Hungary is an angry nation. Ask a passerby what state their country is in, and the answer will be something like „dreadful,” „hopeless.”

Hungary, your informant will tell you, has suffered from centuries of invasion, it has been humiliated, occupied, carved up, divided. And it’s this understanding of the country’s history that gives rise to an obstinate pride. „Despite all the suffering, all the tragedies, we remain great, indomitable,” they will tell you.
It seems like a circular argument. Is defeat a condition for greatness?

In truth, Hungary’s history is no grimmer than any of its neighbours’, most of whom would insist that History had dealt them no better a hand.

Over the 1,100 years since Hungarians first appeared in Europe, their territory has waxed and wained, sometimes reaching the rank of a regional great power, at other times succumbing to the dead hand of an occupying power. But, unlike the Slovaks, Hungarians had a state and were recognised as a distinct group, and unlike their Balkan neighbours, Hungary has enjoyed periods of growth and modernity, as when, at the turn of the 20th century, Budapest briefly assumed the mantle of fastest growing city in the world.

The resentment begins with Trianon. Hungary was on the losing side in World War I, and, in what was seen as an act of retribution, the victorious powers chose via the Treaty of Trianon to unpick the complex tangle of nationalities in central Europe as they saw fit. Transylvania, in popular myth the heart of the Hungarian nation, was awarded to Romania. In fairness, then as now, most of the region’s inhabitants were Romanian-speakers. Other parts of the old kingdom were awarded to Serbia and Slovakia.

„No, no, never!” ran the slogan back then, „Hungary will be resurrected!” The loss of Upper Hungary, Southern Hungary and Transylvania was felt to be a mortal blow. Even today, people will sigh, „We need a passport to go to the cemetery.”
Hungary was once again on the losing side after World War II, ending up on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Instinctively, occupation was set in a historical context. After long century’s of Ottoman occupation, it was felt, once again Hungary was held by a foreign power.

In 1956, Imre Nagy, the prime minister of the day, introduced a programme of liberalisation. There was talk of withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. For a brief few days in October 1956, a measure of independence from the Soviet bloc seemed a real possibility. This all came to naught when, after days of agonised hesitation, the Soviet leadership decided this was a step too far. The Warsaw Pact dispatched armies to Hungary to depose the government and establish one more to its liking. An uprising followed as, for days, ad hoc civilian brigades did battle on the streets of Budapest with Russian soldiers.

In Hungary, 1956 is seen as a moment of national glory. The Hungarian nation rose up and did battle against the oppressor. It is a fair description of what happened – but it ignores opposition movements throughout eastern Europe during the Soviet era. In the 1950s alone, troops were sent against the East Germans and the Poles, against Czechoslovakia in 1968 and against Poland in 1981.

After the uprising had been beaten down, János Kádár was installed as leader. His task was simple: to keep the peace. The events of 1956 would not repeat themselves on his watch. So, Hungary became the „happiest barrack,” a consumer paradise amidst the drabness of 1970s eastern Europe. Cars and televisions were imported, censorship was light: anything to keep the population happy.

And so things continued until the late 1980s, when change came once again. As it became clear that the Soviet Union would no longer impose its will in the eastern part of the continent, the prospect of liberalisation became ever more real.
Hungary started the process, opening its border with Austria in 1989, allowing hundreds of East Germans to flee across the border, hastening the fall of the Erich Honecker’s faltering German Democratic Republic.

Hungary’s transition to democracy in 1990 was peaceful. Opposition groups, which had been growing in self-confidence throughout the latter half of the 1980s, sat down with members of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and thrashed out the framework for a new democracy.
Uniquely in the region, those original opposition groups continue to dominate the political scene today.

The Hungarian Democratic Forum was the first of the opposition groups. Conservative, Christian and rural in outlook, many of its members still had ties to the conservative parties that had dominated Hungarian politics in the inter-war years. It was the Forum which went on to form the first post-Communist government, led by József Antall.

The next largest group was the Alliance of Free Democrats, a much younger, more liberal formation, many of whose members were enthusiastic students of liberal philosophy and economics emanating from the West. It had an anti-clerical disposition and a strongly urban outlook.
Both the Forum and the Alliance retain much of their original character today. But the same does not go for the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz, which was formed in 1988 by a group of progressive university students.

Originally an egalitarian organisation with a liberal persuasion, it rapidly came under the influence of the most brilliant of the bunch, the law student Viktor Orbán (pictured above in orange).
As their name suggests, the Young Democrats were at first seen as the youth wing of the Free Democrats. But Orbán’s ambitions were greater: under his guidance the party carved out a distinct niche for itself, though for a long time it remained primarily a youth formation.

This changed in 1994, when the party took a marked conservative turn. Always an anti-Communist formation, the party was led to the right of the political spectrum by Orbán, who saw an opportunity there after the Forum’s dismal performance in the second free parliamentary elections, held in 1994.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers’ Party reinvented itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party.

Orbán Viktor (FIDESZ) and Gyurcsány Ferenc (MSZP) with his wife, Dobrev Klára

Today, the political spectrum is dominated by the Socialists, a new Left formation led by the millionaire former businessman Ferenc Gyurcsány (pictured above in red), and Fidesz, which is still dominated by Viktor Orbán.

The leading opposition forces of the 1980s, the Free Democrats and the Forum, have shrunk down to become the third and fourth parties respectively. The Free Democrats govern in coalition with the Socialists. The Forum, though it identifies itself as a conservative party of the right, is at loggerheads with Fidesz, even though they might seem natural allies.

The Forum, led by Ibolya Dávid, has adopted a different tone from Fidesz. Fidesz’s style is populist, with a focus on the injustices of the past, with a veiled hint that the ruling Socialists may have preserved more of their Communist inheritance than they are letting on.
The Forum sees itself as a less impulsive conservative force, with its eye kept more on the future. As Ibolya Dávid remarked last year, „Going on about the communists 16 years later is just ridiculous.”

The Free Democrats have remained truest to their roots. They continue to be a liberal party, leading the way on social issues, with a progressive stance on minority affairs, human sexuality and drugs policy.
The party is more divided on economic policy, however. Gábor Kuncze, the departing leader, ties together two factions, represented by the two candidates to succeed him. János Kóka, another millionaire former businessman, is on the economic right, a strong proponent of economic liberalism. His rival, Gábor Fodor, a refugee from Fidesz’s liberal days, puts a stronger accent on social liberalism.

What divides the parties most is their attitude towards the past. While most of the political spectrum would agree on the interpretation of 1956, other episodes are more divisive. What of the arrival of the Red Army in 1945, for example? For the Left, broadly construed, this was a moment of liberation. Whatever came next, the Red Army had freed Hungary from the fascist, murderous terror of the Arrow Cross. For the Right, however, it marked one more new stage in a long history of oppression.
There is no consensus in the middle. Hungary is a victim, boldly shrugging off a history of struggle, from the Right’s point of view. Or Hungary is just a country, with political realities to face, as seen from the Left. From the Right, the Left looks treacherous and unpatriotic, from the Left, the Right seems obtuse, intransigent.
Finding the middle ground will be the major task for the first decades of this century.

- Fred Boot