Viktor Orbán and Christian democracy

It was yesterday that leaders of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP) celebrated the establishment of their party seventy years ago. Well, not exactly because three of the founding fathers remembered three different dates and none of them was September 27, 1944. In any case, sometime between October 8 and November 30 a few conservative legitimist politicians with strong ties to the Catholic Church got together to establish a “Christian party.” Before the party’s founding the blessing of the Hungarian Catholic Church was sought and received.

This original party never managed to get permission from the authorities, either before or after the occupation of Hungary by the Russians, to be officially recognized. Under the leadership of Count József Pálffy, the group was considered to be reactionary and undemocratic. In the fall of 1944, however, the leaders decided to ask a newspaperman turned politician, István Barankovics, to join them in the hope that his name would make acceptance of the party easier. Barankovics’s political ideas were more in line with modern Christian democracy of the kind that came into being in Germany after World War II.

The ideological differences between Pálffy and Barankovics led to the breakup of the party. In May of 1945 Barankovics was chosen to be leader of the newly constituted party. Instead of following a conservative-legitimist line, the party chose a a more secular (even though officially still Christian–Protestant as well as Catholic) socialist ideology as its guiding principle. I might add here that Barankovics’s ideas were condemned by the head of the Catholic Church, József Mindszenty, who tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the party through Pálffy. In May of 1945 even the old name, Christian Democratic People’s Party, was abandoned. The new party was known simply as the Democratic People’s Party (Demokratikus Néppárt/DNP).

When, in 1989, the party was revived, the new leaders chose the old name, KDNP,  instead of DNP even though DNP was the only officially recognized Christian Democratic Party in Hungary between 1945 and 1949. I believe that the choice of name is significant. Today KDNP is really a party of the Catholic Church, something its current leader, Zsolt Semjén, does not hide. A few years back, in fact, he called his own party “the political arm of the Catholic Church.”

KDNP today is no more than a club of individuals who consider themselves devout Catholics. The last time KDNP was on the ballot (2002) it received 2.59% of the votes. Even the communists (Munkáspárt) had a larger following (4.08%). Today its support is immeasurable. It exists only in name–and in parliament, with a delegation of sixteen members. These people are in effect assigned to KDNP by Fidesz so that KDNP can have a separate caucus with all the privileges that this entails.

Yesterday there was a gathering to celebrate the great day in October-November 1944. About 150 people were invited, but many did not show up. In fact, according to Origo, it almost seemed that there were more members of the press corps than of the private club. After long speeches and a documentary film came the man everybody in the room was waiting for: Viktor Orbán. His speech was short but, as noted, “he said a few funny things.” He announced, for instance, that “KDNP is a large, significant, and influential party” which “stands on the shoulders of giants.” There is a doctored short clip on YouTube in which canned laughter was injected every time Orbán said something untrue or ridiculous.

The speech lasted only 13 minutes, and most of what the prime minister said we have heard before. What was new was his lecture on Christian democracy, which he juxtaposed with liberal democracy. In his view liberal democrats are exclusionary when they claim that only liberal democracy is democracy. With that they exclude great Christian democratic statesmen like Konrad Adenauer or Robert Schuman. As far as Konrad Adenauer is concerned, it is a well known fact that his ideal was a “market-based liberal democracy.” As for Robert Schuman, Orbán likes to quote him as saying that “Europe would either be Christian or not at all,” but I could not find that exact quotation except in an article about the betrayal of Europe’s Christian roots, where the author, Gianfranco Morra, wrote the following: “Konrad Adenuaer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman … drew from religious faith, professed and lived, and from their political commitment to a common conviction: that only Christianity could be the cement for the European Union. Europe and Christianity are an inseparable pairing. With the same understanding as Leo XIII, they affirmed that Europe and Democracy would either be Christian or not at all. Schumann wrote: ‘All the countries of Europe are imbued with Christian civilization. This is the soul of Europe, it must be reborn’.” It seems that the words the prime minister quoted are Morra’s, not Schuman’s.

Orban KDNP

After Orbán’s catastrophic speech about “illiberal democracy” he has been trying to explain his words away. Both he and some of his followers initially claimed that he was just talking about economic neo-liberalism, but this explanation, given the context, was untenable. George Schöpflin, the academic who usually comes to the regime’s rescue, offered another interpretation in the course of answering questions posed to him by HVG:

Liberal democracy is a particular variant of democracy, albeit in the most recent period it has sought to establish a hegemony. Other possible forms of democracy – Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, Conservatism – have been increasingly marginalized. This further means that what we call “Liberal democracy” these days, or indeed calls itself, has moved away qualitatively from the concept of liberalism defined by the founding fathers.

Finally, Orbán stated that “we are a government based on Christian democratic foundations. We govern in Christian democratic spirit in the interest of all Hungarians.” There is nothing shameful, he said, about what’s going on in Hungary. Indeed, it is not a liberal democracy but a very respectable Christian democracy. There are two problems with this claim. One is that Christian democracy, although conservative on social issues, is no enemy of liberal ideals like autonomy of the individual, civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. Second, everybody knows that Orbán’s system has nothing to do with Christian democracy. In fact, very soon it will have nothing to do with democracy in any shape or form.


  1. The real source of inspiration for Orban’s speeches – the “maverick” of the Soviet block-an expert on democracy (English subtitles in the video), nationalism, and sovereignty

  2. Robert Schuman’s quote is from Pour l’Europe (1964).

    As the subject appears to be the relationship between Church and State, French readers will see that the meaning is quite far from the interpretations made by some people today.

    Incidentally, the figure of speech (something will either be … or not at all) comes from Adolphe Thiers in 1872, after the Commune and before the birth of the French Third Republic. His formula ‘The Republic will either be conservative, or not at all’ was such a success that in the following years it was declined along every option available at the time (socialist, naturalist, christian, mason, etc.). Eventually, the Republic became the system where all those options would compete and collaborate.

  3. Ragweed fund was misappropriated by the Orban government.

    In 2010, taxpayers designated 1.1 billion forints of their 2009 taxes to eradicate ragweed.
    Against the objections of the Orban government, a court just obliged the government to account for the tax money.

    The money was spent on everything but ragweed control in 2011.

    Background info:
    The uncultivated agricultural fields [and the state railroad’s land] of post-Communist Hungary made Hungary the ragweed capital of Europe. About a quarter of the population suffers from pollen allergy, caused mainly by ragweed.

    2010 map:

  4. @Steve Geiger. What I mean by immesurable is that “it is impossible to measure.” That is the first meaning of the word. The second is “vast, limitless.”

  5. The important news is that the Hungarian left wing is dead in the water.

    Maria Schmidt was right, this election will be the coup de grace of the brand that was known as the “left” (including the LMP).

    Although Bokros will probably reach a higher percentage than what Falus could have reached, Bokros has nothing to do with the current MSZP-Együtt-DK bunch.

    Even if Bokros is successful that doesn’t say anything about the left. He is a difficult personality probably unfit for politics. He will be a good protest vote, but people know he will lose, not that it matters, given the new election system and the utter dependence of Budapest on Orban himself.

    I am also inclined to think that Együtt (or rather Szigetvári) was a Fidesz vehicle/front from the get go (who successfully duped Bajnai and Milla). Szigetvari is such an antitalent (it was Együtt which came up with Falus who revealed himself to be completely dumb, visionless, and utterly amateurish and as such a fantastic example of a born and bread “lefty”) that he is almost being a jack***s on purpose, just like MSZP is now.

    But the point is that there is not one single leftist politician which has any coherent vision about Budapest or Hungary. They are just empty headed nobodys, who are hopelessly waiting for their turn to make their private millions a la Szijjarto or Rogan.

  6. Re the piece of investigative journalism on Béla Kovács. Hungarian journalists are learning. This is a fantastic piece. I’m glad that it is out in Englsh.. The Hungarian original appeared on September 23.

  7. Between failure to combat ragweed and actively encouraging the invasive acacia, Hungary is rapidly becoming the allergy hot spot Europe.

  8. Balint Magyar’s article has been published in Galamus, and he explains very well why “illiberal democracy” sounds different to many Hungarians than in the West and why it sounds like a good thing for most Hungarians.

    “Orbán a liberális demokrácia, de különösen a liberalizmus fogalmát a szélesebb közvélemény számára hosszú évek munkájával azonosította a rendszerváltást követő „két zavaros évtizeddel”, az elszegényedéssel, a korrupcióval, a terméketlen politikai rivalizálással, a magyarság, mint „világnemzet” iránti közömbösséggel, a bűnözésre hajlamos cigányokkal, segélyekből élő, élősködő munkanélküliekkel szembeni tehetetlenséggel, közvetlen ellenségképében pedig a külső, nyugati függéssel, a magyar vállalkozásokra rátelepedő multikkal, az állampolgárokat kiszipolyozó banktőkével, az idegenszívű zsidókkal és egyéb deviánsokkal: homoszexuálisokkal, pedofilokkal. Így mikor illiberális államról és demokráciáról beszél, azt sugallja, hogy új állameszményével ezektől kívánja megszabadítani a magyarokat, és egészében a nemzet érdekeit mindenek fölé helyező erős államot valósít meg. ”

    —-> “Over many years, Orban has identified the concept of liberal democracy, and especially liberalism, with the “two messy decades after the fall of socialism”, with impoverishment, with corruption, with fruitless political rivalry, with the indifference toward Hungarian-nes as a “world nation”, with criminal gipsies, with not being able to fight benefit fraudsters, with dependence on the West, with foreign-owned companies strangling Hungarian companies, with bank capitalists draining Hungarian citizens’ blood, with foreign-hearted Jews and other deviants: with homosexuals, paedophiles. So when he speaks about an illiberal state and illiberal democracy, he is suggesting that he wishes to liberate Hungarians from all those things, and that he is establishing a strong state that places the nation’s interests above everything else. ”

    I really do think that this is important here. This is what “liberal” means for the masses of not-so-knowledgable Hungarians, when they listen to him. What they want to hear is that we are now on the road to prosperity, Orban knows what he is doing, he is brave enough to turn against liberal Europe, and with his leadership Hungary will be strong and rich.

    That’s why he keeps saying it, although the more he says it and the more he is trying to explain himself out of it, the more entangled he gets in it.

  9. The second Schuman quote about ‘christian civilization’ isn’t in my edition of For Europe. It apparently comes from the Osservatore Romano (March 18., 2003), probably reprinting the text of a conference at Notre-Dame of Paris by Cardinal Poupard (March 9., 2003). Poupard’s text is the only one available online, but the quotation is not precisely sourced – in fact, it is awkwardly mixed with other identifiable sentences from several miscellaneous speeches.

    As a matter of fact, Schuman did cautiously refrain from strong references to christianity, except when he was in front of specific christian audiences, such as at Catholic Universities. Hence, I’m tempted to think this quote is a fake – especially as the beatification procedure of its alleged author was nearing its end.

    So, here we are again: one quote out of context, another one unsourced. The method is not unlike those of Mz Schmidt in her piece on Kertész & Camus, and this is yet another example of Fidesz ideology being nothing more than an intellectual sham.

  10. Eva S. Balogh
    September 29, 2014 at 11:11 am
    Demonstration against Viktor Orbán’s visit to Cluj/Kolozsvár

    The most interesting part is the comment section. It is shocking how dumb some people are. They already suspect some western money and a jewish conspiracy… One of the not to smart woman calls the organizers communist left-overs, while of course she forgot to use her head to conclude that it is Orban and his friends are the left overs from the communism.

  11. For those of you who speak Hungarian, I would suggest to check out the Facebook page of one of the commenters who supposed to be vineyard owner and attorney. He is a big fan of Orban, and his September 22 at 10:13am comment shows you exactly what kind of people are against liberal values.

  12. Did I get it right that according to Orbán Hungary must implement a religious-fundamentalist-conservative form of state, in order to “successfully cope with the new challenges” – as opposed to the decadent and declining liberal democracies of “the West”..?

    So, in essence the only thing will be different between Hungary and any fundamentalist – say – Islam state in the future is the sign of the top of their churches..?

    Look forward to see the first “National Chador” (hijab) shops, and as the “National Religious Gendarmery” enforcing the nationalised sharia-law on the streets too…

    The only positive outcome as much I can see, that perhaps that public performance regarding the “Hussars of Fehérvár” will be finally banned too…

  13. @Marcel,, I don’t think Schuman ever said the sentence Orbán keeps repeating. Someone misread the article in which I found the sentence. But that was the author’s own.

  14. OT:
    Today at the book launch of Magyar Polip 2, Gábor Demszky gave a short speech and namechecked Hungarian Spectrum. How about that, well done Éva! I think this is a testament to the great work you do on this blog!

  15. Ah, I believe it was in a passing comment about how we need to communicate the information in the Polip books to a wider global audience and this blog was brought up as an example of a channel already doing that effectively, but that more was needed. Something along those lines, if I remember correctly.

  16. MSzP just split into two today. The Budapest leadership supports Bokros, while the overall leadership came out against him publicly.

    Fidesz fakes an ideology, but MSzP has not even created one since the demise of the “Socialism”.

  17. @Eva S. Balogh

    OV’s quote is accurate (in my first comment I gave the link to the original text, the version in Raymond Barre’s book being the same as in For Europe). But the sentence is taken completely out of context: in this piece Schuman cautiously separates his own commitment from the system of government. While OV advocates the exact opposite.

    Btw I misread your article, as I initially thought the second “quote” (the fake one) had been made by OV, while it was Morro’s. In the past decade, some conservatives have obviously been trying to exploit the legacy of Schuman for their own agenda; the battle over the ‘Christian roots of Europe’ during the Constitutional debates was one of many.

  18. The one page per language website of the generously supported institute is signed by

    Prof. Dr. habil. Sandor Szakaly, DSc, University Professor, Director

    That is 5 titles for one person.

    This is obviously a title inflation.
    Karinthy was able to make fun of three titles in one name almost century ago, in 1921.
    like “Jr. Dr. Count Bela Karakauer” in “Herald” (Hirnök)

    Edited and published on the first(UK)/second (US) floor, Budapest.

    We have captured England. Waiting for urgent telegraph answer what to do with it.
    Hoefer [Austrian chief-of-staff in WW1]”

  19. Thanks for this… I knew why there was no Social Democratic tradition in Hungary, but not what had happened to the Christian Democrats since 1989. I think you are right that all three movements are libertarian at core, tracing their origins back at least to the seventeenth century in Europe, and sharing ideas about what a ‘corpus Christianum’ should look like. Of course, both Catholicism and Anglicanism have the problem that they ultimately want to keep church and state together (as they have done in Ireland and the UK), but most Protestant churches want a separation between personal faith and secular society. Your definition of Christian Democracy would include my Christian Socialism, which includes social conservatism. It seems to me that Christians are in error when they believe that a state or country can be made Christian, especially when Christendom no longer exists. While people of faith can find expression for their faith in that form of ministry, the fundamental article of that faith is understanding and tolerance of other values and traditions, not the use of it for ideological ends. Even Oliver Cromwell believed that.

  20. Cheshire cat: “This is what “liberal” means for the masses of not-so-knowledgable Hungarians, when they listen to him.”

    Perhaps, but the question is why the more knowledgeable Hungarians have not tried to explain it differently or even to spread interest in another interpretation of “liberal”. There is quite some likelihood that the “elite” itself has not very much believed in another interpretation, by which I do not mean every single person but the tendency. After all, I read here that SzDSz was considered people representing “Jewish Budapest” when claiming to be liberal, and not some quite mainstream European party programme that might be interesting for the entire country. The “not-so-knowledgeable” Hungarians can be “enlightened” only once those “knowledgeable” have endorsed liberal democracy.

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