Hijacking Politics; On the Autism of Memory and Identity in Hungary

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 05.33.31Ferenc Laczó

In early 2013, political scientist and historian of political thought Jan-Werner Müller made an urgent call for the establishment of a Copenhagen Commission to monitor and safeguard liberal democratic standards in Europe (Wo Europa endet. Ungarn, Brüssel und das Schicksal der liberalen Demokratie; Berlin, 2013). Drawing on evidence from Hungary and also, though to a lesser extent, from Romania, Müller complained how political developments in these two EU member states in particular seem to be getting out of control without a clear and enforcable standard of liberal democracy being reliably in place.

He also noted with consternation that, in accordance with the interests of local power-holders, the ongoing international debate about changes of these two political systems has to a large extent focused on ultimately non-negotiable questions of cultural values and preferences. His diagnosis was thus that not only do economic considerations pit EU member states against each other in the middle of the worst crisis in living European memory but futile culturalist debates seem to dominate much of the political argument across the continent. This leads to a dangerous impoverishment of public argument: the possibility for moves away from liberal democracy opens without rational discussions of institutional arrangements being conducted.

The massive recent shift to the political right in Hungary has clearly raised the level of interest in the country’s political developments and Jan-Werner Müller is only one, though certainly a key, intellectual example of how the concern has gradually become a serious international one. Given numerous controversial developments in recent years and a rather volatile overall situation, numerous observers have expressed serious worries about the future of Hungarian liberal democracy. They have been especially vocal in Germany, the largest and by now clearly the most influential member state. While some media coverage has also been devoted to institutional transformation and the accompanying personnel changes under way in the country, cultural-political problems such as the strengthening of Hungarian nationalism and the visible revival of anti-Semitism have strongly touched German sensitivities.

Critiques of the Hungarian right both within and outside Hungary tend to focus on historical analogies, particularly with the inter-war years, as well as on the continuities of ethnopopulist discourse. Such a focus often leads to the observation that, in spite of the center right occupying much of the political center, it still caters to the extreme right-wing subcultures as well. In mainstream discussions, the Hungarian right-wing manner of doing politics and ideals of social relations are much less frequently tackled in any substantial way. Memory and identity politics seem to be not only a central preoccupation of the Hungarian right but also of many of its critics. As Jan-Werner Müller perceptively pointed out, this actually plays into the hands of cultural warriors like Viktor Orbán who might be losing his battles for international support but is visibly strengthening his rule at home through the logic of such a political-cultural polarization.


From society to culture 

In my assessment, one of the most dramatic general shifts that underlie the evolution of politics in recent decades is that from society to culture. Society was conceived as an integrated system that could be rationally understood and improved by experts. The conceptual centrality of society prioritized disciplines such as sociology and economics and issues such as poverty and development. The related political imaginary included the pursuit of rational debates and negotiations, the ambition of social justice and equality and the rule of expertise and quantity.

The rise of social sciences, so characteristic of the 20th century, and their increasingly dominant influence over the language of politics has been largely successfully challenged in more recent years. This took place in the name of cultural specificities, traditional beliefs and unique historical trajectories but also through the immense spread of concepts such as memory and identity. The end of the age of ideologies that the fall of communism brought and the concurrent decline of the modern left undoubtedly have much to do with this shift of political concerns. It has already been repeatedly remarked that much of the political focus on cultural issues leads to fruitless polemics as cultural preferences happen to be non-negotiable but in all likelihood we are only beginning to see the full impact of having entered the age of culture, identity, memory.

What I shall argue below is that the current Hungarian political malaise reveals what the radical consequences of a much larger trend may be. They show where the discourses of memory and identity can lead when they overwrite more critical forms of historical consciousness and preformat political discussions. My argument will be based on the understanding that the function of historical consciousness is not only to offer an interpretation of the past but also to provide orientation in the present and a vision of the future. I will thus posit a strong connection between the shapes historical self-understanding and politics take. The moot question is what follows when the development of critical historical consciousness is largely replaced by presentist and subjectivist discourses on memory and identity.



In order to understand the current Hungarian situation, a brief exercise in historicization may be necessary. After the fall of communist regimes and the end of the Cold War, a liberal consensus seemed to reign supreme in the Western world as a whole as well as in the newly emerging democracies being integrated into it. This is not to imply that liberals acquired a dominant political position in East Central Europe but rather that they managed to shape political discussions and the horizons of expectations more than any other political-ideological force. As leading members of the Hungarian democratic opposition of the 1980s emerged as key liberal thinkers and politicians in 1989 – 90 and were known both for their exceptional intellectual sophistication and broad international horizons, liberalism could enjoy a moment of intellectual dominance.

At this time it appeared that, in spite of the new kinds of dictatorships and immense human catastrophes characterizing the short 20th century, history could be nearly flawlessly narrated and convincingly explained in a liberal key. Precisely because liberals could argue that the recent past was defined by illiberal extremes, they could claim to possess a privileged viewpoint to offer its lessons. The new types of dictatorships could be evoked to show where democratic ambitions lead without the institutional guarantees of liberalism. In short, totalitarianism was at first used as a counter-concept to thereby help legitimate liberal democracy, limit political will and decenter political life. Historical consciousness was meant to play a critical as well as a constructive role here.

Their moment of intellectual dominance notwithstanding, Hungarian liberals ultimately proved largely unsuccessful at transforming the country’s historical culture. In retrospect, multiple reasons behind their somewhat curious failure might be identified. First, as Zoltán Gábor Szűcs argued in his seminal monograph on the political languages of the period, they believed in social science disciplines such as economics or sociology much more firmly than the discourse on history (Az antalli pillanat; Budapest, 2010). They tended to approach Hungarian history as an eminently conservative and even nationalistic domain and often merely opposed the political uses and abuses of it, instead of developing and institutionalizing methods of fostering critical historical consciousness.

Second, leading post-dissident liberals often had complicated and partly controversial personal pasts. Many of them came from assimilated families of Jewish background where certain levels of tabooization and even traumatization were present in the postwar decades. Some of them have previously cherished marked Marxist affiliations. For instance, János Kis, the key strategist of the democratic opposition of the 1980s and liberal party head right after the changes of 1989, has previously authored what were arguably the most sophisticated Marxist revisionist treaties on Soviet-type society (see the work he and György Bence published under a pseudonym in particular: Marc Rakovski, Towards an Eastern European Marxism; London, 1978). Moreover, the rather numerous personal conflicts and animosities that developed between them during their dissident days also made some of them unwilling to publically dwelve into the recent past. They were not interested in heroic portraits of themselves either that would have implied contrasting their courage with the petty compromises the majority made.

These factors ultimately resulted in a strange outcome: in spite of the symbolic capital to be gained, not even their dissident pasts would be canonized. The career of Gábor Demszky and its current reception may illustrate a much larger pattern. Demszky was not only a leading activist of the democratic opposition of the 1980s but subsequently served as mayor of Budapest for two decades. He has now been out of power for over two years now and just released his own version of events (Elveszített szabadság; Budapest 2012) while currently no one seems to be interested in completing a more detached biography of him.

Last but not least, while living in a post-communist democracy, liberals quickly identified a much graver form of anti-democratic culture on the right. The leading politically engaged liberal historian of the period, Miklós Szabó was firmly anti-communist but maintained that more dangerous notions about history could be detected on the right since right-wingers tended to be unwilling to accept that the derailment of the country from the commendable path of modern political developments started way prior to the postwar period. In line with this understanding, post-dissident liberals were much more likely to critique Hungarian nationalism than institutional and personal continuities between communist and post-communist times.

While their diagnosis about the relative moderateness of the left and the potential radicalization of the right in post-communist times might have been entirely correct, the political conclusions they drew from it nonetheless proved a strategic mistake. It namely soon brought them into coalition with the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party that not only made their recurrent attempts to deal with the recent past largely ineffectual but would make their attitude toward historical matters appear rather hypocritical. Due to the confluence of these factors, the greatest chance to foster a critical historical consciousness in post-communist Hungary was lost.

The alliance of post-communists and post-dissident liberals also opened the possibility for the right to launch a new identity campaign opposing at once post-communism and liberalism. While national liberalism and ethnopopulism competed on the Hungarian right in the early 1990s, with the rise of Fidesz in the second half of the 1990s a new activist conception of conservative politics was born. This conservatism fostered a strong sense of identity by appealing to those who supposedly guaranteed national continuity (active members of the rising middle classes, above all) and opposing them to the enlightened reformist tradition that, in this political perspective, represented an unsavory coalition of internationally oriented elites and the less thrifty segments of society. Fidesz also invested in a memory political revolution that relied on narratives of national suffering and victimhood. This memory political offensive has shaped the identity of younger generations in particular and could be subsequently employed in the political fight against the post-communism left.

The Hungarian culture war of the early 21st century was born out of the polarized reception of this conservative political activism. One of its consequences is that the division between left and right is no longer primarily due to differences in political programs, let alone socioeconomic positions, but rather due to the use of cultural markers. Competing identifications started to dominate the Hungarian public sphere instead of joint reflections and argumentative debates.


The shift to the right 

The liberal political trend of the 1990s described above has been reversed as the pendulum shifted to the right. The first decade of the 21st century brought a wave of political successes to conservative party formations. East Central European countries such as Poland and Hungary offer perhaps the most outstanding examples of a more general European turn to the right. Ever since the post-communist left lost much of its popularity during unsuccessful governing periods, without newer leftist parties managing to acquire anything near a corresponding share of the vote, the center right has by and large managed to occupy the center in both countries. Another consequence is that the preeminent position of center rightist forces is currently being challenged by forces to its right approximately as much as by the left as a whole.

The decline of post-communist parties is partly simply age-related as their leaders and voter base no longer represent the middle generations. The explanation of their decline in the Hungarian case would also have to include the loss of credibility of a teleological vision of history centered round concepts of modernization and Europeanization. While the projects of “joining the West” and “integrating into Europe” were based on progressivist notions, a loss of trust in them was almost inevitable once integration was institutionally completed but its promised benefits did not materialize. The resulting crisis of the normative future horizon created strong opportunities for conservative thought.

Simultaneously, East Central Europe experienced a period of economic convergence without catching up. Countries and citizens of the region thus nominally acquired equal status in a larger unit characterized by sustained inequalities. The frustration and resentments that emerged should be critiqued but the socio-economic context of the rise of nationalism should not be underestimated either. Since Poland not only continued to grow substantially upon joining the European Union but its prestige has also greatly increased as leading continental powers started to view it as an important partner, Hungary can be taken as a much more fitting example of such a process of betrayed hopes and disillusionment – though current disillusionment with European arrangements clearly reaches way beyond the new member states.

In the meantime, the intellectual foundations of conservatism have arguably been successfully redefined. New Hungarian conservatives have not only articulated critical takes on modernity in the name of religion, common sense and moderation as well as on intellectual and ideological politics in the name of pragmatism and fallibility, but have also presented communist regimes as the frightening outcome of the heretical hubris of modern men. The new conservative vision of modern European history seems to be based on positing an intimate connection between Jacobinism and Bolshevism. The idea that Bolshevism continued the project of the French Revolution was originally meant to provide it with legitimacy on the left. Here the logic of this argument gets completely reversed: the discrediting of the communist project also discredits the program of the French Revolution. In other words, if liberals prefer to return to the period 1789 – 91 and condemn what followed, conservatives provide a clearly negative evaluation of the whole revolutionary process that gave birth to political modernity. On the post-communist Hungarian right, counter-revolutionary conservatism by now provides as much inspiration as the more liberal critiques of revolutionary politics in the vein of Edmund Burke and others.


Memory and identity politics

The new popularity of discussions on memory and identity as well as shifts in the overall interpretation of 20th century European history proved conducive to the conservative agenda too. The Western European consensus was a largely anti-fascist one little concerned with the dictatorial uses of anti-fascist mobilization under communist rule. Similarities between fascist and communist regimes were occasionally evoked in the Western Europe but the sense of a European balance of power essentially normalized relations to communist states. During the period of hot peace in Europe, Cold Warriors were no longer the crucial historical actors. Attention devoted to the Axis crimes committed during the Second World War could not be matched by an equally nuanced exploration of Stalinism.

The gradual shift of the focal point of European history toward the East contributed to undermining this interpretative situation. If the symbolic center of the continent was not in a small but influential West German town called Bonn, where out of a laudable self-critical impetus hesitations to admit comparisons between Nazism and Stalinism could be observed, but somewhere in the Eastern borderlands of what was Poland until 1939, then the theory of two eminently comparable (“totalitarian”) regimes started to make much more sense. If we then moved to the Baltics, where the self-critical impetus of national elites after nearly half a century of regimentation under foreign-based ideological dictatorship is unsurprisingly, even if highly problematically, practically absent, it comes as no surprise that anti-totalitarianism focused on the communist experience emerged as the key to interpreting recent history here. To illustrate the wide spectrum of national mainstreams in contemporary Europe: from the mainstream German point of view, post-communist political-historical attitudes in the Baltics were thus, paradoxically as this may sound, “revisionist from the very beginning”.

Considered in this larger context of a new East Central European anti-communism relying heavily on concepts of memory and identity, the Hungarian story has several specific features. The most important seems to be that while the communist regime violently reshaped wider segments of society and was in several basic ways more dictatorial than the preceding right-wing regime, the latter was responsible for much graver crimes during the Second World War than the former ever was. Although the large majority of Hungarian Jews were ultimately murdered in a German death factory, the Hungarian perpetrators – in spite of not being directly involved for the final stage of the genocide – were primarily responsible for most stages that led to the final extermination of the Jewish population: the ever more radical socioeconomic discrimination and exclusion of the Jews, their ghettoization, deportation and numerous summary executions. It is an undeniable fact that local actors were at time shockingly enthusiastic participants in the genocide and their responsibility is eminent. In this, they followed patterns of action established elsewhere in German-occupied East Central Europe: national and transnational elements of the Hungarian Holocaust can hardly be separated. It seems to be little known but in fact every third victim of Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew.

An ironic consequence of this factual basis is that the Hungarian right, all its nationalism notwithstanding, is increasingly interested in internationalizing discussions on the 20th century. After all, in Hungary the crimes of communism can only be condemned in the same way as those of the right if the frame of comparison is enlarged. The crimes of communism are now indeed often discussed as a transnational phenomenon: crimes committed in the Soviet Union under Stalin are seemingly flawlessly integrated into local memory practices.

In certain influential East Central European corners a vested interest has developed to portray local history as centrally important to the understanding of the European experience of the 20th century. This ambition often implies an emphasis on partly overlapping, partly subsequent totalitarianisms. Nazism and communism appear here as evil twins and East Central Europe as the victim of the most vicious imperial projects. Somewhat polemically put, it seems that the European integration of East Central Europe and the accompanying ambition to establish a minimal regional agreement has brought about the enlarged perspective the Hungarian right wanted.

The return of totalitarianism as a key conservative concept and an abrupt equation of various crimes can thus go hand in hand with a negative teleology of modern history with communism at its center. In this larger context defined by anti-totalitarianism focused on communism, Hungarian conservatives make recurrent references to the Holocaust too and do not directly challenge its remembrance. While older rightists typically ignored the Holocaust, the new conservatives rather accommodate as well as subordinate its history and memory.

In conclusion, the rise of new forms of conservative anti-communism took place in parallel with European integration while critical historical consciousness remained in a marginal position. During the 1990s confronting the horrors of the recent past still led to liberal democratic conclusions, now the same ambition primarily results in anti-progressivist political-cultural discourses of memory and identity. What is more, through key notions of memory and identity the political logic of competition started to dominate the cultural sphere when cultural questions of different values and preferences increasingly defined the terms of political debate. The result is that Hungarian culture war fought in the name of autistic conceptions of memory and identity has hijacked politics. It is the task of the near future to liberate discussions from their tyranny.


This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue 12 within the topic “Culture wars”.

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