nationalism

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.

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The reception of Viktor Orbán’s speech in the West and in Romania

The world is in such a turmoil that although Viktor Orbán’s open admission of his goal to eliminate the “liberal” component of western-type democracy might be considered a watershed both domestically and in Hungary’s relation with the European Union, it is receiving scant attention. After all, the armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East are serious current problems, while Viktor Orbán’s threat to Hungarian democracy and to the European Union would have  negative implications only in the future.

In English I managed to find only a couple of news items about Orbán’s speech. The Associated Press published a short summary which was then picked up by ABC. Zoltán Simon’s reporting from Budapest for Bloomberg was more detailed and to the point: “Orbán Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary.”  This article must have had a large readership judging from the number of comments.

Vox.com quotes an important passage from the speech: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Actually, I trust that this will be a sticking point soon enough. The author of the article also takes issue with Orbán’s contention that illiberal states are economic success stories; they are in fact doing a great deal worse than liberal states. Russia, Turkey, and China are all poorer than Croatia, Poland, or Hungary for that matter.

The German and Austrian papers that are usually full of news about Hungarian politics are silent. Perhaps everybody is on vacation. I found only one German article and even this one only through a Hungarian source. It appeared in the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. The title of the piece is “Enough!,” a reference to the question of how long the European Union will tolerate Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies that have already transformed Hungary into a non-democratic state. “One must urgently pose the question whether Hungary led by Viktor Orbán wants to remain part of the European Union or not.” And while he was at it, the journalist suggested that the European People’s Party should expel Hungary from its delegation.

On the other hand, interest in Orbán’s speech was great in Romania. After all, it was delivered there and its implications can already be felt. Romanian-Hungarian relations are at an all-time low.

Before I turn to the Romanian press I would like to talk about Viktor Orbán’s contradictory messages and how they affect the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. Let’s start with Romania. The Hungarian minority in Romania is large: 1.2 million people or 6.4% of the population. Yet, according to the Romanian constitution, Romania is a “nation-state.” The Hungarian minority would like to have Romania be officially transformed into a multi-national state.

Orbán should know full well that the highly charged nationalism he is advocating is not in the interest of the Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Nationalism on one side of the border evokes nationalism on the other side. This is exactly what happened in Romania. Bogdan Diaconu, a nationalist politician and member of parliament, published an article in Adevarul, a leading Romanian newspaper, which was subsequently translated into Hungarian. The nationalistic hate speech of Diaconu there was countered with obscene, equally hateful comments by Hungarians.

nationalism

Surely, Orbán’s nationalism does not make the life of the Hungarian minority any easier in the neighboring countries. Just the opposite. Great suspicion follows every word Orbán utters in connection with his plans for the “nation.” And that is not all. Orbán’s attack on Hungarian NGOs that receive foreign money was also a double-edged sword. He argued that this money is being used to influence the Hungarian government, which cannot be tolerated. But the Hungarian government is financing Hungarian NGOs and parties in Romania and Slovakia. Thus, the Hungarian government is trying to influence the Slovak and Romanian governments on behalf of the Hungarian minority. What will happen if Romania or Slovakia follows Orbán’s example and refuses the receipt of any money from Budapest destined for the Hungarian NGOs? In fact, one of the Romanian articles that appeared in Romania Libera talked about the incongruity of Orbán’s stance on the issue. According to the journalist, if Orbán tries to silence the NGOs financed from abroad, “the bad example” might be imitated in other Eastern European countries where democracies are not yet sufficiently stable. We know which countries he has in mind.

In any case, although for the time being it is unlikely that either the Slovak or the Romanian government will try to imitate Viktor Orbán, Romanian commentators are worried that Hungarian bellicosity will have an adverse effect on the stability of the region. Romanian papers talk about an “illiberal” state’s possible revisionist tendencies which could upset the stability of the region given the presence of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia.

All in all, Orbán with this speech declared war on several fronts. Against his own people, against the European Union, against Hungarian civil society, and last but not least by his overcharged nationalist rhetoric against the amity of nations in Eastern Europe.

——

I would like to call everyone’s attention to Hungarian Free Press, a new English-language news portal from Canada. Here are some introductory words from the editor-in-chief:

The Hungarian Free Press, an online newspaper published by Presszo Media Inc., a Canadian federally-registered company based in Ottawa, was launched this morning. The HFP aims to offer informed opinion on current events in Hungary and East/Central Europe, and to expose to a broader English-speaking audience the explicit move away from liberal parliamentary democracy, which now appears to be the overt policy direction of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

While pro-government English-language publications, such as the newly launched Hungary Today site, as well as Mandiner’s English-language blog, The Hungarian Globe, aim to create the impression that Mr. Orbán’s government is really no different than any other right-centre or conservative administration and is simply “attacked” by the left for the same ideological reasons, this is not an accurate reflection of the situation. A good case-in-point is Hungary Today’s coverage of Mr. Orbán’s Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) speech, where the prime minister formally declared that the days of Hungarian liberal democracy were over and that his preferred authoritarian political model was similar to that found in countries like China, Russia and Singapore. Hungary Today, in its coverage, made it appear that Mr. Orbán, like most right-centre politicians, was merely challenging the welfare state and was attacked for this reason by the left-centre opposition, thus making the speech and the reactions that followed seem like “business as usual” in the world of parliamentary politics.

In 1961, American President John F. Kennedy was among the most articulate in expressing the media’s role in the long-term survival of multiparty democracy. Kennedy, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961 noted:

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

The HFP joins a very small handful of English publications in exposing the danger that Mr. Orbán and his avowedly illiberal, anti-democratic and openly authoritarian government represent in the heart of Europe.

István Tisza and the National Party of Work revived

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.

The original statue / Source Magyar Hírlap

The original statue / Source: Magyar Hírlap

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.”

Tisza Istvan2

And in living color today / Source: temesvarihirek.ro

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.

Young Jobbik and Fidesz sympathizers have a great deal in common

An article appeared in Friday’s Népszabadság that summarized the findings of a sociological study about youthful adherents (ages 15-29) to the ideology of the far-right Jobbik party. Unfortunately, it turned out that the report is two years old, and since then Jobbik has become a much more powerful political movement. The study by Anikó Félix and Anikó Gregor, for example, still talks about Jobbik’s strength being in the least developed eastern regions, although by now we know that Jobbik did equally well at the last election in Transdanubia. There are, however, a few points that are worth contemplating.

In a 2012 survey Jobbik enjoyed 10% support among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Fidesz led with 14% while MSZP brought up the rear with 6%. The rest didn’t answer. Late 2013 polls put Jobbik support at 14% in the 18-29 age group, significantly smaller than some people imagine. Fidesz and even the left liberals did considerably better than Jobbik in these surveys.

Worrisome signs emerge, however, when we look into some of the details of the Félix-Gregor study. The young men and women who support Jobbik “under certain circumstances” accept the idea of establishing a dictatorship; they consider membership in the European Union outright harmful to the country; and they are leery of government in general. And now comes the most remarkable feature of the study: the authors found that “there is no significant difference in the estimation of dictatorship and their attraction to ‘esoteric beliefs’ between young Jobbik and Fidesz supporters.” There is also no difference between them when it comes to the question of nationalism.

Let’s first take a look at nationalism or chauvinism as it informs these young people’s worldview. The study tries to make a distinction between “proud positive nationalism” and “chauvinism or a belief in national superiority.” The distinction, in my opinion, is not so clear as our authors seem to think because among the many definitions of nationalism one can find several that essentially conflate the two. Here are a few: “excessive patriotism; chauvinism,” or  “exaggerated, passionate, or fanatical devotion to a national community.” In any case, these young people seem to endorse the chauvinistic version of nationalism. A rather bad piece of news.

Definitions of chauvinism often contain references to militarism. For example, “militant devotion to and glorification of one’s country” or “zealous and aggressive patriotism or blind enthusiasm for military glory.” So, it’s no wonder that one of Jobbik’s early decisions was to set up the Magyar Gárda, a paramilitary organization. Weekend gatherings and the comradeship experienced there greatly add to the cohesion of the group. They create a community to which young people in particular feel comfortable belonging.

Boys in Magyar Gárda uniform

Boys in Magyar Gárda uniform

And now we can turn to the subject of esotericism. These gatherings also include “lectures,” mostly on what the authors call “esoteric topics.” As these youngsters usually discard anything that is official or mainstream, they often reject whatever was taught to them in school. If their textbooks said that Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, they will instead be attracted to any zany pseudo-linguistics that glorifies the Hungarian language. It wasn’t the speech of some humble hunters and fishermen from the Russian steppe but the language of the Sumerians. This is just one example, but right-wing groups closely associated with Jobbik hold weekend schools where bogus scholars pour utter nonsense into young heads. These esoteric beliefs are also a common bond that hold the groups together. Their beliefs distinguish them from the rest of society. They think that secrets have been revealed to them that are unknown to others.

The important message that we get from the study that questioned 8,000 young men and women is that chauvinism and a belief in esotericism have a strong hold on both Jobbik and Fidesz sympathizers. And Viktor Orbán must know this because he loves to catalogue the unique virtues of Hungarians: they are clever, inventive, chivalrous, and hardworking.

If I had to pick the most important political weapon in Viktor Orbán’s arsenal, I would say that it is nationalism/chauvinism. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who said it, but it was some well-known Hungarian personage who claimed that “a person can cut firewood on a Hungarian’s back as long as he invokes nationalism.” Alas, it seems to work. What Viktor Orbán has done in the last four years to the majority of his own people would have caused riots in many other countries. Or at least serious opposition. But not in Hungary.

So what can the left-liberal opposition do under these circumstances? Resort to nationalism as a political gimmick? Surely, they could never outdo Jobbik and Fidesz. Moreover, no responsible politician should preach unbridled nationalistic, chauvinistic propaganda in the 21st century. The only solution to me seems to involve changing young people’s attitudes. Admittedly, this is a very difficult proposition when Viktor Orbán has tightened his hold on Hungarian education, but a way must be found because otherwise Jobbik-Fidesz will be in the saddle for decades to come. Since the European Union seems to be a willing partner of Viktor Orbán and keeps supplying him with the money that keeps him power, we can’t expect a collapse of the regime any time soon. The Hungarians themselves have to vote the regime out. But first they must reject the chauvinistic opiate Orbán and Jobbik are feeding them.

Orbán in Great Britain: Spreading the gospel

By now, I’m sure, you are fully aware of my disdain for politicians whose speeches display a woeful lack of knowledge. Viktor Orbán certainly had ample opportunity to be properly educated, but he was more interested in football than in learning. He himself admitted that in high school he wasn’t good enough in either the arts or the sciences to get admitted to university. So he decided to go to law school. In law school, according to his college friend Gábor Fodor, Orbán’s passions were football and politics.

Unfortunately, his lack of a broad liberal education is painfully obvious. He picks up bits and pieces of information from assorted sources but doesn’t know how to integrate them into a coherent whole. Moreover, he uncritically accepts questionable theories and spurious facts that support his views on, say, religion, economics, or history.

One could go and on about the embarrassing mistakes he made in the past, but here I would like to concentrate on his latest speech at Chatham House in London. The speech itself was surprisingly brief because he wanted to have time for a debate of his ideas afterward. But even this short speech was crawling with factual errors and conceptual confusion.

A day before the trip Adam LeBor, a British journalist living in Budapest, wrote an amusing piece in The Economist. It was “a confidential briefing note from Mr Cameron’s staff to prepare him for Mr Orbán’s visit … as imagined by our correspondent.”

Orbán offered up his own briefing note as he tried to describe his worldview to the audience at Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs. I can only imagine what the learned foreign policy experts thought of Viktor Orbán’s “theses.”

Orbán likes to call Hungarian a “unique language,” even though this is essentially a meaningless expression; every language is unique in its own way. Orbán, however, in this speech glided easily from linguistic uniqueness to Hungarian “exceptionalism” (in all fairness, a word that he did not use). He illustrated his point by claiming that Hungarians are great inventors. Hungarians invented the espresso machine, the ball point pen, and the computer. I suspect that there were not too many people in his audience who rushed home to check on the accuracy of these claims. Or at least I hope not too many did because in no time they would have discovered that neither the espresso machine nor the computer are Hungarian inventions. The modern espresso machine is the result of more than 100 years of improvements of the original 1888 patent by Angelo Morondo. It is true that among the many who improved it there was a certain Francesco Illy who was originally from Temesvár but who left Hungary after World War I and settled in Trieste.

As for the computer, once again many inventors contributed to its development. János von Neumann and others wrote (and he edited) the First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC in 1945; the IAS machine later built at Princeton was based on the computer architecture described in this report. But it’s a major stretch to say that von Neumann invented the computer. Orbán was right about the ballpoint pen. It was the invention of László Biró who with his brother escaped from Hungary in 1943 and settled in Argentina.

Orbán’s view of the world, which he outlined to his audience, is not worth repeating. We know it only too well. Europe is in decline, the Europeans are lost and have no answers to their economic ills, close integration in Europe is inadvisable, nations are important, the death of the welfare state is near, and European leaders lack leadership and vision.

He did, however, elaborate on what he called the “red and green attack against traditional values: against the church, against family, against the nation. ” Moreover, he wanted his audience to believe that “democracy in Europe is democracy based on Christianity. The anthropological root of our political institutions is imago Dei, which requires an absolute respect of the human being.”

Democracy Index 2013. Hungary is labelled as flawed democracy

Democracy Index 2013. Hungary is labelled as a flawed democracy

Naturally, Orbán never learned any Latin, but lately he has been dropping Latin expressions right and left. Especially when it comes to church affairs. Just the other day he portrayed Hungary as a “church-building country” and dropped a few Latin words, Soli Deo gloria, for good measure. Perhaps he wants to sound learned, perhaps he wants to identify with Catholicism. In any event, in English we talk about “the image of God” and not “imago Dei.” Wrong words in the wrong country with the wrong church. Moreover, just as Endre Aczél rightly pointed out, Orbán delivered this message in a country which is perhaps the least concerned in Europe with religious matters and where only 4.4% of the population attend church at all.

As for democracy in Europe being based on Christianity, that’s total nonsense. We all know about the ancient Athenian roots of democracy when it was led by Cleisthenes in the fifth century BCE. The earliest Christians, Greek educated, knew about Athenian democracy, but early Christian teaching was not influenced by these ideas. The origins of modern democracy go back to Great Britain’s parliamentary system; from there it spread to the North American continent where a strict division between church and state was introduced. Perhaps (if I were to be charitable) Orbán was thinking of the Christian socialist movement sometimes called Christian democracy, but I doubt it. I think he’s simply hung up on this “church, family, nation” idea and tries to construct a history to support his image of a nonexistent world.

László Kövér’s ideas about the ideal democracy: Governance by decree

I really didn’t think that László Köver, president/speaker of the Hungarian parliament, could still surprise me. Yet he manages. Here is his latest.

By way of preface, I should note that there are some commentators who say that one ought not take Kövér terribly seriously. He is just this kind of a fellow. Perhaps his bark is worse than his bite.

Well, I don’t belong to the camp of those who take him lightly. He is the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. He always was. In reminiscences about the early days of Fidesz participants often describe him as the man who had an enormous influence over young Viktor Orbán. Kövér took his sweet time graduating from law school and therefore was four years older than Orbán. According to those who shared their recollections of Kövér in the book compiled by György Petőcz (Csak a narancs volt), Kövér was a cantankerous, hard-to-get-along-with fellow who was utterly devoted, body and soul, first to the college that he, Orbán, and others ran and later to the party. To those who didn’t particularly like him, he was Viktor Orbán’s evil spirit. If Kövér wasn’t around, it was easy to come to an understanding with Orbán. Some even claim that there is a cowardly side to Orbán; if he feels threatened, he is ready to give in. Not so Kövér. He often propped up Orbán, and thus there could be no compromise in the party leadership.

I don’t know whether it was clear to his fellow college students that the man was an ardent nationalist even then. Apparently Kövér’s real interest was in history, not so much in the law. Therefore he attended classes in the university’s history department. His references to modern Hungarian history reveal his deep-seated nationalism, which leads to historical distortion. In the center of his historical universe stands Trianon. I suspect that in this respect Kövér didn’t change much. As far as his politics are concerned, he did change from ardent socialism to fierce anti-communism with a good dose of right-wing extremism mixed in. On his way from extreme left to extreme right he never managed to feel at home in a democratic republic. The very idea of democracy is alien to the man, as we will see from his latest pronouncement.

Yesterday afternoon Kövér gave an interview to Aréna, a political program on Inforádió, a right of center radio station.  In it he covered many issues dealing with the Hungarian parliament. During the course of the interview he said: “I would find it normal, quite independently from what kind of governments we will have in the next few years, if the parliament would lay claim only to the creation of the most fundamental legal guarantees and would otherwise hand over its mandate to the government for the next four years.” When pressed, he explained that this would mean a kind of governing by decree. In his opinion it is no longer necessary to have a government whose functioning depends on laws enacted by parliament. The present system was worked out in 1989-1990 because of the fear of a return of dictatorship. This fear was justified until 1998. But by now this danger is gone.

An incredible statement demonstrating a complete ignorance of the role of parliament in a democracy. The parliament enacts laws not because it is “afraid of dictatorship” but because the representatives of the electorate thus have the opportunity to discuss the laws proposed by the government and can have a measure of control over them.

Kövér also has peculiar views on the essence of democracy. If there is no fear of dictatorship, the government can do whatever it pleases. Earlier on this blog we discussed Kövér’s willingness to get rid of the Constitutional Court because then, he claimed, parliament would have the final, irrevocable say in matters of policy. But now he would be willing to emasculate the parliament of which he is the speaker and empower the government to govern by decree.

Kövér also seems to believe that once democracy is firmly established it needs no improvement or even much oversight. According to this static view, the democratic political system cannot slide back into dictatorship. It would be amusing, were it not so sad, that Kövér believes that this perfect state of democracy arrived in 1998, when Fidesz won for the first time.

I doubt that Kövér learned much about modern Germany while dabbling in history. Otherwise he might have been more cautious in advocating governance by decree. It was in March 1933 that an amendment to the Weimar Constitution took effect which gave power to Chancellor Adolf Hitler to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. The act stated that this arrangement was to last four years unless renewed, which subsequently happened twice. This so-called Enabling Act (Ermächtigungesetz) gave Hitler plenary powers and made him the dictator of Germany. What did Hitler himself say at the time of the enactment of the Enabling Act? It will sound familiar to us: “after the methodical destruction of the nation” the age of renewal has arrived. “The most important question is the handling of the short- and long-term foreign indebtedness. One must save the German peasantry, and the national government will also assist the middle classes.”

The resemblance between the German Enabling Act and what Kövér proposed in this interview was first picked up by János Avar and seconded by György Bolgár on ATV’s UjságíróKlub last night. It has since been repeated by many bloggers. It is one of the most frightening suggestions I have heard in the longest time. And let’s not fool ourselves. This is not some kind of off-the-cuff remark that Kövér hasn’t thought through. Already in February he was talking about giving more power to the government at the expense of the parliament.  In the interview he complained about the current practice which requires that every piece of legislation be enacted by the legislature and long debated. What a bore! Let’s cut out the middle man.

MSZP and Együtt2014-PM made a joint statement in which Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy found it “appalling that the president of the Parliament wishes to enlarge the authority of the government at the expense of the Parliament.” They considered the very suggestion “threatening.”

This man isn't joking!

This man isn’t joking!

I guess the Fidesz leadership decided that Kövér revealed more of the party’s plans than was advisable and immediately announced that naturally the opposition completely misunderstood what Kövér was getting at. Gergely Gulyás, the constitutional expert of Fidesz, in fact claimed that Kövér said the exact opposite of what we all heard from Kövér’s mouth. In fact, said Gulyás, he was talking about “the extension of the opposition’s rights and the greater oversight of the government by the parliament.”

Some observers, including one of our commenters, suggest that Fidesz here is working on a devilish plan that would allow the party and Viktor Orbán to continue their present policies in case after 2014, as they suspect, they don’t have a two-thirds majority in parliament. By curtailing the powers of parliament and enabling the government to rule by decree, the unfettered governing by the third Orbán government could go on despite a stronger parliamentary representation by the opposition. This hypothesis sounds plausible to me.

Of course, if the opposition wins, the big loser in this scheme will be Fidesz. But Viktor Orbán and his alter ego like to gamble. If I were an opposition politician I would double, triple my efforts to unseat this government. Otherwise Hungarians may end up living in Fidesz’s perfect democracy, known to the rest of the world as a dictatorship.

Football and its fans: The Romanian-Hungarian game

Today I will talk about two related topics: the Romanian-Hungarian football match in Bucharest and the group of Hungarian fans who on the way to the Romanian capital just happened to stop in a village close to the Romanian-Hungarian border. The fans paid an unwelcome visit to the elementary school in Konyár (pop. 2,000).

As for the game itself, I don’t want to dwell on it. The Hungarian national team suffered a humiliating defeat that more or less precludes it from advancing in the preliminary rounds for next year’s World Cup game. Prior to the match, one of the players, Zsolt Korcsmár, who plays full time for the German Greuther Fürth, predicted that the Hungarian team would come back with three goals. Well, they did but not exactly in the manner Korcsmár imagined. They lost by three goals.

The right-wing fans who were already pretty drunk at the beginning of their journey explained to the reporters on hand that they were looking forward to the game because “for ninety minutes Transylvania will be ours.”The pre-game hype was extraordinary. Even the coach described the match as “historic.” (The original Hungarian that belies translation is something like “an event that will greatly influence our fate.”) It became practically an answer to Trianon. It was also intended to put an end to the extreme frustration of the Hungarian football fans. The last time that the Hungarian national team won against the Romanians in Bucharest was 55 years ago!

That the fans thought that by winning at soccer the Hungarian national team could somehow avenge the loss of Transylvania was one thing. But what was most likely truly injurious to the psyche of the players was that the coach himself fed this notion of a war by other means, a war of football. Sándor Egervári, the coach, kept calling the team’s attention to the “history of these two countries.” I guess he was trying to inspire a mediocre team by making the players feel as if their actions on the field would shape the destiny of the country.

Article after article assured football fans that the players were feeling optimistic and were not overwhelmed by the task. But the media also reinforced the game’s extreme importance. Almost as if Hungary’s national honor had to be defended in this one game. One of the Internet sport sites claimed that it was the most important game ever for the Hungarian national team. Egervári called the Romanians “the Hungarian team’s greatest rivals” not because of the prowess of the Romanian team but because of factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with football. Rather, they stem from the enmity that has existed between these two nations for at least a hundred years. On the Romanian side, I’m almost certain, there were similar feelings. Some Romanian fans held up signs reading “1918,” the year the Romanian National Council declared Transylvania to be part of Romania.

Although most Hungarian football fans admit that Hungarian football is lousy and refuse to attend the games, this time they watched the match intently. More than two million people were glued to MTV’s live broadcast. Normally, serious Hungarian aficionados watch foreign matches, but this game was different. And when the devastating 3-0 loss was reported by hatharom.com, an Internet site devoted to football, the article began with a reference to “the 15 million Hungarians who have been waiting for months for this very important game.” The nation is getting bigger and bigger, it seems. Apparently this 15 million also includes the non-existent two million Hungarian-Americans.

And now a few words about the most ardent fans. All told, about 2,800 Hungarian fans traveled to Bucharest. Eleven hundred of them went by chartered train. The trip by train was organized by a group that calls itself the Carpathian Brigade. Eight hundred eighty left Budapest and 250 joined them in Brasov/Brassó in Romania. (Apparently they trashed the train’s fourteen cars on the return trip.) Others went by chartered buses. We will follow one of these that made a side trip to Konyár.

The bus whose passengers stopped in Konyár originated in Debrecen. The superhighway to the border from Debrecen is still not finished on either side, so vehicles have to travel southward on a secondary road through Sáránd, Derecske, Berettyóújfalu, and from there to Oradea/Nagyvárad in Romania. However, at Derecske, the bus left the highway and turned left onto a  small road leading to this heavily Roma inhabited village and parked in front of the local elementary school.

According to Jenő Gyöngyös, the head of the Roma community in Konyár, the twenty or so rowdy and already slightly drunk “fans” began to yell obscenities and threatened to enter the school. Some of them for good measure urinated on the wall of the building. The teachers locked the doors and the frightened staff ordered the first-graders to hide under their desks. Some of the older pupils hid in the toilets. Eventually someone called the police. The police arrived and simply asked the guys to get back on the bus and depart.

And how do the police now describe the incident? They claim there was no incident. The rowdies just stopped to relieve themselves and to have a cigarette. The only thing they did was to sing the Szekler national anthem.

Konyar

If you look at the Google map you will immediately realize that this stop in Konyár was not happenstance.  It was planned. But why? Because in January a young history teacher at the school, Szilárd Vígh, was caught talking disparagingly about his Gypsy students and boasting about how he disciplines them by beating them. By that time it was the Klebelsberg Center that was the “employer” of the school’s teachers, and after an internal investigation Vígh was fired, in spite of a demonstration organized by Jobbik in defense of the history teacher. The fired teacher was one of the passengers on that bus. Simple enough! The police and the principal can deny the facts till doomsday.

I think one day I should spend some time on the changing behavior of the police. They seem to have recognized that they can do practically anything in pursuit of their vision of law and order. The minister of the interior, the former police chief, will defend them to the very end. And the population is defenseless against their excesses.