- - Tuesday, May 8, 2018



By Paul Lendvai

Oxford, $29.95, 273 pages

What a difference 29 years make. In 1989, on a visit to Budapest, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of leading players in Hungary’s transition from a Soviet satellite to a sovereign democracy. I remember being impressed by the apparent reasonableness and sincerity of Gyula Horn, then-foreign minister and later the democratically elected prime minister of a coalition government dominated by reformist ex-communists and center-left politicians.

A more striking figure was Jozsef Antall who, in 1990, would become Hungary’s first free prime minister, launch the conversion to a market economy and serve as what author Paul Lendvai accurately describes as a “calming force” representing “conservative, national and Christian values Until his premature death in December 1993, he governed the country as an internationally respected prime minister at the head of a bourgeois coalition with an absolute majority.”

In 1989 Mr. Antall was already a rising star and Mr. Horn represented the reformist wing of the old order. Both men ably assisted in the peaceful dismantling of the Iron Curtain. A more obscure figure, but already marked as a man to watch, was a youth leader named Viktor Orban, one of several bearded, militant anti-communists to emerge from Bibo Istvan College, a non-government, Western-supported nursery for future members of the Fidesz Party that now dominates Hungarian politics.

Mr. Horn and Mr. Antall are only memories today, but Viktor Orban, the subject of Mr. Lendvai’s concise, well-written but overtly hostile political biography, has long dominated Hungary’s political landscape, serving as prime minister from 1998 through 2002 and from 2010 to the present.

Just as Hungary is historically, culturally and linguistically unique among its Slavic and Germanic neighbors, Mr. Orban is unique among current European leaders. To the socialist, social democratic and watered down center-right parties that until recently dominated most European Union countries, Mr. Orban — with his outspoken warnings against mass migration to Europe of aliens from backward, oppressive countries often dominated by Islamists and with no grounding in the values of Western Civilization — is public enemy No. 1.

He forcefully articulates the legitimate concerns of ordinary Europeans who have been ignored and often ridiculed by elitist politicians and Eurocrats pursuing a self-serving agenda that, in the name of political correctness, transfers more and more political power from the directly elected heads of Europe’s sovereign states to an insulated clique of politicos and career bureaucrats without direct accountability to ordinary citizens.

Author Lendvai is squarely in the camp of the Eurocrats and therefore inalterably opposed to Mr. Orban, their most effective adversary. While he writes well and makes a number of valid criticisms of his subject’s aggressive accumulation of executive powers, he does so from a warped perspective.

Just to give you an idea, he actually believes that George Soros, the militantly leftist international financier who currently bankrolls radical causes in both America and Europe, “has done more for consolidation of democracy in post-communist Hungary and the other East European states than perhaps any other private individual ” and implies that European critics of Mr. Soros are closet anti-Semites. This would come as news to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who congratulated Mr. Orban on his most recent re-election victory.

What coddled, affluent members of the European elite fail to grasp — or willfully ignore — is the importance ordinary people still attach to their traditional values, their religious faith and their distinct cultural heritage, so often trampled underfoot in the past by alien rulers claiming a higher authority. Of no country is this more true than Hungary, devastated by Mongols, destroyed as a nation by the Ottoman Turks, dominated by the Habsburg empire until its demise at the end of World War I, and subjected to not one but four brutal Russian interventions.

It was the Russian army that restored Habsburg rule in Hungary after its unsuccessful bid for independence in 1848, a Russian-backed communist dictatorship under Bela Kuhn that nearly turned Hungary into a Soviet satellite after World War I, and Soviet interventions after World War II — and again in 1956 — that shackled Hungary to the Iron Curtain.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, Viktor Orban is a domineering executive who knows how to manipulate political institutions to his advantage. Also like Roosevelt, he is sometimes overreaches in attempts to pack courts and dominate the legislature. But that is a far cry from the dictatorial conduct of thug regimes in the Third World and those rooted in the totalitarian past like Russia and Cuba. Unlike them, Hungary remains a free country with free institutions, free elections and empty political prisons. Mr. Orban is no saint, but he is far from the villain Mr. Lendvai sincerely but wrongheadedly makes him out to be — a strong man rather than a “strongman.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide