The Force of Hungarian Identity

Rebecca Frost, Senior Editor

30 January 2019

The head of a destroyed statue of Joseph Stalin lies in the middle of a Budapest Street during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956   Image Credit: Gabor B. Racz, Wikimedia Commons

The head of a destroyed statue of Joseph Stalin lies in the middle of a Budapest Street during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956

Image Credit: Gabor B. Racz, Wikimedia Commons


For better or for worse, many major political movements in Hungary have had a lot to do with identity.

After the Second World War, Hungary fell behind the Iron Curtain and came under the control of the Soviet Union. The preservation of an independent Hungarian identity featured in Hungary’s resistance to Soviet power. During the Hungarian Revolution - an uprising against the communist government that took place in 1956 - the role of national identity was very visible.  

According to John Matthews, a Radio Free Europe correspondent who lived in Budapest during the revolution, the revolution seemed to ignite with the pent-up energy of young people who had lived their entire lives under a repressive government. In school, they learned about the greatness of the Soviet Union, but little about Hungarian history. Matthews remembers that the young people who fought took pride in calling themselves “Hungarians” and pressured others to join their cause by insinuating that the ruling communists were not “true Hungarians”. Revolutionary fighters waved flags with holes cut where the crest of Saint Stephen - an important cultural symbol that had adorned the flag prior to communist rule - used to be. Protesters tore down statues of Joseph Stalin. Although the revolution had many contributing factors, the idea that there was a Hungarian identity worth fighting for played an important role.

While the desire to express a national identity helped drive young people to stand up to the repressive regime that governed their lives in 1956, in contemporary Hungarian politics, identity has proven to be a far more toxic force.

The idea of an official Hungarian national identity has been a major factor in the recent debate around immigration in Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been vehemently opposed to allowing migrants into the country and has painted immigration as a fundamental threat to Hungary’s identity as a nation.

For example, on October 2nd, 2016, Hungary held a referendum in response to the European Union’s (EU) plan to resettle 160 000 asylum seekers throughout Europe; of which 1294 would be resettled in Hungary. On the ballot was a simple question “Should the European Parliament be permitted to exercise its authority over the Hungarian government without the consent of the Hungarian government?”. While Orban argued that the referendum as a simple question of sovereignty, the rhetorical and cultural atmosphere that surrounded the referendum suggested otherwise.  In the lead up to the referendum, Orban called refugees “poison” to Hungarian society. This attitude has become prominent in mainstream Hungarian society. Many Hungarians cited maintaining their “national character” as their primary reason for voting “No”. Some Hungarian women were even photographed dressed in traditional clothing while voting. The referendum was clearly more than a simple question of governmental autonomy.

In another instance, Orban launched a P.R. campaign in 2015 after returning home from a vigil in Paris for those who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Shortly after his return from France, there were posters all over Hungary that read: “If you come to Hungary, you must respect Hungarian culture!”.

Orban has articulated a vision for an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. In a 2014 speech, Orban said “[The]Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, [such] as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead”.

One of the major ways Orban has applied his illiberal democracy mandate is to curb academic freedom. The most famous instance of this has been the Central European University (CEU)’s departure from Hungary. CEU is located in the Hungarian capital city of Budapest was founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. It is an American-accredited university that serves students from over 100 countries. It was founded in 1991 with a mission to support open societies and democratic values following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Recently, CEU has been targeted by Orban’s government. Orban’s rhetoric has painted CEU and its founder as representations of the Western liberalism that he seeks to expel, and his government’s actions have driven CEU out of Hungary.

In December, 2018, CEU announced that it would be moving its campus to Vienna, citing the increasingly tight higher education regulations that have targeted CEU and the Hungarian government’s refusal to accept a compromise deal that would allow the school to stay in Budapest. Although it has been the most notable case, CEU is not the only school to be subjected to limits on its academic freedom. In 2018, the Hungarian government announced its plan to close down all gender studies programs in the country. Although the government cited low enrollment and the lack of need for gender studies graduates in the job market, government spokespeople have said that the field of gender studies conflicts with the Hungarian government’s ideology.

Research on migration and support to refugee students has also been threatened. There is also a new 25% tax on the income of organizations supporting migrants. Programs set up by universities to support refugee students and faculty are taxed under this law. CEU has had to shut down such programs, as well as research on immigration as a result of these new laws. This comes as part of a greater effort by the government to erase the voices of those opposed to its hard-line anti-immigration policies. Returning to George Soros, his Open Societies Foundation closed its doors in Hungary following the passing of a so-called “Stop Soros” bill. The Bill included the aforementioned tax on NGOs that support work on migration-related causes and banned NGOs that actively supported migrants and refugees in Hungary.  

In addition to these limits on who universities can support, the government also has a lot of control over who runs universities around Hungary. New regulations introduced in 2014 created the position of Chancellor at public universities. The Chancellor has control over staffing and finances and is appointed directly by the Hungarian Prime Minister.

All of this represents an attempt by Orban’s Government to implement its vision for a Hungarian nation. What fits the government’s vision is permitted. Those who are at odds with it are forced out. Orban is consolidating his power by crafting a very specific definition of Hungarian identity. Those who don’t fit are either excluded or forced out.

A sense of Hungarian identity helped push so many young people to fight against the oppression they had grown up with all those years ago in 1956. Somehow, it has ended up as a tool in the arsenal of a newly repressive government.