Havel and Orbán: A measured comparison at the end of an era
Hamish Kennedy is an undergraduate student reading History at University College London.
Early in 1990, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash reflected on the events of the year before and declared that the revolutions of 1989 were ‘a springtime of nations, but not necessarily of nationalism.’ At the time, he had every justification to do so. The revolutions of 1989 appeared unprecedently peaceful to the West, and it seemed that most of the new governments forming across Central and Eastern Europe were more concerned with the practicalities of administration than with the exceptionalism or isolationism that characterises nationalism. New historians of the Cold War, like Paul Betts, have given us reason to reconsider our understanding of 1989 as an event itself, and whether its connection with nationalism was a tenuous as Garton Ash believed. In service to this ongoing discourse, I believe a useful comparison can be made between two of the period’s most important figures: Václav Havel and Viktor Orbán. More specifically, a comparison between the speech made by Orbán at the reburial of Imre Nagy in Budapest in 1989, and the New Year’s Address given by Havel a year later in 1990 upon his election as president of Czechoslovakia. Both speeches are concerned with the task of ‘nation-building’ in the post-socialist era and, whilst Havel tempers his pride in Czechoslovak history by advocating for solidarity with other Central and Eastern European countries, Orbán displays national pride not only to the detriment of other nations, but also at the exclusion of other Hungarians who do not share his view of Hungarian history. Thus, it is the way in which both speakers attempt to harness historical memory for their efforts that this essay will investigate.
Imre Nagy was the de-facto prime minister of Hungary during the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution, his participation in which led to his execution in 1958. In the wake of anti-communist protests in 1989, the Hungarian Communist Party agreed to rebury Nagy and five of his executed comrades with full honours at a public event, at which Viktor Orbán was a speaker. Whilst the focus of Nagy’s reburial speeches was primarily on 1956, Orbán made reference to the Hungarian revolution of 1848, and the ‘national independence’ that it briefly afforded the Hungarian people. Ironically Orbán’s logic here is reiterated almost point for point by Garton Ash in The Magic Lantern, in which he eagerly draws a comparison between 1989 and 1848, citing as evidence the fact that both revolutions erupted after ‘forty years of peace and stability’ and were ‘born as much of hopes as of discontents.’ Though this is certainly a fair parallel to draw, it is not inconceivable that Orbán was making the same comparison for different reasons. Whilst describing the ‘path of Western development’ that the future held, Orbán also made mention of the ‘Asian impasse’ that Hungary had recently escaped from. Though subtle, that implication of ‘the other’, so frequently the foundation of nationalism, is apparent here.
Six months later, and 300 miles away in Prague, it was Václav Havel’s turn. On new year’s day 1990, the former dissident and poet, recently elected prime minister in an unambiguous landslide, laid out his plan for Czechoslovakia’s future. At first glance, these two speeches differ significantly, at least in terms of their rhetoric. Havel’s rich metaphorical comparison between the polluted environmental and moral climates of Czechoslovakia is starkly contrasted by the image of generational conflict presented and accepted by Orbán. The Czech president makes clear his view on totalitarianism, stating ‘none of us is just its victim. We are all also its cocreators.’ It is, however, from this point of simultaneous victimhood and complicity that he illustrates the potential of the government to change, and the necessity, privilege, and responsibility of Czechoslovakia’s citizenry to be a part of that process. Thus, when he announced to the crowd in his conclusion that ‘your government has returned to you’ he provided a profoundly hopeful and satisfying direction for the future. By comparison, the narrative of Orbán’s speech implicitly rejected the idea of societal complicity, constructing instead a dynamic between the ‘youth’, their future stolen from them, and the ‘older generations’, attempting to shirk their responsibility by hiding within the elation of the old regime’s end. As opposed to Havel, he concludes by directly addressing the ‘young people of Hungary’, warning that, without action, a similar fate to Nagy and his compatriots awaited them.
It is [...] from this point of simultaneous victimhood and complicity that [Havel] illustrates the potential of the government to change, and the necessity, privilege, and responsibility of Czechoslovakia’s citizenry to be a part of that process.
Vital in understanding the difference between these two outlooks is the concept of the ‘unfinished revolution’, particularly prominent in Central and Eastern European political circles after 1990. In his book of the same name, James Mark defines the ‘unfinished revolution’ as a reaction by both liberals and conservatives to the sustained presence and voice of ‘ex-communists’ in the governments of the post-socialist world: in essence, a worry that the job had not been finished. These concerns were accentuated significantly throughout 1993 and 1994, with left-wing victories in Poland and Hungary propelling members of the ex-communist left into positions of power. For Orbán, now the leader of the populist conservative party Fidesz, this was unacceptable. In response to heightened nationalist sentiment in light of the shock doctrine’s failure in Hungary, Fidesz intensified their Christian conservatism and promises to finish the ‘unfinished revolution’, which culminated in Orbán’s victory over the Socialist Party in the 1998 election.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to take both these speeches as intimations of what was yet to come in the political landscapes of the Czech Republic and Hungary. This view is not tenable, however, and does not account for the continued oscillations between liberal and illiberal policies in the decades after 1989. Indeed, James Mark maintains that shift towards conservatism in Hungary only really began after the ’94 election: even in 1991, Fidesz opposed a motion to enact retroactive justice for crimes during the Communist era. Similar polices were also enacted in Czechoslovakia soon after 1989, such as the restitution of property formerly nationalized by the state, and the Act on the Illegality of the Communist Regime, effectively banning communist political organisation. More generally, both the Czech Republic and Hungary have suffered from widespread corruption of liberal values and threats to democracy over the course of the last 20 years. As such, we cannot take the flirtations with nationalism in Orbán’s speech to be a precursor to the authoritarianism of his presidency, any more than we can attribute the recent election of the left-leaning Petr Pavel to Havel’s hopeful rhetoric.
Notwithstanding this, the different ways in which Havel and Orbán invoke the experiences of their fellow countrymen still provide a worthwhile insight into the views each speaker held on their nations’ past, and their vision for its future. Essential in this regard is Veronika Pehe’s study on Czech cultural memory, Velvet Retro, in which she stresses the importance of cultural memory and nostalgia in Central and East European politics after 1989. Cultural memory, she argues, does not develop emergently, but instead has to be consciously constructed from individual memory, only achieving form and structure through narrativization with the fragmentary memories of others with shared experiences. Only then can cultural memory gain widespread circulation and lead to societal acceptance of the relevance, impact, and nature of the historical events it describes. Whilst Havel embraces this in his speech, Orbán does not, instead taking a specific narrative of Hungarian history, defined in particular by the revolutions of 1956 and 1848, and using it as a justification for further Hungarian nationalism.
[...] the different ways in which Havel and Orbán invoke the experiences of their fellow countrymen still provide a worthwhile insight into the views each speaker held on their nations’ past, and their vision for its future.
It is worth noting that in Hungary, there is still no official anniversary for any date or event in 1989. By contrast, the commemoration of 1989 in Czech media, culture, and society is notably better represented, exemplified by both the Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution celebrated annually on the 17th of November, and the success of TV and film adaptations of works by dissident writer Jirí Stránsky, which often portrayed the ‘ordinary heroism’ of individual citizens in their ‘quiet dissidence’ under communism. Pehe identifies this tradition of ‘passive resistance’ as a key theme in Czech cultural products about pre-1989 dissidence and the subsequent ‘post-socialist’ world, something that leads her to coin a new term: retro. For Pehe, retro encapsulates an internal conflict prevalent amongst the Czech citizenry in the aftermath of 1989: both a disdain for the old totalitarian regime and, with a nostalgia for the way of life under it, the pride of having survived it. Retro, therefore, is the ‘cultural manifestation’ of the discord between memories of internal dissidence to and external compliance with the communist system.
Though the term retro is applied here by Pehe in a specific national context, I believe that the experience they attempt to describe is not bound by national borders, but rather can be applied to the experience of all Central and Eastern European countries under totalitarianism. Havel recognises this in his speech, expressing gratitude for the dissident movements of Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union, and calling for an introduction of ‘self-confidence into the life of our community and, as nations, into our behaviour on the international stage.’ Havel goes on to describe this ‘self-confidence’ as a product of inter-generational cooperation, whereby love for freedom and democracy were ‘inconspicuously passed from one generation to another,’ a clear example of the passive resistance noted by Pehe.
However, whilst Havel left the legacy of Czechoslovak dissidence and the 1968 Prague Spring open to all Czechoslovak citizens willing to change, Orbán unabashedly claimed the legacy of 1956 and the principle of democracy for himself and his supporters. By specifically declaring that the ‘young Hungarians’ committed to freedom were ‘bowing their heads’ to the memory of Imre Nagy and his comrades, he framed himself as a descendant of 1956 revolutionaries, and the youth as the sole inheritors of freedom and democracy in Hungary. The contrast with Havel’s treatment of cultural memory is striking and demonstrates the role of collective memory and its invocation in popular politics.
Ultimately, it is here that the most consequential difference between the two speeches can be found. Though both speeches make nations their focus, Orbán promotes national unity by looking inwards, and staking the foundation of post-communist Hungary to the legacies of the 1956 and 1848 revolutions. By contrast, Havel draws upon the memory of life under totalitarianism to illustrate his vision for his nation’s future, thereby also situating the Czechoslovak memory of communism in a wider Eastern and Central European sphere of shared experience. As Hungary was coming to terms with the conflicting experiences of life under totalitarianism, Orbán took the initiative to claim ownership of 1956, and therefore 1989, for himself and the ‘youth’, and therefore contested the right of his opponents and ‘the old’ to act in the name of freedom and democracy. When Czechoslovakia had such an opportunity a year later however, Václav Havel did not waste it, instead inviting all his fellow citizens to participate in the formation of collective memory, thereby initiating a process of personal reconciliation parallel to the reform of the government: a fundamentally democratic vision that would characterise the next 10 years he spent in office.
 Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Eastern Europe: The Year of Truth,’ The New York Review of Books, February 15, 1990, 30.  Paul Betts, ‘1989 at thirty: a recast legacy,’ Past & Present, 244:1 (2019), 271-305.  Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (New York: Random House, 1990), 135.  Viktor Orban, Orbán Viktor beszéde Nagy Imre es mártírtársai újratemetésén, Internet Archive, June 16, 2014. https://web.archive.org  Václav Havel, ‘New Year’s Address to the Nation’ speech, Czech Republic Presidential Website, January 1, 1990. http://old.hrad.cz/president/Havel/speeches/.  Ibid.  James Mark, The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist past in Central-Eastern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 7.  Veronika Pehe, Velvet Retro: Postsocialist Nostalgia and the Politics of Heroism in Czech Popular Culture (New York: Berghahn Books, 2020), 28.  Pehe., 17-19.