Just as I was about to commit to paper this long planned last part of my essay, Ferenc Gyurcsány came to my aid two days ago with his summary of Viktor Orbán’s and Fidesz’s “invaluable” contributions to the dismal financial state of Hungary. We may also note that he is actually generous to Orbán by staying mum about the permanent division of society that was unimaginable before Fidesz forced it on the country.
In keeping with my earlier claim of lining Orbán up with his distasteful predecessors, I offer you the historical and economic evidence here to give him the hypothetical coup de grâce.
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After failing dismally in the election of 1919, Benito Mussolini united the right and formed the militias that helped to break a strike in Milan and infiltrated the industrial mainland of Italy, the Po Valley. In a short two years his tactics of general intimidation and the incorporating of his rivals into his own Fascist party finally netted him the result of getting his party elected to Parliament in 1921. He had only one rival left, the poet and nationalist firebrand Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was actually favoured by the government. But, wanting to avoid taking any chances, Mussolini decided to force his way into power. With the help of the ultra-right leaders, by then his deputies, he organized the March on Rome. While he didn’t actually march with his followers, he exhorted them to the task and goaded them from behind the lines.
Although extremely vague about his actual program, advocating mostly the betterment of conditions for the population, he insisted on “uniting the right,” and so, in Milan on October 24, 1922, he informed his followers about his program: “We want to rule Italy!”
Although the number of participants in the March was fewer then thirty thousand, the climate of fear and intimidation, spread over the country in the previous two years, was enough to convince the king that unless Mussolini is given the power of governing, the country would face civil war. The king and the government capitulated to Mussolini in four days and he was appointed prime minister of Italy on October 28, 1922.
The general dissatisfaction following the war permeating Italian society, combined with the disastrous economic situation of the country, was a ready-made circumstance for the fascists to succeed. The state was crackling under the burden of debt. Unemployment and inflation were staggering. By offering the suppression of worker’s rights and welfare, – already quite dismal – he garnered a great deal of financial support from the moneyed classes. Members of the military surreptitiously supplied him with arms in the increasingly bitter, open struggle against the socialists. Under these circumstances the social and economic state of the country could only plummet toward the abyss. Mussolini, after doing everything in his power to foment and increase the crisis, offered himself forcefully as the “strong man” able to fix all problems. And in case anyone would doubt his suitability, and there were many who did, he was threatening civil war by organizing the March to convince them. As an oft-confirmed opportunist, Mussolini hand-sculpted his programs to fit the needs of the month, the week, even the day, to suit it to the immediate demands of the moment.
He came into power by widening the constitutional framework far enough to turn it to his own advantage, applying one single provision that facilitated his take-over, and then from within that constitution he proceeded to overthrow it.
Mussolini’s policies aimed for national glory and admiration in foreign policy. Domestically a strong nation and universal cooperation were his goals: the State controlled all aspects of life and people’s value was determined by their usefulness to the state. All aspects of life were to be subjugated to the glory of the state and that of the Fascist Party.
After gaining power, he solidified his grip over the state by placing his cadre into most positions and introduced a growing personal cult glorifying his accomplishments. He was not ready to countenance any criticism: when in 1924 the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti criticized fascism and him in parliament, he was murdered immediately. In Mussolini’s Italy there was no room for opposition.
Finally, in 1929 he finagled to himself all legislative authority, governed by decree from then on and made all decisions in personal appointments. Converted the economy into a corporate conglomerate under his own chairmanship. Total control and personal deification accomplished in less than ten years.
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The Weimar republic, conceived under the most inauspicious circumstances, after a lost war, a punitive peace treaty and obligations to pay crippling war reparations, was not promising to be a successful first try in democracy to replace a most authoritative empire. However, it accomplished some success nevertheless, thanks to the ingenuity of its politicians and the fact that Germany actually hardly suffered any of the war destruction plaguing France and the surrounding countries where the war was actually fought. The social and cultural ferment the Weimar Republic is so famous for propelled Germany to fast recovery until the arrival of the depression in 1929.
Adolf Hitler was first ignored and then jailed after his first forays into politics in Munich in 1923. The republic just was not ready for his kind of politics. But by 1930, when the rapidly changing governments were unable to hold on to power, society was too busy getting immersed in avant-garde art and saucy entertainment, amidst the ravages of the economic disintegration: hyperinflation first, and the depression soon after.
The Republic never recovered from the effects of hyperinflation and as it attempted to consolidate, the result was unprecedented indebtedness. All the Nazis had to do was get into the social breaches everywhere and spread the blame for those ills on everybody else, while claiming to have the panacea: strong leadership. Their policies and activities hastened the widening of those breaches in order to increase demand for their panacea.
Applying, perhaps unintentionally, the tactical methods of General Helmuth von Moltke, small units of uniformed thugs were fighting on the streets of cities and intimidating the population, adding social insecurity to the economic uncertanties and general malaise Hitler’s party created. These tactics engendered in the minds of Germans the yearning for order, and his party, after having created it, offered to alleviate the malaise. In a short three years he managed to parlay a modest but surprising electoral success of 18% in 1930 to a gambit of persuading the parties in the paralyzed Reichstag and the wizened old president to support his chancellorship in order to end the chaos. Since this was the only offer they had not yet tried, they agreed.
The Nazi party and Hitler came into power by entirely constitutional means and with the acquiescence of the state institutions, using one single provision of the constitution as the base from which they set out to abolish it. Within a week after his appointment, the campaign against the opposition, the press, and the trappings of the Republic commenced.
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There is scarcely any need to recount all the similarities easily detected in the techniques used by Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in their takeover of the Hungarian Republic.
Orbán–as Mussolini turned from socialist to corporatist–transformed his party from liberal to conservative. Then, according to the recipe, forced his way into the breaches of society to spread blame and offer a panacea. The country, first reeling under the effects of indebtedness and then the crisis of 2008, was open to hear the call of a strong leader. The marching and intimidation spread by uniformed “guards” and all the associated propaganda provided the background yearning for security. While insisting on a universal refusal for any modernization in the economy, he spread the myth of instant social justice in exchange for power. According to the tried out recipe, he courted the support of the churches and received unconditional support even at a cost to the taxpayers, as he is offering to increase the financial contributions of the state. Thus he is emulating the infamous concordats forged at the time by Italy and Germany with the Vatican.
As the Gyurcsány article recounts Fidesz’s progress in the last eight years, they strove to stampede the treasury into increasingly irresponsible fiscal adventures, but at the same time claimed that those very adventures, and their effects, can only be remedied by themselves. Their appeal to scapegoating and discrediting their opponents, but apart from claiming “secret weapons” against the ills of the country, never actually presented any plans and, even in power, they only have the same limited arsenal to offer: blaming the preceding government and improvised attempts at management. Their main overarching goal is the perpetuation of their reign and the annihilation of all possible alternatives.
Barely having completed their takeover by constitutional means they were immediately on the warpath against the constitution.
The listing of similarities alone doesn’t give a full picture, nor is it enough to provide a reasonable ground for predictions without considering also the differences. However, most of those differences are due to the international context, the presence and force of the European Union that makes Fidesz's job of becoming an unfettered dictatorship more difficult than it was in the 1930s in the climate of post-war disintegration. But this will not deter them from trying. The political pressure cooker they have created in Hungary, for the sole purpose of making their takeover possible and enduring, doesn’t function as airtight as it did in the Weimar Republic. The electorate is better educated and better connected to the world, communication and free movement of people are irrepressible now, and as a consequence the “system” is far from being airtight. And the “leakage” works both ways: inbound influences and outbound leaks and embarrassments weaken the grip of the Fidesz.
But the magnum default is that Fidesz, and even more so Orbán, seem to believe their own propaganda of their infallibility and their calling. They are hurtling along a path set blindly and without caution to first explode, and then reconstitute the country regardless of the consequences. This could have worked for Italy and Germany in the 30s, there was no alternative and no resistance at the time. Now, however, there is the alternative, the example of the entire Europe in clear view, and the resistance, increasing almost by the day, to the ham-fisted destruction wreaked by this crew. The country, as vulnerable as it is, won’t need much pressure from the market, the IMF, or the EU to buckle under, even if Orbán doubts that it would come about before his job is complete. But before any pressure should be applied from abroad, the internal weaknesses, the ecomomy’s declining ability to perform, the increasing social misery and inequality, the tensions between groups of all kinds within society and the brazen disregard shown by Fidesz to all that, will increase the internal pressures to a level that couldn’t be controlled by even a great statesman, never mind the limited technician that Orban is.
What is it then that can be expected to happen?
I expect that the accelerating pressure applied by Fidesz to society to transform by necessity must meet the familiar and inevitable resistance similar in magnitude, opposite in direction, and before the time for the next election rolls around in 2014 Fidesz and Orbán will be a spent force. They may attempt to run in the next election, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the hatred they introduced in Hungary would sweep them away even before that. He who lives by the sword must die by the sword and Orban and his creation will be pulverized by his own creation, the “unified” society united by its complete and inexorable repudiation of his failed and anachronistic system.