Viktor Orban And The Future Of The West
Yesterday I was invited to go with a group of American and western European visiting intellectuals and journalists to the office of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to meet the leader and spend about an hour talking with him. This happened to me once before, three or four years ago, when I was here in Budapest speaking at a religious liberty conference. I had anticipated that this would be a short meet-and-greet, but it turned into a 90-minute session in which Orban fielded questions from visitors, and discoursed with sophistication and confidence about politics at a level that you just never see from US presidents. I found it stunning, frankly, that this man I had been informed by the US media was nothing but an authoritarian thug was, in fact, very far from the liberal caricature.
It happened again yesterday, with the other visitors. After we finished our session, I heard lots of chatter, with people saying they were quite taken aback by how sharp, smart, and quick on his feet Orban was (and not only Orban, but Katalin Novak, the longtime Family Minister in the Orban government, who is now about to be elected state President by Parliament). One American and I ended up talking about how much the image of Hungary in America has changed, at least among conservatives, because of Orban’s sitting down with Tucker Carlson for an interview last year, and how much it could yet change the more Orban would be able to get in front of the American people to make his case.
At one point, Orban, a Calvinist, was asked about his government’s support for persecuted Christians abroad. As I wrote here last year, he established a ministry out of his office to assist and defended persecuted Christian communities. He told the visitors yesterday that to defend and help these Christians is, for him, his Christian duty. He added that as he sees it, defending Christianity is intimately tied to defending the Hungarian nation, as so many times in this nation’s history — such as with the Ottoman Turks and the Soviets (but nobody mention the Habsburgs!) — the attack on Hungarian sovereignty was led by an outside force that despised Christianity.
Later, when Novak arrived, the two were asked about Hungary’s family policy, and its policy towards LGBT people, which has caused such a furor abroad. Orban said the way to think about Hungary’s approach is not to think about LGBT people per se, but about how they fit into a society that prioritizes the natural family, and traditional marriage.
“We are freedom fighters,” he said. “That means the freedom of homosexuals as well.”
He pointed out that in Hungary, gays and lesbians are guaranteed civil partnerships in law, but they cannot have formal marriage. That is reserved for one man and one woman, because that is what marriage and family is.
“In Hungarian society we always make a distinction between love and marriage,” Orban said. “If they coincide, great, but love is love; family is an institution.” His point is that it is possible to be tolerant, and to create a space in Hungarian law where gay people’s lives can be made easier, while at the same time prioritizing what has worked since time out of mind.
A German visitor asked Orban during the meeting how he bears up against the withering attacks from him from western European leaders and the media. Because of his roots in the anticommunist movement in the 1980s, when he was a student, Orban said. If you’ve had to face down the Communists, taking the slings and arrows of liberals and progressives is easy.
Here is a clip of a young Orban giving a brave speech at the reburial in 1989 of Imre Nagy, the reform communist prime minister murdered in 1956 by the Soviets. Watch it with the subtitles turned on, and realize that this man denounced the Communists at a major national event, while they were still in power. You cannot understand Orban and his appeal to Hungarians without having watched this:
Everybody yesterday laughed at Orban’s line about it being easy for face liberal criticism if you’ve had experience standing up to the Communists, and I suppose there’s a lot to it. But the truth is, Viktor Orban is plainly a man who relishes political combat, and who is at his best when he fights. One of the American conservatives present said to me yesterday after the meeting that if we on the Right had a leader like Orban championing our cause, the American scene would be very, very different. You say, “But we had Trump!”, to which I repeat that any comparison between the two is superficial. Orban fights, but fights intelligently and strategically — and usually wins.
He is a political leader who cares more about getting things done than owning the libs — but he damn sure owns the libs. About five weeks before Election Day, Orban’s party, Fidesz, is up by eight to ten points, even though many Hungarians are weary of twelve years of Fidesz governance. The opposition has once again proven itself to be incompetent. Last evening, after the meeting, I went with an American and a British friend to a working-class wine cellar, where you can get a big glass of respectable Tokaji wine for a dollar fifty. There we fell into conversation with a friendly American woman who has been living here since 1991. She’s an older Baby Boomer from New England, so I figured she was a liberal. When I asked her how she thought the election was going to go, she said she hoped like hell that Fidesz would win, because she can’t imagine the country falling into the hands of the opposition.
During the meeting with Orban, I mentioned to him that I had just read the night before a 1984 essay by Milan Kundera, in which the exiled Czech novelist reflected on the tragedy of Central Europe under the Soviet boot.
In it, Kundera argues that the then-captive nations of Central Europe were, in fact, of the West, though they had an Eastern political system forced on them by the Russians. The essay begins with this striking anecdote:
In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”
What did this sentence mean? It certainly meant that the Russian tanks were endangering Hungary and with it Europe itself. But in what sense was Europe in danger? Were the Russian tanks about to push past the Hungarian borders and into the West? No. The director of the Hungarian News Agency meant that the Russians, in attacking Hungary, were attacking Europe itself. He was ready to die so that Hungary might remain Hungary and European.
Kundera goes on:
In fact, what does Europe mean to a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole? For a thousand years their nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history. For them, the word “Europe” does not represent a phenomenon of geography but a spiritual notion synonymous with the word “West.” The moment Hungary is no longer European—that is, no longer Western—it is driven from its own destiny, beyond its own history: it loses the essence of its identity.
“Geographic Europe” (extending from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains) was always divided into two halves which evolved separately: one tied to ancient Rome and the Catholic Church, the other anchored in Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. After 1945, the border between the two Europes shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East.
As a result, three fundamental situations developed in Europe after the war: that of Western Europe, that of Eastern Europe, and, most complicated, that of the part of Europe situated geographically in the center—culturally in the West and politically in the East.
The contradictions of the Europe I call Central help us to understand why during the last thirty-five years the drama of Europe has been concentrated there: the great Hungarian revolt in 1956 and the bloody massacre that followed; the Prague Spring and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the Polish revolts of 1956, 1968, 1970, and of recent years. In dramatic content and historical impact, nothing that has occurred in “geographic Europe,” in the West or the East, can be compared with the succession of revolts in Central Europe. Every single one was supported by almost the entire population. And, in every case, each regime could not have defended itself for more than three hours if it had not been backed by Russia.
That said, we can no longer consider what took place in Prague or Warsaw in its essence as a drama of Eastern Europe, of the Soviet bloc, of communism; it is a drama of the West—a West that, kidnapped, displaced, and brainwashed, nevertheless insists on defending its identity. The identity of a people and of a civilization is reflected and concentrated in what has been created by the mind—in what is known as “culture.” If this identity is threatened with extinction, cultural life grows correspondingly more intense, more important, until culture itself becomes the living value around which all people rally. That is why, in each of the revolts in Central Europe, the collective cultural memory and the contemporary creative effort assumed roles so great and so decisive—far greater and far more decisive than they have been in any other European mass revolt.
It was Hungarian writers, in a group named after the Romantic poet Sándor Petöfi, who undertook the powerful critique that led the way to the explosion of 1956. It was the theater, the films, the literature and philosophy that, in the years before 1968, led ultimately to the emancipation of the Prague Spring. And it was the banning of a play by Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish Romantic poet, that triggered the famous revolt of Polish students in 1968. This happy marriage of culture and life, of creative achievement and popular participation, has marked the revolts of Central Europe with an inimitable beauty that will always cast a spell over those who lived through those times.
This part is key:
Central Europe, according to Palacky, ought to be a family of equal nations, each of which— treating the others with mutual respect and secure in the protection of a strong, unified state— would also cultivate its own individuality. And this dream, although never fully realized, would remain powerful and influential. Central Europe longed to be a condensed version of Europe itself in all its cultural variety, a small arch-European Europe, a reduced model of Europe made up of nations conceived according to one rule: the greatest variety within the smallest space. How could Central Europe not be horrified facing a Russia founded on the opposite principle: the smallest variety within the greatest space?
Indeed, nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, standardizing, centralizing, determined to transform every nation of its empire (the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Armenians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and others) into a single Russian people (or, as is more commonly expressed in this age of generalized verbal mystification, into a “single Soviet people”).
What struck me about reading Kundera’s 1984 essay today is that the force that is trying to defeat cultural tradition, cultural variety, cultural particularity, and cultural sovereignty today is not the failed Soviet empire, but imperial Brussels — the West. It is the European Union, and leaders of some of its member states (Macron of France, Rutte of the Netherlands), that is trying to compel the Hungarians to surrender their own sovereignty in areas that should not concern the EU. PM Orban noted yesterday that Hungary is facing a very strong challenge from the EU over the LGBT media and education law Parliament passed last summer, banning LGBT-themed media aimed at children and minors, and giving the state more say over sex education (this, to prevent NGOs and activist groups from queering schoolchildren’s imaginations, as is happening in the US). He said that even most Hungarians who believe in gay marriage — about half the country, in his estimation — also believe strongly that parents ought to be sovereign over the sex education of their children. (In any case, we will see what Hungarians think on election day, when the media law is up for a referendum.) Minister Novak yesterday added that the Hungarian government will never stop defending its view of what is right for families, regarding sexual education, but that it also respects the cultural sovereignty of other EU states, whose values may not be the same as Hungarian ones.
In other words, despite the liberal media propaganda, it is the Hungarians who are defending democracy and national sovereignty over and against the culturally imperialistic liberals of the West. They know too that their fight is a David-and-Goliath one, because they are a small nation. One more quote from Kundera:
But what is a small nation? I offer you my definition: the small nation is one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and it knows it. A French, a Russian, or an English man is not used to asking questions about the very survival of his nation. His anthems speak only of grandeur and eternity. The Polish anthem, however, starts with the verse: “Poland has not yet perished….”
This is why the Hungarians feel so strongly about defending their national borders. There are only about nine million Magyars here. Nobody else speaks a language like theirs. They have been a distinct nation for a thousand years, here in the Carpathian Basin. They are very proudly European, but look to the West and see that the European bureaucrats (which includes establishment conservative parties) have embraced a vision of Europe that wishes to dissolve Europe into a de facto superstate that will not defend its borders, and that is ashamed of European nationalism and cultural particularity — especially Europe’s Christian heritage. They want to be European, and they are European, but not at the expense of being Hungarian. And the same goes for many people in the other Visegrad Four nations: Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland, along with Hungary.
So, my question to Orban, based on my reading of the Kundera essay, had to do with the blistering irony that the nations of Central Europe, having survived forty years of Soviet captivity, now find themselves as besieged defenders of older European identities, against a deracinated and technocratic colossus headquartered not in Moscow, but in Brussels.
Orban stipulated in his response that it’s really not much of a comparison to posit the brutality of the Soviet regime and their Central European puppet governments to the EU. (True, to a point, but I would like to talk about it with Orban after he reads the recently published Hungarian translation of Live Not By Lies.) Yet Orban concluded by saying that the Visegrad countries are the last remaining defenders of the Free World, by which he meant the West as it used to be. I agree, and I urge American readers to read beyond what you get in the US media, which uniformly posits these elected governments as reactionary menaces.
(By the way, someone, I believe it was the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, asked Orban yesterday about his infamous statement that he was trying to lead an “illiberal democracy.” I wasn’t taking notes about his answer, but I believe he said, in effect, that that had been a poor choice of phrasing, that by “illiberal democracy” he meant only a democracy that emphasized conservative principles, particularly Christian moral values.)
Thinking this morning about that event in light of Kundera’s essay, I am reminded of a comment made by Tamas Salyi, a Hungarian teacher of high school English, to me in Live Not By Lies:
To those who want to keep cultural memory alive, Connerton warns that it is not enough to pass on historical information to the young. The truths carried by tradition must be lived out subjectively. That is, they must not only be studied but also embodied in shared social practices—words, certainly, but more important, deeds. Communities must have “living models” of men and women who enact these truths in their daily lives. Nothing else works.
Tamás Sályi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.
The idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty has been poison for Hungarians, he believes. About progressives today, Sályi says, “I think they really believe that if they erase all memory of the past, and turn everyone into newborn babies, then they can write whatever they want on that blank slate. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to manipulate people who know who they are, rooted in tradition.”
Here, then, is the tragedy of contemporary Hungary, and the Visegrad nations: They survived one totalitarian attempt to crush the cultural memories that made them distinct peoples, only to find that the forces of post-Christian liberty and capitalism are doing the job more effectively than the Soviets did. And you know, back in 1984, Kundera anticipated this:
Now it seems that another change is taking place in our century, as important as the one that divided the Middle Ages from the modern era. Just as God long ago gave way to culture, culture in turn is giving way. But to what and to whom? What realm of supreme values will be capable of uniting Europe? Technical feats? The marketplace? The mass media? (Will the great poet be replaced by the great journalist?) Or by politics? But by which politics? The right or the left? Is there a discernible shared ideal that still exists above this Manichaeanism of the left and the right that is as stupid as it is insurmountable? Will it be the principle of tolerance, respect for the beliefs and ideas of other people? But won’t this tolerance become empty and useless if it no longer protects a rich creativity or a strong set of ideas? Or should we understand the abdication of culture as a sort of deliverance, to which we should ecstatically abandon ourselves? Or will the Deus absconditus return to fill the empty space and reveal himself? I don’t know, I know nothing about it. I think I know only that culture has bowed out.
The last direct personal experience of the West that Central European countries remember is the period from 1918 to 1938. Their picture of the West, then, is of the West in the past, of a West in which culture had not yet entirely bowed out.
With this in mind, I want to stress a significant circumstance: the Central European revolts were not nourished by the newspapers, radio, or television—that is, by the “media.” They were prepared, shaped, realized by novels, poetry, theater, cinema, historiography, literary reviews, popular comedy and cabaret, philosophical discussions—that is, by culture. The mass media—which, for the French and Americans, are indistinguishable from whatever the West today is meant to be—played no part in these revolts (since the press and television were completely under state control).
That’s why, when the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, they did everything possible to destroy Czech culture. This destruction had three meanings: first, it destroyed the center of the opposition; second, it undermined the identity of the nation, enabling it to be more easily swallowed up by Russian civilization; third, it put a violent end to the modern era, the era in which culture still represented the realization of supreme values. This third consequence seems to me the most important. In effect, totalitarian Russian civilization is the radical negation of the modern West, the West created four centuries ago at the dawn of the modern era: the era founded on the authority of the thinking, doubting individual, and on an artistic creation that expressed his uniqueness. The Russian invasion has thrown Czechoslovakia into a “postcultural” era and left it defenseless and naked before the Russian army and the omnipresent state television.
While still shaken by this triply tragic event which the invasion of Prague represented, I arrived in France and tried to explain to French friends the massacre of culture that had taken place after the invasion: “Try to imagine! All of the literary and cultural reviews were 11 liquidated! Every one, without exception! That never happened before in Czech history, not even under the Nazi occupation during the war.”
Then my friends would look at me indulgently with an embarrassment that I understood only later. When all the reviews in Czechoslovakia were liquidated, the entire nation knew it, and was in a state of anguish because of the immense impact of the event. If all the reviews in France or England disappeared, no one would notice it, not even their editors. In Paris, even in a completely cultivated milieu, during dinner parties people discuss television programs, not reviews. For culture has already bowed out. Its disappearance, which we experienced in Prague as a catastrophe, a shock, a tragedy, is perceived in Paris as something banal and insignificant, scarcely visible, a non-event.
After the destruction of the Austrian empire, Central Europe lost its ramparts. Didn’t it lose its soul after Auschwitz, which swept the Jewish nation off its map? And after having been torn away from Europe in 1945, does Central Europe still exist?
Yes, its creativity and its revolts suggest that it has “not yet perished.” But if to live means to exist in the eyes of those we love, then Central Europe no longer exists. More precisely: in the eyes of its beloved Europe, Central Europe is just a part of the Soviet empire and nothing more, nothing more.
And why should this surprise us? By virtue of its political system, Central Europe is the East; by virtue of its cultural history, it is the West. But since Europe itself is in the process of losing its own cultural identity, it perceives in Central Europe nothing but a political regime; put another way, it sees in Central Europe only Eastern Europe.
Central Europe, therefore, should fight not only against its big oppressive neighbor but also against the subtle, relentless pressure of time, which is leaving the era of culture in its wake. That’s why in Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era. It is only in that period, only in a world that maintains a cultural dimension, that Central Europe can still defend its identity, still be seen for what it is.
The real tragedy for Central Europe, then, is not Russia but Europe: this Europe that represented a value so great that the director of the Hungarian News Agency was ready to die for it, and for which he did indeed die. Behind the iron curtain, he did not suspect that the times had changed and that in Europe itself Europe was no longer experienced as a value. He did not suspect that the sentence he was sending by telex beyond the borders of his flat country would seem outmoded and would not be understood.
Almost forty years later, the Europe that could not understand the Hungarian journalist has triumphed, and is trying to erase what remains of European cultural memory here in Central Europe. Europeans live now in the flattened, postcultural world satirized by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, where the only thing that gives most of them meaning is shopping and screwing. Last summer, an eminent Hungarian told me that his teenage son had disclosed that he could not imagine dying for his country. This was in the same conversation in which another eminent Hungarian told me her 19-year-old son had proudly informed her that his generation was experimenting with sexual desire and gender.
Viktor Orban is a political leader, not a cultural one. Politics is downstream from culture, but politics can create the conditions under which culture can flourish. I believe that is what Orban is trying to do here in Hungary. He is doing it almost alone in Europe today. He has the Poles on his side, but he desperately needs the populist-nationalist parties of Europe to score some wins in the West. I believe Viktor Orban is the heir to that desperate director of the Hungarian News Agency in 1956. He is not dying for Europe, but he is living to fight for Hungary, and for a better vision of Europe than what the Brussels Eurocrats envision. Nobody came to help the Hungarians in 1956. We have to hope that conservatives, especially American conservatives, will rally to the cause today. Orban and his people are not simply fighting a political battle, but a civilizational one. American conservatives, pay attention! What is happening in Hungary today matters for our country more than you think.
Finally, here is a nice souvenir of yesterday: