Since our last issue the Fidesz government and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have won a second landslide election giving them, even if narrowly, a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Though it is unwise to take History’s name in vain, we think this election worthy of being called historic because it brings to an end the long post-Cold War period of Hungarian politics. In particular it marks the demise of the specific Hungarian Left that came into being when Gyula Horn persuaded the left-Liberals to join his Socialist majority in 1994.

That seemed and probably was a master-stroke for Horn at the time because it broadened the support for his barely post-Communist social democrats. The Liberals even gave them a touch of democratic respectability. But in the twenty years that followed the Socialists gave their Liberal partners more than a touch of the Socialist diseases of economic incompetence, disorganisation, fratricidal infighting, power-worship, and contempt for the ordinary citizen. As a result what had been proclaimed as the natural party of government fought this election as an uneasy coalition of five competing parties that between them managed to obtain barely a quarter of the popular vote to remain just ahead of the radical right party, Jobbik. This Left is no longer a major political force capable of fielding an alternative government.

A Left phoenix will rise eventually from the smouldering ruins of this predecessor. But the process of rethinking and reshaping the left side of politics will take several years, perhaps many, and in the meantime the Centre-Right will dominate the field as George Schöpflin argues more or less irrefutably in his article. This dominance is the achievement of the Prime Minister above all – and one with an interesting pedigree.

A paradox of Hungarian politics is that Viktor Orbán is probably the one conservative who does not share in the growing general respect for his 1998–2002 government. It led, after all, to a defeat. Reacting to that undeserved loss and calculating that he was defeated not on policy but because most of the nation’s institutions (the media above all) were in Left hands, he set out to make Fidesz not only a broad-based national conservative party on the model of Britain’s Tories and Germany’s Christian Democrats but also the centre of a web of conservative institutions – newspapers, magazines, television stations, think tanks, and voluntary bodies all advancing and elaborating and deepening the Fidesz line. That broad philosophy, when distilled down to its essence by Mr Schöpflin, is that love of country is more important than any economic theory (though he plainly favours what might be called post-liberal economics of a mildly protectionist kind).

Two quite different criteria demonstrate the shrewdness and success of this transformation. First, Fidesz candidates were the clear winners in almost every single constituency election across the country outside central Budapest. It was a comprehensive landslide in what has become a multi-party rather than a two-party system. Second, a foreign election observer noted an interesting comparison: at the Left rallies, people waved the European Union flag; at Fidesz rallies, they waved the Hungarian flag. Accordingly, the Left swept Brussels while Fidesz swept the country. It is desirable for people to love their country; it is essential for governments to do so.

Another paradox of Hungarian politics, however, is the fact that this broad, loose, easy-going, national coalition encompassing all classes, regions and religions (and most ideologies) has been assembled and managed by a party machine that is highly disciplined, tightly organised, ideologically sharp, and always “on message”. Yet other things being equal, the larger a coalition is, the more likely it is to contain people and groups that disagree with each other. So it is worth asking such questions as: what particular glue holds Fidesz coalition together? how vulnerable is it to splits and factionalism? and what might the party do in order to cement its majority?

Mr Orbán’s reputation for strong leadership is plainly one adhesive keeping the party together. And since his character, political and private, is well established by now, barring extraordinary accidents, that glue will stick. But a factor almost as important for maintaining the party’s popular support has been the threat from the Left.

For many Hungarians who have liberal, moderately conservative, or even mildly left-wing opinions as well as firmly conservative ones, the post-1994 Left seemed an intolerable prospect as a government. They wanted more than merely to vote against it as a mark of disagreement; they wanted protection against it. That is exactly what Orbán and Fidesz offered them. Many of them accordingly voted for Fidesz while disagreeing with the party on either particular policies or on the general tone of government. That is how democratic politics works – and Fidesz played the game very shrewdly.

That Left, however, is now dead. It is no longer available as a source of unity for the Right. The large sprawling Fidesz majority is therefore likely to generate its own ideological tensions and divisions since its members are no longer so fearful that their internal quarrelling will let in an unacceptable Left. In addition, when the emerging new Left gets over its post-election hangover and begins to consider seriously how to win over Hungary’s electorate, it will almost certainly adopt policies designed to attract some of the factions now in Fidesz’s big tent. What new glue can the party invent?

That is where the third paradox of Hungarian politics comes in: Viktor Orbán has successfully created a broad middle class conservative party without the seeming pre-condition of a broad Hungarian middle class – as Péter Ákos Bod establishes in his authoritative article. The task for the next four years of government therefore is to pursue policies that encourage the growth and spread of such a class, and the burden of that task falls upon economic policy and its success in raising further the rate of economic growth.

Both Péter Ákos Bod and George Schöpflin agree on that; but they differ somewhat on what kind of economic policy would best accomplish their joint goal. Dr Schöpflin favours greater reliance on domestic capital accumulation even at the cost of deterring some foreign investment; Professor Bod believes that more foreign investment would benefit the economy generally but also Hungarian entrepreneurs seeking profitable cooperative ventures in particular. There may also be a more subtle difference separating them. Might not these two different economic strategies – let us call them national conservative and liberal conservative respectively – be likely to shape two different kinds of middle class? And if so, how would these two classes differ? We leave it to our readers and to future issues of Hungarian Review to pursue these questions: the future of Hungarian politics will be shaped in large part by the answers.

Not all questions, however, are economic ones, and some economic questions rest on wider social conditions. As Britain’s Justice Devlin argued in a famous debate of the 1960s, no government could be indifferent to a situation in which half the nation woke up every morning with an alcoholic hangover. That example seemed fanciful hyperbole when he raised it, but the experience of Russia has since confirmed his fears (without advancing his proposed remedies there). In most Western countries, however, alcoholism is less a social problem than a pornography which now enjoys a liberty, technical opportunities, and even a respectability that would have been unimaginable in Devlin’s day. There is increasing social concern about its effects – its distortion of the sexual development of children and adults, its poisoning of the relationships between the sexes, its impact on those men who wake up with a moral hangover every morning.

Until now pornography has seemed to be a problem without a solution because (a) people had a “right” of access to it, and (b) the internet meant that there was no effective way of controlling that access anyway. Norman Doidge’s article – “Sex on the Brain” – is an important corrective to both beliefs. A distinguished neuro-scientist, he points out that pornography alters the brain to the point where it is effectively addicted to pornographic images – indeed driven to seek increasingly hard-core ones even though they deliver an ever-diminishing thrill. “Rights” and moral “choice” therefore have little to do with it. And though censorship of the internet may be practically impossible (and certainly is objectionable on other grounds, notably that most of the known censors are keener to censor political ideas than obscene images), Professor Doidge points out that brain plasticity can work in reverse. Addicts, by making admittedly hard conscious efforts, large and small – going “Cold Turkey”, keeping their laptop in non-private environments – can reshape their brain back to freedom and choice.

That may be a less utopian solution than it first sounds. One of the most successful campaigns against addiction took place in 19th century England where laudanum addicts were more or less shamed back into sobriety by the Victorian public’s general disapproval. Drugs were made illegal only after these social efforts had greatly reduced the prevalence of drug-taking. Anti-cigarette campaigns today have achieved similar results (though with more official coercion). Hungary is a nation with an outstanding tradition of neuro-science. It would be a service to genuine human liberation as well as to the country’s own social health if some of its neuro-scientists were to take Doidge’s insights further.

There is no antidote to historical controversy, however. Yet in most national historical controversies, those who celebrate the nation are usually those who end up making the crucial concessions about its past crimes and follies; the nation’s critics, whether hostile or merely sceptical, generally win the debate. That is humanly understandable because we have to make a moral effort to acknowledge grave failings by those we love. In the still current debate on Hungary’s role in the Second World War in 1944–45, however, the “national side” of the debate long ago made its crucial concessions – see, for example, Géza Jeszenszky’s recent article in which he judges that the Horthy regime, though faced with only bad historical choices, nonetheless chose neither the worst nor the best of them. The Hungarian state was therefore responsible in some degree for the murder of its own Jewish citizens. But to what degree? Was Hungary simply a willing volunteer in mass murder as some on the Left contend? Or was it coerced into complicity by a Nazi Germany that first subverted and then occupied the country? This is a historical question capable of being answered.

We return to it in this issue with Gyula Kodolányi’s selection of personal accounts by those who were involved at crucial points and moments in those years. They are vivid, painful, terrible, moving testimonies. Of course, it has always been known and acknowledged that some Hungarian officials in important positions either shared Germany’s anti-Semitic intentions or pretended to do so because they believed a German victory to be likely. Much of the nation, moreover, simply drifted through the crisis hoping for the best. But what the accounts of those personally involved establish beyond any real doubt is that the main constitutional representatives of the Hungarian nation, notably Regent Horthy, obstructed and temporised where they could, resisted outright when lesser forms of opposition were unavailable, and finally sought to break openly with Germany and join the Allies. They failed when the Germans kidnapped Horthy’s son and placed Horthy and his family under house arrest in Bavaria. Before that melancholy climax the Germans had tried also to assassinate Horthy’s Under Secretary of State. After it the Arrow Cross Party, installed as a government under German auspices, murdered Jews and others enthusiastically.

Overall, the historical record is a complex one but it refutes the argument that Hungary was a willing accomplice of Hitler even if some Hungarians were. On this occasion the nation’s critics seem likely to be those who end up making the crucial concessions towards a complex truth. But since history, like science, is always provisional and controversy will therefore continue indefinitely, any debate should be conducted in humble and respectful terms.

Seeking relief from endless controversy, we turn to literature, poetry, music, well represented in this issue. Architecture, said Goethe, is frozen music. That is not necessarily comforting – some architecture is frozen Stockhausen – but Budapest’s architecture offers us a magnificently full range of composers from Bach to Bartók. Might it not also be said, however, that architecture is poetry carved in stone? The Anglo-Russian-Ukrainian poet, Igor Pomerantsev, certainly makes such an argument in the case of his favourite city. Pour out a glass of wine and savour both.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email