From the Habsburgs to Hitler, Hungarians have always viewed themselves as at the mercy of history. Is that why they love their strongman prime minister?
BUDAPEST, Hungary — In the summer of 2014, a bronze statue suddenly appeared in Szabadsag Square in Budapest, a few blocks from the parliament. The statue featured an angel, a male figure with his tunic open to his breast, menaced by an eagle whose talons clutched a bar just overhead. The angel was Hungary, and the eagle was the Nazis, who had entered Budapest on March 19, 1944. The statue had been commissioned and installed on the orders of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Orban’s opponents in the Budapest intelligentsia understood very well that this image of Hungary — noble and helpless victim of the malevolent forces of history — was not only a falsification of the past but an instrument for the politics of the present. On the other side of a walkway near the statue, a group of activists have erected a protest that includes pictures of Jewish victims as well as the humble personal items shown at Auschwitz and elsewhere — suitcases and shoes. A placard in French observes that Orban’s statue seeks to absolve the Hungarian people of their role in the death and deportation of 600,000 Jews. In fact, the sign notes, Hungary’s right-wing government passed anti-Semitic legislation as early as 1920, and “the Nazis were welcomed not with bullets but with bouquets of flowers.”
“We wish to note,” wrote the authors, who identified themselves as members of “civil society,” “that with the installation of the memorial, the government takes a step toward the extremist, nationalist, racist, and xenophobic Jobbik,” referring to Hungary’s far-right party.
The spectacle reminded me of something I had been told earlier in the week by the head of a human rights organization: “History is so traumatic for us that it’s always present.” History, of course, is present practically everywhere and certainly in Eastern Europe, which endured first the Nazis and then the Soviets. What is distinctive about Hungary, however, is how the question of historical culpability so utterly shapes contemporary debate.
Hungarians share a collective pathology known as the “Trianon syndrome.” This refers to a post-World War I treaty that very few people outside of Hungary have even heard of. Inside of Hungary, however, “Trianon” has the same resonance that “Sykes-Picot” does in parts of the Middle East. Hungary was on the losing side of World War I (as it was again in World War II). At the end of the war, French and English diplomats exacted their revenge by shearing off two-thirds of what had been a large country at the heart of Europe. Hungary lost pieces of itself to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Austria, and even Italy. Before the war, Hungary mattered; afterward, it didn’t. Hungarians have bristled with resentment ever since.
Losers, of course, pay a price. But that’s not the Hungarian narrative, which blames Austria, the dominant force in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also known as the Dual Monarchy. A sign at an exhibit in the National Museum describes Hungary ambiguously as a “voluntary captive of Dualism” that was “swept into the world war” by Vienna. Trianon, in turn, set the stage for Hungary’s role in World War II. The museum’s curators admit that Hungarians elected right-wing governments that joined the Axis but offer the caveat: “Aside from the expansive Italian Fascist movement and the foreign policy of the German National Socialist state, there were no other powers from whom a revision of the Trianon Treaty could be expected.” What was poor Hungary to do? The exhibition then proceeds to pass over the Holocaust in silence. The next room shows Hungary’s suffering under Stalin (which was very great).
The list of grievances goes back even further. Hungary had a wonderful 1848, with mass uprisings against its Habsburg rulers. But, like monarchs across the continent, the Habsburgs ruthlessly repressed the revolt, forcing Hungarians to accept the role of junior partner in the Dual Monarchy in 1867 — which was, to be sure, a major upgrade from its prior status as subject nation, but it was not independence. There’s a wonderful room of history paintings from this period in the National Gallery in Buda Castle. They depict not the barricades of 1848, but the heroic martyrdoms of centuries past — an early struggle against Habsburg rule in 1700, the death of Janos Hunyadi at the Battle of Belgrade against the Turks in 1456 (which the Christians won). History has a meaning, and the meaning is injustice, nobly opposed.
But, of course, history does not have intrinsic meanings; we impose the ones we prefer. The 50-year period of the Dual Monarchy, for example, constitutes one of the most astonishing cultural and economic flowerings of European history. Virtually all of Budapest, a stunning city of cupolas, balconies, and trellised bronze doorways, was built during that time. The city hatched a remarkable population of scientists, industrialists, poets, painters, and philosophers. John Lukacs offers a glorious evocation of this era in his book Budapest 1900, a more lyrical version of Carl Schorske’s magisterial Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Perhaps the greatest surviving monument of the time is Budapest’s immense, neo-Gothic parliament building, with its soaring, cathedral-like interior. Lukacs quotes an essayist of the day: “The Parliament played the role in public interest that was later taken up by the entertainments of the theaters and then those of spectator sports.” The Hungarians, prosperous and educated, were mad for public debate. What a wonderful tribute to the liberal spirit!
Orban does not dwell on Hungary’s Golden Age. He does not like liberalism and does not think Hungarians have liberalism in them. (See my earlier column.) Rather, he directs his people’s attention to their victimization and to their ancient crusades. He has compared himself to Hunyadi and the knights who guarded the vegvars, or border fortresses. Here, he wishes to evoke Hungary’s role as a Christian force defending Europe from Muslim invaders — an antecedent to today’s confrontation with the Islamic hordes, which is how he has characterized the refugee flight from the charnel house of Iraq and Syria. He is Hungary’s knight at the border fortress.
It is, of course, the 20th century that offers the most contested terrain. Is “Trianon” the name of a terrible misfortune, at least partly deserved? Or a grave and ongoing injustice? Orban himself has no doubts; one of the first things he did after taking office was to decree June 4 National United Day, a day dedicated to the calamity of Trianon. Maria Schmidt, a right-wing historian whose work Orban often cites, described the treaty to me in the present tense. “It’s how the West always treats us. The West always treated Eastern Europe as a kind of colonial region.” It was insufferable then; it is unacceptable today.
And this is why the Holocaust is still so contested. After the trauma of World War I and Trianon, Hungary adopted right-wing authoritarian rule well before Germany did, joined the Fascist Axis powers, and then became a willing participant in the Final Solution. In the three months of the summer of 1944 — before the Nazis installed their own regime, known as Arrow Cross, that fall — 450,000 Jews were deported from Hungary. At Auschwitz, you can learn how the endless ribbon of cattle cars coming from the south strained the camp’s killing machinery. If Hungary was responsible, then that is part of what Hungary is today.
Germany’s politics are, of course, wrapped around an immensely greater historical guilt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous response to the refugees is surely conditioned by this acceptance of past evil-doing. Orban, by contrast, requires a sense of collective innocence — better still, of angelic victimhood — in order to create the political space for his repudiation of Merkel’s position. When I told Schmidt that Merkel seemed to view the refugee crisis as a matter of universal moral principle, she snarled. “What was the universal responsibility of the world when we were under Soviet occupation?” Precisely. A nation that has stood alone against injustice for half a millennium need not apologize to anyone for anything.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Oct. 29, 2015: A vegvar in Hungarian is a border fortress. A previous version of this article said that vegvar referred to a knight on the border fortress.