Monday, April 25, 2016

Politics and History in Budapest

Monument and Counter-Monument
Budapest, Hungary

It's been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. Since Friday 15 April I've spent less than half my time in Berlin, and being home now is giving me a much-needed chance to catch up and put these thoughts in order.

So what have I been doing? I spent a day in Hamburg, exploring the city and having a 30-minute interview. Thoughts this brings up: educational privilege, connections, the difference between Berlin and Hamburg (and how Hamburg feels much older and more secure). This past weekend I was in Sweden visiting Lieutenant Sarcasm. Thoughts this brings up: civilization, desire to fulfill responsibilities vs. ability to do so, the concept of being able to have a relatively un-angst-filled relationship to the past.

Most importantly for this post and my political awakening, though, were the roughly 3 days the entire Berlin group spent in Budapest from Sunday to Wednesday last week. We met various people, from professors and opposition NGOs to Hungarian students and members of an institute that supports the Orban administration.

I went in knowing very little about Hungary besides that the country is shutting its borders to refugees. Our trip organizer sent us several links to help give us some background. There's a definite bias to these materials:

I share this bias, and living now in Germany in a very liberal homestay family as a college student from one of the most liberal states in the USA, it's very simple and easy for me to listen to critics of the Orban government and agree. The countries of the EU must act together to meet a great humanitarian need. Of course! Refugees should be welcomed and given a chance to start a new life away from danger. Of course! However, with the rise of the National Front in France and the AfD in Germany and the Free Party in Austria and the continued popularity of the Orban regime, it is clear that messages running counter to those which I find self-evident are in fact resonating with large groups of people. Therefore, I was most interested in hearing what the Hungarian students and what the Orban supporters had to say.

The Hungarian students tended to be liberal-minded and much more politically aware and sophisticated than us, or so it seemed to me. The one sitting at my table at dinner was actually just in her last year of high school, but had already studied a semester abroad in Vienna and knew four languages (Hungarian, English, German, and Italian; may also have had a little instruction in French). Yet even these students' mindsets show some of the levers that Orban and people like him (nationalists, conservatives) are pulling. These students were very, very proud of being Hungarian in both blood and nationality. Our student, an open and friendly girl with lots of suggestions for where to go and what to do, asked me upon hearing me say that I was American, "but what about your blood?" Later in the evening, when asked a direct question about politics, she said that she saw the two trends in the EU as the worrying rise of right-wing extremism--and in opposition, homogenization.

As a first-generation Chinese-American kid, I've always had to deal with the bullshit idea that your ethnicity and your nationality must be the same. It is an idea which I have only ever seen paired with racism--maybe not open and hostile racism, but racism from even well-meaning folks is harmful. In the current political climate the hostile kind is growing increasingly likely.

Such an attitude was, in fact, taken up by the Orban supporters we heard from. One speaker on the "migrant crisis" said that integration and immigration are issues that are better taken up by the "Germans, who are more used to mixing with Asians and Muslims" [sic] (yes, actually [sic]). One of our group questioned him on this point, asking if he really had such little faith in the Hungarian people to welcome people who are not ethnically Hungarian. Admittedly, Hungary is pretty ethnically homogeneous--but this guy taking it as a given that Hungarians could not integrate with people who are different.

This leads to a question of leadership. What does a leader do, if not unite people behind a vision? Sometimes that vision is grotesque--Hitler is the obvious example, but pick any of the recent politicians who spew hate and intolerance--but it does not have to be. Yet something that the critics we heard from all said was that the current wave of right-wing extremism has been exacerbated by the failure of the political left to offer a compelling competing vision. Austria's traditional centrist parties, which have ruled either separately or in coalition since the end of WWII, aren't even going to make it to the second round of presidential elections. Where is the center, where is the left?

A lot of people are flocking to these right-wing parties and movements because of dissatisfaction with the existing order. So saith this TU-Dresden survey of Pegida participants (link is in German but mostly graphs, so only a few words to translate). If these people are just out-and-out bigots, then (in my mind) catering to them is a step that only the craven would resort to, but if they are normal people whose economic and social fears are being manipulated into hatred, who could be convinced to see opportunities where now there is only uncertainty--what have the ruling parties of the past been doing?

Normatively, people don't need a politician or TV personality or anyone else to tell them what or how to think. But our sense of what is right is socially influenced, and people in positions of power have a responsibility to use their greater/broader access to information in order to present interpretations of reality that are truthful and that move us forward.

(There's a lot more ideology in the previous paragraph than I usually put in, but since I'm just beginning to form my political consciousness I'm going to leave it as is for now. It will get stress-tested.)

To return to Budapest: the same guy talking about the "migrant crisis" (I use quotes because this is how he referred to it; this is how the government is framing it, as a "migrant" crisis and not as a "refugee crisis") spoke of the need to distinguish between asylum policy and immigration policy. Immigration policy meaning "who we decide to live with" [sic] and asylum policy meaning how to help people fleeing violence. His answer to the first was vague, aside from not wanting to let Asians and Muslims into Hungary. His answer to the second was a little more concrete but seemed to boil down to: lob money over the fence to Turkey and let them deal with the problem of housing and clothing and feeding thousands upon thousands of people. And maybe to have the EU take a more active role in foreign affairs in order to "reduce the numbers, reduce the excess" [sic].

The week before the Budapest trip, in my theater class we watched a production of the play FEAR. (A brief intro in English here.) It is about the current rise of conservative national extremism in Germany, and is full of the plea/protest/vow of "never again." The shadow of National Socialism lies heavy on Germany, and in Berlin especially. The theme of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is in the background of the current discussions. Germany, as the main perpetrator in WWII, has not had the option of turning away from the past.

Not so in Hungary. The current regime is eager to deny Hungary's participation in fascism. The picture at the top of this post is of a monument the Orban regime put up, showing Hungary being attacked by the eagle of the Third Reich*, along with the counter-monument--mementos belonging to or symbolizing those who were persecuted--put up by Hungarian citizens angry at this revisionism. The House of Terror, a museum put up by the current regime which explains fascist and communist rule in Hungary from the latter years of WWII to the fall of the Iron Curtain, takes a similar line.

*Note on the anachronism/mixing of symbols: one of our later speakers, a professor of politics with some expertise in history, explained to us that many times in its history, Hungary has been a conquered or subjugated nation--under the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Soviets. The conflation of the Habsburg Empire with the German Third Reich is, presumably, meant to appeal to this historical "underdog" narrative. The current regime is also trying to frame the European Union as another such conqueror.

As a kid born in the late 90s, it's a shock to think about how recently the Cold War ended. It's hard to see oneself as part of a historical trajectory. Part of this may be because my perspective is warped by the US's selective, oftentimes revisionist, certainly inadequate history education. Part of it may be because I'm first-generation, and feel no real connection to my ethnic heritage because I haven't grown up living or at least hearing about it and feel only a tenuous connection to my national heritage because is the history of the US as we're taught it really a history about/for people who are like me? Part of it may just be because, growing up in the US, it is easier to overlook the trauma of past conflicts because our cities haven't been bombed and invaded and burnt down in the past century. Since coming here, I've had a lot of moments of historical vertigo--at how long the past is--and anti-vertigo--at how near the past is. I am three degrees of separation (meaning, I know someone who knows someone who knew/met) away from both Martin Niemoller and Adolf Hitler.

Maybe the nearness of history has made such a large impression on me precisely because it's different from what I'm used to. But from my perspective, it seems impossible how easily these "civilized" nations, with such educated and clever and sophisticated citizens, fall back into the patterns of nationalist thought that swallowed millions of lives just a century ago. I have no doubt that these people are on the wrong side of history. But what consolation is that in the present?

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