For almost half a century following World War Two, Hungary’s Communist regime exercised far-reaching controls over virtually every aspect of society, including education and culture. A state-sanctioned ideology, an approved historical narrative and politically ’reliable’ writers were actively promoted in Hungary’s schools and universities as well as through the arts. At the same time, conflicting ideologies, alternative historical narratives and ‘unsuitable’ authors were suppressed. The regime,like Communist administrations elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and beyond, viewed education and the arts as indispensable tools for constructing model citizens.
Hungary’s current political leaders, most of whom were socialized in the ‘70s and ‘80s during the Communist era, seem fully at ease with the notion that a government can dictate what is taught in schools and universities, as illustrated by the recent removal of gender studies from a list of approved postgraduate programs in accordance with a decree signed by Hungary’s Prime Minister. Similarly, the ruling Fidesz Party appears to have no qualms about the influence it wields over the choice of news items carried by most of Hungary’s print and electronic media. Marius Dragomir, Director of the Central European University’s (CEU) Center for Media, Data and Society, has estimated that “some 90 percent of all media in Hungary is now directly or indirectly controlled by Fidesz”.
Naturally, Communist dogmas, Communist authors and Communist-era statues and memorials have been displaced by new political dogmas, new literary heroes and new statues and memorials, such as the controversial and frankly hideous Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation in Budapest’s Szabadság Square. The new orthodoxy – which is much the same as the old orthodoxy that held sway in inter-War Hungary – emphasizes Christian, national, conservative and illiberal values that, Fidesz contends, reflect the true and abiding character of the Hungarian nation. Left-leaning writers have been removed from the school syllabus while unimpeachably reactionary and not infrequently antisemitic authors have taken their place. These include Cécile Tormay, József Nyirő and Albert Wass, whose books were banned during the Communist period.
As under Communism, ideological conformity – or at least a willingness not to question the core values and assumptions of the ruling regime or the private and public behaviour of key figures in the administration – is both expected and enforced. Sanctions may include withdrawal of state funding, punitive taxation, the imposition of complex and restrictive regulations, loss of employment or public shaming. To date, there has been no need for Fidesz to resort to the cruder, less sophisticated methods favoured by Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in dealing with their opponents.
It is against this background that the government’s campaign against the Budapest-based CEU should be understood. Unlike ordinary Hungarian universities, which rely on state funding for a significant share of their income, CEU is financially independent thanks to a generous endowment from the University’s founder, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros. Unlike academic staff teaching at other universities in Hungary, many of whom can be intimidated into silence or acquiescence by the government or its ‘enforcers’, a sizeable proportion of CEU’s faculty are foreign nationals. They are fluent in English – the language in which classes are taught – and most have an impressive track record of research and publications. Many, if not all, of CEU’s academic staff could readily find employment at reputable academic institutions in North America or Western Europe, which no doubt bolsters their willingness to conduct research and express opinions that may run counter to the increasingly reactionary beliefs of Hungary’s government.
CEU’s ‘sins’, in the government’s eyes, are many and grievous. As indicated above, it is largely immune to the forms of pressure and manipulation that have allowed the government to exercise ever greater control over other Hungarian universities. Equally disturbingly, at least for Prime Minister Orbán, CEU is a self-avowedly liberal institution. As noted by the Canadian scholar and former politician, Michael Ignatieff, now CEU’s Rector and President, its mission is “to teach the values of open society: free minds, free politics and free institutions”. This open, pluralist political and intellectual vision is starkly at odds with Orbán’s declared intention of turning Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”.
At the time of writing, the relocation of most of CEU’s teaching from Budapest to Vienna appears inevitable. On 25 October, the Board of Trustees of the University announced that, unless Hungary’s government concludes an agreement with New York State before 1 December, “allowing CEU to operate in freedom in Hungary as a U.S. institution chartered in New York State”, incoming students for its US-accredited masters and doctoral programs will now undertake their studies in Vienna rather than Budapest, starting in the academic year 2019-20. As emphasized by CEU, it was forced to take this decision because, in the absence of a bilateral agreement between Hungary and New York State, the University would find itself in breach of requirements set out in legislation introduced by Fidesz in 2017.
CEU’s enforced departure from Hungary will further damage the country’s worsening reputation abroad, particularly in Western democracies. It will, in addition, represent a significant loss for Hungary, particularly for its beleaguered liberal intelligentsia. At present, students and academic staff at other universities in Hungary enjoy unimpeded access to CEU’s well-stocked library, which contains a wealth of expensive, English-language monographs and scholarly journals. Inevitably, as major teaching programs are transferred to Vienna, much of CEU’s library holdings will have to follow. The loss to Hungarian researchers and students will be immense.
Perhaps one of CEU’s most important contributions to intellectual life in Hungary has been to host regular public lectures by prominent intellectuals from around the world. In the past year or so, visiting speakers have included the French economic historian Thomas Piketty, the Princeton-based political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan and the Oxford historian, Timothy Garton Ash. Without the stimulus provided by such widely acclaimed scholars, the quality and vitality of Hungary’s intellectual life, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will inevitably decline.
In a recent article in Népszava– the only national daily newspaper in Hungary to offer a critical, independent perspective on the government and ruling Party – the veteran political scientist, László Lengyel, denounced the authoritarian and illiberal political order established in Hungary since Fidesz returned to power. With only a touch of hyperbole, Lengyel declared that the system engineered by Fidesz:
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denies the Enlightenment, freedom, equality, brotherhood, the spirit of the human rights revolution…It creates and defends a closed society, discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity and religion…it’s part of the counter-revolutionary wave of nationalism and populism, it stands for a…one party system, authoritarianism, illiberalism, the orientation towards dictatorship, the East and Moscow…
Forcing CEU to relocate most of its teaching programs from Budapest to Vienna is a significant step in this relentless crusade against Enlightenment values and modernity.