In the 1980s Hungary was known as the ‘merriest barracks in the socialist camp’. After the suppression of the 1956 uprising by the Red Army, János Kádár instituted what became known as ‘goulash communism’, characterised by a policy of ‘little freedoms’: Hungarians could travel abroad, trade privately and say what they liked, so long as they didn’t attack the regime directly. Kádár, the illegitimate son of a half-Slovak chambermaid, managed to persuade the Hungarians to see him as a plain-spoken ‘father of the people’. He punished the revolutionaries, promoted his critics, encouraged consumerism and turned totalitarian logic upside down by claiming that ‘whoever is not against us is with us.’ The country’s exit from state socialism was among the smoothest in Eastern Europe. Hungary spent the 1990s as a model pupil of the West, finally joining the EU in 2004. Now, almost a decade on, it is led by the charismatic, self-declared ‘right-wing plebeian’ Viktor Orbán, a man whom critics charge with the ‘Putinisation’ of Hungary. Thanks to his government’s undermining of the rule of law, Hungary risks being the first EU member state to be sanctioned for violating ‘shared European values’. In central Budapest paramilitaries in black uniforms patrol the streets – they are supposedly ‘fighting Gypsy crime’ – and tourists emerging from the beautifully restored Fin de Siècle Kaffeehäuser are liable to find themselves facing an angry crowd burning the EU flag. What happened? And why in Hungary?
LRB 21 June 2012 | PDF Download