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The Hungarian Drama

Helmut Sorge | Posted : January 09, 2019

“The most severe setback since the rise of Fascism in the 1930s”

The football players at the beach of Essaouira are moving barefoot through the sand, at times entangled in a clumsy ballet of bodies and legs, moving from a pas de deux to a pas de vingt deux, a movement neither choreograph, Balanchine, nor composer, Strawinski, ever created. These athletes, a few fishermen among them, are competing with the ghosts of Ronaldo, Neymar or Messi. The kids are not different from the Indian boys battling it out on a garbage dump near Calcutta, or the children of Novosibirsk in Siberia, where they kick the ball on a frozen lake and ignore the danger of concussions by heading the icy ball at temperatures of minus 33 degrees. Or the youth of Germany, survivors of a devastating war. Surrounded by ruins-- bombs shattered lives, fire consumed the future. We were poor and undernourished, forced by the Swedish Red Cross to swallow, daily, a metal cup of raw cod liver oil, which was supposed to give undernourished children’s strength. It tasted like biting into a raw fish, a kind of early sushi experience. Blood, partner of pain, was ignored, whenever a sliding tackle on the gravel-covered pitch was needed. Skin came off the knees and elbows. We played on, winning against tears and self-pity, developing into adolescents believing we were men.

No football boots for us. Often, not even a football. Just a melon-sized stone or an oversized potato. Barefoot in Hamburg. Just like the kids of Essaouira. Or on garbage dumps in Calcutta. Abidjan. Hanoi. Lima. Fantasy does not know borders. Imagination wipes away reality and doubts. One day I would be a professional football player, sure thing, although stadiums were destroyed or crowded with refugees. But, yes, if you are 10, 12, or 14, you do not doubt and do not have enough time to turn into a racist. Or get hooked on drugs. Football represented hope. Complicity. Neighborhood.  Brotherhood. These days Neymar is probably paid, for any and each corner kick or throw in, the equivalent of the annual salary of courageous fishermen in Essaouira. Or a trucker in Sicily. Or Buenos Aires. We did not dream of golden salaries, since football was part of a gigantic playground, not a multibillion dollar business. I dreamed that Germany would win the world championship… Just once. The world hated my nation. They had reason. 100 million victims. Killed in action, gassed in camps, burned by firebombs or just starved to death. 

For any corner kick, Neymar gets paid the annual salary of a fisherman

In 1954, I was impressed by a Ronaldo-like hero and with him a nation named Hungary and, in the same week, the feeling of pride, a childish sense of nationalism. I admired an opponent. Yes, somehow I was a traitor and in conflict with hope. Ference Puskas was my man, my kind of player. He was as tall as I was at age 14, 1.75 meters. In the first round of world championship matches, Puskas scored his first goal for Hungary against Germany after 17 minutes. We lost 8:3. In our days, enough to fire the coach. Germany made it to the finals. I heard the match on the radio. TV was as rare as a man on the moon. Again this irritating, impressive, Hungarian named Puskas. In the final, he scored after six minutes. Finally, Germany won, erasing a national inferiority complex. For the first time in my life, I felt proud to be a German. The evil which had a name, Germany, reappeared like a disregarded ghost out of ruins and rubble, returning to normality. One nation among others... How little did I know? History caught up with me again, another surprise: Hungary had been an ally of Nazi Germany all along, joined by the Italian fascists, Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary had occupied one of their neighbors, Yugoslavia, and its troops participated in the invasion of Russia. And when the government of Budapest decided to avoid defeat and started to negotiate peace with the Allied forces, Germany invaded Hungary, their accomplices. Puskas would remain my hero anyway. One of them. Bert Trautmann was another one. A former German prisoner of war, who played in goal for Manchester City in the 1956 English Football Association final --for the remaining 17 minutes with crashed vertebraes, risking to be paralyzed for life. It was the year the Hungarians revolted against Soviet oppression. And Hungary became part of my political education.

“This we swear, we will no longer be slaves”

Eventually Soviet troops occupied the conquered nation—in 1949, the “People’s Republic of Hungary” was declared and the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Russian language study and communist political instruction became mandatory in schools and universities. In 1955, Hungary was pressured to join the Warsaw pact. Among the principles of the communist, mainly Eastern European alliance, were “respect for the independence and sovereignty of states” and “noninterference in their internal affairs.” The ink used for the signatures was hardly dry when Polish workers revolted and asked for reforms. October 23, 1956: students and the Hungarian writers’ union in the capital Budapest decided to express solidarity with the pro-reform movements in Poland by laying a wreath at the statue of Polish born hero General Jozef Zachariasz Ben, who was also a hero of the Hungarian revolution of 1848. About 20,000 protesters united at his statue. The president of the “Writers Union” read a manifesto, demanding Hungary to be independent from all foreign powers, a political system based on democratic socialism. The crowd chanted a censored patriotic poem, the National Song: “This we swear, this we swear, that we will no longer be slaves.” To prove their determination, students toppled a nine-meter bronze statue of Stalin, the Soviet dictator. The Hungarian government asked for Soviet military intervention to deal with the threatening uprising. Tanks entered Budapest, Cardinal Mindszenty escaped to the US embassy, asking for asylum. He remained there 15 years. Rent-free.

Elvis Presley and the Hungarian Revolution

Again, Hungary touched my life. For the first time, I was confronted with a violent uprising, repression, the killing of demonstrators. 10 to 15,000 revolutionaries in the capital, willing to face death to realize their ideals and convictions, the right to be free, to express opinions critical of the system. Students revolted and confronted death. Bombs replaced books. 1,569 civilians died in Budapest. Most of the civilians, the victims, were workers. Barricades were erected. Pal Maléter, the commander of a Hungarian armored division stationed in Budapest joined the revolution. Fighter jets strafed protesters. Soviet tanks destroyed buildings, where revolutionaries were suspected Soldiers and secret police agents were lynched, students tortured. More than 2,500 citizens and 700 Soviet troops lost their lives during the revolt and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees, received by the Red Cross and Army units at neighboring towns in Austria. The irony of history--the same people, another generation, which today is refusing refugees on their soil. 229 people were executed in Hungary, among them Pal Maléter and Imre Nagy, reformist Prime Minister for a few days. Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter its “Man of the Year” and my school in Hamburg was active in collecting money and cloth for Hungarian refugees, encouraged by another one of my hero’s, Elvis Presley -- A symbol of cultural freedom. A personalized revolutionary. Rock n’ Roll. Elvis appeared on US television and dedicated the gospel song “Peace in the Valley” to the Hungarian revolt, which, after a few weeks, was crushed by Soviet tanks. Public discussions about the uprising was suppressed in Hungary for more than thirty years. In my high school, we discussed Nazism as well as the Hungarian revolution, the communist philosophy in conflict with our system. At the inauguration of the third Hungarian Republic in 1989, October 23 (the first day of the uprising in 1956) was declared a National Holiday. Hungary is a nation “wounded by history,” believes poet George Szirtes. After the First World War—Hungary was aligned with the losing sides in both world wars—the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated. Many Hungarians now live in territories of Ukraine, Serbia and Slovakia. The largest diaspora, more than half of 2.4 million Hungarians, settled in Romania, 150,000 Hungarian speakers remain in Western Ukraine, which felt provoked by Viktor Orban, the present Prime Minister of the 10 million citizen nation, when his government recently decided to distribute Hungarian passports to citizens of Hungarian origins, voting rights included. The estimated one million passports, supposed to be issued to Hungarian speaking citizens abroad, will assure Orban a large voting bloc of voters, who mostly cheer his robust nationalism, including his preference for a racially homogenous society: “We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.”

“They will kick down our doors”

During the refugee crisis, images of migrants streaming into Europe caused panic across Eastern Europe. People began to imagine that their national culture was under threat of vanishing. Only six percent of Hungarians are foreign-born, and those are, in majority, ethnic Hungarians and immigrants from Romania. Orban used fear and insecurity of his people by scaring them: Europe is about to be invaded by tens of millions of people from Africa and the Middle East, and “if Europe does nothing, they will kick down our doors. The history of conquered nations will be rewritten by others.” 

The Hungarian prime minister fiercely opposed the request of the European Union to fulfill its obligation and accept at least 1,300 refugees. Budapest reacted to the threat by erecting two rows of barbed wire fence at the border with Serbia and Croatia, and deployed a civil militia. For Yale professor, Jason Stanley, author of How fascism works, a book that explores how contemporary leaders like Mr. Orban, use fascist ideologies and tactics to expand their power and appeal, the strategies of Orban do in fact fit patterns of the past: “When you govern from a position where loyalty to your ethnic group and a mythic past trumps truth and respect for people who do not agree with you, then that is using fascist ideology and fascist political tactics to gain and retain power.” The control that the right-wing government exerts over Hungarian’s access to information means that Hungary is “no longer a democracy, regardless of how many votes he receives.” In a speech, only weeks prior to the elections in April of last year, Orban threatened those, who were opposing him, with “moral, political and legal means.”

The Prime Minister, who studied, for a short time, political science at Oxford University—his scholarship financed by the American Hungarian entrepreneur George Soros (whom he showers with hate today)—declared, five years ago that, “[A] democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it can still be democracy.” To maintain global competiveness, Orban claims, “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society.” A society in which freedom of press is threatened. The freedom to criticize, question, demonstrate, oppose. Recently, and as if on a signal, Hungarian industrialists and entrepreneurs, all attached to Orban, handed about 400 newspapers, news websites, television channels and radio stations to a government foundation, which is streamlining the news. The nationalist managed to create a “media juggernaut,” reported the New York Times, “that closely resembles Communist propaganda machines of old.” The worlds’ growing ranks of would be autocrats should study Viktor Orban, because “steadily, systematically, relentlessly he has disabled any criticism or honest accounting of his imposition of right wing, nativist, [and] nationalist politics on all spheres of Hungarian life.” 

Orban’s third election win in April of last year, seemed never in danger. Yet, during the last weeks, thousands of demonstrators are marching against the policies of their authoritarian leader, foremost provoked by a law that could require workers to put in up to 400 hours in overtime…to be paid in three years by their employers. The opposition is demanding the withdrawal of the “slave law.” Orban blames his feared critic, George Soros, for the demonstrations, financed by him, organized by agents. Accusations right out of Donald Trump’s fantasia scripts. Orban though, for the moment, has nothing to fear: His party, the Fidesz, gained 117 of 199 seats in parliament, and holds (supported by a right-wing minority party) a comfortable majority, first, because of his echo chamber in the media, which has muted alternative voices. And, second, [thanks to] the redrawing of electoral boundaries and the restructuring of the electoral system. For Mr. Orban, democracy obviously depends primarily on the occurrence of elections, rather than on separation of powers, the responsibility of a free press. Hungary is neither an economic nor military power, yet its model of illiberalism is threatening stability, since other members of the European Union, the Czech Republic, for example, may be tempted to move into the fictive democracy orbit of Orban. Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, and author of the Foreign Policy article, “After Eastern Europe’s Illiberal Revolution: The Long Road to Democratic Decline,” explains, “In the Eastern European political imagination, cultural and ethnic diversity are seen as an existential threat, and opposition to this threat forms the core of the new illiberalism.” 

Divided & Unfree

“Eastern European populism is a recent phenomenon,” writes Krastev, “but it has deep roots in the regions politics and is unlikely to go away anytime soon […] What makes it particularly dangerous is that is an authoritarianism born within the framework of democracy itself” (Foreign Affairs, 2018). 

“Hungary has the trappings and institutions of a 21st century European democracy” observed Michael Ignatieff, “but uses them to exert the same kind of centralized control as the autocracies of the cold war”(Kingsley, New York Times, 2018). For the President of the liberal Central European University, he believes “it is a new form of single party state, but it is clearly reproducing some of the features of the single party states of the past.” 

“Which is ironic,” stated Ignatieff, because the regime is “violently anti–communist in its rhetoric, but in its practice, it reproduces features of the ancient régime,” the Hungarian allies of Moscow. 

Hungary’s path, under Viktor Orban, has made him an icon for far right figures such as Stephen K. Bannon (who, for a short while, w as chosen to be the soul mate of Donald Trump) and has provided a blueprint for the erosion of democratic institutions in Poland. Orban’s efforts to create a new political entity, the illiberal state, includes active measures to spread his far right ideology to the theater, universities and other schools. The crack down on the Soros-financed Central European University (which moved to Vienna), not only disturbed its president Michael Ignatieff, but also the Jewish community because in the attacks by Orban on the Hungarian born, Jewish-financier Soros, the New York Times detected “decidedly anti- Semitic overtones” which play “ a sizable audience in Hungary.” 

“The movement Viktor Orban represents is of global importance,” claims Ivan Krastev of the Center for Liberal Strategies, [adding that] “In the west, where the will of the people remains the source of political legitimacy, the Hungarian prime ministers style of illiberal democracy is likely to be the major alternative to liberalism in the coming decades.” 

Putin’s combination of authoritarian rule and Anti-western rhetoric has served as a model to emulate. A new illiberal consensus is emerging, marked by xenophobic nationalism and somewhat unexpectedly supported by young people who came of age after the demise of communism – “If the liberals who dominated in the 1990s were preoccupied with the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, this new consensus is about the rights of the majority” (Tharoor, WashingtonPost, 2018). 

“A creeping coup d’état

The main challenge posed by Eastern Europe populism is not the existence of democracy at the level of the nation, but to the cohesion of the European Union. Ivan Krastev argues: “As more countries in the region turn toward illiberalism they will continue to come into conflict with Brussels and probe the limits of the EU’s power, as Poland has already done with judicial reforms” (Warsaw retreated from the challenge when courts decided against its radical reform retiring Supreme Court judges early, replacing them with judges, selected by party and government) -- But the challenges remain. 

For posing a “systematic threat to the core values” of the EU, a procedure was opened against Budapest last September, which could lead to stripping Hungary of its European Union voting rights. Eventually, Krastev predicts, “the risk is that the EU could disintegrate, and Europe could become a continent divided and unfree.” Poland and Hungary, the main opposition to EU rule and regulations, would certainly suffer. Adam Michnik, a dissident intellectual, who edits Poland’s most influential liberal newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza told a New Yorker reporter that he worries about “a creeping coup d’etat that is transforming Poland into a Putinist-type state.” 

Many political scientists, journalists and politicians, have difficulties understanding the rise of Eastern European populism. Michnik lamented after the triumph of Poland’s right wing “Law and Justice” party in 2015: “Sometimes a beautiful woman loses her mind and goes to bed with a bastard.” Krastev noted: “Eastern Europe seems intent on marrying the bastard.” 

The question is posed whether Poland, after two decades as the model student of European liberalism, is retreating from democracy, trying to replace it with Orban’s view of the future. Some populists’ success can be explained as having originated from economic troubles. Orban was elected in 2010, after Hungary’s economy had shrunk by 6.1 percent in 2009. But similar problems cannot explain why the Czech Republic, which enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, voted for populists in the last parliamentary elections, or why intolerance is on rise in the economically successful Slovakia. Poland is the most puzzling case since the country had the fastest growing economy in Europe between 2007 and 2017. Another common feature of Eastern European populism, observed Krastev, is the “Janus faced attitude” towards the EU. According to the latest polls, Eastern Europeans are among the most pro-EU publics on the continent, yet they vote for some of the most EU skeptical governments. And these governments, in turn, use Brussels as rhetorical punching bag, while benefitting from its financial largeness. The Hungarian economy grew by 4.6 percent between 2006 and 2015, yet an economic research study estimated that without EU funds, it would have shrunk by 1.8 percent. Poland is the continent’s biggest recipient of money from the European Structural and Investment Funds, which promote economic development in the EU’ s less developed countries.

“The world is now approaching a striking milestone”

Not only the European Union but “the world is now approaching a striking milestone,” argues Yascha Mounk, lecturer on government at Harvard University, and Roberto Stefan Foa, lecturer of Political Science of Melbourne University, in Foreign Affairs: “Within the next five years, the share of global income held by countries considered ‘not free,’ such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies.”

In the span of a quarter century, liberal democracies have gone “from a position of unprecedented economic strength to a position of unprecedented economic weakness.” Liberal democracies have become worse at improving their citizens’ living standards, populist movements that disavow liberalism are emerging from Brussels to Brasilia, and from Warsaw to Washington. Therefore, the authors predict, simple as that, “the end of the democratic century.” Some facts are supporting their thesis: Of the 45 countries in the world with the highest per capita incomes, almost two thirds are non-democratic. Even comparatively unsuccessful authoritarian states, such as Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia, can boast per capita incomes above 20,000 dollars. The road to prosperity serves as testament to the fact, argue the political scientists, that it “no longer needs to run through liberal democracy.” One result of this transformation has been “a much greater degree of ideological self confidence among autocratic regimes—and along with it, a willingness to meddle in Western democracies—as seen through Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 Presidential elections in the USA.

Britain paralyzed over how to commit suicide by leaving the European Union

“Having just seen the shocking sight of Parisian stores boarded up right before Christmas to protect against rioting along the Champs Elysees by some of France’s yellow vested protesters,” reported New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, “after being told in Rome a few days earlier that Italy, a founding member of the European Union, could conceivably shuck off both the European Union and the Euro one day under its new bizarre far left/far right governing coalition; after watching Britain become paralyzed over how to commit economic suicide by leaving the European Union; and after watching President Trump actually cheer for the breakup of the European Union, rather for its good health, it is obvious to me that we are at a critical hinge of history.”

“Can democracy save itself ?” asked Ronald Inglehart, professor of “Democracy, Democratization and Human Rights” at the University of Michigan, who recently published his book Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World. His good news first: ever since representative democracy first emerged it has been spreading, and spreading, pushing forward by the forces of modernization, creating about 90 democracies. Not bad, judges the professor, but now the bad news: “the world is experiencing the most severe democratic setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.” Even if Gideon Rose, editor of the prestigious Foreign Affairs is trying to balance his world views, he is not hesitating to deplore the evolution of a scaring new reality: “Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. Those are the optimists. Pessimists fear the game is already over, that democratic dominance has ended for good.”

Never shown a yellow card, never sent off

The football game on the beach of Essaouira is a pleasant escape from political reflections, dwelling into dark thoughts of the world. The future replacements of Mehdi Benatia, Morocco, and Mohamed Salah, Egypt, were certainly too preoccupied to share memories of the good old time of football, sharing secrets of my heroes, Stanley Mathews, Bert Trautmann and Ference Puskas. All lived a fulfilled life. I spoke to them, years ago, by phone. Puskas had returned to Budapest, Trautmann was enjoying retirement in Spain; and Sir Stanley (he was knighted by the Queen) remained in Stoke Mathews, played professional football until he was almost 50, but he never turned into a mercenary. He remained loyal to Blackpool and Stoke, rather grey towns, engulfed by fog and rain, winds and the smell of fish and chips. A touch of Essaouira. When Mathews retired in a final game, he was carried off the pitch by friends and rivals. One of them was Bert Trautmann, who broke his neck and refused to quit the game. Even the Queen remembered his heroics when she met the German-born goalie one day during a state visit in Berlin: “Ah, Herr Trautmann. I remember you. Have you still got that pain in the neck?” 

The citizens of Stoke erected a statue for Mathew, their most famous citizen. A man who in all of his career was never shown a yellow card nor sent off. In 1956, Ference Puskas and his teammates at Budapest Honved were playing an away game of the European Cup against Atlético Bilbao and lost their game in Spain. Before the return match could be played, the Hungarian revolution swept away any spirit to play. People died, too many. The team decided to arrange the home game in Brussels and, after a 3:3 draw, not to return to Hungary. Puskas was, years later, signed by Real Madrid, where else? He became a Spanish citizen. A move Viktor Orban would not have approved. Puskas was honored with a state funeral and buried under the dome of the St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest. He has been immortalized by a bronze statue, just as Sir Stanley in Stoke. Larger than life. Tough as metal.

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