Shared Ancestry – Shared Values

The Hungarians and the Finns share a common history, somewhere beyond the Urals and near the River Ob. The evidence for this is largely linguistic. Their languages are the most commonly spoken two of the Finno-Ugric group (Estonian is the third) and of the wider Uralic group. Both are difficult to learn for those of us steeped in the syntax of Indo-European languages, agglutinating suffixes instead of using prepositions, eschewing gender and staying singular after a number.

Quite when the Finns and the Hungarians parted company is uncertain. The former struggled north-westwards towards Finland and developed a taste for vodka. The latter rode south-westwards towards the Carpathian basin and developed a liking for palinka. Both are unusually morose people. Over the few thousand years that have passed, the vocabularies of their languages have diverged so much that neither understands the other one today. They share only a certain intonation and syntactical logic.

Differences were thrown into sharp relief in recent days by the attitudes and behaviour of their two Prime Ministers, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, defensive in tone, disdainful and unwelcoming of the thousands of refugees trekking across his country, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila, generously offering one of his own houses to new arrivals in Finland.


Viktor Orban


Juha Sipila

Hungary’s government has inflicted serious reputational damage on its country through its behaviour towards those fleeing war-torn Syria and other hotspots. ‘We must preserve the Christian character of Europe,’ Viktor Orban protests, but the Christian message is one of compassion and generosity, not mistrust and contempt. Hungarian xenophobia, at least as voiced by the government and a few toxic right-wing groups, is offensively ugly and not, in the end, pragmatic.

Consider the behaviour of senior police officers welcoming migrants as they crossed the border into Austria, ushering footsore families towards tables of food, clothes and shoes, and then on to the trains that took them to Vienna and Munich. Their role was protective and liberating.  By contrast, Hungarian officials attempted only to contain the thousands of migrants stranded at Keleti Station in Budapest, or held in bleak camps devoid of comfort and sustenance, not to support or assist them.

I watched an interview with an Iraqi migrant on BBC News, and I take comfort in the fact that he praised the kindness of individual Hungarians, reserving his anger only for institutional Hungary, the tone and actions of the Hungarian government not the people. This is my experience too. There is kindness in Hungary and news stories showed many Hungarians offering food at the roadside to those who left the city to walk from Budapest to the border.

On Sunday a convoy of Austrian cars crossed the border into Hungary to pick up refugees and take them back to Austria. So many generous gestures, Christian or just straightforwardly humane, but not a word of kindness from Mr Orban.

The unity of the European Union is an artificial construct. It isn’t something we feel instinctively. The idea of ‘European Values’ that supposedly unites us means one thing to one nation, another to another.

The founding/joining emotions of the early members were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Though the Coal and Steel Union and, later, the European Economic Community, were ostensibly economic institutions, it was a determination to avoid conflict based on narrow national interest or racial identity that bound these nations together. The enthusiastic welcome offered by Germany and Austria to arriving migrants reflects their sense of history, and the shadow still cast over their countries by the Holocaust.

The accession motives of newer members, particularly those of the former Soviet Bloc, were not emotional. They were based on economic, political and military expediency.

The fragility of the European Union has never been more apparent than in recent months. ‘European Values’ are lamentably ill defined. Desperate references to ‘solidarity’ by leaders of the founding members mean little to the Visegrad Four. They understand each other no more deeply than the Finns and Hungarians understand each other’s language, however much of the past they share.

Yesterday’s Freedom Fighter

I was living in Budapest in June 1989 when Viktor Orban made his impassioned speech in favour of free elections and against the presence of Soviet troops in Hungary. The occasion was the reburial of Imre Nagy. This reburial of the executed reform-communist who led the ‘counter-revolution’ in 1956 was astonishing in itself in a country that was still a one-party Communist state, but that Viktor Orban, then just 26 years old, should be allowed to make a firebrand speech against the Communist regime and Communism in general was even more remarkable.

[Incidentally the night before saw the most moving example of quiet political power that I have ever witnessed. Opposition politicians (a new breed of citizen in 1989) had asked all those who were opposed to the Communist regime to place a lit candle in their window. I passed through the streets in a taxi late in the evening and there was a candle in every window. If you were a Party bigwig then that night you knew for sure that your time was up.]

Viktor Orban 1989

I had been in Hungary since the summer of 1987 and had seen the Communist regime gradually decaying, ever more rapidly after Gorbachev had promised not to interfere. I was working as a consultant on a long MRP software implementation for a television factory, Videoton, in Szekesfehervar, a town about 80 km from Budapest, and I well remember my Hungarian colleagues advising me to stay off the streets on the day of the reburial. They feared a violent crackdown on the emerging opposition, something like 1956 all over again. But of course nothing of the kind happened.

Viktor Orban was then astonishing – radical, energetic, a freedom fighter willing to take personal risks for his cause. Admirable, it seemed at the time. And today he is Prime Minister, fomenting petty nationalism and intolerance.

I loathe the views attributed to Viktor Orban in this article:

Migration threatens European civilisation: Hungary PM

Viktor Orban Now

Some rhetorical questions:

Why should Europe be Christian? Our ethical viewpoint is more ‘Abrahamic’ in origin than merely Christian, its assumptions shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. And, importantly, shared by the secular, even atheistic majority to which I belong. And by people of other faiths, too. The majority of Europe’s population may be Christian by faith or culture, but that is not what unites us.

What about the good Samaritan? Christianity teaches charity, even to the stranger. We must make a place for those who make it to our shores.

What do Hungarians have to fear? The Hungarian language and culture have survived a thousand years of siege by other cultures and languages, and occupation by some. Why should they fear anything now? Cultures are resilient.

Why shouldn’t a culture evolve and change? I live partly in London, which remains a British city even if a large minority of its inhabitants were born outside it. It is one of the most vibrant, exciting, innovative cities in the world, stimulated not held back by its multicultural character. Would that Budapest were similar!

Isn’t there a slight whiff of hypocrisy about all of this, if you consider Europe’s colonial past? Hungary was not, of course, as adventurous in its propagation of Christian civilisation as many other European powers, but if Viktor Orban speaks for Europe as a whole he might be sensitive to the invasive attempts by Europe to impose an alien culture on more ‘primitive’ societies in other parts of the world. And rather more aggressively than by simply living quietly by another faith as an immigrant.

Hungary has, in recent years pursued a policy of petulant independence, as if modern sovereignty is not diffuse, whilst at the same time obtaining great advantage from EU and NATO membership. You can’t have it both ways.

I hate nationalism. By defining ‘belonging’ we define the ‘other’, and the other becomes the scapegoat and the enemy. It is dangerous.