In the 1930s, many Western leftists saw the Soviet Union as a harbinger of the just and prosperous new world and flocked to Moscow to admire Josef Stalin’s Potemkin village.
Now Hungary seems to be playing the same role for America’s right-wingers. Fox News anchor Tucker Carson has made a pilgrimage to Hungary, ex-Vice President Mike Pence has spoken at this year’s “family values” event in Budapest and CPAC, the main right-wing political lobbying group, is planning a meeting in Hungary next March.
Stalin was offering his visitors a glimpse of the pie-in-the-sky future while Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán offers his American admirers a vision of the past: religion, tradition, nuclear family, national sovereignty, blood and soil. Or rather, he is presenting to his American friends a Hungary without LGBT, multiculturalism, political correctness and Muslim refugees. Back to the world where you could openly dislike Jews and attack Roma and declare that Hungary belongs to pure Hungarians. It is as if the past one hundred years have never happened.
Hungary used to be one of the world’s great empires and dominant culture in southeastern Europe. Some of the best talent working in Hollywood in the 1930s hauled from Budapest. There is also a story about nuclear physicists developing the nuclear bomb: one day, when Robert Oppenheimer left the conference room, Edward Teller quipped “Great, now we can speak Hungarian.”
Orbán is harnessing Hungarian nostalgia for the past and in this there are indeed parallels between Hungary and the Make America Great Again crowd. In the US, too, many white undereducated Americans are feeling irrelevant. The world seems to have passed them by: they work dead-end jobs, their incomes have slipped far behind those of “overeducated elites”, their shopping malls are full of people who don’t resemble them and whom they are told to respect. They too want to go back to the past and they like Orbán’s cozy version.
The irony is that the past was not particularly kind to Hungary. In 1699 it was freed from a century and a half of Ottoman rule by Austria’s Habsburgs who were then recognized as the rulers of the Hungarian Kingdom. Hungary was incorporated into the Austrian Empire. The Hungarian struggle for national liberation was a major part of the failed 1848 Revolution. It captured the imagination and got the sympathy of people around the world: a bloodless revolt, an army made up of ardent enthusiasts and students defeating the Austrians, young poet Sándor Petőfi dying on the battlefield.
In the end, the Hungarian Revolution was put down with the help of Russia’s Nicholas I, the gendarme of Europe and the most conservative ruler of his time. But Hungarians themselves were in a large measure responsible for their defeat. The Kingdom of Hungary included within its borders numerous Slovaks, Ruthenians, Romanians, Germans, Serbs and Croats. Almost everywhere outside its core, such people were in a majority. Some young and educated members of those ethnic groups supported the Hungarian Revolution but most fought against it, figuring that the Austrians were more enlightened masters than the Magyars. Lajos Kossuth, the head of the revolutionary government, later acknowledged that their greatest mistake was not to recognize the national aspirations of their own subject nations.
The same mistake endured through World War I. After a period of repression that followed the failure of the Revolution, the Compromise of 1867 set up the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary. Up until the start of the war, the Kingdom of Hungary was the fastest growing economy in Europe after Germany.
But when a plan was devised in Vienna to add a third leg to the shaky imperial throne by giving Croats the same privileges as Hungarians, Hungarian political leaders were staunchly opposed to it. In this they found common ground with Serbian nationalists. Serbia was determined to bring southern Slavs together in a Serbian-dominated Yugoslav state on the model of the Kingdom of Piedmont unifying Italy in 1861.
In fact, Hungarians were hated throughout Austria-Hungary. There is a scene in Good Soldier Švejk pitting Czech recruits against Hungarian honvéd, with one Czech soldier declaring that he could never meet a damn Magyar without punching him in the face.
While the causes of World War I were obviously deeper, restive Balkan Slavs provided the immediate pretext or the hostilities. At the end of the war, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon lopped off all of the territories of the Kingdom of Hungary where Hungarians were not a majority.
That was more than half of the kingdom’s territory. The Hungarian population was reduced to just one-third and many Hungarians were left in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. In Transylvania alone, there were 1.3 million Hungarians, roughly the same number as Romanians
Trianon traumatized the nation. Hopes for returning the lost territories underlied Hungary’s foreign policy in the interwar period. Miklós Horty threw his lot with Adolf Hitler — an Austrian who also rued the collapse of the empire and vowed to get back lost German lands — and reaped substantial benefits. He took over Hungarian-speaking parts of Slovakia north of the Danube and was able to get Transylvania. When the Nazi occupied Yugoslavia, Horty got back parts of Vojvodina.
The gains proved short-lived and Hungary was back in its 1938 borders — except now under communist rule.
To be fair, Orbán has not mentioned anything about reversing the Treaty of Trianon. And yet Trianon, the rallying cry of Hungarian nationalists, has become the cornerstone of Orbán’s foreign policy. Last June the centennial for the signing of the treaty was marked in Budapest with the unveiling of a “Greater Hungary” monument in front of the parliament building, with Hungarian names of every Hungarian town now renamed in other languages.
In 2010 Orbán pushed through the dual citizenship law and started giving Hungarian citizenship to those who had Hungarian ancestry, including thousands in Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region. In 2018 the two countries had a major diplomatic row about the issue. Meanwhile, organized crime gangs in Ukraine and Russia sold fraudulent citizenship for money.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to state that my own last name, Bayer, is of Hungarian origin. My stepfather’s father György Bayer was born in Košice in present-day Slovakia (Kassa in Hungarian), which perhaps makes me eligible for Orbán’s citizenship.
Zakarattia and Vojvodina are weak links among lands lost by the Hungarian crown. Ukraine and Serbia and not in the EU and a Hungarian citizenship is of considerable value to their people. Orbán’s allies in Hungary have poured massive amounts of money into the two regions to support Hungarian speakers and to develop the Hungarian lobby there. In Zakarpattia, Radio Free Europe found that some $133m has been given out. This, coupled with the citizenship, is a way to get more votes for Orbán Fidesz (the so-called Alliance of Young Democrats who are no longer especially young or democratic).
However, there may have been darker reasons, too. Soon after the EuroMaidan Revolution ended Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the founder of another misnamed party, Russia’s Liberal Democrats, sent a letter to the governments of Romania, Hungary and Poland offering to share Ukraine with them. Zhirik, as he is derisively known, plays the buffoon, but he is used by the Kremlin to moot apparently outrageous ideas, some of which eventually become policies.
Whether or not Orbán has real hopes of severing Zakarpattia from Ukraine, he has been remarkably cozy with Putin. Just last month Hungary signed a 15-year natural gas deal with deliveries bypassing Ukraine. Kyiv believes that it was a political move specifically catering to Vladimir Putin’s obsession with undermining Ukraine’s economy. In any case, breaking with Europe and joining another right-wing axis — this one spanning the unlikely bedfellows like Putin’s Russia and trumpist America — may prove yet another losing strategy for Hungary.