I spent the last six months between numbing shock horror over my home country of Hungary and trying to write about it. It is not easy, you see, writing about Hungary. It is bloody difficult. Being Hungarian, in general is hard. For me, at least. I find that being hysterical about our country and culture is a typically Hungarian trait. For most people of other nationalities being whatever nationality they are is a no brainer, a fact of life. They are who they are and that’s that. For us it is more ambivalent. And infuriating and awkward and filled with love and hatred and then love again. “Hello, I am Hungarian and I am misunderstood and confused.” – we should have that tattooed on our collective forehead for all to see, so you would know better than ask us about it. Or mention it, even. There are many reasons, most of them unconscious, very complex, historical and unexplainable. Many inexplicable, pushed under the rug and forcefully forgotten (not). As my friend Donald, an open-minded, educated Englishman said after reading Laszlo Kontler‘s great account on Hungarian history: “How can you people look each other in the eye at all?”
Imagine, if you will, a country isolated by its language (Hungarian is not and Indo-European language, there is very little cultural connection to any other language or country and only 10% of Hungarians manage to learn a foreign language fluently) and by its geography. It is right on the transit line between Russia (Ukraine, actually, but you get the point) and Western Europe. East and West, really, and whatever that meant at any given time in history. It is a very small, isolated country in the middle of it all. In the roughly 400 years prior to 1989 Hungary was always occupied by another country. Give or take a few decades when it was not, but even then outside influence was obvious and overwhelming. It is complicated, but one way or another Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after the Great War. After two and a half centuries in the Habsburg Empire, by the mid-1920s Hungary lost much of its territory and a World War, thus became misguided, lost, bitter and a tad anti-Semitic. It was a kingdom, without a king, a country without a sea run by an admiral (no, it is not a joke). Of course, in World War II it sided with Hitler who ended up sending 600 000 Hungarian Jews into concentration camps with active participation from the Hungarian authorities and often individuals; an issue still completely unresolved in Hungary (no proper discussion, only grudges and resentment, no apology, no absolution). After 1945 there was democracy for a strong minute, then Stalinism; which was universally disliked and there was an uprising against the Soviets in 1956. Consequently the Soviet tanks left for a few days, just to come back again this time with gusto, and shoot the revolution into oblivion. Thus came 30 years’ of “soft-dictatorship” of the socialist kind, where everyone had a job even when they did not, when everyone had “circus and bread” and everyone was treated as a child. All were taken care of and told to “shut up and play”, let the grown-ups do the thinking. Citizens were kindly asked no to think or say much other than what was “appropriate”.
It was more than 40 years before Hungary became a republic once more in 1989. Hungary had only been a republic twice before, mind. I am not sure if any time before 1989 Hungary could be called a “democracy”. I am not sure it could be called that after. Maybe a little bit, if that is even possible. Anyway, democracy is a process and there are many historical prerequisites to it, very few of which have ever been available in Hungary. In the last 20 years a new state was built (on the shambles of all that was already there), one where political parties are akin to Mafia clans with economic interests high and low and everywhere. There were a few democratic institutions that worked and there were democratic “checks and balances” present, but… (Do read Charles Gati’s great article on the subject). The country has always been corrupt and to a varying degree governments were run like crime organizations. It has been true about all parties in government since 1989, but the current government took this lovely system further (see below). Normally (in Hungary) when one party loses power the winners “clean house” and fire “people of significance” and replace them with “their people” etc. Two years ago the new government fired more or less everyone down to the last cleaning lady in all government institutions (and beyond). Top it off with an economic breakdown and slight changes in all things political, government and beyond (state television, radio, schools etc). So some Hungarians are now afraid and many feel uneasy. Old habits die hard, you see. In a country where roughly 15-20% of people reported on one another to the authorities for 40 years (another issue, by the way, still untouchable, unopened and unresolved), one can quickly relearn to watch what they say. Many are afraid for their jobs they are afraid what they can or cannot say about the government, about Hungary, about practically anything.
Long story short, in 2010 Fidesz, a right-wing party of opportunistic tendencies (they started out as liberals in the late 1980s then after failing to “win big” on the left and when a “vacancy occurred” on the right they collectively became right-wing in the mid-1990s) and its leader Viktor Orban (a true Machiavellian, if there ever was one) won the general elections with 52.7%, which in Hungary amounted to a super-majority. And with them Hungary started sliding into a soft fascism of sorts – for lack of a better word. And fascism, as we know, comes about in times of extreme hopelessness and economic hardship. And confusion and lies. The foundations were there already – Fidesz had spent the previous 8 years in opposition laying them.
First, they nationalized all private pension funds. Just like that. I woke up one day and I had no pension anymore (not that it was much by any means, but still). They said it was not theft, they are “protecting” it. Then (secondly) they manged to take the independence of the judiciary and (thirdly) that of the central bank, too. Then (fourthly and here I’ll stop counting) they created a new constitution with lots of God in it and explanations of how Hungarians are special; “putting all power into the current government’s hands for the foreseeable future”. And (by the way) Hungary is not a “republic” anymore, either (why, for heaven’s sake, why???). In the mean time there was a shift away from what we call “freedom of information”. It is not that there is no criticism of the government in the Hungarian press, no. It is just that it is not widely read. Oh, and there is a new law that if you want to enter higher education in Hungary and get state funding you more or less sign an agreement that you will not leave the country (other than for holiday, that is) for a certain number of years (5 in 10 or 7 in 15 – there are several different numbers around). There is also a new “National Curriculum” – I found it bonkers, out-of-this-world, rather nationalistic, slightly anti-Semitic and not completely secular. But please, do read the outline here and make up your mind yourself. Although I will say this much: Hungary’s only Nobel Prize winning writer Imre Kertesz‘s work is curiously nowhere to be found in the curriculum. But he is Jewish and lives in Berlin and knows his own mind about Hungary in general and the current government in particular.
And, of course, there is the imposing building that is the Hungarian Parliament, which the government managed to turn into a joke. They, after all, have super majority in Parliament and can change the laws whichever way they please. And they did. Now they debate crucial laws at 2 am or not at all, close debate before it has even started etc. In other words, the opposition has no say whatsoever in anything. Thus the government pushed trough an unparalleled number of new laws. The EU did make a fuss over things but nothing changed much.
And there is the dispute with the EU and the IMF. Hungary is flat broke, you understand.15 years of economic mismanagement took its toll and by now the money from the pension funds is running low, too. Hungarian governments in general do not like austerity, nor are they any good at it (obviously). After 40 years of being taken care of, Hungarians are not so keen on having to figure things out themselves. Also, since everything is more or less run Mafia style you cannot really figure out anything in the traditional sense even if you wanted to – unless you have the right friends and say the right things.
That, and the world also experienced a slight economic meltdown. So, as I mentioned, Hungary is running low on cash and most folks are doing pretty badly. Thus the government in their great wisdom decided to blame the EU and the IMF and the multinational companies (“those foreigners want to bleed us out”) for… pretty much everything. The multinational companies came and took everything, you see, they did not pay taxes and made all those profits and now they want to turn us into a colony. We are poor because of them and the previous government, naturally. There is a desperate need for an IMF bailout, but the government do not like the austerity attached. They actually considered bankruptcy, too (see Newsnight’s very grim report on the matter here), which is still an option. Now there are serious discussions with the EU and the IMF about the problem Hungary has become. The questionable freedom of the judiciary, information, racism, corruption etc. There were warnings from the EU, then baffled and baffling government statements. What the government is saying in essence is that the EU and the IMF misunderstand us. They cannot see that what is happening in Hungary is “real” democracy, in its truest sense. We are a small nation, but we are proud. So bugger off… Just leave the money, for god’s sake, only make sure the voters do no not see…
So, this is the very short and simplified version of what has been going on. And I cannot help but wonder: What the fck can one say to that? Or do? Or think? Or…? So, now you see why I have spent the last year with a larger and larger, neon “WTF” sign blinking above my head every time I read/talked about/thought about my home country. I am confused as it is, being Hungarian, but now I am deeply saddened, too. It was only possible because we – all of us – let it happen. And because, to quote Donald Rumsfeld (the bastard) “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Most Hungarians do not know and have no idea whatsoever what it is they should know or see; and there are many-many others who simply do not give a rat’s ass.
And I am also sad because this is the least of it… And it is very likely that there is a lot more to come.
But at least we became infamous. Fukoyama felt the need to write about Hungary, for instance. And look, here is another fun summary about what has been going on. And, gee, Princeton University has a whole page on Hungary. And I could go on and on – but I’d rather not…