Hungary: How Liberty Can Be Lost

The late Anges Heller in Public Seminar:

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 1989–1991 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 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.

More here.