Longing for Greater Hungary

Jan-Werner Müller

In the 1980s Hungary was known as the ‘merriest barracks in the socialist camp’. After the suppression of the 1956 uprising by the Red Army, János Kádár instituted what became known as ‘goulash communism’, characterised by a policy of ‘little freedoms’: Hungarians could travel abroad, trade privately and say what they liked, so long as they didn’t attack the regime directly. Kádár, the illegitimate son of a half-Slovak chambermaid, managed to persuade the Hungarians to see him as a plain-spoken ‘father of the people’. He punished the revolutionaries, promoted his critics, encouraged consumerism and turned totalitarian logic upside down by claiming that ‘whoever is not against us is with us.’ The country’s exit from state socialism was among the smoothest in Eastern Europe. Hungary spent the 1990s as a model pupil of the West, finally joining the EU in 2004. Now, almost a decade on, it is led by the charismatic, self-declared ‘right-wing plebeian’ Viktor Orbán, a man whom critics charge with the ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary. Thanks to his government’s undermining of the rule of law, Hungary risks being the first EU member state to be sanctioned for violating ‘shared European values’. In central Budapest paramilitaries in black uniforms patrol the streets – they are supposedly ‘fighting Gypsy crime’ – and tourists emerging from the beautifully restored Fin de Siècle Kaffeehäuser are liable to find themselves facing an angry crowd burning the EU flag. What happened? And why in Hungary?

Some intellectuals in the country think the answer is straightforward: Hungarians never really became democrats. First under the Ottomans, then under the Habsburgs, and on through the 20th century’s experiments with right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, they relied on informal arrangements that enabled them to bypass official structures. There’s still a large shadow economy and widespread tax evasion. The salient causes of the current crisis, however, are to be found in the history of the past two decades: the peculiar nature of the transition from communism, which Hungarians simply call ‘the changes’; the long decline and recent discrediting of both the social democrats and the liberals; and the paradoxical figure of Orbán, who has dominated Hungarian politics since the mid-1990s.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, the transition to liberal democracy was negotiated round a table; unlike elsewhere, however, the participants decided to leave the 1949 Stalinist constitution in place, merely amending it section by section – according to a contemporary joke, the only article left unchanged was the one that said ‘Budapest is the capital of Hungary.’ The first post-communist government, headed by the Christian Democrat historian József Antall, promised to rule with ‘calm authority’ and got on splendidly with the ex-communists. It did little to change the state apparatus or the economy, but kept itself busy by waging war on the media and debating whether to recognise the ‘knightly orders’ created during the authoritarian interwar regime of Miklós Horthy. It even made timid moves towards rehabilitating Horthy himself. But people weren’t interested in symbolic changes: they wanted Budapest to be more like Vienna (only three hours away by train and a place many Hungarians, availing themselves of their ‘little freedoms’, had been able to visit before 1989).

In 1994, they voted overwhelmingly for the ‘expertise’ promised by the Socialist Party. The ex-communists entered into a coalition with their former enemies, the liberal dissidents, whose Alliance of Free Democrats – led by a group of academics and intellectuals – had the support of around 20 per cent of the electorate. It was this nominally social-liberal government that got serious about introducing capitalism. Plagued by corruption scandals, it was kicked out in 1998, and Orbán took office.

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