RESISTANCE IN BUDAPEST: STUDENTS DEFY LATEST MOVE IN VIKTOR ORBÁN’S CULTURE WAR

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by Bernard Rorke

On the Wednesday evening of the 2nd of September, in a narrow street in Budapest’s eighth district, a large crowd gathered in solidarity with the students who have staged an occupation of Hungary’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE). The students had sealed the entrances to the building with red and white tape in protest against the latest power grab by the far-right government of Victor Orbán. 

From the first-floor balconies, students stood silently in yellow face masks with clenched fists, while below, leading figures from Hungary’s cultural and literary scene recited apposite verses from the country’s rich reserve of defiant, liberty-loving poetry. The students closed the event with a folk song and the crowd joined in defiant chants of ‘Szabad Ország, Szabad Egyetem! (Free Country, Free University!)’.  

This has been followed with daily 3 pm press conferences by the students and manifestations of public support, the streets echoing sweet refrains as students and supporters join in song with well-known musicians, theatre groups and choirs, giving this defiance an added beauty – one that is utterly at odds with the coarse and crude incivility of the regime. 

On Sunday, thousands formed a human chain that wound through the city streets from the university to the Parliament, demanding autonomy be restored to the university – which is now the seventh such institution to be transferred to the control of private foundations where the board of directors is selected by the government.

Just weeks after the mass resignation of 80 journalists from the news site Index over government interference following the sacking of its editor, the entire management of this prestigious arts university tendered their resignations in protest at the regime’s appointment of a board of five trustees. At a press conference on 1st September, Vice-Rector László Upor stated that the management was forced to take decisive action “given that it has been deprived of all meaningful and fundamental powers, given that it could only maintain the appearance of independent leadership at the cost of unacceptable compromises.”  

The students, who blockaded the university building to prevent the new board of government-appointed trustees from entering, have pledged to maintain the occupation until demands for autonomy from government control are met. Writers, directors, actors, theatres, public figures, educational and cultural institutions from home and abroad are stepping up to support the students and oppose the plunder and cultural vandalism that has become the trademark of the regime.

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Central European University (CEU), which was forced by government action to relocate from Budapest to Vienna, issued a statement decrying this move against SZFE as “the most recent chapter in the systematic undermining of academic freedom in Hungary”, and declared its solidarity with SZFE’s faculty and students “who are defending, in the interest of all of us, the freedom of education and research as well as artistic expression, a fundamental value of European culture.” 

The government-appointed board chair, theatre director Attila Vidnyánszky, who wants to introduce a “different kind of thinking” into teaching that emphasizes patriotism and Christianity, claimed on TV that he was open to dialogue. That mask slipped quickly. In the same TV interview, Vidnyánszky’s insulted a highly-regarded SZFE professor by saying “I will never be able to explain to György Karsai what a nation, a homeland, or Christianity is because he is unfit to accept my thoughts.” As Hungarian Spectrum editor Eva S. Balogh put it, “It doesn’t matter how you slice it, this was an unabashedly anti-Semitic remark.” For their part, the students condemned this exclusionary insult by the reviled Vidnyánszky as rendering him unfit to lead a national institution, and rejected any dialogue with him and his ‘illegitimate’ board of trustees: “They were appointed by anti-democratic means, so we don’t want to negotiate with them.”

the students condemned this exclusionary insult by the reviled Vidnyánszky, as rendering him to lead a national institution, and rejected any dialogue with him and his ‘illegitimate’ board of trustees

This is just the latest episode of the regime’s culture war to protect Hungary’s unique “European and Christian identity”.  Having gutted the courts, captured the state, institutionalized grand-scale larceny for friend and family oligarchs, and hollowed out all that was liberal in a democracy, the regime is pitted in what it sees as a hegemonic struggle to define the era – an era that began in 2010, with the victorious Orbán proclaiming a “revolution in the polling booths” and “a new regime of national unity”.  

After the 2018 election victory delivered his ruling party another two-thirds majority, Orbán spelled out his illiberal ambition: “An era is determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs and social customs. This is now the task we are faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era.”   

Recent events are reminiscent of the protests that erupted in October 2011, at the news that the Budapest Mayor, István Tarlós forced through the appointment of Jobbik supporter György Dörner as director of the city’s Új Színház (New Theatre). Far-right counter-demonstrators in balaclavas and paramilitary uniforms rallied in support of the appointment. In Dörner’s job application he stated his intent to put an end to “degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony,” that “Hungarians will declare war on the liberal entertainment state, which has sunk to the brothel level”. He also declared his intent to run the theatre together with Hungary’s best-known Nazi and anti-Semite, the late and unlamented MIÉP leader István Csurka. As the philosopher Ágnes Heller put it, “a theatre had been handed to the far right, and racists”. 

Far-right counter-demonstrators in balaclavas and paramilitary uniforms rallied in support of the appointment.

In this Schmittian state of exception, where the concept of the political is blatantly grounded on the friend and enemy distinction, the culture war extends way beyond the rarified space of the theatre into all aspects of everyday life, and that stakes are ‘civilizational’ for the nativist leader spins his degraded kulturkampf as more than Hungarian. For Orbán, it’s a fight for ‘our own European culture’ rather than a clash among the cultures of indigenous Europeans: “Different cultures give rise to different societies, values, laws and political systems – some of which are incompatible with the European way of thinking. In our own land, we want to live by the rules and values of our own culture.” 

This culturalist camouflage seeps effortlessly into overt and explicit racism, gilded with conspiracy theories in Orbán’s notorious anti-migrant propaganda, which reached fever-pitch during the 2018 general election campaign. Orbán declared that Hungary and Europe stand at the “epicentre of a civilisational struggle” because the continent faces an invasion where “Africa wants to kick down our door”. 

Brussels, according to Orbán, wants to support and organise the migration of tens of millions from African countries and the Middle East, “to dilute the population of Europe and to replace it, to cast aside our culture, our way of life and everything which separates and distinguishes us Europeans from the other peoples of the world.” Orbán has posited that there is no cultural identity in a population without a stable ethnic composition, and has even stated that economic prosperity depends on preserving ethnic homogeneity, “as life has proven that too much mixing causes trouble.” 

In terms clearly understood as antisemitic, Orbán claimed Hungarians faced an enemy that is “not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Lest there be any doubt, massive billboards bearing the face of George Soros littered the highways, byways and tram stops, urging citizens to make sure George doesn’t have the last laugh.

Because “Hungary has defended itself – and Europe at the same time – against the migrant flow and invasion”, Orbán declared, “There shall be no mass disorder. No immigrant riots here, and there shall be no gangs hunting down our women and daughters.” So, for Orbán, protecting the Hungarian people from “dying out” is integral to the wider battle to save Western civilization, for only those communities that can “sustain themselves biologically” without immigration will survive. Integral to this civilizational mission, is the domestic struggle to “unwaveringly stand up and declare who we are, and what we think about God, country and family”.

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Standing up for what they think about God, country and family has prompted the removal of statues, the renaming of squares and streets, the rehabilitation of pro-Nazi war criminals as icons of anti-communism, and blatant historical revisionism, especially on the issue of Hungary’s culpability in the Holocaust. For Orbán, “the key to upward progress is the restoration of national self-esteem” – we must show that we are the Hungarians, with one thousand years of Christian statehood behind us – or as his beloved football ultras would put it: Ria, Ria, Hungaria!

Primary, secondary and tertiary education are key battlegrounds in the struggle to “embed the political system in a cultural era”, and Hungary’s national curriculum has been modified to instil a spirit of national pride in school pupils. According to government propagandist Zoltán Kovács: “There’s no such thing as a neutral education. Educational systems are about values… about teaching what we think are the values of Hungarian society. And among the values we very much adore are those heroes who helped us survive the centuries behind us.” Opponents have taken issue with the suggestion that victorious battles should be emphasised, while defeats are downplayed, and called for the withdrawal of historical modifications and distortions on the grounds that they are damaging to the national culture, to students and teachers, “and poison public thinking”.

In this willfully distorted narration of the nation, Orbán is explicit as to who counts as ‘we the Hungarians’. In his furious reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on 17 May, in favour of the Romani children and parents of Gyöngyöspata over school segregation, Orbán launched into a chilling tirade against minorities:  “It cannot happen that in order for a minority to feel at home, the majority must feel like strangers in their own towns, villages, or homeland. This is not acceptable. And as long as I am the prime minister, nothing of the sort will happen. Because this is the country of the natives, our country, and I see that this whole [Roma court] case was initiated by the Soros organizations.” 

The occupation of SZFE carries a significance beyond the immediate quarrel; it strikes a blow for the soul of the nation, kicks against the thick spate of idiocy, the lies and stupefying inanities of the regime.

The occupation of SZFE carries a significance beyond the immediate quarrel; it strikes a blow for the soul of the nation, kicks against the thick spate of idiocy, the lies and stupefying inanities of the regime. For, without any hindrance from the European Union, the ruling party has, since 2010, attacked press and academic freedoms; waged hate campaigns against minorities, refugees and migrants; harassed civil society groups and universities; and demonized legitimate opponents as traitors and enemies of the nation. This last decade has witnessed a precipitous slide from a consolidated democracy to some kind of authoritarian hybrid, or what critics and democrats might term, a mafia state run by a clique of crude nativist thugs, and backed by a friends-and-family circle of oligarchs whose greed is outdone only by their audacity.  

What’s heartening in all this is a renewed nascent spirit of collective resistance; what’s uncertain is whether resistance will spread or simply dissipate, like so many previous challenges to this regime. In recent months, tens of thousands have mobilized on the streets in neighbouring countries against their thuggish ruling elites. As the lure of so-called populism shows signs of wearing thin, there is a growing discontent with corrupt strongmen, which can only swell with the coming economic downturn. These are uncertain times for the likes of Orbán, for the precarity that comes with the pandemic and its aftermath does not necessarily profit the autocrat. Whatever the outcome of the SZFE occupation, there can be no doubt that this act of resistance is profound in and of itself. These brave students’ defiant refusal to acquiesce is an inspiration that serves as a wondrous rebuke to the jaded fatalism favoured by so many for so long. 

All images by Bernard Rorke


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