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Todd Culbertson column: Hungary offers misgovernment with the consent of the governed

Todd Culbertson column: Hungary offers misgovernment with the consent of the governed

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In 1956, Hungary set the world on fire. Thousands took to the streets to demand an end to communist repression; the country appeared on the verge of breaking out of the Soviet orbit. Imre Nagy led Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact and appealed to Western powers to recognize its neutrality. The throngs in the street believed the United States would intervene on their behalf. Indeed, U.S. broadcasts extolling the freedom fighters encouraged such hope. When the Soviets invaded, when tanks rolled into the streets of Budapest, the U.S. did not respond militarily. It had few options. Intervention would have invited an all-out war in Central Europe the U.S. and its allies could not win. The Red Army would have prevailed in conventional warfare; the U.S. would not have resorted to nuclear war. President Eisenhower acted wisely, although deluded purists thought otherwise. The failure to act in Hungary may have influenced the disastrous decision to intervene in Vietnam. The U.S. learned the wrong lesson.

Nagy fell, and later was executed by the communists. His example continued to inspire Hungarians. Josef Cardinal Mindszenty, leader of Hungary’s Catholics, sought sanctuary in the U.S. embassy in Budapest, where he lived for 15 years. He died in Vienna. Hungary remained a satellite under Janos Kadar. It eventually practiced a so-called goulash communism, which relaxed some of the worst aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain. Although not free, it was a better place to live than the other satellites, with the possible exception of Czechoslovakia. Hungary ultimately played a crucial role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The seed had been sown.

In Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyski followed a different approach than Mindszenty. He did not go underground. His protege, Karol Wojtyła, became Pope John Paul II.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of celebration. Freedom was breaking out. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with its Ode to Joy became a universal anthem of liberal aspirations. History appeared to have come to an end. Hungary joined NATO. People moved through its borders with ease. It became a tourist destination noted for its food and its art. The good news removed Hungary from the front lines.

Armies stopped squaring off nearby. Conditions in Hungary no longer provoked superpower confrontation. Partly as a consequence, the erosion of freedom in Hungary has received scant attention in countries that take freedom for granted.

The government of Viktor Orban has curtailed opposition parties and cracked down on dissent. Corruption is rife. Orban exploits fears regarding immigration to justify his steel boot. This is the dark side of populism. As a young man in 1989, Orban marched against a one-party state.

Now he commands one. According to Freedom House, Hungary has suffered the worst decline in freedom among the European states during the past 10 years. Turkey has suffered the second worst decline in the world; it straddles Europe and the Middle East. A Hungarian opposition has arisen. It deserves America’s encouragement.

History’s arc was supposed to be bending toward freedom. China, Turkey, Russia, Hungary and others are disproving a thesis embraced by market ideologues. Economic growth does not necessarily lead to political progress. Markets can flourish in the absence of political and social freedom.

This should not surprise obesrvers who are historically aware. Capitalism and slavery got along perfectly well; the industrial revolution was built on the backs of slaves. Capitalism also included the forces that expanded liberty, although the process was not guaranteed.

The worst news is that trends in Hungary — and Turkey, China and elsewhere — may not be unpopular. Orban would be favored to win an unrigged election. Call it misgovernment with the consent of the misgoverned, and be warned.

Todd Culbertson is senior editor, editorials at The Times-Dispatch. Contact him at

As a young man in 1989, Orban marched against a one-party state. Now he commands one.


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