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The Image of Hungary in Germany 1990–2021

By Zsolt K. Lengyel

The combination of reporting with power-political interests became increasingly stronger in the course of the elections to the European Parliament and the Hungarian municipal elections in 2019. The vast majority of the German media are now keeping their fingers crossed for the Hungarian opposition, so they want to contribute to the overthrow of Viktor Orbán. Therefore, until the Hungarian parliamentary elections in 2022, the ideologization of the German image of Hungary will probably continue to increase – at the expense of quality journalism.

1. The change of opinion

It is a peculiar phenomenon of recent german-Hungarian relationship history that the benevolent view of Hungary in the late Kádár era got its first scratches just as the country was breaking into democracy. Around 1990, a new element appeared in the image of Hungary in German journalism: the young Hungarian democracy came under increasing pressure to justify itself. In the background, the traditional intra-Nazi culture war between two intellectual currents, which has been traditional since the first quarter of the 20th century, took place, which inserted themselves into a left-liberal-right-wing conservative grid and were and probably still are embedded in the conflict-laden Judeo-Christian relationship, each with pronounced identity features. The Hungarian elite, from which the left lined up in the young multi-party system, filed a claim to sole representation of liberalism. At the same time, she not only rejected the national idea for herself, but also accused its advocates of backward-looking and denied them the suitability for democracy. In return, she was accused of being anational, even anti-national.

2. The prediction is fulfilled

The image of nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary emerged since the early 1990s through the one-sided intervention of the German media in the Hungarian Kulturkampf. As early as 2009, the prediction of the departure of Hungarian democracy into dictatorship spread in the print media. The prophecy then came true from spring 2010 for the majority of the German publicists who were decisive in the first press public. The prominent irritant figure of German political journalism, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has only gradually grown into the willingness to argue that German correspondents and commentators as well as politicians in Berlin, Brussels and Strasbourg had already testified to him around 2010.

The refugee and migrant crisis, which escalated in late summer 2015, has further strengthened the tendency of the German journalists’ guild to accuse political and cultural Hungary of xenophobia, even to describe xenophobia as a structural feature of the Hungarian dictatorship. For years, the derogatory assessments have been so dense and so deep in the arc from anti-Semitism to antigypsyism, Greater Aryan nationalism, anti-Muslim sentiment and, more recently, homophobia that theoverall picture remains negative evenif one or the other accusation proves to be unfubstful. The verdict mainly pillories Hungary’s political system in the “Orbanocracy”, but repeatedly involves the entire society of Hungary. Already at the beginning of the 2010s, two general features of journalistic sweeps were the personification of evil in the form of a single man, namely Viktor Orbán, and the networking of individual forms of expression of that very evil.

3. The language of rejection

In the German reporting on Hungary over the past ten years, brandings of historical connotations have been a means of condemning the country. Verbal derities were also reported by active politicians from the left spectrum. Soon it became a custom to substantiate the accusation of nationalism, which is newborn in Hungary, with the adjective völkisch from the vocabulary of the racist concept. German publicists like to draw parallels between “Orbanistan” and the Third Reich,for example in connection with Budapest’s family policy, which would be reminiscent of the “Nazi era” as a “reproductive pact”.

For the identification of the position of the Hungarian head of government, the term “Führerdemokratie”, which discreditsin German language form, was and is also used. Similarly unspeakable sounds to German ears ,“Fidesz über alles”the title of an article about Orbán’s party, which appeared in Die Welt on the occasion of the adoption of Hungary’s new constitution in 2011. From the series of verbal blunders, some terms stand out, such as “eyesore ” of Europe, decomposition of values” by Viktor Orbán, at the same time the demand to “neutralize this tumor of values”. Compared to the cancer metaphor abused in Germany in the 1930s, Hungary’s “sick democracy”, which is infected by“Viktor Orbán’s virus”, sounds milder.

In 2011, 2012 and 2015, caricatures in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in several languages – and also online – depicted Hungary as Neanderthals on the door of Europe,

as a state whose head of government must take tutoring in democracy, and as a community that is drunk with national pride and closes itself off.

4. The imaginary lever in national and international power struggles

The journalistic image of authoritarian to dictatorial Hungary has recently become an imaginary lever: it is intended to influence party-political disputes in Germany and the European Union. Again and again, press people formulated specifications for the political scene in advance, as they were repeatedly used as a mouthpiece even by the political class. This combination with power-political interests has reached a new high as a result of the elections to the European Parliament and the Hungarian local elections in 2019 as well as through positions for the Bundestag and parliamentary elections in 2021 in Germany and 2022 in Hungary.

The seats won for the Hungarian opposition in the European Parliament are a guarantee that Hungarian domestic politics will take place to a considerable extent in Strasbourg and Brussels, where opponents of the Orbán government can be sure of the mediation aid of The German media.

Today, as at the beginning of the 1990s, the image of Hungary in Germany emerges to a considerable extent in Hungary.

The german-French cultural channel Arte TV broadcast the extensive documentary “Hallo, Diktator. Orbán, the EU and the rule of law”. This investigative advertising film for a German MEP of the Greens elected in 2019,also shot in Budapest, sheds all his scruples about party-political propaganda.

5. The German Mask of the Rainbow

The German media opened a new chapter in their struggle for Hungarian democracy in the early summer of this year. In June 2021, they announced that homosexuality and transsexuality were a European value that was being trampled underfoot in Hungary. The rainbow lighting of Munich’s Allianz Arena at the Germany-Hungary international football match was planned in close cooperation between a Green city councillor and the SPD mayor.

The subsequent campaign against homophobic Hungary unfolded an explosiveness due to the mutual conditionality of the German and Hungarian election campaigns, which even exceeded the intensity of the usual German Hungarian bashing.

At the same time, however, it also brought to light – for the first time in many years – self-critical voices in the right-wing and left-wing spectrum of leading German journalism. One article accused “Politics for One’s Own Enlightenment” of merely feigning its compassion for the affected community. Even in the left-wing Berlin Tagesspiegel, the correspondent of the editor-in-chief was alienated by the “battle between good and evil”. He was dismayed by the attempt to demonstrate “moral superiority” over “supposedly backward EU partners” and was struck by the staging of a “call for tolerance” that morally accuses an entire country of “nation against nation.” An author of Tichy’s insight also perceived “German arrogance” from another political perspective in the press campaign, which“is obviously not about the rights of gays and lesbians, but only once again about the fact that the Germans are the best”.

6. The enemy image

According to a common interpretation, the responsibility for the increasing harshness of the language since 2010 and the coarseness of the evaluations is ultimately attributable to a person.

Viktor Orbán is in his sights.

The key moment for his ongoing demonization is his speech in July 2014 on “illiberal democracy”, which over the years has mainly been used by political opponents to disqualify him. At the joint Budapest press conference on 2 February 2015, Angela Merkel also criticized the fact that the Christian Democratic vocabulary for her includes not only social and conservative but also liberal.

The positions of the Chancellor and the Hungarian Prime Minister have remained essentially unchanged since then. In a programmatic speech from early autumn 2020, the Prime Minister pledged the inviolability of the rule of law and human rights for the countless time, but – as in 2014 – he outlined the frame of reference for an illiberal democracy. Thus, the spell of the German chancellor, thus also of the relevant German media landscape, still lies above the irritating word with which Orbán in 2014 did not express the intention of anti-democratic restrictions or even the dictatorial restriction of civil liberties, which he has since been drawn. In any case, the image of Hungary faithfully depicts the personal feud between the heads of the two governments.

7. The better ones

The journalistic-political dispute with Hungary is essentially supported by the dilemma between representative democracy, which in Hungary is enriched with the direct democratic instrument of the referendum, and European Community law.

Superficially, the gap runs between right-wing democracy, labelled as xenophobic, and left-liberal democracy, which sees itself as the sole guardian of Europeanism.

This pair of opposites corresponds to the gap betweentwo political ideals:the Europe of Nations and the United States of Europe.

With the tireless references to European values, the liberalism of our day in large parts of society has provided itself with the nimbus of an alleged superiority, which in competition with the self-assertion of the nations and nation states is intended to justify the disapproval of Hungary in the media and political public.

8. Hungary’s role in Germany’s coming to terms with the past

The circle of“Orbánistans” brand marks,which opened around 2010, closed in a special way at Deutsche Welle in February 2021.

The report“Orbán rebuilds Budapest” uses exclusively oppositional statements to present the large-scale restoration work in the Hungarian capital on the castle and on Kossuth Square as “power architecture”

to satisfy the longing for the inter-world war and world war period under Imperial Governor Miklós Horthy, which frightens the Jewish population in today’s Budapest of a new deportation. A salient feature of this accusation is the mutual abuse between the makers and Hungarian creators of the film. The Hungarian side allows itself to be involved in coming to terms with Germany’s past, the German side in the intra-Hungarian election campaign. The numerous and mostly negative comments on this manipulative interpretation on YouTube exemplify the usually critical attitude of the second and third media public to streamlined reporting.

9. The Educational Crisis of German Political Journalism

The irreconcilable German journalistic alienation towards structures and developments in Hungary is explained on the one hand by practical and party-political reasons. Alinguistic ignorance or partial knowledge of the details of the subject matter is accompanied by the one-sided selection of sources of information.

The opinion-leading German media are obviously pursuing the goal of contributing to the overthrow of Viktor Orbán.

The partisan representations avoid a rational exchange of arguments and counter-arguments, do not even allow a discourse with opposing points of view. Instead of tapping into, analysing and conveying facts, they primarily create a mood on the subject of Hungary. So they have slipped into a professional education crisis.

On the other hand, the polemics and tone of opinion of the majority of the German media arise from ignorance of the idealistic mood of a people that is more history-conscious than the present German one. In Hungary, the nation-state independence gained three decades ago resulted in an appreciation of the patriotism frowned upon in anational and atheist communism, which is based on love of the fatherland and is not an aggressively exclusionary nationalism that German observers tend to defame.

The conflict ultimately takes place between a collectivist and an individualistic view of nations.

A particular complication lies in the fact that the Hungarian and German conceptions of nations have recently developed asynchronously, stiffened in each case, thus distanced from each other. At their ideological fringes, however, the two sides are critically targeting the same phenomenon: the liberal nation.

Analogous to the logic of the inner-Hungarian kulturkampf, for the German left there is a contradiction between liberal order and national interests, while for parts of the Hungarian right Hungary with its nationally justified reason of state must reject liberalism.

10. Is objectification possible?

The liberal democratic relentlessness towards the “Orbán regime”, with its long duration and broad diversification, has caused a loss of image that in German society increasingly endangers sympathies that remained in Hungary and Magyars. In the Hungarian narrative of the cultural-scientific circles, too, conjectures have taken hold as certainties that need not be questioned and now assume dogma status. In German historiography, for example, opinion makers deny nation designs the capacity for democracy if they wish to establish themselves politically and ethnically-culturally and therefore insist on the practice of their state sovereignty.

It is to be hoped that at the political level the german-Hungarian tensions will decrease, and that the german-Hungarian rapprochement will also be possible in the social sphere in the near future. But even in this case, there would still be a challenging task to be mastered.

A hidden treasure was to be lifted: the European value of equality.

What is right in Germany does not have to be right in Hungary – and vice versa. Therefore, it makes a good time to appreciate the regional peculiarities. It may inspire new confidence if the parties involved fail to consider their own thought system to be superior in all respects. If they acknowledge each other’s free will, then they would also be free to regard each other as equals. The primordial liberal principle of tolerant voluntariness could – if it is at that time – make it easier for the weaker European actor to give in with a sense of proportion at the expense of his own truths, and encourage the stronger one to stop making excessive accusations.

This article was first published by CORVINAK.HU and then in German translation by UNGARNREAL, our partner in the EUROPEAN MEDIA COOPERATION.

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