Fateful Endings

Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész receives congratulations from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán before receiving his

Author Imre Kertész accepts congratulations from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán before receiving an Order of Saint Stephen medal on August 20, 2014.

On August 20, 2014, Jewish-Hungarian author Imre Kertész (along with Rubik’s Cube inventor Ernő Rubik) received an Order of Saint Stephen medal—the highest state award in Hungaryin an official ceremony at the presidential Sándor Palace in Budapest.  

Kertész is the author of the Nobel Prize-winning novel Fatelessness, a semi-autobiographical work based on his experiences at the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944–1945. 

Kertész is regarded as a liberal author in Hungary. The explicitly anti-liberal administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presumably decided to present Kertész with the Order of Saint Stephen in honor of the government-sponsored Holocaust Remembrance Year commemorating the 70th anniversary of the deportation of around 500,000 Jews from Hungary to concentration camps in greater Nazi Germany during the spring and summer of 1944 (see official website in English). 

Kertész accepted the award from President János Áder in spite of his sharply critical views of the Orbán administration. Speaking about Hungary in a September 2012 interview in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, Kertész said (source in French, Orange Files translation): 

Nothing new in this country. The leader who fascinates: today one is in the same situation as during the era of János Kádár. Hungary is enchanted by Orbán like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This goes back to something very profound. And, with me, to a true doubt. . . . The question that I ask myself is: why does Hungary always go wrong? . . . The current situation is nothing more than an illustration of this propensity for error. The Hungarian state is currently choosing to oppose Europe in the name of defending national interests, which can give the impression of a return to sovereignty. But, once again, this is a mistake. Nothing new. No problem. And no solution because there is no problem. . . . Hungary is an inevitability that has no meaning or explanation and is unique in Europe. Hungarians cling to their destiny. They will no doubt end up failing without understanding why.  

In a statement released before the ceremony, Kertész said that “the desire and urgent necessity to establish concensus” had prompted him to accept the Order of Saint Stephen award from an administration for which he has expressed nothing but disdain in the past (source in Hungarian).   

This is the same administration that maintains an official policy of strict opposition to all manifestations of anti-Semitism in Hungary, yet at the same time deflects blame for the mass deportation of Jews from the country in the final year of the Second World War from the Hungarian government onto the Germans both explicitly in the Fundamental Law and implicitly in the symbolism of the recently inaugurated German Occupation Memorial in Budapest. This is the same administration that has accorded official recognition to current journalists such as Zsolt Bayer, Ferenc Szaniszló and Péter Szentmihályi Szabó and past authors such as Cécile Tormay, József Nyirő and Albert Wass who have expressed overt anti-Semitism in their writings.

John Lukacs looks out over the city of Budapest with Prime Minister

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and historian John Lukacs  look out over the city of Budapest in May 2013.

The above actions have prompted U.S. authors and survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust Elie Wiesel and Randolph Braham to return Hungarian state awards. Many left-liberal Hungarians were disappointed that Kertész, who is dying of Parkinson’s Disease, chose to accept the Order of Saint Stephen from the Orbán administrationdisillusionment reflected in the title of an editorial published on the opposition website index.hu on August 15: “Imre Kertész has Become the Government’s Holocaust Clown” (source in Hungarian). 

Kertész is not the first elderly author from Hungary to accept honors from an administration that embodies the very authoritarian-populist politics that he strenuously opposed throughout his professional career: in May 2013, Hungarian-born U.S. historian John Lukacs was among six recipients of the Corvin Chain state award to attend an honorary dinner at the Sándor Palace along with Prime Minister Orbán and current Prime Ministry chief János Lázár during his “final visit to Budapest” (source in Hungarian).¹

The primary motive of the Orbán government for honoring Kertész and Lukacs is obvious: to make a show of support for Hungarian intellectuals who have gained high esteem in the liberal-democratic West in order to counterbalance the heavy criticism from that direction of the illiberal, quasi-Putinist system it is building in Hungary.

However, one wonders what factors impelled the 84-year-old Kertész and 89-year-old Lukacs to fraternize with the Orbán administration in what were very likely their final public appearances: Yearning? Resignation? Isolation? Degeneration? 

The fate of very old men to make peace with the world before they leave it? 


1-Lukacs did publish an editorial in the opposition newspaper Népszabadság in January 2014 in which he criticized the Orbán government’s rapprochement with Russia (see An Archconservative Speaks Out). 


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! 


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.