Orbán uses historical policy and the Trianon syndrome, which is painful for Hungarians, for his own purposes. He skilfully plays with symbols, traumas and injuries.

The European Union (EU) boasts of the “Copenhagen Criteria”, a set of requirements that guarantee the functioning of liberal democracy, the rule of law, the guarantee of human rights and a working market economy.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Hungary introduced a state of emergency, with a restricted parliament, silent opposition, limitations to independent media and rule by decree.

Earlier already, its own historical policy has been incorporated into the political game, changing the monuments, symbols and interpretations of events. Does it mean that the “Budapest Criteria” will replace those of Copenhagen? And, what is more, is Warsaw to follow the footsteps of Budapest?

After coming to (undivided) power in results that officially were termed a “revolution at the ballot box” (fülke forradalom), a new political system was formed in Hungary. The so-called Orbán system was created in 2010, later self-defined as an “illiberal democracy”.

After the threshold of 2010, a new way of exercising power was born in Hungary. Usually, it is rightly associated with its charismatic leader, Viktor Orbán, but formally it is defined, which is little known abroad, as a “system of national cooperation” (nemzeti együttmüködés rendszer), which sounds like a line by Orwell.

Play on symbols traumas and injuries

Viktor Orbán

What is colloquially called the Orbán system, has the following basic features:

  • A charismatic leader
  • The rejection of the principles of liberal democracy and checks and balances adopted in 1990, in favour of an almost omnipotent executive branch and its leader
  • Undermining the “Copenhagen Criteria” in force in the EU by subordinating the legal system, media and civil society to an all-powerful executive power, recently symbolised by pushing out of the country of George Soros and his Open Society Foundation and – partially – also the Central European University (functioning on American principles), for their promotion of the Open Society’s ideas
  • The centralisation and concentration in the hands of the state not only of power but also economic wealth, which unfortunately is associated with systemic, well-proven corruption and leads to serious charges, such as it is formulated by a sociologist and former minister of education in previous governments, Bálint Magyar, that Hungary is a case example of a “post-communist mafia state”

These issues are generally more or less known, although they are interpreted and assessed differently. However, if you look more closely at the administration which came to power after 2010 and a new system based on the new Constitution (entered into force on 1 January 2012), then the change is not only symbolic.

The rules are completely different from those after 1990 because – among others and as stipulated in the new Constitution – they cover Hungary understood as the entire area inhabited by Hungarians, and not only delimited by the present state borders.

In addition to the above-mentioned fundamental pillars, the Orbán system from the very beginning of its existence has been playing one more important string. It relies on historical policy and painful the for Hungarians so-called Trianon syndrome, i.e. the division and fragmentation of the state after the First World War, repeated after the Second World War.

This system is skilfully using for its purposes the associated symbols and axiological layers. To put it another way, the Hungarian government skilfully plays on historical symbols, traumas and injuries.

A game of monuments

This can be seen probably the best on Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament building. If someone hasn’t been on the square since Orbán mastered his system, he or she would be enormously surprised, perhaps not even recognise the place.

As in recent years, thorough and symbolic changes took place on the square. First, a modest monument of Attila József, an outstanding poet but with left-wing views, disappeared from sight. It was removed from the square and seated (because it is a sitting figure) on the banks of the Danube nearby.

Attila József

Instead, a monumental statue of Count Gyula Andrássy sitting proudly on a horse was returned – which stood there already in the years 1902-1945. Andrássy was a statesman and the first foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a symbol of the Great Compromise with the Austrians (1867-1918), and above all the epitome of the Greater Hungary period, i.e. the figure symbolising the era of the greatest extent of the lands dominated by Hungarians under the then Crown of Saint Stefan István.

Thus, a proud, haughty aristocrat replaced the humble poet with leftist views.

A similar operation was carried out on the opposite (north) side of the Parliament building, where, in turn, the monuments of two aristocrats were replaced, but with extremely different views.

Standing there since March 1975, a monument to the first president of the republic after the collapse of the dualist monarchy, the “Red Count” Mihály Károlyi (1875-1955) – a work of the most famous sculptor of that era, Imre Varga, who died last year – was dismantled and moved to Siófok, on the lake of Balaton.

This way, the symbol of a leftist aristocrat raised as a symbolic hero and pedestal under the Kádár regime (1956-1988) disappeared. In his place, a monument of a two-time prime minister and an ardent supporter of the Dualist Monarchy and the idea of Greater Hungary returned, István Tisza (1961-1918), which already stood there during the age of Regent Miklós Horthy (1920-1944), was reinstated with great official acclaim.

István Tisza

Tisza was murdered at the beginning of a revolutionary turn by angry soldiers, desperate since the war. It happened on the last day of October 1918, exactly on the day when Károlyi’s “leftist republic” came to existence. Those troubling events are well remembered in Hungary.

Another surprise for a visitor to the Kossuth Square will be the lack a monument to the martyr and hero of the 1956 Revolution, Prime Minister Imre Nagy, standing there on the side, next to the building of the neighbouring Ministry of Agriculture, since its erection in 1996.

At the end of 2018, it was dismantled and taken away at night, due to the social emotions accompanying this undertaking. It reappeared in June 2019 in a very symbolic new location, next to the former Party House, on the Jászai Mari square, i.e. exactly where in the Kádár era a monument of Marx and Engels was erected.

While in the place of Nagy’s monument another, pre-war statue was placed. Originally unveiled on 18 March 1934, i.e. at the height of the Horthy era, and broken in 1945 – it is a memorial to the victims of short-lived red terror (133 days) of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, led by Béla Kun. It was raised here again, notwithstanding the historical data that proves that there were more victims of “white terror” during the consolidation of the Horthy regime than the preceding red one.

One may also ask the question: what is this flag, next to the Hungarian one, which flutters on the main pediment from the side of the square, because it is certainly not the EU emblem?

Well, for almost a decade, the Szekler colours – of Hungarian highlanders living in an almost ethnically pure enclave deep in Romania, near Brasov – has been fluttering there.

It is in this region that, meeting the local youth in the summer, Viktor Orbán presents his visions and plans, and it was there that in 2014 he announced that he was building an illiberal democracy.

In turn, last year he said there: “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future, now we are convinced that we are the future of Europe.” In other words, a new generation is to come to power in the EU, and illiberal systems will overcome existing, excessive liberalism. This thesis has been frequently repeated since then.

Cry over lost lands

An even greater surprise on Kossuth Square will come after 4 June this year, that is the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, which “shredded” Great Hungary and gave birth to a nation in the diaspora. Admiral Horthy never accepted it, focusing its policy on revisionism, and claiming the “return of lost lands” as the primary goal and reason of the state under his rule. This led him first, in 1927, to embrace Benito Mussolini, and then Adolf Hitler.

It is true that two so-called the Vienna Awards or Arbitration led to the return of a significant part of the lost lands, but at the expense of losing almost the entire Hungarian Second Army on the Eastern Front, and in consequence led to another treaty, signed on 10 February 1947 in Paris, which once again “dictated Trianon” to Hungary.

Meanwhile, already in the Horthy era, the famous saying was coined: “A person who doesn’t feel the pain of Trianon is not a real Hungarian”. Viktor Orbán – casting himself as the leader of all Hungarians, including those in the diaspora – did not only change the constitutional name of the state, as he seems to share this view.

Literally, at the first meeting of the new parliament and the start of domination of his political camp, 4 June, the date of the signing of the treaty in Trianon was turned into a holiday of “national unity”, while voting rights were granted to Hungarians in the diaspora. And because they have been given a lot of social rights before, in the form of a Hungarian Charter, it is not surprising that since then over 90 per cent of Szeklers vote for Fidesz and Orbán.

It is thus not surprising at all that the current year of the century of Trianon has been turned into the “year of celebration of Trianon”, and the largest ceremony will take place on 4 June, when the face of Kossuth Square will change once again.

Szekler flag

At its junction with Alkotmány (Constitutional) Avenue, leading from the side of Pest straight to the main front of the Parliament, where the Hungarian and Sekler flags are waving, the Memorial of National Unity (Nemzeti összetartozás emlékhelye) commemorating the Treaty of Trianon will be unveiled by the prime minister. In the form of not another monument but a memorial.

On a 100-meter long, four-meter wide ramp descending from Kossuth Square to Alkotmány Avenue, on both sides of the wall some 12 thousand historic names will be engraved, those names of Hungarian locations “torn out” of their Homeland by the provisions of the Trianon Treaty.

Closed society?

Does this mean a return to the Horthy era revisionism policy? In part, yes, because this memorial at the intersection of Constitutional Avenue and Kossuth Square will not only evoke negative associations for Hungary’s neighbours but also will force you to wonder: what is next? What can Hungarians still propose or treat?

And what do the Hungarians say on the issue? Well, they are divided and polarised. They are split not only by Trianon but by the Orbán system itself, including its style and form.

Some say directly that “Horthy’s age is coming back.” Not only with its value system and axiology, based on “Christian values” (however you would understand them), a return to the traditions and ideas of the Great and – again strong – Hungary, as the current prime minister so often talks about it.

Orbán presents himself as a strong man all the time, now – after the barbed wire has been placed at the borders and the wave of refugees stopped, and again after COVID-19 – already on a European scale, not only in Hungary.

Horthy’s era also returned in another symbolic dimension: from the House of Authorities (Országház), as in Hungarian the building of the Parliament is commonly called, the centres of power returned to the Castle Hill. First, from the south wing of Parliament, the office of the President went there – settling in the former seat of the prime ministers in the Sándor Palace.

However, recently from the north wing of Parliament, the office of the prime minister was also moved, with considerable controversy and resistance of the city’s chief architect, finding a place in a carefully restored former Carmelite monastery.

In a physical sense, the centre of power is therefore almost exactly where it was under the Horthy era. However, the realities of the time were rebuilt not only in the symbolic, sentimental or physical dimension but also in terms of the nature of governance.

There is no admiral and regent, and the country is not called the Kingdom, but in the Parliament again, as in the years of consolidation of the rule of the Horthy era, especially under the leadership of the eminent Prime Minister István Bethlen (in the chair of the head of government in 1921-1931), we are dealing with one, definitely leading and very strong party (at that time it was called the Unity Party, although names changed, and today it is Fidesz – that is, Civic Party), which competes with the opposition, which is weak and spread across many factions and currents.

Is this a full-fledged return of the Horthy era, with its values, symbols and a bit archaic and strongly conservative style of governance? Not really, because times and conditions are different.

There is no doubt, however, that the Orbán system, as in the Horthy era, returns to tradition, dreams of a powerful Hungary and Hungarians, and thus is “patriotic”, meaning – in the opinion of opponents – strongly nationalist. The prime minister says that he is building “Hungary for Hungarians.” His system is therefore exclusive, building gates, fences and barbed wires, instead of an open society. Rather than caring about the fate of the continent, it is focused on the Homeland – alone.

Hungarian society seems to be “native” again, focused on itself and its problems, traumas or complexes and often healing them – at the expense of others. The recently adopted legislation (due to the coronavirus) underlines, even more, these – essentially authoritarian – trends.

How does all this relate to EU membership? That is the question!


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was first published in Polish on Res Publica Nowa.

Bogdan J. Góralczyk is Professor and Director of the Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, a political scientist and sinologist and an expert on Hungary, where he served as a senior diplomat in the years 1991–98 (afterwards a book was published both in Poland and Hungary). His recent book "Hungarian Syndrome: Trianon" has been published on round anniversary of the treaty

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