Batta on Lendvai, 'Orbán: Europe's New Strongman'

Paul Lendvai
Anna Batta

Paul Lendvai. Orbán: Europe's New Strongman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 224 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-087486-5.

Reviewed by Anna Batta (Air War College, Air University) Published on H-War (December, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

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The Influence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

Much was expected from the Visegrad group of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland after the Cold War with respect to adopting democracy, the rule of law, and a clean form of a capitalist system. Nearly thirty years after this watershed moment one cannot help but think that these countries more or less failed in their attempts to create governance that would have accomplished these goals. Especially in recent years, democracy has been put into reverse, the rule of law has taken a backseat, and corruption has never been more rampant, even if we compare it to the days of Soviet rule.

Paul Lendvai in Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman, masterfully traces the rise and further rise of the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and his party, the Alliance of Young Democrats, or FIDESZ, to the top of Hungarian politics and their plot to destroy the liberal order. The author, himself of Hungarian origin, provides a well-researched and high-quality account of a virtually patron-client system that Hungarian politics has come to evolve into during the past few years. Although the book does not provide deep political analysis in an academic and theoretical sense, we do get a complete and sobering picture of a leader, and his era, who has created the “Hungarian model of Eastern Europe” that other Central European leaders have been emulating (p. 199). Ultimately, with his anti-immigration rhetoric, Orbán was able to pull together the former satellite nations and to oppose the European Union regarding migration policy. And onto the bandwagon did the rest of these countries jump.

Chapter 18 of the book had the most impact on me. Page after page the author describes some of the most shameful episodes of the refugee crisis of 2015 in my country, Hungary, where I had grown up—the country where hospitality and kindness toward foreigners had been the norm. And I am not even talking about abstract concepts of human rights, basic standards of the European Union that we have signed at the time of accession, by the way. In hindsight, Orbán’s reaction to the massive flow of refugees that summer was likely the result of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015, after which he participated in the solidarity march in Paris, along with other world leaders. Shortly after, he decided that Hungary will not allow any immigrant to enter the country. This reaction of xenophobia was motivated by safety and a demonstration of strength, although Lendvai interprets it more as a political strategy to hold on to political power. There is an even stronger argument made by the author, which emphasizes Orbán’s resolve to attack the liberals head on. At a FIDESZ meeting later that year, Orbán told his audience that the refugee crisis had created “the first good identity crisis” that has the potential to destroy the “hypocritical” liberals (p. 201).

The current FIDESZ-heavy Hungarian leadership, and especially Orbán, has a long-term hatred for liberal politicians going back all the way to the 1990s. Lendvai juxtaposes this conflict between early FIDESZ and older liberal political parties. Given the different social background of the two groups, FIDESZ practically developed “an aversion fed by inferiority complexes” (p. 29). The Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) were mainly urban, left-wing intellectuals, “philosophers, sociologists, economists, who had broken with Marxism and often came from ex-communist, bourgeois, sometimes Jewish families. They were well read, open to the world and fluent in foreign languages, in contrast to the first generation of FIDESZ intellectuals, who were mostly from a rural or small town background,” and were mainly lawyers by trade (p. 28).

Other well-developed chapters are chapters 6 and 7, which describe the rapid rise and fall of Ferenc Gyurcsány, who ended up becoming the “gravedigger of the Hungarian left” and represented an end to a viable opposition to FIDESZ rule (p. 61). The former prime minister, who was able to steal the position from Orbán for some time, did have a sound economic policy outlook and a plan for economic reforms that were necessary for the country to function, Lendvai maintains. The main problem was that economic reforms were put forward at a time of a looming economic crisis, which ended up leading to major protests and the subsequent resignation of Gyurcsány. Ultimately, Gyurcsány did try to convince his fellow politicians that the painful reforms were necessary; however, his “lie speech” in 2006 played into the hands of FIDESZ. Orbán and his party called Gyurcsány a “chronic liar,” which was followed by thousands of demonstrators assembling in front of the Hungarian parliament building (p. 69). The protests were further instigated by Orbán who called for daily demonstrations until the government resigned.

Upon reading the book, it is evident that there are many parallels between Hungary and present-day Russia. Restrictions of freedom of the press, the building of a FIDESZ media empire, and government control of information very much resemble Vladimir Putin’s Russia, although the extent of these activities are larger in Russia than in Hungary today. Nevertheless, the closure of Nepszabadság, the left-liberal independent daily newspaper, which was perhaps one of the only remaining media outlets that remained critical of the government, had accomplished the “Fidesz regime’s near total hegemony in the Hungarian media world” (p. 161).

The author spends some time describing the process of creating a new constitution and the measures that led to the loosening of the separation of powers, especially regarding electoral law reform and the Constitutional Court. The discourse has come to the point that in 2012 EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding threatened “the Hungarian government with the invocation of Article 7 of the EU Treaty—with the withdrawal of voting rights” (p. 124). Only one-third of conservatives supported Orbán even though the conservatives held almost half the seats in the European Parliament at the time. This has been interpreted as a moral defeat for the Hungarian prime minister. In September 2018, the European Parliament once again voted with a two-thirds majority to start the procedure against Hungary to revoke its voting rights.

In 2017 the Hungarian government pushed through a fast-track law that would have led to the closure of Central European University (CEU), one of the top fifty educational institutions in the world. The university was founded with an endowment from George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist, who was designated as a liberal enemy of the FIDESZ-led government. Since 2015 he has been targeted and has been considered a demon who represents liberal democracy. The threat to close CEU and the targeting of Soros are main episodes in the fight against liberals.

It is difficult to be balanced in our writing when there are too many aspects that warrant disapproval. However, to avoid being read as a polemic, the book could have addressed some of FIDESZ’s successful economic policies or other aspects that they have done right. In addition, the author occasionally uses exaggerated language; and while chapters on corruption contain valuable information, toward the end of the book the author tends to focus on scandals and sensationalized information. Nevertheless, the book is written in accessible language and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Hungarian politics since the end of communism. It is an excellent read.

Citation: Anna Batta. Review of Lendvai, Paul, Orbán: Europe's New Strongman. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Hungary's hostility to the West is another black mark on the sorry history of Hungary, harking back to its rule by the Communist Party and Soviet Union.

Being in the geographic orbit of Russia will ultimately backfire on this rightwing Govt.