Rudolf Ungváry


The present political system, introduced and refined over the last five years, has wide support. Not as wide as it was in April-May 2010, but Viktor Orbán’s party still has about one million followers. This is the hardcore, those who will never question the wisdom of the Leader. Where are these people coming from? This is the question Rudolf Ungváry is trying to answer in this book.

NyugatHe focuses on the divide between the two political groups who, to use János Kis’s words, “have been at war with each other in the last one hundred years.” Ungváry avoids the by now practically meaningless terms “right” and “left”and instead draws the line between “democrats” and the “nemzetiek.” The former at one point were called “nyugatosok” after a famous periodical Nyugat (The West) around which they gathered. Later, between the two world wars, they were known as “urbánosok” (urbanites). They were the ones who believed in progress, they longed for western democracy, they wanted to modernize the country. The other group, the nationalists, have been suspicious of the West ever since the late eighteenth century. They rejected the imitation of western ways. Instead they glorified the common folk, especially the Hungarian peasant, who in their eyes held the key to the true Hungarian soul. It was from this group that the so-called “népiesek” came, a group of writers and sociologists who spent their creative energies writing novels and studies about the Hungarian peasantry. This latter group can be profitably compared to the Russian narodnik movement. And continuing to use Russia as a point of reference, the Hungarian divide between these two groups is analogous to the nineteenth-century Russian Westernizer and Slavophile movements.

Because of the relative backwardness of Hungary, the liberal group remained small even as, especially after the end of World War I, the Hungarian right gained considerable momentum. These people were never enamored of the West, but their dislike of Western ways intensified since they blamed the western powers for the cruel fate that befell their nation. The number of civil groups formed by extreme right-wingers multiplied. The people who gathered in these associations were sworn enemies of liberalism, they harbored a real hatred of the Hungarian industrialists who were mostly of Jewish origin, they were against modernization, they put their faith in the Hungarian peasantry, and above all they wanted to reconquer their land from the Jews. Some of them imagined a “third road” which would enable Hungary to create a unique system which was neither capitalism nor socialism. The incredible thing about all this is that these concepts, which people thought had long been forgotten, were revived after the change of regime. The “népiesek,” “nemzetiek” gathered in MDF while the “nyugatosok,” “urbanites” established SZDSZ. And there was even talk about the “third road,” naturally promoted by politicians of MDF.

Ungváry analyzes the results of the 1939 election, which proved to be an eye opener. According to a law enacted in 1925, only inhabitants of larger cities could vote by secret ballot. In the villages voting was open. In 1938, the secret ballot was introduced everywhere. The result was an incredible growth of the extreme right Arrow Cross Party of Ferenc Szálasi. On the right there was also a large group of voters whom we usually refer to as “the Christian middle class” or “keresztény úri osztály.” The liberals and socialists were in the great minority all through the interwar period, but after 1939 they became truly irrelevant. And yet a few years later this large mass of right-wing voters disappeared into thin air. Or did they?

With the Soviet occupation and the subsequent establishment of the Rákosi regime the members of the Hungarian right had no place in political life. Right-wing parties were forbidden to enter the early post-war elections, and therefore the proponents of the Hungarian right couldn’t go through the kind of development that took place in countries occupied by U.S., British, or French troops. The ideas of the Hungarian right became frozen in their pre-1945 form, only to reemerge after 1990 to the great surprise of liberals and socialists. And with their reemergence came the growth of the extreme right, anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism, and anti-democratic ideas.

Members of the Hungarian right carried on the “nemzeti” tradition within their own families, passing on to their offspring family traditions, including stories of the grievances they suffered at the hands of the communists. A lot of people felt they were victims of the regime, perhaps more than the actual numbers warranted. Family stories became inflated. Suddenly everybody had a peasant grandfather whose whole crop was taken away by force. These are the people that today are the loyal followers of Viktor Orbán, whose own family was not a victim but rather a beneficiary of the socialist system.

Rudolf Ungváry in his other works often talks about the fact that Hungary was and still is a country where the “nemzeti” right-wing people are in the majority. A few years back he engaged in a lively debate about this thesis with such academics as János Kis and Zoltán Ripp. If we accept Ungváry’s division of the two political sides as “democrats” and “nemzetiek,” then I’m afraid the “democrats/liberals” were definitely a minority before 1945. What the situation is today we don’t know, although within a couple of years we should have a fair idea of the relative strength of the democrats and the non-democrats.

Ungváry stresses the importance of political culture, which determines the state of a political system. Although the Hungarian democratic tradition has been weak so far, perhaps one day Hungarians will be able to say loud and clear: “I am … a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly.” It was the sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin who uttered these words in 1722. It is that kind of political culture which has been missing in Hungary.

Rudolf Ungváry on the fascistoid mutation in today’s Hungary, Part I

The political system introduced by Viktor Orbán never ceases to fascinate analysts and observers. Earlier we spent a considerable amount of time discussing Bálint Magyar’s theory of the post-communist mafia state. Dozens of political scientists, sociologists, economists, media experts, and legal scholars wrote articles on different aspects of Viktor Orbán’s mafia state, describing the way it functions. Although in the last few years other analysts have offered views on the nature of the Orbán regime from various angles, legal and psychological, it was only Magyar’s mafia-state theory that stuck and became widely accepted.

ungvary rudolf2The new book by Rudolf Ungváry will most likely be a serious challenge to The Hungarian Octopus: The Post Communist Mafia State. Ungváry contends that the two edited volumes on the mafia state provide merely “a sociological description” of the Orbán system. Only “the economic criminality of the system is captured, not its essence.”

So, what is the essence of Orbán’s system according to Ungváry? As the subtitle of the book suggests, it is “a fascistoid mutation.” (Rudolf Ungváry: A láthatatlan valóság: A fasisztoid mutáció a mai Magyarországon/The Invisible Reality: Fascistoid Mutation in Today’s Hungary [Pozsony/Bratislava: Kalligram, 2014])

Before the appearance of this book, only two commentators called Fidesz a fascist party, pure and simple. One was the linguist László Kálmán, who wrote an article in October 2010 on a rarely visited internet site in which, after briefly describing the three or four essential elements of Italian fascism, he stated that “Fidesz in the past fifteen years has been a fascist party par excellence.” The other was László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai-Magyar Népszava. I might add here that in September 2010 I wrote an article for Galamus in which I compared the ideas of Viktor Orbán to those of Gyula Gömbös, prime minister of Hungary between 1933 and 1936, and talked about the similarities of the present Hungarian political system to that of Gömbös, which itself was a mutation of Italian fascism. But Ungváry is right, references to the fascist elements in Orbán’s system did not prompt serious debate.

Ungváry argues that without antecedents the present system could not have been developed. “The system is successful because the Hungarian political culture of the extreme right before World War II has been reborn in a different guise. It pretends to be something else. It uses the instruments of liberal democracy to mask itself.” Ungváry lists four “surface characteristics” of the Orbán regime that “are designed to hide the real nature of the system.” Then, following the research findings of Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher, and Hans Mommsen, the German historian of Nazi Germany, he concentrates on the “eight essential characteristics of fascism.”

The most misleading characteristic of this mutation is the democratic “gloss” that covers the fascistoid structure. Democratic institutions have remained, although they have lost their function. The role of opposition parties is to ensure the appearance of democracy. Behind that gloss Ungváry sees the hidden structures of the system that make the regime a mutation of the original.

As for the essential characteristics of the system. (1) There is no declared “guiding principle.” The Leader is not named. There is no Hungarian Führer, Duce, Caudillo, not even Nemzetvédő. He is only “Viktor! Viktor!” Yet he is the supreme leader. With those who don’t question his leading role he is patient, but his political opponents are considered to be enemies and aliens. (2) Although the “cult of strength” is present, there are no brutal reprisals. Intimidation is indirect, but it is always present in Orbán’s speeches. (3) Loyalty is one of the guiding principles, but again it is not written down anywhere. The socialist system also demanded loyalty, in its case to the party. The Orbán system of loyalty is based on personal networks that are typical of fascistoid regimes. At the top of the pyramid stands the Leader himself. (4) Within the system there is seeming chaos but this chaos is actually organized. Those who are faithful to the leader have a fair amount of power, but for those who are suspect there is no mercy. For example, more than half of the civil servants were fired. There is no “class warfare”; the fight is with banks and multinationals. (5) Every important state institution is in the hands of “their own men.” (6) One of the most typical characteristics of the system is its “more neutral selection of those to be excluded.” In communism this ingredient of the system was pretty straightforward; it was based on class. In Nazi Germany it was “race.” In Orbán’s system the targets are those “who don’t belong to us.” They are the ones who are stripped of their banks, their pensions, their land, and so on. This is the third time in a century that wealth has been redistributed. In order to give to those who are “ours” they must take away from others. (7) The groups who are targeted can vary depending on the needs of the regime. It is flexible in this respect. (8) In order to ensure the followers’ loyalty and enthusiasm for the regime, it is necessary to stir up passion and conflicts. In Hungarian this is called the “politics of grievances”; it also entails the rewriting of history.

These essential characteristics of Orbán’s fascistoid mutation are critical to understanding the rest of Ungváry’s treatise, about which more tomorrow.

A few words about Rudolf Ungváry. He is a real polyhistor. He is a mechanical engineer by training but is known as a writer, journalist, film critic, and librarian. In 1956 he was an engineering student and because of his activities was interned in Kistarcsa. In 1958-59 he worked as an iron turner, after which he was allowed to return to university. Since 1983 he has been a research associate at the Széchényi (National) Library. He considers himself a conservative in the classical sense of the word.

Tomorrow I will turn to Ungváry’s thorough analysis of the present fascistoid system and how Hungary ended up here.