For many visitors, Budapest casts a spellbinding beauty, sparkling with ageless jewels like Saint Stephen’s Basilica and the fin de siecle House of Parliament. Beneath this surface of gothic grandeur however, a determined fight is being waged for control of Hungary’s historical narrative, and thus for direction of its future progress. This fight is most prominently on display in Budapest’s Freedom Square, where in 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orban unveiled “The Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation.” The monument depicts Saint Gabriel, an allegory for Hungary, staggering under the slashing claws of an eagle, representative of Germany. The symbol is unmistakable: Hungary was a victim of German aggression during the Second World War. The veracity of this symbol though, is debatable at best. Under strongman Miklos Horthy, Hungary was a staunch ally of the Third Reich. His government deported over 500,000 Jews to the death camp at Auschwitz. The Memorial is part of a concerted campaign undertaken by Orban’s government to recreate Hungary’s past, suppressing painful experiences like the Horthy regime’s complicity in genocide, showcasing Hungary’s suffering at the hands of predatory neighbors, and sidelining persecuted minorities like Jewish Holocaust victims.
This campaign to reshape Hungarian history advances Orban’s long term project to establish an “illiberal democracy” in his country. Since returning to power in 2010, Orban has curtailed media independence, uprooted a major university, manipulated the election system to favor his Fidesz political party and enriched political allies through government contracts. Accordingly, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from free to partly free in 2019. Invoking a narrative of Hungarian victimhood and foreign aggression has helped Orban resist outside criticism of his illiberal project and to stigmatize his domestic opponents as subversively unpatriotic. Centering Hungary’s ethnic Magyar majority in the presentation of its history, at the expense of Jews, Roma and other minorities, also bolsters Orban’s resistance to the European Union’s immigration and refugee policies, presenting non-Magyars as culturally alien and politically suspect.
Hungary’s government is not alone in misrepresenting its national history for illiberal purposes. In The End of Europe, James Kirchick traces this troubling trajectory across the continent, illuminating how a nexus of political conflict, social change and economic apprehension has empowered critics of liberal-democracy. Whether Europe’s democratic institutions endure depend largely on how today’s leaders confront the dynamics Kirchick identifies.
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age
James Kirchick, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Columnist at Tablet Magazine
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