An Archconservative Speaks Out

Prime Minister Orbán and John Lukacs looking over Budapest from Castle Hill in May 2013.

Prime Minister Orbán and John Lukacs looking over Budapest from Castle Hill in May 2013.

The opposition newspaper Népszabadság recently (January 25) published the following letter from the deeply conservative Hungarian-born U.S. historian John Lukacs regarding the January 14 interstate agreement between Hungary and Russia to have Russian state-owned company Rosatom build two new reactors at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant in south-central Hungary with 10 billion euros in Russian financing (source in Hungarian; see also: Deal of the Century):

Paks Vobiscum? No: Pax Nobis!

It has been almost 67 years since I left my native land. Since then the fate of my country and my nation has often grasped and wrenched my heart, though I never did deal with or write about Hungarian politics. Nor would this be proper now at the age of 90. But something nevertheless prompts me to do so. At least I spent at least two long winter nights thinking about it.  

The Russian-Hungarian Paks agreement has tempted me.

I do not receive any Hungarian newspapers. And Hungarian periodicals only rarely. I click on Népszabadság for one or two minutes every morning. To my knowledge many Hungarians still read it to this day. It is for this reason that I am sending these lines here. Maybe they will reach a couple of hundred readers.

The present prime minister has honored me with his attention and friendship for years. However, I now consider it to be my obligation to steer my opinion in his direction with these lines. I have been aware of inclinations in his world outlook for more than 20 years now. I see that he felt a certain aversion toward the so-called “West,” western Europe and England, even before 1989. 

Now he has reached a boundary line. I do not agree with those who speak and speculate about the economic consequences of the Paks agreement. Will electricity be cheaper or more expensive when the investment is completed in ten years (if ever)? My dear Hungarians, we cannot know the answer to this, but even if we could know the answer, it would be irrelevant. It is not worth the underside of a dog’s tail. The essence and fate of a country is not an economic detail. The essence of a country determines who we are and where we belong.

History hardly ever repeats itself. And that of the nation only rarely and to a smaller degree. And the character of a person changes the least. This will be perhaps the most profound problem facing the Hungarian people in the future. It is not merely a question of the insufficient degree of self-confidence among Hungarians. (Though this as well!) But one of who we are, where we belong, where we should belong? 

Our great Saint Stephen was not only a singular saint, but a great founding father as well. More than one-thousand years ago, when the immense Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire nearly embraced the Carpathians. If Stephen had chosen the path of accommodation with this empire, it would have entailed countless short-term benefits for him. But he did not do this: he chose Roman Christianity, a Papal emissary, a western wife, “Europe” (though this term had not yet come into existence). This choice formed the Hungarian Christian faith and character over a period of one-thousand years. Our eternal gratitude for this!

Western countries have often done little or nothing for us. But nevertheless. When the leaders of the Hungarians occasionally chose the “East,” this nearly always proved to be catastrophic. The consequence and essence of the tyranny that trampled Hungary under foot in the recent past was not communism, but the Russian occupation. At the end of the horrible Second World War the great Churchill, who already knew that the Russians would occupy all of Hungary, again told Roosevelt (unfortunately in vain) that Hungary was part of Central, not Eastern Europe. The Hungarian multitudes rejected the East in 1956 and 1989 as well. 

What kind of reward could we have expected from a greater Russian empire? Nothing. Széchenyi and Kossuth foresaw this. One must recognize and respect the Russians as our distant relatives, the wise Finns do. But we do not belong to the Russians. Accommodation to them must never form the central element of our endeavors. We honor their achievements, their great artists. However, the breath of the Hungarian spirit, the Hungarian intellect, Hungarian art and learning is western. Not Russian, and not even American. In spite of their greatness, it is not Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky who speak to us, but Dante, Shakespeare and Pascal, Goethe and Tocqueville. The West has often been our cross, but we must bear it, because it is our guiding light as well. We esteem our great Russian neighbors, but we must not accommodate ourselves to them, must not fawn upon them, because this could become a heavy burden for a long time and turn to the detriment of the Hungarians. 

Since 1989 we have been responsible for everything we have chosen, done and thought. The Hungarian character and spirit cannot be eastern. Pax Vobiscum! These are the closing words to the old Latin mass: Peace be with you! But now Pax Nobis! Let peace be ours! 

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Lukacs has long been among Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s most favored Hungarian academics. The Hungarian government awarded Lukacs the Hungarian Corvin Chain in 2001, the year the first Orbán administration revived this Horthy-era order of merit recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions to Hungarian science, art and literature. In May 2013, Lukacs was among six recipients of the award invited to an honorary dinner with Prime Minister Orbán, President János Áder and Prime Ministry chief János Lázár at the presidential Sándor Palace in Budapest.

Lukacs’s explicit criticism from his vantage point in the United States of the Hungarian-Russian agreement to expand the Paks Nulcear Power Plant and Prime Minister Orbán’s pro-Russian, pro-East policies suggests that conservative Orbán supporters in Hungary may harbor similar sentiments, though are refraining from expressing them in order to avoid creating a rift among Fidesz voters just ten weeks before national elections. 

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