Rhymes from Central Europe

LONDON – On December 3, 2018, the Central European University announced that from September 2019 it would relocate most of its teaching from Budapest to Vienna. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government had, in effect, closed down the CEU, founded by Orbán’s favourite bogeyman, George Soros. “Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” declared the university’s rector, Michael Ignatieff. “It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.”

But not for Orbán, 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 Orbán’s “desire to shut it down was only deepened by its association with Mr. Soros,” whom he “has spent years demonizing.” In particular, he 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 European Union 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 sparkling 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 nineteenth 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 sixteenth and seventeenth 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 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 Miklós 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. After 1945, Hungary reverted to its 1920 frontier, nominally independent, but in fact part of the subordinate “people’s democracies” of the Soviet bloc. It regained its sovereignty in 1989 and joined the European Union in 2004. In its current truncated form, Hungary is not big enough to strut on the European stage, but not small enough to fit into a post-nationalist mold.

Stone is particularly good on the role of Jews in Hungarian history. Although the Jewish contribution to modern Hungary was “overwhelmingly positive” in culture, thought, and economic development, there were enough “dark sides” to entrench anti-Semitism. The ability of emancipated Jews to remake themselves into whatever form circumstances required fed the great anti-Semitic conspiratorial myth. Twenty-eight of the 36 leaders of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 were Jewish. This led directly to the birth of Hungarian fascism and, ultimately, the deportation and extermination of more than 400,000 Jews in 1944. Jews who survived were also prominent in Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinist regime from 1949-1956.

The rise – or better, the return – of “illiberal democracy” in parts of Europe today surprises us, because it refutes the established narrative of progress. But what is odd is not the reappearance of ancient faiths and prejudices, but rather the liberal belief that they could so easily be overcome. Our theory of progress is unidirectional. It links the growth of civilization to the growth of knowledge. But as the political philosopher John Gray points out, in ethics and politics, unlike in the natural sciences, things that are learned don’t necessarily stay learned. Even in the United States, torture was rehabilitated during the Bush presidency, and Trump is certainly some kind of throwback.

Likewise, different countries do not necessarily learn the same thing. That is why attention to their particular histories is so important. To understand why 17.4 million people in Britain voted to leave the EU, it is not enough to call them “left behinds” or ill-educated. One needs to know British history to understand why one suit does not fit all sizes.

Two rhymes from history can be heard in contemporary Hungarian politics: nationalism and anti-Semitism. So it is not foolish to draw parallels with interwar fascism. But to rhyme is not the same thing as to repeat. There is no parallel today to the existential crisis of European civilization following the World War I. And anti-Soros sentiment is a pale shadow of classical anti-Semitism. With a modicum of common sense, liberals should be able to ensure that the old tunes are muted. Not everything done in the name of history should be condoned. But nor should we neglect history as a portent of alternative futures.