintain a façade of centrist bourgeois conservatism.
Viktor Orbán is quite correct that the decades-long experience of communism demands a radical discontinuity. This would not find expression so much in individual substantive positions and political opinions, however. A true discontinuity can only be had at the price of an emancipatory effort vis-à-vis the authoritarians. It is a Hungarian problem as well as a Serbian one and a Montenegrin one, and perhaps also a Romanian or Bulgarian one, that in all these countries the end of communism was marked by too many functionaries and Young Pioneers with authoritarian proclivities from the old system remaining in elite circles. They can only imagine a democratic transformation if the basic authoritarian template is not disturbed. It was easy to mutate from Young Pioneer to acolyte; it is incomparability more difficult to consummate a decisive break and emancipate oneself from both.
The criticism of Orbán’s policies does not go far enough where it is merely an objection to his political decisions, laws and edicts. These are bad enough, certainly. But it is decidedly not about the contents of policies, but rather the form in which political power is exercised. In every line of his FAS interview, Orbán sees himself in the grandiose role of a historic mission to save Europe. This missionary role reflects his political attitude that power was not actually given to him for a period of time, but rather for the purpose of discharging his historic duty. A curious Christian-Hungarian faith – concocted according to his own requirements – bestowed upon him power and the duty to save Hungary and Europe from left-wing and liberal decadence. The electorate is thus merely the democratic conveyor belt of his destiny. After all, someone like Viktor Orbán would not waste his time on any lesser a task.
Curiously, if we consult Václav Havel, Adam Michnik or others, we see that those who had been against communism when its still reigned did not require a theatrical staging of their break with it after its demise.
The New York Review of Books once published a fine correspondence between Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and Václav Havel, who had already become president. Brodsky wrote to Havel: “We have something else in common, Mr. President, and that is our past in our respective police states. To put it less grandly: our prisons, that shortage of space amply made up for by an abundance of time, which, sooner or later, renders one, regardless of one’s temperament, rather contemplative. You spent more time in yours, of course, than I in mine, though I started in mine long before the Prague Spring. Yet in spite of my nearly patriotic belief that the hopelessness of some urine-reeking cement hole in the bowels of Russia awakens one to the arbitrariness of existence faster than what I once pictured as a clean, stuccoed solitary in civilized Prague, as contemplative beings, I think, we might be quite even.”
That was in May 1993. Viktor Orbán was 30 years old and had just ascended to the top of Fidesz. Three years earlier, he had studied in Oxford on a stipend from the liberal American Jew George Soros, and Fidesz was still a liberal party. If Brodsky could imagine a Prague prison cell as a relatively pleasant abode, what would his picture of a cell in the famous goulash variant of communism have looked like? And what about one in the Yugoslav version, where communism appeared almost democratic?
Read in contemporary Belgrade, Brodsky’s correspondence elucidates a curious dialectical problem: It seems almost as if there were a link between the difficulty of the democratic transition and the “softness” of the former communist system.
Where a society did not record the end of communism in its memory as a self-effectuated revolutionary sense of achievement, this revolutionary experience must evidently be made up for through staged theatrics. This is what Orbán’s policies are pursuing. But the belated love for the anti-communist revolution is hypocrisy. No one made that clearer that Hungarian writer István Eörsi, and today no one could deny him – were he still alive – the role of Orbán’s fiercest critic.
Eörsi’s narrative explains the trick of Kádár’s communism with the help of a biblical quotation. For Stalin, the great purger, there could not be enough purges in his Soviet Union, because he favoured the biblical rule: “He who is not with me is against me.” But Kádár turned this around after the 1956 revolution in Hungary, and reacted instead according to the principle of: “He who is not against me is with me.” Thus applied, the rule operated as an optimally functioning instruction for moral cowardice throughout society: Keep quiet in public, as long as you could let it loose all the more forcefully in private.
To the rest of the world, the Hungary that emerged was the garden colony of the Eastern Bloc. “This Hungary,” wrote Imre Kertész, “was always the West’s favourite brand of communism. But in reality it was a police state through and through. During the Kádár era, there was to talk of communism whatsoever.” Because it seemed so agreeable there, no one in the rest of the world saw any reason to pay particular attention to Hungary. And so an Imre Kertész had to wait until the end of this epoch, and to write for his drawer until someone became interested in his literature.
“Ultimately,” writes György Schöpflin in his article, “the issue comes down to the question of who decides what European values are: can it be the left alone, or must there be a broader consensus?” It remains inexplicable to us how someone who is a member of the European Parliament can arrive at the conclusion that a European left – whoever it may be composed of – is exercising a dictatorship of values over the European Union. Oh, dear Mr Schöpflin! The decision about European values can only be left to a discursiveness that is altogether not in deficit. At the moment, it seems that the discursive deficit indeed lies on the side of Hungarian policies. They will not engage in an argument-based discourse, for this must necessarily be open in order to be deserving of such a designation.
But Viktor Orbán’s values, which he presents to us in his policies and in his interview, do not wish to be found through discursiveness; they are simply there and demand to be respected. After all, there must be order.
- Grespik, László: Szkíták törvénye, 1-3 rész (“The law of the Scythe, parts 1-3”), in: Magyar Demokrata, (“Hungarian Democrat” / right-leaning conservative, social-criticism and cultural weekly) 23 and 30 December 1999 und 6 January 2000. ↑
- “There are many countries in the world in which the majority oppresses the minority, but only one country in which the minority does it to the majority, and that is Hungary. In Hungary, one has been gagging, deriding, and crushing the Hungarian nation, and the Christendom-hating minority [has been doing this to] the majority for five decades now.” (Journalist István Lovas at a demonstration in Budapest in January 2004) ↑