Viktor Orbán wants you to ignore the memory of Árpád Göncz – don’t let him succeed

Central Europe’s liberal, pluralist, and cosmopolitan side deserves to prevail.

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Yesterday marked 30 years since Árpád Göncz became Hungary’s first democratically elected head of state after the long years of dictatorship. The Hungarian Embassy in London commemorated his role in a Facebook post that quoted him: “I would like to serve the unprotected, the defenceless people”. A couple of hours later, however, the post was deleted. Perhaps the anomaly was innocent, and the post was published or deleted by accident. Or perhaps, as the respected Hungarian investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi suggests, the embassy had been “forced to censor the memory” of Göncz. There would certainly be nothing new about Viktor Orbán’s government, which recently imposed rule-by-decree under the cover of coronavirus crisis management, manipulating history to fit its own authoritarian agenda.

Göncz epitomised a central Europe about which we hear too little these days. He helped underground anti-Nazi forces during the war and was later sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Hungarian revolution against Soviet control in 1956 – using his time in jail to learn English and going on to translate over 100 English and American novels (ranging from The Lord of the Rings and Frankenstein to The Sound and the Fury and the essays of Susan Sontag) into Hungarian. Having returned to politics in 1988 as part of the movement to rehabilitate the memory of the revolution, as president from 1990 he championed his country’s shift to constitutional democracy and the rule of law, its alignment with the West and its path into the EU. He stood for Hungary and central Europe at their best: liberal, pluralist, cosmopolitan.

In other words, the opposite of what Hungary represents in the world today. Opposition MPs boycotted the parliamentary commemoration yesterday in protest at the emergency powers. Government MPs duly approved a statement dismissing the 1990-2012 years as a “post-communist” era that ended with constitutional changes in 2012 that cemented the power of Orbán’s Fidesz party. The ensuing period has seen a succession of blows to Hungary’s opposition and civil society, culminating in last month’s open-ended emergency powers. All of which Orbán has justified by reframing Hungarian and central European identity: revising school curriculums to remove Imre Kertesz (a Holocaust survivor and Hungary's one Nobel Literature laureate) and insert marginal anti-Semitic and nationalist writers; demonising Roma populations; and otherwise writing groups and individuals that do not fit its vision of Christian Europe out of the picture.

It would be consistent with that pattern for the Hungarian government to crack down on tributes – such as the London embassy's Facebook post – to the liberal democratic legacy of Árpád Göncz. But whether or not the post’s deletion was politically motivated, the anniversary is a good moment to commemorate him. Why? Because Orbán has done more than probably anyone else to encourage caricatures of central Europe as innately and inevitably illiberal, authoritarian and closed-minded. And though such stereotypes serve his political goals, and those of like-minded forces such as Law and Justice in Poland, they do not paint an accurate picture.

There is a better central Europe, more open and generous and civilised than Orbán’s thuggish vision. A central Europe that lives on not just in the cosmopolitan legacy of the region's past but in figures and forces of its present: liberal mayors like Gergely Karácsony in Budapest and Rafał Trzaskowski in Warsaw who stand up against the illiberalism of their national-level counterparts, progressive beacons like Slovakia's liberal president Zuzana Čaputová and bottom-up movements like those against Orbán last spring and in favour of women’s rights in Poland earlier this year. Nothing is a better rebuke to the likes of Orbán, and their stale and cynical political agendas, than the reminder that this too is central Europe. So use the anniversary of the 30th anniversary of the first freely-elected Hungarian parliament to remember Árpád Göncz and all he really stood for. Orbán would hate that.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

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