R.I.P. Imre Nagy: The Death of Rational Governance in Hungary

Well, they’ve gone and done it. They’ve taken down my favorite statue in Budapest. Godspeed, Imre Nagy.

It’s a crazy time in Hungary. Let’s face it: It’s a crazy time just about everywhere — with Trump, Putin, and Brexit rewriting the rules of what’s “normal.” But it’s particularly crazy in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where even the great anti-communist crusaders of the Cold War are finding themselves, suddenly and inexplicably, on the wrong side of history.

Just a few weeks ago, I turned in my updated files for the upcoming sixth edition of our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook. This morning, I had to rewrite large sections of the book because of all the changes taking place in Hungary.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his far-right, nativist political party, Fidesz, are continuing their campaign to remake Hungary in their own image. On a previous visit to Budapest, in 2016, I posted about some of those changes — from a statue of Ronald Reagan that had been erected right next to a Soviet Army memorial; to a new monument honoring “victims of fascism” that conspicuously ignored the crimes of the Nazi-allied Hungarian government; to the patriotic new “Changing of the Guard” ceremony on Orbán’s glitzy, fascist-style square behind the Parliament; to the Transylvanian flag that flies on the Parliament building in place of the EU flag.

On that 2016 visit, a local friend of mine asked about the job market in Seattle. She’s seriously considering moving her family stateside to escape what she perceives as her society crumbling around her. Her teenagers now learn history from textbooks written by politicians — the same Fidesz-penned books that are required to be spoon-fed to every student in Hungary. Fidesz enjoys revising Hungarian history as much as they enjoy keeping refugees and immigrants out of their country.

The intervening two and a half years have felt like an eternity. And even in just the last couple of months, the list of Orbán’s offenses has grown. Here are just a few of the changes in Hungary in the several weeks since I was there updating my book:

George Soros — yes, that George Soros, favorite punching bag of the right — founded a university in his hometown of Budapest in 1991. As Hungary and its neighboring countries were just emerging from Soviet rule, Central European University offered students a place to study at a US-accredited institution, allowing them a foothold in the greater academic world of the West. CEU grew to become highly respected. But Soros — who is as loathed by Fidesz as he is by Fox News — is on the outs in today’s Hungary. And in December, CEU announced they will relocate to Vienna, after failing to meet Fidesz’s draconian new requirements to operate legally in Hungary.

Also in December, Fidesz announced a new law to roll back overtime protections for workers. (Because of Fidesz’s restrictive immigration stance, and because bright young Hungarian workers have left the country in droves, Hungary suffers from a labor shortage. Who saw that coming?) This new policy — nicknamed the “Slave Law” — has spurred widespread protests. Even many Fidesz supporters are criticizing a government ostensibly dedicated to “family values” effectively requiring citizens to work longer hours.

Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has finally moved into his over-the-top new palace, up on Castle Hill. Orbán grew tired of living among the commoners, so he evicted the National Dance Theater from their home near the old royal palace and renovated their building into a plush new residence for himself. My Budapest friends have been grumbling about this since it was first announced a few years back — “He thinks he’s better than us! He wants to be up on the mountaintop, looking down upon all his subjects.”

Worst of all, just a few days ago, I received an email from my Budapest friend, confirming that the rumors she’d told me in September have now come true: A beloved statue of the great communist reformer, Imre Nagy, which stood for more than 20 years facing the Parliament building, has been removed by Fidesz authorities. She wrote, “It is a sad day for many of us here!” (It’s worth noting that Budapesters are connoisseurs of monuments. The city is graced with more than its share of memorable statues, from whimsical to poignant. )

Imre Nagy (pronounced “IHM-reh nodge,” 1896-1958), now thought of as an anti-communist hero, was actually a lifelong communist. In the late 1940s, he quickly moved up the hierarchy of Hungary’s communist government, becoming prime minister during a period of reform in 1953. But when his proposed changes alarmed Moscow, Nagy was quickly demoted.

When Hungary’s 1956 Uprising broke out on October 23, Imre Nagy was drafted (reluctantly, some say) to become the head of the movement to soften the severity of the communist regime. Because he was an insider, it briefly seemed that Nagy might hold the key to finding a middle path between the suffocating totalitarian model of Moscow and the freedom of the West.

Some suspect that Nagy himself didn’t fully grasp the sea change represented by the uprising. When he appeared at the Parliament building on the night of October 23 to speak to the reform-craving crowds for the first time, he began by addressing his compatriots — as communist politicians always did — with, “Dear comrades…” When the audience booed, he amended it: “Dear friends…” The crowd went wild.

But the optimism was short-lived. The Soviets violently put down the uprising, arrested and sham-tried Nagy, executed him, and buried him disgracefully, face-down in an unmarked grave. The regime forced Hungary to forget about Nagy.

In 1989, when communism was in its death throes, the Hungarian people rediscovered Nagy as a hero. His body was located, exhumed, and given a ceremonial funeral at Heroes’ Square. (It was also something of a coming-out party for Viktor Orbán — yes, the current prime minister — who, as a twentysomething rebel, delivered an impassioned speech at the ceremony.) Nagy’s symbolic re-burial is considered a pivotal event in that year of tremendous change.

The Nagy monument near the Parliament, erected in 1996, has long been one of my favorites in all of Europe. Its design was poignant: Nagy stood upon a bridge, representing his own political philosophy, which sought common ground between the stifling communism of the USSR and the capitalist free-for-all of the West. The bridge itself was made of treads from Soviet tanks — like the ones used to put down the 1956 Uprising.

Nagy’s face wore an expression not of defiance or dominance, but of inquisitive compassion. He looked across the square at the towering red dome of the Hungarian Parliament, symbolically keeping an eye on the government.

But now that statue is gone — removed with little warning and zero fanfare, in the middle of the night, just two days after Christmas. Viktor Orbán — who, let’s not forget, made his name lauding Nagy — has apparently decided to unilaterally reverse the rehabilitation of Nagy’s image. Fidesz claims that they are moving the statue to a different (and decidedly less prominent) location, on Jászai Mari tér, near Margaret Bridge. But no preparations on that site have taken place, leaving open the possibility that Nagy will again be brushed into the dustbin of history.

As someone who passionately loves Budapest, this worries and saddens me. It should worry and sadden you, too. Removing the statue of a gentle, heroic man who sacrificed his life to improve the lot of the Hungarians is a clear sign that Orbán believes history is open to his individual interpretation.

Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about removing Confederate flags or statues of Robert E. Lee, which are broadly offensive as symbols of racism and slavery. There’s nothing offensive about Nagy to the vast, vast majority of Hungarians, who view him as a beloved figure. He symbolizes sacrifice in the face of oppression, and the courage to rise up for what’s right. Removing the Nagy statue would be more like taking down a statue to Martin Luther King, Jr., because of some obscure political beef.

The only Hungarians offended by the image of Nagy are communist sympathizers longing for a return to the darkest days of Stalinism. And, it seems, Viktor Orbán. It’s rarely constructive to psychoanalyze a despot, but it’s difficult to imagine why Orbán has it in for Nagy. He claims his goal is to return the appearance of the square to its pre-communist, pre-WWII glory days. Why, then, is Orbán erecting brand-new statues even as he’s taking this one away? Surely the truth is more deeply rooted. For one thing, because Nagy’s historical ties to communism place him on the left, Fidesz simplistically views him as an ideological enemy. And perhaps, as he continues Hungary’s slide toward totalitarianism, Orbán is uncomfortable with celebrating an upriser on Hungary’s grand Parliament square.

Standing just a few steps away from the (now-removed) Nagy statue is Orbán’s statue of Ronald Reagan. Reagan and Nagy, fellow Cold Warriors, would have found much common ground. But in Orbán’s topsy-turvy, upside-down world, only one deserves to stand near the Parliament.

Adding insult to injury, that old memorial to Soviet soldiers still stands next to Ronald Reagan. To be entirely clear here: Fidesz has removed a statue of a freedom fighter, but has chosen to leave in place a monument to an army that “liberated” Hungary in order to occupy it for four and a half decades.

Someone once said, “May you live in interesting times.” But this is simply exhausting. Just a few years ago, someone who was executed by the communist authorities for his brave protest would be considered an unqualified hero. But in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, nothing makes sense anymore. The next time I visit Budapest and walk past the Parliament, I’ll miss seeing Nagy’s comforting form, keeping a watchful eye on things. Rest in peace, Imre Nagy. And rest in peace, rational governance in Hungary.

11 Replies to “R.I.P. Imre Nagy: The Death of Rational Governance in Hungary”

  1. I was in Budapest in October only a day and night and loved the city and couldn’t wait to go back on my own. I was on a Viking River Cruise that got grounded due to low water levels on Danube this cut into trip, sadly. This news makes me sick just like the politics in this country disheartens me. I love to travel and still waiting to feel safe to go to Istanbul, too.

    1. I was just in Budapest last week. Labor demonstrations were underway. Looks like rational government is in decline worldwide…

  2. The quote “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. The Chinese, who established stable fiefdoms and Rule for many millennia, saw “interesting times” as times of upheaval, risk, and something that needed to be avoided.

    1. I have heard it described as an “ancient Chinese blessing”…but in many cases, as here, it really does feel like a curse.

  3. Well, well. How about something nice to say about the country and the people? The “common folk”, most of whom are just as angry about many things that are happening. Just like in another country I know, a very big one as well. Hungary is a beautiful country with a lot to offer. It is completely safe to visit and it is definitely worth the trip.

    1. Henriett, I love Hungary. I adore Hungary. It’s one of my favorite places. I have written again and again and again and again about how great Hungary is. Heck, I literally wrote the book about how wonderful Hungary is. That’s why what’s happening there is so tragic to me. Yes, it’s absolutely safe. Yes, people should absolutely visit. But people should be aware of what’s happening there.

    2. I loved Budapest and Hungary when I visited for 6 days in 2008. The people everywhere we went were helpful and kind and fun! I never felt unsafe there either. Someday I will go back and maybe spend even more time. There is more to see than you can fit into a few days.

  4. This is truly a sad report.

    We visited Hungary in September 2017 prior to taking Rick’s “Best of the Adriatic” tour. One of the highlights of our trip to Budapest was a visit to the Nagy statue. Perhaps it is our age (we grew up in the 50’s and remember well the international turmoil and “duck and cover” drills at school) but we have made an effort to see all the sites and monuments that commemorate that period of history. They are a reminder of an era that should not be forgotten.

    Long Live all those who fought repression in the Eastern Bloc.

  5. I traveled to Hungary in 93, 96 and lastly in 2000. I usually stayed for a month each time. I have been wanting to return with Rick Steves’ guide in hand. My first visit to Hungary was the trip that instilled in me the thought: There is a bigger world out there and that most people are wonderful. The food , the people, the country stole my heart and infected me with the travel bug. Hopefully I will return soon and see the changes. Sometimes I wonder if the voting machines around the world have been tampered with by those who seek to gain power outside of the people’s will.

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