Siege mentality

The view from Budapest

I first came to Hungary thirty years ago as a young Australian diplomat, witnessing its democratic transition and its conversion to a market economy after long decades in the Soviet bloc. Back in 1990 there was a tiny Australian Embassy – since closed as a cost-cutting measure – with a handful of local staff, in a grand but dilapidated old house facing Heroes’ Square in Budapest. Post-1989 was a time of great optimism in the West, with hopes high that the former Soviet satellites would come ‘home’ to Europe, adopt its highly-developed social values and join its unified trading bloc, the precursor of the European Union. I doubted this would be a smooth transition. Yet Hungary’s skilled and entrepreneurial population attracted foreign investment, with Hungarians seemingly more interested in making money than in settling ancient scores. Breathtakingly beautiful Budapest attracted tourists, whose cash funded an explosion of new eateries and bars. A raft of new political parties emerged, including a bunch of bright youngsters led by the charismatic Viktor Orbán.

Back then the transition narrative for Hungary was optimistic and straightforward: assimilate into Europe’s institutions and norms, privatise and create a market-driven economy and watch as Hungary converges with the West. But what were these ‘European’ institutions and norms? They seemed to be developing so fast that it was hard to get a handle on just what ‘Europe’ meant. Did it mean Greece or Sweden? Germany or Ireland? A lot of regulations and directives were issued from Brussels, but there was little public debate about these. That struck me at the time as a risk. The privatisation bazaar also seemed to overwhelmingly benefit the same people who had held power in the old regime. And most striking of all was that everyday conversation was not so much about ‘Europe’, but about Hungary. Now that Hungary was no longer shackled by a powerful overseer, who were Hungarians and how should they assert their independence?

After my return to Australia a couple of years later, Hungary gradually shifted to the back of my mind. My focus was in Australia and Asia, where I was convinced the next big change was happening. In Australia, we finally seemed ready to see the world through our own eyes rather than thinking of ourselves as a colonial outpost. I got swept away by the apparent rising support for multiculturalism (which I still consider a recognition of reality) and a stumbling but sincere (I thought) series of steps towards reconciliation between First Australians and the rest of us who are descended from migrants. We seemed ready, after two centuries of denial, to finally embrace our location in the world and to get along with our neighbours as partners rather than turning our backs on them.

What a mirage this proved to be, and how leader-dependent. Prime Minister John Howard told us to stop the endless seminar on our identity and we accepted him at face value as he force-fed us images of Union Jack-emblazoned flags and green and gold tracksuits and diggers heading off to show our loyalty and devotion in foreign wars. In everyday life, despite the change of narrative, we continued being successfully multicultural, embracing economic links with Asia and eventually saying ‘sorry’ for at least some past transgressions against First Australians. But the narrative of an inclusive Australia had been undone, nowhere more effectively than in the Coalition government’s success in turning a migrant country against asylum seekers to win the 2001 election. The more time I spent in Asia, the more I observed Australia prospering from its links to the region, alongside its simultaneous anxiety about its position in the region, without a plan or roadmap.

Along the way I often wondered about distant Hungary, but rarely heard anything about it – apart from the unsurprising news that Orbán had become prime minister. Had Hungary found its home in Europe, even as Australia had failed to find its home in the Asia-Pacific? Had Hungary become more prosperous and inclusive? I found stories in the Western media that Orbán was presiding over a corrupt ‘mafia state’ and was undermining its democratic institutions. I thought I should go to see for myself, after observing in Asia how often the reality on the ground was more complex than media portrayals. After all, I had enjoyed so much there, tried to learn the language, made good friends. And ever since I was young, I have been drawn to Hungarian culture: I love poppy seed strudels and salami, art nouveau architecture and atonal music. As a young undergraduate, I named my cat after Béla Bartók. I had a fascination with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its implications for the Cold War. Something was pulling me back.

Returning to Budapest after a gap of nearly two decades, I realised I really had fallen in love with the city all those years ago. I began fantasising about returning for a few years, using it as a wonderful (and low-cost) base from which to explore Europe and write a PhD. Two years ago, after time spent working in Beijing, I was longing for a faraway place to ponder the seismic changes emanating from China, and contemplate the big ‘East and West’ questions of our age. I found a little apartment in Budapest and set out to be an observer of change, once again. With Hungary positioning itself to be China’s best friend in Europe, Orban’s audacious brand of enfant terrible nationalist politics and the raging debates it was stimulating in Europe, this promised to be an interesting vantage point.

And then everything became much more personal. Early this year I received a letter sent by certified mail. I thought it might be related to my residency or my student status. But it was nothing so humdrum. It was written in Hungarian and came from the Notary Public of Vác, a small town north of Budapest. The letter said that somebody by the name of Mr Lajos Haár had died there on Christmas day in 2018 and, while the authorities had not at first succeeded in finding his last remaining relative, they had searched again and found me. The letter asked me to reply confirming my identity. I sent a brief email in response, explaining that I had never heard of a Lajos Haár and, as far I as I had ever known, was not related to anyone in Hungary.

A few days later, the Notary called me. She was very courteous and spoke perfectly good English. She said she needed me to write a more formal letter, which would be sent by certified mail and have two witnesses to my signature. I said I did not know this Lajos Haár, it was very sad that he had no remaining relatives but that it must be some mistake. He was not related to me as far as I was aware. She said she understood, based on my advice, that I did not know of any link. But he had named me as his child in his testament and she understood that this child had lived in Australia.

That really stretched credibility. This man was not my father, I was sure. But perhaps there was some connection to my family. Perhaps an illicit affair? I wrote back to the Notary saying that while I did not believe Haár was my father, I was interested to understand why he thought he was. When no answer came, I felt increasingly dissatisfied. No one I asked in my family had ever heard of him. I researched my family tree, finding lots of Central European connections, ancestors from Germany, Poland and Denmark, but no link to Hungary. Then I turned to searching the passenger lists of ships coming to Australia after World War II.

There he was. Lajos Haár, born in 1934, single, factory worker, Hungarian, on the passenger list of displaced persons who departed Trieste in December 1957 on the Groote Beer, arrived in Melbourne in January 1958. He was a refugee who left Hungary after the 1956 uprising. After more digging, I found that six years before I was born he was living in Bonegilla refugee camp in Albury-Wodonga. The trail was getting warmer, but then it stopped. Somehow, forty years after emigrating to Australia, he had died back in Hungary – believing I was his son.

I may never get to the bottom of this strange story. But it has made the refugee connection between Hungary and Australia more intriguing for me, as well as questions of identity. After all, I could just as easily be descended from a 1950s Hungarian refugee as from an 1850s German gold-seeker. Would that make me any different?

Hungarian politics today revolves around ethno-national identity – as it has so often in the past – and visceral hostility towards asylum seekers is carefully stoked as part of that. Orbán enjoys a close political relationship with former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a hardliner on border control; his government deploys political tactics learnt from Australia, and the Hungarian media regularly extolls the example set by Australia in stopping boatloads of ‘migrants’. Hungarians I meet are confused when I say Australia is a successful multicultural country and welcomes record numbers of migrants every year. But this can’t be so, they say; Australia stopped the migrants. We understand each other so superficially, in both directions.

Once I laughed when a Hungarian earnestly told me European civilisation was under threat from migrants. I should have understood better that Hungarians feel deeply under siege from the outside world. Located at their own bridge between East and West, Hungary is where the East’s westward march was stopped in earlier centuries. Through optimistic Australian eyes, I see Europe as an enduring civilisation that has learnt in recent times to temper its tendency for destruction. Many Hungarians worry that the world will change again, abruptly and irrevocably, as it has so many times before.

Hungary is nestled deep in the heart of Europe and yet remains an island – culturally and linguistically (its language is impossibly difficult). And its position in Europe remains ambiguous and contested. For the cosmopolitan liberals of Budapest, Hungary’s membership of NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004 should have resolved Hungary’s age-old problems, preserving its unique identity within the safety and security of the European political and security structures. But beyond Budapest, fear of domination by an outside power and tribal ethnic loyalties are more common. When Hungary came ‘home’ to Europe after 1989, at least half the country was surprised to find that home had changed since the pre-war Europe many Hungarians remembered, with strikingly different social values. After joining the European Union, millions of Hungarians suffered from the almost immediate recession caused by the great neoliberal economic failure of 2007-08. People blamed the cosmopolitan elites of Budapest, as well as Brussels. This empowered an illiberal agenda that has gathered strong support among the ‘outsiders’ who constitute most of those left behind, after half a million of Hungary’s young and highly skilled left to work in richer European states. Orbán, always such an effective communicator, has harnessed that agenda to secure himself in power for the long haul. He nurtures a culture clash against modernity, and celebrates a return to strongman leaders, big families to repopulate the country and an imagined strong Magyar nation.

Where Australia differs dramatically from Hungary is that we don’t yearn for national independence. Our dominant narrative is what Alan Gyngell aptly calls ‘fear of abandonment’. Australia has yearned for continued dependence since the twin events of Federation and the White Australia policy, both of which perpetuated the fiction that we were part of an enduring empire and the notion that only Anglo Australians can be truly Australian. Those who subscribe to these false narratives continue to imagine we are a small country unable to make our own way in the world, predetermined to follow the course set by a distant, powerful friend: the UK or the US. This bears no resemblance to the material reality that Australia is a large and extraordinarily wealthy country, strengthened by its multicultural diversity. Looking from Hungary (or from Asia), Australia appears suitably well endowed to chart an independent course for itself as a friend to Asia, the US, Europe and beyond. Conservatives constantly evoke historical fears of Asia, from communism to asylum seekers and, more recently, a revival of primal “China panic” - the new culture war - to frighten and to divide and impugn people’s loyalties. Just as Western European commentators cried “foreign influence” when Hungary went looking for Chinese finance in the wake of the global financial crisis, Australians were warned of “foreign influence” when some politicians were found to be soliciting foreign donations. This took the spotlight off the real story: that conservatives in Australia have for many years resisted greater transparency around political donations, and greater accountability in the institutions of Australian democracy.

It is a stretch to draw too many parallels between Hungary and Australia, but we do share a ‘small country’ mindset. For Hungary, an actual small country – now no longer a leading partner in the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire – polarized and hyperbolic politics suggest it must fight to survive. The result might be highly problematic, but it certainly stimulates debate and fires a unique cultural life. For Australia, an imagined small country, there is a deadening consensus that we must submit to survive. Our real strategic options are much greater; with just a little imagination we could contribute inclusive and innovative leadership in our region. But our own leaders seem asleep at the wheel.

Despite the characteristic pessimism of Hungarians, who can usually be relied upon to forecast disaster around every corner, it is hard to feel too glum when surveying Budapest’s sparkling vista. After all, Hungary’s recently booming economy, one of the fastest growing in Europe – at least before the COVID-19 pandemic – has provided it with a solid foundation. So far, it appears to have contained the coronavirus better than some of its neighbours, despite the international media’s excitement about a lack of an end date for the current state of emergency. So what if it has a charismatic, populist leader who takes advantage of a weak civil society and divided opposition? Perhaps Orbán will prove to be a version of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - clearly no saint, but a leader who comes to represent an era, and an era of growth, at least. Perhaps his tough-guy rule will also stimulate the long-awaited revival of a viable opposition. As an outsider here, I pass no judgment on Orbán, who is anyway not so different from Howard or Abbott. All were elected, all can be defeated. Each country must find its own way.

AS FOR MY story, I will probably never know why a man born in Hungary, called Lajos Haár, believed he was my father. His secret has been buried with him. I was invited to the reading of his will, but decided not to attend, partly because of COVID-19 but also because I make no claim. I sometimes wonder about his own worldview. Would he have admired or condemned Orbán’s Hungary? Did he feel welcome or marginalised in Australia? How would he have viewed the extraordinary privilege I have had to learn about his culture while – whenever I am ready, and whenever international travel opens again – returning to my own?

Despite the slow progress of history, I live in hope that the country I call home can continue on a journey of mutual learning between the ancient cultures of First Australians and those who have come from Europe and other parts of the globe. If only we could find a way to feel comfortable with our diversity, with complexity and ambiguity. Perhaps the turmoil of our times isn’t, after all, a clash between East and West, liberal or illiberal, or even traditional and modern, but simply a matter of walking in each other’s shoes. As an Australian living in Europe, with my own identity brought into question every day, I am determined to make the best of both worlds.

5 June 2020

Originally published in Griffith Review