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"Don't turn your backs now"

Hungarian writer Peter Nadas talks to Jörg Lau about the rise of right and the responsibility of the west.

Die Zeit: Mr. Nadas, in the elections in Hungary, the right triumphed – a historical turning point?

Peter Nadas: It was predictable that Fidesz's right-wing populists would find an absolute majority but the far-right Jobbik party did slightly less well than people had feared. Victor Orban, the head of the Fidesz party was correct, though,when he talked about his absolute majority as a "great transition" – but in a sense other than the one he intended. What we are seeing now has been 15 years in the making. These are the seeds of an authoritarian system.

One in six Hungarian votes went to the anti-Semitic and xenophobic Jobbik party.

Yes, but probably at least half of these belonged to insecure swing voters who run after populists of all stripes. The problem of our political public sphere is the lack of a stabilising middle class. The desire for stability in our system leads us to reach for the strong hand. This favours the one who promises most.

Do the Socialists who were voted out and who lost almost half of their voters, share the blame for this development?

What the Socialists did was catastrophic. For eight years they governed they steered the country on a zigzag course. All their attempts at reform failed, the budget in Hungary was so poorly managed that Hungary was hit extremely hard by the global economic downturn. But you could not really call them a socialist party. They no longer uphold socialist values. Behind the mask of socialist slogans lies an authoritarian pattern. This is the legacy of the Kadar regime: a caring state which tolerates no opposition. And again, it was riddled with corruption which inculpates the socialists in power.

Did this not affect all political parties?

The political competition has degenerated into a fight for the state as prey. The Socialists plundered the state when they were in power. But the Europeans should refrain from finger pointing. Because EU accession in 2004 only made everything worse, because then it was EU money that was up for grabs. The party political struggle became nothing but a front for the battle for cash. Without a national bourgeoisie, East European society in transition cannot stabilise. And this is what I mean by the "great transition" which we are now facing. The first round of Hungary's attempt to catch up with the modern states in Europe has failed.

Could Europe have done anything to prevent this from happening?

It should have regulated the privatisation process politically. But the huge economic powers like France and Germany were fixated on attractions of new markets – and in line with the liberalist credo of the day, they did not believe that the process needed regulating. The Hungarian government was then essentially administering funds that big foreign businesses were paying as taxes. A local middle-class civil society was never created.

How should Europe react to the new government?
It's important to acknowledge one's own shortcomings as well. Big German and French businesses behave like colonial masters in Hungary. They are the only employers around and trade unions are in short supply. So you shouldn't be surprised at Jobbik's popularity when desperate family men are constantly being laid off only to be rehired under worse conditions. The Europeans should not just look for the easy way out now by simply distancing themselves from these genuinely abhorrent neo-fascists. These people were not born that way.

Is there anything Orban can actually do in Hungary? Or for that matter in the EU, where Hungary is next in line for the EU presidency?

It bothers me that Europe is always talked about in such solemn terms. Unfortunately we find it hard to picture Europe with all those unpleasant and incomplete elements. West Europe has shown almost no interest in the poor, dull East for many years now. And the temptation now is to turn away again in annoyance. It could be a valuable lesson for both sides now that Hungary of all places has to lead the EU – at a time when all it wants to do is retreat into itself. It will certainly be highly contentious. Orban has very limited room for manoeuvre. The country is heavily in debt and in need of radical reform – in education, health, pensions. The bureaucracy is absurdly inflated. A third of the population lives off the state. We need Europe's help. Don't turn your backs on us now! No one needs a new iron curtain.


This article was originally published in Die Zeit on 15 April, 2010.

Peter Nadas is a novelist, essayist and photographer. Born 1942 in Budapest. "A Book of Memories" was first published in the U.S. in 1997 and was described by Susan Sontag as "the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century."

Jörg Lau is the literary editor of Die Zeit. His biography of Hans Magnus Enzensberger was published by Surhkamp in 2009.

Translation: lp - let's talk european