Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Some thoughts on Hungary

The scene on the left is of the surrender of the Hungarian army after the defeat of the 1848 revolution; the map on the right is of the break up of Hungary according to the Treaty of Trianon, 1920.

A Hungarian writer friend asks why people in Hungary might follow a figure such as Victor Orbán. I don't know, of course, but here are some early guesses:

1. The lack of a long-term stable democratic past and the fear of anarchy in the popular sense (Elszabadulnak az indulatok! = All hell will break loose!), which leads to a desire for a strong stable leader. The strong king. This can be addressed in the long term by some form of reassurance, the equivalent of the good king. (I thought the first president, Göncz, had a touch of this).

*Orbán acts like a strong king. The goodness can come later, if it ever does.

2. A long history of military defeats, often against overwhelming odds, that leaves behind a residue of resentment and self-pity. At a crude level this emerges as a form of vainglorious sword waving by way of compensation.

*Orbán has been good at this, the speech of 15 March being an excellent example. He understands this role well, and those with a tendency to resentment and self-pity gratefully recognise the fact that he understands them and addresses the issue precisely as they would want to have it addressed.

3. An underlying sense of cultural alienation since many of the finest and most gifted people to come out of Hungary have had to leave Hungary to establish themselves, and that even when such people remained in Hungary, they were in some way alien (all those Jewish Nobel Prize winners!) This is humiliating. It breeds anti-Semitism and distrust of intellectuals at large.

*Orbán responds to this by stressing the homogeneity of a Christian Hungary and by smearing or relegating those intellectuals that oppose him.

4. Trianon & the imagination. There are the great Hungarian writers of the 19th and early 20th century whose homes and subjects, ever since the savage Treaty of Trianon after WW1, lie beyond the borders of Hungary (Csonka Magyarország nem Magyarország, = Rump Hungary is not Hungary, as my father recited at school in Budapest). The wrongs of Trianon have been an abiding theme. Bringing together the Hungarian ethnicities is an act of redress and self-assertion ('there are more of us than you think') The loss of the territories and its associated art, music and literature, was and remains a scar on the Hungarian imagination.

*Orbán has partly addressed this by giving Hungarian minorities abroad a vote.

5. Isolation of language: the pride and apprehension that breeds. 'Who can know us or stand with us?' The need for support from others in a similar situation.

*Orbán tries to address this by referring to a separate, Christian, 'silent majority' Europe, based in the eastern part of the EU, thereby uniting Hungary through a supposed common history and sensibility. 'At least someone loves us and knows what it's like to be us.'

6. Because there is no well-established middle-rank in society, one that has developed its own codes of morality and value, those who have leapt from a commercially middling position to substantial wealth are taken to be emblematic of general corruption and are therefore (not always without cause)distrusted.

*Orbán offers nationalism as an alternative to class politics, often blaming foreigners, though judging on past Fidesz record in office it will be interesting to see how far corruption is reduced in the future, and one might argue that filling all important state positions with supporters is in fact a form of corruption.

There is more along this line. As far as I can see, these are all genuine issues and Orbán is addressing them in his own way. But it's a dangerous situation, and what Fidesz is operating seems to me not far from fascism, calling on some of the same instincts in similar historical and economic circumstances. Moreover, I think it is likely to move ever further to the right in order to subsume and neutralise the far right anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, anti-Europe, homophobic, quasi military Jobbik, (Wiki leans over backwards to be fair to this loathsome crew) who are in effect the major opposition. And is it not a disaster when the main opposition to a right wing party, drifting ever further right, is the extreme right?

Hungary is a much wounded nation. If I were Orbán, I too would try to address some of the problems - which are genuine problems and genuine burdens - but I would try to talk about them honestly and calmly, in an adult way. I would probably fail but even failure would be something, a kind of decent memory of what could be done with courage, kindness and intelligence.

One of Jobbik's succession - not the latest - of uniformed militia. They change names and uniforms to avoid the law.


Paul H said...

I also wonder at the historical weakness in Hungary of what has been termed a 'civil society', or intermediary institutions, such as professional associations, labour unions, advocacy groups, etc. that are distinct from government or business Such organisations of course exist but don't they seem to exhibit the strength and independence as in other European countries. They don't seem to provide a sufficient counter-weight to received wisdom of Hungary. The diversity of thought should be a strength, but this doesn't seem the case in Hungary. Of course this may another symptom, rather than a cause, of people following such a leader as Orbán. And it goes without saying that his actions are designed to actively stifle, repress and weaken any independent bodies who might seek to strengthen civil society.

Paul H said...

[I should have added some of the words used in my first comment are not my own. Copied from the Internet - but not badly translated, I hasten to add.]

Anonymous said...
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Pistacho said...

Thank you very much for your thoughts, George, which seems to me very appropriate.
Im spanish, but during the fours years I lived in Hungary, people shared exactly these feelings with me during my history lectures and also during free time. Those are issues than worry common people.

I was shocked the way gipsy people is treated and live, but the government doesnt do much to solve this conflict. On the contrary, they feed it.

I am deeply worried about the path Hungary is nowadays taking. I will be visiting Hungary with my young students at the end of this month and, as usually, will keep my eyes wide open and will discuss the whole matter with my friends again.
But too much good people is traumatised with Trianon and seems to be voting Orbán, sajnalom.

This is a good article about Orbán politics and the House of Terror, if you want to read it.

Thank you, again.

George S said...

I think the lack of a civil society, Paul, is a product of years under authoritarianism of one sort or another and the of the lack of a class with time to establish civic institutions and imbue them with a set of value. Hungary was feudal until rather late in history.

Pisctacho, thank you for your comment and the link that I am just about to look at. I know about the neglect of Roma people and the hostility to them. This isn't something of Fidesz's invention, of course, but it suits them not to do anything about it. Regarding Orbán I suspect he may overplay his hand - maybe he already has overplayed it - and once economic pressure grows he may have to retreat. The current business of the plagiarising President of State may be a sign of such an occasion.

Gwil W said...

In Austria, according to recent Gallup Poll, 83% reckon their politicians are corrupt, 11% think they are honest, and 6% can't decide. So there you have it; the same old story wherever you go In Euroland.

George S said...

You reckon it will be better in Asia or Africa, Gwilym?

There is certainly a problem with communication here. I would prefer a poll that was less general. Is this particular politician corrupt? Is that one? What manner of corruption? Do they mean that every politician is taking backhanders? It's a worrying kind of disillusion.

Except it isn't quite that. It reminds me of the old Carl Sandburg (is it?) line, and I quote from memory: 'A politician is an arse on which everyone has sat except a man'. If politics is the art of compromise then every politician is compromised. Those arses get kicked rather a lot.

Gwil W said...

At least in the UK the politician has actually received some votes, in fact he has actually been elected. In most of Euroland he is not elected. He is merely an anonymous name on a list. People vote for party lists. There is no election of individuals as such. Hence there is less need for political integrity. The politician is less answerable.

Gwil W said...

ps- on the subject/s of plagiarism, high office and lack of honour here's the €million question.

Select the EU country, oops I mean state, in which the prominent politician remained in office:


Clue: It's not Hungary and it's not Germany.