“Even as a joke, it’s a bit too much…”: A conversation between Anne Applebaum and Dr. Mária Schmidt
[The conversation below took place in Budapest, November 13, 2017, at Anne Applebaum’s request. As a frank and open exchange, it reveals several points of agreement and often disagreement on matters ranging from relations with the United States, George Soros, press freedom and more.
It also offers good illustration of how bias and the lack of accurate information about Hungary among our friends in Europe and the United States can breed serious misunderstandings and superficial judgments. Like Dr. Schmidt, I have had hundreds of conversations like this as the spokesperson, spending countless hours with foreign correspondents and other international visitors – including a brief one with Ms. Applebaum during her last visit to Budapest. Despite our good faith effort to explain our positions, identify double-standards and correct the record when others don’t have their facts straight, our experience has shown that very often these points never make it into the final text, and our side doesn’t get a fair hearing.
So with that in mind, I have decided to publish the following interview on this blog. It is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity, of the audio recording of the conversation. -- Dr. Zoltán Kovács ]
Anne Applebaum is my old friend, which may be why I sat down for a conversation with her even after Anne’s latest writings made some unworthy attacks against our region and Hungary. I wanted to understand what changed in her thinking, why the independence and freedom of this region is no longer important for her. More specifically, why does she not accept that tolerating different points of view is not the essence of independence and freedom, but the acceptance of the local community interests and values.
Applebaum: We can start from a moment when you and I agreed with each other. Right. I came to this museum opening in...
Schmidt: In 2002.
Applebaum: Yes, and I wrote about it, I think in The Wall Street Journal, and I’ve written about it since. I was always a great admirer of it and saw you as somebody who was promoting a genuine revision of history.
I recently read an article you wrote in April. It’s about Soros and the argument is that he dominates the whole left and the Democratic Party of the United States. To me it’s, it’s insane. It does not reflect reality. And that’s why I’m here. Because somebody sent me a translation in English. And this to me was so completely different from everything that I think, and so strange. At what moment did we become so different? You are a historian. You are a historian I admire, who I quoted in my books. I admire your House of Terror Museum. I have written about the museum. I’ve written about you and always positively, and then I saw this blog post and then I thought, “Wait, something has happened.” And either it’s me or it’s you who sees the situation differently. I want to know what it is. I’m stunned by it. So my question is: when was the moment where we became different?
Schmidt: It started in 2008. We had a difference in understanding after Obama got elected. Eight years of the Obama presidency has made a difference in the ways Hungarians think about the United States. Since the Reagan Administration, the American administration always looked at Central Europe as central to American interests. This was new because East-Central Europe’s fate did not interest the United States before. This was very important for us because it resulted in the Cold War ending with American victory and we got back our freedom and national sovereignty. It also meant NATO accession of these countries, which was important for the safety of the region.
The Obama Administration withdrew from this missile defense system and missile installations in the region. From that point, America started to give several signs that they no longer cared about this region. Instead they focused on social change. The United States started to act as a hardcore ideologically based colonizing power, which was never the case before. And that fall aligned with the activities of the Soros Foundations, which worked in full harmony with the Obama Administration’s people in Hungary.
Applebaum: The Soros Foundation influenced Obama, or Obama influenced Soros, or they are just the same?
Schmidt: They joined forces and acted together, hand in hand with each other. It was the American ambassador, Goodfriend(nomen est omen), who joined all the demonstrations that Soros organized and came here and sat in this chair, where you are sitting now, and gave a 1.5 hour lecture on Horthy as well as directions on what to do.
Applebaum: Yes, I remember you talking about that.
Schmidt: I wonder how it would look if the Hungarian ambassador in Washington went to the director of Smithsonian and gave a lecture to the Americans about how they treated the Native Americans and how he should write about it.
Applebaum: I’m sure there would be lots of people in the Native American Museum who would be delighted to hear it.
Schmidt: And then there were the issues with Obama, the president of the United Sates, talking in a public speech about Bálint Hóman getting a statue in Székesfehérvár. He couldn’t even pronounce the name. Even though they have a Lenin statue in Seattle and that’s alright with him. He only cared about the Hóman statue in Székesfehérvár but not the Lenin one in Seattle and it must be a very important question for the American tax payers.
The problem was that the past eight years of Obama – this is general in the region – the Americans made themselves dislikeable. I don’t know if it will change with the Trump Administration. I hope it will.
Applebaum: So there are a couple of things. I recall this conversation you told me about this American who lectured you about Horthy. I agreed with you. So I’m looking for the moment when we began to disagree. And I agree with you because I agreed the Americans have no business in the Hungarian history.
However, in retrospect: why would they do that? And the reason why is that they suspected – I am guessing because I don’t know this person you were talking about and my views are often very different from the U.S. administration’s and they were different from Obama’s in many ways – they were afraid that Horthy for Orbán had become a kind of model and that he wanted to bring back a one-party state in Hungary.
Schmidt: There was not a one-party system under Horthy!
Applebaum: Okay. They suspected that Orbán wants a form of totalitarianism and that was their symbolic way of protesting. Why are you smiling? Do you think that’s funny?
Schmidt: Even as a joke it’s a bit too much. But Hungary is a sovereign state. And we are sovereign so that outsiders do not tell us how we can think about our history. We couldn’t deal with Horthy for 45 years because of Soviets didn’t allow us, and now we shouldn’t deal with him because the Americans won’t let us? This is our decision, this is our history.
Applebaum: How have the Americans stopped you from building statues?
Schmidt: In the case of Hóman, the American president himself has a say in whether the local government may build a statue for him or not.
Applebaum: The American president doesn’t have any power to tell anyone who should build statues and for whom.
Schmidt: Let’s take each other seriously. We are not in the same weight category. The US put us under enormous diplomatic pressure. So why won’t the United States let a European nation, which by the way has a history of 1100 years, look into its own history and clear it up? Decide what it would like to keep or what it would like to disregard. And what was good and what was wrong. It is our job. It is our history.
This is totally independent from what I think about Hóman. Nobody knew the name Bálint Hóman except for about a thousand people. Now everyone knows his name because the American president advertised it and it became interesting.
Applebaum: Okay. We are still at the moment where we agreed. So I agree that the United States shouldn’t have done that.
Schmidt: But the US did.
Applebaum: Okay. I agree. I’m not here to defend America. I’m not sure why Obama did what he did. He doesn’t do that in many other countries. Maybe he was badly advised by his ambassador. Maybe he was afraid of things going the wrong way in Hungary. You offended the American president.
So then how did you get from there to this idea that Soros controls the whole left? There’s a line in here “Soros and the left are one and the same. And liberated the Democratic Party.” So you think Soros bought the left side and the liberals? And its requisite was to buy himself into the Democratic Party?
Schmidt: I am referring to a TV show I saw about the relationship between Soros and the Democratic Party.
Applebaum: Are you referring to a satirical show, Saturday Night Live, as a fact?
Schmidt: I am referring to Saturday Night Live because it is a Democratically friendly TV show, and I saw an episode where Soros was pictured as the owner of the Democratic Party. He himself was illustrated as the owner of the Democratic Party.
Applebaum: That was only a joke.
Schmidt: Sure. If you think that’s a joke in the United State there is a reason. It’s not a coincidence; it is discussed. He was there and not someone else. I haven’t heard Soros exclaim against it or express resentment about it. Why weren’t there any articles about it saying that this was exaggerated?… For that matter, Obama did not make a statement about Hóman and Székesfehérvár because one morning he woke up and felt like it, and he did not deal with Hungary just because he was interested in it so much but because he had to deal with it. Somebody told him to say that. That is necessary to point out because as cultured and informed as he is, he had no clue about this city and this statue.
Applebaum: I see. Do you think it was Soros?
Schmidt: Who else? Who would think about this? Who do you think this is important for? Who else do you think would consider this important in the actual surrounding of the president? And for whom would he do this?
Applebaum: Hm. Okay. Let’s go back to Soros and the Democratic Party.
Schmidt: Soros has created many organizations, a network of civil organizations around the American Democratic Party, and he is financing them still today. I named some in that piece you are referring to. He himself declared the big amounts he put in the campaigns and how much he put in the campaigns against George W. Bush, and local campaigns, electoral fights of public prosecutors and governors. Don’t act like you don’t know about these.
Applebaum: A lot of people put a lot of money into American election campaigns.
Schmidt: I don’t care about the others because they are not active in Hungary. I care about Soros because he is Hungarian and he acts here. The Hungarian left, the opposition, is completely financed by Soros. The ideas are coming from him, all the ideas, that the left wing parties could come up with are coming through the Open Society Foundations, his network of NGOs shape the Hungarian oppositionist activity.
Applebaum: What do you mean by the left? Who is left now in Hungary?
Schmidt: We call them the opposition, although there isn’t an actual left party in Hungary today. This is why they are in such a big trouble. The Socialists (MSZP) went in a third party direction following Schröder, Blair and Clinton, and became neoliberal.
And no, they are not left-wing, real left-wing anymore. The Hungarian Democratic Coalition(DK), separating from the Socialists, is also neoliberal. I don’t know what Jobbik is. The Green Party (LMP) is a green party, neither left nor right. That’s all. There is not a left party today in Hungary.
Applebaum: Well, if there is no left-wing party, then why are you afraid of Soros? Why are you bothered by Soros? I mean he is spending his money on something. Why do you care about it?
Schmidt: It is the opposition’s problem that Soros captured and destroyed them. It is everybody’s problem that there is not a free-will opposition in Hungary. But that would be another conversation. This is not my problem with Soros. My problem with Soros is that he is representing an ideology that I disagree with.
Applebaum: And what is his ideology? Can you describe it?
Schmidt: Soros wants to destroy Europe, including Hungary, because he wants to create a new kind of Europe with a new value system I disagree with.
Applebaum: He wants to destroy Europe? And he wants to destroy Hungary?
Schmidt: It is a part of that article you read. But he himself put it in writing many times, don’t act like you don’t know what I am talking about.
Applebaum: And can you describe to me what that value system is?
Schmidt: I believe in nation states. National sovereignties are important for me. We, Hungarians, didn’t starve out the Soviet rule just to give up our sovereignty now. We don’t want to be ruled by another bureaucratic oligarch, this time from Brussels. We have been there and we didn’t like it.
Christianity is important to me and I think its traditions should be saved and shared. Differences between sexes are important to me. I’m not a fan of these dissolved identities but I’m more focused on what unites us. Freedom of speech is important for me. I don’t like safe spaces. I don’t like trigger warnings and whatever is going on at the American and Anglo-Saxon universities.
Applebaum: Yes, I’m afraid it’s been very exaggerated. I have a son at Yale University…
Schmidt: Yale is one of the worst. I believe that Shakespeare should be taught, still. And To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well. I don’t like what is going on there: impatience, attacks against the freedom of speech. I listen to those I argue with and those I don’t agree with as well. But these processes are just very antipathetic to me.
Applebaum: So my son is at Yale, and I don’t really want to hold him up as a model, but he is doing a course on the Christian Intellectual Tradition. He took Tim Schneider’s course on Eastern Europe. He took a course on Jane Austin. He is doing mostly History and Philosophy. And I don’t think he would recognize this description of the American academy as crazy. I think we are talking about a small group of people.
Schmidt: But the fact that you have to explain this shows something.
Applebaum: I’m just wondering where you’re getting your information from?
Schmidt: This is slightly arrogant, don’t you think? I read a lot of American press as well. My son went to Scotland and experienced that the Marxism that comes from the West is very disappointing. The CEU was the only university that held a conference on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the October revolution. They featured a bunch of communists and Marxists. We had enough of this, and we don’t want it coming back from the West what we have got from the East.
Applebaum: The only person I know well [at CEU] is Jacek Rostowski. Who is an economist and was the Polish finance minister, who I don’t think you would describe as a Marxist. Actually, before I came here I looked through the list of who teaches history at the CEU, and as far as I can see, they are mostly Hungarians and one Russian who seems to have written several perfectly normal sounding books about Russian imperial policy towards nationalities, and I didn’t see anything strange or exotic about it.
Schmidt: The former rector of the University, Yehuda Elkana, was an explicitly hardcore radical left-winger. The rector today, Ignatieff, is a liberal politician. He acts like a politician. The economic professors, as I know, are all neoliberals.
Applebaum: Even if the CEU is communist or liberal, you can’t tolerate a university that has different ideology than yours?
Schmidt: Why wouldn’t we tolerate it? I don’t have any problem with them.
Applebaum: Then why are you trying to get rid of it? Why is Orbán trying to get rid of it?
Schmidt: I don’t want to and he does not want to get rid of them. He wants them to follow the same rules as anybody else. This was an administrative issue. I explained this in another blog post I wrote that it proves our democratic system’s largeness that they may work here.
Applebaum: It’s an administrative issue?
Schmidt: We had a conference here at the House of Terror Museum, and both of the vice rectors, representatives of the government and the spokesman were invited. Both of the vice rectors admitted that it is not about academic freedom or the freedom of speech. This is an administrative issue: Soros back then required extra benefits from the minister, who gave it to him in a letter. But it wasn’t taken into the House of Parliament and it didn’t become a law.
Applebaum: So the university says now that they have met the requirements and an agreement was reached. But it’s been delayed…
Schmidt: I don’t know what they talked about and discussed, or why it is delayed. I wasn’t following this part. But if they meet the requirements, everything will be fine.
Applebaum: They say they’ve met the requirements.
Schmidt: I don’t know the details. They said they did before and then it turned out that they didn’t. I didn’t follow where the case stands now. To me, the important part was the set of lies that Ignatieff and the whole University shouted to the world about Hungary threatening academic freedom, the freedom of speech, that they admit was not true, beside this table. In Hungary, nobody told them and today, nobody tells them what they should teach or who teaches it. Because they peddled this lie. But they admitted here that their academic freedom did not get hurt and nobody missed a day in the curriculum. This is what was important to me.
Applebaum: If a state passes a law that is designed to abolish a University because it’s also conducting a political campaign against the University’s founder then it is within their rights to think that they are being targeted for political reasons.
Schmidt: They were not endangered. They were not told what to teach, who to teach it or what to do at the University. We asked them to keep the law as we did with every other university. The bottom line is that the reaction that Ignatieff gave, so the reaction of the University, was not the right reaction. This is not how a leader of an institution behaves, this is how a politician behaves. And if he acts like a politician, then he will get a political answer. His reaction was to go to Berlin, go to Brussels, and go to the States, trumpeting all over the world. And he did not do what his job should be, which is trying to come to terms with the ministry. And he was threatening the government everywhere. Instead of requesting an appointment with the minister or raising this question with the conference of rectors.
Applebaum: Okay. I think it was a political attack because for Orbán it was politically useful right at that moment, at the same time as the political attacks against Soros.
Schmidt: In the sense that not even the CEU stands above the law. They have to abide by the same laws as everybody. So even people like Soros have the same equality in front of the law as other people. Everybody is equal in front of the law.
Applebaum: And it’s nothing to do with the Soros campaign?
Schmidt: I think it’s a coincidence. They have been working on this law for a long time now because there are lots of fake universities.
Applebaum: CEU is a fake university?
Schmidt: I didn’t say that. I said we needed a new law that affects all the universities including CEU. There wasn’t anything special in this law about CEU. We had to introduce conditions in order to control the universities who were faking their activities and giving out diplomas for money. There were many universities affected and a bunch of them closed.
Applebaum: You ran a billboard campaign over the last few months with pictures of George Soros, an old man in his eighties.
Schmidt: 87 years old and very active.
Applebaum: You put them all over the country as, “This is the thing that Hungarians must fight against. This person. This is what we have to unite against and fight against.” Is that what you believe?
Schmidt: Yes because mass migration is an enormous danger.
Applebaum: That is a threat to Hungary?
Schmidt: Yes, and he has a big role in it. And this is not only dangerous for Hungary. It may explode over the whole of Europe.
Applebaum: That’s the main threat to Hungary?
Schmidt: Yes. We have lived through time when 400 000 people marched through the country.
Applebaum: And they’ve stayed here. They are still here.
Schmidt: No, they didn’t wanted to stay here, and they couldn’t stay here either.
Applebaum: So why is it a threat?
Schmidt: Because Hungary is a sovereign country, and the country should decide who can enter the territory. All the people who want to enter should obey Hungarian laws. If there is no order, there is no freedom.
Applebaum: No, you misunderstood me. I asked are they here?
Schmidt: I’ll repeat it. They couldn’t stay, and they didn’t stay, but the fact itself is that they crossed the borders without any legal basis, and that’s a big problem. Only those can cross the borders who have permit to do so. It is the basic right of a sovereign country. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the same as in the United States. Hundreds of thousand people cannot just go in and out. They came here. They started to have demands. They didn’t show any documentation, any papers, and they didn’t comply with the authorities. And the whole world’s international press was focusing on us and blaming us.
Applebaum: But where are they now? They are not here.
Schmidt: In Germany. Where else would they be? Don’t you know they are in Germany?
Applebaum: You said they are not here, they are not coming in, so why this fear?
Schmidt: Because the Germans, as their best traditions, are working on a redistribution mechanism which would set mandatory quotas according to which we would have to have an amount of these people back. And this is, once again, a question of sovereignty. It is our job to decide who we want to live together with. Germans have decided on who we shouldn’t live together with and now they want to decide on who we should live together with. It’s a question of sovereignty.
Applebaum: But they aren’t here now.
Schmidt: Why are you saying this for a third time? Neither me, nor the migrants are stupid. There is no migrant who doesn’t know either it comes from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Syria, who wouldn’t know that he gets a thousand euros each one from Germany, and he doesn’t get the same from Hungary. A doctor makes that much in Hungary.
Applebaum: And Soros wants to bring thousands of migrants into Europe?
Schmidt: Not thousands. Soros himself wrote an article, saying that Europe has to have an annual one million migrants and have to redistribute these migrants according to a mechanism, let say quotas.
Applebaum: And why is he saying that?
Schmidt: Ask him. Why are you asking me? What is his motivation? Why is it so important for him? If you think that he is just a weak old man, then why don’t you ask him why is he visiting Brussels on a regular basis, meeting commissioners, representatives and hugging Juncker?
Applebaum: Because he was a migrant himself.
Schmidt: Yeah. Or not just because of that. That’s why it’s so important for him to have one million unchecked Muslims come to this continent? This is a weak explanation. You can’t be serious about that.
Applebaum: And Merkel is also somebody who has a history in her family of people who were refugees. Merkel has said she knew many refugees and feels a responsibility to help. She talked about Syrians, not about the whole world, because she saw what happened when the wall came down and many easterners were welcomed to West Germany who were also refugees. She feels she owes something to refugees. Do you think that’s a ridiculous argument and really it’s about something else? She really wants to destroy Europe? These arguments can’t be true?
Schmidt: Just to be malicious, Merkel herself said that when the wall collapsed, she was in the sauna. If that was her motivation, it would be disappointing because a private person could have this weakness, can speak like this but a leader of a country can’t. To place her own compatriots on the same level with strangers of another culture, with another religion? It is telltale. But I think it is just bullshit. I would say, she wanted to prove that Germans, this time, are the good people. And they can lecture everybody on humanism and morality. It doesn’t matter for the Germans what they can lecture the rest of the world on, they just have to lecture someone. And she thought they would just distribute the rest. She didn’t behave as a European politician should have behaved. She should have asked the other 27 prime ministers what they think about this on Skype or a meeting perhaps. But she made up her mind on a decision that is so important and this is unacceptable.
Applebaum: I have a question. Why does Hungary remain in the European Union? Why do you want to be in it now?
Schmidt: Why is this a question?
Applebaum: It’s got different values. You said Soros’s values, which you oppose, are also the values of the European Union. And also the values of the United States. Maybe not now, but previously. Why do you want to be part of it?
Schmidt: What we represent are also European values. Who said those are not European values? Or you think that those values that I listed are no longer part of Europe?
Applebaum: I do. I would be careful with Christianity because there are people with many religions in Europe. So I would talk about religious tolerance. Is that Christianity? So maybe this is where our difference might be.
Schmidt: So you think Christianity is no longer a European value?
Applebaum: I think Christianity is a European value but I also think religious tolerance is of equal value.
Schmidt: I didn’t say the values I listed are the only European values. I just said those are also European values. And there are plenty more values like this. But those will be listed by others.
Applebaum: Let’s go back to freedom of speech and freedom of press. Does Hungary have freedom of press?
Schmidt: Absolutely. If you could read Hungarian you would see.
Applebaum: I’ve been going through. I’ve been told which website is where now, and I know that there are very important opposition websites. I know some people who work for them. But it’s very difficult now for opposition thinkers, and writers, and critics to have access to the printed press, not that the printed press is so important now, and to television.
Schmidt: If we go back in time a little bit, after the change of the regime, everything was owned by the left and the liberals who allied with them. They were the only ones who had newspapers, television stations. They were everywhere. And when we requested to have a national agency that distributes the advertisement and money between all political sides to have a medium, the answer was to let the market solve this issue. And then we had foreign investors mostly from the West. Fifty percent of the media was in foreign hands. I needn’t say much here; these strengthened them too. And when these people left, and their firms were taken over by Hungarians, who were on the left side and the liberals and who didn’t want to invest in the media. They didn’t see business in it. For example, the Socialist Party used to have the biggest daily newspaper, which had a readership close to one million. That belonged to the Socialist Party. They sold it to an Austrian investor. And then he saw not as much business interest in it, and he decided to close it. So when the left wing used to own everything, then interestingly the freedom of press was not an issue. It’s only interesting now, while they still have the biggest television channel. They have the biggest internet sites, and they have radio, television, and magazines.
Applebaum: The left or the opposition?
Schmidt: We talked about this. The opposition, that’s right. Excuse me.
Applebaum: And the magazine that you now own, Figyelő.
Schmidt: It was a leftover from the 60s. It looked terrible. It was old-fashioned, and that’s why it went bankrupt.
Applebaum: And what is it now?
Schmidt: Now it is exciting. It’s the best looking, fanciest and trendiest weekly magazing. The articles are shorter, and it’s picture-heavy.
Applebaum: Yeah, I saw the recent cover in which you identified NGOs with ISIS.
Schmidt: I’m not the editor-in-chief.
Applebaum: You don’t have anything to do with the design of the covers, choosing the political direction of the magazine?
Schmidt: No, I only choose the editor-in-chief. The cover is his job.
Applebaum: I think you also choose the board of directors.
Schmidt: It was only for a few days, in a transitional period, until we found the editor.
Applebaum: I was very taken aback by it because the identification of NGOs with the opposition is very similar to what you wrote to me a few days ago. This is exactly what the Hungarian communists did. They said the NGOs are enemies. They identified them with evil capitalists, and therefore we have to destroy them. It seemed to me a very similar message on the cover of the magazine.
Schmidt: We only talk about a certain group of NGOs who without any change take the same statements as the one in Washington, Brussels, and Berlin. They push these very same messages, often taking over the best examples of the Soviet Union. Except since we have Trump, in case of the United States. Just because they say something in Berlin, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Not even what they say in Brussels. But they accept it without criticism and represent it and echo the message.
Applebaum: And that makes them like ISIS?
Schmidt: The graphic did not have this message. This was a visual gag. The opposition papers also use gags like this. I think it was successful, and I hope it shows in the sales numbers. It is about the fact that these organizations didn’t care so much about ISIS when 400 000 people came through the borders without documentation. Imagine how many terrorists and ISIS agents were among them. They didn’t care about the danger of ISIS.
Applebaum: But surely these groups were, I mean, these groups weren’t the people who allowed refugees across the border.
Schmidt: Of course they were! They were the ones guiding them through the border. They were the ones helping them, and they were the ones inviting the western press to report, who by the way, tell lies about what is going on here. They sue the Hungarian state, representing the migrants. Why did the western press take part in this? You always ask me why our government does certain things. Now I’m asking you why the western press did this.
Applebaum: You don’t speak for the editors and I don’t speak for all the western press.
Schmidt: The paper you work for, why did it write so many insanities about us?
Applebaum: I don’t know, I don’t remember, it was a long time ago. I will go back and look at it and then I can tell you.
Schmidt: We had the Austrian chancellor coming here and call us a fascist and then three months later built up a fence that he called a gate with wings so is that okay? The western press wasn’t criticizing him. So what is unbearable – and let me summarize it, and I think this is what the Polish share and the others in the V4 share – is this colonizing attitude the West has. We have had enough of that. So if we build a fence, that’s really bad behavior, that’s fascism itself. If it is Faymann, the Austrian chancellor doing the same thing, it’s alright. If they don’t let the migrants through Calais, then it’s humane behavior from both France and Great Britain. And this can be seen every single day, about everything. For example, the French government fails to meet the three percent threshold for the state deficit in the European Union, for ten years, then they don’t fall under an excessive deficit procedure, like we did, because Junker says it’s the French, so they can do it. And this is what forces the V4 countries to try to change this attitude, this double standard because it’s outrageous.
Why don’t you go to Germany and look after what kind of press freedom is there? Is there a free press in Germany or opposition press, television, sites? Why isn’t this a question?
Applebaum: I don’t speak German. What do you think?
Schmidt: Why? Do you speak Hungarian? You are still asking me. I didn’t notice that there was any opposition press in Germany. I haven’t seen one. When AFD had its demonstrations in Leipzig, they switched off the electrical lights. What would happen if the Hungarians were to do this? Let’s say the opposition has a demonstration in Budapest and the local government switches off the lights. What would your paper say? And the other press? Why is it fine if it happens in Germany? Today, everyone can have demonstrations in Hungary, nobody gets hurt and everyone can exercise their rights. But when the demonstrators were beaten under the Socialist government years ago, then nobody came here to report that. Today there is freedom, peace, and calm. And safety.
Applebaum: Is Hungary a happy country?
Schmidt: We are never happy. This is a pessimistic country. But things are generally going in the right direction. People like to complain a lot here. Now let’s talk about why Orbán is a neo-Bolshevik.
Applebaum: One of the examples – well this wasn’t Orbán – is your takeover of the magazine and the conversion of it to a pro-government line, and you attacked the NGOs with these neo-Bolshevik strategies.
Schmidt: I became neo-Bolshevik because I bought the paper?
Applebaum: Not because you bought it but because of the way you altered its political views.
Schmidt: You don’t think I would buy a paper that I don’t agree with, right?
Applebaum: No, I wouldn’t expect you to do that.
Schmidt: Then? What should I do? That’s my money, I paid taxes. Of course, I want it to resemble the value system that I endorse.
Applebaum: And you see no usefulness in having a magazine which has independent views?
Schmidt: What does that mean? Who is independent and from what?
Applebaum: You can’t imagine a form of journalism that would be able to both criticize the government and try to establish true stories that is not taking one political side or another and doesn’t make NGOs into ISIS?
Schmidt: Isn’t it the same in the United States that the press is divided into two sides? Isn’t there this on one side and that on the other? What does independent mean? I don’t understand. Tell me an independent paper in the United States.
Applebaum: The Washington Post does not write whatever the Democratic Party tells it to. It’s not an independent paper?
Schmidt:No, but it represents the same value system. When I think about my paper, I don’t take orders from the Party. I want it to resemble my value system. There isn’t a single journalist in Hungary who is not dedicated to one side. There isn’t one who would look into the other side. and the paper would post it. But the United States is similar. I read the American press extensively, and I have never seen a pro-Trump article in the Washington Post or The New York Times.
Applebaum: Oh, I can show you pro-Trump articles in Washington Post.
Schmidt: There is the same amount of pro-opposition articles in Figyelő. We do interviews with them. But I would never go to the States and ask a media owner what he is doing with his paper.
Applebaum: You’re welcome to.
Schmidt: Yes? Do you think I could do it?
Applebaum: If you could arrange to meet them, yes.
Schmidt: This is funny. Do you think I can go to Soros and ask the reason why he finances certain papers and what’s in those papers and why?
Applebaum: Have you tried?
Schmidt: No. Have you?
Applebaum: I haven’t.
Schmidt: I don’t think he would respond. We sent requests for interviews but we never get responses.
Applebaum: Do you think all journalism is a form of politics?
Schmidt: Most of it, yes. We are in the middle of a war of cultures, war of values. There are many new values that they want to impose on us. For example, Germany just introduced the third gender. Everything that is important for me, going back 30 years ago, is in danger. I don’t want my grandchildren to be the third gender.
Applebaum: I don’t want my grandchildren to live in one-party states. I see people who want to create them.
Schmidt: Who, for example?
Applebaum: Kaczyński. Do you recognize a legitimate opposition. Is there a form of opposition you would consider to be okay? That you would welcome to have?
Schmidt: I don’t think that Kaczyński wants a one-party state. It’s not good for anybody if there is no opposition. It’s not even good for us in Hungary that the opposition is so weak. But it’s their fault. I think it would be very important to have opposition. It would be very important for Fidesz to have a good opposition. It would pull them together, make them more competitive, and able to achieve better results, if they were to have a good opposition.
Applebaum: But you said that your opposition is all funded by Soros and it aims to destroy Europe.
Schmidt: No, it’s not what I said. What I said is that Soros captured the opposition parties and actually killed them with it. Hungarian opposition doesn’t have a saying, a slogan that I can identify except for LMP which says that they don’t want the nuclear plant in Paks. But the rest of the opposition just don’t have an identifying slogan or saying. That’s why they are non-existent. I couldn’t tell who they are and what they want.
Applebaum: And the Jobbik?
Schmidt: A long time ago, we used to know what they want but not anymore. They don’t have any slogans. What do you think Jobbik stands for? They are no longer right-wing, no longer left-wing. At one point, they were hateful of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, but apparently they are not anymore. Right now they say they do like them.
Applebaum: They changed their mind.
Schmidt: But so fast? Great job. The Socialist Party, I don’t know if it still exists or not but I would open up a bottle of champagne to celebrate that they dissolved after 100 years. So why is Orbán neo-Bolshevik?
Applebaum: Because he wants to destroy things.
Schmidt: What does he want to destroy?
Applebaum: First of all, you answered it in a complicated way, but he identifies Soros as his real opposition which is, I think, a conspiracy theory.
Schmidt: There’s no such thing as conspiracies?
Applebaum: There are conspiracies. There are also Russian conspiracies too but let’s not go there. He sees the opposition as all these parties controlled by Soros and therefore they are illegitimate. This way of seeing the world, it’s quite Bolshevik. The idea that independent organizations need to be watched and controlled is quite Bolshevik. You don’t think so?
Schmidt: The United States also monitors foreign agents and organizations. They have let them appear in publications that they are supported by a foreign agency. Netanjahu does the same. Are they all Bolsheviks?
Applebaum: I don’t describe United States as Bolshevik. I think people behind Donald Trump think like Bolsheviks, yes.
Schmidt: Then you don’t know what that word means. Bolsheviks could only rule by terror. Isn’t that true?
Applebaum: I wasn’t talking about how they rule. I’m talking about how they think. They think in terms of destroying the ruling class and replacing it with a new class. They think in terms of wrecking what exists and replacing it with new people. This is very much how Steve Bannon thinks. And Kaczyński.
Schmidt: But they didn’t say that the people they didn’t like should be killed, executed, sent to labor camps like Lenin thought and did. It’s a big difference. Being competitive and aiming to put his own people into positions by democratic elections is a big difference from seizing power by terror and putsch. And why Trump? There wasn’t a democratic election in the United Stated?
Applebaum: By undermining the authority, by undermining the media, by undermining the courts, by dividing Americans into groups that hate each other.
Schmidt: Rather Obama did that, no? He received a Nobel Peace Prize right away while the Washington Post was writing that no one has a more beautiful upper body than him. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said when he saw Obama, his knees start to shake from enthusiasm. North Korea pleaded for the recipe. Or shall we call it know-how? So that was the American press. They wrote love letters to Obama. And now they instruct us. You wrote that Orbán is a neo-Bolshevik, but Orbán is an anticommunist hero, so that’s crossing the line.
Applebaum: And because you are an anticommunist hero you can never be criticized ever again?
Schmidt: But without any reason calling him neo-Bolshevik is not criticism. Everyone can be criticized, but this is not criticism. This crosses every line because it has no basis. He was elected by a huge majority. He keeps the laws. Nobody was hurt, and nobody is persecuted since he was elected prime minister. There is not a single political trial in Hungary, nothing. So why would he be a neo-Bolshevik? Just because the opposition is in such a terrible state? In Poland, even before Kaczyński, the Socialists were down to five percent.
Applebaum: Kaczyński is not against the Socialists. He is against everybody. He is against everybody, even the right.
Schmidt: You are very biased, this can’t go like this. And if my article about Soros upsets you, then why didn’t you respond or disprove it? This is an article, a study; it can be criticized, right? Disprove it point-by-point. You were a star in Hungary. People loved you. Your opinion used to matter. And now you hit them in the heart with this neo-Bolshevik argument. This was too much. I published your articles. I translated them. Your books were translated, and for the people who care about history, your word counts. You received a Petőfi prize. They used to love you and that’s why it hurt them so bad. Because whatever you write about Orbán, they will put it on a scale. But this neo-Bolshevik stabs them in the heart. Just like mine. Because again, for us Hungarians, he is an anticommunist hero. And the truth is I can’t understand your arguments. The biggest problem with this left-wing group, with the liberals, and now with you as well, not just in Hungary, is the language. We are losing the respect for language and that makes it impossible to have a proper conversation with each other. This is the biggest problem. And if we can use every word for everything, there will not be much left in the end. The most important thing would be to have normal conversations about the issues. Because nobody has the ultimate truth. But a conversation has to take place. But only if we can meet eye-to-eye with each other. And not talk down from above to those below like it used to be with the colonies. Unfortunately, today this is the case.
Applebaum: Who is talking down to you?
Schmidt: The whole western press. Everybody who comes here. Americans never used to talk like this. Now they do.
Applebaum: You were not so respectful towards the American press.
Schmidt: What wasn’t respectful?
Applebaum: You were talking about the American press’s coverage of Obama.
Schmidt: That was a very low level of reporting. But it is possible to criticize, right? Just because I’m expressing criticism, I respect them, otherwise I wouldn’t read them. I see a lot of valuable articles in it every day. It’s not that we have to agree with everything. When we had to agree with everything it, was under the Soviet Union’s rule, and we didn’t like it.
Applebaum: Wait. At the beginning of this conversation you were complaining about the American diplomat who lectured you about history. And I asked why you had to listen to them? And you said because it’s the United States, and we are under pressure and we have to listen to them. So you have to or you don’t have to?
Schmidt: He was the ambassador at the time, not a journalist. Just because they have this attitude and talk to us like this doesn’t mean I have to accept this attitude, and I didn’t accept it from the Russians either. And I don’t like it. This didn’t happen before the Obama Administration and hasn’t happened since then. It is also not the very best way of imposing pressure when they threaten us with rules and taking away funding. This is what Brussels and the Germans do. But this is life. We take punches and we throw them back.