How is it that Hungary, Central Europe’s democratic wunderkind of 1989, could find itself the European Union’s problem child two decades later, with a nationalist strongman at the helm, the economy in shambles, and a ferocious far right both in its parliament and in black uniforms patrolling its suburbs? Hungary’s dire condition—and how it came to pass—is the topic of the veteran Mitteleuropa expert Paul Lendvai’s most recent book, Mein Verspieltes Land: Ungarn im Umbruch, or My Squandered Country: Hungary Transformed, released last year in German and in Hungarian this past January.
The 81-year-old Lendvai is one of the grand old men of Central European journalism, author of a stack of books translated into a dozen languages. But never before has one of his titles provoked such fierce reactions from the powers that be. The right-wing network of the Fidesz party, led by its undisputed front-man and Hungary’s current prime minister, Victor Orbán, has done all it can to discredit Lendvai. Thanks to a landslide victory in the 2010 elections, Fidesz now controls more than two-thirds of parliament, and the liberal and leftist oppositions have imploded. Yet the right is paying attention to My Squandered Country—perhaps too much attention for its own good. Without a penny of advertising the book emerged as Hungary’s best-selling nonfiction title this spring.
The son of middle-class Hungarian Jews, Lendvai was already covering politics in Hungary when the first major challenge to Soviet power in the Eastern Bloc broke out on the streets of Budapest in 1956. An avid supporter of the revolutionary government of Imre Nagy, Lendvai and his peers hoped to see a non-Stalinist—democratic—socialism take root in their country. Lendvai was, according to his own testimony, on the front lines of the student protests and the bloody house-to-house fighting when Nagy’s government was crushed by the Soviet Army, its members executed or jailed. Like tens of thousands of others, Lendvai fled the rule of the Soviet-installed regime. Via Prague and then Warsaw, he finally set up shop in Cold War Vienna, where he spent decades as a correspondent for London’s Financial Times and then as head of Austrian broadcasting’s Eastern Europe coverage. At home today between the old Habsburg capitals of Vienna and Budapest, his commentaries still appear regularly in the German-language and liberal-minded Hungarian press.
Lendvai has closely observed Hungary’s uneven transition from communism for twenty years. But nothing he has seen during that time worries him more than Orbán’s authoritarianism and the policies of Fidesz during the first six months of its current rule. Fidesz, Lendvai argues, is trying to turn the entire state apparatus into its own organ. Orbán has disabled the opposition, consolidated political power, and gained control of the media and the culture industry to a degree no one thought possible following communism’s downfall. Much like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Orbán has also established cliental networks deep in the business world. His connections to wealthy bankers and industrialists, diaspora organizations, and media outlets have created a vast extra-parliamentary power base. But most disturbing of all, Fidesz’s super-majority in the parliament has enabled it to pass controversial legislation without opposition, including far-reaching constitutional reforms that favor the perpetuation of Fidesz rule long beyond the current four-year term. The new constitution limits the independence of the judiciary, curtails civil liberties, and forces Christian ideology on the country. According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Fidesz constitution “undermines democratic political competition and makes political change more difficult by transforming institutional structures.” Thanks to what The Guardian describes as a “much enfeebled new constitutional court,” the system of checks and balances has deteriorated.
In its first half year, Viktor Orbán’s government has passed 43 new laws, changed 107 more, and modified the constitution six times.
As one would expect from a writer of Lendvai’s scope, his book reaches back further than the 1980s to explain Hungary’s current quandary. He focuses on how the abuse of history and persistent anti-Semitism taint Hungary’s political culture. Never, he argues, has Hungary—or, for that matter, its Central European neighbors—come to terms with the less illustrious episodes of the twentieth-century, as Germany has through its postwar vergangenheitsbewältigung (roughly, “struggling with the past”). Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany, the World War II deportation of Jews, and an ethnic ultra-nationalism complete with greater-state fantasies and minority bashing have never been self-critically processed.
As a result the cultural sources of these ugly affairs live on beside a version of history that portrays the good Magyars as victims of an array of enemies from international Jewry to Slovak patriots. The post–World War I Trianon treaty—which pared Habsburg Hungary down to its current size, leaving Magyar minorities stranded in neighboring Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania—remains an open wound for Hungarian nationalists nearly one hundred years later. One of Fidesz’s first moves after its 2010 victory was to introduce a “Day of National Belonging” on the 90th anniversary of the Trianon treaty, a symbolic act that ensures the trauma of modern Hungary’s birth lives on, as does simmering resentment toward the country’s neighbors. More and more private cars in Budapest bear stickers showing greater Hungary—the current territory, plus a chunk of northern Serbia and swathes of fellow EU members Austria, Slovakia, and Romania—in red, white, and green.
The Fidesz administration doesn’t explicitly propagate a greater-Hungary ideology, but nor do its representatives—in secondary schools, university faculties, and other influential positions—nip it in the bud. Fidesz and its allies on the right have taken advantage of the prevalence of nationalist discourse to tap into illiberal traditions and lionize authoritarian leaders of the past, such as Hungary’s World War II dictator Admiral Miklós Horthy.
The resurrection of Horthy’s image plays well for Orbán, who, over the course of 25 years in politics, has taken on something of his predecessor’s disdain for democratic principles. To his admirers, Horthy was an uncomplicated, anti-Communist statesman who won back Hungarian territories. Others see him as a reactionary who did nothing to stop the anti-Jewish laws instituted in 1938. Ultimately the Horthy cult is part of the bad-things-happened-to-us mentality now enshrined in the constitution, which effectively declares that the Hungarian state was not legally competent from March 1944, when the Germans invaded, to May 1990, when the first democratically elected government took office. In other words, Fidesz argues, the state isn’t responsible for its own recent past, and its more distant past presents nothing to complain about. All of this is especially troubling for historically persecuted communities, in particular Hungary’s 100,000 Jews.
Lendvai picks up Orbán in 1988 when, along with several law school classmates, he called Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats) to life as a stridently liberal party intent on upending communism and re-linking Hungary to the West. The iconic Fidesz poster of the time captured the spirit of the velvet revolutions: it shows the communist leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locked in an awkward smooch and below it a young Hungarian couple kissing gingerly. “Choose one,” the caption reads.
At the time, Orbán was just one of the Fidesz crew, a thoroughly appealing bunch. Orbán, born in 1963 in the village of Alcsútdoboz, graduated from high school with a special concentration in English and went on to Budapest’s esteemed Eötvös Loránd University law program. Like the other good-looking Fidesz guys—they were mostly men—he immediately impressed Western journalists, such as me, as exactly the kind of young Central European who would one day take the reins in these countries and steer them into the West once and for all. Orbán was exceedingly bright, unabashedly ambitious, and as straight as an arrow. An athletically built former professional soccer player and devout Calvinist family man, he was already on the way to fathering five children with his wife.
‘Never since WWII have so many Hungarians thought in ethnic and nationalist categories,’ Paul Lendvai writes.
His first moment in the limelight was June 16, 1989, when he addressed a packed-to-the-brim Heroes’ Square in central Budapest. The occasion was the public reburial of Nagy and other martyrs of the 1956 revolution, a pivotal turning point in the delegitimization of the communist regime. Orbán and other speakers demanded free elections and—the first to do so in the Eastern bloc—the withdrawal of Soviet troops. His address brought him national and even international acclaim. Nagy’s reburial marked the beginning of the end for Hungary’s communist rulers, the beneficiaries of the Soviet suppression of 1956. It dislodged one of the fundaments upon which the Soviet bloc rested.
After the Heroes’ Square event, as the regimes in Central Europe unravelled, Orbán distinguished himself as the most determined among Fidesz and turned the party into his personal vehicle. As Lendvai, one journalist who never took to Orbán, sees it:
The absolute will to power defined Orbán as a student leader and through his entire career, even if—thanks to incredible media savvy—the public saw him as a modest, goal-oriented politician with character and a clean slate.
Over the course of the 1990s, Fidesz shed its neoliberal garb for the trappings of a right-wing volkish party that played up to popular fears of “foreign capital” buying out a Hungary that was struggling with economic transition and the demands of EU integration. After Hungarian voters ousted the ruling moderate nationalists in 1994 and the reform communists and liberals in 1998, Fidesz and two smaller coalition partners cobbled together a government, with the 35-year-old Orbán as prime minister. Lendvai argues that, although this government also survived just one term, Orbán’s consolidation of power began then, with the placement of cronies in key media and bureaucratic positions and the cementing of close ties with nationalist-minded businessmen and industrial tycoons.
Lendvai describes in precise detail how, even when Fidesz was voted into the opposition in 2002, these connections to Hungary’s super-rich—figures such as Gábor Széles, Zoltán Spéder, Tamás Fellegi, István Töröcskei, and Kristof Noblis, all among Hungary’s wealthiest men—enabled Orbán to build a brashly nationalist, partisan media empire that spans print, television, radio, and the Internet. The mass circulation dailies Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap; the publicly funded MTV and numerous smaller private television and radio stations such as Hir TV and Lanchid Radio; free subway tabloids; and countless Web sites, such as inforadio.hu, are reliable Fidesz supporters. After the 2002 election, their shrill tone turned Hungarian politics into a shouting match that the loudest were certain to win. The socialists were repeatedly demonized as “national traitors” who, Orbán claimed, “stole” the election. The Orbán-loyal media hammered away at national populist themes such as the injustice of Trianon, Roma crime, and the unfairness of EU diktats.
More than any other factor, Lendvai argues, this discourse laid the groundwork for Fidesz’s overwhelming 2010 victory. Along with it rose the overtly xenophobic and anti-Semitic Jobbik party, a byproduct of Fidesz that made the Roma, law-and-order, and greater Hungary its raisons d’être. Jobbik, essentially a fascist party, garnered an astounding 17 percent of the vote in 2010—and, even more shocking, 23 percent of those cast by 18–29 year-olds. For this generation, most of them teenagers or younger when Hungary joined the European Union 2004, the vulgar diet of the Fidesz and Jobbik press—Magyar Hírlap, in particular, gravitates toward Jobbik—is mainstream stuff. “It’s no wonder,” Lendvai writes, citing surveys, “that never since WWII have so many Hungarians thought in ethnic and nationalist categories.” The difference between Fidesz and Jobbik, he says, is a “question of nuances.”
It can’t be overlooked that Orbán’s return to power—and the scale of Fidesz’s majority in parliament—was unthinkable without the audacious corruption and bumbling of the socialist-liberal governments of 2002–2010. The socialists, a reformed version of the communist party, were unable to turn themselves into a genuine Social Democratic party like those in Western Europe. The Free Democrats, the country’s once-proud little party of intellectuals and urban liberals, tore itself to pieces. Orbán eliminated conservative rivals by breaking them apart and absorbing their remnants, leaving most of Hungary’s conservative-oriented centrists nowhere to turn but Fidesz.
Never before had Fidesz’s opponents been so feeble, and by the time the spring 2010 elections came around, the polls left no doubt that Fidesz would win big and Jobbik would be close behind. Since Fidesz’s “revolution at the ballot box,” Orbán has proceeded as radically as promised—which is more radically than anyone, even Lendvai, believed possible. In its first half year under the current Fidesz government, the national legislature worked at breakneck speed, passing 43 new laws, changing 107 more, and modifying the constitution six times. Relations with Central European neighbors nose-dived when the leadership offered dual citizenship to the Magyar minorities in the near diaspora. A law that gave the government far-reaching power to penalize critical media was passed on the eve of Budapest’s ascension to the EU council presidency. The resulting outcry led to the law’s partial revocation, but critics in the European Parliament, including the vocal German legislator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, say it is essentially unchanged. Orbán has bluntly told them to mind their own damn business. And even though the European Union now has its eye on Hungary, there isn’t a lot it can do. The Union has little influence on the internal political struggles of member states, and it has faltered before in this regard, such as when Austria’s far-right Freedom Party joined the government there in 1999.
‘What harm did [Lendvai’s] homeland ever do to him to deserve this?’ one Orbán-loyal columnist complained.
Fidesz contends that critics, including Lendvai, exaggerate, that Fidesz is a normal conservative party. The party has publicly condemned Jobbik and stands firmly by Hungary’s current borders. It is a member of the European Parliament’s conservative coalition, alongside Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It has made Roma inclusion one of the centerpieces of its EU presidency.
But the politics-as-usual image that Fidesz and Orbàn project to the outside world is belied by its domestic activities. There is no better example of how the Fidesz state works than its reaction to Lendvai’s book. The crackdown commenced even before it came out in Hungarian. At the first readings that Lendvai gave in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, the World Federation of Hungarians—a nationalistic association of worldwide Magyars with chapters on four continents, including in the United States—was out in force. Though ostensibly independent, the right-wing exile lobby is part of Fidesz’s extra-parliamentary network, an inexpensive, dogged proxy easily set into motion.
Lendvai and the organizations that hosted him were bombarded with vicious emails and phone calls, some plainly anti-Semitic, accusing him of slander and hatred toward Hungary. Diaspora Hungarians picketed readings. Hungarian television broadcast the picketers—“Who are these lies helping?” read one placard, insinuating that unnamed, external, “non-Hungarian” forces (typical code in Hungarian for a perceived global Jewish conspiracy) were at work. In these news programs, nothing was reported about the readings or the book. A November 2010 talk at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Frankfurt was cancelled due to threats of violence, including to Lendvai himself. The Foundation, a staunch proponent of human rights, said the security risk was simply too great, and that its request for police protection from the city was refused.
By then the vast Orbán-loyal media in Hungary had set its wheels in motion. In addition to reporting on the diaspora reaction—in the opinion of the Hungarian media, the protests were peaceful and justified—the press lashed out at Lendvai. Under a massive front-page headline, the weekly Heti Válasz accused him of being a mole for the Hungarian intelligence services during the 1980s. From then on, the Fidesz media empire rehashed the charge as fact. Even friends of mine in Budapest—no fans of Fidesz—repeated the allegations to me, suggesting the effectiveness of this sort of smear campaign, in which repetition and volume trump reason. Lendvai calls the charges “completely absurd,” a transparent move to discredit him and the book, ultimately the objective of the campaign.
In addition to defaming Lendvai, the Fidesz media have questioned his motives. In Magyar Hírlap the columnist György Vámos wrote that figures such as Lendvai and the U.S.-based, Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller make a living by defaming Hungary and are the source of Hungary’s negative image in the world. “For twenty years, since it was first possible to talk openly about Hungary’s Jews,” Vámos wrote
Lendvai has jumped at every opportunity to drum the revival of ‘anti-Semitism’ in Hungary into the Western press . . . . For how much longer does he intend to vilify his former homeland? . . . What harm did his homeland ever do to him to deserve this?
As the campaign against Lendvai heated up, his Hungarian publisher, Corvina Press, lost interest in the translation. Corvina is a reputable, good-sized publisher that, in the past, has not shied away from titles that ruffle nationalist feathers, including the translation of Kati Marton’s Enemies of the People. But just as the Hungarian edition of Lendvai’s book was in its final stages, Corvina went silent. When Lendvai inquired into the matter, the house’s director hemmed and hawed. Perhaps, he said, it was still too early to judge the Fidesz administration, and maybe it was the job of historians, not journalists, to do so. To Corvina’s obvious relief, Lendvai withdrew the manuscript and terminated the contract, opting instead for his old publisher, Kossuth.
But if Fidesz’s aim was to steer Hungarians away from the book by tarnishing Lendvai, its strategy appears to have backfired, at least in the short run. The controversy surrounding the book generated a dozen interviews and reviews in the German-language press and extensive coverage in Hungary’s independent and socialist-leaning media, newspapers such as Nepszabadsag, Nepszava, 168 ora, HVG, and Hetek; smaller, like-minded radio and TV stations; as well as blogs and online newspapers. The first run of 3,000 copies sold out in days. With a 5,000-run second printing selling briskly, Kossuth has scheduled a third, updated edition. These are impressive numbers for the Hungarian market. Lendvai’s readings and signings in Hungary have been packed to capacity, some sold out a week in advance.
Why are Hungarians scrambling to get their hands on Lendvai’s book? Jozsef Korossi, who directs the division of Kossuth that published My Squandered Country, believes many Hungarians are struggling to comprehend “what has gone wrong in Hungary over the last twenty years.” The paucity of credible opposition has created a vacuum, he says, leaving leftist and liberal-minded Hungarians without a home, without a source to explain the Orbán phenomenon and Hungary’s dilemma more generally. Lendvai, Korossi says, is “one of the few Hungarian figures who’s not associated with one of the current or former parties.” Korossi also believes that attacks from the right have generated increased interest.
Even though the book has sold surprisingly well, it’s difficult to judge whether it has had an impact on Hungarian politics. Opinion polls, though, show that Fidesz’s radical policies have already cost it about a quarter of its 2010 support. Yet none of the opposition parties have gained from the rising disillusionment. Dissent seems to be finding its home in the streets: March demonstrations against the media law and the new constitution drew around 25,000 protesters in Budapest and elsewhere. These were the largest political protests since 1989.
I had lunch with Lendvai when I passed through Budapest in April. He’s tickled that he has finally written a best seller. We walked along the Danube to a local bookstore, a hole-in-the-wall place called Láng Téka Könyvesbolt. The women in charge couldn’t repress smiles when we came in, and they hovered over Lendvai as he signed copies. “This kind of brouhaha is good for sales but not for my blood pressure,” he said in his low, gravelly voice, grinning. He didn’t feel threatened at his home or even on the streets, but nor, he said, would he give a reading at Heroes’ Square, one of Budapest’s most open, public venues. “It’s hard to gauge how far they’ll go,” he said of the regime and its supporters. “With people like this, everything is possible.”