The Phony Realist

The author: István Bibó.

The author: István Bibó.

Hungarian lawyer and political scientist István Bibó published a book in 1946 entitled The Misery of Small Eastern European States (A kelet-európai kisállamok nyomorúsága) in which he employed psychoanalytical precepts to determine the cause of “the adulteration and corruption of democracy in its most diverse forms” in the states of central and eastern Europe, specifically Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Bibó’s diagnosis: political hysteria stemming from unresolved historical traumas—in the case of Poland partition of the country by Russia, Prussia and Austria beginning in 1772; in the case of Czechoslovakia the German-Hungarian partition of the country in 1938–39; and in the case of Hungary defeat at the hands of the Austrians and Russians in the 1848–49 revolution and partition of the country’s Dual Monarchy-era territory via the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

Bibó determined in The Misery of Small Eastern European States that Hungary’s defeat in the 1848–1849 revolution against Habsburg rule had had two primary effects: first, it prompted Hungarians to conclude that “Europe had abandoned Hungary in its fight for independence”; and second, it initiated “the developmental path that distanced Hungary from democratic ideals, because following the 1848–49 catastrophe the fear took root in Hungarians that assumption of all the consequences of democracy will lead to the secession of nationality-inhabited regions [of the country].”

With regard to the Treaty of Trianon, Bibó asserted that the “Hungarian political perspective attributed the partition of Hungary to mere brute force and the hypocrisy of the victors and was unable to distinguish between the detachment of non-Hungarian-language territories that were ready for separation and the groundless and unjustified detachment of Hungarian-language territories. As a consequence, it [the Hungarian political perspective] could not abandon the illusion of historical greater Hungary and became increasingly convinced that Europe owes it for a great injustice.”

Bibó maintained that the partitions of Poland and Czechoslovakia had engendered the same attitude of skepticism toward Europe and democracy among the Polish and Czechs and Slovaks and prompted the leaders of those countries to conduct the forced expulsion of Germans and Hungarians following the Second World War.

Existential Fear for the Survival of the Community 

Bibó wrote in The Misery of Small Eastern European States that these historical traumas had produced existential fear for the survival of the national community in Hungary and other states of the region:

This situation gives rise to the most characteristic trait of the imbalanced central and eastern European mentality: existential fear for the survival of the community. . . . For a western European, the talk of statesmen from any small, eastern European nation referring to the “death of the nation” or the “destruction of the nation” represents empty phraseology: a western European can imagine extermination, subjugation or slow assimilation, though the notion of total political “destruction” is for them nothing more than a bombastic image, whereas for eastern European nations it is a palpable reality.  

Anti-Democratic Nationalism 

Bibó believed that existential fear for the survival of the community inhibited the development of democracy in the countries of east-central Europe:

Existential fear for the survival of the community was the decisive factor that rendered the status of democracy and democratic development unstable in these countries. . . . these nations experienced historical situations which appeared to confirm that the collapse of the oppressive political and social powers of the past and the adoption of democracy along with its ultimate consequences expose the national community to heavy risks, even catastrophe. This shock gives birth to the most hideous monster of modern European political development: anti-democratic nationalism. 

Distortion of Democracy 

In addition to inciting anti-democratic nationalism, Bibó contended in The Misery of Small Eastern European States that existential fear for the survival of the community inhibited and distorted democratic development in the following ways:

It is not possible to take advantage of the benefits of democracy in this state of convulsive fear which believes that the advance of freedom threatens the national cause. To become a democrat above all entails the absence of fear: fear of other opinions, of other languages, of other races, of revolution, of conspiracy, of the unknown evil intentions of the adversary, of enemy propaganda, of contempt and all other imaginary dangers that become real dangers if we fear them. . . . In the midst of this fear and continual feeling of threat, that which in true democracies gains recognition only in the hour of true danger, becomes standard procedure: the restriction of liberties, censorship, the search for enemy “stooges” and “traitors,” the imposition of order or the appearance of order and national unity to the detriment of liberty. The distortion and corruption of democracy has appeared in diverse forms through the use of methods varying from the most subtle and often unconscious to the most crude: the manipulation of universal suffrage against democratic development, the system of coalitions and compromises founded on unhealthy and ambiguous terms, electoral systems or abuses serving to either inhibit or distort the healthy formation of collective will, putsches and transitory dictatorships.

The Phony Realist 

Bibó concluded that this syndrome of trauma, fear and hysteria generated a unique type of national leader in the states of central and eastern Europe:

In the course of this development, political figures of a unique type became characteristic of political life in central and eastern Europe: the phony realist. This type of political figure, which either descended into politics from an aristocratic environment or rose into it on the wings of representative government and democratic forces, was characterized by both unquestionable talent as well as a certain cunning and a certain aggression that made him perfectly suitable to become the administrator and repository of the distortion of democracy, of anti-democratic government flowing within the boundaries of democratic form or of some other kind of aggressive political forgery.

Revival of Political Hysteria 

The prototype: Viktor Orbán.

The prototype: Viktor Orbán.

Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary suffered the further historical trauma of communist dictatorship and Soviet military-intervention in the four decades following István Bibó’s publication of The Misery of Small Eastern European States. These countries, Czechoslovakia in the form of post-dissolution Czech Republic and Slovakia, all began the process of healing their historical wounds through integration with western Europe and adoption of liberal democracy following the collapse of communism in 1989.

Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia continue to travel down this uneven road toward political, social and economic integration with western Europe, whereas in Hungary a highly competent political leader—one who conforms perfectly to Bibó’s “phony realist” prototype—has either consciously or instinctively revived Hungarian historical trauma and its attendant political hysteria in order to regain and consolidate his personal power within a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state modeled on Putin’s Russia and Chávez’s Venezuela.

Orange Files has translated all quotes from the work published in this post. 

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2 responses

  1. You are wrong that Bibó’s famous essay “The misery of small nations…” has not been translated into English. Check:
    Bibó, István, Democracy, Revolution, Self-Determination. Selected Writings. Ed. by Károly Nagy. Boulder, Colo.:Atlantic Research and Publications, 1991.

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