John Lukacs on Paks

John Lukacs, the internationally renowned historian, was born in Budapest in 1924 but left Hungary at the age of 22 in 1946 when he foresaw that the Soviets would most likely force Hungary into a Soviet dominated eastern bloc of communist countries. A year later he joined the faculty of Chestnut Hill College where he spent forty-seven years until his retirement in 1994.

It is not easy to write a short introduction to somebody like John Lukacs who has in the last sixty years profoundly influenced historical scholarship on such varied topics as the history of the United States in the twentieth century, history and historiography, Adolf Hitler, George F. Kennan, Winston Churchill, and World War II, just to mention a few themes of his more than thirty books that appeared between 1953 and 2013. The scope of his scholarly interest is so wide that I can’t possibly do justice to it here. I’m sure that one day books will be written about him and his work. As it is, he has already been the subject of several scholarly articles.

John Lukacs is a conservative. In fact, he describes himself as a reactionary in the sense that he favors a return to earlier times. He dislikes mass culture and what goes with it. Lukacs’s bête noire is populism, which he considers to be the greatest threat to civilization; as he said, it gave rise to both national socialism and communism. A large portion of his scholarly works centers on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. In fact, he wrote a whole book on their struggle, The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler. But he also wrote separate volumes on these two men.

As a conservative he has been a favorite of Viktor Orbán and in general of the Hungarian right. During the first Orbán administration he was awarded the Corvin Chain, a decoration that was given out by Miklós Horthy between 1930 and 1943 to people for their achievement in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. Their number was limited to 12. It was in 2001 that Viktor Orbán revived the tradition. John Lukacs was among the first twelve recipients. But then Orbán lost the election and his successors decided to let the decoration lapse. In 2009 Lukacs received an honorary doctorate from Péter Pázmány University.

"A real Catholics cannot be a nationalist"

“A real Catholic cannot be a nationalist”

Considering that Lukacs finds populism and its practitioners abhorrent, I can’t imagine that he is too keen on what has become of Viktor Orbán. I can’t believe that the radical and abrupt changes that have been introduced into the Hungarian political system in the last four years are to the conservative Lukacs’s liking. But, as he says in his open letter translated and published here, it is not his task to comment on Hungarian politics. On the other hand, again as he himself remarks in the letter, even before 1988 he found that Viktor Orbán was no friend of the West. For a man who passionately believes in the mission of Western civilization, as Lukacs does, this attitude must be worrisome.

* * *

It was almost sixty-seven years ago that I left the country of my birth. Since then the fate of my country, my nation has often touched and gripped my heart, but I never dealt with or wrote about Hungarian politics.

Today, at the age of ninety, it is still not becoming. Yet something induces me to do it. I thought about this for two long nights.

The Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks has been haunting me.

I don’t receive Hungarian newspapers. And only rarely Hungarian periodicals. In the mornings I click on Népszabadság for a few minutes. As far as I know, many Hungarians read this paper. That’s why I’m sending my letter there. Perhaps my words will reach a few hundred readers.

The present prime minister has honored me for many years with his attention and friendship. Still, I feel it my duty to address my opinion contained in this letter to him as well.  I have known his ideological inclinations for a long time, more than twenty years. The way I see it, even before 1989 he had a certain aversion to the so-called “West,” Western Europe and England.

But now he has reached a demarcation line. I don’t agree with those who talk and speculate about the economic consequences of the agreement on Paks. Will electricity be cheaper or more expensive in ten years when this project is completed (if at all)? My dear Hungarians, we have no way of knowing this, but even if we knew it, it is unimportant. The essence of a country, its fate is not an economic statistic. The essence of a country is who we are and where we belong.

History doesn’t repeat itself. That of nations rarely and only in small measure. The character of a man changes the least.  In the future perhaps this is the most profound question for Hungarians. Not just the dearth of Hungarian self-confidence. (Although that too!) But who we are, where we belong, which way to go.

Our St. Stephen wasn’t only a saint without peers but also a great founder of a state. At the time, more than a thousand years ago, the vast Greek Orthodox Byzantium almost completely surrounded the Carpathian Mountains. If Stephen had chosen accommodation with them he would have secured enormous advantages in the short run. But he didn’t choose that road. He chose Roman Christianity, papal legate, western wife, “Europe” (although that concept did not exist yet). It was this choice that shaped the faith, the character of Hungarian Christianity over the next one thousand years.

Western powers often did nothing or very little for us. And yet when Hungarian leaders a few times chose the “East” these ventures always ended in catastrophe. In the recent past the essence and origin of the tyranny that subjugated Hungary wasn’t communism but Russian occupation. At the end of the Second World War the great Churchill, who already knew that the Russians would occupy the whole of Hungary, repeatedly told Roosevelt (unfortunately in vain) that Hungary belongs not to Eastern but to Central Europe. The Hungarian masses rejected the East in 1956 and also in 1989.

What can we expect, what kind of reward from the Great Russian Empire? Nothing. Széchenyi and Kossuth already saw that. One must acknowledge and respect the Russians just as our distant relatives, the wise Finns, do. But we don’t have a place there. Accommodations with them cannot be the centerpiece of our endeavors. We honor their achievements, their great artists. But the spirit of the Hungarian mentality, the Hungarian intellect, Hungarian art and culture is western. Not Russian, not even American. Those who speak to us—in spite of all their greatness—are not so much Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as Dante, Shakespeare, Pascal, Goethe, and Tocqueville. The West was often our cross, but we must take it up because it is also our star. We should value our Russian neighbors but we must not accommodate them or fawn upon them because close association might be a lasting burden and a detriment to the Hungarian people for a long time to come.

Since 1989 we have been responsible for what we choose, what we do, and what we think. The Hungarian character and spirit are not eastern. Pax Vobiscum! These are the last words of the old Latin mass. Go in peace! But now Pax Nobis! Peace be with us!

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58 comments

  1. A couple of thoughts about this new electoral system in Hungary, being rolled out for the first time in April… it’s getting to that time.

    I’d argue that there’s nothing intrinsically bad about the new system on paper. It’s a bit less proportional and a bit more First Past The Post. It’s a lot simpler, in theory, having discarded the old regional system. It’s all based in one round of voting. It’s a system which Fidesz will dominate, as they have strength all around the country. Whilst the opposition parties might just reclaim Budapest, it would be strange if an electoral system were to deliver an opposition victory on the basis of one city. It is also gerrymandered, but in a way which somewhat reflects the reality, that there has been a process of suburbanisation in Hungary.

    Aside from this, the central problem is that Hungary lacks, for the most part, an active civic politics, with high levels of participation. It’s not clear to me that a talented and committed MP is rewarded on the basis of his/her performance, or individual merits. Rebellions against the (Fidesz or MSZP) party whip are extremely rare, and amount to absolute career suicide. With the stranglehold of ‘the parties’ on Hungarian life (meaning primarily, but not exclusively, Fidesz) the country has a centralised de facto polity, but an electoral system which would reflect a more diverse local political culture which, for the most part, simply doesn’t exist.

    For example, if we take the example of Balatonfured, a tourist town on the lake. I hope I’m wrong on this, but it’s hard to imagine that many residents of Balatonfured will attend or participate in debates and forums concerning which MP will defend their interests most effectively, especially as the local economy is dominated by the concentrated effects of hospitality and agriculture. In this sense, this ‘localist’ approach to the constitution matches Fidesz political culture closely – a homely, almost folksy exterior, and a ruthless 21st century mech-politico interior.

    Within this system, however, I’d argue that Fidesz is, in what may be its moment of triumph, internalising a number of weaknesses which will gradually erode their ability to maintain a grip in the years to come.

    I expect that it will become increasingly difficult to find representatives who are both capable and obedient, and given the requirement for absolute loyalty, the levels of sheer incompetency are set to increase still further. Despite the ‘fiatal’ label, Fidesz draw the bulk of their representatives from ageing, paunchy men, whilst their youth wing is atrophied and socially gauche – caught between their loss of liberals and the appeal of the far-right. We’re looking at a party which will be increasingly stale, careless and incompetent – and with their domination of politics, it will be a party that increasingly is confronted with the consequences of its own actions. The point here, is that the Fidesz victory of 2010 is linked to the Hungarian electorate of 2010. In 2018, in 2022, this will be a different electorate.

    These are not opinion polls which indicate a change of government:

    The question of opposition co-operation is largely moot, this time. In four years time (or maybe less in the unlikely event of something seismic), I expect the Fidesz vote to have been devoured by a combination of the far-right, perhaps a new capitalist-friendly centre-right formation or even a new version of the Smallholders. I think the question for the left, or centre-left, is how they can begin to win a battle of ideas, to ensure that they have strongholds and a core constituency in a few years. The blurry and problematic attempts at co-operation (with no clear unifying theme) do not assist this process…

  2. Joe Simon, is that the same Edward Teller who insisted on open air testing of the Teller-Ulam nuclear fusion weapon, from which the Soviets may have been able to analyze the fallout and thus determine critical features of the US weapon design, thus facilitating the building of their own “super”?

  3. @Kirsten

    The Paks II announcement seems to embody all the drifts of Orbánistan: authoritarianism, corruption, and a reject of the West. The only thing missing is a declaration that the power will be provided at a fraction of the cost to every Magyar family in the pre-Trianon territories, but that’s probably for the upcoming third or fourth consecutive mandate.

  4. whoever, your arguments seem to (i) trivialize the changes, and secondly (ii) argue that it is actually not good for Fidesz in the long-term. Thank you.

    Fidesz could have chosen any number of election systems or could have lived with the same one we had for 20 years as there was no need to rewrite the rules. Yet it did rewrite the system, why do you think it did so?

    And that is exactly the problem, on paper there is nothing problematic.

    On paper all of our laws re media and whatnot were fair and legal as the EU rubberstamped them. It was the factual circumstances which made the election system, as well as the media system, the Basic Law etc. a thoroughly vicious system and which the EU could not or did not choose to analyze.

    Fidesz can sell the system “as absolutely fair, it is the same as in [substitute name of a country]”.

    The problem is exactly that it favors in practice Fidesz hugely, if one dares to look closer which most Western observers will never do. Too complicated, controversial, he says, she says. There are the gerrymandered districts: Fidesz not only wanted to create Fidesz-majority districts (actually districts which will be carried by the strongest party of the right), but wanted also to contain the traditionally leftist voters so that they could not possibly contaminate traditionally battle-ground areas. It is exactly the same way of rewriting borders as the Romanian government now rewrites the borders of Transsylvanian regions, so that in all of them ethnic Hungarian will constitute the minority which will make their assimilation even more effective.

    But most importantly there was a basic assumption on which the system was built: the fact that Fidesz voters are more dispersed around the country and even to enter the elections a party needs to have a strong national network/support base from the very beginning – a very unlikely scenario (given the media and local power relations). This will not change since obviously rural ares take more area from Hungary than urban areas. Moreover people who have some experience in these games know that for decades Fidesz wanted a more local district based (firs past the post based on lot of rural districts) and MSZP wanted a proprotional/party list based system, they both knew which fits them better.

    I do not see any problem for Fidesz to recruit any loyal MP candidates. There are many willing candidates, and the nation-wide networks Fidesz created (religious schools etc.) work as sponsors/feeders of the future talent. Believe me. for any politically important spot there are dozens who want to get selected by Orban.

    It is also ridiculous to think that Smallholders will arise yet again (you cannot even organize/protest against the corrupt transfer of protected agricultural lands such as at Kishantos to party pals, as the village population is so terrified from the Fridesz-powerfuls) or that there will be a party which will compete with Orban from the centre-right. These voters do not exist any more in rural areas or anywhere else. Moderate right wingers support Fidesz with conviction. These are theoretic arguments, which may convince a foreign reader but anybody who knows the Hungarian party landscape knows that they will never happen. I mean try to mention even two Hungarian right wing/conservative intellectuals living in Hungary (not from abroad) who even uttered a word about Paks, the return of Hungary to Russia’s camp, Simicska’s/Nyerges’ astonishing corruption, about the state of the economy, education, health care etc. Nobody said a word. Not during the last four years. The elusive moderate conservatives exist in the dreams of foreigners and naive Hungarian lefists — they would like such conservatives as their adversaries, instead of Fidesz. Never gonna happen.

    Until Orban lives and Fidesz remains the dominant party of the right wing, the (united) opposition cannot win, unless it had a lead in the part list votes of at least 5-8% (depending on how many votes Jobbik takes away). This built in advantage was deliberatly created by Fidesz. And a simple majority will not be entitled to destroy the corrupt constitutional system, which would make the governance for the opposition all but impossible.

  5. whoever, your arguments seem to (i) trivialize the changes, and secondly (ii) argue that it is actually not good for Fidesz in the long-term. Thank you.

    Fidesz could have chosen any number of election systems or could have lived with the same one we had for 20 years as there was no need to rewrite the rules. Yet it did rewrite the system, why do you think it did so?

    And that is exactly the problem, on paper there is nothing problematic.

    On paper all of our laws re media and whatnot were fair and legal as the EU rubberstamped them. It was the factual circumstances which made the election system, as well as the media system, the Basic Law etc. a thoroughly vicious system and which the EU could not or did not choose to analyze.

    Fidesz can sell the system “as absolutely fair, it is the same as in [substitute name of a country]”.

    The problem is exactly that it favors in practice Fidesz hugely, if one dares to look closer which most Western observers will never do. Too complicated, controversial, he says, she says. There are the gerrymandered districts: Fidesz not only wanted to create Fidesz-majority districts (actually districts which will be carried by the strongest party of the right), but wanted also to contain the traditionally leftist voters so that they could not possibly contaminate traditionally battle-ground areas. It is exactly the same way of rewriting borders as the Romanian government now rewrites the borders of Transsylvanian regions, so that in all of them ethnic Hungarian will constitute the minority which will make their assimilation even more effective.

    But most importantly there was a basic assumption on which the system was built: the fact that Fidesz voters are more dispersed around the country and even to enter the elections a party needs to have a strong national network/support base from the very beginning – a very unlikely scenario (given the media and local power relations). This will not change since obviously rural ares take more area from Hungary than urban areas. Moreover people who have some experience in these games know that for decades Fidesz wanted a more local district based (firs past the post based on lot of rural districts) and MSZP wanted a proprotional/party list based system, they both knew which fits them better.

    I do not see any problem for Fidesz to recruit any loyal MP candidates. There are many willing candidates, and the nation-wide networks Fidesz created (religious schools etc.) work as sponsors/feeders of the future talent. Believe me. for any politically important spot there are dozens who want to get selected by Orban.

    It is also ridiculous to think that Smallholders will arise yet again (you cannot even organize/protest against the corrupt transfer of protected agricultural lands such as at Kishantos to party pals, as the village population is so terrified from the Fridesz-powerfuls) or that there will be a party which will compete with Orban from the centre-right. These voters do not exist any more in rural areas or anywhere else. Moderate right wingers support Fidesz with conviction. These are theoretic arguments, which may convince a foreign reader but anybody who knows the Hungarian party landscape knows that they will never happen. I mean try to mention even two Hungarian right wing/conservative intellectuals living in Hungary (not from abroad) who even uttered a word about Paks, the return of Hungary to Russia’s camp, Simicska’s/Nyerges’ astonishing corruption, about the state of the economy, education, health care etc. Nobody said a word. Not during the last four years. The elusive moderate conservatives exist in the dreams of foreigners and naive Hungarian lefists — they would like such conservatives as their adversaries, instead of Fidesz. Never gonna happen.

    Until Orban lives and Fidesz remains the dominant party of the right wing, the (united) opposition cannot win, unless it had a lead in the part list votes of at least 5-8% (depending on how many votes Jobbik takes away). This built in advantage was deliberatly created by Fidesz. And a majority will not be entitled to destroy the corrupt constitutional system, which would make the governance for the opposition all but impossible.

  6. Hi @zimmizum – sorry if I gave the impression of flippancy, but I had no intention of trivialising anything. The example of Balatonfured is there to try and raise the question of *how* democracy should be conducted, the messy details. There’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ democracy – quite often there are very limited levels of citizen participation, and in Western Europe, democracies are becoming less vibrant. Look at the numbers who are now members of political parties in the UK, France, Germany. For Hungary, there is no ‘normal’ and no perfect model to emulate.

    ‘There are the gerrymandered districts: Fidesz not only wanted to create Fidesz-majority districts (actually districts which will be carried by the strongest party of the right), but wanted also to contain the traditionally leftist voters so that they could not possibly contaminate traditionally battle-ground areas.’

    And this follows the general pattern of gerrymandering around the world – it happens in many democracies, some of them being the oldest. It’s not a good thing, and it can tilt a marginal election crucially towards one way, or the other – but normally, it only affects marginal elections. Currently, this isn’t what we’re looking at.

    ‘I do not see any problem for Fidesz to recruit any loyal MP candidates. There are many willing candidates, and the nation-wide networks Fidesz created (religious schools etc.) work as sponsors/feeders of the future talent. Believe me. for any politically important spot there are dozens who want to get selected by Orban. ‘

    There are indeed plenty of mediocre hacks who would like to be slavish MPs for Orban – the fact is though, they are on course for a second term, and this means that Fidesz as a party will be confronted by its own legacy. It will be unable to avoid making more enemies amongst different sectors in society. It’s a different thing to plunging into opposition, and the strains of office in a second term practically broke the MSZP (along with plenty of other things). Fidesz will burn through its own talent fairly quickly, as they don’t have a huge reservoir of *talented* hacks. I predict that by the time Rogán and Szijjártó assume greater responsibility, these shortcomings will become increasingly apparent. In practice, they rely upon ‘heavyweight’ apparatchiks – the likes of Matolcsy – and he is almost 60 years old.

    ‘The elusive moderate conservatives exist in the dreams of foreigners and naive Hungarian lefists — they would like such conservatives as their adversaries, instead of Fidesz. Never gonna happen. ‘

    Well, given that many of the Gyurcsany/Fodor policies would generally be regarded as Bloomberg-style centrism in the US, I think moderate conservatives are well catered for in democratic opposition. By contrast, the moribund grassroots activity in Fidesz vs the activism of Jobbik indicates the way things are going amongst young people with Rightist tendencies. I can easily imagine a pitched centre/centre-left competition with Jobbik in working-class, traditionally socialist areas, with Fidesz being squeezed out of the contest altogether. I also believe that the far-right will have most to gain from any collapse of Fidesz, with only limited numbers of the urban/suburban middle-class likely to go for any other post-Orban mainstream formation.

    The MSZP has had people in the past who have understood the countryside – József Gráf, for example. They may want to revisit this issue. Despite the poor prognosis for April, the MSZP are doing as well as I would have expected, perhaps better, given the circumstances. Mesterhazy isn’t regarded as a particularly good communicator, but some of the detail of their policies are well constructed and worthy – not enough to blind us to the limitations, but well-crafted within these parameters.

  7. whoever, thanks for the clarification. Your arguments are quite convincing.

    Your points about the next generation of Fidesz-hacks (who are loyal but mediocre) is important, but to me they lead to a conclusion which is a consensus among many: Orban and Orban alone can lead Fidesz and without him the party (ie. the power-conglomerate he created as a quasi first-generation enterpreneur-sole owner) will collapse.Looking at Orban, his crazy and clearly worsening facial ticks and leharcolt out-look, I am not sure how much longer can he continue. 2-5-10 years? Well, if he gets to be a president after Ader, may be longer. Certainly 20 years seem very unlikely. He will not be there like Berlusconi had been. The problem is that most people would hate to wait even a decade (by which time Hungary will have collapsed for good in every sens of the word). People are getting older, especially in an aging society, 5-10 years do matter. I guess this may make middle generations a bit restless.

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