Europe’s Powder Peg

On 11 April the Hungarians go to vote. Observers expect a massive swing to the right. Hungarian essayist and critic László F. Földényi explains why. Földényi, born in Debrecen in 1952, is one of Hungary’’s most prominent intellectuals. He teaches comparative literature at the Loránd Eötvös University of Budapest and has written numerous essays as well as books on Heinrich von Kleist, Caspar David Friedrich and melancholy. His most recent book is a lexicon of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness.  László F. Földényi talks to Paul Jandl about Hungary’’s ongoing crisis, racist incidents and the new anti-Semitism.

The forthcoming election in Hungary will be decisive.  On 11 April the Hungarians are expected to give the right-wing populist Fidesz nearly 60 percent of their vote. The Blut-und-Boden party Jobbik, with its openly anti-Semitic and racist outlook, might gain up to 20 percent of the votes. What’’s going on in Hungary? 

László F. Földényi: Viktor Orbán’’s Fidesz might well come out of this election with a two-thirds majority.  That means we could end up with a one-party system in Hungary.  At the same time, many people, including those on the Left, are also advocating a one-party system.  The past twenty years have demonstrated that the more parties are represented in Parliament, the more hopeless the prospects of reaching consensus become. In Hungarian history there has never been a time when political parties were able to reach consensus through rational discussion. There has always been fighting.  Political opponents have always been regarded as the enemy. People in Hungary are frustrated and have lost faith in the multi-party system.  That is, they have lost faith in democracy.

A mere 21 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, is this not a tragic development?

László F. Földényi: It certainly is tragic. But it is also quite consistent. If you look back at the past 250 years of Hungarian history, it has always been like this. As long ago as the end of the 18th century, when the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II tried to introduce reforms in Hungary, his attempts were blocked by the Hungarian aristocracy.  Generally, every attempt at reform in Hungary has been sabotaged.  Until the end of communism a unanimous and authoritarian leadership style had always been typical for Hungary.  We have never had the opportunity to get used to democracy.

Is it serenity I detect in your words or is it resignation?

László F. Földényi: I’d say it’’s a non-judgmental assessment. Personally I am sad about it and regard it as a great crisis. We have picked up our history at the same point where we left it in 1945. And anti-Semitism, which is apparently still a political force in Hungary, seems to be part of this. I have lost count of the number of anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred and incendiary articles that have appeared over the past few months.  Unlike other countries Hungary has never really come to terms with its involvement in the Holocaust. In the last two years of the War 600,000 Jews were deported from Hungary or were killed on Hungarian soil.  It was a civil war against the defenceless which became a taboo later, in the communist era.  We still haven’’t come to terms with this issue; it’’s lodged deep inside the Hungarians. Anti-Semitism is like an abscess that is now bursting,  and although it does not have a physical impact but morally we’’ve reached a low point. The country cannot sink any lower.  And that might actually give Fidesz a chance to raise morale a little. Fidesz has to rein in anti-Semitic groupings such as Jobbik.  I prefer to see it as a historical challenge. The extreme Right-wing Jobbik dreams of a Greater Hungary. They incite hatred against the Jews and homosexuals but especially against the Hungarian Roma. Nobody has figured out how to better integrate the Roma, particularly those living in the poverty-stricken North-east of Hungary, into Hungarian society.  Dealing with the problem of a population group that has been largely excluded from the labour market and from opportunities for economic advancement has been endlessly deferred.  Groups such as Jobbik are using the growing tensions to incite hatred among people and the result is an increasing number of violent outbursts. It is like a powder keg in the middle of Europe.

Have there been no attempts to modernize society since the fall of the Wall?

László F. Földényi: There have been some attempts, and I would not wish to present the Hungarian population as a monolithic structure. However, even under contemporary capitalism Hungary has a semi-feudal social system. The Hungarians’’ attitude, unchanged for a century, continues to be an expectation that they will be saved by the state, from above. That is why communism worked particularly well in Hungary. Better than in Czechoslovakia. People were content with the system. It is no coincidence either that communist János Kádár still comes out in opinion polls as the most popular Hungarian politician of the twentieth century.

The Hungarians seem to be more disappointed by what’’s happened since 1989 than any other nation.

László F. Földényi: I believe this is a legacy of Kádár’’s communism. Kádár was a clever man. He made people understand there were certain taboos. As long as these taboos remained untouched they could enjoy small freedoms.  The fact that Hungary was an unfree, occupied country, and the memory of the bloodily suppressed revolution of 1956, were examples of such taboos.  The entire population accepted this compromise and therefore we were able to live in relative contentment.  But our contentedness was based on a great self-deception, and this deception is now taking its revenge.  This wasn’’t the case with the Czechs or the Poles.  I therefore conclude that since the peoples of those two countries had suffered much more oppression and harassment, they feel much more liberated today. Hungary finds it very difficult to liberate itself from its deception. The only way this can happen is if they admit that it was indeed a deception.

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller has complained that people have become completely spoiled by the paternalist policies of the Kádár era and that that is why there were no initiatives independent of political parties and no social mobility.

László F. Földényi: Orbán and his Fidesz have tried to make use of the astonishing fact that Kádár is still popular by imitating him.  Orbán has been aping his sayings, his wit and even his body language. It is really spooky but people cheer because they see him as a father figure.  And it is politically successful.

Does Hungary believe only in utopias directed at the past?  Hungary seems to have a rather tragic attitude to its history. The trauma of the loss of territory imposed by the post-World War I peace treaty of Trianon seems to endure.

László F. Földényi: It is possible that there are some visions of the future in Hungary but these are kept secret.  Hungary has a rather tragic view of itself.  We have not won a single important war in the past 800 years.  We don’’t have a happy history to look back on.  Even our national anthem is full of complaint and self-pity.  A country wedged between great powers, we have always been their plaything.  The Hungarians have plenty of reasons for complaining, yet the country also has plenty of opportunities. It could easily become a highly successful and effective country. I am not pessimistic.  Even the current crisis can help us develop further.

How come you are not particularly concerned Viktor Orbán might abuse his power? He might change the constitution and stay in power for decades. 

László F. Földényi: He could cement a one-party system by doing so. However, once Fidesz loses a two-thirds majority, the opposition would prevent any political consensus. And that would only result in arguments.  Our situation today is different from what it was once. We are no longer a colony of any great power and there is no Nazi Germany either in whose shadow we were able to do whatever we liked. The EU would prevent the worst from happening.

In Austria hundreds of thousands protested against the anti-immigrant right-wing populist Jörg Haider. Hungarian civil society seems rather weak by comparison.

László F. Földényi: Yes, it is really very weak. Some small groups do exist but the young people in particular are not represented. What surprises me is the fact that young people have become so reactionary.  They used to call for the dismantling of the old networks but now they are suddenly demanding more order, longing for hierarchies and orders.

Are Hungarian intellectuals still involved in the political debate?

László F. Földényi: Hungarian intellectuals are less and less involved in these debates. They are under attack. A while ago one weekly published an article calling upon the population to destroy books by Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas and György Konrád: to borrow their works from libraries and destroy them.  It was meant to be a kind of book-burning.  This was instigated by a journal close to Viktor Orbán.  The fact that something like this could happen illustrates what the mood is like. Those who express critical views of Hungary are immediately denounced as people fouling the nest.  People know that these writers are highly regarded abroad and that makes them nervous.  In a recent speech Orbán himself reviled the star intellectuals.

Is it not the essential mark of right-wing populism to immediately brand critics as traitors of the Fatherland?

László F. Földényi: What we are seeing are attempts at exclusion, which are immediately seized upon by extreme groups such as Jobbik and translated into racism and anti-Semitism. It’’s not about the state.  They are playing the ethnic card and this has been happening in Hungary for 200 years.

The writer György Konrád called Hungary’s political caste infantile because there is no productive debate, only arguments which sometimes can get physical.

László F. Földényi: Yes, it is very infantile but much of it seems like a mask to me.  Old roles are being replayed.  Watching a Jobbik meeting is like an eerie masquerade.  There is this Hungarian Guard.  They have dragged out old uniforms and symbols like some theatre props.  But this sort of thing wears off fast. You cannot march around for years waving flags; even the flag-bearers would get bored.

You have said that issues of national identity must not be ceded to right-wing political groups.

László F. Földényi: The EU consists of national states.  If a country’’s balance is disturbed, for example, by interventions from the globalized economy, it is mainly the extreme right that benefits. This must not be so. We cannot free ourselves of our national identity.  All of us have our own birthplace and our language. But if we have to stress our national identity, it is a sign of frustration, a sign that something is not functioning.  In present-day Europe national identity is a fragile structure. In good times people are not concerned with the question of whether they are French, Germans or Hungarians, but in bad times it can become a great problem, as history teaches us.

So a lot will depend on how confident the Hungarians are.

László F. Földényi: This question has been around for at least 200 years. That’’s when Herder predicted that the extinction of the Hungarians was imminent. In fact the Hungarian nation has been growing faster than other European nations.  In its thousand-year long history Hungary has never had such a huge chance not to be occupied in the coming years.

Perhaps the Hungarians’’ problem is precisely that they are too preoccupied with themselves.

László F. Földényi: Yes, that’’s correct. But that is still not enough for the nationalist forces in the country.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

The interview appeared in the German daily Die Welt.