I was recently talking to a conservative American friend, and while sipping a beer, we briefly reviewed the history of our respective homelands. The story my American friend told was, at least to me, the story of a nation that, in a search for an identity, has been shaken in its place as leader of the world. The main enemy in my friend’s history of his homeland was decadence.
The problem of decadence is well known to a Hungarian historian. And a Hungarian historian knows what comes next. Hungary once climbed the steps of greatness, and then she experienced decadence and a feeling of arrogance. Finally, she had to endure punishment.
I do not want to suggest in this essay that the United States has not suffered severe national tragedies, even in the last hundred years. We may think of the casualties of World War I and World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, 9/11, Iraq, and more recently of Afghanistan. It is clear the country has suffered enough from conflicts. What the United States has not yet experienced is the loss of everything.
What Americans have not yet seen is the historic moment when the very existence of the nation is called into question, and a struggle for the nation’s survival takes place. What they have yet to experience is occupation by foreign powers, or totalitarian dictatorships working through internal agents and external powers. Then, oppression is not only economic or political, but total. It comes for your home, your children, your thoughts, and your soul. In the words of the great Hungarian poet, Gyula Illyés: “You detach your sense from it, only to find / No other thought will come to your mind…. Because it is standing / From the first at your grave, / Your own biography branding, / And even your ashes are its slave.”
The woke folks would like us to ignore the classics; but perhaps reading Homer is a forgivable sin. People tend to use the words hybris and nemesis, but few know their true roots and meanings. In Greek mythology, the mortal who claims the greatness of the gods for himself falls into the sin of hybris, and receives punishment in nemesis. The Odyssey speaks of the suitors of Penelope: “If you go near the suitors you will be undone to a certainty, for their pride and insolence (hybris) reach the very heavens.” Therefore, Zeus promises revenge upon them.
So too has history, perhaps, promised revenge upon insolent powers. Hungary has already gone through these steps. Every Hungarian knows the results; they have been carved into our minds since we were little children, and if American tourists visit Hungary, they will hear this story from Hungarians. I will recount it for the sake of those who have not yet visited my country.
The Hungarians once lost very nearly everything during the Ottoman-Muslim occupation, which lasted from 1541 until 1699. Not only do woke Western people find it difficult to understand that Hungary was never a colonial country, but they also find it difficult to cope with the fact Hungarians did not conquer Muslims or people of color. However, Muslim people of the Near East occupied Hungary for more than a hundred years. Following our liberation with the help of the House of Habsburg, the Hungarians then fought an unsuccessful war of independence against the liberators-turned-oppressors in 1848-49. They were eventually defeated with Russian help. In 1867, the two parties finally reached a compromise, and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was established. And then the “good times that created weak people” began, as a popular meme says.
Of course, there is no need to create forced parallels between the United States and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The United States is still a country with an Anglo-Saxon culture, in which the Spanish language is only now consolidating its position in a close second place. The Dual Monarchy was a state uniting nearly a dozen different nations, with very different regional characteristics and a lack of geographical unity. The United States, in spite of all its social and racial tensions, is not currently trying to dismantle a dozen rival nationalist movements. Many Americas still live according to Christian values, as opposed to the empty Catholic framework of the Dual Monarchy and her effective religious neutrality.
However, there are some striking similarities. The Dual Monarchy, in her efforts to ensure a liberal public life for all her inhabitants, irrespective of faith and descent, weeded out every element of Christian identity to such an extent that, in the end, only vacant liberalism, nihilism, cynicism, and uprootedness remained. Let us not forget that the principal uniting force of the Dual Monarchy was not a common national identity but, in theory, a Catholic ruling house. What was the point of having that ruling house without Christianity? After all, the ruling house was supposedly put into place not by the common people, but by God.
The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after the First World War was followed in 1918 by Mihály Károlyi’s bourgeois democratic revolution, and then by a short-lived communist dictatorship in 1919. Right-wing Admiral Miklós Horthy’s National Army finally marched into Budapest behind the Romanian troops that overwhelmed the Communists in November 1919. He set up a right-wing, or as they called it then, counter-revolutionary political system, which defined the country’s future over the next quarter of a century, albeit with a considerable use of violence. The Hungarians lost everything in just a few years: two-thirds of their territory, some of their largest cities, their seacoast, most of their forests and mountains, and their mines.
Even my own ancestors lost everything to the conquering Romanian army and had to flee from Transylvania. My great-grandfather, who was a Jewish university professor with a decent salary, suddenly found himself living in an empty train wagon. The revolutions exposed the country to a series of robberies, general impoverishment, and skyrocketing inflation. These were followed by devastating experiences during the subsequent decades: World War II and the Holocaust, another period of Communist rule, the defeat of the 1956 revolution, and finally a third Communist dictatorship, which lasted until 1989. If the Hungarians reject the ideas of Western wokeness, it is because of their knowledge of the path that leads to these catastrophes.
* * *
But what was that path? Aristotle correctly stated, “Nature abhors a vacuum”. Not only did the competing nationalist aspirations foster a liberal nihilism in the Dual Monarchy, but also, at a later stage, the institution of socialism came to a similar result. One of the main instigators of radical change was the university milieu. In this respect, we may refer to the story described by Hungarian historian Dávid Ligeti:
On Sunday, May 27th, 1900, one of the biggest scandals of the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy broke out, when, in the new, central building of the Hungarian Royal University in Budapest, unknown perpetrators broke the cross from the Hungarian plaster coats of arms located in the stairwells. The incident sparked widespread protest among conservatives, especially among the members of Catholic People’s Party. On March 18, 1901, after several months of intense social and political disputes, about hundred university students placed, in sign of protest, giant crosses in the classrooms. The unfolding university movement got its name from this act: the Cross Movement. As a result, one of the most serious moral crises of the liberal dualist era was expressed: the population suddenly became aware that, during the previous few years, not only the separation of the state and the church had taken place, but also, and chiefly, the Kingdom of Hungary had lost its Christian character.
Not very surprisingly, during the later communist period, official historiography referred to the Cross Movement as a power “strengthening of the far right.” Does this sound familiar?
It is also worth talking about the role of the liberal press in the Hungarian collapse. Intellectuals, who considered themselves liberal, but in fact fancied Marxism, ventured dangerously close to the communist position. During the years of the Dual Monarchy, Béla Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Communist dictatorship of 1919, worked as a journalist for the Budapesti Napló (Budapest Diary), a newspaper in which Marx was the most-often-cited philosopher, even though the paper’s orientation was officially not Marxist but liberal. Flipping through the pre-1919 issues of the liberal press, the reader is shocked by the permissive, compliant, and at times, enthusiastic attitude of support for radical left-wing ideas.
On July 28, 1918, a year before the red reign of terror by Béla Kun, the liberal Est (Evening) published an article passionately praising the Soviet Union: The strong, highly intelligent Russian communists gave Hungarian prisoners of war food, clothes, and well-paid jobs; they permitted them to form a union and own an apartment. “People make good money, there is great prosperity and joy. Most men and women on the street are well dressed.” These were the words describing the fate of prisoners in Soviet Russia, which, as we know now, suffered from great misery at the time. A year earlier, on December 25, 1917, the same newspaper published the following poem, under the title The New Savior: “A new Christ arrives, but so suddenly, / That this generation cannot see him yet, / And they do not yet whisper his name: / Lenin, Lenin!” In other issues, the newspaper reported that the communists Trotsky and Lenin were “honest people,” and thought that it was “wonderful” when someone hoisted a red flag on the Hungarian Parliament on October 20, 1918. My American readers ought to be warned: This is how it starts.
The most outrageous, however, was undoubtedly the coverage of the arrest of Béla Kun on February 22, 1919, by the star reporter of the Est, Vilmos Tarján. Tarján reported that the innocent Kun (who had “a wife and a child”) and two of his companions—László Rudas, editor of the Vörös Újság (Red Newspaper), and Béla Weisz, editor-in-chief of Sarló és Kalapács (Sickle and Hammer)—had been beaten by police. “Only a few minutes separated them from death,” and it was “God’s miracle that they are still alive.” According to the article, Kun lost so much blood that it soaked the mattress on which he lay. The truth was that two hours after his arrest, he received people for discussions in his cell, wrote a letter, and planned a political debate. In fact, arresting Kun was probably the only good decision of the 1918 bourgeois revolution, which offered little resistance to the Communist coup d’état a few months later.
While some people wonder in the United States today how supposedly liberal journalists and intellectuals can aggressively support far-left groups and organizations, the sad example of Hungarian history teaches us that little separates a liberal from a Marxist, and that, in times of crisis, the former are often quick to band with the latter. The prospect of an impending bloodbath did not seem to deter the liberal professor Dezső Buday, member of the Communist directorate of the rural city of Kecskemét from enthusiastically supporting Bolshevism:
The way of communism is to collect everything and distribute it to everyone. The path of communism: to create equal happiness for everyone. And we will follow this road to the end: we will peek into the pantries and the wardrobes and take from there what can be taken away. But we will also share it fairly. This is communism. There will be no escape from our strict collecting. A fine little death sentence will go to those who hide, who bury their goods. This will teach everyone what communism is all about.
Buday, a left-wing intellectual who fantasized about communism from his armchair, apparently failed to realize that it is impossible to dream of a “fine little death sentence” for your fellow citizens without an irreversible moral collapse and the abolition of citizens’ legal and personal security. Buday’s own “fine little death sentence” was eventually handed out by far-right counterrevolutionaries, who, according to (perhaps exaggerated) recollections, opened Buday’s skull in the woods of Orgovány in the winter of 1919 and poked his brain out with wire. Whether the professor was indeed executed in this way is questionable, but what is beyond debate is that whenever the natural fabrics of society are dismantled by progressive revolutionaries and left-wing lunatics, social breakdown and violence inevitably follow.
The above stories offered serious lessons to Hungarians. Giving up our roots, letting loose unbridled liberalism, failing to measure the danger of socialism, and allowing weak democrats and soft-handed liberals to rule, all helped the far-left dominate. This holds true for leftism in any form—Bolshevism, communism, socialism, or wokeness. Once the collapse has taken place, the people will revolt and eventually take back power. However, that entails bloodshed and civil war, and innocent people could share the fate of Dezső Buday.
It is always better to avoid a civil war than to win one. That is why it is the responsibility of the sensible and sober right to keep the left and its liberal lackies out of power. In the end, everyone is better off, or as the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would say, with us, even those who do not vote for us can win. These are the lessons of Hungarian history and Hungarian losses. And this is what America must soon learn if it is to avoid tragedies like those of Hungary’s past.
László Bernát Veszprémy is a Hungarian historian and the editor-in-chief of Corvinák, the popular science journal of Mathias Corvinus Collegium.