Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline.
"Major cultural figures are coming under pressure. The pianist András Schiff has said that he will no longer travel to Hungary because of the prevailing political climate. 'It would be suicide for me to go there,' he told a Finnish interviewer. 'They would chop off my hands.' In 2011, five left-leaning philosophers, including Ágnes Heller, were placed under investigation for the misappropriation of two million dollars in grant funds. Heller’s colleagues characterized this as harassment. A letter of support was signed by over sixty prominent Hungarian academics, including several Nobel laureates. The social theorist Jürgen Habermas called on the European Union to investigate. In May, 2012, the Budapest police closed the investigation, claiming there was no evidence of a crime. When the veteran journalist Paul Lendvai published (in German) 'My Squandered Country,' an exposé of the Orbán government’s corruption of the Hungarian public sphere, a coördinated campaign of criticism was mounted through government-controlled media, including the allegation that Lendvai had spied for state intelligence during the Communist period. Nationalist exiles picketed international readings, forcing the cancellation of an event in Frankfurt after threats of violence. The first publisher of a proposed Hungarian edition cancelled the book. (...)
Intellectuals who live in Hungary, or who wish to work or lecture there, are extremely circumspect in their criticism. Two internationally renowned novelists I contacted for this article declined to comment. One writer who would speak is the poet and translator George Szirtes, who lives in the U.K. 'The government has been looking to impose itself and its view of what it considers to be ‘the nation’ on not only the political sphere but the cultural, too,' he told me. 'In effect, it wants to return the country to the condition of the thirties… the atmosphere is full of hatred.' Szirtes laments 'the creation of a climate that seems to me inimical to the country I have loved and admired. Little by little, I find every part of it is being dismantled and banished.'
Far from being an unforced reconciliation with his former persecutors, Imre Kertész’s decision to give his archive to Germany should appear as an urgent warning sign. Unlike Germany, which has transformed itself through a national process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung ('coming to terms with the past'), Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all. Kertész’s own reaction is to quote Karl Kraus: 'The situation is desperate, but not serious.'"