Viktor Orbán discovered his roots in a tradition devoted to family, country and Christian values. Though he submits to democratic elections and legal restraints on his power, in order for his right-wing populism to survive he must exercise greater authority than is his by law…
On June 16, 1989, 200,000 Hungarians filled Heroes’ Square in Budapest. They had come for a memorial observance leading to the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyred leader of the 1956 Revolution. Although he was a lifelong Communist, Nagy had not lost all national feeling, and Hungarians in the 1950s began to look to him as a reformer able to free them from the Stalinist grip of Mátyás Rákosi. When the revolution erupted on October 23, 1956, the Party Central Committee quickly appointed Nagy prime minister and, just as quickly, he declared his intention to resume the aborted New Course of economic reform he had begun to chart in 1953, during an earlier stint in office. In 1956, however, this was too little and too late; the revolution had taken on a life of its own, and Nagy had to decide what his next move would be.
As the Stalinists fled to the USSR, Nagy chose to lead rather than tame what had become a struggle for freedom from foreign and ideological tyranny. On October 30, he announced that he had reached an agreement concerning the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Budapest. Two days later, he went further after learning that new Soviet divisions were entering the country; he proclaimed Hungary’s neutrality. There was then no turning back. We now know that on October 31, the Soviet Presidium decided, after initial hesitation, to intervene; Soviet troops suppressed the revolution on November 4. Nagy was arrested and taken to Romania. Subsequently returned to Hungary, he was tried in secret, hanged on June 16, 1958, and buried in an unmarked grave.
The decision to execute Nagy was not made by the Soviets but by his Soviet-installed successor as Hungarian prime minister, János Kádár. To his dying day three weeks after Nagy’s reburial in 1989, Kádár could only refer to the patriot he condemned to death as “that man.” By the early 1960s, Kádár had settled scores with as many revolutionaries as he could lay hands on. But then something remarkable happened. In the years before his Party-enforced retirement in 1988, he restored sanity and elementary decency to Hungarian life and earned from Hungarians, and the world, a grudging respect. A noted chess player, he led a necessarily limited but quiet and effective resistance to Soviet domination. By the time Kádár retired, Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to power in Moscow and change was in the air. Nevertheless, in June 1989 there were still more than seventy thousand Soviet troops in Hungary.
Among the speakers that June day when Nagy was reburied were two men who had been close to him: his spokesman Miklós Vásárhelyi and the military commander of Budapest, Béla Király. Both had experienced Communist prison—Király under sentence of death—and both were therefore cautious in their remarks. Instead, the most outspoken speech was left to the one speaker born after 1956, twenty-six-year-old Viktor Orbán:
Today, 33 years after the Hungarian Revolution and 31 years after the execution of the last responsible Hungarian prime minister, we have a chance to achieve by peaceful means everything that the ’56 revolutionaries gained in bloody battle, if only for a few days. If we believe in our own strength, we are capable of bringing the communist dictatorship to an end. If we are determined enough, we can compel the ruling party to submit to free elections. If we have not lost sight of the ideas of ’56, we can vote for a government that will immediately enter into negotiations leading to the immediate beginning of Russian troop withdrawals.
Viktor Orbán was born in Székesfehérvár in the Transdanubia region of Hungary, but he grew up in the nearby villages of Alcsútdoboz and Felcsút. Those rural roots constitute a key to understanding his political career. After completing gymnasium studies in Székesfehérvár in 1981, he performed one year of military duty before enrolling in the law faculty at Eötvös Loránd (Budapest) University. There, in 1983, he helped to found the István Bibó Special College, named after the distinguished legal theorist and political philosopher who served as Nagy’s minister of state—and six years in prison as a result. The young scholars studied law and politics and roomed together on a quiet street on the Buda side of the Danube.
After completing his degree in 1987, Mr. Orbán worked for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, but it was hope of a regime change that preoccupied him. On March 30, 1988, he and thirty-six other Bibó College fellows founded Fidesz—Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Young Democrats), an independent organization. The following month he joined the Central European Research Group, funded by the foundation created by Hungarian-born financier György (George) Soros. Three months after his famous speech at Nagy’s reburial, the same foundation awarded Mr. Orbán a scholarship to study politics at Pembroke College, Oxford. At the time of his arrival in England (September 1989), Margaret Thatcher, the uncompromising “Iron Lady,” was prime minister—and a role model for the young Hungarian.
Mr. Orbán returned to Hungary that October to take part in the Fidesz congress that voted to transform the youth organization into a political party in order to participate in the free elections scheduled for the following spring. Although his scholarship was good for nine months, he, his wife Anikó Lévai, and their four-month-old daughter permanently returned to Budapest in January 1990. In the April elections, Fidesz won 22 of 386 seats in parliament, while the Magyar Szocialista Párt (the Socialist Party, successor to the Communist Party) took 33. The conservative Magyar Demokrata Fórum captured 165 seats and formed Hungary’s first freely elected government under József Antall, a man of character who had eked out a living as a librarian and editor after playing an active role in the ’56 Revolution.
Ninety-four parliamentary seats went to the Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats), a left-liberal party formed in November 1989 and led by János Kis, a disciple of the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács. Mr. Kis had made a name for himself at home and abroad as an outspoken critic of the Communist regime from the left. Most members of the party were, like Mr. Kis, from Budapest and drawn from the far left; in their view, the problem with the Kádár government that had held power from Nagy’s downfall until virtually the end of the Cold War was that it had turned its back on true—radical—socialism.
Among the Free Democrats’ more prominent figures in Hungary and abroad was Miklós Haraszti. He was born in Jerusalem, where his mother and father, both Communists, had fled to escape Hitler’s “Final Solution.” In 1948, after Rákosi had destroyed all opposition and transformed Hungary into a “People’s Democracy,” the Harasztis returned to Budapest, hoping to play some role in the building of socialism. Instead, they and the rest of their countrymen experienced eight years of tyranny, national subjugation, and incalculable misery. Young Miklós Haraszti’s memory of those dark days must have been decidedly limited, for he did not come of age until after 1956. He had, however, inherited his parents’ militantly revolutionary nature, and he therefore viewed Kádár as a sellout. At university, he allied himself with a group of Maoists.
This earned Mr. Haraszti expulsion from the university and brief prison sentences, but he did not suffer worse consequences, as he surely would have under Rákosi. In fact, he achieved a certain celebrity, particularly in the West, where the press preferred to lionize dissidents on the left—Russia’s Andrei Sakharov rather than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example. Mr. Haraszti lived in the West off and on from the late ’70s to the late ’90s, welcomed as a lecturer at various American universities. A month after the 2016 election in the United States, he would publish a Washington Post piece comparing—and attacking—Mr. Orbán and Donald Trump: the Hungarian prime minister, he wrote, feted the president-elect’s victory “as ending the era of ‘liberal non-democracy,’ ‘the dictatorship of political correctness,’ and ‘democracy export.’ ” This was by way of criticism.
From the first, men like Mr. Haraszti and Mr. Kis viewed Mr. Orbán and Fidesz with distaste. When it came to it—and it quickly did—they preferred to work with the socialists. When Antall died of cancer in December 1993, they formed a coalition with the Socialist Party, which won the election. The new prime minister, Gyula Horn, had fought against the ’56 Revolution but, as the last Communist foreign minister on June 27, 1989, he had opened the border between Hungary and Austria, a pivotal event in the history of Communism’s collapse in the Soviet Bloc.
In the wake of the Socialist–Free Democrat alliance, Mr. Orbán awakened to the fact that his own deep-seated anticommunism was not of the left. Not a rightist in a theoretical, bookish sense, he discovered his roots in a tradition devoted to family and country, to Bürger (polgár in Hungarian) and Christian values. As a result, in April 1995 he changed his party’s name to Fidesz—Magyar Polgári Párt: “Fidesz, the Hungarian Civic Party.” Two years later, and eleven years after his marriage by simple registry, he and his wife consecrated their union in a church ceremony. There is ample evidence that Mr. Orbán’s religious conversion was genuine, but it is also true that his contacts with his countrymen had convinced him of the national importance of Christianity.
Due in large part to the unpopular austerity measures imposed by the Horn government, Fidesz won the 1998 elections. As the youngest prime minister in Hungarian history, Mr. Orbán led Hungary into NATO (1999) and moved Fidesz from the Liberal International bloc in European politics to the center-right European People’s Party, founded in 1976 by several Christian Democratic parties. In 2000 the European Union agreed to admit Hungary on January 1, 2004, an offer that Mr. Orbán probably wishes he had rejected. Under his leadership, the Hungarian economy began to improve, but as the next election approached, inflation and deficits became serious problems. The Socialist–Free Democrat coalition returned to power in 2002.
Three weeks after taking office, the new prime minister, Péter Medgyessy, was revealed to have been an officer in the Communist secret services. He managed to survive in office until 2004, but opposition from the Free Democrats and fears that he would lose to Mr. Orbán in 2006 forced him to step aside in favor of the far-left Ferenc Gyurcsány, who claimed a clear electoral victory in April 2006. On September 17 of that year, however, Hungarian radio and TV broadcast excerpts from an expletive-laced audiotape of the new prime minister speaking to Socialist Party regulars. Disappointed by his and his party’s performance, he said that “we have been lying our heads off for the last one-and-a-half, two years. It was quite clear that what we were saying wasn’t true.” Gyurcsány never recovered from this “Lie Speech” and resigned in 2009. In elections held the following spring, Fidesz won more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats; it repeated its triumph in the elections of 2014 and 2018.
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After his eight years in the political wilderness, Mr. Orbán could not be satisfied with an electoral victory: he resolved to transform Hungary. Toward that end, he shepherded through parliament a new constitution, renamed the “Fundamental Law of Hungary” (April 25, 2011). The existing constitution, adopted in 1989 as a temporary measure, was an extensively amended version of the one that had been proclaimed by the Communist regime in 1949.
To secular and leftist Europeans, Hungary’s Fundamental Law came as a shock. The preamble set the tone—it is the opening line of the Hungarian National Hymn (anthem): “God, bless the Hungarians.” That was already too much for The Guardian. A writer for that left-wing British newspaper noted that the new constitution’s “preamble is heavily influenced by the Christian faith and commits Hungary to a whole new set of values, such as family, nation, fidelity, faith, love and labour.” It was enough to point this out: further criticism would apparently have been superfluous.
The Fundamental Law does state unequivocally that “we recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” Most of Europe does not. During the debate leading up to the drafting of a constitution for the European Union, those opposed to any mention of Christianity constituted a majority. Former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who presided over the constitutional convention, left no one in doubt that “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”
Equally against the European grain were provisions of the Fundamental Law such as these: “We avow that the family and the nation constitute the most important framework of our coexistence”; “The life of the offspring shall be protected from the moment of conception”; “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” This last, in particular, was subjected to almost universal condemnation, expressed in the language of hatred and rage.
In its sweeping and centralizing changes, Hungary’s Fundamental Law resembled the Constitution of the Fifth (French) Republic of October 4, 1958. Demanded by Prime Minister (soon to be President) Charles de Gaulle, it established a strong central authority that embodied “the spirit of the nation.” The similarity has been pointed out, with pride, not only by many of Mr. Orbán’s supporters but by French observers as well. And that is not the only thing that the Hungarian prime minister and the late French leader have in common. For both, a “Europe des patries” is preferable to a homogenizing European Union. After taking his oath of office for the fourth time on May 10, 2018, Mr. Orbán told the parliament that “We shall focus all our strength on representing the view that the EU must operate as an alliance of free nations, and must give up the fever dreams of a United States of Europe.”
The EU has yet to do so, and it is unlikely that it ever will. That is why it was again outraged when, in 2015, the Orbán government erected a fence along its border with Serbia and Croatia. “They want,” the prime minister said, “to deprive us of the right to decide for ourselves whom we let into the country and to whom we refuse entry.” Illegal and unrestricted immigration “leads to the disintegration of nations and states: national languages weaken, borders become blurred, national cultures dissolve.” Transnationalists are perfectly well aware of this, of course; it is their stated aim. This helps to explain Mr. Orbán’s ongoing confrontation with his former benefactor—the “open borders” antinationalist George Soros.
Mr. Soros is a financial backer of virtually every conceivable leftist cause, but especially of unrestricted mass immigration into Europe and the surrender of national sovereignties to supranational organizations like the EU. He also finances so-called NGOs (non-governmental organizations) whose principal purpose is to undermine or bring down governments, such as Mr. Orbán’s, that resist his imperious will. That cannot be allowed, for as Mr. Soros told the British Independent: “I fancied myself as some kind of god. If truth be known, I carried some rather potent messianic fantasies with me from childhood…. It is a sort of disease when you consider yourself some kind of god, the creator of everything, but I feel comfortable about it now since I began to live it out.”
Mr. Orbán does not carry “messianic fantasies,” but neither does he shrink from conflict. Under pressure from the United Nations, the EU, Angela Merkel, and Soros NGOs to open Hungary’s borders, he proposed an amendment to the Fundamental Law according to which “no decision of other states or supranational organizations can result in the settlement of persons belonging to a foreign population.” Foreign citizens would be allowed to live in Hungary based upon individual application and approval alone. Mr. Soros and the international media were as one in their outrage. But most Hungarians—and, if one surfs the internet, large numbers of private citizens throughout the West—oppose unrestricted and illegal immigration.
In his State of the Nation address delivered in Budapest on February 19, 2018, Mr. Orbán made clear that Hungary’s principal danger came from the political leaders of the West. It was a tough speech in the Thatcher mold. “They want us to adopt… the policies that made them immigrant countries and that opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and the expansion of Islam. They want us also… to become countries with mixed populations.” The true European, they say, “does not defend such obsolete mediaeval concepts as homeland and religion.” It was a view that he refused to accept. “We shall never express solidarity with those European leaders who want to take Europe into a post-Christian and post-national era.”
Mr. Orbán’s determination to stop a wave of massive and illegal immigration brought down upon his head bitter recriminations from the entire international left. But that orchestrated outrage was as nothing compared to the reaction to a speech he delivered on July 26, 2014, to young Hungarians living in Romania. In it he attacked liberal democracy and declared his intention to build an “illiberal state.” As examples to be followed, he mentioned Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and, above all, Russia. Subsequently he has spoken of an illiberal or Christian democracy. “Liberal democracy,” he has observed, “is no longer able to protect people’s dignity, provide freedom, guarantee physical security or maintain Christian culture.”
Mr. Orbán views Communism and liberal democracy as brothers under the skin, and in this he is not alone. The Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko has catalogued their similarities. A member of the European Parliament, Legutko has experienced life under both ideologies. He has found liberal democracy, like Communism, to be driven by a hatred of Christianity, the nation, and the family. It has developed into an ever-more-exclusive and totalitarian ideology. In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuyama famously declared liberal democracy to be the final form of human government for all nations. Because according to its acolytes there can be no viable alternative, Legutko pointed out, people who are not liberal democrats are to be condemned, laughed at, and repelled.
He should have added “coerced,” because he recognized that there is by now what might be described as a liberal democratic “General Will.” As with Rousseau’s General Will, this is not what people actually want, but what they ought to want and would want if they knew what was in their best interest. In order to translate the General Will into an empirical will, language and thought have to be regulated. And not just regulated, but transformed, as they are in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Obedience is not enough; there must be true belief. This can be achieved by imposing a vocabulary that makes it literally impossible to formulate oppositional thoughts: “gender” rather than “sex”; “fetus” rather than “child”; “pro-choice” rather than “pro-abortion”; “undocumented immigrant” rather than “illegal alien.” In that way those wielding power can, as Rousseau put it, force people to be free.
Liberal democracy is an ideology of the left. Illiberal or Christian democracy is of the right—but it is not “conservative.” Mr. Orbán does not describe himself as a “conservative,” and conservatism is never mentioned in government rhetoric. That is understandable in view of the fact that “conservatism” has lost any meaning it may once have possessed. The Western press invariably referred to hard-line Communists in Stalinist regimes as “conservatives.” Neoconservatives in the United States are in reality relatively moderate leftists. Historically, genuinely conservative governments rested upon a ruling class that could boast of social status—an aristocracy or a patriciate—and a restricted franchise. Universal and equal suffrage, what Dostoevsky once described as “the most absurd invention of the nineteenth century,” spelled death to conservative government, though not to individual conservative measures.
After his defeat in 2002, Mr. Orbán recognized “that the masses left behind inevitably comprise protest voters who will always vote against the government that happens to be in power, and that therefore the right had no chance to govern for more than a single four-year term unless it extended programs to the poor.” The Fundamental Law avows a national “duty to aid the afflicted and the poor.”
While opposing the left and pursuing a path of social and moral conservatism, Mr. Orbán has not rejected democracy—because he cannot. At the same time, he knows that universal suffrage and welfare need not mean a fanatical egalitarianism. It is well to remember that in the history of Western thought, almost every thinker of rank, from Plato to Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Ortega, was antidemocratic. And despite recent and incessant reference to “our democracy,” the Founding Fathers of the United States were adamantly opposed to democracy.
Tocqueville wrote with regret that democracy was the modern world’s destiny. “It is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.” That being so, a right-wing populism is as close to conservatism as it is possible to be. It is unfortunately true that populism, by its very nature, drifts to the left; voters demand ever more “benefits” and “equality.” In order for right-wing populism to survive, therefore, it must have a leader who, though he submits to democratic elections and legal restraints on his power, must exercise greater authority than is his by law.
Viktor Orbán is such a leader. He recognizes that modern-day politics is war by other means, and he intends to fight and win it. In accepting his most recent appointment as prime minister, he made that clear: “I have gained enough knowledge of human nature to know that there is no point in hoping for a victory as placid as a gentle breeze…. I promise that in debates we shall bow to no one: if we are attacked, you can rest assured that the defense will be equal to the task.” He was not referring only, or even primarily, to political opposition at home. Having lived under one foreign occupation and ideological tyranny, he is determined to resist the EU’s increasing efforts to blot out his country’s national identity and impose upon it a utopian ideology. In that way he hopes to preclude any addition to a national history already characterized by a long series of tragic events.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Vol. 60, No. 4).
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 “Orbán Viktor beszéde Nagy Imre és mártírtársai újratemetésén,” Magyar Nemzet, June 16, 2014.
 Cited in Paul Lendvai, Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (London: Hurst and Company, 2017), 65.
 Cited in Lee Congdon, “Conservatism, Christianity, and the Revitalization of Europe,” Modern Age 49, no. 4 (2007): 490.
 See Yves-Michel Riols, “La posture gaullienne de Viktor Orban,” Le Monde, April 12, 2013.
 Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (New York: Encounter Books, 2016).
 Cited in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 66.
 Anita Élő, “Social Policy: The Art of Equilibrium,” in John O’Sullivan and Kálmán Pócza, eds., The Second Term of Viktor Orbán: Beyond Prejudice and Enthusiasm (Budapest: Danube Institute, 2015), 174.
Editor’s note: The featured image of Viktor Orbán was provided by the European People’s Party and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.