Hungary had a horrendous 20th century of lost territory and freedom, but Budapest, a handsome city set on a broad sweep of the Danube, suggests its wounds have healed. Trams hum along boulevards lined with elegant cafes and clogged with the cars German companies manufacture here. The country has escaped what Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, called the “kidnapped West,” the great swath of Europe yielded to the Soviet empire after World War II, and has returned to the Western family.
Or so it seems, until you notice the posters of a smiling Hungarian-American Jew, his arms around opposition politicians who brandish wire-cutters and have cut through a fence.
The man in question is George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist. He’s not on any ballot, but his international renown and funding of liberal causes has made him the chosen symbol, for Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party, of all they loathe: international speculators, sappers of nation and Christendom, facilitators of mass migration.
As a young man, Orban fought against Bolshevism. Western liberal democracy was the Promised Land. Now it has morphed into the enemy. The West is the site of European cultural suicide, the place where family, church, nation and traditional notions of marriage and gender go to die.
“The danger is threatening us from the West,” Orban, who has been in power for eight years and is seemingly headed for re-election Sunday, said in February. “This danger to us comes from politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris.”
To counter it, the Hungarian prime minister has established a template: Neutralize an independent judiciary. Subjugate much of the media. Demonize migrants. Create loyal new elites through crony capitalism. Energize a national narrative of victimhood and heroism through the manipulation of historical memory. Claim the “people’s will” overrides constitutional checks and balances.
And, lo, the new Promised Land: competitive authoritarianism, a form of European single-party rule that retains a veneer of democracy while skewing the contest sufficiently to ensure it is likely to yield only one result.
There’s no totalitarian secret police. Nobody disappears in the night. Foreign capital is welcome. Hungary is not unfree but it’s not free either. It’s the new semi-closed hybrid of Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the shadowy leader of the conservative governing Law and Justice Party in Poland, both of whom fought as youths for the liberty the West embodied.
Donald Trump’s election was part of a worldwide nationalist and autocratic lurch. A vigorous counterrevolution against the liberal-democratic orthodoxy of diversity and multiculturalism is underway. The fact that Trump reflects, and reinforces, this broad movement, exactly a half-century after the heady flowering of every liberty in 1968, suggests he will be much harder to dislodge than many liberals imagine. Orban was the first European leader to back Trump during his campaign and celebrated his victory as the end of “liberal non-democracy.” Trump called Orban “strong and brave” in a meeting with the Hungarian ambassador, according to the Hungarian magazine Figyelo.
The European nations most enamored of freedom — those released three decades ago from the withering grip of the Soviet empire — have transformed into those most skeptical that liberal democracy provides it. It’s an extraordinary turn. The Brussels-based European Union (of which Hungary has been a member and financial beneficiary since 2004) and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany are viewed in Hungary with greater suspicion than Vladimir Putin. Poland, the most populous Central European state, has so embraced the Hungarian model that Kaczynski calls it the “example.” The Czech Republic may not be far behind.
Orban, who attended Oxford as a young man on a Soros-funded scholarship, has hailed “a new era” reflecting a popular desire for democracies that are not open. Adam Bodnar, Poland’s embattled ombudsman in Warsaw, suggested to me that “Hungary has shown there’s no need to introduce a typical authoritarian system. You can control what happens without it.”
One of the politicians embraced by Soros in the election posters around Budapest is Bernadett Szel, a co-leader of the Green Party. She told me she has never met Soros. The image is a fake. According to Laura Silber, the spokeswoman for Soros’s Open Society Foundations, it has been “doctored to make Soros’s nose longer — right out of the Goebbels playbook.”
Szel, who is trying to unite Hungary’s chronically splintered opposition against Fidesz, said Orban “is poisoning Hungary day by day.” A member of the Parliament’s National Security Committee, she faces a smear campaign from Fidesz politicians determined to oust her. She fears for her country. “Orban,” she told me, “is becoming a pharaoh who wants to adopt the Russian, Turkish or Chinese model.”
For such a project, Orban needs enemies. Thousands of migrants, many fleeing the war in Syria, straggling through Hungary in the late summer of 2015, encamped for weeks at Budapest’s main railway station, provided them. Merkel’s decision to admit so many, made of German “Willkommenskultur,” or welcoming culture, the “surrender” Orban would define himself against. It was a pivotal European moment.
No universal human right to dignity, invoked by kale-eating Western liberals racked by colonial or war guilt, would be used to destroy Hungarian or Polish culture!
“Hungary First” is Orban’s election slogan. His relentless anti-immigrant campaign, including claims from a cabinet minister that migrants and refugees would force Hungarians to eat insects, has produced a startling level of fear. Csaba Toth, a political scientist, told me that “children in kindergarten have drawn Soros as the devil and migrants as evil figures who will take you away if you are not good.”
One gray afternoon, I went out to Orban’s home village of Felcsut, population 1,800, about an hour’s drive west of Budapest. His simple white house has a cross on its gabled roof. Opposite the house, a spaceship has landed. It takes the form of a giant soccer stadium, complete with turrets and vaulted wooden beams that can accommodate more than twice the population of the village.
Orban is passionate about soccer — and rewarding his cronies. Lorinc Meszaros, the mayor of the village and a former pipe fitter, has virtually overnight become one of Hungary’s richest men, the owner of several regional newspapers. In and around the stadium, where a couple of hundred people, including the prime minister, were watching a desultory match, I heard how Orban brings jobs, how Hungary does not need immigrants who “rob and murder,” how “1,000 percent he will win the election.” Later, at the Mediterranean Cafe, I met Andras Vigh, a childhood friend of Orban, who confessed to me that “we’ve never seen a migrant in our lives.” No matter: “I watch TV and I know. I don’t want any immigrants. Only an idiot would allow them in.”
The other face of fear is venom. In homogeneous societies like Hungary and Poland, it has proved easy to stoke fury against the unknown “other.” In October 2015, the month after the train station ordeal, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party swept to victory in Poland with an absolute majority. His blueprint would be the one Orban has developed since taking office in 2010.
I visited Poland and Hungary regularly in the early 1990s to chronicle their extraordinary post-Communist transformation. Nowhere was the passion for the liberty and security the West seemed to offer stronger than in Poland, heroic vanguard of the liberation of Europe in 1989 through the Solidarity movement of workers and intellectuals. Nowhere today is the turn against Western liberal democracy more startling or seemingly perverse.
European Union funds — some $90 billion between 2012 and 2016 alone — have fast-forwarded Polish modernization. (Hungary, with about a quarter of Poland’s population of 38 million, received close to $33 billion in the same period.) After traveling from Hungary to Poland, I boarded the high-speed train from the capital, Warsaw, to Krakow. Gazing out, I was confronted with a tableau of rapid change: orange-vested laborers, boxcars painted a reassuring blue, new suburbs, a church spire above drab five-story Communist-era apartment blocks, poplars and willows, storks’ nests suspended in wintry branches, crumbling farm buildings.
Poland: obliterated from the map for more than a century; restored and transformed; killing field par excellence of the Nazis; home to a burning Catholic faith, the “Christ of nations” in a collective subconscious brimming with persecution mania.
Membership of NATO and the European Union, attained like Hungary in 1999 and 2004, was supposed to confer normality and security. A market economy and the rule of law were intended to cement them. These objectives, through painful transformation, were reached.
So why, with the prize in hand, this nationalist, xenophobic stiffening, across Central Europe? The Polish economy, like the Hungarian, has been expanding briskly, attaining 4.6 percent growth last year, a rate Western Europe can only dream of.
Of course, growing inequality, perceptions of impunity, the arrogance of liberal elites and the disruptions of globalization have played a role, just as they have in the United States and Britain. But something more is at work. Perhaps, I thought, the tumultuous kaleidoscope seen through the train window provided a clue.
For three decades, Poland, like Hungary, has been going somewhere: The destinations were NATO, the European Union and a free market. Now that they are attained, a question arises: Was all the sacrifice, in this nation whose self-image is of heroes and martyrs, just for shopping malls and German cars? A burned-out generation has transformation fatigue. The point of comparison used to be Communist gray. Now it’s prosperous London and Berlin.
Kaczynski declares that immigrants carry “parasites and protozoa.” He turns the 2010 death in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, of his twin brother, the former president Lech Kaczynski, into a Russian plot, condoned by the centrist, pro-European Civic Platform party that was then in power. He promises a “Fourth Republic,” with a new Constitution, rid of Brussels and the lingering hand of Communists co-opted by Civic Platform. It’s not always clear what he means, but his conspiracy theories get the blood up. He has a project!
“In 1989, we all emigrated to the West,” Karolina Wigura, a sociologist based in Warsaw, told me. “We were all going somewhere in our souls, and, as you know, emigration is not an easy process. And then, when we finally thought we’d done it, we saw all these new people coming into Europe, and we couldn’t take the idea of immigrants, because that’s what we felt we’d been.”
Capitalism, in other words, was another country. The rallying cry throughout Central Europe in the early 1990s was “free-market democracy.” Get the all-controlling state out; let the market in. Nobody stopped to ask whether the market and liberal democracy were necessarily eternal twins. Turns out they’re not.
The “market” equaled globalization, good for the hyperconnected metropolis, less so for the hinterland. Poland and Hungary, too, have their Wisconsin and Ohio. Adam Bielan, a senator who is close to Kaczynski, told me that the difference in wages between his constituency in the provincial town of Radom and in Warsaw had doubled over the past dozen years.
The policy of Civic Platform, in power from 2007 to 2015, was “to concentrate European Union funds in the big cities,” Bielan argued. The result: “A huge part of Poland was forgotten.” These forgotten Poles voted overwhelmingly for Kaczynski, who has since rewarded them with a $150 monthly handout to all families with two or more children. If you don’t want immigrants, the only way you can offset an aging population in Poland or Hungary is with babies.
Kaczynski has set about undermining democracy guaranteed by constitutional checks and balances, the very thing Poland craved after 1989 as insurance against tyranny. In the name of the people’s will, using a false democratic mantle, he has taken relentless aim at what he once called “legal impossibilism” — the counterbalancing power vested in an independent constitutional judiciary. His ruling party has in effect commandeered the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court in a way that has led the Venice Commission, a panel of constitutional law experts, to declare that Polish judicial independence is “at serious risk.”
Marcin Matczak, a prominent Warsaw law professor, asked me: “What does this say about political transitions? It’s the Supreme Court that rules if an election is valid or not. This feels like some kind of preparatory stage for worse.”
Bolshevism, the cradle in which Orban and Kaczynski were rocked, was an ideology bent on force-marching society toward some higher ideal. In fact, the reality, as the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert put it, was that it “poisons wells, destroys the structures of the mind, covers bread with mold.” Something of this urge, it seems, remained in the two men. It was not enough for them to succumb to the permissiveness of the West. They needed a mission. They have decided to save Christendom, no less — and to heck with open societies.
Witold Waszczykowski, the former Polish foreign minister, has said Poland must be cured of the onslaught of those who believe history is headed inevitably toward “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.” He’s Trump’s kind of guy.
Of course, in this worldview, Muslims in Europe are a problem. Bielan, the senator close to Kaczynski, told me: “Integration has failed. I worked in Brussels and there were no-go zones. Poles don’t want the social problems of France or Belgium. Why would we be more successful than France in this?”
On that basis, Poland has refused to take the 7,000 asylum seekers it agreed to absorb under a decision taken by European Union member states during the refugee crisis of 2015. Hungary and the Czech Republic have also refused. They have shown contempt for European solidarity in the name of racial and religious purity.
A mood of high nationalist righteousness has taken hold. Poland recently passed an absurd “Death Camp” law that makes it a crime to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in any “Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” Poles saved Jews; they also denounced and, in villages like Jedwabne, killed them. This by now is well known. It has become a crime in Poland to speak the truth.
Hungary and Poland are turning the clock back to Europe’s darkest hours. Today they are all about erecting borders — real and imagined — against Islam, migrants and refugees, Jews, the European Union, the United Nations, Soros and what they portray as a pluralistic international conspiracy. Hungary erected an actual barrier on its southern border following the refugee crisis of 2015, the fence Orban portrays the opposition as wanting to cut.
It was precisely the measures taken to construct and preserve a homogeneous society that lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century. The illiberal trend represents a rejection of the core postwar insight that borders should be dismantled to save Europe from its repetitive suicides. Ever-closer union meant ever-expanding peace.
Taken to its end point, the new Hungarian and Polish authoritarianism means danger. It is more dangerous because Trump’s despot-coddling America has disappeared as a countervailing force. The president has ceased upholding the values that advance liberty.
In Warsaw last summer, Trump declared, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” He continued, “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”
There was no criticism of Kaczynski or his illiberal steps. I was told the Polish government feels empowered by Trump.
Nor have Poland or Hungary felt remotely threatened by the European Union, whose censure of the countries’ turn against liberal democracy has been prudent to the point of feebleness. The billions of dollars still going to Warsaw and Budapest from Brussels should be diverted elsewhere for now. The union rests, by treaty, on the principles of “democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
The democratic West needs to awaken from its slumber. The forgotten people of the post-1989 decades have spoken. They have embraced disruption at any cost, declaring “Enough!” to the economic prescriptions (mainly austerity) and the smug impunity of globalizing elites. Europe cannot open its doors to everyone. It needs a shared immigration policy that works, economic policies that offset rather than accentuate inequality and a Brussels bureaucracy that delivers tangible results to a half-billion Europeans.
The worst is not inevitable. Orban could yet lose (Fidesz suffered a surprising local election defeat recently), but that is a long shot. Poland lags behind Hungary in the descent into authoritarianism. It is bigger, more diverse and more hostile to Putin’s Russia for historical reasons. It has a stronger civil society and retains a more vigorous independent media. These are important distinctions. They provide some hope.
But Europe’s drift is ominous. “I have the weird sense this is the future — it feels like the transition to something new,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of the Budapest-based and Soros-funded Central European University, told me of Orban’s ascendant illiberalism. The university, a symbol of academic freedom conceived to anchor Central Europe in the West by providing a liberal education, is under threat of closing by Orban.
When I asked Zoltan Kovacs, Orban’s spokesman, why the government uses anti-Semitic riffs against Soros, he said: “We’re not riffing on his Jewishness. We’re riffing on what he does as a speculator, spending dubious money for his cosmopolitan conception of the globe.”
This is the new-old language of Europe today. Marcin Matczak, the law professor I met in Poland, told me: “The young take liberty for granted. They never had to fight for it.”
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