From crisis to crisis

Crisis. For the past eighteen months this word has brought to mind mostly one thing: the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the shockwaves it has sent throughout the world leaving no country unaffected, including Hungary. While every effort is being made to avoid further risk on the global scale, Hungary – a country with a fragile economy – has started losing foreign investors and their financial trust. Ever since the crisis began in 2008 its moral aspects have been the subject of an intense debate, particularly the fact that the real cause of the crisis is what I would call a decline in human value.

Well before the autumn of 2008 it was becoming apparent that money, profit and financial returns we being used as an almost exclusive yardstick – not only in the banking sector and in everyday life but also in the arts. A one-sided application of the profit principle, however, is in itself an indication of a crisis. Financial experts (such as George Soros) and historians (such as Tony Judt) have agreed that it was the deregulation of the financial sector under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that triggered this process, allowing the economy to become spectacularly independent of politics and triggering a dramatic increase in social disparity which, in turn, led to an unprecedented enhancement of the fast profit principle.

And so, in the course of the last decade of the twentieth century we witnessed the enthralling victorious march of an economics freed of political restrictions, which paved the way for the current economic and financial crisis.The words of people such as George Soros or Amartya Sen, who had spoken of hubris before Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, were ignored. After 2008 – for about six months – the world gave in to a moral imperative for regulating and putting the brake on economic processes that had become uncontrollable. At a roundtable in New York an optimistic Soros remarked that the collapse of the financial system brought about the collapse of a whole worldview. He pointed out that what he called market fundamentalism was just as dangerous as any other kind of fundamentalism. Today it is clear that this worldview is far from collapsing; on the contrary, the present course of events is being determined by the same processes that caused the crisis in the first place.

However, I would like to say a few words about Hungary. Apart from many negative phenomena, in this country the crisis has had one clearly positive effect. It has made us fully aware of things of which we used to have only a vague notion. As usual at times of emergency, people have behaved with greater sincerity and have been less intent on hiding their deepest motives; and the pressure of reality has lifted the proverbial veil of secrecy from everything and everyone. For about two years now the anti-Semites in our country have not been speaking in code but quite openly. Even fascist views have been presented quite legally: members of the revived Arrow Cross militias (újnyilasok) have founded a legal political party and a weekly, promoted by the current right-wing Prime Minister, has been openly calling on its readers to destroy books by contemporary Hungarian authors (Konrád, Nádas, Kertész, Esterházy). And the political party that purported to represent the Left and that had ruled for ten years, has lost all moral credit as some of its MPs had plundered the country openly and without inhibition and the population treated the corruption scandals, which had no criminal repercussions, as a TV soap opera.

And while the crisis was escalating and Hungary’’s historical extreme Right has constituted itself as a political party (i.e. in spite of the crisis) the all-pervasive culture of lies in whose web Hungary has been entangled since 1945 has continued. The old communist way of abusing language and concepts has survived and is flourishing. Before 1989 we called dictatorship democracy and restrictions of human rights were referred to as freedom. Using similar logic, those who have been engaging in Jew-baiting after 1990 claim not to be anti-Semites, those who hate the Roma scream that they are not racist, and Jobbik, a party boasting a not insignificant percentage of votes, protests against being associated with the nyilas – and indeed, this neo-Arrow Cross movement has more in common with the former Romanian Iron Guard. This is also the party that can call on the greatest number of volunteers. And in the current situation the ruling right-wing party’’s references to revolution make about as much sense as the terms democratic centralism or dictatorship of the proletariat used to make. This, too, is a kind of crisis, one that I personally feel thankful for, even though it does not make me particularly happy. Yet this fact will offer us a clearer picture of several areas of life, including politics, and might thus have a cathartic effect. A crisis can teach the best lessons. It can have a sobering effect, comparable with a healing process – provided the wound is open and allows the pus out. This is what I would like to talk about now.


Before 1989 Europe perceived Hungary as an exceptional country. For citizens of the former socialist bloc it was an enviable place – seen from the East we were the jolliest barracks in the socialist camp.Many West European politicians, looking for another Chamberlainesque path of appeasement did not find much fault with the Hungarian variety of communism either – calling it, with condescending irony, goulash communism. A jolly barracks where people stuff themselves with goulash. West European politicians and the Left found Hungary useful for appeasing their conscience, using the example of our country to try and dispel the nightmares of communism.  Politicians combined it with cynicism, which is a prerequisite of power: most likely it was not out of personal sympathy that Margaret Thatcher exchanged kisses with Ceausescu shortly before he was executed. As for the West European Left, even back then I could not regard their attitude as cynicism but rather as blindness combined with naiveté: they needed the Hungarian example to win their spiritual and social battle with the Right back home. If they had faced up to the incurable and unreformable hereditary sins of really existing socialism, they might have jeopardized their own left-wing Messiah complex. As a result, from the mid-1960s until 1989, that is to say, for over a quarter of a century, Hungary used the appreciation on the part of the West, by turns cynical and naive, and the envy on the part of the other socialist countries to flatter and console itself with something it had in fact been painfully lacking: fundamental human rights, democracy and a liberal environment. The country which before 1989 had such an attractive and pleasant external appearance, and according to some myths was leisurely and conspiratorially cynical in ways reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, was in reality a Soviet-dominated system, anti-democratic through and through, where permanent self-delusion in the name of excuses, cynicism, concealment and relative peace had lodged itself right inside the nervous system.

Where is the place of this once-enviable country on the political, economic and cultural map of present-day Europe? Hungary has become an appendage lagging behind other members of the European Union, a thoroughly negative phenomenon in the eyes of other countries.  Not just because of its bad economic indicators and outcomes but also because of the constantly intensifying extreme right-wing general atmosphere, which has manifested itself in a number of ways without a precedent in Europe. Let me mention the street violence in Budapest which from time to time, over the past three years has been reminiscent of civil war; let me point out that hostility towards foreigners has reached unprecedented levels, even though the percentage of foreigners in Hungary is negligible compared to Germany, France, Holland or England; let me remind you that 41 percent of Hungarians complain that the Jews have too much influence in society – this in a country which, after Poland, had the second highest proportion of murdered Jews as compared to the total population of the country [see also: Gábor Halmai: Has democracy been consolidated in Hungary in the past 20 years? Élet és Irodalom 51-52/2009, p. 18 – ed.]. Let me point out the worrying situation of minorities that has reached a stage where the Roma and non-Roma are lynching each other and compete in hating one another. Let me also recall the distasteful anti-Semitic campaign the right-leaning and extreme right-wing media have directed against Imre Kertész since 2002, when he became the first Hungarian writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  This campaign continues to this day, with the publication of articles whose authors would face trial (and the newspapers publishing them would be immediately banned) in any Western European country.

The minute that the self-delusion peddled until 1989 in the name of goulash communism finally vanished, so did the envy or esteem in which other countries had held Hungary in the past.

So what went wrong? How did we reach this point? The direct reasons are to be found in the period before 1989, at the time when praise was heaped upon us equally by East and West.

Until 1989 most Hungarian citizens had made a deal with the powers-that-be.  Under that deal people received a gift of minute freedoms and personal advantages for which they had to pay in terms of self-delusion, pretence, dishonesty and hypocrisy. The so-called minute freedoms that the subjects of other socialist countries envied us for did not concern fundamental human rights and freedoms; rather, they were gifts to vassals, small courtesies suitable for blackmail that were available to anyone who promised not to question the basic pillar of the system, one-party rule, but also the other pillars, such as the crushing of the 1956 revolution or the country’’s satellite position within the Soviet bloc. It also involved concealing the fact that it was not the Germans but primarily the Hungarian non-Jews who were responsible for sending the Hungarian Jews to their death. In my view, this amounted to a genuine civil war, of which virtually the whole country did not speak for half a century.  Today it has become clear that silencing and stifling the truth does not work by allowing you tell lies in public and the truth at home. No, if you tell lies in public, sooner or later you will tell lies between your own four walls. And not just between your four walls but also to yourself. You will believe what you wish to believe and deny what you consider not worth fighting for. Most Hungarians sincerely regarded the revolution of 1956 as a counter-revolution, and were convinced that the variety of socialism offered by Kádár really was the optimal solution. Between 1956 and 1989 most of Hungary’’s inhabitants learned to lie to themselves to an extent that is probably inconceivable in Europe. Following 1989, and especially in the past few years, under the cleansing influence of the global crisis, all this has backfired. Hungary’’s political and economic life has been destroyed precisely by what made it so attractive to the world: the muffling, the self-delusion, the failure to contemplate the past and, moreover, to soberly contemplate the present; by the fraternizing that always prefers short-term advantage, especially in the political arena, to the long-term national interest. As László Majtényi has said: the Kádár era prepared the ground in the Third Republic for lies, tricks, general corruption and a social game that includes even the courts that prosecute some actions and not others at their own discretion. [It is better to be ruled by institutions than by human beings. Élet és Irodalom, 51-52/2009, 18 December 2009]

Until 1989, under one-party rule, Hungary was an economically unstable country and it is a historical paradox that it was saved from bankruptcy primarily by a series of loans from the Western democracies. Western Europe’’s prime interest before 1989 was to preserve the Iron Curtain. The West accepted Hungary which had been foisted on them by the Soviets as a scapegoat, supporting it and coddling it in all sorts of ways, not just ideologically but also materially. When my acquaintances in the West shake their heads in disbelief at what is going on in Hungary at the moment, I usually tell them: we may not have ended up this way, we may not have sunk so deep, had you not praised us and supported us so much before 1989. Had you then held up a mirror to us saying: look at the lie you are living, can’’t you see how far from European values it is taken you? Had that happened, the fundamental democratic values would have taken deeper root in all areas of everyday life after 1989. It would have been a great help but unfortunately, it came only rarely. Of course, I am not naive and do not believe in wagging fingers and ideological lectures. But I don’’t consider them completely useless either.


Except that 1989 definitely was not the imperceptible caesura in Hungary’’s history that the present-day Right claims it was. Quite the contrary! A new constitution came into being, guaranteeing fundamental human rights without which we cannot imagine any liberal democracy functioning. The constitution also ensured that arbitrariness was replaced by institutional safeguards. What does that mean? It means that those things, which until then could only result from individual fraternizing and bartering, which could be the object of personal advantage or blackmail, that is, everything that had worked in a feudally arbitrary way, received institutional protection and guarantees after 1989. Those who wanted a passport no longer needed to convince the authorities of their loyalty to the regime. Those who wanted to publish books suddenly no longer had to take the censors’’ hypersensitivity into account. There is no need to continue – in 1989 institutional and legal safeguards were a novelty that the Hungarians had not had a chance to experience in the previous thousand years of their history. To be precise, an opportunity of this kind had presented itself twice before – in 1848, and between late 1918 and the spring of 1919 – only to be thwarted by the constellation of powers in Europe at the time.  In 1849 it was the Austrians and the Russians who prevented Hungary from being transformed into a European state; in 1919 the country, reduced to a third of its original size as a result of the Treaty of Trianon, became the victim of its own internal crisis, as the victorious European powers stood by, indifferent to the fate of the vanquished. Therefore what happened in 1989 was unprecedented in our country: the outside world, the European Union in particular, was not out to stifle our constitution and democratic institutional system: quite the contrary, it did everything in its power to assist us.

The truly great crisis that a Hungarian citizen might perceive (at least: I perceive it as the most profound crisis that affects me personally) consists in the fact that the institutional system is increasingly less effective, that articles of the constitution have become empty-sounding words, that various political parties interpret the constitution arbitrarily and the judiciary is above the law. 1849 or, later, 1948 (the year of the change) in Hungary did not bring about a crisis. A trauma: yes. National mourning: yes. And a wave of mass emigration.  But the external situation then was morally unambiguous: Austrian, Russian and later Soviet predominance and aggression came from the outside, the oppression was external and this united the nation, if you will. However, in the twenty years that have passed since 1989, the exact opposite has happened. There has been no external oppression, there have been no Tartars, Turks, Austrians and Russians – none of those who still haunt Hungarian children in lullabies. And in spite of this the legal functioning of our institutional system has collapsed. The most visible sign of this is corruption, in which Hungary ranks among the top countries in the European Union.  The crisis of 2008 has not brought about corruption; it has only accelerated it. Hungarian corruption is the symptom of a specific Hungarian crisis. What is corruption? It is the bypassing of institutional and legal processes, the subordinating of legal avenues to personal relations and personal intervention. Here in Hungary this works on an enormous scale, meaning that this time it was not the Russians or the Austrians who have damaged our constitution and institutional system but ourselves. We have been our own devils, chasing ourselves from paradise, to paraphrase a letter by Goethe. Just as in 1944, when a significant part of the Hungarian population did not merely support Eichmann and his dozen or so SS officers in deporting the Jews: without their active contribution it would have been physically impossible to send half a million Hungarian citizens to their death.

Two observations follow from this. The first is that nobody enjoys seeing oneself as the devil. Everyone in Hungary points their finger at somebody else, wishing to bring the other to account, to protect his or her democracy from the other. But since you can’’t have two kinds of democracy or two kinds of law, it can only mean one thing: the rule of authority; a change of constitution; restoration of the one-party state. This is what all Hungarian parties long for in their heart of hearts: it is the same thing that for two centuries had been typical of the Hungarian semi-feudal tradition. And why is that? Because someone has destroyed our institutions. Whoever it was, it was the so-called enemies who don’’t like us. But who are they? They are those who are trying to be invisible amongst us now that we no longer have external enemies and Austrian and Russian troops are no longer lying in wait at our borders.  But who are these internal enemies, these devils? (For surely they are not us?) They are the ones who are different from us. They are the aliens, the Gypsies, the Jews, the liberals, the dissidents… They have assumed the role that the monstrous Austrians and the brutal Russians had in the past. These days everyone in Hungary is looking for demons. And those who seek will find. Hungary has become a country of demon exorcists.

And here comes the second observation. Corruption, the weakening of institutional safeguards and rise of arbitrariness are the result of the unrestrained capitalism of the past twenty years. However, the requisite feudal methods and instincts are a legacy of the Kádár regime under which, as I mentioned, arbitrariness replaced law and the non-existent legal system was replaced by personal deals with the powers-that-be. The present-day social situation in Hungary resembles Kádárism in many respects, particularly in terms of the general moral ethos. Although we do have a constitution (which the new right-wing government is planning to rewrite, under pressure from the extreme right-wing neo-Arrow Cross) and a legal system, we lack the social ethos capable of enforcing it. The all-pervasive rampant corruption and the moral decline this engenders are the most visible symptoms of the deep abyss opening up between the constitution and the everyday practice of politics, economics and culture. And this is exactly what was typical of the Kádár era, which used to enjoy so much Western support. In this respect the Kádárists have won. The current picture of democracy in Hungary proclaims the immortality of the Kádár era. Opinion polls show that today Kádár is the most popular 20th century politician in Hungary. You’’d have to be blind not to notice that over the past few years Viktor Orbán’’s rhetoric, the alms he hands out and the maxims he declares have started bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kádár’’s mannerisms – including his body language, paternalistic behaviour and his way of speaking to the people.  It is not only the present-day socialists who have climbed from underneath Kádár’’s coat!

This is no longer just a question of inborn base instincts and acquired forms of behaviour. The victory of the past is much more tangible. For example, Hungary is the only former communist country where the role of the secret services is still covered by an impenetrable veil of fog. The right-wing populist parties and the socialists were equally involved in preventing the veil from being lifted. The former secret services were unlawful. Yet this unlawful organization is still being protected in a liberal democracy based on legal foundations, and its former operatives still enjoy greater protection than its victims. It is as if former officers and informers of the East German Stasi had remained nameless to this day and as if the veil of secrecy covered not only their former activity, but they were allowed to continue working and carrying out their former tasks undisturbed. This is as incompatible with the legal system of the Federal Republic of Germany as fire with water. The Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Romanians have figured this out; only in Hungary has the situation not changed. The only logical conclusion is that the former unlawful activities form a kind of undergrowth, which still permeates the state system that we call legal.

And this is what I regard as a real crisis situation.


I suggest, therefore, that the spirit of Kádár’’s communism has pervaded contemporary social life in Hungary. However, this spirit has not come out of nowhere and the fact that it is thriving now cannot be blamed solely on the Soviet occupying forces. To a certain extent, the Hungarian version of communism is an organic product of Hungary’s history. As a result of a social development that lagged behind or was even backward, Hungary has for centuries been marginalized in Europe and that is where it is also stuck today. The most striking feature of this backwardness is a constant putting off of conflict, accompanied by an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, to clarify positions and seek common ground. Hungary took the first serious steps towards a more civil society in the first quarter of the 19th century, in what the Hungarian historians refer to as the Reform period, aimed at reforming public administration and the right of assembly, at allowing the founding of workers’’ and peasants’’ associations with economic goals, introducing general election by secret ballot and eliminating excessive state powers. These goals could not be achieved due to the resistance of the Hungarian aristocracy, which defended its privileges and succeeded in restoring them on the death of Emperor Joseph II – at the expense of Hungary’’s historical development. Civic reforms have never been implemented in Hungary and as a result the role of government increased excessively while on the other hand individual initiative, which forms the basis of every democratic society, has not played a genuine role. To this day everyone is concerned about their own privileges or, to put it differently, everyone believes themselves to be an aristocrat.

The feudalization of social life speeded up considerably after World War I, as Hungary’’s territory was reduced to a third as a result of the peace treaties; the number of large landowners suddenly expanded and barely a quarter of the adult population was entitled to vote.  István Bibó has described the interwar period as Hungary’’s history at a dead end, while Sándor Márai has written that the responsibility of the Horthy regime is unparalleled in Hungarian history. The Tartar invasion and the Battle of Mohács  (1526) are only a shadow by comparison. The Horthy interlude, which is nowadays experiencing an enormous emotional and political renaissance within the Hungarian Right, saw itself as having a Christian and national orientation. It is worth recalling what Márai thought of these attributes: he rejected both their Christian and national character. What does the Christian character of this orientation mean? They said ‘Christianity’’ but what they meant was the allocation of trade licences to non-professionals. They said ‘‘Christianity’’ but what they had in mind was the plundering of Jewish furniture. They said ‘‘Christianity’’ but what they had in mind was the stifling of every free thought or different view. I am a Christian, they said pompously, stretching out their palms. And what does national character mean?  Using the guise of Trianon for twenty-five years to prolong a regime that has been suppressing and misappropriating everything of value by means of subtle, or not so subtle, terror.

And – let me add – the attribute Christian also emphasized its non-Jewishness. Just like today, when the word is being used left, right and centre with political undertones as a poorly disguised codeword for anti-Semitism. This ‘‘Christian orientation’’, for which many are now nostalgic, made it possible to enact anti-Jewish laws that had no parallel in Europe and that went even further than the German ones. It was the same Christian orientation, which laid its hands on the property of half a million Jews who, with Hungarian assistance, were handed over to the Germans for extermination. After 1945 the communist regime did not call the Jews by name, keeping silent about this terrible story and sweeping everything under the carpet instead of squaring up to the facts. The Horthy period was characterized by an anti-democratic mentality, by the cynical circumventing of the legal and institutional system, by the suppression of individual initiative and by the ignoring of all the rules of the game. And Kádár and his comrades picked up these very strings and succeeded in manipulating them very skilfully.

The culture of irresponsibility and amnesia has turned out to be more powerful than anything else. Yes, I do mean it is still with us. For it seems that this century-old mentality has survived the changes of 1989 unscathed and – enriched by racism sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly transformed into a political force – it will continue to dismiss everything that is a basic prerequisite of all liberal democracies: be it a new constitution or an institutional system based on legal foundations.


For four decades Hungary hoped for Western democracy and liberalism. As opposed to the rejected communist utopia this was a utopia that could be believed. However, by the time Hungary was able to join the free world of democracy and liberalism, very different winds were blowing there. The world was being increasingly ruled by neo-liberalism, which had completely freed capital of all limitations and tried to break free of democratic political control. The freedom that descended on Hungary was not, in a certain sense, the freedom of a free market overseen by democracy and liberalism but the freedom of capital free of any control. We had longed for social democracy but have found ourselves in the Wild West instead. That is why may people in Eastern and Central Europe became disillusioned with the West, feeling they had jumped from the frying pan and into the fire.  This explains the widespread phenomenon that in Hungary being anti-communist does not mean that one longs for democracy. Most people who hold anti-communist views simultaneously support totalitarian solutions.

The current economic crisis in Hungary has exposed the country’’s real situation in two ways. On the one hand it has made much more visible the rules (or perhaps the irregularities) of neo-liberalism, which many mistake for the rules of democracy. On the other hand it has also laid bare the rules of democracy, which for centuries has not succeeded in taking root in Hungarian society. From this point of view the crisis has had a cleansing effect, in that it has created a moral and political situation that is much less ambiguous. Many of us have realized that market fundamentalism is untenable and that we still have many fundamentalist urges to expunge. Not only in economics but also in social life, in ethics and in culture, in our political thinking and in our view of the other. We have practised this type of fundamentalism for far too long. I am under no illusions that we might be able to get rid of the above phenomena very quickly – after all, we have been putting it off for two centuries. The financial crisis is slowly coming to an end but a more general mental and cultural crisis that has gripped all other areas of Hungarian life is here to stay for decades to come.

So what is the benefit of the economic crisis? To put it briefly, revolutionary illusions here or there, we are finally able to recognize that what we have so far regarded as completely natural in every area of life are actually symptoms of a crisis.


(I am grateful to Rudolf Ungváry for his substantive comments on this text.)


Translation: Julia Sherwood


The original of this article appeared in the Hungarian weekly Élet és Irodalom.