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.”
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.