Hungary’s Authoritarian Descent

Budapest shimmers on a balmy fall afternoon. Danube cruise ships disgorge hundreds of tourists. Thanks partly to the European Union’s generous subsidy, this jewel of a city has never looked better.

But minutes from the Danube, if you cross Freedom Square, you find evidence of the dangerous new direction in which Prime Minister Viktor Orban is taking his country. At one end of the square looms a disturbing memorial newly erected at his behest. A fierce bronze eagle swoops down on an angel, as if about to peck out its eyes. The monstrous bird depicts Germany and the beautiful angel is Hungary. “A monument to the victims of the German Occupation” reads the inscription.

That might seem unobjectionable, but, in fact, it is a disturbingly nationalistic rewriting of history. Hungary, far from an angel, was the first country in post-World War I Europe to pass anti-Semitic legislation, well ahead of Germany, in 1920. By 1944, restrictions on Jewish life in Hungary matched those of Germany under its Nuremberg Laws. Over half a million Hungarian Jews were exterminated during the last months of the war. The Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann greatly benefited from local help in “cleansing” Hungary of its Jewish citizens. It was Hungarian gendarmes who led their fellow Jewish citizens — my grandparents included — to trains bound for Auschwitz.

Hungary’s Authoritarian DescentAll of that history has been effaced by the monument, which has prompted a vigorous response from people with memories of what really happened here in the last six months of the war. They have improvised a memorial of their own. Stones painted with the names of the towns from which they were deported, along with bits of memorabilia from their lives — glasses, old suitcases, shoes — line the sidewalk in front of the angel and the bird. On a darkening fall evening, parents whisper stories of the lost to their children, barely glancing up at the other memorial.

The two monuments — the official and the improvised — are a metaphor for what is happening in Hungary today. A once-promising democracy is rapidly sliding toward xenophobia and authoritarianism. Mr. Orban claims ever-greater powers, as the population sees its freedoms curtailed.

What makes this extraordinary is that Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union — and blatantly defies the core values of both. Having announced that an “illiberal democracy” is his goal for Hungary, Mr. Orban defies the European Union, even though it accounts for 95 percent of Hungary’s public investments. So far, European governments’ reaction to Mr. Orban’s policies have been muted. (The Union did condemn a proposed tax on Internet traffic, a highly unpopular measure that Mr. Orban rescinded on Friday.)

Through a new media law, the state virtually controls the press, especially television, the primary source of news. This has had enormous political impact and helped Mr. Orban win re-election last spring.

Reporters do not fear for their lives — merely their livelihoods. During a recent mission by the Committee to Protect Journalists that I led to Budapest, we found a climate of fear and self-censorship among Hungarian colleagues. Through state advertising budgets, the government exerts tremendous influence. Recently, when a popular website, Origo, reported that Mr. Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, had spent extravagant sums on a state trip, the reporter who broke the story was fired. Dozens of staff members resigned in protest, and they have now started another news portal. The regime also sees nongovernment organizations as dangerous sources of resistance. Recently police raided a Norwegian-supported group that supports civil society in Hungary, confiscating laptops and hard drives.

Mr. Orban has assumed the swagger of the politician he most admires: Vladimir V. Putin. Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Orban acts as if he is accountable to no one. He is Hungary. Some three million people live in poverty, yet the state builds huge soccer stadiums, including one in Mr. Orban’s tiny home town, in a country with a mediocre soccer team — mostly because the prime minister is obsessed with the game. At a recent news conference, when a reporter asked an official the reason for a certain new law, he received a one-word answer, appropriate for a badly behaved child: “Because.”

One art form Mr. Orban has (inadvertently) spurred, however, is the fine art of the Budapest Joke — moribund since the fall of Communism. One I heard repeated has Viktor Orban looking at himself in a mirror and saying, “My eyes are my mother’s, my nose is my father’s, my chin” — the Hungarian word for chin and state is the same — “is mine.”

One consequence of the newly repressive environment is that half a million people have left in recent years, to make new lives in Western Europe and the United States. “I could wait another five years,” says Gabor Kardos, the editor of a news website, “but I don’t want my children raised in this kind of society.” He shows me one of his children’s textbooks. From among several ethnicities pictured, grade-schoolers were asked to pick the real Hungarian.

To the outside world, Mr. Orban portrays himself as the bulwark against Jobbik, the anti-Semitic, anti-Roma party. But far from crushing Jobbik, he has in fact institutionalized much of its rhetoric. Anti-Semitism is not yet rampant, but with rabid nationalism and intolerance for civil liberties both growing, many Hungarian Jews fear that it can’t be far behind.

When Hungary was granted membership in the European Union a decade ago, it was a different country. After centuries of foreign occupations, savage, homegrown fascists and brutal Communists, it was taking its first hesitant steps toward democracy. Having experimented with a more open socialism, dubbed “Goulash Communism,” it had a head start on other Soviet satellites.

At the time, Mr. Orban seemed well placed then to lead Hungary to a different future. On June 16, 1989, I stood in a sea of 300,000 Hungarians on Heroes’ Square in Budapest and heard the young, bearded Mr. Orban call on the Soviet Army of occupation to leave. A few months later, Hungary cut the Iron Curtain, allowing thousands of East German tourists to pour across the Austro-Hungarian frontier. Soviet rule was over.

Mr. Orban’s challenge to the European Union is also direct: Beyond markets, open borders and miles of red tape, just what does the 28-nation union really stand for?

Kati Marton, a member of the board and former chairwoman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, is the author, most recently, of Paris: A Love Story.

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