Viktor Orbán’s self image: A worthy successor to István Bethlen

It was about a year ago in November that I wrote a post on the political career of István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931. It was right after the week-long power outage during which I decided to reread Ignác Romsics’s biography of Bethlen, the most talented politician of the interwar period. At that time I didn’t think that within a year István Bethlen would be declared the twentieth-century forerunner of Viktor Orbán. At least in the eyes of the head of the current government, whose activities of the last three and a half years have earned him the epithet “Godfather.” Poor Bethlen is turning in his grave.

It has been obvious for a long time that Viktor Orbán and his entourage have been madly looking for an ideological forebear on the right who is not tainted by servility to Hitler’s Third Reich or by rabid anti-Semitism.  But, given Hungarian historical reality, it was hard to find the right man. During the first Orbán administration they experimented with early heroes and religious figures: St. Stephen and the Virgin Mary. But it was tough to adapt the activities of an eleventh-century king about whom we know relatively little to the political needs of today. Stephen is still venerated, however. Only recently 35,000 graduating high school students received from the Orbán government a free copy of György Györffy’s István király és műve (1977), a 667-page tome.

The reburial of Miklós Horthy during the Antall government gave impetus to a reexamination of the Horthy regime, presumably in the hope that Horthy’s person and the whole period might be presented in a more favorable light. But it is hard to be sanguine about a twenty-five-year period that led to a lost war, incredible human and material suffering, the Holocaust, and an outright Nazi regime. A hopeless task, if you ask me. The reevaluation of Horthy is still under way, and a Horthy cult emerged recently that was originally initiated by Jobbik and rapidly taken over by the government itself. Writers who by and large were supporters of the Horthy regime began to be rehabilitated, but it turned out that the politicians who were promoting their revival knew little about their literary worth or their political orientation that led them badly astray.

But now they seem to have found their man in István Bethlen, who had nothing to do with Hitler, had to hide from the Nazis when they occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, and finally died in a prison hospital in Moscow after he was arrested by the Soviets. It is, on the surface, a perfect fit.  The government decided to unveil a statue of the former prime minister on October 8, 2013, Bethlen’s birthday.

A couple of days before the statue was unveiled a conference was organized under the sponsorship of László Kövér, who was also the keynote speaker.  Kövér came up with a surprising assessment of Bethlen who, according to him, was a divisive man because “those who were interested in the everlasting submission and debilitation of Hungary wanted to forget him. But those whose goal was an independent and strong Hungary remember him and want to remind others of the man.” This is a typical example of how Fidesz politicians operate, excluding those who don’t happen to agree with the official view even when it comes to an assessment of a historical figure. Naturally, there were allusions to Marxism and “the lies of pseudo-liberals.”

Géza Stremeny: István Bethlen (1875-1946)

Géza Stremeny: István Bethlen (1874-1946)

At the unveiling that took place on Saint George’s Square in the Castle district Viktor Orbán was introduced as “the prime minister who shapes our age.” He then gave a fifteen-minute speech. But before I analyze Orbán’s speech I would like to say a few words about the statue itself. The sculptor was Géza Stremeny, a well-known artist. I checked out some of his work and like most of it, but this particular one reminds me, at least in composition, too much of the truly brilliant sculpture of Mihály Károlyi by Imre Varga, which was unceremoniously removed from Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Both have a frame around the figure, but Stremeny’s is stark, with an echo of a gallows, as opposed to Varga’s rounded frame. Both men stand in a similar pose, leaning on a cane. I suggest taking a look at the Károlyi statue to see what I mean.

But let’s move on to the speech that was received with mixed emotions in opposition circles. There is no question that Orbán portrayed himself as a worthy equal of István Bethlen. “When István Bethlen occupied the office of the prime minister Hungary was losing on all fronts. It was a country that was isolated; it was on the verge of economic collapse. Let’s face it, it was a humiliated country.” But Bethlen realized that “Hungary shouldn’t expect a better future with the help of foreign lands but only from its own diligence and self-sacrificing work….  He believed that creative work is the only right strategy.”

In reality, Bethlen managed to get a low-interest loan from the League of Nations which at that point served as a kind of IMF. Even Orbán had to admit that much, but he immediately added that Bethlen didn’t use the borrowed money for welfare purposes but for job creation. “This policy was a brave one which bore fruit. In a decade Hungary managed to stand on its own feet again.” Clearly, this is what’s going on at the present time in Hungary. “We can say with all modesty that although there is still much work to be done, by now Hungary has regained its vitality and is getting stronger every day.”

Orbán’s speechwriters managed to find a Bethlen passage from 1931 that also came in handy: “We must realize that there are always those who want to use the economic crisis to their own advantage…. That’s why some people blacken the good name of the country abroad because they hope that the foreign powers will force such reforms on us that will enable them to gain power.” A little later we will understand what Bethlen was actually talking about.

Finally, he made sure that Bethlen will receive his deserved place in the national pantheon right after Ferenc Rákóczi, István Széchenyi, and Lajos Kossuth. He closed his speech “Glory to István Bethlen, glory to Hungary’s prime minister.”

What Viktor Orbán didn’t mention was that by 1931 Hungary was so indebted that the country was on the verge of insolvency. Foreign financial experts suggested another loan from the League of Nations, advice Bethlen refused to take. It turned out that the Hungarian government had falsified its financial records in the past and therefore the League of Nations insisted on a careful monitoring of the government’s use of any possible loan. This is what Bethlen wanted to avoid, just as Viktor Orbán didn’t want any low-interest loans from the IMF for the very same reason. As a result the bottom fell out, Bethlen had to resign in August 1931, and shortly after his resignation Hungary had to suspend payments on its foreign loans.

Viktor Orbán often talks about the magic ten years that would be necessary to complete his work. One wonders, as did the economist Péter Mihályi, whether Orbán had Bethlen’s ten years in mind. If he did, he forgot to mention the price the country had to pay for the relative well being of the 1920s which was financed not by self-sacrificing work, as Bethlen promised, but largely by foreign loans. It might have been wise to do a little research on the circumstances of Bethlen’s resignation instead of cherry picking a few sentences that meshed with his own ideas.

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92 comments

  1. @Karl Pfeifer
    If you look at the quotes he mention in his angry posts, then I think he was reading between the lines of your message.

    Slambert said:
    “One wonders about the state-of-mind of a name-caller. . . Tomi can come up with many excuses for Horthy–German “invasion”

    I think that is not a very subtle way of attacking Tomi, so I understand his anger.

    Karl Pfeifer said:
    “The fact, that under Horthy the Hungarian administration deported with zeal (incl. the Hungarian occupied territory) more than halt a million Hungarian citizens to Auschwitz-Birkenau cannot be denied. Or do you deny that?”

    If he was already angered, I guess why he would be angry by “Or do you deny that?” and saw that as a hint to call him Holocaust denier. It is weak and taken alone, I would not see it that way, but combined with the Slambert attack, I understand why he might find it offensive. I am not a psycho analyst, but that is what I get from the to pieces of “problematic” posts that he cut out.

    Some people want to be offended and other people focus on something one would not expect. I always learned that communication is not the message you send, but the message that is received. Clearly he received your message as hostile, probably as a result of the attack from Slambert.

  2. T-D: Before you defend unacceptable behavior please, read through Tomi’s posts. He was the one who started in a rather provocative manner .. and then started to read all kinds of provocations into the replies. Slambert’s comment on the state of mind may have been offensive .. but it didn’t amount to calling someone a neo-Nazi.

  3. @An

    I think Tomi had some interesting remarks and originally, I did not see him being that aggressive. Maybe I am just too used to the way discussions go on Hungarian boards that I filter out all the crap and look at what people try to say. Looking back, his impoliteness is not really any different than what a lot of other commenters serve up. In this case, he just had a non-conforming opinion so a lot of people got a bit more confrontational than if he had been saying the same as everybody else.

    He made some interesting points that I did not know or think of, so I guess his contribution was valuable to me even though it almost started World War III.

  4. @An
    You kind of prove my point. I say I find it interesting that there is more varied info on Horthy’s role and you almost sound like you are getting worked up.

    I did look at the other Horthy stuff and a lot of it I have to dismiss as biased propaganda. Sorry, but I like to get information and make up my own mind, not having opinions served.

  5. @T-D: FYI: I’m not getting worked up. I really don’t care what your (or anybody’s) opinion on Horthy is, that’s why I didn’t participate in the debate. I was just hoping that you are forming an informed opinion, and what you are telling me is that you are. That’s fine with me.
    I did find Tomi’s communication style unacceptable, though, hence my long line of comments.

  6. Eva S. Balogh :

    Tomi :

    I am very sorry, but are you stupid?
    I have given you facts and I have given you my interpretation and opinion. You, ignore my argumentation and hints at that I am a Holocaust denier. I do not mind having a difference of opinion, but that is crossing the line. If you can get out of my words that I am denying the Holocaust – and thereby say that I support what happened to the Jews – then you are a STUPID FUCK.
    I have nothing more to say to you.

    That’s it, Tomi boy. This is not one of those blogs when you can write in this manner. I don’t want to see you here.

    Can you, Eva, not give Tomi another chance? Some of his stuff is interesting. He shouldn’t have lost his cool that way, I agree.

    As to the main question: Was Horthy in power when 500,000 Jews were deported or was he not? In short, was Horthy or Szalasi responsible for the deportation of most Jews?

  7. @James Atkins, Tomi concluded that we who read this blog and who post occasionally are
    all “… mono-chrome left-wing idiots, where it is socially acceptable to tag people as Neo-Nazi or Holocaust-deniers if they do not conform with left-wing opinions. Sadly I misinterpreted your blog as representing the whole spectrum and not just the left-wing extremists.”
    Can that be defended?

  8. I have been reading the discussion about Horthy and I believe that any reasonable assessment of him has to include the fact that not only did he lead Hungary into WWII with Hitler but also fully supported the disastrous use of Hungarian forces in WWI by the Empire. Both my grandfather and grand uncle served in 31st Budapest Common regiment. Both were wounded in combat on the Isonzo front, both amazingly survived and emigrated together to the USA. I read somewhere Hungary lost about 28 for every 1,000 residents in WWI.

    I recall while on leave from the US Army after having served in the Vietnam war both my grandfather and grand uncle thought me worthy of discussing their own war experiences. I recall vividly their discussion of Horthy, who they described as sailing around on a boat while the common soldiers were killed like pigs. Their distain for officers either German or Hungarian was profound. By the way they were both anti-communists.

  9. Tomi :
    In general, I find your blog […] and balanced

    I cannot decide as to whether laugh over this or cry.
    Could you please show anything here that qualifies for “balance”?

  10. I frankly don’t understand how Tomi lost his temper. Oh, wait a minute, I think I know.
    He did 2 things here:
    1. call the blog balanced
    2. become freaked out upon practically having been called a Holocaust denier. (Yes it was that.)
    These two facts point into one direction: he has not been reading the blog previously.
    As for losing the temper, well, one has to be prepared upon entering a small far-left-wing extremist zealots’ echo chamber to be insulted and immediately labeled a Nazi instead of being debated with – that’s how far-left-wing extremist zealots work.

  11. Jonny Boy nobody is forcing you to blog where “far-left-wing extremist zealots work.”. So why do you post on HS, is that your duty?

  12. Johnny Boy: “Could you please show anything here that qualifies for balance?”

    Yes, your comments.

    Johnny Boy: “…a small far-left-wing extremist zealots’ echo chamber…”

    The blog seems to be open to any commenter who writes in a tolerably polite style, does not fill the space with wikipedia quotations and does not appear to be 100% mad.

  13. Sock-Puppetry 101

    My guess: “Tomi” = “T-D” (no limits to what one can do with pseudonyms)

    If “Johnny Boy” is someone else again, then he has a tin ear for civilized style, relevance, and and addressing what people actually write.

  14. This Istvan Bethlen blog entries need a little more punch to end the discussion on his failed legacy. Don’t be so soft on him.
    The Gero confrontation proved that most Hungarians are afraid to speak openly.
    The country is suffocating truth, and intellectual liberation.
    Romsics was a star under Kadar, is continuing producing his pedantic studies, and will conform willingly to the new regime under Orban.
    He is a smart scholar, but a scared man.
    The other eternal scholarly stars are Maria Schmid, Szabolcs Szita….
    Why don’t we listen more to Magdolna Marsovszki?

  15. A contemporary American journalist, John Gunther, wrote this about Horthy in 1940:

    “The most unpleasant thing about Horthy is his White Terror history. He was minister of war in the counter-revolutionary government followed the crash of the communist regime of Bela Kun. On August 10, 1919, his detachments were stationed at Siofok, in trans-Danubia. Some officers, drunk and cheerful, talked bloodthirstily about Bolshevik atrocities. Horthy remarked: “Words, always words! And never any action!” So the officers, including men who later became infamous as wholesale sadists, went out and that night murdered sixty Jews and communists. This was the beginning of the White Terror. When member of the British labor delegation investigating the atrocities complained to Horthy that the officer responsible had not been punished, the admiral replied in naive indignation, ‘Why, they are my best men!”…

    …His many years of regency have mellowed him a good deal; whatever the defects of his character he has been a loyal and courageous patriot; when he dies it may be an evil day for Hungary.”

    In another place : “Horthy, the Regent, though reactionary as far as social or economic ideas ideas are concerned, is in effect the guardian of constitutionalism and what vestigial democracy remains in the country, because it is largely his influence that prevents any ambitious prime minister from abolishing parliament and setting up a dictatorial rule. ”

    John Guthner: Inside Europe, 1940

    I realize this is only ONE journalist take on him from 1940.. still, I find it pretty interesting: the picture of Horthy that Gunther paints in 1940 is pretty controversial, just as it is today.

    By the way, his little blurb on Hungary, again from 1940: “Never mind politics, have a holiday in Budapest.”

  16. I would love to have a better understanding of exactly how the Horthy era worked politically. I have never quite understood what his role as “regent” meant exactly. Did he ultimately pull the strings or did he often function as more of a figurehead? It has always seemed like a bizarre system even for Hungary at that time. Perhaps the appeal of Bethlen for Orban is also the return of Sopron to Hungary following Triannon? Is that another reason Bethlen is acceptable to the current Hungarian government? Having read Miklos Banffy’s memoir in which he negotiated the return of Sopron and Hungary’s entry into the League of Nations it’s hard to see much in common since it seems Bethlen well understood how desperately Hungary needed to be accepted into the international community. That part of Bethlen’s policy doesn’t sound like Orban whatsoever or one that he would agree with. Maybe Bethlen wasn’t the worst leader but any nostalgia for that interwar period is just insane considering what it lead to. Does anyone know if this sort of preoccupation with such pseudo-fascist leaders as Horthy is going on in other Eastern European countries?

  17. Back to Bethlen. Why is Orban so proud of him? For the unsuccessful printing of fake French francs en masse? Hardly.

    Bethlen managed to “legally” rig the electoral system!

    Friedrich’s decree on elections in late 1919 yielded 3.043 million voters.

    Bethlen’s electoral law of 1922 resulted in 2.382 million eligible voters.
    The majority of the voters (outside Budapest and 12 other towns) had to cast their votes openly, in front of local “csendőr”s.

    The next electoral law before the 1926 election further restricted the suffrage, only 26.6% of the population (2.230 million people) were allowed to vote, and only 1.712 million cast votes.

  18. @Tappanch:

    Please give us a hint or a link how exactly the number of voters was limited/reduced – I’m sorry, I forgot …

    I just remember from what someone in my wife’s family told me that Hungary was a kind of “Feudal” state — was it like the “3-class-voting system” in Prussia in the 19th century? And minimum voting age was higher than 21 years, wasn’t it?

  19. Raised age limits. Men : 24 years old or older who finished at least four grades and who lived at the same place at least for two years. in case of women: one had to be at least 30 years old. So, comparison to the Friedrich law of 1919 750,000 fewer people were eligible to vote.

    In addition, the voting was public with the exception of Budapest and other larger cities. That assured a very large majority to the government party.

    Later the eligibility was further restricted.

  20. Thank you, Eva, for your prompt answer – maybe Fidesz is thinking about introducingsome restrictions too?

    Though with their constant North Korean style propaganda they probably won’t need it – unless something happens …

    What could wake up the majority of Hungarians? I have no idea.

    Totally OT:

    Our young ones came over this weekend from Budapest and I was really astonished to hear that their info source No 1 re the USA is:

    Jon Stewart and his daily show!

  21. “Viktor Orbán’s self image: A worthy successor to István Bethlen”

    May his wish came true, considering that the statue depict a tired old man alone with a cane heading a downward slope – it has kind of foreboding quality indeed.

  22. Stevan Harnad :
    Sock-Puppetry 101
    My guess: “Tomi” = “T-D” (no limits to what one can do with pseudonyms)

    Sure, and maybe you are Ferenc Gyurcsány or maybe some 7 year old girl (considering how mature you sound to be).

  23. Eva S. Balogh :
    In addition, the voting was public with the exception of Budapest

    Can you explain that further? Could people look over your shoulder or did one leave with blue or red paint on a finger?

    I heard about the paint thing from somewhere in South America.

  24. @wolfi

    Bethlen also re-created an upper chamber of Parliament with appointed membership in 1925, in case something had gone wrong in the 1926 election.

    Bethlen’s ruling party also deployed dirty tricks in 1926.

    The denial of the opposition candidate to run in the Bekescsaba by-election a few weeks ago shows they Fideszniks are aware of these tricks. Bethlen was afraid of losing in this traditionally left-leaning corner of Hungary in 1926, Orban had similar fears in 2013.
    [In 1926, the police detained 120 electoral workers of the left-wing opposition in Bekescsaba before the election].

    The democratic opposition should also expect numerous names from the open list of “recommendations” to get disqualified by the electoral commission to lower the valid names below the legal requirements just before the deadline to prevent the opposition candidates to run.

  25. T-D :

    Stevan Harnad :
    Sock-Puppetry 101
    My guess: “Tomi” = “T-D” (no limits to what one can do with pseudonyms)

    Sure, and maybe you are Ferenc Gyurcsány or maybe some 7 year old girl (considering how mature you sound to be).

    Turul Troll-Speak

    I guess when one’s been blithely Turul Trolling long enough one starts to fantasize that everyone else is flaming from behind fake name(s) too, just like onesel(ves)…

  26. Jean P :
    Johnny Boy: “Could you please show anything here that qualifies for balance?”
    Yes, your comments.

    My comments don’t constitute a part of this blog and, moreover, they are about 1 against 20.

    The blog seems to be open to any commenter who writes in a tolerably polite style, does not fill the space with wikipedia quotations and does not appear to be 100% mad.

    Yes, people with an opinion any different from left wing extremists can freely come here and get insulted, and only insulted, immediately.

  27. Eva S. Balogh :
    Re Bethlen’s electoral law and Orbán. Don’t forget that his original idea of prior registration aimed at lowering the number of voters.

    Yes. To limit the elections to those who at least know (or think they know) what they are actually doing.

  28. @Johnny boy

    Yes, the Fidesz leaders do know what they are doing. They steal – the rest is just commentary.

  29. Johnny Boy :

    Eva S. Balogh :
    Re Bethlen’s electoral law and Orbán. Don’t forget that his original idea of prior registration aimed at lowering the number of voters.

    Yes. To limit the elections to those who at least know (or think they know) what they are actually doing.

    Unfortunately, this is not how democracy works.

  30. I read somewhere that many so called political leaders would prefer a kind of “controlled democracy” – whatever that means …

    It’s almost funny how the Trolls like JohnnyB repeat these 19th century ideas – maybe they would like to introduce the Prussian “Dreiklassenwahlrecht”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_three-class_franchise

    “Voting took place in public, orally; there was no secret ballot …
    A three-class franchise system was also used for local elections in parts of Prussia, one result of which was that the industrialist Alfred Krupp was the only person able to vote for the electors in the first class in Essen.”

    Now Simicska and Csanyi would be in a similar position in today’s Hungary …

  31. Eva S. Balogh :
    Unfortunately, this is not how democracy works.

    First of all, you have no idea how democracy works. You are the proponent of dictatoric political forces and wish to abolish democracy in Hungary because we dare vote on parties you do not like. So do not lecture me on democracy.
    Second, the VOLUNTARY registration perfectly fits within the limits of democracy, as it is the case in many states in the US.

  32. Johnny Boy :

    Eva S. Balogh :
    Unfortunately, this is not how democracy works.

    First of all, you have no idea how democracy works. You are the proponent of dictatoric political forces and wish to abolish democracy in Hungary because we dare vote on parties you do not like. So do not lecture me on democracy.
    Second, the VOLUNTARY registration perfectly fits within the limits of democracy, as it is the case in many states in the US.

    We must be really grateful to Johnny Boy who is giving us lectures in national democracy.
    János Lázár said: ” “those people who have nothing are worth just that”. Probably soon Hungary will become a national democracy where those 47% of the Hungarian population who are poor (see Tárki report) could be excluded from voting?
    Is Johnny Boy just doing his duty?

  33. Johnny Boy :

    First of all, you have no idea how democracy works. You are the proponent of dictatoric political forces and wish to abolish democracy in Hungary because we dare vote on parties you do not like. So do not lecture me on democracy.
    Second, the VOLUNTARY registration perfectly fits within the limits of democracy, as it is the case in many states in the US.

    We explained at least ten times that in the United States there are no official voter lists, so registration is necessary. But, let me add, it is not a good or most democratic method because it does narrow the voting base and it can be manipulated.

  34. Of course the registration system in the USA is used to manipulate – some groups of voters are much less likely to (be able to …) register! And everybody probably has an idea who those groups are …

    Actually when I first read about this many years ago I was astonished how low the number of registers voters was – and still is! If I remember correctly it’s just about 70 % …

    PS: I just looked it up here:http://www.statisticbrain.com/voting-statistics/
    What I find a bit depessing is the low percentage of young people who register to vote …

  35. Karl Pfeifer :
    Is Johnny Boy just doing his duty?

    You know, the problem is that your thoughts are based on your own intentions, that’s why you can only imagine that everyone with some brain cells (that means rejecting your Nazi-like extremist views) is “doing his duty”.
    I am not doing my duty, I’m simply voicing my own opinion. And, concerning democracy and ME giving YOU lectures, you are right. I am giving you lectures because I understand democracy and you don’t, though I don’t think it is a lack of understanding in your case but rather pure malignancy and unworthy desire for power.

  36. Johnny Boy :

    Karl Pfeifer :
    Is Johnny Boy just doing his duty?

    You know, the problem is that your thoughts are based on your own intentions, that’s why you can only imagine that everyone with some brain cells (that means rejecting your Nazi-like extremist views) is “doing his duty”.
    I am not doing my duty, I’m simply voicing my own opinion. And, concerning democracy and ME giving YOU lectures, you are right. I am giving you lectures because I understand democracy and you don’t, though I don’t think it is a lack of understanding in your case but rather pure malignancy and unworthy desire for power.

    “The habitual liar always imagines that his lie rings true. No miracle of belief can equal his childlike faith in the credulity of the people who listen to him; and so it comes to pass that he fools nobody as comletely as he fools himself”

  37. Johnny Boy, in the course of a long life I have never heard anyone utter such foolish things as you have tried to pass off here.
    Here a definition of democracy by the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
    “literally, rule by the people (from the Greek dAmos, “people,” and kratos, “rule”). The term has three basic senses in contemporary usage: (1) a form of government in whichthe right to make political decisions is exercised directly by the whole body of citizens, acting under procedures of majority rule, usually known as direct democracy; (2) a formof government in which the citizens exercise the same right not in person but through representatives chosen by and responsible to them, known as representative democracy; and (3) a form of government, usually a representative democracy, in which the powers of the majority are exercised within a framework of constitutional restraints designed to guarantee all citizens the enjoyment of certain individual or collective rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, known as liberal, or constitutional, democracy.”
    In Hungary liberal democracy is beeing abolished by the ruling maffia, “a joint concentation of power and personal wealth” (Bálint Magyar).

  38. Johnny ” And, concerning democracy and ME giving YOU lectures, you are right. I am giving you lectures because I understand democracy and you don’t, though I don’t think it is a lack of understanding in your case but rather pure malignancy and unworthy desire for power.”

    Johnny, if you are so keen to explain people here on the blog that they are insulting people with other opinions, perhaps you could at least acknowledge that you wrote quite an insult, too. Just as an exercise in perception of your own words.

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