Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
October 2014 protest in Budapest against the Orbán government. Photograph: Ronan Shenhav
Last September an article on the front page of a leading Hungarian daily began, “The story of the ever-deepening refugee crisis is taking ever more unexpected turns.” A prominent Hungarian intellectual and former dissident, György Konrád, had come out in support of the efforts of the Hungarian government to build a wall to keep out newcomers and to cast them as economic opportunists rather than political refugees. In another corner of the Hungarian media, pundits were citing passages from The Final Tavern (A végső kocsma), a 2014 book by Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away last month. In the book, Kertész was sharply critical of liberals’ welcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees and migrants. His and Konrád’s statements were registered with incredulity in the liberal press and with undisguised relish on the right.
Anyone who has followed the serpentine trajectory of Hungarian politics since the controlled collapse of state socialism in 1989 might be forgiven for throwing their hands up in confusion. For more than two and a half decades, Hungarian political life has been a story of reversals. The party of the Young Democrats (Fidesz), founded in 1988 by a few dozen college students, has mutated from a member of the Liberal International to the torchbearer of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Hungarians who once described themselves as liberal, including the current prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, have shed the epithet. Already in 1994, Orbán favored replacing it with “free-thinking.” Twenty years later, his metamorphosis was complete when he wondered whether being part of the European Union was an obstacle to the reorganization of the state into “an illiberal nation state within the EU.”
‘Older men are prone to intellectual aggression of the most savage and relentless kind, though not always in the name of noble ideals,’ wrote a younger Konrád.
Orbán’s liberal critics are quick to insist that he was never one of them. Plucky anti-communist dissidents who trumpeted individual liberties against the paternalistic and overweening socialist party-state merely looked liberal to many Western liberals. But conservatives, too, found soul mates in dissidents, generalizing their anti-communism into a wholesale censure of the left. In short, everybody loved a dissident. It was the left-leaning poet W. H. Auden who helped to bring dissident poet and later Nobel Prize–winner Joseph Brodsky to the United States in 1972; another poet and powerful intellectual force of the U.S. neoconservative movement, Peter Viereck, brought him to Mount Holyoke College in 1974. For every dissident who fulfilled the Western liberal fantasy, there were as many who fulfilled at least part of the conservative one, from union leader and Solidarity figurehead Lech Wałęsa to the Czech playwright, philosopher, and president Václav Havel.
If it was not the dissidents themselves who changed, what explains these reversals? And why has the migrant and refugee crisis in particular become so symptomatic of a crisis of liberalism?
• • •
Among the freedoms that some Eastern Bloc citizens dreamt of were economic ones: having a free country partly meant having a free market. Whereas many post-war Europeans, particularly those of the West, had experienced liberalism in combination with the welfare state, in East-Central Europe, the socialist state was the safety net. With the elimination of state socialism came a contraction of state intervention in all areas and an unprecedented expansion of the private sector in a manner that largely favored the already favored, the ruthless, the lucky, and occasionally even the genuinely talented and industrious. Multinational corporations and clientelist networks flourished alongside political pluralism, the lifting of censorship, and the institutionalization of checks and balances. By the time the economic part of the package had acquired a name of its own—neoliberalism—it was already a bad word.
Fidesz politician György Schöpflin said in a recent interview that Orbán’s vision of the “illiberal nation state” must be viewed primarily in economic terms. In other words, Orbán’s “illiberalism” was a foil for “neoliberalism,” rather than for “liberal democracy.” The trouble with this assessment is that Orbán’s illiberal policies have reached far beyond the economic sphere, from hobbling the free media and institutional checks on government power, to abjuring tolerance and forbearance altogether. Last October, Fidesz politician and publicist Zsolt Bayer addressed the refugees and migrants in a blog post: “Who the fuck invited you to come here? Your very existence is becoming ever more unbearable and irritating.”
To convince constituents that his only real objective has been to keep things on an even keel, Orbán has declared that the truly significant shift of recent history was not the “regime change” marked by the collapse of state socialism, but the financial crisis of 2008. When Fidesz was founded in 1988, its stated goals were the achievement of democracy and freedom. In order to shift the focus away from those ideals, Orbán postdated the watershed moment of recent Hungarian history by twenty years: the crisis of American-style capitalism, rather than of Soviet-style state socialism, became the defining moment for projecting an alternative future. Democracy and its various institutions and values—an independent judiciary and media, checks and balances, non-discrimination, tolerance—no longer needed to be retained; insofar as they could be implicated in the financial crisis, they could be identified as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. After taking control of the government in 2010, Fidesz bailed out Hungarians with underwater mortgages at the same time that it centralized political authority, limited judicial autonomy, made media outlets more beholden to the government, and barred opposition parties from controlling state institutions.
These actions rankled György Konrád, who in 2012 inveighed against Orbán’s “junk democracy” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Yet it was again Konrád who raised many an eyebrow last September when he reversed course during an interview with an Italian journalist and threw his moral support behind Orbán’s anti-immigrant policies. Though Konrád said he still believed the prime minister was “emptying out democracy,” it did not follow, he continued, that “the Schengen border should not be better defended against this tsunami.”
A few days later, Konrád appeared on a Hungarian news program whose interviewer read back snippets from the Italian interview. “Did you really say that?” she asked incredulously, as though offering him a chance to correct a translation error. “Walls are built,” he elaborated, referring to Orbán’s decision to build a fence along the southern border of Hungary to keep the new arrivals out. “It’s a custom . . . and as a custom, it’s not an absurdity,” he continued, citing the example of Israel, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Great Wall of China. (Apparently the Berlin Wall was insufficiently customary to make the list.)
More recently, Konrád published an article in a Hungarian literary magazine in which he repeated Orbán’s assessment: the majority of newcomers were economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing violence, they would eventually out-reproduce and subordinate Europeans to their culture, and the “flood is growing like an epidemic.” Orbán’s only mistake, Konrád concluded, was in refusing to take in a few of the brighter, more linguistically versatile young people—not for humanitarian reasons, but because they are needed to connect the “more developed northwestern edge” of Eurasia to the southeastern one.
Konrád’s flip has often been paired with that of Imre Kertész. Like Konrád, Kertész lost no love for Viktor Orbán; both compared him to the longtime communist leader of Hungary, János Kádár. Explaining why he chose to stay in Germany rather than return to his native Hungary, Kertész characterized the situation in his homeland as one in which “the word of the extreme right and the anti-Semites is the one that counts.” But in The Final Tavern, a collection of fictional sketches and diary entries, Kertész wrote, “I’d like to talk about how the Muslims are flooding, invading, and destroying Europe, and how the Europeans are reacting to all of this: with suicidal liberalism and stupid democracy.”
Like Orbán’s move from liberalism to illiberalism, these reversals may not be as inexplicable as they seem. Although Kertész’s greatest admirers were the young intellectuals and cosmopolitans of the 1990s—I was urged to read his novel Fateless (1975) by young, polyglot, and largely non-Jewish musicians, philosophers, law students, and literary scholars in a provincial Hungarian city in 1996—he did not share their worldview. In The Final Tavern, Kertész expressed his particular disdain for “Jewish and liberal writers” who were “irritated by the fact that I am also here with my radical opinion which is diametrically opposed to their skulking, chameleon mentality.”
Nor was Kertész ever inclined to go to the barricades for democracy. Though he was a staunch critic of Stalinism, he claimed that the main reason he had not committed suicide—unlike so many other Holocaust survivors, including Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Tadeusz Borowski—was that he did not expect or believe in freedom, liberation, or catharsis, as did those in “more fortunate parts of the world.” “This [Stalinist] society guaranteed to me the continuation of life in servitude and saw to it that many mistaken beliefs were not even possible,” he wrote in 1991. Shielded from the harmful effects of faith in a better future, Kertész survived survival. As for democracy, he considered it a crawl toward consensus, epitomized by a tedious academic conference. “A person can’t help but to become skeptical or cynical,” he wrote. As for the “liberal spirit,” which “originally wanted the best,” it had been degraded by the postmodernism that had led intellectuals into nihilism and the masses toward helplessness. He shared the Vienna-born economist Friedrich Hayek’s view that calls for “social justice” were the first step to “the world’s most severe social injustices,” including “mass murders.”
• • •
György Konrád has not been so expressly hostile to either liberalism or democracy. He identifies the people arriving in Europe from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with radical Islam, lumping Islamism with Nazism and Communism in a “totalitarian” bundle. “As a child I hated national socialism; as an adult I was repulsed by communist socialism,” he wrote in the late-March issue of the Hungarian periodical Élet és Irodalom [Life and Literature]. “I had reason to fear both, and I don’t see a single idea on the horizon that could spur me to abandon the European secular humanism or the political system of liberal democracy as the spirit of respectful conduct.” So in effect Konrád has sided with illiberal Orbán—whom he had designated “neo-totalitarian” just two years earlier—in the name of salvaging liberal democracy, all but blaming newcomers for this turn. Among the many nascent evils that the arrivals have brought with them or preciptated, in his view, are right-wing populism and an existential threat to the European Union.
Should we always try to explain away history’s surprises with a snicker?
It is ironic that Konrád should so passionately identify with liberal democracy at precisely the moment when he seems to abandon the spirit of respectful conduct it entails. The irony goes beyond philosopher Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance,” in accordance with which “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” (Popper, whose philosophical work was colored by the desire to shore up liberal democracy against assaults like those of Nazism and Communism that he had witnessed firsthand, believed that liberal democracy can survive only if we “claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”) Konrád wrote in the mid-nineties that he considered tolerance an “ethical obligation vis-à-vis everyone, and thus patience is a universal ideal.” But the word “tolerance” has been conspicuously absent from his interventions on the refugees and migrants. “Patience” does put in an appearance, but it is the “patient” Europeans who are repulsed by those newcomers who “impatiently want to get something” out of them.
The irony stems more from the fact that Konrád’s earlier work is marked by a disinclination to identify with any particular politics. “I don’t belong to you,” he wrote in his famous Antipolitics (1982). “I am not a realist, I am not a moderate, I am not a conservative, even though I am realistic, moderate, and conservative. . . . I say a considered but firm ‘no.’” The “no” of the antipolitician is an expansive one, comparable to the attitude of the Socratic gadfly that bites the complacent beast of power, whatever its political ideals and orientation may be. For Konrád, being an anti-communist did not exclude being an anti-capitalist. What the antipolitician despises is politics itself.
When Konrád did assume a political role, it was as a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), longstanding archrival of Fidesz. In a speech defending the 1993 Democratic Charter—seventeen theses beginning with the phrase “There will be democracy if . . . ” and signed by over 31,000 individuals—Konrád emphasized that the charter was neither a party nor a coalition. It had no members, only signatories—no president and no hierarchy. In other words, although engagement with politics was a must, real democracy should be more of a private affair. “Because politics has flooded nearly every nook and cranny of our lives,” he wrote in 1982, “I would like to see the flood recede.” Party functionaries should no longer run the factories and the schools, and the party should never follow a person home. “A society does not become politically conscious when it shares some political philosophy, but rather when it refuses to be fooled by any of them.” Therefore, at the moment an opposition party becomes a governing one, it would have to reckon with the antipolitician.
Konrád and others revived the Democratic Charter in 2008 to protest “freedom-threatening exclusion, racism and violence.” Why, then, his statement about refugees? Perhaps he simply felt he had become too much a darling of Western liberals and wanted to reaffirm his independence. “A creative intellectual who doesn’t provoke irritation and even hatred is perhaps not so creative as he thinks,” he once declared. Or perhaps he wasn’t thinking of himself at all. “Antipolitics asserts the right of every community to defend itself, with adequate defensive weapons, against occupiers,” he believed. Yet although the right-wing Hungarian press has used the language of “invasion” and “occupation” liberally in connection with the migrants and refugees—above all to suggest that the crisis is part of an American, Zionist, or liberal plot to take down Europe—thus far Konrád has not.
In a way, it all makes sense if we accept that Kertész was never a liberal and Konrád wanted to position himself beyond politics. But should we always try to explain away history’s surprises with a snicker? Was 1989 not a surprise? And should it not be permitted to retain some of that quality, of a new character breaking onto history’s stage to take the drama in a whole new direction? For better or worse, the collapse of the bipolar order did take history in a new direction, the full nature of which has yet to be determined.
• • •
If Orbán’s flip should come as no surprise, his policies and rhetoric still leave plenty of room for the charge of hypocrisy. How did someone who, as a brash twenty-something, famously called for the Russians to go home become a close confidant of Vladimir Putin, signing Hungary on to increasing economic dependence on Russia while comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union? How could Orbán, a staunch critic of the socialist one-party state, go on to revise the constitution to increase government control over the media and limit the power of opposition parties to win a stake in government?
Recently German President Joachim Gauck admitted that he struggles to understand how “those nations whose citizens, once themselves politically oppressed and who experienced solidarity, in turn withdraw their solidarity for the oppressed.” Should not the former dissidents in particular be sensitive to this irony? Or perhaps antipolitics was merely an expedient, a “self-liberating exorcism” (as Konrád wrote in 2013) that its primary advocates have outgrown. In 1982, Konrád—not yet fifty—declared that antipolitics
means ineradicable suspicion toward the mass of political judgments that surround us. Often these judgments are simply aggression in another form. We shouldn’t forget that older men whose physical and nervous energies are failing are especially prone to intellectual aggression of the most savage and relentless kind, though not always in the name of noble ideals.
Perhaps the antipolitician’s greatest enemy now is the aging body and mind.
As for Kertész, if his gripe was with extreme-right views and anti-Semitism in Hungary, it is difficult to overlook the parallels between Hungarian anti-Semitism—especially regarding the influx of Jewish refugees and migrants to Hungary during and just after World War I—and the rhetoric surrounding Muslim migrants now. Back then the new arrivals were seen as carriers of an alien and hostile culture, race, and religion: “Eastern” and “non-European,” closed in on themselves, infected by religious fanaticism or terrorism (read Bolshevism), who would assimilate the hosts rather than vice versa. Hungary would adopt the first anti-Jewish legislation of the post-war period in 1920, and Hungarians would later participate in the roundup and mass deportation of more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews, most of whom were killed or perished at Auschwitz or other death and labor camps.
‘In the world anything can happen, but I think we all want Hungary to be a country where not anything can happen.’
The nationalist version of Hungarian history—dominant during the interwar period, as now—has placed on Jews some of the blame for Hungary’s considerable territorial losses after World War I, for the advent of communism after World War II, and for the corruption of Hungarian culture and politics more generally. Throughout much of East-Central Europe—not just in Hungary—there is already a well-tooled xenophobic rhetoric ready for transfer to newcomers. (Little wonder that an anti-immigrant rally in nearby Poland featured the burning of an effigy of a Jew in a caftan, and that the right in Hungary has blamed George Soros for the refugee crisis.) Under these circumstances, how can the parallelism of today’s anti-migrant xenophobia fail to strike the critic of Hungary’s treatment of the Jews? Perhaps if mainstream Hungarian nationalism, which has hitherto focused considerable vitriol on the Jews, should set its sights instead on Muslim migrants and refugees, there is room for Jews in the Hungarian family after all. The enemy of my enemy, as it goes.
• • •
Kertész arguably never was optimistic about the future, and even his critique of liberalism did not imply there are better alternatives. In a nutshell, his view of Hungary and democracy was: never had it, never will. “The sentimentalism of survival has run its course,” he wrote in The Final Tavern, “along with the postwar sexual, philosophical, and temperamental liberalism: another ‘manly’ period is in the works, brutal conformism, perhaps war.”
Konrád’s turn toward pessimism seems more unexpected. There is an almost willful naiveté in much of his earlier writing, as if he expects the best from people even when he knows the worst is more likely. In 2013, however, he published Guestbook (Vendégkönyv), a novel-diary like Kertész’s The Final Tavern, in which he expressed disappointment with the course of democracy. “Slippage to the right, ever farther to the right, domino effect, the boundary markers are being felled one after the other,” he wrote. “The greatest passion is enmity with the rival.”
The charge of hypocrisy assumes the existence of a norm that the hypocrite does—or at least should—hold. The German writer Bernhard Schlink once praised Kertész for embodying “the choice between indifference and cynicism, the prerequisite of catharsis, the beginning of ethics.” One might expect a Holocaust survivor to be especially sensitive to the plight of refugees as victims of violence and persecution. The remarks of Kertész defy this logic. One might expect a critic of intolerance, staunch defender of democracy, and theorist of antipolitics to show tolerance and remain a critic of anti-democratic behavior. The remarks of Konrád against migrants and refugees and in defense of Orbán's policies defy this logic. And one might expect a former dissident such as Orbán to accept, if not outright enable, the possibility of dissent. Instead he downplays the significance of 1989, the point at which his own entry into politics became possible, in order to play the role of savior to those maligned by neoliberalism. “In the world anything can happen,” Orbán told a sympathetic audience last July, “but in the face of this . . . I think that we all want for Hungary to be a country where not anything can happen.”
Yet many young people have been raised, under the shadow of Orbán’s and other dissidents’ unprecedented success, to believe that a total and otherwise unthinkable transformation is possible. They are now watching as their world is shaped by “older men” who want to obstruct rather than to make things happen. Konrád is eighty-two and Kertész passed away last month at eighty-six. Though Fidesz (the “Young Democrats”) once refused to admit anyone over thirty-five, almost its entire membership is now well over that age. Whatever 1989 was and meant, its primary beneficiaries are old and getting older.
Until recently, Hungary’s youth looked to be responding in two diametrically opposed ways. Some—seeking better professional, personal, and financial opportunities, and to satisfy a lust for adventure—have left the country, either to study or for good, settling mostly in Western Europe. Those who remain have been heavily courted by the far-right Jobbik party, which has drawn large numbers of young people, including university students, into its ranks by promising a more active and vital alternative to the preservation of the status quo, which many see as corrupt and compromised. As Orbán and his governing party moved closer to Jobbik’s message with its campaign against migrants and refugees, some young people were won over. That campaign has been recast as a raging success in the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks, with Orbán and his supporters clearly delighting in Western Europe’s misfortunes. In a recent article in the New York Times, György Konrád was quoted as saying that Orbán “is not a good democrat and I don’t believe he is a good person,” but although “it hurts to admit it . . . on this point [he] was right.” Therewith intellect and power converged.
• • •
During the Great War, German novelist and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann wrote a long work called Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. It was an attack on liberal democracy—which Mann conflated with politics, tout court—from a German nationalist perspective. “What infuriates me,” he wrote, “is the appearance of the intellectual satisfait who has systematized the world under the sign of democratic thought and now lives as a dogmatist, as one who is right.” Mann felt there was a need for antipolitics to counter this force. “The one and only possibility in Germany is for national affirmation to imply negation of politics, and democracy—and vice versa. When one sees things in a conservative way, one sees them antipolitically.”
Mann’s book was first published in 1918. Sales were high; prominent conservatives—some of them soon-to-be Nazis—sought him out as one of their own. “As for Thomas Mann,” writes his translator Walter Morris, “he soon found his association with the conservatives a little more than uncomfortable; many of them actually frightened him, and when he found they were placing national considerations above humane ones, he could no longer count himself one of them.” Mann had not paused to wonder where the antipolitician should stand when it is the conservative who is satisfait, the “dogmatist,” the “one who is right,” the one who aligns his intellect with power.
Reflecting back on his antipolitical essays of the 1980s, Konrád wrote in 2013 of today’s “neo-totalitarian politicians” (e.g. Orbán). “The totalitarian,” he concluded, “cannot be an ally, just as the scorpion always poisons its friend.”
Holly Case is associate professor of history at Brown University. Her most recent book is The Age of Questions: Or, A First Attempt at an Aggregate History of the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond (2018).
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.