In an interview with Euronews, Timothy Garton Ash, professor at the University of Oxford, once again voiced his heavy criticism of Hungary and its government. The professor has an excellent knowledge of Central Europe. He used to inspire many of us during our years of resistance against communism and the Soviet occupation, in the last years of the 1980s. What’s more, members of the current Hungarian political leadership had the chance to personally attend his lectures, which took a stance for freedom, at the University of Oxford.
Timothy Garton Ash is talking about a “different kind of Europe,“ one that he finds hazardous for the unity of the European Union. In my view, there is a Central European cultural, intellectual and political entity that is growing more and more different from Western Europe; but this is not hazardous, it is not a threat. It is, in fact, a blessing for the European Union and even Western Europe. It was Timothy Garton Ash’s heavy criticism that inspired one of my recent lectures, which attempts to spell out — in categories comprehensible for Western audiences — the intellectual essence of today’s European debates, as we see them. To this end, I am publishing the text of my lecture below.
“In the English-speaking world, it is widely held and taught that there should be at least three jokes in a good lecture; in a eulogy, one is enough. But I will do nothing of the sort today, which means I would not pass not only the lecturer exams of Professor Ferguson’s Christ Church College, but likewise the exams of the much smaller college located right opposite where I myself had the opportunity to spend a few months. Therefore, I heard in friendship and with some sadness to what our principal speaker, Niall Ferguson, said here today about the present state of the academic world in the West.
What I will endeavour to do here is draw an intellectual line all the way from our guest speaker’s thoughts, through the state of the Western world and Central Europe, to your personal situation. This will be shorter than it may seem at first.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for the invitation, which I was happy to accept. I was happy to accept it primarily because of you students. I’m happy to see you and to tell you why your personal performance, your commitment and your aspiration to be the best are important for Hungary. I can tell you now in person what unprecedentedly difficult and great decades will await your generation.
And I was also happy to accept this invitation on account of the person of our principal speaker. His books were of extraordinary significance for me. At the end of the day, what is the job of political leaders? It is perhaps to help their own people to prepare for the challenges that face them. But this job can only be done if the leaders know, understand, or at least make an educated guess as to what shape the world surrounding us will take. And as no one can know this for sure, we need great minds, formidable minds who are able to decipher the most probable scenario of the future from the many different opinions, and then make that vision the focus of their work. The works, the books of our principal speaker today – his books that were also published in Hungarian – were of great assistance to me, and a source of inspiration.
For instance, it was from his book The West and the Rest that I understood that there is nothing extraordinary about the rise of the East and China. Looking at the history of humanity, it is logical for the centre of the world economy to be located in the East. The fact that the 21st century will be the century of Asia is nothing unusual at all. Naturally, this is taking its toll on a Europe that is so proud of its intellectual primacy, and also the United States, which is used to being the economic and military leader of the world. The question to be answered – which the Professor did answer in his book – is how it was possible that for four hundred years, the West was ahead of the rest of the world, that the West was at the top of the world. This is more the question that needs to be explained.
I understood that beyond and behind all the technical equipment, novel institutions and scientific discoveries, there was also the West’s sense of its exceptionalism and mission, which gave it inspiration and confidence. The conviction that Western man has a mission in the world and with the world, and must act in order to accomplish that mission. Naturally, we do know that the Western mission has intellectual and spiritual foundations that should be sought in Christianity. ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations’, Matthew says. This mentality, even if in a changed form, survived in the West also during the Enlightenment, the periods of the humanist ideal of man, human rights and the discoveries of modern science.
During a period of unquestionable development and brilliant success – despite evident mistakes, blunders and grave shortcomings – the conviction that the overall balance of the mission of Western civilisation and the West was fundamentally positive held for a long time. However, something had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. And this happened just at a time when the West, led by America and Britain, had scored its most brilliant victory, having won the Cold War. As described so vividly in the Professor’s latest book, the thinking of Western societies is increasingly characterised by an apocalyptic mood. And indeed, Western civilisation is facing serious, even severe challenges.
In America, after a liberal hegemony removing conservatives and their thoughts from the equation, Neo-Marxism – referred to as ‘woke’ over there – is taking control of the institutions that shape thought and public thinking. In Europe, for many centuries, the waves of sometimes mostly Christian, at other times mostly Muslim masses of people on the two shores of the Mediterranean have dictated the order of life. Now they have induced a Muslim demographic, political and economic flood, thereby creating a new situation in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria. This means that for the first time in European history, they managed to break into Europe even north of Spain. It seems that the West is unable to provide adequate political answers to these problems on either side of the ‘Big Water’. And add to this, Asia and the expansion and spectacular success of non-Western-type societies.
What is the reason for the West’s paralysis? In summary, we Central Europeans take the view that the West has gradually lost its faith in its own mission. It no longer seeks meaning in its own history; instead, it keeps saying that it will end soon. It re-interprets or deletes entire chapters of its history, finding them shameful and so to be cancelled, and in the meantime, it is unable to replace them with anything else. And those who are not paralysed, but in fact very much active, are such deconstructive, negative forces that they would be better off paralysed. In Popper’s book of the same title, which lays the foundations for the ideology of open society, we read that those who attribute a special value and a special mission to their own nation or political community are effectively the enemies of open society and are in fact – whether they’re aware of it or not – building tyranny and oppression.
This view is perhaps the most influential and most destructive conclusion of post-World War II Western thinking. Its importance is extraordinary, as today open society – we can safely say – is the West’s only intellectual school of thought that can be regarded as ideologically consistent. However, the concept of open society has deprived the West of its faith in its own values and historical mission, and with this now – at the time of the Muslim flood and the rise of Asia – it is preventing the West from setting its own mission against the rising intellectual and political power centres. This is like choosing the slow agony of life without action over the achievements and flaws of an active life just because there were flaws and errors in that life.
We here in Central Europe believe that without a mission we’re doomed to failure. We don’t think that anyone can make progress whilst losing their faith in that what they’re doing is important, and not only important but of a higher meaning. Those who lose their faith in their own excellence and mission lose inspiration, the motivation to strive for better, and will eventually become meaningless. In politics, this means that being a leader is but a petty career instead of being a part of a great fate. If this happens, our rivals will race ahead, and the individual or the community will be left alone in its weakness. I’m not going to bore you with too many facts. I will highlight two. In 2007, the European Union’s share of the world’s GDP was above 25 per cent; by 2020 – in thirteen years – it had shrunk to just 18 per cent. In 2007, 81 per cent of the world’s investments were made in the West, or were directed from West to East, and only 17 per cent of the world’s investments were made from Eastern funds. The data for 2019 show that the share of the West is 31 per cent, while the share of the East is 66 per cent. So the facts reveal that our competitors who have more drive, who are better organised and are able to organise themselves more effectively are racing past us Western countries. As far as I can see, today this process determines the life of the West. They’re rich and weak. The most dangerous combination. Those now emerging see nothing respectable in us, we’re nothing but easy prey for them.
What is the answer of Central Europe to this situation? We Hungarians have so far never lost sight of our own mission. It would have been hard to. We’re also in luck because we speak a language that is unique in the world, and on its foundation, we have built an enormous folk and high culture – a culture of music, literature, political and state administration and even arts. I’m convinced that our current debates with the West – for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it Brussels – the disputes between Brussels and Hungary stem from that very difference. For the educated Western public, a sense of mission shared by a political community, a nation is now unacceptable, even suspicious. Meanwhile, for us, this is an elementary condition of existence; it is as natural as breathing. Our culture, Hungarian national culture, which has been documented for many hundreds of years and whose beginnings reach as far back as the millennia spent on the steppe can only exist within us, through us and by us. Without us, it becomes forever lost to the whole of humanity. This is no easy mission.
And ever since the Hungarians formed their first tribal state organisation, they have always only had a single objective and have followed a single goal: to organise the Carpathian Basin together with the peoples living here, and to ensure the co-existence and advancement of the peoples living here. In this regard, it is not the framework of a state that matters; if we’re looking for the lesson of the story that is relevant to the present, the state framework is secondary. What matters is the cooperation and organisation of the peoples living in the region.
The Hungarians organising life in the Carpathian Basin were suitable for this task because we were, as a matter of course, a multilingual people with a diverse ethnic makeup; this was the natural form of existence for the tribal alliances of the mounted nomadic peoples that came into being on the steppes. For many hundreds of years, defending the independent Carpathian Basin was our mission and calling, not allowing anyone to place us into the political, cultural and state framework of either the Germanic world, or the Ottoman Empire.
At the same time, the Tatar incursions, the rise of the Muslim world in the Middle Ages, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation and the anti-Christian nature of the years of communism all combined to make the protection of the Carpathian Basin and Christianity a massive mission of national, Central European and even European significance. Mutatis mutandis, similar processes took place also in the realm of the Polish people and the territories of the Balkans. Those areas, too, are inhabited by peoples who are able to answer the question of what their national mission and calling is.
When I talk about Christianity, I must make a detour, drawing your attention to a threat. When we hear about Christian democratic politics, we must be aware that Christianity consists of two things: faith and the forms of existence inspired and created by faith. When in politics we talk about Christianity and Christian democracy, we mean the latter. On issues of faith, governments have no competence. Salvation and perdition – which are the true issues of faith – are simply beyond the boundaries of the realm in which the politics of the day has any legitimate authority. When we talk about Christianity and Christian democracy, we defend the forms of existence that grew out of the societies imbued with Christian faith. Defending personal dignity, the freedom of man created in the image of God, family as was created in Christianity, the national community and communities of faith. This is the essence of Christian democratic politics, not the defence of religious beliefs and dogmas.
A question of the heart
To return to my topic after this brief detour, Esteemed Professor, Dear Students, on the whole, in Central Europe this historical process has resulted in a mindset different from that of the West, in terms of national self-esteem and different notions of life. When today I speak to the leaders of Western European countries about gender, migration, national sovereignty and Brussels’ dangerous imperial traits – because despite appearances, you can talk to them about things like that – they see these debates and differences as us lagging behind, stuck in an earlier phase of development. They believe that as we had been left out of the Western community for decades, we’re simply just behind them, but will surely catch up with them. They don’t understand that, in actual fact, there is a profound cultural, geopolitical and philosophical difference that has nothing to do with historical development as conceived by them. Here at the border of Latin and Orthodox spirituality, at the frontier of the Western and Russian worlds, at the fault line of Christian and Muslim civilisations, here life is more serious, the stakes are always higher, the self-image of peoples and nations is always more contoured. In the West, an ill-adopted decision, a poor choice of career or a job completed on the basis of flawed principles is a mistake that can be easily rectified. Here in Central Europe, every error or mistake can well be the last one ever made. Here, life is such that the work and overall personal performance of every member of the community, of the nation, add up to being a large joint effort to accomplish our mission. Every child is a new guard post, every job done well and every productive life is a contribution to a larger common Hungarian venture: the accomplishment of our calling of many hundreds of years. This is why we are what we are. This is why over here, every Hungarian citizen is proud and has a high sense of self-esteem. They’re aware of the importance of their own life and work. Perhaps, not many are able to vocalise this properly, but that doesn’t refute my theory that a mindset based on a mission is primarily a question of the heart, not of the mind.
This is a great gift of fate; this is why we may live in a country where every single Hungarian – from the street cleaner to the industrial worker and office worker to the company executive – tends to look upon their work as their own personal mission that their life depends on. This is what mysteriously twines us into a common fate. My advice to those who are more intrigued by this question – which I also advise to my Western colleagues – is this: Read Kundera, or perhaps Márai. Here in Central Europe it is one’s calling that determines whether we will have been found wanting or not in the final reckoning. And this is the source of the almost infinite self-esteem that compels Hungarians to engage even in the most meaningless intellectual, professional debates. This is also the reason why in Hungary almost everyone is a politician. Everyone turns their professional calling into a political issue as – in light of the approach I mentioned earlier – in actual fact, it is.
However, the Hungarian intellectual elite of the day is to be recognised by the fact that they don’t just sense but are keenly aware of this specific Hungarian mission. This is where you come into the picture. Therefore, over here – in harmony with their own professional career objectives – it is the duty of people of intellect to understand this mission, to reflect on it in relation to issues concerning public life, to grasp and to describe the ever-changing forms and expanding content of that mission, and to offer it to members of the nation who pursue professions of a different, non-intellectual nature. In other words, in Hungary, the status and performance of members of the Hungarian intelligentsia – that you yourselves belong to – are always a strategic issue for the nation, not a mere matter for the individual. Within this, supporting talent, or to use a modern term ‘fostering talent’, is one of the Hungarian nation’s greatest challenges and resources at the same time.
This means that due to the outstanding intellectual abilities the Lord bestowed upon you, you have a special responsibility for the future of the Hungarian people. The weight of one thousand one hundred years weighs heavily on your shoulders. Be grateful for that, and do what you have to do.”