Book Review: Paul Lendvai’s Mein Verspieltes Land

Austrian journalist Paul Lendvai’s critique of his native Hungary has aroused heated debate in the EU Parliament, and made him persona non grata in an increasingly right-wing Budapest

Journalist, historian and writer Paul Lendvai standing near the Danube in Budapest | Photo: Ecowin

Hungary: Clash on the Right

No Central or Eastern European state has properly dealt with its history. In spite of the early promise of reform in the region, political analysts today chronicle a state of widespread denial, observing it in all countries that have undergone the sudden paradigm shift from a dictatorial to a democratic regime. The historical narrative is therefore an all-too-easy one, and, in authoritarian hands, may even become the preamble for ill-disguised political agendas.

This is journalist Paul Lendvai’s explanation for the current situation in his homeland, Hungary, a position that has stirred controversy in political forums since its publication in September 2010. Lendvai’s critique soon reached the ears of European Parliament representatives, who called for an open debate on March 22 to discuss the “Hungary Case” in session.

The initiative came from Austrian delegates Otmar Karas (ÖVP), Hannes Swoboda (SPÖ) and Ulrike Lunacek (Grüne), who said they were pleased by the turn out. Hungarian representatives questioned Lendvai’s authority in the matter, as he has lived in Austria for many years. The 81-year old author responded that the book reflected his own experience as a former Hungarian citizen, and that his only wish was that the country might one day overcome its difficulties.

A Protectionist Mood

Hungary today has become what political scientist Ferenc Miszlivetz once called “a democracy without democrats,” a society caught in a nexus of economic uncertainty and rapid change, of unregulated foreign investment, high levels of migration, and a profound values shift amid the impossible expectations of the post communist Central Europe.

All this is a far cry from Hungary’s origins. St. Stephen, the founder of Catholic Hungary in 1000, believed that a leader should avoid trying to unify a country in language and morals; he made new settlers welcome and hoped they would linger. And in effect, Hungary has always accepted Croatian, Romanian, Slovakian, Serbian and Jewish immigrants as part of its ethnic and cultural mix.

What then has changed in the past century and made the Magyars so enthralled by the rightist ideology? Lendvai proposes a number  of answers to this question by extrapolating personal events of the past, both as a professional journalist and a native Hungarian, providing the reader with biographical insight and anecdotal wisdom.  In order to fully grasp the alarming rise of right-wing extremist power in the last ten years, he argues, it is important to understand its foundations in the complex relationship between Hungarian Jews and non-Jewish Hungarians.

Like the Jews, says writer Horst Krueger, in Ost-West Passagen, Reisebilder aus zwei Welten (East-West Passages, Travel Pictures from Two Worlds), all Hungarians were continually subordinated and disenfranchised. But unlike the Jews, they never really gave up. It is in this context, writes Lendvai, that we must place the dialectic between the ideas of the enemy and the self.

The Biggest Hungarian Tragedy

The Treaty of Trianon, by which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in 1920, was described by Lendvai as “the biggest Hungarian tragedy of all time,” a tragedy from which the country has not yet been able to recover – the act by which Stephen’s one thousand year old legacy finally came to an end. The stage was set for the dynamics of the inter-war years, characterized by acute anti-Semitism.

During the Nazi era, Hungary was dragged along by the Third Reich but still managed to re-conquer some of the territories previously lost, and ironically, became a multi-ethnic state again. The exterminations were brutal and massive and by the end of the war, it became clear that the price for collaboration with the Germans was too high – two thirds, or 550,000, of Hungary’s Jews died, and over 40% of the nation’s wealth was subsequently destroyed by Soviet intervention.

This trauma of imbalance between territory and population was exacerbated by the politics of silence led by János Kádár for the next 40 years and then, with the dawn of democracy, by the uneven ideologies of the ruling parties. The right wing regarded Trianon as the self-evident source of nationalism and the left wing simply continued the old socialist agenda of avoiding dealing with facts altogether. This unfortunate timing, states Lendvai, caused the people of Hungary to associate Jewishness with Communism, and so the concept of the enemy was articulated once again.

Viktor Orbán, called the “most talented populist of Central Europe” by Swedish journalist Richard Schwartz in the SDZ (Süddeutsche Zeitung), has been Prime Minister twice: first between 1998 and 2002, and most recently since April 2010, when an alliance between the conservative rightist Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party won him 52.73% of the votes and a two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament.

When Orbán’s Young Democrats won parliamentary elections again in April 2010, Lendvai said, they merely picked up where they had left off, continuing the propaganda, the censorship and the control that had characterized their first administration. This brought down the ire of Hungary’s new leadership.

“Orbán über alles”

The author pointedly names the outcome of this event “Orbán über alles” (Orbán above all) and, by questioning how it was even possible for the party to obtain a supermajority in Parliament – thus completely crushing the hopes of the liberal opposition – he paints a picture of a kind of accidental reality, something which is by no means representative of the Hungarian nation’s collective intentions.

The biggest questions, he asserts, are raised by the far-right extremists. For the first time in April 2010, the Jobbik party, led by Gábor Vona, obtained 17 per cent of electoral votes and was assigned a total of 47 seats in Parliament, thus becoming Hungary’s third ruling party. As a relatively new party, it proclaims to be conservative, Christian and patriotic. The name itself is a play on words, as “Jobbik” in Hungarian can be interpreted as both “The Better Ones” and “The Righter Ones”. They are popular with young people and appear to be gaining an increasing number of sympathizers online, despite their utter disregard for modernity or progressive ideas.

Orbán’s active response to the rising public support of the Jobbik confirms his intolerance to all opposition, which he regards as a threat – fears that become exaggerated in times of economic constraints and tight budgets. As a defense, he turns to the new Constitution, which is meant to keep the Jobbik challenge under control, even if Orbán has not yet distanced himself from the far right and many decisions are made under circumstances of less than ideal transparency.

However, the accusations he makes cannot be treated lightly, as they openly challenge the current administration, an action that takes on particular significance in light of the Hungarian government’s recent efforts to restrict the press and stifle debate [see “Hungary’s Media Law” by Miklos Haraszti, The Vienna Review, March 2011, www.viennareview.net.] Lendvai states that Viktor Orbán’s administrative has included, among other goals, the take over of the entire media system and a distribution of assigned state positions to party loyalists. By maintaining cozy ties with conservative right-wing bankers, he is allegedly controlling the economy by keeping its workings out of the public eye.

As editor in chief of the acclaimed publication Europaeischer Rundschau and head of the ORF – Europastudio, as well as former correspondent for the London Financial Times and Die Welt, Lendvai is knowledgeable on mass communication, and by tracking the development of the Hungarian media through its recent history, he is able to identify a number of discrepancies that are not so apparent at first glance.

Although it might seem that the country followed in the footsteps of other post-communist states, characterized by an overproduction of tabloids and boulevard newspapers, the fact of the matter is, he says, that Hungary still relies on a clear dividing line between the publications of populist far right wing and the liberal left, which he suggests will be very difficult to overcome. Two thirds of young journalists today declare themselves sympathetic to the administration, in a media landscape dominated by the right. Those he calls the “media tsars” are a group of elitist oligarchs who control the entire print division, the broadcasting system and online hubs, by decree of the cabinet.

Thus it is not solely economic difficulties that set the country back and slow its development, argues Lendvai, but rather the web of lies spun by the current administration. The distortion of facts promoted by Viktor Orbán is apparently his signature political stance and his strategy of distortion relies on the control of the media. Joining the European Union has not so far put an end to his nationalistic program, and it is relies on a continuous glorification of the past promoted by the right that contributes to the general feeling of popular angst towards living in a multi-national state.

In addition, the common wisdom in Hungary has begun to minimize the Holocaust, with many convinced that the Germans alone annihilated the Jews, and that Hungarians tried to protect them. The truth however is more mixed. But whether it is the repression of their own collective guilt or oblivion as a recurring motif in many post-communist states, the inability to deal with a collective memory and the concealment of past events is being passed on to future generations, and provides a basis for contemporary ignorance.

The decades of communism have provoked a kind of historical amnesia that has legitimized certain economic interests. The fear of the death of the Hungarian nation (with one out of three Hungarians now living abroad) has become acute and perhaps modern day politics are merely a response to a need for conservation.

The country’s goal for the next 10 to 15 years is to achieve Austrian standards; however, Lendvai argues, in present circumstances this ideal is more “a dream than a realistic objective target.”

 

Paul Lendvai
Mein Verspieltes Land, [My Squandered Country]
Ecowin Verlag, (2010)
available at
Thalia Buchhanclung
3., Landstrasse Hauptstrasse 2a/2b
(01) 71 89 353
www.thalia.at

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