Here’s the story about Hungary that the Washington Post refused to publish
Last week, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an editor at the Washington Post penned a sentimental column fretting that the euphoria of that day was naïve because “The politics of the 1930s are still playing out in eastern Europe.”
It was full of the usual tropes about Hungary from a guy who writes these kinds of things from his desk in Washington, DC: anti-Semitism, irrendentism, rehabilitating Horthy, propaganda (!), creeping authoritarianism and – waitforit – illiberalism.
I requested the chance to respond, to have some space in the same pages for an alternative view. The answer? “Thank you very much for the look, but we won’t be able to use this piece for the oped page. Good luck.”
So, here’s the article on Hungary that the Washington Post refused to publish:
Why we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall: the other side of the story
We celebrate this month the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and we have seen a raft of commentary in western media pondering deep questions about what it all meant and whither eastern Europe these three, long decades later.
Hungary stands among the former bloc countries that contributed to the fall of the Wall and threw off the yoke of Soviet communism, but when these often sentimental analyses consider today’s Hungary they do so in an unfairly negative way. To read their accounts is to conjure a scene from Darkness at Noon and, as a columnist on these pages wrote recently, fathom the “perils of a return to history.”
But to visit Hungary today is to see a country that is thriving. We have overcome the hard years of transition following the collapse of communism and bounced back after the nearly catastrophic misfortune of the 2008 global financial crisis. This side of the story rarely gets a hearing, but Hungary is buzzing in ways that just don’t square with these dark, pessimistic depictions.
Hungarians are back to work, for example, in numbers we haven’t seen in decades. In 2010, the employment rate of the working age population stood at a dismal 54.6 percent as hundreds of thousands had abandoned the job market. That participation rate recently topped 70 percent (compared to 63.3 percent in the US in October). Unemployment, meanwhile, has dropped to levels we haven’t seen since we began measuring it again in 1990 and now stands at 3.4 percent. Prime Minister Orbán set out to get Hungary off of welfare and into an economy where everyone who wants to work can find a job, a job that pays a fair wage. The best social welfare program, as they say, is a job. We’re getting there.
On wages, Hungary’s were low and had become, along with that high unemployment, a significant reason for people leaving the country. Since 2010, both the minimum wage and guaranteed minimum wage have more than doubled. Real wage growth in 2018 ranks Hungary among Europe’s leaders. Just this year, net average earnings saw a 10.6 percent increase between January and August. And with a flat tax of 15 percent on income, Hungarians have more money in their pockets at the end of the month.
Recent statistics show more Hungarians returning than leaving. Today, the brain drain is reversing.
Meanwhile, this year’s GDP growth also put Hungary at the top of the EU. That growth spans the economy, from the manufacturing sector to construction and tourism. And with the corporate tax rate at nine percent, the lowest in the EU, foreign direct investment is reaching new highs.
Little wonder then that sectoral confidence indices and the consumer confidence index have been on an upward swing since 2012 in the manufacturing, retail, service, and construction sectors. Hungarians have been known for their pessimism, but today they have reason to be confident.
And it’s not only about the economy. Things are looking up in other areas as well. Hungary spends around three percent of GDP on social programs, compared to the EU average of about two percent, and many of these programs focus on children and families. They offer loan assistance to first-time home buyers as well as grants and loans and tax breaks to families who choose to have more children.
We’ve already begun to see positive results. Between 2010 and 2017, marriages increased by a striking 42 percent in Hungary. In the same period, the number of divorces fell from 24 thousand to 18 thousand, while the number of abortions dropped by more than a third. Statistics in recent years show the fertility rate at 1.49, still too low, but that’s an increase of 20 percent from its level in 2010 and rising. Those are not the signs of a people living under creeping authoritarianism. They are expressions of optimism and confidence.
As we observe this 30th anniversary, the critics brush over these details or ignore them all together, choosing instead to worry about our supposed anti-Semitism – when our Jewish community is seeing a cultural renaissance and enjoys a level of security that their brothers and sisters in Berlin and Paris could only dream of – or to fret over the alleged rehabilitation of our historical figures – despite the fact that Viktor Orbán was the first Hungarian prime minister to say, in a pointed reference to Horthy, that Hungary sinned when it failed to protect its Jewish citizens – or to cite our disagreements with George Soros – when it’s Soros who has made himself a political figure by inserting himself into Hungarian politics.
To celebrate this anniversary and ignore this other side of the story, a Hungary that is thriving, is truly astonishing. After all, the widespread disillusionment that followed the euphoria of 1989 was all about this. The people didn’t experience the rise in living standards that they had expected. Privatization and so-called economic restructuring left millions without a job. Those fortunate to have work couldn’t save. They couldn’t afford the interest rates on loans and couldn’t buy a home. They had fewer children than they wanted because they had little confidence in the future.
Today that is changing. I would encourage those anxious about the heritage of 1989 to cheer up a little because today, perhaps more than ever, we’re realizing the promise of those revolutions. Today, in Hungary and across the region, we have many good reasons to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.