Hungary's New Lesson for America


This past October was the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet military. Hungarians bravely expelled Soviet tanks from Budapest and trumpeted their intention to create a democracy. But the Soviets returned with almost 5,000 tanks, killing thousands of Hungarians and re-fettering 10 million people into servitude to Moscow.

But at least Hungarians had the gumption to stand up and bleed to try to cast off tyranny. They set an example that inspired people throughout Eastern Europe and around the world in the following decades. (Many Hungarians died because they believed the bogus promises of Radio Free Europe broadcasters who claimed that Western military forces were on the way to help them.)

The Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans suffered far more under Soviet rule than most Americans realize. I was in Hungary shortly after the 30th anniversary of the uprising. There were no official celebrations then, perhaps because the Soviets still occupied the nation and were watching warily as Hungarian politicians pretended to enact substantive economic reforms.

While many American liberals believed that the Communist Party was achieving fine things in Hungary, the average Hungarian faced government penalties or threats no matter what direction he turned. Shortly before I arrived, the government had sharply increased prison sentences for “work-shirkers” — people who were not performing socially useful labor, in the opinion of the government. One Hungarian newspaper noted,

A Budapest court found guilty a young girl who was capable of working but was supported by her parents because she would not accept employment after she completed her studies, spending her time instead mostly on reading.

Even if a person was working twice a week on an occasional basis, the courts could still convict him of “work-shirking” and send him off to jail. Since the government could imprison people for the crime of not producing, it acted as if it owned the people, in the same way slave-owners own slaves and are entitled to their labor.

And it did not matter that government agencies were notoriously inefficient and government workers were renowned for shirking work. In reality, the prison sentence was for refusing to obey government commands, not for failing to produce. This is similar to the situation with American drug laws, where people are imprisoned for taking politically disfavored drugs, while government schools threaten parents if they refuse to stupefy their children with Ritalin to make them more docile in class.

Back in 1986, the scars of its recent history stood out like bleeding wounds. The buildings in downtown Budapest appeared to have different sets of bullet holes — the first from the fierce fighting in 1944 when the Red Army drove the Nazis out of the city, and from when, a dozen years later, the Soviets crushed the Hungarians demanding freedom. (Seven hundred Soviet troops were killed in the fighting.)

Resistance to tyranny

Yet the Hungarians were assured that their government existed to serve them, to protect them against capitalists, and to coddle them from womb to tomb. One of the most striking sights in 1986 was the row of black Mercedes parked outside Communist Party headquarters near the Danube River in Budapest. When I interviewed one of the regime’s top trade officials, he was as smug as the day is long, oblivious to the cascading evidence of Hungarian economic failure. The Reagan administration was cozying up to Hungary at that point, and the “experts” at the U.S. embassy sounded like pimps for the Hungarian government. All that mattered was the “spin” for U.S. foreign policy — not the suffering of the Hungarian people.

The Hungarian people saw through the frauds of communism. Two and a half years later, it was the Hungarians who, more than any other Eastern Europeans, brought the Iron Curtain crashing down. In May 1989, Hungarian government officials cut the barbed wire on the border with Austria. A tidal wave of East Germans and other Soviet Bloc serfs were soon stampeding through the opening. The Soviet tanks did not roll this time. And because the Soviets had acquiesced in Hungary’s opening, they found it far more difficult to oppose the opening of the Berlin Wall later that year.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Hungarians have struggled to create a viable free society. The Hungarian government had long planned major celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the anti-Soviet uprising. The anniversary got far more news coverage than the government dreamed — or hoped — would happen.

The Socialist Party — the direct descendant of the Communist Party that tyrannized the country for so long — now rules Hungary. It secured control in elections this past April. In September, a secret tape recording made shortly after the election leaked out. Hungarians heard Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany summarize the party’s election campaign: “We lied in the morning, in the evening, and at night. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Gyurcsany said that the government’s claims about the economy were brazen falsehoods. The government now admits that its budget deficit is almost twice as large as it claimed during the election campaign.

The tape’s release sparked widespread protests which escalated with the October anniversary. Once again, Hungarians rioted in the street because they felt betrayed and oppressed by their government. Gyurcsany denounced the protesters as an “aggressive minority … terrorising us.” But it was not the protesters who fired rubber bullets at police. More than 100 people were injured when the government cracked down. Hungarian state radio reported that “police beat some of the protesters — including women and elderly people — with rubber batons, and some had head injuries,” according to the Associated Press.

Tibor Navracsics, one of the opposition leaders, warned, “Hungary is in a moral crisis. If people are deceived, then they can’t make responsible decisions.” The opposition demanded a public referendum within five months on the government’s policies. The government scorned their demand.

Gyurcsany’s defenders stressed that he had recently won a “vote of confidence” in Parliament. The fact that weasel politicians did not object to political lying is not exactly a moral clean bill of health for the government.

A lesson for Americans

It may be difficult for many Americans to understand Hungarians’ outrage, since students in American schools are taught that they are obliged to obey politicians who win elections fair and square.

Then, at some point, an asterisk pops up — and people are notified that they must obey even if politicians seized power by gross deceit. Unless people can irrefragably prove that the rulers seized power wrongfully, they are obliged to submit.

And how can they prove that the politicians seized power illegitimately?

Only if the politicians confess. No other evidence can be admitted: the word must come from On High.

This was the case in Hungary.

But it doesn’t matter because the government refuses to relinquish the power it wrongfully snared. Regardless of how politicians capture power, they still supposedly have the right to send police to bust the heads of people who refuse to submit.

“Every day is 1956,” read the graffiti painted by protesters in October in Budapest. Some of the protests have been violent, as has the government’s response at times. Many commentators are lamenting that the big anniversary did not spur an uplifting display of Hungarian unity.

But maybe Americans should look at Hungary more closely. For decades, Americans have been far too docile about the lies of their leaders. Whether it is Nixon lying about Vietnam, or George H.W. Bush lying about Panama, or Clinton lying about Kosovo, or George W. Bush lying about Iraq and Afghanistan — many Americans have responded as if they were born to be cannon fodder for the ruling class.

George Bush openly proclaimed last year, “In my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.” The vast majority of Americans ignored the comment, if they even noticed it.

In 2004, the Bush administration captured a second term by convincing many voters that Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 attacks, by continually hyping dubious terror alerts and by portraying the Iraq war and occupation as far more successful than it was.

Since Bush was sworn in for a second term on January 20, 2005, more than a thousand Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the federal government has effectively seized almost $4 trillion in taxes. At Bush’s behest, Congress legalized torture and canceled habeas corpus for foreign citizens accused of terrorism.

Bush won reelection by lying and grabbed far more power than did the Hungarian prime minister after his deceitful victory. Yet there have been little more than scattered powder puffs of protests around the United States in the last two years.

During the 2006 congressional campaigns, Bush crisscrossed the nation proclaiming that Democrats opposed listening to terrorists’ phone conversations — merely because they did not endorse his warrantless wiretaps of Americans’ phone calls. He also continually proclaimed that, because they did not support torture, Democrats were opposed to “questioning” suspected terrorist detainees. Both of these accusations were brazenly false. And some Republican congressmen may have been reelected thanks in part to his lies.

Yet, aside from a few brief groans on editorial pages, Bush paid no price for his 2006 falsehoods. When he held a press conference on the day after the Democrats captured control of the House of Representatives, none of the White House correspondents had the gumption to call Bush on his pervasive lying during the prior week. Instead, they permitted the president to blather on about the need for bipartisanship and how he had striven to “change the tone here in the capital.”

The American media have been the enablers for presidential deceits for decades. The vast majority of the media have docilely repeated Bush’s claims throughout his presidency. Television networks very likely devote a hundred times as much air-time to peddling government falsehoods as to exposing them. The constant barrage of falsehood drowns out the occasional blips of truth.

But if lying is simply another perk of the presidency, then Americans should at least have the decency to stop preening about being self-governing. If the citizenry does not punish liars, then it cannot expect the truth. If political lies can be issued with impunity, then politics becomes nothing but a lucrative con game. Hungary again reminds us that we do not need to bow down to whoever manages to capture political power.