Discover more from The Bulwark
Searching for My Family’s Lost Past in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary
In Mitteleuropa, Trump’s authoritarian “twin” is falsifying his country’s history to bring about an antidemocratic future. Sound familiar?
RECENTLY, WHILE ADDRESSING CONSERVATIVE Republicans and their far-right European counterparts and allies at CPAC’s second meeting in Budapest, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán called for Donald Trump’s return to office, saying they share the same radical ideological values.
Around fifteen American conservative activists and politicians—including defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, and former Senator Rick Santorum—flew to attend the meeting in Hungary, a country that Orbán has described as an “incubator where the conservative policies of the future are being tested.”
If we’re giving grades, they’re failing.
Orbán was the only leader of a European Union country to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, but this support wouldn’t be repaid for a few years. Orbán finally got to undertake a profile-raising visit to the White House in 2019 following the Hungarian government’s lobbying for an official invitation. After their meeting, Trump declared he and Orbán were “like twins.”
They still are.
Over the years, Orbán and Trump have both tirelessly swung their hammers against liberalism, “wokeness,” and the law, and each struck out at anything that would slow his destructive progress. (Trump, taking a jab at some of his primary opponents, recently said he’s tired of woke talk, although just days later he decried the “woke” military.)
Orbán also continues to rail against the West and its allies. He has not only declined to send Hungarian arms to Ukraine, but also threatened to stymie the flow of European aid to Ukraine, and he is opposed to Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership. That’s hardly surprising, given that his heart appears to belong to Moscow and to Putin.
Reflecting on Orbán’s rise and the transformation he has brought about in modern Hungary is not exactly a heartening exercise, but it has improved my understanding of the Republican party’s hard-right lean toward extremism. Teaching in Hungary also helped me better understand my home state of Mississippi and the American South, where the Civil War sometimes doesn’t feel over.
I lived in Hungary while on a Fulbright scholarship in 2010. I was there to teach creative writing and the literature of the American South at the University of Pécs. I was also there for a second, more personal reason: to research my mother’s family, many of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.
When I went to Hungary, Orbán had recently been elected prime minister for the second time following an eight-year interregnum. By the late 2010s, the political status quo had become untenable, and he presented himself as the one man who could fix the struggling country, still new to democracy.
Some of my university colleagues argued that Hungary was not ready for democratic self-rule because Hungarians were used to being told what to do and how to think. They were used to being occupied. The last Soviet units had departed Hungary not yet twenty years earlier, in June 1991. The past, as Faulkner said, is not even past.
My Hungarian students at the university were bright, multilingual, well read, well traveled, and, for the most part, engaged. They were empathetic and willing to share about their own hardships in connection with the texts we read. But I found that they had not been taught the truth about their own country’s past.
One day, while we were discussing A Streetcar Named Desire in class, a student named Jùlia raised her hand to say how much she loved and understood Blanche. We’d just read the part about how Blanche couldn’t keep her family’s house or money, how she was left destitute and desperate. She had, in fact, fallen so far that she had to teach. We laughed at this.
“The melancholia of the American South, and so many women alone or orphaned or broken,” Jùlia said. “I know this world.”
These students had talked to me about their own situations living with little money in cramped homes with parents and grandparents. A university administrator explained that Hungarian students sometimes took up to six years to graduate—and not as a matter of preference only, but also because they were encouraged to do so. The government wanted them to stay in school rather than try to join the workforce because there were so few jobs to go around. This administrator told me that Orbán didn’t want high unemployment numbers, and he was in control of the numbers. (Today, Hungary has the opposite problem: The outflow of emigrants is so large that the country’s economy suffers from a labor shortage.)
Students in my literature class had learned about American racism ad nauseam during the Soviet occupation, and they said they could not understand how there could be so much hate in America. They’d read To Kill a Mockingbird. They knew all about the civil rights era. I realized they were taught about American problems with racism and hate, but not their own country’s problems. This situation has doubtless gotten worse in the years since I lived in Pécs: Orbán has had history textbooks rewritten to affirm his political views, including his stance that refugees are a threat to Europe’s Christian character and Hungary’s cultural homogeneity.
Commentary and analysis you won’t find anywhere else. Support our work by becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I felt it was important for me to help my students learn some of their country’s history that they had never been taught. When they asked me about my research and why I’d come to Pécs, I told them I was trying to find out about members of my mother’s family who lived there until 1944. One in particular, Richard, was arrested in front of his house in Pécs simply because he was a Jew, loaded onto a cattle car at the train station, and transported to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. According to documents from Yad Vashem, that is where he “perished.”
There are few historical markers to tell of what befell the Jews of Pécs in 1944, and no mention of it in the local museum. My students did not know the details of Hungary’s role during World War II and the Holocaust. They did not know, for instance, that their own local police rounded up thousands of Hungarian Jewish tax-paying citizens of Pécs in the spring and early summer of that year and sent them to their deaths at Auschwitz. They left behind houses and jobs, which were all soon filled, apparently with Christian Hungarians.
In Hungary, antisemitism is culturally old and familiar. But in the Orbán era, it has become more prominent, and even carries something of a government imprimatur.
For instance, consider the government’s efforts to downplay the Holocaust while convincing many Christian Hungarians that they were the real victims of the Nazis. At the beginning of 2014, Orbán opened a historical institute called Veritas whose team of dozens of historians specialize in falsifying Hungarian history, especially the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. “Scholars” there openly question established accounts of the horrors visited upon Hungarian Jews and Hungary’s role in what happened to them.
Statues and memorials of WWII-era racists and war criminals have been installed around Hungary with Orbán’s explicit or implicit support. As commentator György Lázár explained, this all fits a larger pattern. In recent years, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s name was removed from a central square in Budapest, and Orbán has described pro-Hitler Hungarian ruler Miklós Horthy, who collaborated in the deportation of some Hungarian Jews, as an “exceptional statesman.”
When I traveled by train from Pécs to Mauthausen to say the Kaddish for my dead relative, I saw handouts with antisemitic drawings of George Soros. Swastikas were spray-painted on banks, stores, and what was left of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. I never found one relative’s grave because Catholics had buried their dead over the Jews. Many Hungarians evidently feel free to embrace what their teachers and leaders have never warned them against.
Hungary’s officially condoned antisemitism is a synecdoche for many of the administration’s other policies; as John Ganz has observed, European reactionaries have found in the ideology a useful organizing principle for a larger right-wing politics of control and force. Through the years, Orbán has continued to tighten his control over the press and state finances, weakening the civic and democratic forces that provide vital checks. He overhauled the country’s constitution, curbed the independence of the judiciary, and passed a series of punitive media laws to quiet Hungary’s free press. In the fall of 2016, Népszabadság—at the time the country’s most popular national political daily paper—was shut down by its owner without warning, apparently as part of a deal with Orbán’s Fidesz party. Things have progressed to the point that Hungary is no longer a “full democracy,” according to the European Parliament and is only “partly free” according to Freedom House (and anybody paying attention, for that matter).
I miss my Hungarian friends in academia, scholars and writers who have been silenced by this current administration. They don’t feel they can safely email me their honest thoughts or collaborate on writing projects that have anything to do with this political moment.
Hungary is six hours ahead of our East Coast. Sometimes it seems as though Hungary’s politics are just a little ahead of ours, too.
Republicans who have become taken with an idealized version of Hungary under Orbán would do well to remember a few things about the country some of them desire the United States to emulate. For instance, modern Hungary has tended to be on the losing side of the world’s wars.
Economically, things don’t look much better: Former Central Bank of Hungary Governor Péter Ákos Bod told CNN that “inflation is too high, the interest rate is too high, the deficit is too high, the debt is too high.” Proficiency in reading, math, and science has dropped during the Orbán years and, as of 2018, Hungarian students score lower than the OECD average in all three areas.
But material outcomes are far less important to the far right today than prosecuting an endless culture war, and in that cause, Orbán might be described as an “exceptional leader.” Two years ago, Tucker Carlson—whose father, Richard Carlson, is a director of a Washington-based organization that has lobbied for Orbán—flew to Hungary and praised Orbán’s razor-wire border fences. Orbán had previously announced to the world that the goal of his anti-Muslim immigration policies, made manifest in those fences Carlson toured, was “to keep Europe Christian.”
One of my former students provided aid to Syrian refugees at the time of Carlson’s visit, and when I asked if I could quote her for an article I was writing, she asked that I not use her name: She was scared to be known as a Hungarian helping refugees. (Hungarian students rank below students of every other OECD country in terms of openness toward immigrants.)
At this year’s CPAC meeting in Budapest, Carlson appeared in a recorded video. “I wish I was there in Budapest,” he said. “If I ever get fired and have some time . . . I will be there with you.”
Now that Carlson has been fired and has that extra time, I’m sure Orbán will welcome him with open arms. I only hope Carlson doesn’t dupe half the United States into joining him when he goes.