4 minute read

Hungary’s Identity Issue

Populism and Eastern Europe    4 minute read

Hungary’s Identity Issue

Hungary’s recent identity has been nothing short of tempestuous during the 20th century. The famous ‘Terror Haza” or “House of Terror” facilitated both the fascist and communist dictatorships that tormented Hungary both during and after World War II. While Hungarians are unanimous in distancing themselves from these regimes and moving forward with self-governance and a new national identity, it is somewhat confusing to understand exactly what that may be.

The Past in the Present

The Hungarian government have gone to extreme lengths to expel anything that resembles the “Nazi and Bolshevik reigns of terror”. Janos Lazar, Viktor Orban’s outspoken chief of staff, recently outlined a bill that was set to potentially ban the distribution of Heineken from Hungary due to the use of a red star in their branding, which Lazar saw as a “moral obligation” for the government to remove. It later transpired that this may in actual fact merely be retaliation for the fact that Heineken won the rights to a Romanian-based brewer that counts ethnic Hungarians as their main clientele.

Nevertheless, this scrupulous approach to washing away anything that resembled those regimes that went before would normally imply that a nation has since been on a journey of self-discovery and reinvented itself in the 21st century. It remains to be seen whether this has been the case for Hungary. Whilst as a nation Hungary progressed by leaps and bounds, with Budapest emerging as a real hub of commerce and academia, conflicting ideas and legislation throws what ideology is driving its development as a nation.

The Government and the People

The recent legislation regarding overseas investment and intervention in areas of academia and commerce has attracted global attention, due to the tens of thousands of protestors and a seemingly stubborn government. This legislation, signed into law by Parliament President Janos Ader, may disenable the operation of liberal ‘overseas-funded’ institutions like the CEU (Central European University) and, as a result, has been branded as an assault on academic freedoms.

This is not the Hungarian governments’ first attack on the nations’ so-called ‘liberal left’, with Viktor Orban having been involved in numerous political spats with George Soros.

Soros himself helps fund many of the local civic society groups, and in addition, he was a key player in the formation and funding of the CEU. As a consequence, it remains to be seen whether this is a sign of an underlying ideology or purely political jousting. However, it is clear that this is a nation at conflict with itself. A divide exists between the conservative populists and a younger, more liberal generation.

Orban’s Regime vs the EU

The current regime clearly believes in the protection of its ideals as well as its borders, and believes both of these to be under threat. The hypocrisy of the situation exists in the fact that whilst preaching conservatism and traditional values, the current government does have to rely on help from abroad.

This is often thought to be from Russia and Putin, a close ally of Orban’s, but in reality, it is not the case. A recent study by KPMG and GKI cites that the Hungarian economy grew by 4.6% between 2006 and 2015, although this figure would have only been 1.8% had it not been for EU funding.

The EU is an institution that the Hungarian Government often attributes problems relating to social cohesion and immigration to. Furthermore, whilst the current regime appears outraged by the current levels of foreign intervention, towards the end of 2016, Viktor Orban announced that, in 2017, Hungary would reduce corporate tax levels to 9%.

This single band would apply equally to all businesses and easily undercuts Ireland’s current 12.5% level. Whilst this would potentially further boost the economy, it would inevitably bring with it lots of the liberal European/American ideals that the government professes to despise.


It is because of the reasons above it is hard to gauge where Hungary is on its journey away from the forced totalitarian regimes of fascism and communism. Whilst the government appears to pursue anti-integration/conservative policies, it also tries to keep the door ajar for those outside influences that it thinks may benefit the nation’s development.

It is clear there is some underlying discontent regarding these policies and a cry for a more liberal and integrated society has been heard. Despite this, many are content with the way the government is seen to be propping the national identity, so parallels can be drawn with other populist European movements.

While most people in Hungary have a clear idea of their ideology and the correct pathway for development and prosperity, many appear to be at odds with each other, whether it be within households, government bodies or powerful corporate elites. This has created an identity issue which has been present since the conclusion of the Cold War and is showing no signs of abating.

Get articles like this straight to your inbox each morning with our Breakfast Briefing. Sign up by clicking here!

Log in with your details


Forgot your details?

Create Account

Send this to a friend