Norman Stone's book is sheds light on this often mysterious nation
I was chatting to my sister not long ago on the topic of Brexit and the EU (what else is there to talk about these days?) and pointed out that individual European countries were not always entirely happy with the edicts flowing from Brussels. She riposted, “Look at Hungary! Their Prime Minister is now bribing women to have more children!” I queried her use of the word “bribe”, which is normally associated with corruption, and suggested that to offer state support for families, mothers and fathers – surely the bedrock of any sane society – is hardly on a level with bribery.
As it happens I was able to bolster my arguments with some background information derived from a recently published work, Hungary: A Short History, by Norman Stone, a distinguished English historian and one-time Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Stone has taken the trouble to learn the very difficult Hungarian language and now lives there permanently. He reminds readers that Hungary had a good 19th century “and then a horrible 20th century”, marked by the dominance of Nazi Germany, followed by more than 40 years of Communist control. “What does it do to a country where people realise that they produce nothing that anybody wants?” he asks rhetorically.
In his chapter “The 80s and Beyond”, he writes, “Who would have guessed that Hungary, within a few years, was to have a leading role in bringing down the entire [Communist] system?” On 10 September 1989, all East Germans who wanted to do so were allowed to travel west to Austria from Hungary. An exodus from East Germany inevitably happened and by 9 November the Berlin Wall had been breached. Those were heady days indeed.
Back to Viktor Orban, current Prime Minister of Hungary and a professed Christian, who has had the temerity to say that his country doesn’t want to prop up a declining labour force by simply relying on immigration: “We want Hungarian children” he affirms (the current birth rate is 1.45 children per woman and Hungary’s population, currently ten million, is predicted to fall to eight million within a generation unless drastic measures are taken). New initiatives state that whoever has four or more children won’t have to pay income tax; that grandparents can share maternity leave; that cheap loans will be given to couples below the age of 40 who get married; that there will be mortgage relief for large families and so on.
Stone allows Orban to vigorously defend his decision in 2015 to keep out the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East walking to Germany. While “official Europe howled with rage”, Orban pointed out that no-one in Hungary had voted for it and that it was seen as a matter of national survival. Stone puts these remarks in their historical context, explaining that Hungary’s “southern border is porous, the countryside flat, an invitation to invasion. The Hungarians fear being overwhelmed.”
He also points out that Hungary is not rich. Although the EU’s freedom of movement in Europe “is no doubt a good thing” (one suspects he is being ironic here) it has also meant that “more than half a million young Hungarians have emigrated, mainly to Austria, Britain and Germany”, leaving their country’s health service in long-term difficulties. Of Orban, vilified by western intelligentsia and the media, whom Stone knew when he was an Oxford student in the 1980s, the author, a one-time advisor to Margaret Thatcher, remarks that he speaks for “Christianity, the nation and the family. “
Before joining in the EU’s distrust of nation states and Hungary’s stance under Orban, it is worth remembering the country’s recent history and the upheavals caused by his government’s necessary reform of the economy, blighted for decades by Communism. Stone, now a resident, sees Hungary’s new self-confidence as a “moment of hope” symbolised by “the re-emergence of Budapest as a sparkling European metropolis.”
Orban might also find some support in recent remarks made by Cardinal Sarah: reflecting on the question of immigration, which continues to be a highly emotive topic for individual European nations, he reflects “It is better to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to Europe in full decadence” and “A West that denies its faith, its history, its roots and its identity is destined for contempt, for death and disappearance.”