No English-language newspaper reported on it at the time, nor has any cited it since, but the speech Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán made before an annual picnic for his party’s intellectual leaders in the late summer of 2015 is probably the most important by a Western statesman this century.
As Orbán spoke in the village of Kötcse, by Lake Balaton, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Muslim world, most of them young men, were marching northwestwards out of Asia Minor, across the Balkan countries and into the heart of Europe.
Merkel and her defenders had raised the subject of human rights, which until then had been sufficient to stifle misgivings.
Already, mobs of migrants had broken Hungarian police lines, trampled cropland, occupied town squares, shut down highways, stormed trains, and massed in front of Budapest’s Keleti train station. German chancellor Angela Merkel had invited those fleeing the Syrian civil war to seek refuge in Europe. They had been joined en route, in at least equal number, by migrants from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. For Hungarians, this was playing with fire.
They are taught in school to think of their Magyar ancestors as having ridden off the Asian steppes to put much of Europe to the torch (Attila is a popular boys’ name), and they themselves suffered centuries of subjugation under the Ottomans, who marched north on the same roads the Syrian refugees used in the Internet age. But no one was supposed to bring up the past. Merkel and her defenders had raised the subject of human rights, which until then had been sufficient to stifle misgivings. In Kötcse, Orbán informed Merkel and the world that it no longer was.
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Orbán was preparing a military closure of his country’s southern border. That Europe’s ancient nation-states would serve in this way as the first line of defense for the continent’s external borders, such as the one between Hungary and Serbia, was exactly what had been assumed two decades before in the founding treaties of the European Union, the 28-nation federation-in-embryo centered in Brussels and dominated by Merkel’s Germany. But sometime after Hungary joined the EU in 2004, this question of Europe’s borders had become complicated, legalistic, and obscured by what Orbán called “liberal babble.”
Now, as Orbán spoke, it was clear the two were arguing from different centuries, opposite ideologies, and irreconcilable Europes.
Orbán now had to make a philosophical argument for why he should not be evicted from civilized company for carrying out what a decade before would have been considered the most basic part of his job. His Fidesz party had always belonged to the same political family that Merkel’s did—the hodgepodge of postwar conservative parties called “Christian Democracy.” Now, as Orbán spoke, it was clear the two were arguing from different centuries, opposite ideologies, and irreconcilable Europes.
“Hungary must protect its ethnic and cultural composition,” he said at Kötcse (which more or less rhymes with butcher). “I am convinced that Hungary has the right—and every nation has the right—to say that it does not want its country to change.” France and Britain had been perfectly within their prerogatives to admit millions of immigrants from the former Third World. Germany was entitled to welcome as many Turks as it liked. “I think they had a right to make this decision,” Orbán said. “We have a duty to look at where this has taken them.” He did not care to repeat the experiment.
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Migrants kept coming, and the European mood shifted. In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party founded by economists to protest European Union currency policy, shifted its attention to migration and began to harvest double-digit election returns in one German state after another. The Polish government fell after approving a plan to redistribute into eastern Europe the migrants Merkel had welcomed. But if any European politician symbolized this reassessment, it was Orbán. Signs appeared at rallies in Germany reading “Orban, Help Us!” His dissent split Europeans into two clashing ideologies. With the approach in May 2019 of elections to the European Union parliament, the first since the migrant crisis, Europeans were being offered a stark choice between two irreconcilable societies: Orbán’s nationalism, which commands the assent of popular majorities, and Merkel’s human rights, a continuation of projects E.U. leaders had tried to carry out in the past quarter-century. One of these will be the Europe of tomorrow.
VERSAILLES, MOSCOW, BRUSSELS
Orbán is more than the bohunk version of Donald Trump that he is often portrayed as. He is blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious. In the last years of the Cold War, he stuck his neck out further than any young dissident in assailing the Soviet Union. That courage helped land him in the prime minister’s office for the first time in 1998, at age 35. He has a memory for parliamentary minutiae reminiscent of Bill Clinton. At a January press conference, he interrupted a speechifying reporter by saying, “If I’ve counted correctly, that’s six questions,” then answered them in sequence with references to historical per capita income shifts, employment rates, demographic projections, and the like.
His secret weapon, though, is his intellectual curiosity. As Irving Kristol did when he edited the Public Interest in the 1980s, Orbán urges his aides to take one day a week off to devote to their reading and writing. He does so himself, clearing his Thursdays when he can.
Raised poor in a small town west of Budapest, preoccupied early by politics, he has had to acquire much of his education on the fly, as a busy adult. His ideas are powerful, raw, and unsettled. Orbán has changed his mind about a lot of things—unregulated free markets above all.
“It is not written in the great book of humanity that there must be Hungarians in the world. It is only written in our hearts—but the world cares nothing for that.” – Viktor Orban
Out of a regime of deep reading and disputation come his larger theories about the direction of Western civilization, and many people probably find voting for Orbán satisfying in the way that reading Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Hariri is satisfying. Orbán believes that Western countries are in decline, and that they are in decline because of “liberalism,” which in his political vocabulary is a slur. He uses the word to describe the contemporary process of creating neutral social structures and a level playing field, usually in the name of rights.
This project of creating neutral institutions has two problems. First, it is destructive, because the bonds of affection out of which communities are built are—by definition—non-neutral. Second, it is a lie, because someone must administer this project, and administration, though advertised as neutral, rarely is. Some must administer over others.
Carried to its logical conclusion, liberalism will, in Orbán’s view, destroy Hungary.
“It is not written in the great book of humanity that there must be Hungarians in the world,” he said in his State of the Nation address in February. “It is only written in our hearts—but the world cares nothing for that.” This sense that Hungary might be only one political miscalculation away from extinction is widely shared. There was one country, in the wake of World War I, that was treated more harshly than Germany. The Treaty of Trianon turned a cosmopolitan, advanced central European powerhouse of 20 million people—the Kingdom of Hungary, Budapest’s half of the Austro-Hungarian empire—into a statelet of 8 million and divvied up two thirds of its territory among other nations.
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This dismemberment helps explain many of the worst things Hungary did, and had done to it, in the century since. Hitler helped the country recover some of its territories in World War II, but Russia repressed them and then some. The historic heart of Hungary is Transylvania, now on the other side of the Romanian border. Other ethnically Hungarian remnants of the nation are to be found in Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Orbán is fond of a bitter, Trianon-era joke to the effect that “Hungary is the only country that borders on itself.” It is as a nation of 15 million, and not as a state of 10 million, that most Hungarians understand themselves, and Orbán has done nothing to bring them to a more liberal understanding.
Hungary’s most acute present-day problems are partly the result of its four decades under Communism, including the Soviet Union’s bloody suppression of its 1956 uprising. But, like contemporary Russia, the country suffers just as much from the excess of faith it placed in Western expertise during its botched transition out of Communism. One of Orbán’s mentors recalls: “We were all liberals then,” using the term “liberal” to mean believers in markets. But about markets Hungarians had more enthusiasm than expertise. They sold off their best state-owned businesses to foreigners, and saw others taken over by savvy ex-members of the Communist nomenklatura, who knew where value lay hidden.
“It was a trap,” says one of Orbán’s younger advisers. “To open markets with no capital. Now we are trying to get out of that trap.”
For a Soviet satellite, Hungary had been advanced. The 1956 uprising had scared the Soviets. They allowed János Kádár, the strongman who bottled up Hungarian dissent until the Reagan Administration, to borrow hard currency from the West.
“We lied, morning, noon and night.” – Prime Minister Gyurcsány
Budapest had its first Hilton hotel in 1977. It soon had lots of debt, too. By the time the Berlin Wall fell the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio hovered around 75 per cent, a figure then considered beyond reckless but today about average for Western economies. Things got worse when the Wall came down. GDP fell 20 per cent between 1988 and 1993. There were suddenly hundreds of thousands of unemployed in a country that, under Communism, had had full employment. Hungary’s population of gypsies, or Roma, had never been a perfect fit in society but now many came unstuck from their jobs and homes.
A nostalgia for Kádár arose that has not fully dissipated. Between 1994 and 1998 the supposedly free-market heirs to the anti-Communist dissidents ruled in coalition with former Communists. Orbán took office in their wake, ran a responsible, lean, relatively patronage-free government for four years… and was bounced from office in 2002. That taught him a lesson. The years 2002-10 saw the full restoration to power of those who in the 1980s had been trained as the next generation of Communist elites, dominated by the Socialist multimillionaire Ferenc Gyurcsány. Penury and soaring unemployment marked the time. In 2006, Gyurcsány was captured on tape at a party congress explaining that “we lied, morning, noon and night” to stay in power. Protests arose. Police repressed them violently. Orbán’s detractors rarely mention any of this when they complain about the lack of an alternative to him. For most Hungarians, 2006 is the alternative.
Orbán returned to power in 2010 with a large enough majority in the National Assembly (two thirds) to rewrite the constitution from scratch. He and his party Fidesz did so, in what he would provocatively call an “illiberal” way: setting Christianity at the middle of Hungarian life, declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman, banning genetically modified organisms. On top of that, Orbán was re-elected with two-thirds majorities in both 2014 and 2018, enabling him to fine-tune these arrangements, and add more, as he saw fit.
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Christopher Caldwell is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Editor of the Claremont Review of Books.