Paul Lendvai: Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism: A book review
Paul Lendvai has achieved quite a feat with his Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). Lendvai, a well kn0wn journalist who was born in Hungary but has been living in Austria since 1957, is in a way part of the story he is writing about. Due to his stature outside and inside of Hungary he had the good fortune to have personal encounters with all the public figures mentioned in this book.
Hungary Between Democracy and Authoritarianism is more than a history of the last twenty-five years of Hungarian history. In a mere 250 pages Lendvai also investigates Hungarian nationalism, the roots of antisemitism, the state of the Hungarian media, the growth of the extreme right and its targets, the Roma and the Jews. Each of these topics is discussed for only a few pages, but Lendvai provides the reader with enough information to understand the intricacies of day to day events in Hungary.
For background Lendvai describes the failed 1956 uprising and its consequences and offers a brief but apt description of the nature of the Kádár regime that followed it. Lendvai was a fairly frequent visitor in Hungary even before the change of regime in 1989-1990 and has some wonderful descriptions of the leading politicians of the communist regime. For example, he met Károly Grósz, successor to János Kádár, twice. Once in the fall of 1988 and again in May 1989. The description of the change in Grósz is masterful. Within a few months Grósz “no longer seemed to be in the driving seat but a passenger.” He also recounts meeting Gyula Horn, then undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, in 1985 who “with the radio turned up and standing next to an open window whispered his critical observations about Soviet foreign policy” into Lendvai’s ears.
There are two biographies of József Antall in Hungarian, one critical and the other more admiring. Both are long and informative, but one can perhaps learn more about him from Lendvai who in a few pages seems to capture the essence of the man. I found telling, for example, something that I had read nowhere else before: that Antall’s embossed visiting card listed all his titles in Latin (!), English, and Hungarian. In twenty-two pages Lendvai describes both Antall the person and the history of the Antall-Boross governments.
The account of the period between 1994 and 1998 when the Socialists and the Free Democrats (SZDSZ) together had more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament is also excellent. Lendvai’s description of Horn as a “shrewd political operator” is at the center of his analysis of the socialist-liberal coalition, but he pays ample attention as well to Horn’s first two ministers of finance, László Békesi and Lajos Bokros, who today are vocal against the economic policies of the current administration. He also outlines the uneasy relationship of the coalition partners that led to the increasing marginalization of SZDSZ and the corruption scandals that contributed to the socialist-liberal coalition’s political defeat.
Viktor Orbán is discussed in two chapters. In chapter 6, entitled “The Young Comet–Viktor Orbán,” we read about Fidesz’s move from the liberal to the conservative side and Orbán’s ever increasing nationalism and populism. Orbán is described as a man of “overwhelming lust for power” and “a man who almost automatically believes the veracity of whatever he considers to be politically useful to him.” It was discovered already during the first Orbán government that Orbán believes in “the primacy of politics over economics.”
There is a chapter on Péter Medgyessy, the anything but charismatic politician, who managed to defeat Viktor Orbán in 2002. He was described by people who knew him as “capable, but vain, and weak.” According to colleagues who worked with him he was Hungary’s worst prime minister, “the one who caused the greatest damage.” Or “a man who neither could make a decision nor inspire an example. He simply wanted to add to his CV the fact that he had been prime minister.” Not a very flattering picture. I must say that the few interviews I heard him give after he resigned confirm Lendvai’s negative image.
The Gyurcsány portrait is also interesting. Lendvai met him first in 2004 when Ferenc Gyurcsány was still minister of sports in the Medgyessy government. Lendvai describes him as “an exotic bird of paradise.” Different from the run of the mill socialist politicians. In his very first conversation with Lendvai “he pulled the Socialist Party to pieces, deriding it as a party incapable of deciding whom and what it represented.” After this first meeting Lendvai was convinced that Gyurcsány was “probably the most gifted and most dynamic politician in the socialist-liberal camp,” but he forgot Churchill’s warning, “In politics, especially at the top, there is no friendship.” Lendvai summarizes Gyurcsány’s role in Hungarian politics: “The flame of this perhaps greatest political talent in the post-communist history of the Hungarian left flared but briefly. Ferenc Gyurcsány turned out to be (in the sense of Jakob Burckhardt’s reflections on history) a ‘man of momentary greatness.’”
A whole chapter is devoted to the “Cold War at the Top–Orbán versus Gyurcsány.” This cold war is described as “a life and death struggle that destroyed Gyurcsány.” Lendvai lists the instruments that were used in this struggle by the master strategist, Viktor Orbán.
In addition to the chapters outlining the political events in Hungary more or less chronologically, there are important chapters that help the reader understand the background to these events. I especially enjoyed the chapter on the Hungarians’ sense of history entitled “The Sense of Mission of an Easily Seducible Nation.” One can ponder poll results that show that 76% of Hungarians believe that the Hungarians are related to the Huns and 79% are certain that during the reign of Louis Greater Hungary bordered on three seas. Or, 70% of all Hungarians are absolutely certain that the Hungarians treated the minorities living in Hungary fairly and only 9% think otherwise. As for Trianon, the results are equally shocking. In 2010 45% of the people said that the results of the border changes mustn’t be accepted.
There is an excellent chapter on the state of the Hungarian media with special emphasis on the media empire Fidesz built between 2000 and 2010. There are plenty of examples from right-wing papers that would give foreigners a fair idea of the state of journalism in Hungary. Chapters on the roots of antisemitism and anti-Roma attitudes are also helpful in understanding the current state of the affairs.
The last chapter is an addition to the original German edition of the book. Apparently, Viktor Orbán was greatly offended by it and made no secret of the fact that he considers Paul Lendvai an enemy. The title of this chapter is “Orbán Über Alles–Hungary at a Dead End.” In it Orbán is described as “a master tactician, a gifted populist, a radical and consummate opportunist, a ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximizing his power without any compunction, giving vent to Hungarian nationalism or tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis.”
Foreign diplomats, journalists, and businessmen who for one reason or another are planning to spend some time in Hungary should definitely read Lendvai’s book for background information. The rest of us can learn from Lendvai’s unique insights.