Even Viktor Orbán’s scarf is controversial now
European leaders expressed dismay over the Hungarian's knitwear this week
You have to hand it to him: Viktor Orbán knows how to make headlines. The world’s media are agonising over the meaning of a scarf worn by the Hungarian Prime Minister after a football match between his nation and Greece. The garment featured a map of the former Kingdom of Hungary before the loss of large portions of its territory following World War I.
Greater Hungary included parts of today’s Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Serbia, and governments in those countries reacted with outrage to Orbán’s scarf. Kyiv is particularly upset, summoning the Hungarian ambassador “who will be informed of the unacceptability of Viktor Orbán’s act.”
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Ukraine’s sensitivity over perceived territorial claims is understandable, but representatives from those other countries should take a breath. Slovakia’s Foreign Minister likened the supposed sentiments of the scarf to Nazism, saying that “irredentism and revisionism have no place in our relationship. We saw where such feelings led in 1939, and we see it today in Russia’s aggression,” going on to describe Orbán’s scarf as “tasteless and dirty.” A more measured response came from Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who simply said he doesn’t “want to deal with other people’s scarves.”
Orbán is probably thrilled that even his sartorial choices are deemed of global import. But there’s a yawning chasm between international interpretations, and what the scarf actually represents. In a Facebook post, Orbán said that “football is not politics. Don’t read into it things that aren’t there. The Hungarian national team belongs to Hungarians wherever they live.”
Proprietorial attitudes towards the lost territories of Greater Hungary are not a major feature of Orbán’s politics, either on the domestic or the international stage. After all, many of those surrounding countries are Hungary’s NATO allies; until October this year, a Hungarian general led the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission keeping the peace in the Western Balkans.
Yet Hungary still feels a strong interest in the two million ethnic Hungarians who live in those territories, and who have preserved their linguistic and cultural identity since their separation over a century ago.
This sense of identification has been boosted over recent years by heavy-handed actions from those who are now so outraged by Orbán’s scarf. In Slovakia, decrees allowing the state confiscation of land from Germans and Hungarians after World War II continue to give Bratislava a pretext for claiming property from ethnic Hungarians whose wartime ancestors are long dead.
Relations between ethnic Hungarians and the central government have been particularly fraught in Ukraine. Restrictions on minority communities, imposed to combat Russian influence, have eroded Hungarian goodwill. Anger over the perceived rough treatment of ethnic Hungarians has been a factor in Budapest’s continued scepticism about portrayals of Ukraine’s war with Russia as a moral struggle between good and evil.
On the other hand, Orbán has hardly been whiter than white when it comes to the Hungarian community abroad. A diplomatic row with Ukraine erupted in 2018 over claims that Hungarian diplomats were illegally issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. Hungary was later accused of trying to influence elections in the region. And in recent months, Hungary’s ambivalent stance on Russia has put the country’s wider commitment to the rules-based international order in doubt.
Still, Orbán’s scarf was an expression of cultural unity between Hungarians, rather than territorial ambition. Among other things, this cultural unity means supporting the Hungarian national football team, although that doesn’t change the fact that notions of unity across borders are understandably controversial in the current international context.
“Hungary’s ambivalent stance on Russia has put the country’s wider commitment to the rules-based international order in doubt.”
Hungary has done everything to help the ungrateful Ukrainians, taken in 1000’s of them and has given aid with the only exception being letting weapons through its country, Also won’t go along with bans on Russian oil as shock and horror he’s thinking of his own people 1st. Europe still buys the same Oil but it goes to China or India 1st then back to them at a mark up.
Also funny how “the rules based order” didnt matter with our stupid wars in the middle east. The Iraq war is now known to have been built on lies but the men responsible are still free.
The rules-based international order. Rule No.1 – The US makes the rules.
Poor Ukraine thinks the Americans care about their country. They will be dumped like the Kurds/YPG were when its suits.
Oh, the US cares about Ukraine. Quite a lot.
The US will care deeply until it doesn’t. That is the REAL story behind not only the Kurds but all the way back to Batista, and Diem and Vietnam. And even earlier.
Since the Revolution, we (I am American) have never fought a war that lasted more than 4 years, except Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq-2. The pattern goes all the way back to the War of 1812: somewhere in the third year disillusion starts to set in. Smart diplomats and policy-makers have long understood this–not that our current leadership qualifies as smart or historically literate.
Despite great progress and momentum, Lincoln feared losing re-election in 1864, until Sherman’s symbolicly valuable victory at Atlanta, three-and-a-half years after Sumter. Lincoln had even spent much scarce time and attention on what would have been his concession speech.
FDR and then Truman were desperate to get Stalin to commit to war against Japan at Yalta and Potsdam, in large part because they feared the public reaction to the casualties expected in Operations Olympic and Coronet (the invasion of Japan)–and Olympic would have been a week shy of 47 months after Pearl Harbor. The governing elite saw their public as “war weary,” and they were correct–despite the US having taken proportionately lighter losses and been at war for a shorter time than any other major belligerent.
In Vietnam, the US became seriously involved after the Tonkin Gulf incident on 1964, with direct combat in late 1964 and early 1965. And almost exactly 3 years later the Tet Offensive cracked American resolve. The US/RVN won the battles, but the home front elites were wavering and the population was not unified enough to continue a real war on that scale. After that, US political leaders have always been very cautious about how foreign adventures woudld affect the “Home Front.”
In planning what became 9/11, Osama bin Laden understood all this–America would react violently, but he did not believe it would sustain it.
While we stayed in Afghanistan and Iraq for much longer, by 2009 we were not trying to win, but to find a cheap way out. The wars’ impact on the 2008 election is obscured by the financial crisis, but Obama was the “peace” candidate compared to McCain, who seemed to have never seen an international disagreement he didn’t want to turn into military action. (Given his family history, there is a hell of a monograph on his psychology, waiting to be written.) Arguably we had reached that point around 2007. The Iraq “surge” of 2008 (~5 years in) and the Afghanistan “surge” of 2009 (~7-8 years in) were not seeking victory, but to establish credibility for the sucessor regimes to last long enough to not embarrass us. But, of course, the other side knew this, making that strategy a dead end.
With this history as a guide, if the very sad business in Ukraine is still going on, the US will be actively (though maybe not transaprently) looking for a way out in 2024 as the election forces even the foreign policy elite to pay attention to public opinion, or no later than the new Adminstration taking office in early 2025. The parallel to Vietnam in 1968-69 is pretty obvious.
All this is not aberration, Americans are at heart not into expansion and aggressive conflicts. There have been periods to the contrary, when particular situations created more aggressive policies–the 1840s Manifest Destiny, the 1890s belief in colonies as economically essential, the global threats of fascism and then communism 1940-1990, and reaction to an unprecedented terror attack 2001-2009. But the baseline is mislabelled as isolationsim but better described as non-interventionism. A great many of our ancestors came here to avoid overweening governments in general (think the immigration after the 1848 revolutions), and military conscription in particular. And, we are blessd to have borders with only two nations, with which we have strong economic and cultural ties (though Mexico still has a problem with 1848, unsurprisingly, though they mostly seem past that for now) and oceans on the other sides. So we simply do not face the challenges that led Germany to seek war in 1914 and 1939, or Russia in 2022.
What Walter Russell Mead identified as the Jacksonian strain in our foreign policy runs very deep among the public, sometimes to the frustration of the policy elite–“F**k with us and you will regret it, leave us alone and we will leave you alone.” Even Wilson, viewed as arch-interventionist, was re-elected in 1916 on the platform that “He kept up out of war.” His 1917 war message appeal for a “world safe for democracy” was not that the rest of the world had to be remade in our image, something that would have struck everybody as ridiculous ambition, but that they understand that they could not try to overthrow OUR democracy, as we perceived Germany was trying to do to Belgium and France–much different than the aggressive way some try to use that phrase, now.
The ideological challenges of fascism and communism created other dynamics, but as the world became more normal after 1989, so did the American public’s view of foreign “adventurism,” except of course for the impact of 9/11. But in the end, Ukraine is a long way away and its status is a problem for Russia, Ukraine, and Europeans to deal with, not us.
Agreed. Many of us in the US have not taken three years to regard the Ukraine kerfuffle sceptically. Not our circus, not our monkey.
And if the rules at any point in time do not suit US interests it has others
…you’re so grouchy ER.
When there isn’t a coherent argument against the non consensus policies of a politician you play the man (or woman). Orban Derangement Syndrome – because he’s not ‘one of us’.
As a Hungarian who has lived in in Hungary all his life and considers himself as something of a conservative or and old-style liberal, by no means woke or anything but a leftist, I never know whether to be furious or amused at the utter ignorance of some of your writers, let alone the fawning pro-Orban brigade among UnHerd’s commenters, none of whom appear to know the first thing about the man and what he represents. All I see is knee jerk reactions (“Europe bad, Orbán good, immigration bad, Orbán good”), and a readiness to take all the crap he is saying about traditional values, Christianity and whatnot at face value. There is no such thing as an “Orban Derangement Syndrome” for the simple reason that no one inside or outside Hungary, including his opposition, remotely thinks that Orbán is “deranged” or stupid. Quite to the contrary, even his adversaries will readily admit that he is smart or, better, shrewd, and has an uncanny sense of the feelings of “his people”, the crowd of between 1.5 to 2 million that keeps him in power, and to whom he speaks and gives signals. The same brigade of adulators fail to notice, though, that on the international and geopolitical scene he his very unsuccessful, striking alliances which fail one after other (see the so-called ” V4″ alliance of four countries in Eastern Europe, see especially the Poles who are supposed to be “brothers” after all, yet are disgusted by Orban’s peo-Russian gestures). The foreign politicians he makes friends with keep losing elections, abandon him or reject his stance, like Georgia Meloni has done lately).
Anyone who knows Hungary well enough would be aware that the one trump card (no pun intended) that will always beat everything else, is nationalism and the sense of hurt many people still feel at the loss of two thirds of the country’s territory after World War I, and again after WW II. There is no doubt, Hungary got a rotten deal, but man, it was a hundred years ago. Still, there is a deep-running tendency in many Hungarian families for what is called “grievance politics”. Historically it goes back even farther. Orbán is shrewd enough to hit the revisionist key every once in a while, showing to the group mentioned above that he is “one of them”. It is known that that a map of Greater Hungary hangs on the wall of his study. With Orbán, every small gesture is calculated. I am sure that he wore that particular scarf that day on purpose, as a hint at his “real feelings”. (In reality he cares as little about the plight of Hungarians abroad , revisionism as about anything else. All he is interested in is keeping his power, possibly forever.
Meanwhile Germans and others are buying unprecedented amounts of property in Hungary. Why would that be, I wonder.
Had a brief look into the possibility of moving to Hungary, from UK, but, very reasonably, there seem to be restrictions on foreigners (only non-EU ones?) buying land.
Livingroom? Um. Oops.
After the dissolution of the USSR Hungary made it possible for expatriate Hungarians to acquire properties formerly in their family. Seemed like a reasonable policy to me.
Actually many ethnic Hungarians also live in Germany. They became German citizens after they fled former Communist Hungary. Some of those and their children bought back their former properties.
Says who? Evidence,please.
Orban knows how to push all the right buttons for the supporters of the rules-based international order to get their knickers in a twist.
Perhaps he could become aTory MP in Kent and become Victor Suborban?
I think he enjoys trolling the woke mob. He’s probably chuckling about it right now. I’m sure it helps his image at home as well.
Just to add that the Hungarians in the Ukraine were placed there after WW2, as agreed betwedn Stalin etc at Yalta .
I didn’t know that, but an awful lot of evil was cooked up at Yalta.
That is absolute nonsense. Sub-Carpathia, once a part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the Kingdom of Hungary,had a considerable Hungarian-speaking population (beside Rusyns, Ukrainians, Germans, Slovaks and Jews). There was no resetlling of Hungarians by Stalin, in Yalta or elsewhere
This seemed like a good, thoughtful piece until I got to the cant phrase, “international rules based order.” That so-called order is nothing more than the practices by which the people/institutions/governments on top keep those below them in their place, and its claimed norms are violated by those in power whenever the mood moves them. While I would not agree with Foucault that EVERYTHING is about power relationships, the “international rules based ordfer” comes very close.
Phrases like that crop up in startlingly unnecessary and discordant places, which indicates they are merely a form of propaganda, or maybe signalling that teh author is on the “coorrect” side. And, once you’ve seen the pattern, you cannot unsee it.
Like, always referring to Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “Putin’s unprovoked invasion,” when there clearly were years of provocations, though arguably insufficient to justify war–though a Russian state leader may see that differently than an American or Ukrainian. Or, Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen are always “baseless,” whereas there were plenty of irregularities that constitute a “base” for such suspicions, though those arguments have never been honestly adjudicated and remain unproven (and at this date irrelevant). Or that COVID mRNA vacines are “safe and effective,” which seems to be true for higher risk older people or those with certain morbidities when compared with being unvaccinated, but is highly misleading when those vaccines are compared to other vaccines of longer standing and far more extensive testing and experience, or in discussing younger, healthy people.
I guess propagandists of whatever stripe tend to think that repeating the lies will eventually wear down most of the public, and they may well be correct in that. But it is VERY irritating for people who care about the truth and try to be objective, esp. the use of unimaginative. I have to consider re-reading this article; now that I know the author used the phrase “international rules based order;” what else may he be selling?
Best thing about Orban is how he riles up his opponents with the tiniest of actions or statements.
Orban is making claims to lands lost to Hungary at the end of World War One, lands where Hungarians had always been minorities. Hungary occupied part of Vojvodina, Serbia, during World War Two, on the basis of such claims, was involved in brutal murders of Jews and Serbs in the razzia in Novi Sad in midwinter 1941/42, for instance, when hundreds were drowned under the frozen Danube. Hungary currently offers Hungarian citizenship to anyone born during this World War Two occupation! Any suggestion of encouraging claims to lost territories should be strongly resisted, no matter what the country.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe