When the World Jewish Congress opened its 14th plenary session in Budapest last month, its choice of the Hungarian capital for the three-day event went beyond the amenities and attractions offered by the historic city. In the past three years Hungary has become a key battleground for Europe’s soul.
What’s going on in Hungary – or, for that matter, in Europe? This is hard to address without first addressing what went on in Hungary and Europe before. The trouble is, addressing it might make readers miss a few meals. Worse, it may take them into the impenetrable thicket of root causes.
Using root causes as apologies for the deeds of nations (or the misdeeds of governments) has given root causes a bad name. When identified, they rarely explain much and usually excuse nothing. Telling people more than they want to know is unwise. Readers curious why Brussels is having kittens if Budapest amends Hungary’s constitution aren’t necessarily bucking for a graduate degree in European history.
Knowing history may not be so helpful anyway. With apologies to George Santayana, remembering no history may be better than remembering too much and drawing the wrong conclusions from it. People are condemned to repeat history less often for their failure to recall it than for recalling it too well – or, even worse, too insistently.
The Soviet Union’s collapse, taken for granted these days, was a world-shaking event twenty-one years ago. The implosion, sudden as it seemed in its unexpectedness, in fact played out over a period of two nail-biting years. Between the fall of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down and Hungary permitted thousands of East German defector “tourists” to use its soil to escape to the West, and 31 December 1991, when the Soviet hammer-and-sickle was lowered for the last time from the flagpole of the Kremlin, the stricken red giant could have tried to reassert itself. Many observers took it for granted that it would, but – except for the feeble “August Putsch” of 1991, that saw reform-communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev put briefly under house arrest by “hard-line” communists of the old school, who lacked any capacity for a follow up – it never did.
The twenty years that followed were a different story. The communist functionaries and their circles that ruled the Red Empire didn’t just vanish into thin air. The immense vacuum of power and ideology created by the sudden removal of the Marxist-Leninist model attracted various political forces, policy proposals, ideas and ambitions in the “Eastern bloc” or former Warsaw Pact countries.
From day one, contenders included streetwise survivors of the defunct communist regimes trying to sneak back into power. Unlike former Nazis after the defeat of Hitler, ex-communists were well positioned for a comeback. Red cadres, administrative or technological, did not have to face the equivalent of “de- Nazification”. After some dislocation, often minimal, many managed to continue in key positions.
Proponents of a Nazi heritage still existed as communism collapsed: malicious ghosts that remained un-exorcised after the Second World War. Following the regime change, they remained – wisely – invisible at first. They would have found no echoes in the early 1990s, and they could sense it.
Nazism, short for national socialism, is a malignancy inside the body politic. In our time it has culminated in near-successful attempts at genocide. It is incurable, and killing it isn’t enough: a stake must be driven through its heart. Some international-socialist admirers of the centrally directed state believe Nazism originates in nationalism, ethnic nationalism in particular, and if nationalism could be eliminated, Nazism would vanish with it. The European Union would in all likelihood endorse this proposition, partly because official Brussels would consider it to be true, and also because when viewed from its own eurocratic perspective, nationalism, especially ethnic nationalism, whether it leads to Nazism or not, is almost as undesirable.
Others, myself included, think this is nonsense. Far from inevitably leading to malignancies or evils, nationalism is an organising principle, one of many available to human communities, no more intrinsically harmful or dangerous than affection or loyalty of any other kind. Far from conjuring them up, affection and loyalty for one’s country should block or filter out evil things.
An understandable inability to forget history was the WJC’s reason on 5 May for choosing to congregate on the Pest side of the Danube, overlooking the bank where 68 years ago Hungarian Nazis had been summarily executing Hungarian Jews they had run out of time to deport to Auschwitz. The delegates gathered there to discuss, as one wire service put it, “a rise in far-right extremism and anti- Semitism in Europe, including Hungary”.
In this phrasing, the current battle for Europe’s soul would seem like the battle for Europe’s soil seventy years ago, but it isn’t. The forces arrayed against each other today are nothing like a Western-style democratic centre battling a Nazi- style far right. Even a Soviet-style far left is gone. Today’s antagonists resemble their predecessors only in that they, too, form temporary coalitions of past and future foes.
The battle lines for now are between the Knights of Eurocracy and the bewildered inhabitants of their realm, who went to bed one night as Danes, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, etc., to wake up next morning as vassals of Brussels. Yes, they did want to join, but they thought Europe was a club. They did not know it was a religious order, and of a faith in which few if any believed.
The European Union’s side includes a post-communist oligarchic crime syndicate (I’m describing Hungary’s socialist government between 2002–2010 in terms no worse than its own leader did in a leaked speech to the party faithful) in bed with suitably multicultural, metrosexual and matriarchal devotees of a centrally planned social-democratic Eurocracy, complete with camp followers of militant pacifists, Internet-hacking techno-egalitarians and advance waves of minaret- building Islamist theocrats posturing around them, who have sold themselves to the world’s media as a “progressive” democratic centre supposedly standing firm against a far-right tide sweeping Europe back unto the rocks of the 1930s. It is a tide, all right, but it’s far-right only for those who view Woodrow Wilson (US president 1913–1921) as far-right. He favoured national self-determination. It is a tide the philosopher Roger Scruton calls “the national sentiments of the European people”.
Some blame the rising of the tide on Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Leader of a centre-right coalition between Fidesz, his own party of young (by now middle-aged) conservatives and Hungary’s traditional Christian Democrats, Orbán has adamantly refused to throw out the baby of the nation state with the bathwater of anti-Semitism, chauvinism, irredentism and other hypertrophies of national identity. This put him on the wrong side of the progressive multiculturalist bureaucracies of the European Union who view most manifestations of nationalism with misgivings.
On 5 May, as he welcomed WJC’s 500 uneasy delegates, Orbán put the question starkly: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he asked, “where did we go wrong in Europe during the past twenty years? We finally destroyed communism. We put an end to the Cold War. Europe was given the chance to once again be the continent of peace, cohabitation, understanding and tolerance. And here we are twenty years later and are searching for a cure for increasing intolerance and anti-Semitism. What happened to us?”
It seemed an honest question and the answer was equally straightforward: “We Hungarians think”, Orbán said, “that it was a mistake to believe that a community with a weak national and religious identity would give us a better chance of peaceful cohabitation. Today, it seems that a strong identity provides better bedrock for mutual acknowledgement and respect.”
Is Hungary’s leader right or wrong? At home, Orbán has strong supporters and bitter opponents; abroad, he has bitter opponents. His earliest choice as Prime Minister, much reviled, was to update Hungary’s constitution, once his sweeping electoral victory in 2010 made this choice legally available to him. His Hungary became more of a nation state and less of a caravanserai.
People who didn’t like it questioned its legitimacy. I had reservations myself (I rather enjoy caravanserais) but its legitimacy seemed impeccable. Every constitution sets out ways in which it can be amended. Hungary’s puts the almost impossible burden of a two-thirds parliamentary majority on a government that would make unilateral amendments. As it happened, Orbán’s coalition achieved it in 2010. After eight years of being run into the ground by a succession of left-wing politicians of self-confessed corruption and incompetence, the voters returned Orbán to power with a majority that permitted him to go to town. He did. Wise? Maybe not. Legitimate? Yes.
Orbán rejected a world-view taken for granted by post-modern cultural relativists. He embraced national tradition and Christian virtues within a secular state. Wouldn’t be my ideal, but then I didn’t run for office in Budapest. He did.
Orbán’s view of anti-Semitism is as dim as any post-modern progressive multiculturalist’s, but he comes to it by a different route. He finds anti-Semitism abhorrent (a) because it is stupid; (b) because it goes against Hungary’s traditions of chivalry and hospitality that made Jews settle there in the first place; and (c) because anti-Semitism contradicts basic Christian values.
The elite who set the tone of Europe’s progressive, social democratic multicultural societies, view such reasons for not being an anti-Semite as bad as being one, if not worse. They point out that all these splendid national traditions and Christian virtues existed three-quarters of a century ago, yet did nothing to prevent the brutal extermination of millions of men, women and children in Nazi-occupied Europe. They cite the familiar figure of the Nazi concentration camp commander playing Mozart on the piano next door to the gas chambers to illustrate the limits of civilisation to act as a shield against barbarity.
The traditionalist’s reply is that to expect EU functionaries armed with shibboleths of political correctness to tame malice and savagery impervious to Mozart and Mother Teresa is unrealistic. The destructive xenophobia of Hungary’s far right is more reliably contained by the country’s best traditions of national and Christian virtues. “It is good that you have come to us”, Orbán said to the delegates, “because we need everyone’s help and cooperation to successfully act against the spread of hate.”
Don’t hold your breath, Prime Minister. For “progressive” circles, helping centre- right governments is not on the agenda. Tainting centre-right governments with the brush of far-right ideas is much more the ticket. Is this because “progressive” circles, even Jewish ones, are like the Bourbon kings and can neither forget history nor learn from it – or are they just too traumatised to open their eyes? It would probably make no difference if they did open them. As Scruton puts it in his essay The Need for Nations: “The present Hungarian government, by making issues of national identity and national sentiment fundamental to its platform, has excited a strong and censorious response from the European Union, regardless of any other grounds for such disapproval.”
Exactly, but how do you reassure those who remember history too well? How do you explain to people who fear ultranationalists for good reason that a moderate nationalist is not their problem but may be their solution? How do you tell a cat that burnt itself on the hot stove (that’s Mark Twain’s question) that it’s okay to jump on a cold stove?
You can’t. Some cats are smart and figure it out when Fido chases them. The ones that don’t become a dog’s breakfast.