The Unsettling Feeling of Nationalism

Viktor Orban. Source:

In an earlier article last year, I wrote about why it is better to be a patriot than a nationalist. I spoke mostly of France and the United States, but the rise of nationalist sentiments is of course not limited to those two countries.

We see that the rise has led to the election of far-right candidates in Germany to the Bundestag; this is the first time that a far-right party (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) has won any seats since the Nazi era. But, although the rise of the AfD is alarming, especially now with the Austrian government being comprised of the Austrian People’s Party (the traditional conservative party) and the Freedom Party of Austria (the far-right party, equivalent of the Front national in France or the AfD), my concern right now is a little further south.

This summer I had the privilege of travelling throughout Europe. The last country we visited was Hungary. This was my third visit to the country, the country of my ancestors. I was excited to go back to Budapest and other parts of the country.

Then, the morning of my flight to Budapest, a wave of nervousness overcame me. I was nervous to board the plane and to spend time in Hungary. Although I have always been who I am, this was my first time visiting Hungary as an openly gay person who holds opinions quite to the contrary of the current régime in Hungary. But, I boarded the plane and went to Hungary.

Before getting into the unsettling nationalism, allow me to explain the current political situation in Hungary. Hungary emerged in 1989 out of the darkness of Soviet imposed communism. The country showed real signs of democracy, real liberal democracy, taking root in the country.

Hungary was quickly brought into the Western world by organisations such as NATO and in 2004 the European Union; Hungary was integrated into Europe. Things seemed to be going well until 2006 when there were massive demonstrations against the government — these demonstrations occurred fifty years after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that attempted to rid Hungary of Moscow’s yolk.

The demonstrations were against the newly reelected socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsány who had been caught on tape saying that his party, the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party), had lied to the electorate.

Four years later, after a few years of political turmoil within the ranks of the MSZP and a shift to an independent as prime minister, Gordon Bajnai. The 2010 elections brought the conservative party FIDESZ (Fiatal demokraták szövetsége — Alliance of Young Democrats) to power with Viktor Orbán as the new Hungarian prime minister.

FIDESZ won a landslide victory, which allowed them to change the country’s constitution four times in four years. During this time, Orbán restricted press freedom and was dubbed by some as ‘Mini Putin’.

Orbán won again a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2014 and again in 2018. He is transforming the country from a liberal democracy into an illiberal democracy. And he is doing so as a member of the European Union.

The whole situation is exacerbated by the refugee migrant crisis that has been developing since 2015. Although Greece was the first EU country many refugees encountered, many continued on through Hungary with their goal being to settle in wealthier countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

As a response to the crisis, Orbán’s government built a wall to keep migrants out. This wall is reminiscent of the one that the communists erected around Hungary before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and it is an example I am certain that Donald Trump would like to follow.

All of this, Orbán claims, is to protect the Hungarian, the European way of life from Muslims. The way that Orbán is ‘protecting’ the Hungarian way of life is by turning Hungary’s back on Western ideals of liberal democracy and creating for himself, like Erdogan in Turkey or Maduro in Venezuela, a dictatorship veiled in ‘democratic elections’.

I wrote a friend of mine the day I boarded the flight for Budapest that I was nervous. I wanted to confide in him. In hindsight, he was an interesting choice because he comes from Venezuela where things are demonstrably worse than Hungary. But in him I did confide.

As a student of history as much as politics itself, I know what occurred to Hungary during and following World War I. In many ways, all that is occurring now is because of the outcome of that great war.

There are many in Hungary that want to see the overturning of the Treaty of Trianon. This treaty tore the Kingdom of Hungary apart to create the modern countries of Slovakia (Upper Hungary), Romania (Transylvania), Ukraine, Serbia (Vojvodina), Croatia (Slavonia), and Austria (Burgenland) as well as the Hungary we know today.

During the interwar period and World War II, the Hungarian government sought to reestablish Hungarian authority over the territories it had lost as a result of Trianon. This meant that Hungary aligned itself with the Nazi régime during World War II. I had assumed this was history, in the past, but one of the biggest signs of unsettling nationalism occurred when I visited the city of Miskolc with my family.

Miskolc lies in eastern Hungary near the Slovakian border. The day that we arrived, there was a huge flea market taking place. There were interesting things from different periods and coins from countries that do not exist anymore — even Spanish Pesetas with General Franco on them.

What was unsettling, and spoke to the rural, conservative, nationalist area in which we were, was all the Nazi pieces that were well polished and proudly on display for sale. This was an unsettling reminder of the past that seems not to have been put to bed in Hungary.

The entire trip was plunged into this air of unsettledness even in Budapest. My Hungarian is not great, my accent screams anglophone or someone who does not speak Hungarian, but I make an effort nevertheless.

Usually what happens is that I ask my parents what they would like and transmit the message to the waiter; this is what we did in France and in Spain where I speak both languages. What we encountered in Hungary was an air of intolerance and disdain because we do not speak Hungarian and are North American anglophones.

Throw on top of this my own discomfort of being in a very homophobic country, it was not the relaxing end of the trip for which I had hoped.

The biggest problem with nationalism is that it creates an US vs THEM, and this was very apparent in Hungary. The direction set by the current régime has trickled down into the mannerism and attitudes of the people of Hungary.

This is not to say that there are good people who are not rude in Hungary because there are, but by and large, the reception that we received was very cold. This was my third trip to Hungary, and it is remarkable to observe, to feel the changes that have occurred in the past seven years, seven years that have been under the FIDESZ government of Viktor Orbán.

Luke Gilmore is an Alumnus of Campion College, the University of Regina., and is a political scientist..

  • darcy Mann
    Posted at 08:44h, 09 February Reply

    Thanks for the historical education. As someone who went to school here in Toronto approx. 50 years ago, we learned a lot about Canada and the USA……….Not much about Europe. Its always nice to get a first persons insight, on what is happening today in some of the European countries..

  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 10:12h, 09 February Reply

    Thanks for the post, Luke. I’m always grateful for your writing.

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