On Monday, on the newly reconstructed Kossuth Square another old/new statue of István Tisza (1861-1918) was unveiled by Viktor Orbán. Few people were curious enough to stand in 40ºC (104ºF) heat to witness the great moment but Viktor Orbán, about half an hour later, delivered another ringing speech.
Tisza, who was prime minister of Hungary twice, once between 1903 and 1905 and again between 1913 and 1917) was not a popular man while he was alive. Already before he became prime minister, Endre Ady as a young newspaperman in Nagyvárad/Oradea, wrote an article in which he described Tisza as the most unpopular politician in Bihar/Bihor County. Tisza was assassinated on October 31, 1918 by roaming armed soldiers, and prior to that time there were three other attempts on his life. Ady, in one of his famous poems, called Tisza “the madman of Geszt,” Geszt being the center of the Tisza family’s landholdings in Bihar.
The Tisza statue that now graces Kossuth Square is a reproduction of the statue that was erected on April 22, 1934 and that was damaged during World War II. (The 5m tall István Tisza was not damaged, but his later “admirers” toppled it and not surprisingly the new regime after 1945 did not restore it.) The statue is monumental, and here the word “monumental” does not imply greatness. On the contrary, artistically speaking the general consensus is that it is a singularly worthless, if not outright hideous, work of overwhelming size–17 m tall with a huge lion on top. It is the work of György Zala, who created the original Archangel Gabriel statue on Heroes’ Square.
Since István Tisza was murdered on the very first day of the 1918 revolution, the “counterrevolutionaries” soon came to adulate him. István Deák, the well-known American-Hungarian historian, described him as “steadfast, cunning, intelligent, cautious, and tolerant if necessary, but just as often ruthless. A pessimist by temperament, he was nevertheless imbued with a fanatical belief in the divine mission of the nobility which, in his eyes, was identical with the nation.” Others have viewed him as a social reactionary who stubbornly opposed the breakup of the large landed estates as well as even the most modest reform proposals–for instance, one that would have granted suffrage to soldiers fighting at the front. At this time approximately 10% of the population was eligible to vote in Hungary as opposed to the Austrian part of the Monarchy where there was practically universal male suffrage.
Today István Tisza is regaining the popularity he enjoyed during the Horthy period. I discovered a hospital named after him, and there is an István Tisza Association whose members describe him as a great liberal. His admirers usually point out that he was the only politician of the Dual Monarchy who initially opposed the war. What they neglect to tell is that once he decided that the Monarchy must take part in the conflict, he became its strongest supporter until, in 1917, he announced in parliament: “Gentlemen, we have lost this war.”
So, let’s see what Viktor Orbán had to say about István Tisza and his “message” for our own age. (Politicians always discover messages sent from bygone days to the present!) Well, Tisza’s message seems to be that after a disastrous liberal period, Hungarians can now build a successful “national period” which has been prepared for by Viktor Orbán’s government in the last four years. The toppling of statues usually signals the end of a regime, while the erection of new statues signifies a regime’s beginning.
Orbán often finds a fleeting theme in the life of a historical figure and out of it creates an entire political philosophy for the man. In this case, it occurred to him that the name of the party István Tisza established might come in handy to help define his connection with Tisza. Tisza’s party was called the National Party of Work. As we know, one of Orbán’s favorite themes is that society should be based on work as opposed to financial speculation; moreover, he stands solidly on a national platform. He emphasized in his speech that a party that stands for work does not have to be communist or socialist, it can also be national. According to Orbán, Tisza knew and fought against liberalism and socialism in the name of the nation. Just as he himself had to rebuild the country after a disastrous liberal period.
Oh yes, those liberals and socialists. They gave the Hungarian political elite of Tisza’s time a lot of trouble, and today these “self-appointed democrats attack us in the name of some foggy notion of European identity.” But he can tell them what Tisza told his liberals and socialists. “We admit that we stand on a national basis. According to some super modern critics we are nationalists … and they talk about nationalist prejudices. We don’t care about the flourishing of mankind if it is not connected to the progress, flowering, greatness of the Hungarian nation.” Tisza explained that the destiny of the Hungarian nation was assured by taking over only certain “healthy buds of western culture” which were then stamped with the Hungarian national character and the special conditions existing in the Carpathian Basin.
As usual, Orbán’s speechwriters culled the writings of István Tisza to find the perfect quotations. But there is a serious problem with all that gazing at the past. Getting inspiration from a bygone day and quoting nationalistic speeches uttered a hundred years ago does not justify an anachronistic worldview. And it certainly does not justify an attempt to recreate a one-party system. As Freedom House correctly noted, another year of Viktor Orbán’s rule and Hungary will no longer be considered a democracy.
A one-party system is a one-party system quite independently of its ideology. Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, the countries of the Soviet bloc after World War II were all dictatorships of various degrees of harshness. Viktor Orbán is now building a “national” dictatorship and unveiling the appropriate statues to mark his new regime.