Trianon and anti-western rhetoric in Orbán’s Hungary — A Response to Béla Lipták

I am compelled to reflect on a letter written by Béla Lipták and published in The New York Times. In response to an NYT article entitled “Hungary’s Autocracy Beneath a Patina of Democracy,” Mr. Lipták argued that Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism and the embrace of anti-western rhetoric is caused by, and is indeed justifiable due to, a deep-rooted anger and a sense of betrayal that the average Hungarian feels today towards what happened nearly one hundred years ago within the context of the Treaty of Trianon. This is when Hungary ceded three-fourths of its territory and two-thirds of its population to neighbouring states. According to Mr. Lipták’s assessment, the trauma of Trianon is front and centre in the lives and thoughts of Hungarians a century later.  Éva Balogh of the Hungarian Spectrum challenged Mr. Lipták on a number of points, noting particularly that polling data shows record high enthusiasm among Hungarians for the European Union. I will raise a few more points.

Mr. Lipták writes: “The main reason for what is happening in Hungary is the alienation and anger Hungarians feel toward Western Europe and the European Union. The cause of this anger is Europe’s failure to do anything to correct the terrible injustice that occurred at the end of World War I through the Treaty of Trianon, when this kingdom, over a thousand years old, was dismembered.”

Béla Lipták (Memory Project)

Mr. Lipták’s letter appears almost to be a red herring: his response to empirical evidence that Viktor Orbán has erected an authoritarian regime beneath the thin window-dressing of democracy is to speak of Trianon, the alleged anger of Hungarians at what is perceived to be a historic injustice and to call for more international understanding of the challenges faced by Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine or elsewhere in the Carpathian Basin. The protection of Hungarian minorities in these areas, whether through territorial autonomy, cultural autonomy or other means is a valid and important point for discussion. But it must not be used to detract attention from the far more pressing discussion around the nature of Orbánist authoritarianism–not least because the status of the same minority Hungarians mentioned by Mr. Lipták would become much worse should these countries move in a direction similar to that of Hungary. Mr. Orbán’s persistent language of scapegoating and political shadow-boxing with fabricated, often amorphous enemies, his ability to pit different demographics within society against each other bodes extremely poorly for Hungarians living in neighbouring countries, if the Orbán regime were to be replicated.

There is, however, another reality, and this may prove difficult for Mr. Lipták and perhaps many others active in the western Hungarian diaspora to hear and acknowledge. Polling data shows that Hungarians in Hungary may not feel as much solidarity with Hungarians living as minorities in neighouring countries as some think. Worse still: there exists hostility towards Hungarians from abroad, especially the large number of Transylvanian Hungarians, in Hungary proper. According to a study conducted by Závecz Research in 2016, where respondents were asked about who they would permit to move in as a neighbour, if their opinion were asked, one quarter (24%) of Hungarians indicated that they would not allow a Transylvanian Hungarian to live next door.

A more recent poll, produced by Publicus in 2018, did suggest that 75% of Hungarians today see Trianon as the nation’s greatest trauma, but also noted that 57% of Hungarians agree with the following statement: “The question of Trianon only comes up so frequently for political reasons, because it is useful in inciting national sentiments.” Furthermore, 43% of Hungarians believe that “there is no longer any point in spending time on the question of Trianon.”

Mr. Lipták errs in the same way as so many others do who are active in the western Hungarian diaspora: they believe that their concerns and preoccupation around moments of historic national symbolism are just as much of a preoccupation for people who live and work in Hungary. Yet for many and perhaps most in Hungary, the focus is on bread-and-butter issues of employment, health care, personal well-being, education, pensions, public safety and benefits. Moreover, János Kádár constructed a salient form of Hungarian patriotism and this does not include a concern for Trianon nor even a deep concern for Hungarians living in neighbouring countries. Transylvania and irredentism may strike romantic patriotism in the hearts of many Hungarians living in the western diaspora, but does not move most Hungarians who came of age during the period between the sixties and the late eighties–much like the memory of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution does not strike in them the same feelings either. Their symbols of Hungarian patriotism are simply different and their socio-cultural experience is different too.

Hungarian society, by and large, is not angered by Europe nor by the West. In fact, Hungarians are among the most pro-European peoples in the EU. It is the corrupt Orbán autocracy, which Mr. Lipták often takes pains to avoid explicitly criticizing, that engages in cynical shadow-boxing with a fabricated enemy at times called the West–or Soros, or migrants, or ‘Bolsheviks,’ or the “cosmopolitan liberal conspiracy”–to deflect attention from everyday bread-and-butter issues and to build Hungary’s soft dictatorship.

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