Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of The Weekly Standard, a neo-conservative magazine, wrote a laudatory article about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Caldwell’s conclusion is that Viktor Orbán’s un0rthodox economic policies might be worth watching. The economic crisis revealed that the Western countries have been “fiscally irresponsible, intellectually exhausted, and out of economic-policy tricks.” So, the West should let “nations follow any peaceful inclination that would allow them to serve as laboratories of policy.” But, Caldwell adds, it seems that Western leaders are not willing to countenance any such thing.
The pro-government Magyar Nemzet gave a fairly detailed summary of “To Viktor Go the Spoils: Is Europe right to distrust Hungary’s prime minister?” It must be heartwarming to pro-Fidesz forces that at last there is one American article that speaks of Orbán and his regime sympathetically. Normally Fidesz politicians and media workers hear only criticisms, with journalists pointing out the dangers of Orbán’s policies to Hungarian democracy. Every time such an article appears–and they appear quite often in American, British, French, and German publications–these people are madly looking for factual mistakes in the foreign articles. By finding small mistakes they try to discredit the content of the whole piece.
Interestingly, Magyar Nemzet doesn’t mention any factual errors in Christopher Caldwell’s article although it is crawling with misstatements. Without trying to argue with him on his analyses and conclusions, I would simply like to straighten out his misconceptions about Hungarian politics and history.
Caldwell briefly outlines the political developments between 2006 and 2010 and mentions that after the leaked speech of Balatonőszöd “Gyurcsány rejected calls for his resignation.” In reality, Gyurcsány asked for a vote of confidence, which the MPs of the coalition parties could have denied. But they decided to support him. The opposition, headed by Viktor Orbán, did call for his resignation.
In describing the violent demonstrations right after Gyurcsány’s speech became public Caldwell is hopelessly mixed up about the dates and locations. According to him it was on October 23, 2006 that “one group tried to burn down the radio station.” Well, it wasn’t on October 23 but on September 18 and it wasn’t the radio station but the headquarters of MTV, the Hungarian public television station. According to him the policemen were the ones who wore masks, not the attackers. An interesting concept. He meekly mentions that the “demonstrations were not wholly peaceful.” Maybe Caldwell should take a look at some of the footage taken of the events.
He is also misinformed about Gordon Bajnai, whom he describes as an “MSZP businessman.” Well, he is a businessman all right but he has never been a member of the Hungarian Socialist party.
Caldwell also believes the erroneous story that “unlike other Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary did not start from constitutional scratch after the end of communism in 1989. Until this year, society was guided in large part by a constitution written in 1949.” In 1989 the old constitution was rewritten almost completely and it functioned quite well as the constitution of a democratic country, although it is true that the date on the constitution wasn’t changed.
The author manages to squeeze in yet another wrong fact about the official name of Hungary. He claims that “the new constitution changes the country’s name from the old Soviet-era ‘Republic of Hungary’ to just ‘Hungary.'” Wrong. During the Soviet period the country’s name was Hungarian People’s Republic (Magyar Népköztársaság) and it was changed to Republic of Hungary (Magyar Köztársaság) in 1989. Taking out the word “republic” is unfortunately quite significant.
When it comes to the media Caldwell claims that it is “wrong to impute widespread journalistic layoffs to political meddling rather than the worldwide collapse of the journalism industry.” Unfortunately there is more to the current Hungarian situation than the general malaise of the written media. Interestingly, pro-government publications thrive while opposition papers linger. The former are being sponsored indirectly by government advertisement and generous subscriptions. Practically no government ads go to papers critical of the government. Moreover, Caldwell seems to forget completely about the case of Klubrádió where the government’s intention to shut it down is clear and only brave judges keep it alive for two months at a time. On public television and radio stations the news comes from a government agency, and therefore the news that reaches the public is filtered by government-appointed officials.
Hungarian history is not Caldwell’s strength. He claims that Hungary “in 1920, at the Treaty of Trianon, lost two-thirds of its territory and 3 million of its citizens.” Wrong again. Not counting Croatia-Slavonia, Hungary lost 67.4% of its territories and 41.6% of its population. Considering that the total population of Hungary proper was 18,264,533 in 1910 Hungary lost not 3 million people but approximately 7.5 million. What Caldwell is talking about is the Hungarian-speaking population of the lost territories.
I was surprised to see that Christopher Caldwell thinks that there is a “Hungarian-speaking enclave” in the Czech Republic. The Czechs don’t seem to be aware of its existence.
It is hard for the author to decide what to call Jobbik, which according to him “has nationalism, and even fascism, at its heart.” He mentions that in his half-hour conversation with Ferenc Gyurcsány while he was on a hunger strike protesting the proposed voter registration the former prime minister told him:”I want to be clear–it is a neo-Nazi party.” However, it seems that Gyurcsány didn’t manage to convince him. In fact, he describes the reaction to Jobbik as “hair-trigger sensitivity.” This is understandable “given the gory efficiency with which Hungary’s Arrow Cross government eliminated the entire rural Jewish population of the country in World War II.” Oh, my! This is really bad. It was only after October 15, 1944 that Ferenc Szálasi’s government was sworn in. By then the rural Jewish population had been shipped to Auschwitz with the active assistance of the Hungarian government. At that point Miklós Horthy was still the regent of the country; he didn’t interfere until July, when he stopped the transports.
Jobbik’s anti-Roma and anti-Semite activities are described thus: “Jobbik devotes a great deal of its mental energy to Hungary’s roughly 700,000 gypsies (or roma, as they are also called), who account for much of the country’s poverty and crime, and to Israel.” Delicately put: “mental energy.” Moreover, the author can’t back up his claim about Gypsy crime (even though it may be true) because no official distinction exists between Roma and non-Roma.
I guess that’s enough for the time being. So, echoing the standard criticism of foreign journalists we hear from the Fidesz camp, with so many factual errors and outright sloppiness how much credence can we give to the author’s substantive message?