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Myth and Narrative in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Michael Toomey, Reading University

Since the victory of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in the 2010 Parliamentary elections, much academic attention has been focused on Hungary’s ‘illiberal turn’ and its consequences for democracy in that country. This week the European Parliament voted to trigger Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, an unprecedented disciplinary step that could see Hungary lose its voting rights in the Council of the European Union. Legislators cited concerns about freedom of expression, abuse of the rule of law and high-level corruption.

The increasingly authoritarian tendencies visible in Hungary have been accompanied by a notable intensification of nationalistic sentiment on the part of Orbán and many of his fellow party members, and facilitated by politicized retellings of Hungary’s past (particularly as they relate to the country’s experiences during the interwar period and the years prior to the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany in March 1944).

This surge has manifested itself in a number of policy initiatives, but most visibly in the cases of the creation of the Hungarian Citizenship Law in 2011 (which extended the possibility of citizenship to any Hungarian-speaking descendant of Hungarian citizens who lived within the country’s pre-1920 borders) and the creation of a controversial statue in Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Freedom Square), commemorating “all the victims” of the “German occupation” of Hungary during the Second World War.

Between 2010 and 2015, however, Hungary’s historical politicization has tended to revolve around Miklós Horthy (Hungary’s interwar - and wartime - leader) and the Treaty of Trianon, the peace settlement Hungary signed with the Allies following its defeat (as part of Austria-Hungary) in World War I. The broader significance of each of these arguably lies in what they symbolize.

Trianon, for many Hungarians (both then and now), represented the humiliation of their nation, marked the definitive end of the Kingdom of Hungary, and created an enduring perception amongst nationalist circles that Hungary had been uniquely hard done by the post-WWI settlement, and by the foreign powers that imposed it. Meanwhile, although Horthy was Hungary’s head of state from 1920 until 1944, he was not the only, or even necessarily the most decisive, figure of power in the country. However, an intense propaganda campaign built around him during this time allowed for the construction of an image as the heroic military savior of the nation, who would seek to bring about a restitution of the ‘injustices’ wrought upon the country at Trianon, and thus restore the nation’s honour and glory. This interpretation would eventually become dominant in the country from the early 1920s until 1940, and served an important role in legitimating the interwar regime.

Narratives surrounding Trianon have been a regular part of Viktor Orbán’s political discourse since the late 1990s. Throughout much of his political career, Orbán’s messages have been based on the concept of a ‘national unification’ project, which would seek to somehow redress the Trianon Treaty.

Upon returning to power in 2010, Orbán has been able to deliver tangible results in this regard through his introduction of legislation such as the Citizenship Law, and the creation of a ‘National Unity Day’ commemorating the country’s territorial losses in 1920. Throughout this time, he and his fellow party members have been at pains to stress the linkages between the law, the Unity Day and Trianon. This elaboration and articulation of trauma serves immediate political goals for them, as they lend credence to Fidesz’s nationalistic credentials In addition, it allows Fidesz (and Orbán specifically) to be presented as the ‘saviours’ of the Hungarian nation who are bringing restitution to the country for its losses suffered during the 20th Century, and as its defenders against any attempt by ‘outsiders’ (be they ‘Brussels’, ‘liberal’ Westerners, or George Soros) to inflict a ‘second Trianon’ upon the populace.

In contrast, Orbán’s narratives around Horthy are often more subtle. It is important to note that during his first period as Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002, Orbán had also taken steps to minimize the role of Horthy and his administration in the Holocaust, and to shy away from criticizing him. However, after 2010, Orbán’s approach shifted from a mere minimization of Horthy’s offences (which still implied some blame) towards a sanitization and an outright rehabilitation of Horthy, and the creation of a revisionist understanding of history. It constructs the Hungarian nation as not being truly responsible for the crimes committed on its soil during WWII, and thus allows a re-imagining of Horthy as an honourable and courageous nationalist leader who defied Hitler’s demands and defended both Hungary and its Jewish population for as long as he could. It also helps nurture the image of Horthy as being an ‘antidote’ to the chaos experienced during the immediate aftermath of the conclusion of WWI.

Thus, from the perspective of Fidesz, Horthy serves as a useful analogy (or even a predecessor) for the travails and accomplishments of the current government. Orbán is likewise presented as an ‘antidote’ to what the party characterizes as the weak and incompetent administration of Socialist Prime Minister (2004-2009) Ferenc Gyurscány – and the Budapest liberal elite more widely.

Fidesz is constantly striving for a solution to the ‘Trianon’ issue that will allow for the restoration of Hungarian pride and honour. The suggested restoration of the territories previously controlled by the Kingdom of Hungary is geopolitically impossible and has already been flatly rejected by those countries that would be affected by it. However, the ingenuity of Orbán’s approaches lies precisely in the fact that ‘Trianon’ cannot ever be resolved: his intended audience is not external, but internal. As such, by engaging in a perpetual battle to restore the country’s lost honour, he continues to reconstruct the Trianon trauma, while also consolidating his image as the tragic national savior.

There are a number of purposes attached to the use of these discursive strategies. Firstly, Fidesz and Orbán’s construction of the themes surrounding Trianon allows them to cast themselves as the guardians of the broader Hungarian nation’s interests (as opposed to merely being the leaders of the Hungarian state). As such, Fidesz and Orbán become analogous with Hungary itself – the ‘true’ Hungary that is. Their more nationalistic policies (such as the Citizenship Law or the National Unity Day) become indispensable, indisputable parts of Hungarian culture and nationality. This allows them to deflect any criticisms from international actors such as the EU or from the indigenous civil society of other aspects of their ‘illiberal turn’ by saying that these are attacks on Hungary itself (rather than just attacks on the country’s government) by foreign powers and their domestic proxies. This is precisely what Orban claimed in his remarks before the European Parliament on 11 September 2018.

As a result of this, opposition movements find themselves delegitimized and deprived of resources, while the regime’s critics from the European Commission and the European Parliament find their critiques inadvertently fulfilling Fidesz’s narratives, and thus reinforcing the party’s grip on Hungarian society.

However, this is just one aspect of these narrative strategies, and it represents only one function of Fidesz and Orbán’s approach. A much more important point to consider is who the intended audiences for these narratives are, and the nature of the message that is being communicated is.

In truth, these messages are likely not being created for the purposes of ‘communicating Hungary’ to the outside world, and are not intended to majorly expand Fidesz’s voting base or to counteract left-wing criticism. Nor are they likely to be focused to any great extent on changing people’s minds about the historical legacy of Horthy. Instead, these narratives are targeted more towards right-wing nationalists in the country, many of whom would already view Horthy as being a courageous and tragic figure.

Thus, by seeking to reconstruct Horthy’s interwar image as the virtuous military hero who sought to guide the nation through a particularly turbulent time in its history, Orbán legitimizes the admiration such people exhibit towards Horthy. In so doing, this creates affinities between Orbán and the nationalist right in the country, and removes a potential obstacle to their absorption into his broader coalition of voters. By seeking to rehabilitate the image of Horthy to resolve the ongoing trauma associated with the Trianon treaty, Orbán firmly aligns himself with the ‘populist’ segment of Hungarian society.

The ‘true’ Hungarians find their sole representation in Fidesz and Orbán. Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition parties and civil society activists become the modern incarnation of the urbanist cleavage, and are more easily castigated as being agents of the perversion of the general will of the nation, who might prevent the resolution of the Trianon trauma if they could.

On the other side, the Jobbik party (specifically) are equally excluded. By appropriating the legacy of Horthy for himself, Orbán is able to pre-empt Jobbik, and force them to either accept the mantle of being the heirs of the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party (who were complicit in the annexation of Hungary during WWII by Hitler), or (as has transpired) to move towards the political centre and away from the right. So, while Orbán’s spiritual predecessor is reconstructed as a brave and honorable leader and defender of the nation, Jobbik (unwillingly) either become the successors of a group that eventually betrayed Hungary and collaborated with its enemies, or, effectively, feckless liberal progressives. This assists in the consolidation of Fidesz’s electoral base, and prevents their support from being eroded by anyone from further to the right of them on the political spectrum.

Dr. Michael Toomey lectures in European politics at Reading University. .

This piece is based on an academic article published in summer 2018 by New Perspectives: interdisciplinary journal of Central and East European Politics and International Relations

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