06. Aug 2020 - Gábor Egry

In Hungary, the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic coincided with the preparations for the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon. Only a few days before the declaration of the state of emergency, the government distributed more than 10 billion HUF for programs and activities related to the commemoration – revealing its primary motive to mobilize historical memory in 2020.  It was also telling that initially Viktor Orbán attempted to link the disease to migration and thus to reemphasize the border closures that he had been promoting since 2015. If migration was framed as potentially harmful for Europe, then stricter lockdown measures would be unnecessary, and Hungary would be kept safe. With this, he followed a well-trodden path dating back to 2015 that framed migration as something potentially harmful to Europe. Yet, after pressure from society and growing social anxiety in the face of rising infection numbers, he changed his course and followed the example of countries that had deployed radical measures such as Austria, Czechia, and Slovakia.

The emerging discourse pushed by the Fidesz party and media that was sympathetic to the government eventually focused on the differences between the Western and Eastern European response to the pandemic, portraying the former as a failure and the latter as a success. Moreover, this discourse aligned the experience of dealing with a global pandemic with the key message of the Trianon commemorations: the betrayal of Hungary by the West and the re-emergence of the country as the natural leader of the Carpathian Basin-cum-Central Europe. Interestingly, this historical framing happened without explicit references either to the historical events or ideas that currently represent Hungarian intellectual traditions. Yet, it made use of certain oppositions and appropriations that are familiar within the history of Eastern European nationalism – the juxtapositions of West vs East, authenticity vs inauthenticity, national freedom vs. foreign exploitation and oppression, but also the notion of Hungary’s leading role in the region and the subordination of other ethnicities. Even without the explicit connections between an intellectual tradition and the recent discourse, such historical tropes are indispensable when it comes to understanding why and how they resurfaced today and especially why this has happened during the exceptional context of the current Covid-19 crisis.

While the superiority and dominance of Western liberalism was not questioned during the period around 1989 and remained so until recently, the main theme that frames Viktor Orbán’s Covid-19 response has echoes further back in history. Orbán’s final evaluation of the response to the pandemic has demonstrated something which he has been repeating for a few years now: that the new centre of Europe is in the East. According to this reading, the West already failed to overcome the European debt crisis of 2009/10 while Hungary – and in a broader sense the post-2004 accession countries – showed exceptional growth rates that surpassed the West, thus leading to the claim that the growth engine of the EU was now Central Europe. These assumptions were now simply transposed with regard to the discrepancies in the infection and death rates between Western and Eastern Europe. This allegedly showed the better management strategies of the crisis by the East, again proving the apparent decay of the West. As Orbán said in his regular Friday radio interview on 19 June:

An astonishing phenomenon is visible on Europe’s map. While during Socialism the West invoked only positive associations and the anti-Western Soviet propaganda was ridiculed … today people are dying in Western Europe due to the lack of hospital care, the largest economies have to be salvaged, statues are toppled and gangs wage war on each other.

In a commemoration speech during a Trianon anniversary event in Sátoraljaújhely on 6 June, Orbán declared that “the West raped the thousand-year-old borders and history of Central Europe” and betrayed Hungary, which resulted in 100 years of suffering, not only for Hungary but for the whole region.

In this sense, the apparent success in managing the Covid-19 pandemic across the region was useful because it fit the main theme of the commemorations: the stark difference between the West and East in terms of adherence to values and morals, which was somehow linked to the diverging spread of Covid-19. This narrative of Western decline, and of the erasure of the moral foundations of civilization is eerily familiar, and not just as a permanent theme when reflecting on the state of Europe. The Trianon commemorations were an obvious reference to Oswald Spengler’s 1918 Untergang des Abendlandes, which was widely commented on in Hungary at the time. Spengler’s pessimistic view of the West, however, fuelled radical ideas of national renewal in Hungary rather than a mobilization of the intellectual and political mainstream. Hungary’s tragedy was ultimately the result of the decision of the great Western powers, but at the time only a few would have understood it as a sign of Western weakness and of the decline of a civilization. This was especially because one of the dominant themes of the post-Trianon Hungarian nationalist discourse was about the country’s role as the guardian of the West – a West that betrayed Hungary with the Treaty of Trianon. However, this betrayal did not challenge the superiority of Hungary, all the more so because Hungary denied the legitimacy of the annexation of its territories to Romania or Serbia on the grounds of their allegedly inferior and less civilized nature. Later the discourse changed, and a dominant anti-liberal discourse emerged that construed the decline of the West as stemming from liberalism and cosmopolitanism.

It is hardly surprising that connections with this radicalized interwar nationalist intellectual legacy and the ultranationalist, genocidal policies of the Second World War are not explicit today. Still, it is hard to hide what is symbolically emblazoned on the flag of Fidesz today: the narrative of radical renewal against a decadent, liberal West as a means to save European civilization.

There is another hidden historical connection that has never really been made explicit, namely the idea of Mitteleuropa. This notion, which circulated in the mid-19th century and reached its zenith during the First World War, envisioned the reorganization of the Eastern half of the continent into an economic bloc under the leadership of the German Empire. Curiously, Orbán’s often emphasized vision of the emergence of an Eastern economic powerhouse, which he usually carefully connects with the German presence and investment in the region, is not that different from the historical idea of Mitteleuropa. Orbán’s version is also conceived to be in opposition to the Western part of the continent. But the tacit, maybe unconscious, and therefore ephemeral, ideational nature of this construct makes it possible to create new connections between the Untergang des Abendlandes and Mitteleuropa, as well as the more pronounced Hungarian, and deeply historical nationalist theme, of Central European leadership.

The latter reason, ironically, was why the Hungarian elites during the First World War almost unanimously rejected Mitteleuropa in its proposed form. For more than a century, the backbone of Hungarian nationalism was the idea that the Hungarian destiny is to create a single state in the Carpathian Basin in which Hungarians, the only nation with state-building capacities, should have a dominant role. Thus, Hungarian nationalists could neither accept subordination to Germany, nor the more equal treatment of other nationalities in their relations with Germany.

While this sense of destiny was shaken by the Treaty of Trianon and the subsequent catastrophe of the First World War, it still persists today. The official declaration of parliament at the anniversary uncoincidentally pointed out that Hungarians are still the most numerous people within the Carpathians and therefore they should lead the efforts to create a new, unitary economic zone. Again proving that the West is in decline and the East is the new centre of Europe possibly in cooperation with Germany, thus reviving a Hungarian version of Mitteleuropa.

On the surface, both the historical framing of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trianon agreement seems to be a conscious effort to create and sustain historical memory by using traditional tropes and themes. If so, it is undeniably a creative effort, bringing together disparate legacies and reconfiguring and reinvigorating them. However, the lack of explicit historical references and the reversal of historical stances calls for caution in this context. The legacy of mainstream Hungarian nationalism is Western orientation, conservative liberalism and the rejection of a German-dominated Mitteleuropa. The way in which Fidesz embraces the opposite stance is hard not to read as a disavowal of these intellectual traditions, even though the themes mobilized within the discourse are the same. Moreover, another paradox is that the disavowal occurs simultaneously with the adoration of the very historical figures who once embodied these stances, such as Prime Minister István Tisza. Tisza, a conservative-liberal and staunch defender of dualism, but also a proponent of equal Hungarian–German relations during the First World War, is officially commemorated as the father of current Hungarian politics, despite the obvious contradictions. Seen together, these paradoxes function as a warning not to overestimate how much this effort is really a coherent one driven by ideas.

The way that Orbán panders towards autocrats, often sold as geopolitical realism, suggests a good dose of cynicism. This is also true for his shameless instrumentalization of Trianon for actual political goals, first of all to preserve unity with the Visegrád Four by emptying the commemorations of all historical content. Yet another example of his cynicism is his attempt to suddenly declare the ‘Trianon trauma’, an idea that has been actively promoted by the Fidesz government since 2010, to be over, because Hungary has now re-emerged as the dominant country in Central Europe. Again, it is easy to mistake such unusual combinations of ideas and the sudden reversal of political stances as proof of a creative and idiosyncratic use of history, but the bluntness of attempts to overwrite existing legacies is less subtle than first assumed. Maybe it is just simple recycling of earlier themes, and most likely an unconscious act. As such, it is not built on national traditions; it disavows the former aim at coherence and continuity. But without offering a historical narrative, it rather reveals how much structural relations within Europe’s history still inform our thinking, bringing back themes and tropes like East and West, dominance and dependence, and superiority and inferiority. In Hungary, however, in a period marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trianon anniversary, the remobilization of these tropes happened without the reliance on the historical traditions that the Hungarian government pretends to defend. Today, history in Hungary is not even used for historicizing, it has dissolved into an amorphous set of vague references. By mobilizing historical authenticity, such vague references function as insubstantial rhetorical elements that claim symbolic superiority for the materially inferior, for the East over the West.

About the author

Gábor Egry is Senior Researcher and Director of the Institute of Political History, Budapest.

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