Hungary Fought For Freedom. Now It’s Content With Tyranny.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban is turning his back on the values his compatriots died to defend. 

Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Credit: European Parliament. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban is turning his back on the values his compatriots died to defend.

This article was first published by Foreign Policy on October 27, 2016.

The crushing of Hungary’s anti-Soviet uprising 60 years ago this week stood as a tragic symbol of communist barbarism throughout the Cold War. Ideally, the anniversary of the failed revolution would be a time for the country to celebrate its commitment to freedom and democratic solidarity. Unfortunately, Hungary’s government is veering sharply away from those values. If we take the words of Prime Minister Viktor Orban seriously, Hungary seems more comfortable with Russia’s imperious and repressive regime than with its neighboring European democracies. Such an orientation requires a willful blindness to Hungary’s own history.

Like other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary was subjugated by the Soviet Union following World War II. Rule by Moscow meant a top-to-bottom purge that left no institution of public or private life untouched. The Hungarian Stalinists whom the Kremlin placed in charge seized private property, murdered democratic politicians, arrested priests, imposed a falsified school curriculum, and transformed the media into instruments of propaganda.

By 1956, Hungarians had had enough. The revolution was brief, but it was waged with a fury that sent a disturbing message to the Soviet leadership: The Hungarian people had clearly rejected communism, and Hungary would remain part of the Soviet empire only through bloodshed. Moscow did not hesitate, crushing the revolution with tanks, troops, deportations, and executions.

The episode was a huge blow to Soviet prestige. But the revolution’s denouement conveyed a warning about the futility of resistance against a powerful overlord that was willing to kill thousands to keep its empire intact. It also reminded the United States that easy talk of anticommunist “liberation”—often invoked by politicians at the time—was irresponsible unless America was willing to take the steps needed to ensure its success. In 1956, it became clear that the risks of direct intervention were unacceptable. Washington realized that it was in for the long haul and recalibrated its strategy.

Some wanted to swing the pendulum further toward noninterference. Senator J. William Fulbright and others urged Washington to abandon any effort to influence developments in the Soviet sphere and lobbied unsuccessfully for the closure of Radio Free Europe, the American-funded broadcaster that had assumed the role of opposition media behind the Iron Curtain.

But the United States never did abandon the cause of freedom for Central and Eastern Europe. It modernized Radio Free Europe and later established the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution that channeled millions of dollars to democratic groups in the Soviet bloc. It refused to formally acknowledge the legality of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. It fought with patient determination, and in the end made a crucial contribution to freedom for what were once called the captive nations.

Today, however, Hungary’s leaders appear to have forgotten this democratic solidarity and the benefits it delivered. Orban has described Vladimir Putin as the sort of illiberal leader who may set the example for effective government in the future. By contrast, he heaps scorn on the European Union and ridicules its liberal values. At a rally to commemorate the revolution’s anniversary, Orban spoke of the “sovietization of Brussels.” And in a major address on March 15, he accused the EU leadership of a scheme to “redraw the religious and cultural map of Europe and to reconfigure its ethnic foundations.”

Orban’s relaxed attitude toward Putin might be more understandable if the Russian president had taken the minimal step of acknowledging the crimes committed by the Soviet Union against Hungary and its neighbors. In fact, under Putin, Russian textbooks and diplomats insist that domination of Central and Eastern Europe was a matter of Russian national interest. Last year, Russian state television aired a “documentary” explaining that the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was necessary to thwart a NATO plot to destabilize and invade the Soviet Union, a preposterous thesis decorated with phony archival material. And just this past week, Russian state media described the 1956 revolution as a “pogrom” and as the “first of the color revolutions,” with the implication that it had been engineered by the United States.

This week’s anniversary is also an appropriate time to look at the issue of refugees. In the weeks after their uprising was crushed, some 200,000 Hungarians poured into Austria and Yugoslavia. Western governments and private organizations mobilized immediately to deal with a potential humanitarian catastrophe. There were few complaints from governments or citizens; the world knew that these people had been through hell.

Sixty years on, Orban has emerged as the de facto leader of anti-refugee forces within Europe. Even if we stipulate the common sense behind Orban’s insistence that the EU develop a realistic and orderly refugee policy, his words and deeds demand condemnation.

His party and government demonize those fleeing from war zones as rapists, criminals, and terrorists, and broadly refuse to acknowledge their status as refugees if they have traveled through “safe” countries. He tried to whip up anti-refugee frenzy with a bogus referendum that was greeted with low voter turnout. He finds fault with every idea put forward by the EU to confront the problem. As a person who takes pride in his own contribution to the movement against Soviet oppression, Orban betrays surprisingly little interest in Bashar al-Assad’s butchery in Syria or Putin’s role as Assad’s protector. Orban is not the only political figure in Europe to exploit the public’s apprehensions over the refugee surge. But he seems to have drawn more benefit from anti-refugee demagoguery than anyone else.

On this anniversary, we should honor the heroes and martyrs of Budapest in 1956. But in commemorating Hungary’s revolution against tyranny, we should also remind the world that there is a struggle against equally vicious despots, with millions of victims, blatant rewriting of history, and aggressive propaganda campaigns that seek to discredit the very idea of liberal democracy. To the degree that Viktor Orban has aligned himself with such company, he has demonstrated a willful blindness to the unhappiest pages in Hungary’s own history.