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  • Hungary:How Liberty Can Be Lost
  • Agnes Heller (bio)

as the bible (exodus) teaches and, more recently, hannah arendt warns, liberation is not yet liberty. The institutions of liberty must first be constituted, and people need to learn how to make them work while breathing spirit into them.

The years 1989–91 were a time of liberation for all the people of Eastern Europe who had suffered totalitarian political systems and ideological indoctrination under Soviet domination. The future, the fate, of all liberated nations depended on the success or failure of transforming liberation into liberty. Some of the just-liberated nations did fairly well, others less so. In Hungary in 1989, enthusiasm for system change was great among intellectuals who were spiritually starving for liberty. A considerable part of the population shared this enthusiasm, believing that the establishment of democratic institutions would immediately lead to the Western standard of living. Thus, they expected a far better life.

For a while, all previously Soviet-dominated countries were developing in a similar direction. Later, however, differences became as important as similarities. The Hungarian case proved unique, since only Hungary went through a second system change, not only de facto but also de jure. The prime minister of Hungary, Victor Orbán, described the result of the second system change as "illiberal democracy" and as "the system of national collaboration" (I discuss this more below).

The result proves that, in Hungary, a great opportunity was wasted and aborted: the opportunity to let liberal democracy take [End Page 1] root in Hungarian soil. Instead, Hungarians seem to have relied on a longstanding tradition of following a leader, expecting everything from above, believing—or pretending to believe—everything they are told, mixed with a kind of fatalistic cynicism of the impossibility of things being otherwise.

A story is always a story of choices. It was not written in the stars that Hungary would fare worst among all post-Soviet states or that it would be the most radical in its elimination of freedom of the press or balance of power in government and wind up with a system I call tyranny. Tyranny is not a form of state (like democracy or fascism or communism) but a type of rule, where a single person (generally male) decides everything that happens in a country and nothing can happen against this single person's will. The first system change in Hungary, after 1989, established a multiparty approach, whereas during the second system change, after 2010, the opposite tendency took over. The dominant party, Fidesz, is now no more than a mechanism for executing the will, the decisions, and the opinions of the ruler, in much the same way as the Communist Party in Hungary was no party but a mechanism for executing the will of the Central Committee, and thus the will of Moscow.

Of course, no other country controls the Hungarian prime minister. The contemporary Hungarian government is not subjected to command or control from outside. Its choices are its own, its decisions likewise. The political environment is also very different. Hungary is surrounded in the west (at least until now) by liberal democracies and is a member of the European Union. If Hungary is pressured from outside at all, it is slightly being pushed to re-establish the rule of law—albeit to no avail.

Although it was not written in the stars that this would happen, the possibility of relapse into a kind to tyranny was nevertheless there from the beginning. How did it happen and why?

First of all, liberation came to Hungary as a gift. Other than a few thousand intellectuals, no one fought for it or did anything to make it happen. Representatives of the old communist party and [End Page 2] of the new parties sat at a round table and decided the future of the country, the character of its institutions, and how its "peaceful transition" would take place. The general population was excluded from the hard work of the transition (far more than in Romania or Czechoslovakia, for example) and consequently did not receive the education that inclusion in the process would have provided. In essence, Hungarians received liberty...