On a blustery day in October 2016, a group of men wearing the traditional “Bocksai suits” popular in the interwar era gathered in the central square of sleepy Pomaz. The square had just been renamed “Trianon Square,” after a much-hated peace treaty that Hungary was forced to sign at the end of the 1914–18 conflict. With much ceremony, the men revealed a new monument: a map of greater Hungary as it was before its wartime defeat and division, thus highlighting the ethnic Hungarians who were left outside its present-day borders.
For the past ten years, the Hungarian government has been steadily rewriting the country’s national history — crafting another rooted in the “glory days” between the World Wars, when Hungary was ruled by right-wing autocrat (and ally of Hitler) Miklós Horthy. This was the Hungary that came after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and before the Soviet occupation, in a period marked by antisemitism, genocide, and mass executions. This era started with the defeat of a socialist revolution in 1919, and the subsequent White Terror — the organized killing of left-wing revolutionaries, journalists, and Jews — in the early 1920s. A period of antisemitism followed, propagated by Horthy’s regime, that culminated in the extermination of over half a million Hungarian Jews during World War II, mostly in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a time of horror that weighs heavily on Hungarians’ cultural memory — and yet today’s ruling party, Fidesz, is embracing it as the nation’s heyday.
Current autocrat Viktor Orbán and his regime are demonstrating a new form of authoritarianism that is spreading across Europe — and, indeed, around the globe. This authoritarianism bears many of the classic motives and logic of fascism — categorizing certain groups as not deserving basic rights or having humanity — but does so in a particularly contemporary way. This political form is not enacted through military rule or traditional force, but rather in puppet parliaments. And the people are not controlled through fear alone, but primarily through a shaping of the public discourse to suit authoritarian ends.
Since the right-wing Fidesz party, led by Orbán, took control of the country in 2010, the regime has been tightening its grip around all public discourse within the country. Fidesz has gradually won an almost full control over the media in Hungary; the latest development in this process was the “donation” of most major media outlets to a foundation run by a childhood friend of Orbán in November of 2018. This year also saw the removal of gender studies as an approved degree in Hungary (effectively banning the subject), and a war against universities and civil society — essentially, institutions that could combat the Fidesz propaganda machine.
The shaping of this discourse extends to the country’s national monuments and public art. Across Hungary, the installation or “renovation” of new national monuments, like the one in Pomaz, has become quite common. All over Hungary, old statues are being torn down and new objects of commemoration installed in their place — often in an attempt to recreate the very monuments that were erected during Horthy’s rule. Such is the case with the renovation of Budapest’s Parliament Square in 2013.
But new monuments are being constructed on a near-constant basis. Also in 2013, a statue of Horthy was erected at the entrance of a Calvinist church in Budapest. A year later, a memorial to victims of the German occupation was erected at the capital’s “Freedom Square” in the dead of night. This new sculpture featured an eagle attacking the helpless Archangel Gabriel — a discursive representation of Nazi Germany snatching power away from Hungary. To Hungarians, the message is clear: Hungary had no culpability in the Holocaust.
And yet many were surprised when — again, in the middle of the night — the statue of 1950s prime minister Imre Nagy was removed from Budapest’s Martyr’s Square in late December 2018. Known as the hero of the revolution against Soviet control in 1956, Nagy, himself a Communist was, indeed, martyred when he was executed after the USSR crushed the uprising. For decades a statue of Nagy has watched thoughtfully over the Hungarian Parliament building; now the government plans to install an exact replica of a 1934 anticommunist statue originally built during the rule of the fascist, antisemitic prime minister, Gyula Gömbös. Whereas the Nagy statue was life-size and a realistic depiction, this statue will feature a massive muscular figure strangling a snake.
Considering all these changes together, a pattern quickly emerges: Orbán and his regime are erasing all the aspects of Hungary’s past they find threatening to their nationalist project. These include Hungary’ revolutionary history as well as its darkest periods — particularly the Holocaust. In its place, Fidesz is constructing a new Hungarian history — one which is rooted in this interwar “Golden Age.”
Nationalist and populist regimes need a strong sense of history, because they provide the nation with a founding shared mythology. The restoration of an interrupted continuity is so central to Orbán’s narrative that it is included in the new preamble to the Hungarian constitution, or “Basic Law,” that he introduced in 2011. This text specifies that the break in Hungary’s historical narrative was, in fact, Hungary’s occupation by German forces in March 1944 — a date designed to whitewash the Horthy era by removing from history its final months, which saw the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to death camps.
It is easy to understand why Orbán would want to remove this period from Hungarian history when we consider the vehemently anti-migrant stance of his regime. Orbán is known for his anti-migrant policies, and his government has been accused of migrant abuse (including purposefully starving asylum-seekers at the border). His regime is also known for exploiting antisemitism and anti-Roma hatred; this can be see quite clearly in the government’s anti-Soros campaign.
And beyond that, Orbán may well be attempting to legitimize his authoritarian rule. Both the Horthy era and Orbán’s regime are autocracies that permit only token opposition. Invoking the image of the Hungarian aristocracy also serves to legitimize Orbán’s cronyism.
Nationalist-populist regimes need a deep and rigidly formed sense of history in order to propagate the imagined community of the nation. Rogers Brubaker — perhaps one of the most highly regarded scholars of populism today — has defined this as a polarized divide between “us” and “them.” And in the hands of the Hungarian nationalists, this fabricated history legitimizes this same divide. Defining itself in opposition to the rest of the world, it can present itself as under threat from both external and internal enemies, in a form of scapegoating. witnessed in ultranationalist regimes throughout history — most notably under fascism.
Hungarian philosopher G.M. Tamás believes the Hungarian regime to be “post-fascist.” For Tamás, post-fascism is similar to classical fascism, in that it is openly hostile to ‘universal citizenship’ — that is, it suggests there are certain classes of people who aren’t deserving of basic rights or even the category of human (often via ethnic, sexual, or racial distinction). What makes up the post- element is that governments now do this through the charade of parliamentary elections rather than through a more classic form of totalitarianism. This is what Orbán himself calls an “illiberal democracy.”
The transformation of Hungary’s public spaces and memorials (and with it the resurrection of the country’s fascist past) is now as complete as the transformation of the country’s political structure from a fragile democracy to a sharply nationalist, authoritarian state. And yet, there may still be hope for preserving Hungary’s historical narrative. Freedom Square, the location of the statue of Archangel Gabriel, is now host to a protest installation. Erected by a group called “Eleven Emlékmű,” or “Living Memorial,” they have strung up barbed wire — reminiscent of concentration camp fences — and placed shoes, clothing, photos, personal belongings, and letters belonging to murdered Hungarian Jews in the square. They have turned the square into a public forum, where everyone from schoolchildren to tourists to survivors congregate to discuss the memorial and the objects laid before them. In this way, Fidesz’s lie — its mangling of the historical narrative — can be debated, reclaimed, and reshaped.
And here is the most important lesson we can all draw from this: The more an authoritarian regime tries to bend the historical narrative to shape its purposes, the more the people — who know the true history — cling on to what they know to be true.