Sat, Jan 19, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Rhymes from central Europe

What is surprising is not the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ in parts of Europe, but rather the liberal belief that they could easily be overcome

By Robert Skidelsky

Illustration: Tania chou

The Central European University (CEU) on Dec. 3 announced that from September, it would relocate most of its teaching from Budapest to Vienna. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government had, in effect, closed down the university founded by Orban’s favorite bogeyman, George Soros.

“Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” university rector Michael Ignatieff said. “It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.”

But not for Orban, who, as the New York Times reported, “has long viewed the school as a bastion of liberalism, presenting a threat to his vision of creating an ‘illiberal democracy,’” and his “desire to shut it down was only deepened by its association with Mr Soros,” whom he “has spent years demonizing.”

In particular, Orban accuses Soros, who was born in Hungary and survived the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, “of seeking to destroy European civilization by promoting illegal immigration.”

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Sadly, we are a history-blind generation. Most people who read history do so for fun, not for instruction. The EU is a symbol of overcoming the past, marking out a future guided by insights from science and economics, not from history. Yet disturbing recent developments, not just in Hungary, rhyme with ideas and discourses that most thought had been discarded decades ago.

Norman Stone’s new book, Hungary: A Short History, is a warning against ignoring history. It presents a country that never quite “caught up” with the West and therefore never “settled down” to a calm post-nationalist existence. The modernizing influence of industrialization has always been subsumed in the problem of borders, religions, languages and nationalities.

Hungary dreamed of nationhood long before it became a nation. Class structure took a typical east European form: German landlords, a Jewish merchant and financial class, and a “native” peasantry. A standardized Hungarian language was invented in the 19th-century before any but “peasants and back of beyond clergymen” spoke it.

Hungarian nationhood came too late — and was too often frustrated — to be readily reconciled with a larger European identity; nor, unlike in Germany, was nationalism discredited by self-inflicted catastrophe.

In the 16th and 17th-centuries, the medieval Catholic Magyar kingdom of Hungary disappeared, its territory squeezed between Islam and Protestantism. It was first conquered by the Ottomans and then incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, before re-emerging as a “gigantic dwarf” with the establishment in 1867 of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.

The Treaty of Trianon (1920) broke up the Austro-Hungarian empire into its “national” parts (including a much-shrunken Hungary), roughly in line with former US president Woodrow Wilson’s principle of “national self-determination,” but left large, unhappy Hungarian minorities in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Of the three successor states, only Czechoslovakia managed to establish a stable democracy — but only by keeping Hungarians (and far more numerous ethnic Germans) out of government.

Hungary was ruled by a dictator, admiral Miklos Horthy, from 1920 to 1944. In the Vienna Award of 1940, Hitler handed back Transylvanian Romania to Hungary in exchange for Hungarian adhesion to the Axis.

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