I spent September’s last full week in Budapest, capital of Hungary. Sharing a border with Ukraine, the former Warsaw Pact country is now member of the European Union and NATO. For the United States, it is a strategic country in what has become, thanks to Russian president Vladimir Putin, a tense region.
Over four days, I met with senior political figures and their advisors, college professors, entrepreneurs and journalists and posed questions to an astute British expatriate who was my guide. I also delivered lectures at three universities.
Following are some observations:
Walk the streets. Eat in the restaurants. Visit the sites. Talk to the people. Hungary – at least Budapest — looks and feels happy and untroubled. But scratch the surface and it is a country of ghosts – ghosts of both its Nazi-Fascist and Soviet pasts.
The Nazi-Fascist era has been a hot topic in Budapest this past year. In late 2013, in what one observer told me the man himself has since characterized as a moment of distraction, Prime Minister Viktor Orban approved erection at the edge of a park in central Budapest. of a memorial to the victims of the 1944-45 Nazi occupation.
Installed (as one local online publication put it) “under cover of darkness” in a single July night, the garish columns-framed figures were a target of impassioned criticism from the moment the project was announced. Many, including the Hungarian Jewish community, saw the monument as an attempt to evade the country’s legacy of Holocaust collaboration. Hungary imposed its first anti-Semitic laws soon after it emerged as a separate state following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of World War I. The Second World War and the alliance of Hungary’s fascist government with the Axis powers brought forced labor, exile from ancestral homes and, particularly after German troops seized control of the government in 1944, deportation to death camps for hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. In other words, say the protesters, to put all Hungarians on the same footing whitewashes a shameful history and smacks of anti-Semitism. The government appears to want a graceful way out of this mess but doesn’t know how.
Its befuddlement may have to do with the second ghost, Hungary’s communist past. As a former Reagan-era official in the US foreign policy community explained to me after the trip, Hungary has never undergone a post-Soviet reconciliation process, as, for example, did South Africa following the collapse of apartheid. One day the communists simply changed their label to social democrats — no confessions, no apologies, no coming to accounts.
I toured a museum in central Budapest that shows how much of an accounting Hungary needed. Called the House of Terror, it is located in a building that once housed the communist secret police and before that, the fascist party. Torture chambers have been refurbished to reflect their original grizzly purpose. Other installations honor the dead and the disappeared of two years of Nazi rule and more that four decades of communism. In images, film and artifacts, the House of Terror tells its horrible history.
In April’s national elections, Orban’s party – called Fidesz — won a large majority in the parliament and just short of half the popular vote. No other party came close in ballots or parliamentary seats. My American foreign policy friend told me that Orban had been determined to keep the social democrats – i.e. former communists – out of government entirely and used appeals to Hungarian nationalism as part of securing a victory that achieved that end. My guess is that the memorial to the victims of Nazism – appealing to all Hungarians as one and by implication against the communist successors to the Nazis – was a partially misfired aspect of that strategy.
But, as I learned from a global affairs expert from a country not far from Hungary, this domestic political strategy has alarmed others in the region. In a part of the world where borders have been shifting for centuries, nationalist overtures immediately bring to mind territorial claims. For example, just as Ukraine includes Russian-speaking areas that Putin has used as excuses for seizing territory, both neighboring Romania and Ukraine have Hungarian-speaking regions. The fear has arisen that Orban may be moving in a Putin-like direction regarding these populations. Some worry that creeping authoritarianism is part of the mix, too.
From hours of talks, my own sense became that Orban and his party are fumbling rather than sinister. They have shown little sensitivity of how their rhetoric sounds to the outer world and even to some key groups at home. But maybe such misunderstandings are inevitable when you live in a country of ghosts.